Chapter 1: The Man (You were Made to be)
Phil had never been the fidgeting type. He’d been that child who could look his mother square in the eyes and swear up and down that the sky was purple, the grass was blue, and he most certainly hadn’t broken that lamp, it had definitely been the dog— without even a slip of a grin or the nervous shuffle of a sock covered foot against the hardwood floor. He’d been the Private who could stare down his CO and report what had gone wrong without breaking out into a cold sweat, and later he’d been the black ops agent who could lay in wait for hours for his target to act without even a single adrenaline fuelled tremble.
His ability to remain calm and collected under stress was one of the reasons he was so good at his job. But for whatever reason, today that didn’t stop him from tapping his pen against the cold wooden top of his desk or the fingers on his hand from drumming a steady rhythm along the arm of his chair. He glanced down at the paperwork in front of him before leaning back again, trying to figure out what exactly this sort of situation called for.
Therapy probably. Lots and lots of therapy. But something told him Barton wouldn’t exactly be willing to ‘share his feelings’ and whatever else the SHIELD psychiatrists usually asked of a patient in their care. At this point it might be better to just give him a bow, a few quivers of arrows and set loose in a remote forest to let him work things out for himself. Shooting things could help.
Truth be told, Phil had seen this coming from a mile away. The day Fury had sat him down and told him the plan, he’d known that this would somehow blow up in their faces. Plans that involved lying to a person about their lives, who they were and who they’d been had a way of doing that. In their paranoia they might’ve made a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy out of it, but that was life sometimes wasn’t it? Phil sighed as he ran a hand over his tired eyes, trying to figure out what exactly he should put in the Incident Report. He wasn’t even sure how this whole thing had started. Well, he supposed that was a bit of a lie. It was more the fact that he had no idea how he’d been dragged into it and given the responsibility of overseeing the project. How to put it to paper seemed to be a looming problem, but at least he knew where to begin. Yes, he knew exactly how they’d wound up in this shit show. In fact, it had started a little something like this:
Believe it or not, not all of the security agencies within the United States had the same ‘back off this is my territory. Mine.’ reaction as the FBI or CIA. Not everything was a glorified pissing contest. Some actually felt the need to promote interagency cooperation and luckily (or unluckily depending on who you were asking) enough, SHEILD was one of them. Therefore, it was not out of the ordinary to find Director Fury visiting the other agencies’ headquarters and talking shop for a few hours once a month in order to open communications and encourage the flow of information. After all, at the end of the day they all worked for the same side, jurisdiction be damned.
So it was a decidedly normal day when Fury had been sitting in the new Secretary of the Impossible Missions Force’s office talking over a table covered in files, mugs of coffee and a plate of Danishes when things were set in motion.
“So, this one was yours?” The Director asked as he flipped through the pages of a file marked Top Secret boldly in red.
The Secretary nodded, a worn look slipping onto his face. “Bit of a botch up really.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Fury disagreed. “It went well enough from what we could tell over at SHIELD. I’m sure MI6 wouldn’t complain either.”
Fury opened the file of one Clint Barton and was impressed by what he found: unbelievably high scores in marksmanship, true long-term eidetic memory, top marks in hand to hand and over all fitness, as well as a wide variety of skills that ranged from singing to fencing and every reference read like the officer was restraining themselves from dotting their i’s with hearts out of sheer love and admiration. There wasn’t a single complaint to Barton’s name nor a hint or disciplinary action.
“As far as I know, only one woman was ever said to have had a true eidetic memory, and even that was controversial,” he noted as he read on. It was definitely one of the best CV’s he’d ever laid eyes upon and given the number that passed over his desk on a weekly basis, that was saying something. This was the kind of man anyone would kill to have in their arsenal.
“Brandt is indeed one of a kind,” the Secretary smiled, eyes glassy as he picked up his coffee. “A very well kept secret.”
“Brandt?” he double checked the file to make sure he hadn’t misread it. “Says here his name is Barton”
“There’s a note somewhere in there about it. Changed it; my predecessor must have known why. Sentimental reasons I’m sure. Goes by William Brandt now. Or well, he did,” he corrected himself. “But it was never actually legally done and therefore we’re required to file him under Barton instead of Brandt.”
“He must’ve been a great agent. His record is exemplary,” Fury said glancing from one page to the next. “Even with this screw up in Croatia.”
“He still is a great agent,” the Secretary growled, looking frustrated beyond anything else as he fingered the handle of his mug but ignored the Danish he’d set aside to eat earlier. “Sadly, that’s not what we need. We have dozens of ‘great agents’, what we needed was a great analyst. And that’s exactly what we’ve lost. The head trauma was...extensive to say the least.”
“How bad?” Fury asked, tossing the file aside as he leaned back in his seat
“Retrograde Amnesia,” The Secretary spat, as if the words offended his senses. “It’s like something out of those dramas my wife watches,” he added flippantly. “Remembers his real name, his brother, his childhood, enlisting in the army, training. His reflexes are still topnotch and he can shoot like goddamn Robin Hood. But anything within the span of his working for us is gone. All the information we needed from him is gone,” the Secretary said, his fingers tapping against the glass tabletop as he stared out of the nearest window. “And there are already hints of the trauma having affected his impulse control and personality.”
Both things that could be dealt with through proper handling and therapy if one was willing to spare the time, Fury noted. But then again, the IMF had always been impractical at the best of times.
“Is a full recovery possible?”
“Doctors say he’ll gain some of the memories back, but more along the lines of his address, maybe his new name, his friends’ names and such. Nothing useful. At least, not to us.”
“What about his ability to retain memories,” Fury asked, an idea beginning to nig at the back of his mind
“One damn person in the entire world with an eidetic memory, and he loses because of a blow to the head!” the Secretary said, a laugh of disbelief slipping out before he could choke it down. “A resource like that should’ve never been allowed out in the field.”
“Surely his other skills would more than make up for—
“We have highly skilled agents Director Fury. Some of the best in the world. At this point, he’s superfluous, and with the mental complications he’ll become a liability more than anything else,” the man sighed and tiredly ran a hand over his chin. “Frankly, I don’t know what to do with him. It’s all such a bloody waste.”
Fury frowned for a moment before a grin cracked across his face and the Secretary at least had the decency to look unsettled, because a grin from Fury usually promised pain or something equally unpleasant. But, luckily enough for him, no one could say that Fury didn’t know how to take advantage of a situation when it was presented to him
“Well, if you’ve got no use for him,” the Director trailed off, the grin still firmly in place as he stood. He turned to the suit clad agents that were standing guard by the door.
“Wrap him up Gentlemen. I’ll take him.”
Chapter 2: I'll Know My Call (Despite My Faults)
His years in SHIELD had taught Phil to be objective. Sometimes people really were just numbers on a page; pawns to be placed on the board. And sometimes he’d felt sick. With himself. And maybe with the world. And he would look back on his life and wonder when he'd become so jaded. So when he first laid eyes on Clint Barton he'd seen nothing but facts, stats, and success rates; someone to be manipulated to meet SHIELD’s needs.
And then he realizes it suddenly. It just hits him one day out of the blue when he’s sitting in a leather booth at the back of the type of dive bar he’d never even seen, never mind gone into, with Natasha sitting on one side of him and Clint on the other. He realizes he doesn’t see numbers anymore, but smiles and crinkled eyes, and horrible jokes that didn’t translate well from Russian to English, and snark that he used to court martial people for. And when Clint smiles at him while Natasha scribbles a Cyrillic letter into one of the blank spaces in their game of Hang Man, he realizes he doesn’t regret a thing.
Coulson looked from the unconscious man strapped to a gurney that they were unloading from the helicopter to Fury and then back again. This wasn’t the first time the Director had found a pet and brought it home without permission. A trip to Russia had recently resulted in having to find English lessons for one very, very scary redhead who enjoyed pulling sharp objects from seemingly nowhere in a way that made it impossible to determine if she was trying to stab you or offering to help you cut your chicken (the cafeteria tended to overcook their food until it was more paperweight than edible). Most agents made a tactical retreat (fled) before they could find out.
“Sir, not again. You can’t possibly mean to –
“Take a look at his file, Agent. And then try and tell me I made the wrong call.”
The manic look on the Director’s face was one that haunted Phil’s nightmares and stared out at him from darkened back alleys because nothing good had ever come of it. Well, maybe good in the Utilitarian sense of the word, but certainly not good for him. Greatest good for the greatest number be damned. He put up with enough shit as it was.
Phil barely managed to catch hold of the file that was suddenly thrust into his arms and he had to almost scramble to stop the pages from getting torn away by the wind coming from the rotating blades of the helicopter. The doctors from Medical were already wheeling away SHIELD’s newest acquisition so he followed after his boss, skimming the information as he did.
“Sir, this man has suffered severe brain trauma. To be frank, he’s obviously—
“Keep reading,” Fury said simply as they ducked through the nearest door into the warmth of Headquarters. “If he was of no use to us, I wouldn’t have taken him off the IMF’s hands. Take a look at his test scores and tell me he’s broken. His scores are—
“Off the charts,” Phil breathed in disbelief as he reread them for a third time. “I’ve never seen scores like this in marksmanship. They’re—
“Unprecedented,” Fury laughed as they walked through the halls, his black trench swishing along behind him as lower level agents dashed out of their way. “I know. The IMF doesn’t know what they’ll be missing. They’ve always been blinded by theatrics over there. But we don’t need another goddamn Ethan Golden Boy Hunt strutting around the world calling attention to us. We need someone understated, someone who can stick to the shadows but get the job done. We need –
“Him,” Phil finished, shaking his head as he tucked the pages back into the brown folder. “We need Clint Barton.”
Fury smiled as he took a seat behind his desk, looking extremely pleased with himself as he laughed. “Exactly. Make it happen Coulson.”
At least this one spoke English.
When Fury said: make it happen, the even if you have to move heaven and earth, raise the dead, or almost kill yourself was left unsaid. But it was rather heavily implied. So with file in hand Coulson set about to doing just that. He strode down to Medical like a man on a mission and when he arrived tried to ignore how pale and drawn their newest agent looked against the white of the sheets as the doctors worked on unstrapping him and transferring him to a new bed.
“What’s his status?”
One of the doctors, Alison if he recalled correctly, looked away from hooking Barton up to an EKG. “He’s heavily sedated, but give us the word and we can have him up in virtually no time. He was in a medically induced coma for a few days because of the trauma.” She grabbed a clipboard that was settled by the foot of the bed. “Records say that he was alert and responsive when they brought him back but it was decided to sedate him to keep him under wraps and allow some time for recovery. He’s basically been under for three weeks, so getting him up sooner rather than later would be best.”
Coulson nodded, jotting this down in the margins of the file. “How bad is the damage?”
Dr. Alison consulted the clipboard again. “Rather severe, but I’ve seen guys come back from worse than this. Short term memories are shot, but long term ones seem basically intact. The more recent tests are more promising though. Reflexes all check out, tests to determine his cognitive function came back almost the same as his entrance results. His IQ test results took a hit, but with all the drugs they had him that’s hardly surprising. He had a bit of aphasia but that tapered off while they were testing, so I suppose he’d be fine by now. He’s a bit of a fixer upper,” she smiled, setting the board aside. “But Fury’s got himself a good guy here. Easy on the eyes too,” she added with a wink.
Phil decided to ignore that comment because otherwise he’d have to give a lecture on sexual harassment in the workplace and he really didn’t have the time. Barton’s fitness levels were definitely above average judging by his build, his former line of work, and the records the IMF kept. But, they weren’t up to SHEILD’s Special Agent requirements, which was surely what Fury had in mind for him just like the Russian he’d snapped up from the KGB last month. Depending on how they spun it to Barton...the coma could work as a good cover story.
“What’s the likelihood of him regaining his memories?”
“Well,” she started, considering it for a moment as she glanced at her patient. “With this type of trauma and going by the MRI and CT scans? I’d say the information that the IMF wanted is long gone. Flashes are likely, but I doubt he’ll ever entirely be able to put together what his life has been like unless someone deliberately helps him bridge the gaps, and even then it’d be incomplete at best. Chances are he’ll never fully recover them, but with the proper therapy he’d be able to get some semblance of what it is he’s missing. But, if the IMF’s rid of him, I don’t suppose they want him remembering classified information, do they?” she asked sceptically.
“No, at this point...its best that he doesn’t remember. If not for his own sake, then for the sake of the security of the IMF and interagency cooperation. They’d most likely demand his return if he began to remember the information they need.”
“And Fury won’t want to let go of his newest pet,” Alison laughed. “Right. I get it. I’ll tell the therapists to cancel their plans then, shall I?”
“That would be best. I’d like him up and running by next week. Romanov is set to start her training then. I think—
“Pairing them off could be good,” she nodded. “He’ll need some support and competition will do wonders for their training. They’ll both be new- whether or not they know it. I’ll have him ready to go, sir.”
Coulson nodded before slipping out of the room, an idea forming in his head. Whether or not they know it... Well, it had potential, he’d give it that.
While for Fury it’d started in an office that few people were supposed to know existed, and for Phil it had started on the landing pad outside of SHIELD headquarters, for Ethan, The Barton Situation as people would eventually begin referring to it as, capitalization included, began in London when a wall had exploded and showered them with rubble ranging from the size of pebbles to Terriers. For him it began with watching as Will passed out in a pool of his own blood, half of his head obscured in a wash of red.
It had begun with Will’s blood slicked hand clutched in his. With panic and worry as their backup arrived and whisked Will off to somewhere he couldn’t follow. For him it began with the heartbreak that was the IMF raiding their apartment and incinerating all of Will’s possessions and in the process, the life they’d built together. For Ethan Hunt, The Situation began with the dirty word that was disavowed. For Ethan Hunt, it began with the gut wrenching pain- the utter devastation of knowing Will- his other half- his better half- had died surrounded by agents who were there out of duty and not of love. Who knew his ID number and blood type, but not the way he sounded when he laughed or the way his eyes crinkled when he smiled. It’d begun with knowing that he wouldn’t get a chance to say goodbye, a chance to hold his hand one last time.
So while Clint Barton opened his eyes to the white ceiling of a SHEILD infirmary, Ethan Hunt closed his to the sight of the empty half of the bed that William Brandt had once occupied and the shambles that had once been their life.
Chapter 3: The Noose (Around Your Neck)
Unlike most things in Ethan’s life, falling in love with William Brandt had been easy and slow. He’d been in over his head before he’d even realized it and hadn’t felt the need to come up for air. Theirs was not a whirlwind romance. It’d been filled with late nights in corner cafes in London, or sitting together in front of the fire watching an old movie in Germany. It’d been easy smiles, even easier kisses, and dancing in the kitchen as the fridge hummed along with the old radio that liked to turn on all on its own. It’d been going for jogs on the boardwalk or joining basketball games in the park.
Ethan might’ve even called it an average sort of love story if not for the missions to Albania, Czech or some Middle Eastern nation and all the firefights, IEDs, episodes of PTSD and deadly weapons hidden under pillows, tables, couches and everything in between. And Ethan had loved every minute of it.
“I’ve been out for how long?!”
The doctor gave him a sympathetic look as she repeated herself for what must’ve been the seventh time. “Six months Mr. Barton. You’re very fortunate to be awake and alert.”
Clint swallowed loudly as he struggled to process what he was being told. Six months...wasn’t that long in the grand scheme of things. The real issue he was having was with trying to remember anything that she was talking about. In his recallable life- which was admittedly pretty short at the moment, he’d never forgotten anything of importance to him. Not once. He could still remember his middle school locker combination. He could remember his mother’s face in perfect detail; he had her eyes and lips. There were a few things he’d been learned to be proud of as a kid, his aim and his memory.
“You were in an accident overseas on a mission with SHIELD. You suffered severe brain trauma after taking a blow to the head.”
“I- I can’t remember any of this.” He said, wracking his brain, not used to having to struggle to remember anything.
“Yes, well, that’s to be expected.” The smile made a reappearance and it was really starting to piss him off because as if she understood what he was going through. He doubted she’d ever been told that she couldn’t remember four years of her life in which she’d apparently been recruited by some Men in Black wannabes and traveled to places like Sri Lanka in order to apparently get bashed over the head with rocks the size of footballs.
“I understand this must be disorienting, especially with the effect your injury had on your ability to retain new memories.
He gave her a look that obviously questioned her intelligence and forced himself to sit up. His arms ached a bit under the strain, but he could still feel the strength in his muscles which was more than he’d dared to hope for after six months of being static. His thoughts must have played across his face because the doctor smiled and called his attention back to her.
“We’re very pleased with the lack of deterioration your muscles have suffered. We have a wonderful physical therapy unit here, so you can thank them for that,” she said as she stood from the chair she’d been occupying and began gathering up her notes.
Clint wondered if that actually made any sense as he eyed her dubiously.
“Obviously you’re still not up to your normal standards so it’s been recommended that you rest for a few days and then undergo some basic training to get you back up to snuff before being reinstated.”
“Re- reinstated?” he asked, twisting the sheets nervously in his hands. “So soon? I- I don’t even know what the hell you guys do!” He couldn’t even remember what that long as hell acronym that she’d mentioned meant. And it stung a little more than it probably should have. He could be dead or paralyzed and instead he’d just lost a few years and his eidetic memory. He should be thankful if anything, but instead it made his heart ache.
“Don’t worry,” Dr. Alison said with an idle wave of her hand as she made her way to the door. “We take care of our own here.”
“It’s not so much the taking care part, as much as the understanding what the hell this place is that I’m worried about. This reallydoesn’t seem like a good—
She cut him off with another wave, her other arm clutching her folders to her side. “You’ll be just fine. We were very worried about you, agent,” she added.
Were these people crazy?! Did common sense die while he’d been under?
“It’ll be good to see you wandering the halls again.” And then she was gone leaving behind one very confused patient in her wake.
Clint sat quietly for a moment trying to process what he’d just been told before giving up because clearly this shit made no sense. And the doctor might blame that on brain damage or residual side effects from various drugs, but Clint was pretty damn sure this would seem crazy to anyone sane enough to call Bullshit when they saw it.
Okay, coma, he got that. Straight forward enough. Having the last four years wiped? Sure, severe blunt force trauma tended to screw some things up. So yeah, he got that too even if it was like something out a deranged soap opera. But if it’d been six months since his accident, why the hell was there still bandages on his head? And what was with the huge rush to get reinstated? And- And wandering the halls?! He did not wander. He wasn’t the wandering type. He might not know the date, and he might not know what the hell had happened to him over the past four years, but if nothing else he knew what kind of man he was and he did not wander.
The world swirled around him for a moment and Clint had to wonder what exactly they were feeding into his veins as he lay back down until his vision stopped swimming. Shouldn’t they be running tests or something? He tried to remember the last thing he’d ever learned about coma patients with amnesia, but while he’d always liked Sandra Bullock (she was totally hot in that everyday woman kind of way), he doubted While You Were Sleeping was medically relevant to his case, let alone accurate. And that had been fake amnesia anyway. Actually...Chinese food sounded amazing
He reached over and ripped his IV out with barely a second thought, trying to get back on track. Alright.Focus. Coma. Retrograde Amnesia. Spring Ro— holy shit he was so hungry—He glanced up at the IV bag, eyeing the innocent looking liquid dubiously. Stupid doctor could have at least unhooked him from the stuff before trying to explain something more complicated than Checkers. Clearly she wasn’t the brightest bulb.
Wandering. Yeah, right. Wandering...cognate with the German verb wandern- He knew German? When did that happen?— Wander— Maybe...maybe he had been the wandering type? He tried to recall the effects of a traumatic brain injury and was pleasantly surprised to find that they easily came to him. Even if his ability to retain new information was shot, his long term was apparently in good working order. Personality changes were common... as were confusion and disorientation.
Well, he was definitely confused as fuck, and disoriented didn’t even begin to cover it. Clint reached over to press the call button but suddenly thought better of it. He had some serious questions to ask and apparently his wayward doctor was going to be of no help whatsoever, so why the hell would the nurses be any different? With a breath to steady himself Clint once again forced himself into a sitting position and swiftly swung his legs over the side of the bed.
“Oh shit,” he rasped, clutching at his aching head and trying to blink away the black spots in his vision.
Alright, so maybe this wasn’t such a great idea after all.
Once he was sure he wasn’t going to pass out he reached over and turned off the EKG before disconnecting it. He didn’t need half the damn ward to come running because the machine thought he was coding.
SHIELD’s newest agent glanced around the room, taking in the bland walls, ugly tiled floors, and noticing the lack of cards and flowers that would normally occupy someone’s room.
“Well,” he sighed, going to run a hand through his hair only to have his fingers scrape along gauze and bandages. “Guess I’m not exactly Mr. Popular.”
He searched the cabinetry set into the wall next to the window and found a pair of track pants and a sweater both emblazoned with the crest of an Eagle taking flight that he’d come to associate with SHIELD. He tugged off the god-awful hospital gown he’d been wearing since he’d woken and carefully eased the sweater over his head, trying not to disturb the masterpiece that was wrapped around it. Getting the pants on was a task that almost toppled him over into a supply cart but in the end he managed to get them on without adding a concussion to his list of ailments.
Clint peeked out of his room, making sure that no one was coming before taking off down the hall. He hesitated in the doorway for a moment, something telling him he should stay put until he could balance properly and just gather information through the staff until then, however useless they were. But- but no! Screw it. If no one was going to tell him what was happening, he’d just have to figure it out for himself.
“The doctors say he’s confused, which it to be expected, but he should be ready to start training with Romanov on Monday.”
Fury nodded from behind his desk. “Good work, agent.”
Coulson looked down to his file before shaking his head. He could already tell this was going to blow up in their faces, and probably sooner rather than later. He’d seen agents go on insane rampages for less than what Barton was being put through. They didn’t need some nut killing anyone because they’d tried to mess with his head that had already seen better days.
“Sir, he’s barely been up for six hours and he’s already asking questions.”
“Of course he’s asking questions,” the Director said dismissively as he resumed his work. “The man’s been told he’s been in a coma for six months and he’s recently suffered a severe injury to the head. We can forgive him a little disorientation.”
Phil sighed as he set the file down, wondering what the hell he must’ve done in his childhood to deserve a boss like Fury. “Sir, it’s not so much disorientation as it is disbelief. The doctor was having some trouble convincing him that he’d ever worked for SHIELD, let alone been under for six months. And they’re reporting some personality changes compared to the psychological profile the IMF gave us.”
“After a hit like that, I’d be amazed if he came out the same man,” Fury said. “But get inventive, this guy’s not an idiot, with or without all that information he lost. Tell him his paranoia is a complication of the trauma. Common enough symptom.”
“What if he begins remembering things?” Phil asked, trying to control his voice before it dipped anywhere close to a whine.
“I’ve got R&D working on something to help suppress any conflicting memories that would jeopardize the project. If he starts spilling out facts like some damn encyclopaedia and the IMF gets wind of it, they’ll demand him back. If he remembers little things, that’s fine, more for us. But if he starts recalling national secrets we’ll have a problem. And I’m not going to spend all this time fixing him up out of the good of my heart. I’m not doing this so they can swoop in and grab him again. He’s mine Coulson. And see that he knows it. I want him following my orders like a veteran agent within three weeks.”
“Sir, wouldn’t it just be easier to tell him that he worked for the IMF?” he asked, flipping open Barton’s profile. “Tell him the IMF traded him off and that he’s working for us now?”
“You’ve seen the profile Coulson,” Fury said, finally looking up and gesturing towards the folder. “Says that he was close with his team and in a committed relationship- name redacted. That means he was probably having an intimate relationship with another agent. An agent who wouldn’t be pleased with Brandt being traded off like some glorified hockey player. And if you were in his situation and you were told all these things, what would you do? You’d hightail it out of here and go looking for things that are better off left alone. The Secretary of the IMF disavowed him. You know how that works. He’s dead. The IMF’s William Brandt needed to disappear. And he did. Now, there’s SHIELD’s Clint Barton. This was a joint decision between the agencies. And that’s that.”
Phil finally relented with a nod and slipped the closed file under his arm. “Understood.”
“And Coulson, I want all the information in his file from the IMF transplanted to an official SHIELD personnel one. Don’t include his IMF service record but keep all the background info. I want no electronic record on our database of his career with them; IMF regulations. Destroy the hardcopy as well when you’re done with it.”
“Don’t look so grim,” Fury laughed, pounding away at the keys of his computer. “Things are looking up. The Avengers Initiative has been approved, funding is through the roof, and if Barton performs like his file says he can, Agent Romanov might just have another SHIELD operative to keep her company on the team.”
Yes, looking up for you maybe, Phil couldn’t help but think as he left. But in the mean time they’d ripped a man away from his life and were going to suppress his memories by using highly illegal drugs. All in a day’s work really.
Now, Clint was no doctor. Give him a bottle of whiskey, a sharp needle and some string and he could stitch up just about anything (who knew learning how to sew up the holes in his socks as a kid would come in so handy?), but other than that, anything medical was generally out of his depth. Give him physics any day and he’d blow your fucking mind but ask him to explain cellular respiration and you wouldn’t get much out of him other than what someone with a good memory could learn from watching an episode of House. Having an eidetic memory was great, but knowing about it didn’t mean you understood it. And anatomy had never been his strong suit.
But looking at the state of his head beneath the layers of gauze and bandages, he didn’t have to be Hugh Laurie to figure out it mostdefinitelyhadn’t been six months since his accident. The staples looked just about ready to be removed which didn’t fit in with the timeline he’d been given. They should’ve been out months ago if what the doctor had said was true.
He peered out of the bathroom he’d ducked into and was happy to see that the hallway was deserted, meaning that no one had noticed he’d escaped from his room- for a supposedly secret spook base, security here was shit. Well, not that he was complaining about that. He wasn’t entirely sure where the hell he was going, but he figured that if worse came to worse he’d climb out the nearest window. He was only on the second floor. It would be an easy enough jump.
Coulson was tempted to ignore his vibrating phone and simply return to his downloaded episode of Supernanny, but the last time he’d ignored a message half of New York had almost been blown up and although no one had ever called him on it...So he gave in and checked his newest message, barely tearing his eyes away from the computer screen as he unlocked his phone. And what he found waiting for him was far from pleasing.
“Oh shit,” he swore, setting down his coffee and taking off down the hall in the direction of Medical without even taking the time to click pause.
He found a few nurses and Dr. Alison waiting for him in front of Barton’s empty room, all of them looking a little shamefaced.
“How,” he growled, taking in the sight of the empty bed and ditched dressing gown. “Did you manage to lose track of him, when he’s the only patient on this side of the wing?”
One of them looked ready to protest but Phil was already storming off to track down Fury’s pain in the ass agent. He looked back to see them still standing around the door and he ground to a halt.
“Well? Are you just going to stand there while one of the most dangerous men in the world wanders around unsupervised while suffering from severe brain trauma?”
That got them all scrambling to check the adjacent rooms so he took off down the hall again, checking rooms as he went. This was great. Just great.
Meanwhile, Clint could hear personnel jogging through the halls, apparently finally having figured out that he was gone. Or, about to be gone. Seriously, he stood by his opinion about security being absolute shit. Finding a computer had been almost too easy and whoever’s office it was had simply left the PC to idle instead of logging off and shutting down- a rookie mistake. A press of My Location on Google Maps had told him he was in New York City and he’d even had time to figure out that Chang’s Chinese Restaurant was four blocks south and one block west (the review gave it two and a half stars out of four. Apparently the ambiance was great, but the service left something to be desired).
Considering the last place he remembered being was back in his apartment in Iowa, he’d come a pretty long way.
Clint rifled through the desk drawer, finding a gift Visa clearly left over from a Christmas present and shoved it into his pocket along with a stray subway token. The footsteps were getting louder so he pushed aside a flower pot, wrenched open the window and easily punched out the screen, watching as it fluttered to the ground before hoisting himself onto the sill. His shoulders ached under the strain but he ignored it as he swung his leg over, hissing at the sting of the cold metal ledge against the bare arch of his foot.
A parking lot was situated below him and he wasn’t looking forward to the impact, but at this point he really just needed to get away. He had no idea what the hell was going on, but he’d rather not be around to find out. In his experience (and who knows? He probably had even more by now) it was always best to run first, ask questions later. From a safe distance. Preferably with a gun. Clint was about to push off when a voice suddenly stopped him.
He turned to find a man decked out in a suit and sporting the beginnings of a receding hairline standing in the doorway, looking more than a little harassed.
“Come back in, you don’t want to do this,” the man said calmly. Clint frowned for a moment, glancing out the window before turning back. No, no, he was pretty sure he did actually. And he must’ve spoken aloud because the next thing he knew Mr. Suit was speaking again.
“No, you don’t,” he said, as he began approaching slowly, his hands held out in front of him as if ready to grab Clint if he made a move to jump. “You’re just confused.”
“I’m thinking pretty clearly thanks,” Clint growled, ignoring how the cold metal of the ledge was beginning to numb his toes.
The man shook his head and looked hesitant to move any closer in case he decided to do it. “Come back inside. Let’s talk about this.”
Clint blinked for a moment before it clicked. Agent K over there thought he was trying to off himself. “This is only the second floor, man. If I wanted to kill myself I’d go off the roof.”
Death definitely wasn’t on his To Do list. Finding a Chinese takeout place on the other hand? That was pretty damn close to the top. He sort of vaguely wondered if brain trauma caused cravings because holy shit, he seriously needed Spring Rolls something desperate. And noodles.
“Be that as it may,” the other said quietly calling Clint back to the situation at hand. His voice might’ve even been soothing if he hadn’t looked just a little on the wrong side of crazy. “Come back inside so we can talk this through. Come on, you know me.”
“You see actually, I don’t.” And wasn’t that just his whole damn problem in a nutshell?
“I don’t!” Were they really going to do this? Bicker like school kids while he hung out a window and K looked ready to pull the stun gun that was holstered at his hip? What’s his face didn’t have to put up with this shit in While You Were Sleeping, that’s for sure. Things were shaping up to look a lot more like the Bourne trilogy than a Sandra Bullock rom-com.
“But you used to, Clint. Try to remember. Phil Coulson. I’m Agent Coulson. You can trust me.”
Clint stared at the man, giving him a quick once over. He didn’t seem like the joking type, but then again neither did Agent K, and he turned out to be fucking hilarious.
He sighed, but didn’t move from the sill. “Trust?” he asked incredulously. “All you guys have done is lie to me since I woke up.”
Phil closed the gap between them by a few steps. “Clint, we haven’t been lying to you. You’re just confused. The drugs and the trauma are messing with you. Think about it. What’s one of the most common side effects of a traumatic brain injury?”
Paranoia. But no— he wasn’t being paranoid. What they told him didn’t make any sense.
“If I’ve been in a coma for six months, why the hell do I still have staples in my head?” he snapped. “They should’ve been taken out months ago!”
“You needed secondary surgery to remove skull fragments that had been missed in the initial procedure,” Phil reassured him as he came ever closer. “We’re not trying to trick you; we’re trying to help you get back on your feet as quickly as we can. You’ve been out a long time, Clint. We thought that would be what you wanted. Just think it through,” Phil said softly, his hand reaching out to grip his shoulder. “This is just the trauma talking. You can get passed it. Try to remember. I’m your superior officer; I’m your friend- we all are.”
If he wasn’t so positive this was some sort of Jedi mind-fuck, he might’ve actually been touched that Agent K was trying so hard to reach out to him. But yeah, he’d seen Star Wars, so screw that.
Clint shook off the hand on his shoulder, glaring at Phil Coulson with all his considerable might. “Look, you spouting bullshit hasn’t gotten you anywhere, so why don’t you just cut the crap and tell me what’s really going on?”
Phil winced slightly and took a step back so that there was a respectable distance between them. He looked uncomfortable for a moment before he gave a sigh and shrugged. “Alright, the friend thing wasn’t true. We’ve never gotten on. Truthfully, you drive me up the wall.”
Clint thought for a moment, trying to place what was wrong with that statement. He didn’t normally drive people up walls...did he? No, people liked him. Commanding officers respected him and his squad mates wanted to behim.
“You’re annoying, cocky, you play tricks on the other agents, and you never submit your paperwork on time, if ever. So forgive me for not being your biggest fan,” Phil continued, gaining momentum. “But that doesn’t mean I’m going to let you jump out of that window when you’re clearly disturbed and not thinking clearly.”
“I..,” Clint faltered, unsure and he felt the beginnings of panic start to rise in his chest, pressing down on his lungs and constricting his throat. His tongue felt swollen in his mouth and everything suddenly sounded so far away, muffled by the ringing in his ears. This man, Phil Coulson- he sounded so sure. But...but he wasn’t really like that was he? No- no, he couldn’t be...but...
“I don’t know. I- I don’t remember.”
He couldn’t seem to catch his breath, his lungs working uselessly as his heart began stuttering in his chest, tattooing an uneven rhythm against his ribs. Coulson was suddenly holding him up by the shoulders, supporting his weight as his body seemed to shut down.
“I’ve got you,” he grunted, pulling Clint off the sill and helping him get his feet under him.
“Fuck. I can’t remember!”
“No it’s not!” he yelled, beginning to border on hysteric. He couldn’t- Oh God, he couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t fucking breathe!
“Calm down,” Coulson told him as he sunk them both to the floor to lean against the wall. “Deep breaths.”
What the hell was he going to do if he couldn’t even remember someone like Phil, who apparently knew him so well? If he couldn’t even force air into his lungs? Everything was a blank- there wasn’t even a trace of SHIELD in his head. All he knew was that the last thing he vaguely remembered was coming back from his latest tour and he’d thought maybe he’d get a dog- and holy shit he didn’t even know- did he have a dog? Was it off starving in some apartment he’d forgotten all about?
He could vaguely hear Phil talking to him, saying, “Breathe Clint. Breathe.” And “Can I get some help in here?!”
It suddenly hit him like a train. Or maybe like that rock that had started this all. Sudden. Blunt. He could feel it now; that distorted pain and longing that came with the realization that an integral part of you was missing. How hadn’t he noticed before? I need him, he thought desperately. I need him. He needed him and he wasn’t here.
“Need who Clint?”
Who? He didn’t— He couldn’t—He needed him in the same way he needed the air that his lungs just wouldn’t take in. It was desperate and painful and all consuming.
Clint clawed at the sides of his head, ignoring how his ragged nails caught along the staples that perforated his scalp and tore them loose. He could hear Phil swearing and suddenly his hands were being held tight against his chest. He could feel the warmth of his blood as it rolled down the back of his neck and pooled in the shell of his ear.
“I need him.”
He could feel it on the edge of his mind- almost- almost. Dancing on the precipice of recognition. He felt a small pinch on his arm, felt the coldness crawl through his veins as the sedative took hold and the darkness waiting at the edges of his vision crept forward until the entire world went black.
Phil breathed a sigh of relief as the nurses carried the unconscious Barton back to his room, leaving him to close the window. Someone was going to have to wipe up the blood that was smeared on the floor and wall later.
He’d talked many people down during his years as an agent- hostage takers, suicidal agents, bombers, but he’d never quite had to deal with a situation like what he’d just went through. He was rather amazed, in a detached sort of way that he’d managed to talk Barton down by lying through his teeth like he had, but guilt had already reared its ugly head at the thought of how distressed the man had become.
He realized now that saying he’d have Barton ready for Monday might’ve been a tad ambitious of him.
He dusted off his pants as he climbed to his feet and reached out to lock the window. As he reached for the latch he noticed the dull red of Barton’s blood coagulating under his fingernails, stark against the crisp white of the window frame. He quickly tried to scrape it out, only to push it deeper into his nail bed. With a huff he gave up, making note to grab some sanitizer from one of the nurses. He’d need a full report from Medical anyway before he went to Fury to tell him of the incident and hopefully adjust their timeline to something more realistic.
Dr. Allison was waiting for him with her clipboard firmly in a hand and a grim looking upon her face when he finally strode up, working the rubbing alcohol into his skin.
“How is he?”
“His behaviour isn’t completely unexpected; paranoia, extreme anxiety and impulsiveness are common complications. And the stress of losing his eidetic memory wouldn’t have helped either. That’s something was a person really identifies with. It was an integral part of who he was and the way his brain functioned. We’re putting him on some sedatives now to keep him calm. And hopefully in place,” she added. “But we’re going to have to restrain him until he wakes up and we can confirm that he’s responding to them.”
“Barton seemed to be trying to remember someone, he said that he needed them,” Phil mentioned, eyeing the restraints the encircled Clint’s wrists with distaste.
“Some recall is to be anticipated until R&D gets back to us,” she admitted. “It might be best to closely monitor him and keep him calm until they can get him down there for some scans and run some tests.”
Calm, Phil noted, was just another way to say drugged out of his mind.
“We’re going to have to be careful for a few weeks regardless,” she continued, checking the EKG after it let out a sharp blip and adjusting the settings before turning back to him. “Some patients develop psychological disorders after a traumatic brain injury, so we’ll need to monitor him for symptoms.”
Coulson once again adjusted his inner timeline and he could already tell Fury wasn’t going to be pleased. But in the end, the Director would have no choice but to comply or risk his newest asset.
“Just have him ready as soon as possible.”
It would take months rather than weeks for Clint Barton to be declared ready to begin training for service; two to be precise. Eventually R&D came through and was able to suppress almost all of the half remembered things plaguing Barton’s mind until he could barely eat or sleep because of the ghosts dancing through his head; the muffled whispers in his ears.
As the saying goes: it’s always darkest before the dawn, and things had certainly looked bleak for their newest agent before getting better. Clint’s thrashing had rubbed his wrists and ankles raw against the restraints and there had been talk of a feeding tube being introduced for a few weeks because even if they managed to force him to eat, Barton tended to throw it right back up.
Acute Stress is what the doctor called it. Complete devastation was what Phil knew it to really be.
Every day he would check on their little Pet Project as Sitwell had taken to referring to Barton as over coffee every morning and every day after the drugs had been administered, he saw only improvement.
“We’ll begin him on a regiment of twice daily doses,” Dr. Alison had told him as she’d held up a container filled with a hundred small yellow pills. “This way we can stop the injections although they’ll still be an option for rapid relief and for a longer lasting effect for missions, so we don’t have to worry about him losing them and such.”
Phil had nodded, his eyes skimming over the information sheet that R&D had sent up with the pills. The list of side effects had been daunting so say the least.
“Seizures?” He’d asked, trying to keep the worry from his voice. They couldn’t have an agent have an epileptic episode of some kind mid-mission.
“Luckily enough most of those side effects would be due to a failure to take the proper dosages,” the doctor had then assured him. “He’ll need to take them regularly, and with food- they’ll wreak havoc on his stomach otherwise.”
“Temporary psychosis?” He had hissed angrily, still going down the list.
Allison had nodded shortly at that, a grim look upon her face. “We’re messing with a man’s brain chemistry. I don’t need to tell you how dangerous that can be. Any sudden changes in the chemicals in his brain, say the Gamma-Aminobutyric acid levels for instance. The pills adjust these to make him more calm, more susceptible and accepting to what we’re telling him. If these were to have a sudden change because the dosage was wrong or he hadn’t taken them, it could cause anything from seizures to psychosis due to extreme panic. Altering any chemical in the brain this drastically could result in similar side effects.”
“And Fury approved this?” he’d asked, wondering just what the hell must’ve been going through the Director’s mind.
And so they’d proceeded as planned. As the memories were suppressed, as the pure driving desperate longing began to fade into the foggy haze along with everything that had been William Brandt, Clint Barton slowly became whole. The bruises under his grey blue eyes began to lighten and eventually the restraints were removed and the sedatives weaned away. The staples had been removed and his hair had grown back in, hiding the ugly pink scars that spanned the side of his head- the clear divide between what had been, and what now was.
So, almost three months after William Brandt’s accident, Clint Barton was fully recovered and approved to begin training. He was smaller than Brandt had been, having lost a lot of weight and muscle mass, and he was sarcastic and reckless where Brandt had been nervous and careful. It was a startling difference when you compared the personality profiles on paper, and even starker in real life when faced down with what would soon become Clint’s signature grin.
Like Fury had said all those months ago, William Brandt was dead. And Clint Barton had risen from his ashes.
Jane gripped his hand comfortingly as he twisted the key and the lock slid home. Benji was waiting for them in the van while they finished up and not for the first time Ethan was grateful that out of all the teams he’d work with, this one had stuck.
“Are you sure about this?”
Ethan nodded and bent down to pick up the duffle bag filled with his essentials. The rest of his things would be picked up by the movers the next day and shipped off to storage until he was ready to find another place for himself. The real estate agent he’d hired had assured him she’d have the place sold within a couple of weeks given the market, in demand location, and original hardwood floors. He’d signed all the paperwork so that she could accept whatever offer she deemed best without having to consult him first and wiped his hands clean of the place.
He’d tried, he really had, but he just couldn’t stay there anymore. The IMF had taken Will’s things; they were now long burned, their ashes scattered on the wind just like Will and it was almost eerie now.
“Yeah, I’m sure.”
The apartment was empty without him there; lonely. Ethan didn’t wake in the night, blindly reaching out across the covers, forgetting that Will wasn’t there. He didn’t turn around suddenly, thinking that he’d catch a glimpse of Will if he only turned fast enough. Will was gone. He wasn’t in the walls. He wasn’t in the dust motes that flickered in the sunlight on the edge of his vision. He wasn’t in their room in the armchair they used to bicker over – never fight. Never argue. He wasn’t sitting on the bench in the bay window reading. He wasn’t there waiting for Ethan to come home to him.
And it hurt more than it should have.
He’d heard about people feeling their loved one’s presence after their death. The lingering sensation of a touch, a tingle of warmth down their spine, the ghost of a breath in their ears; something. But instead when Ethan breathed I love you into the stale air of the place that had once been theirs but was now just his, all he heard, all he felt, was his own echo, his own loneliness.
I miss you. I love you. I’ll never forget you. I love you. I’m sorry I couldn’t save you. I’m sorry you were alone; that I wasn’t there. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you.
He chanted it like an endless prayer and sent out his love to the universe in hopes that somehow- somewhere Will would know. Would feel.
Chapter 4: Finding Strength (In Pain)
Given her job she’d generally been paired with men who liked to think they were chivalrous by telling her to stay back as they took care of things. They had the idea that she was being paired with them, when they were being paired with her. It was a fine line, but there was an important distinction.
Despite what the others might say, Natasha had never let her partner die. Sometimes shit just happened. And sometimes people were just stupid to a point where it was lethal. So, within the first month of her new job she’d lost four partners in four missions. Someone had made a joke and before she knew it her codename was Black Widow.
When she’d found himself across from a still sickly looking Clint in the gym, she realized that she wasn't sure what she’d been expecting, but it sure as hell hadn't been him. Then he’d snarked off about her being ex-KGB and of all the partners she’d had he was the only one who hadn’t mentioned her looks or some shit that made her want to stick a knife between their ribs and slide it up into their still beating heart so they could see just how beautiful she was was then.
The smirk had sealed the deal. And they'd never looked back.
For Natasha, The Barton Situation started bright and early in the main gym on a Monday morning, and went a little something like this:
“So everyone says you’re some crazy ex-KGB agent who keeps letting her partners get killed.”
“Everyone says that you’re a head case ex-coma patient with no self-preservation instinct.”
A grin. “Touché.”
She decided she’d keep this one.
If Fury had been smug when he’d first shown Phil Barton’s file, he was downright unbearable when the diagnostic results came in after the first week of training.
It’d been a little touch and go for a few weeks even after he’d been deemed fit to begin training and there’d been one incident where Clint had forgotten his morning dose because of early training and scared four junior agents into hysterically crying when he’d suddenly collapsed and begun convulsing.
But with that behind them, and Barton under strict instructions to take his medication without fail no matter what, things were coming along quite well.
“Perfect in marksmanship, and he was only behind Romanov in stealth and hand to hand by a margin of two points.”
“He is impressive, sir,” Coulson admitted freely, because really, Barton was impressive. At least when he wasn’t being a devious, cocky pain in the ass who seemed to enjoy instilling the fear of God in the junior agents who didn’t yet understand that, no, Clint wasn’t allowed to use them for a ‘more realistic’ moving target practice just because he out ranked them.
He’d only been permitted to wander the halls without someone from Medical shadowing him -and even then certain key agents had been advised to look out for him in case there was some sort of relapse or he had a fit- for the better part of two weeks and he’d already built himself a reputation that had everyone from the senior agents to the maintenance staff whispering like the insane gossips they all really were. And if no one had ever really heard of Clint Barton, a veteran agent of four years, before well, that was because he’d been mainly based at the London branch until his accident.
Romanov seemed more amused than anything by her new partner in the same way that someone might humour a small child or puppy, but the two got on well enough that Phil doubted Clint would be turning up dead anytime soon. She smirked at his snarky remarks and (dare he say) smiled whenever Barton shot at the junior agents- which happened quite frequently. It figured they’d bond over their violent tendencies. They spent hours playing a perverse game that involved looking at various scars on Clint’s body and trying to determine how he’d come by them. He even got away with calling her Tasha, which another agent had recently tried and it’d resulted in him being on the receiving end of a punch to the face rather a smile.
So yes, things were going well aside from some blatant insubordination on Barton’s part and Fury tended to literally cackle when reports of it came in because after Phil had told him about the incident with the window he’d almost cracked a rib going on about how he’d just ‘created his own worst nightmare’. And sure enough, Barton had latched on to the lies Coulson had told him about his behaviour and his unstable personality had suddenly shifted to the basic profile he’d desperately bit out in an attempt to stop Fury’s pet project from jumping and possibly breaking his legs on the cement. So yes, to his contempt and to the Director’s endless amusement...he sort of had created his own worst nightmare. But if his worst nightmare was a happy, devious, seemingly normal Clint Francis Barton...well, he could live with that.
Clint had never met anyone like Natasha Romanov- or maybe he had. How the hell was he supposed to know? But in recallable memory, he could honestly say he’d never quite had a friend like her.
Some of the other agents had a way of either being terrified of him (it was warranted) or looking at him with a sort of pity in their eyes that turned his mouth sour. Although he found pity could be easily turned into fear and annoyance with a well placed arrow. Speaking of which, he wasn’t sure if he’d used a bow when working for SHIELD before but Natasha had handed him a compound bow one day after he’d told her about his life at the circus (small talk tended to stray towards his childhood because frankly, he still hadn’t caught up on most of the pop culture he’d missed in the past four years, and apparently a lot could happen in that time. He was still trying to figure out if a Snooki was a chocolate bar or what) and since then he’d barely been able to put it down.
It was like an extension of his arm that helped to fill the void that still existed in him. The shrinks all said that using weaponry to emotionally sooth yourself wasn’t healthy, but he’d just told them all to shove it. Besides, Natasha did it with her knives and guns and she passed all her psych evals with flying colours.
He still practiced with guns of course and he’d always loved to work with swords, no matter how impractical everyone told him they were and he regularly got his ass handed to him in the ring with Tasha as she scolded him for his mistakes in Russian- apparently he was fluent. Who knew?
Over all, he thought he was fitting in pretty well all things considered. He even got invited out to the bar after work with all the other agents and they seemed nice enough when they weren’t screaming in terror as he jumped out of the drop ceiling, but Tasha was definitely his favourite and rightly so seeing as she was his partner. And probably his best friend.
He said probably because Tasha didn’t like to label things and he’d never right out asked if she evenwanted to be his best friend... But in his head that was what he called her.
His therapist said having a friend would help him become well adjusted but when he’d told her that he’d befriended Natasha Romanov she’d said something along the lines of thinking that Natasha might not be the type of friend he needed right now. Seeing as this was the same woman who’d told him his tendency of practicing with his bow to calm himself wasn’t healthy, he hadn’t hesitated in telling her what he actually thought of her advice and where she could put it. Naturally Phil hadn’t been pleased, and despite Clint’s assurances that he was just fine without any kind of therapy he insisted that he continue to attend twice weekly sessions (which was actually an improvement. There’d been a time when he’d been seeing his therapist every six hours). But he hadn’t been all that angry either.
If Natasha was his favourite, Phil Coulson was definitely a close second. Clint wouldn’t admit to it under pain of torture, but he found Phil’s steadiness and unending calm to be rather comforting and he’d find little reasons to camp out on the couch in his office even if it was just to nap for a few hours. And when a blanket had eventually appeared folded up on the one of the arms, neither of them ever mentioned it, but that didn’t stop the soft smile that had spread across his face and Clint had wrapped himself in it.
If he was feeling particularly charitable Clint would even offer to give Phil a hand with the huge stacks of paperwork littering every flat surface in the room. He was actually quite efficient with it and found that he could fly through whole stacks of it in next to no time. He could generally remember incidents without fail and didn’t have to look up various codes and call signs more than once. That was something he’d decided to keep to himself for now.
The doctors had all told him his eidetic memory was gone, but if he didn’t know better he’d say he was slowly recovering it little by little. Time would tell if he ever really got back up to par. But, that didn’t make doing paperwork any less boring.
Luckily enough Phil tended to reward him with coffee and a cookie if he helped. A part of him kind of resented being rewarded like some stupid little kid...but the cookies were apparently from this great bakery downtown and they were seriously to die for.
So as Winter bled into Spring and Spring into Summer, Clint slowly made a niche for himself within SHIELD and soon enough, he rarely stewed over the four years he’d lost. As a child, in school he’d been the circus freak and in the military he’d been the ex-circus freak who could remember everything, but here he belonged. He had real friends who would come by just to say hi instead of only coming around when they needed his help. He had Tasha who told him hilarious jokes and hid in the ceiling with him chatting about random things until they spotted their next victim. He had Phil who shared midnight dinners with him, just the two of them, over piles of paperwork and agent Woo and everyone else who dragged him out to bar nights, movie nights and everything in between. He went on missions and knew that Tasha had his back and him hers and when he came back he knew that Phil would be waiting for him with a cookie and a stack of TR-34s to fill out.
And even if on some nights as he lay in bed that lonely feeling, that feeling of knowing that something- someone- was missing, would sometimes rise up again and constrict his chest until he couldn’t even imagine working up the will to actually get up in the morning, until the thought of smiling for everyone who thought he was okay made his heart ache, he still wouldn’t have had it any other way.
He might not know what he was missing, but he sure as hell knew what he did have. And he wouldn’t give it up for the world.
A giant thank you to everyone who left a comment or kudos! It means a lot and it's good to hear that you're liking the story so far :)
Chapter 5: The Truth (Will Refresh My Broken Mind)
Clint must’ve been feeling decidedly charitable that day because he was sitting on his couch- well, it was Phil’s couch technically. But Clint sat on it way more than he did. So it was his now. Anyway, so he’d been filling out a good old fashioned T-56 when he’d flipped to consult a dossier and his eyes had caught something he’d never heard before. And well, hiding the ceilings had a way of getting you quite a bit of information you weren’t supposed to have. Frankly, there wasn’t much that went on his SHIELD that he didn’t know about. Which meant that when he did happen across something that he had no prior knowledge of, he was sort of like a dog with a bone.
After years in the army working undercover ops and now his years at SHIELD spent doing a lot of the same, it was almost a reflex really. Hide. Listen. Gather. Record. Report. Kill target. Okay, well, the killing bit was optional sometimes. But basically he knew shit. So why the hell didn’t he know about this? He tried not to sound personally offended when he asked: “What the hell is the Avengers’ Initiative?”
Phil barely looked up from his paperwork as he reached for his coffee. “Nothing important.”
Clint glared over at him, scrutinizing. If he didn’t know about it, it meant that no one could talk about it. “I think you’re lying to me. In fact, I know you are.”
“Oh?” Phil could say more with a single raised eyebrow than most people could in their week. Clint would be lying if he said he didn’t respect him for it.
He gave one last glare just for effect before looking down at the paper, his eyes scanning over the limited information a budget sheet could provide him with. Plenty of numbers sure, but not much else.
“Something ‘not important’ shouldn’t have this kind of budget,” he decided quickly enough, doing the math in his head to calculate the inflation because apparently some of this stuff dated back to World War II.
“This is a lot of money,” he whistled appreciatively as he finally came to a figure.
“Barton, leave it,” Phil said shortly, clearly meaning business. But Clint had never been one to let sleeping dogs lie.
“Oh come on. I’ve worked with you for a year now,” he whined, flinging his feet onto the coffee table as he sunk back into the surprisingly plush couch. “No one ever lets me know anything around here.”
“You’re handling highly classified papers right now,” the agent said flatly as he sipped from his mug. Clint could recognize it as the one he’d give him for his birthday last month from the bold black typeface on it that read: World’s Best Agent. He’d actually had to order away for it. SHIELD really needed to get a gift shop or something.
“Yeah, but nothing good. I don’t really give a shit that Agent Woo’s team sighted Banner in Tennessee—
“Language, Barton,” Phil snapped, but Clint knew there was no real heat behind it.
“You’re just upset because Fury’s making you go deal with Stark,” the archer pronounced as he tossed the paper aside and made a mental note to trample it on his way out just to be annoying. “While I get to go to Malaysia with Tasha.”
“Yes,” the other man sighed. “I’m obviously jealous of you being loaned out to CIA’s Wetworks. That’s the only possible explanation.”
“Knew it,” Clint grinned happily, ignoring the annoyed, yet obviously fond look Coulson was sending his way. He leaned down to grab the paper he’d dropped to hide the light blush dusting across his face.
“When do you leave?”
Clint looked up to find Phil still staring at him, his unfinished paperwork set aside for the moment.
“Wheels up at o’eight hundred.”
“Are you all packed?”
He nodded as he set the paper down on the table and went about shoving it and it’s mates back into the manila folder he’d pulled them from. “Basically. Natasha’s taking care of civilian clothes- apparently I don’t have anything ‘appropriate’,” he made a face at that, his fingers trailing over the CLASSIFIED stamp on the folder. “Other than that, my equipment is all packed and I’ve just got to report to Medical for the pre-mission once over.”
Phil must’ve caught his grimace because he sighed and stood from behind his desk. “You know you need that shot. We don’t want a replay of the last time you missed your dose.”
“I know,” Clint grumbled as he ran a hand through his hair. “Shit just gives me a migraine.”
“Better a migraine than a seizure.”
He looked up to find Coulson standing over him, offering his hand. He sighed and took hold of it, allowing himself to be pulled to his feet.
Clint wasn’t entirely sure what the hell his pills did exactly- someone had tried to explain it to him, but like he’d said before: medical shit wasn’t his field of expertise. Maybe one day he’d google what the doctor had told him, but in the mean time he just knew it kept him from freaking the hell out and convulsing all over the place.
“Why don’t we grab dinner?” Phil suggested as he pulled Clint along, grabbing the coat hanging from the rack and flicking off the lights with his free hand.
“What’d you have in mind?”
The man shrugged and went to say something when they were interrupted. “Hey! Guys!”
Phil subtly let go of his hand and Clint had to resist the urge to reach out and grab it again as Woo came barrelling down the hall towards them, his own coat thrown over his arm and looking ready to leave.
“A bunch of us are heading out to the pub down the street. You in?”
Phil looked hesitant, and while Clint had been looking forward to having dinner just the two of them, Phil really needed to be more social.
His handler glared at him.
“Oh come on Phil,” Clint pestered, pulling at his sleeve. “You never come out with us. If you’re not careful they’re all going to think it’s because you don’t like them.”
Coulson sighed before nodding and pulling on his jacket.
“That’s the spirit, you need to spread your wings,” Clint said knowingly as he buttoned up his sweater.
“A social butterfly I am not.”
There’d never been a truer statement. “We’ll fix that. Besides, they’ve got your beer on tap.”
When Phil said he wasn’t a social butterfly, he wasn’t exaggerating. He wasn’t a shut in or anything, but he preferred the company of a few people and didn’t stray too far from his set social circle. That and he was so tone deaf he couldn’t even carry a tune if his life depended on it. Other SHIELD agents in general didn’t seem to share his difficulties because whenever they got together with any sort of alcohol everyone reverted back to their university days as they shouted into a microphone while the karaoke versions of just about every song from the 80s blasted through the bar’s speakers. It always ended up like High School Musical had met Suits. It was weird and sometimes embarrassing.
Ties and heels alike were abandoned around their tables and buttons undone as they all knocked back shots, pitchers of beer, and martinis. Another problem was Phil wasn’t much of a drinker, he’d have enough beer for a bit of a buzz, but he was much more reserved than his colleagues. And no one ever wants to be the one basically sober kid at the party.
The ‘pub down the street’ as Woo had called it, was in fact down the street, down a different side street and then down an alley. It was the kind of establishment health inspectors loved to shut down but everyone else loved it for the cheap drinks, good sound system and relatively small number of clientele. Agents had been going there since before Fury’s days and would probably continue after all of them had retired. There was a theory that the bartender had signed a confidentiality agreement because nothing loosens someone’s lips like four pitchers of beer, some body shots and a late night.
When they arrived Barton pointed towards the back where Natasha was already sitting with a drink in hand. Phil let himself be dragged along, waving to his different co-workers as he went. More than a few of them called after Clint, wanting him to join them. To the archer’s credit he smiled and said he’d be there soon, but didn’t let go of Coulson’s hand until they climbed into the booth.
The table was covered with crate paper and Natasha pulled a shot class filled with crayons from the self set into the wall and grabbed a black one for herself before tossing the purple in Clint’s direction. He snatched the crayon, idly drawing a little rabbit as she set up a game of Hang Man. Phil relaxed back into his seat, loosening his tie as Woo dropped a pitcher and some glasses off. He nodded his thanks as he poured some for himself and Clint.
“So, do you two come here a lot?”
“Often enough,” Natasha answered, putting down her crayon to signal that she was done. Clint glanced over at it and quickly began running through all the vowels before switching the Russian. The redhead quickly filled in a few spaces before Clint hazarded a guess. When she nodded and finished the word he broke out into laughter before both of them began chatting in quick fire Russian.
Phil smiled around the rim of his glass, just watching the two of them. He’d never learned Russian- he’d taken Korean instead- but he could tell they were enjoying themselves.
Eventually Sharon Carter managed to pull Clint away for a round of shots and a song, and Coulson watched him leave, already missing the warmth against his side.
“You’re both pitiful,” Natasha huffed as she downed the rest of her drink and reached to finish off Clint’s abandoned beer. He stared at her for a moment, signalling for her to continue.
“Don’t pretend you’re not crazy about him. You might be hard to read, but believe me; you’re not that hard to read.”
He glanced over to where Sharon and Clint were both hunched over on the stage, scrolling through the list of songs. A few words passed between them before Sharon smiled and nodded. She glanced towards the drum kit set up for live bands before she settled upon a guitar propped up against the wall. Coulson ignored the flare of jealousy that burned like wildfire in his chest as her hand settled on Clint’s arm when she leaned in to ask him something.
Natasha must’ve noticed some sort of look of his face judging by the rather unbecoming snort she let out as she twisted around to settle her back against the wall so that she could stretch her legs out along her seat. “Hopeless.”
He glared at her but she didn’t have the decency to look cowed and instead just smiled right back at him in that unnerving way of hers.
The sound of a few chords being strummed started up and they both turned to see Clint holding the guitar, his fingers dancing across the strings with a look of concentration on his face.
“I didn’t know he could play,” the Russian commented as she munched on a few peanuts she’d grabbed from the bowl on the table.
Neither did Phil actually.
The look of concentration was slowly slipping from Barton’s face as he seemed to relax into the instrument. He nodded to Sharon who clicked play and the opening beat started of some song Phil couldn’t identify. As Clint broke in with the guitar he instantly recognized the tune and couldn’t help the smile that snuck onto his face as the archer started singing the opening lines of Stuck in the Middle with You. Sharon began clapping out the beat as they started harmonizing into the microphone.
The agents who’d been crowding around the pool tables began making their way to the dance floor in pairs- mostly women at first, but eventually the men joined them and soon enough everyone had joined in singing.
“A man of many hidden talents.”
Natasha only nodded in agreement, eyeing Agent Woo as he approached nervously.
“Agent Romanov,” he started. “I was just uh- wondering- if you would um—
Natasha huffed, shucked off her leather jacket and slid across the booth, offering her hand to the stunned man. Phil hid a laugh as he took a sip of his beer, watching the stunned look that played across Woo’s face before he seemed to get a hold of himself and took her hand to lead her out to the dance floor, Natasha’s stiletto boots clicking all the way.
When the song finally wound down everyone burst into applause, cheering as they held up their glasses in salute. Sharon and Clint took a dramatic bow before hopping off the stage to make way for the next singer. Clint began making his way back to the booth, people clapping him on the back as he went and suddenly Phil realized just how many friends Clint had within SHIELD.
It didn’t take a genius to figure out that Barton had some abandonment and trust issues, but looking at him surrounded by smiling people, all of them calling out for him to join them, well it was obvious Clint had made a home for himself.
A swell of guilt rose up in Coulson’s chest as he wondered if William Brandt had had many friends in the IMF. If they missed him as much as everyone at SHIELD would miss Clint if something were to happen to him. While he’d never had the pleasure of meeting Brandt before the accident, his file had been filled with notes from past partners, teammates and COs, all of them practically gushing about his work in both the field in the office, but what had really struck him were the more personal notes. They’d been proud to know him. They’d been proud to be his friends. William Brandt had been a good soldier, a good person, and he’d been loved.
Phil was startled from his maudlin thoughts as Clint practically threw himself down into the booth beside him. He rolled his eyes as the archer snatched his beer and took a sip before settling down in the seat, leaning into his side just enough that Phil’s heart gave a little flutter.
“What’s got you looking so depressed?” He asked, leaning away a bit to get a better look at his face.
Coulson sighed, shaking his head. “Just thinking.”
“Yeah, well, stop. Did you forget? You’re here to learn to be a social butterfly,” Clint growled playfully, elbowing him lightly in the ribs. “Get off your ass and go flutter or something.”
“Another night maybe.”
“I’ll hold you to that.”
“I know you will.”
“This isn’t about Stark is it?” He asked dubiously, reaching out for Phil’s beer again. The agent sighed and shoved the glass in his direction.
“Yes, the mere thought of being in his presence sends me into a downward spiral of depression.” Actually....that wasn’t far from the truth. Stark was a bigger pain in the ass than Nick Fury, Clint Barton, taxes, and jury duty combined.
“I dunno’. Seems like an interesting guy if you ask me,” Barton shrugged, his fingers tapping on the table top to the beat of the terrible rendition of Uptown Girl that a few agents were trying to screech out. “But then again, I’ve never met him in person.”
“And be thankful you never will,” He chuckled, his eyes trailing to the dance floor where a now more relaxed looking Woo was still dancing with Natasha. From where he was sitting he could spot five other men eyeing her. Not that he could blame them. She was quite the eyeful with her tight jeans and long red hair. The accent didn’t hurt either- although that was beginning to fade as she continued to work with SHIELD’s language coach.
“Who knows? We might meet some day,” Clint pointed out before he took a sip of what used to be Phil’s beer. The thought of Clint and Stark in the same State, let alone the same room was a frightening one. If they hated one another...well, there was nothing anyone could do about that, but oh god, what if they got along? The two of them were bad enough individually. Together they’d probably cause some sort of international incident.
“Maybe,” Coulson replied casually, because his poker face was legendary and had helped him pay off most of his car with a few trips to the local casino. But Clint burst into laughter and it took Phil a moment to realize the other man had seen right through him.
When he finally calmed Clint just grinned at him for a moment before asking, “So when do you leave?”
“A few hours after you and Natasha. I should be back a few days before you’re due to report in if all goes well.”
“I expect my cookie when I get back.”
Phil smiled helplessly, nodding as he did. “I know.”
And God, if the smirk that Clint sent back in his direction didn’t make his stomach twist and his face grow hot, but all he could think was name redacted. Because there was someone out there who’d probably felt the exact same way whenever William Brandt had smiled at them.
Someone called for Clint to come and get in on a game of pool and the younger man reached out with fingers still damp from the condensation on his glass to give Phil’s hand a squeeze.
“Flutter,” he said pointedly, before climbing out of the booth to go join the others.
Coulson sat back and watched him go, content to stay where he was and just observe the other man as he slapped Agent O’Brian on the back and grabbed a cue from the rack.
William Brandt might’ve been a good man- a great one even, and people had loved him, there was no doubt about that. They probably missed him just as fiercely as they’d all miss Clint and his heart went out to them. But to regret what they’d done to Will would be to regret Barton’s existence. And maybe Phil was a little biased because he’d never met him and- and maybe he had....feelings....for Clint. But Will was gone now and instead there was Clint Barton. And he was just as good and just as loved as Brandt had ever been.
The next morning it looked as if half of SHEILD’s upper agents were hung over to various degrees. Agent Woo had been passed out on his desk when Coulson had come in around six after being called in due to a roster change in some ongoing missions that involved him and his agents, and when he’d gone to grab coffee at seven Woo had still been there, drooling on a sit-rep.
He’d already gotten a hold of Natasha to tell her of the changes, but Barton had a tendency to set his phone down in random places and forget about it. Generally it was passed around from agent to agent until one of them could track him down. Today, Agent Sitwell had picked up when Phil had called. Apparently he’d found the mobile sitting in a planter in the courtyard, beeping with seventeen missed messages. Thus, Barton had to be tracked down through word of mouth and through good old fashioned searching- which often involved tapping on random ceiling tiles with a broom stick to see if he’d pop out.
Eventually Phil spotted him coming out of the range, armed with a compound bow rather than his favoured recurve that was probably already loaded onto the plane. He called out, catching Clint’s attention before he could disappear down the nearest hallway.
“Did Med send you? Because I’m heading over now,” the archer answered as Phil made his way over.
“Change of plans. Widow is heading to do some undercover work with Stark for a few weeks so you’re being loaned out alone for this mission.”
“What about you, sir? Thought you were all amped up to head out there yourself,” Barton smirked.
Coulson glared as his phone gave a beep and reached down to check it.
“So what, Natasha gets to go live it up with Stark while I crawl around some godforsaken jungle and get malaria?”
“You won’t get malaria,” he replied distractedly as he shoved a clipboard he’d been carrying under his arm so that he could have both hands to text. “...but essentially yes.”
Clint huffed, looking put out as he fiddled with one of the pulleys on his bow. “Whatever. But next time, I get to seduce the rich—
Coulson grumbled as he once again began a valiant battle against autocorrect. There’d been several incidents already involving it that had resulted in some very expensive cover up operations. So he struggled to get his phone to stop changing Tony to tiny for a few moments before he realized that Barton had never finished what he’d been saying. Phil glanced up from his phone to find the archer standing stock still, his bow clutched tightly in his hands.
He shoved his clipboard and phone into the arms of the nearest junior agent who’d been happening to walk by as he carefully made his way towards the younger man. “Barton?”
He waved a hand in front of the Clint’s face, but the grey blue eyes didn’t even attempt to track the motion. It was like a switch had been flipped; the lights were on but nobody was home.
“Hawkeye,” he tried a little louder as agents began crowding to see what was going on.
“Hey!” He clapped his hands, trying and failing to get Clint’s attention.
“Sir,” one of the junior agents started hesitantly. “Should I go page Medical?”
Coulson reached out and gently pried the bow from Barton’s fingers, but his arm and hand remained taught, as if they were still gripping the weapon. He passed the bow off to another agent and took Clint by the shoulders.
“Clint,” he started, staring into his eyes. “Can you hear me? Someone, help me get him down,” he called when he got to answer. A few agents rushed forward to help him lower Clint to the floor in case he started seizing. He was stiff under their hands, his body resisting as they tried to bend his arms and legs.
“Somebody call Sitwell. Tell him to get a hold of the CIA and to tell them that we’re going to have to pull Hawkeye from their roster for this mission. And someone get Medical down here with a stretcher!”
With that dealt with Coulson turned back to Clint who was staring up blankly at the ceiling.
“Clint,” he tried again, bracing his hands on either side of the other man’s face and trying to ignore the uncharacteristic panic that was tearing through him. “Can you hear me?”
Barton only continued to stare up at the ceiling, barely even blinking.
“Sir, Medical is on their way, and Agent Sitwell has been notified as has Black Widow. Unfortunately, she’s already on route to the mission location,” a junior agent told him, squatting down beside him to take Barton’s pulse.
There was a clamor as people made way for several nurses along with Dr. Alison who came crashing into the hallway with a stretcher.
“What happened?” she asked as she practically crashed to her knees on the tile floor at Phil’s side.
“He just froze,” he told her uselessly. “I thought he was having a seizure, so we got him down on the floor, but he’s been fine.”
She pulled a penlight from her pocket and shone it into Clint’s eyes. “It sounds a bit like an absence seizure, but they don’t last for this long,” she muttered worriedly as he tucked away her light to check his pulse. “Agent Barton,” she started her voice slow and clear as she went to pick up his hand, struggling a moment because of how stiff he was. “Can you hear me? If you can, try to squeeze my fingers.”
When she got no response she waved the nurses over who then grabbed a scoop stretcher. Phil was pushed aside as they set it up and carefully lifted Barton onto the actual stretcher to transport him to Med Bay. They began to wheel him off but not before Alison crooked a finger in his direction, signalling for him to follow.
The other agents watched on worriedly as their colleague was taken away until Phil snapped at them all to get back to work and sent them scrambling.
“Is this some side effect?” he asked angrily. “We’ve basically been feeding him poison for the past year and a half.”
Alison sighed, her heels clacking solidly against the floor as they hurried after the nurses. “I can’t be sure what this is until I’ve done some more tests, but chances are it’s something to do with the medication. What was he doing before he became unresponsive?”
“We were just talking!” Phil growled angrily and his phone suddenly began ringing up a storm in his pocket. No doubt Fury had heard about the commotion. “We were going over some roster changes, and he was- he was just joking about getting malaria,” he finished, his throat tightening.
Clint had been fine. There’d been no sign- no way to know- and he’d just suddenly- he’d just stopped.
They conducted every sort of scan, preformed numerous tests, and yet everything came back inconclusive while Clint still remained unresponsive to any outside stimulus. They’d pricked his fingers and toes, hoping to get any sort of reaction only to come up short. They’d hooked him up to all manner of machines to monitor his heart rate, blood pressure, and brain waves but they all basically told them nothing. And all the while Phil watched from his place in a chair at Barton’s bedside, trying again and again to call him back to awareness.
“His brain activity is as normal as his gets,” Alison said as she consulted one of the screens. “It’s like he just decided to take a break to think things over.”
“Did R&D say if anything in his medication could cause this?” Coulson asked, his hands white knuckled as he dug his nails into the arms of his chair.
“Nothing like this is impossible,” she said carefully. “But at this point, with how he’s responded to the pills and injections so far, it’s improbable.”
“He didn’t take his dose this morning, could—
“A little delay wouldn’t have caused such a severe reaction. Seven hours from now, it would likely result in a reaction, but not within this time frame, no. And we’ve already administered his normal dosage, so if that were the case I’d expect to see some improvement by now.”
“Then what is it?” he snapped, his temper slipping away from him.
The doctor looked lost as she ran a hand through her bangs. “I don’t know,” She admitted. “I’ve never dealt with anyone in this type of situation before. But he’s not in any danger. Like I said, it’s like he just stopped to think about...What were you talking about before this happened?”
Phil stared at her questioningly before answering. “He was joking about malaria. Widow was supposed to be his partner on a mission but she was switched to another operation. He was joking about that.”
Alison hummed thoughtfully, tapping her nails on her stethoscope. “His brain activity is mainly centered in the hippocampus.”
“He’s remembering something?” Phil guessed, a sense of dread creeping into his stomach.
“Or, what you were talking about triggered something. A memory maybe, but his brain might be trying to suppress it. If I were to make a comparison, I’d say it’s like a computer rebooting to protect the software.”
He stared uselessly at her for a moment before she continued, gaining momentum.
“The drugs we’ve been giving him for the past year and a half are meant to suppress his memories- they’re essentially, along with a lot of other things, doing carefully controlled damage to his hippocampus. It’s like putting Alzheimer’s on a leash. Whatever you said, it might’ve clicked somehow, but it was like a computer detecting a virus- it realized a file should’ve been there, but instead found a hole, an infection. So it temporarily shut down so it can reboot, protect the rest of the files, and try to fix itself.”
Coulson stared at her for a moment, trying to figure out if what she’d just said actually made any sort of sense. Sensing his scrutiny, she glared at him, crossing her arms in indignation.
“You want to come up with a better analogy?”
“No,” he sighed finally, leaning back in his chair as he struggled to release his death grip on the arms. “I think that’ll do. But I want some conclusive results within forty-eight hours.”
He looked over to where Clint way lying, his eyes glassy as they stared up at something that none of them could see. He looked a little pale maybe, but otherwise he seemed alright; nothing like those first few months of thrashing and pain and starvation.
But unlike that time, now Phil knew what he was missing. Back then Clint had just been a body to watch over; a project to finish but now, now he had entangled himself so deeply into everyone’s lives that it was hopeless to even think of removing him.
“When will he wake up?’ he asked, reaching out to take Clint’s hand into his. He rubbed his thumb gently over the smooth skin of his knuckles and took in the feel of the calluses that rubbed against his own hand.
“I’m afraid that’s up to him.”
Ethan stared down at his beer, running his fingers along the rim of his glass as Luther sat across from him. They made a point to meet up every few weeks or months, depending on their schedules, to talk. It always started off with the personal side of things, but the conversation always fell off that edge and landed on work. Luther had been around more the past few months and while Ethan would never admit it, he knew his friend had been doing it to keep track of him. See how he was handling himself. How he was doing.
It’d been a year and a half now. And maybe...maybe he was doing okay. At least, that’s what he told everyone, even himself. He might’ve been a liar, but he was damned good one, because even he was starting to believe it. The new apartment he had helped, keeping busy with missions helped even more. Avoiding anything that even remotely reminded him of- of him, had been even better. But one day he’d woken up and decided that he’d been in denial for long enough and really, who wanted to go through the rest of that shit? So he’d skipped straight to acceptance. Will would’ve called him impatient
(“You can’t just skip steps, Ethan. They’re there for a reason.”)
But he’d called it efficiency.
(“If I know I can just skip them, why waste the time?”
“This is why all your IKEA furniture is falling apart.”)
Oh yes, he was nothing if not efficient. Even in grief.
He’d just come back from Burma and was going to ship back out to Berlin in a few days, but a little down time was welcomed.
“So, I was talking to one of my contacts from the CIA,” Luther started, breaking the comfortable silence that had fallen over their table.
“You still talk with Greg after what happened?” Ethan laughed. It got easier and easier every time he did it.
“Course. Took awhile, and a bit of some rather classified information, but we’re back on good terms,” the other man smiled warmly, his teeth a flash of bright white against his dark skin.
“Anyway,” he continued, picking up a fry from the plate resting between them. “Apparently, they’d got this one guy on loan to Wetworks- can’t remember his codename. Hawk maybe- And it didn’t work out in the end, he got real sick or something and was pulled from the mission roster last minute, but they say he’s the best marksman in the entire fucking world.”
Ethan frowned, dipping his own fry into a mix of ketchup and pepper. “How good could he be? A lot of people claim to be a crack shot.”
“Greg said this guy was the real deal. It took them a lot to have their request for him even considered. He’s not one of those mutants either, one-hundred percent human. But he never misses. Specializes with a bow if you can believe it, but he’s the best sniper in the world.”
“A bow huh?” Ethan said, considering. He’d actually never met an agent who favoured the bow. “Sounds like an interesting guy.”
Luther nodded, leaning back in his chair to flag down their waiter. “You’re telling me. Sounds like a guy the IMF could use, right?”
“Who’s he with now?”
“Ah, that’s no good,” he chuckled, the idea that’d been forming in his head dissipating. “You know how protective they are of their agents. As soon as we came calling we’d get the door slammed in our faces. But still,” he continued lightly as their waiter walked up, ready to prepare the cheque.
“I wouldn’t mind meeting a guy like that.”
If you look on Youtube, there's actually a video of Jeremy Renner in a group of people singing Stuck in the Middle With You. I think they're his family :) I like to think the baby is the little niece, who's his goddaughter, that he talks about in interviews.
Chapter 6: I Can’t Promise You (That I Won’t Let You Down)
The next time Clint was fully conscious and lucid was a week after what’d happened outside the range. Natasha had been less than pleased, finding herself across the country while the one partner she could actually stand, and who’d sort of become her best friend, was having some kind of unidentifiable medical emergency. Coulson had seen the surveillance footage of her little ‘match’ with Stark’s driver (As had most of SHIELD. Someone had seen fit to send a mass email) and he had no doubt she’d used the opportunity to burn off a little anger.
He couldn’t blame her for being on edge. The status updates he’d periodically given her hadn’t been promising. For days Clint had been unresponsive only to sporadically wake, confused as to where he was, who they were, and why he was there. By day two a Nasogastric feeding tube had joined the saline drip that he’d been put on shortly after his admittance. Phil hadn’t liked seeing him like that- hooked up to so many tubes and wires that seemed to double in number as the days went by- but with Clint’s metabolism it was a necessary evil.
But on the seventh day of everyone in SHIELD waiting with bated breath for news of their colleague, Clint fully woke and had promptly taken the initiative to extricate himself from the various things attached to his person. He’d been in the middle of pulling out his feeding tube, alarms blaring around him, when the nurses had gotten there.
It’d been one of the few times Phil hadn’t been by his bedside, having being called away for a meeting concerning Stark’s newest misadventures and a quick briefing on Ivan Vanko. By the time he’d been able to check his messages and walked (practically jogged) down there, Barton had been settled back in his bed and he was already begging for real food. Needless to say, no one had ever been so relieved to hear him whine and complain.
From what their scans and psychiatrics could determine, other than a little disorientation and some lethargy, whatever had put Clint down for the count had passed with no lingering side effects. It was the best outcome they could’ve imagined, but Phil couldn’t help but wonder just what had set him off in the first place. And if it would happen again. R&D had already been set to work trying to come up with a way to prevent a recurrence, but Phil didn’t hold out much hope. There was only so much you could do to a person’s mind without some severe repercussions. There were bound to be side effects no matter what they tried.
But aside from him and Dr. Alison, everyone else within SHIELD was just happy to have Clint back to normal. News had traveled fast and even Fury seemed to brighten up- which basically meant he cackled more malevolently and started scaring the junior agents again. Say what you will about Fury’s relationship with Barton. They didn’t agree on much, and they argued more often than anyone in SHIELD, and that included Fury and Stark, and sometimes they just stared at one another as they passed each other in the hall and it was pretty damn weird. But if they shared anything in common, it was their penchant for emotionally scarring the lower ranked SHIELD agents. Phil knew that they swapped stories over coffee in the morning and sometimes, if Clint wasn’t parked on his couch or hiding out in the ceiling, he could be found sitting on Fury’s couch.
So yes, everyone was pretty happy with the state of things- well, everyone except Clint who was apparently so bored he wanted to “Claw my fucking eyes out, Coulson!”
Really, he couldn’t say he was surprised when only two days after Barton had woken he received a call while typing up a report telling him that their resident Houdini was at it again.
“If you see him, tell him to get his ass back here,” Dr. Alison growled through the phone before the line went dead.
Phil sighed and while a lesser man would have jumped, he just flinched when a voice called out from the ceiling. “I’m not going back!”
“Barton,” he started calmly, as he set down the phone. He must’ve done something truly horrible in a past life to warrant all the crap he had to put up with. “I don’t care if you’re bored, you haven’t been cleared for release yet, so you’re going to march back there if I have to get someone to go up there and drag you out.”
“Listen to me when I tell you this, because I’ve never been more serious in my life: I’m not going back! It’s torture Phil,” Clint whined, his voice muffled behind the ceiling tiles. “They don’t even have a TV. What the hell am I supposed to do?”
“You’re supposed to be resting!” he yelled, knowing it was useless.
“I can rest up here.”
Coulson was suddenly having flashbacks to when he’d had to babysit his four year old niece one weekend.
“Barton- Clint, just,” he said, frustrated. “Get down here. If you’re not going back to Medical, at least rest on the couch.”
After a moment a tile hesitantly slid away, revealing one rather cautious and overtired looking Clint Barton. “You’re not going to turn me in?”
“For the love of God, just get down here!”
He dropped down easily, landing squarely on his feet and still dressed in the regulation white t-shirt and grey track pants Medical gave to their more physically able patients. He gave Phil a small smile that seemed almost out of place on his face. It wasn’t his normal smirk and playful grin; it was timid, almost shy in a way. Clint didn’t say anything as he made his way to the couch, pulling the blanket from where it was folded along the back, and wrapping himself up before quickly flopping down onto the cushions.
Phil just watched him for a while, but wasn’t completely surprised when five minutes later Barton was fast asleep. A hospital bed wasn’t exactly known for being the most comfortable thing to lie on.
Dr. Alison had said she didn’t want him out in the field for at least another month, just to make sure he was alright. So if Clint was driving people crazy now, well, Phil was actually grateful that he’d have to head out eventually to meet with Natasha at Stark’s. Fury was scheduled to fly out there next week and from what Phil could discern of his plan, he could already tell Stark wasn’t going to know what hit him.
Fury had a....flare for theatrics to say the least. The induction speech he gave every year for new agents was like something scripted straight out of a movie. It scared all the newbies; half into quitting and half into indentured service. He had a feeling that the Director lay in bed at night thinking up snappy one-liners and running through scenarios in his head. Besides, a cackle like that took practice.
Clint muttered something in his sleep as he shifted, shoving his face into one of the pillows before letting out a little sigh. Coulson leaned back in his chair, letting himself relax for a moment.
Despite the possible (horrendous, earth shattering, international incident causing) repercussions, he was almost tempted to request that Barton be assigned to him when he travelled out to California. It was a simple babysitting job really, nothing too demanding. If anything it would be a nice way to ease him back into active duty.
Clint grumbled something about elephants and Phil cradled his head in his hands, staring at the man who he used to call Fury’s Pet Project, who he used to watch thrash as he was tied down to a hospital bed, a man that he once thought was a lost cause...a man that he was now completely and utterly in love with.
Because logic won out, Phil had made the right decision to not ask for Clint to be sent to California with him. Unsurprisingly dealing with Stark had been a nightmare, if amusing at times.
(“Why do you all keep laughing at Happy?”
But when he received a call about New Mexico he figured it was about time he broke Clint out of ‘the joint’ as the archer called it in his emails. Apparently he’d been loaned out to R&D for the duration of his leave and wasn’t exactly enjoying it. The plan was that Clint would fly into LAX and then they’d drive out ahead of the main force to get a look at whatever the hell this thing was.
Phil couldn’t deny the flutter of excitement in his stomach as he waited outside Arrivals, scanning the out coming crowds for a familiar head. When he finally spotted him he was rather perturbed to find Clint limping down the hallway, his bag tossed over his shoulder and the kit containing his bow tucked under his arm.
Phil stared at him, unimpressed as he made his way over. “Do I want to know what you did?”
Barton glared as he threw his bag down, but kept his bow in his arms. “R&D decided to try out some new kind of Prophylactic braces that protect your knees and ankles when you jump for heights. I’ve spent the last two weeks with my legs encased in that shit jumping off of twenty foot platforms. And let’s just say the braces need some major fucking work,” he growled, wincing as he bent to pick up his bag.
Phil waved him off and ducked down to grab it himself. “You can stretch out in the back seat if you want. It’s a long drive, so you’ll have time to relax and go over the mission file.”
The car was waiting for them just outside the gate, the government plates and stickers stopping it from being towed. Taxi drivers gave them dirty looks from behind their wheels as they loaded in Clint’s gear and climbed in.
“You’d think SHIELD could spring for something nicer,” he complained as he gingerly sat down in the back, spreading his aching legs out along the seat.
“It could be worse,” Phil warned him, experience colouring his voice. “Believe me.”
There’d once been an incident involving a Toyota, a raccoon and a cut break line that still gave Sitwell a haunted look in his eyes whenever it was mentioned.
He grabbed the mission file from its place on the passenger seat and passed it back. Barton quickly pulled out the satellite images, tossing aside and completely ignoring the four page long report with footnotes that a junior agent had spent eight hours writing.
The object was completely unidentifiable and of unknown origins. Even the top scientists at SHIELD were puzzled as to what it was and were contacting NASA for some input. At this point, it looked like they’d have to actually examine it in person to really get a read on what it—
“Looks like a hammer,” Clint pointed out, turning the photo this way and that.
Phil leaned back to take another look. “Yes... I suppose it does sort of resemble a hammer,” he admitted as he started the engine and pulled away from the curb.
“Nah, man, I think it might actually be a hammer. I mean, look at it,” he said, holding the photo out for Phil to look at.
“It’s not a hammer, Clint. It’s an unidentified object that fell from space forty-eight hours ago that is of unknown origins. It could be many things, but a hammer, it is not.”
“Pretty sure it is.”
Phil kept his eyes on the road, but he could hear the smirk on Barton’s face. “Well, no matter how much it might appear to resemble one in the photo, I assure you it isn’t.”
“Whatever you say, boss,” the archer laughed, pulling the photo back as he settled down. “Let me know if you get tired and I’ll drive.”
Phil couldn’t help but chuckle at that as he adjusted the air conditioning- it was so damn hot.
“When was the last time you actually drove a car Barton?”
When only silence answered him he continued. “You don’t even have a license.”
He could hear the surprise and confusion in Clint’s voice and looked in the rear view to find him frowning thoughtfully.
“It’s expired. And believe it or not, the government isn’t exactly keen on giving someone with a history of seizures and recent head trauma a license.”
William Brandt’s license was still very much valid, but the last time Clint Barton had registered with the DMV had been back before he’d joined the army. And with what had happened, Brandt’s license would have been revoked because of the medical complications.
“They’ll give me a gun, but they won’t let me drive a car?” he asked incredulously.
“What can I say? That’s the American government for you.”
Clint huffed, clearly put out by the news but even his annoyance wasn’t enough to keep him awake and soon he managed to doze off, leaning back against the cool glass of the window.
Phil made a mental note to have a word with R&D about using highly trained agents as test subjects. He doubted whoever had set the placement up had jumping for high heights in mind when they’d assigned Barton. Generally agents were asked to try out new guns or in Clint’s case, bows, to make sure they worked well under different conditions. Not exactly fun, but there wasn’t much chance of injury either.
The rest of the drive was normal except for a little hiccup at a gas station he’d stopped at the fill up, but he’d been back quickly enough that Clint hadn’t even woken up from the air conditioning being switched off. He’d set the powder donuts on the seat beside him, knowing Clint would be hungry when he woke up before he’d turned the ignition and took off down the long stretch of road again, intent on making it to their destination before nightfall.
“Phil, I don’t normally argue with you-
“But I’m going to have to disagree with you on this one. Because this thing,” he said wildly gesturing at the foreign object in front of them. “Is definitely a hammer.”
By the time they’d arrived at the crash site Clint had apparently recuperated enough to be annoying again. He was standing in a non-regulation t-shirt, his arms crossed as he stared intently down at the mysteriously object that may have slightly resembled a hammer.
Dust had already gathered on his boots and jeans and Phil’s suit wasn’t fairing any better as the sun beat down on their necks. Even in the late afternoon the heat was merciless and the ground was cracked and dry beneath their feet in a way that old of weeks of draught.
Clint planted a foot on the ground, wrapping both of his hands around the handle and gave a sharp tug. The ham— object didn’t budge, staying firmly embedded into the rocky earth.
“Well, that thing isn’t going anywhere anytime soon,” Barton grunted as he stepped back. “Don’t know how we’re going to move it to the base.”
Coulson glanced around the area, taking some quick measurements with his eyes. “We aren’t going to move it to the base, Barton,” he said. “We’re going to build the base around it.”
Clint crossed his arms again, and Phil was glad that his eyes were hidden behind his sunglasses so Barton wouldn’t see him staring.
“Huh. Sounds fun.”
Phil rolled his eyes as he turned to look at the surrounding landscape. “Sounds like a pain in the ass.”
Clint nodded, walking around the object to get a view from all sides. “So the hammer is emitting some frequency that interferes with communication signals?”
Phil sighed, deciding it was a lost cause. “Yes, something like that. With the proper equipment we should be able to work around it though.”
Clint bent down, running his finger along the hammer to clean away the dust. “This thing isn’t some satellite, or debris or anything. Look at these engravings. These are intricate,” he pointed out, tracing the pattern that had been hidden beneath a layer of dirt.
“Celtic or Scandinavian,” he muttered, his eyes narrowed as he examined it. “Sørensen might know, but then again, I’m pretty sure he’s from Oregon.”
Phil eyed the hammer doubtfully, wondering just what the hell they were getting themselves into.
“This is weird,” Clint pronounced as he stood, dusting his hands off on his pants. Phil nodded in agreement, but otherwise didn’t comment. Clint shaded his eyes with his hand, spinning around to look at the parameter of the crater.
“Seeing as we’re basically in a valley, we’re going to need something with height, or we’ll be sitting ducks.”
“An order has already been put in for a guard tower. I’ve also taken the liberty of getting a crane for you.”
Barton turned to stare at him, a questioning look on his face. “What the hell will I need a crane for?”
“We’ll attach a bucket to it and—
A smile broke out across Clint’s face as he caught on. “This is going to be awesome.”
“Don’t get too excited,” Coulson said, trying to sound disapproving as he started walking back towards where he’d parked. This close to the hammer his phone was basically useless. Clint was quick to follow after him, even with the slight limp to his step.
“What’s not to be excited about? A hammer fell from the sky, I get a crane, and I got to spend the day with you.”
Phil almost tripped over a rock at the last part, his eyes flying to Clint. The archer gave him a small smile before hurrying up the hill ahead of him.
“And who knows? Weird hammer that no one can lift, with even weirder Scandinavian engravings? Maybe Thor’s visiting New Mexico,” he joked, kicking up dust as he hopped from rock to rock.
Phil rolled his eyes, a smile sneaking onto his face. “Shut up.”
If Clint could hear the blatant fondness in his voice, he didn’t mention it.
When all was said and done, they were left with a half destroyed New Mexican city, twelve injured agents, several totalled cars, traumatized civilians, a useless base, no hammer, and one very smug Clint Barton.
“I’d just like to point out that I so called this one.”
“Sitwell, hit him.”
I'm running out of lyrics from The Cave that I like for titles. This chapter's title is from Mumford&Sons' Hold on to What You Believe. It's a beautiful track. Thanks to everyone who has left Kudos or comments! It means so much that you're enjoying the story :)
Chapter 7: I’m Not Whole (When You’re not Near)
“A DEFINITION NOT FOUND IN THE DICTIONARY
Not leaving: an act of trust and love, often deciphered by children”
He didn’t like to talk about it; it was no one’s damn business and people tended to judge you on that kind of thing. It was in the past: over. He didn’t need to ‘talk about it’ and he had no desire for ‘closure’ as the shrinks back in the army had always called it. His parents were dead, the sound of their coffins being slammed shut had been all the closure he’d needed. But one day over dinner Phil had asked and he’d stared at him, just taking in the sight of him for a moment and then he’d started to tell him a story. A story about a boy, a travelling circus, some bottles, a bow, and a handful of stars. It’d gone a little something like this:
His childhood hadn’t exactly been ideal. His father had been more interested in searching for the answer to life’s problems at the bottom of a bottle of gin. His mother had only been interested in not getting hit— And maybe he’d resented her for it, but with age came clarity and if he had the chance to see her again he knew he’d forgive her on the spot.
He’d had a brother back then. A brother who’d once been just like him: scared, with a hole in his chest that ached whenever Dad looked at him like he didn’t deserve to breathe. But that hole in Barney’s chest had been filled up with hate and anger and rage and maybe confusion too- because Clint could remember wondering what he’d ever done to deserve this lot in life. Wondering why the God they taught about in school would abandon him there to suffer. So, Barney had taken a page from his father’s book- a book written in bruises and blood, and gone searching for answers at the bottom of a bottle, only that had one rattled with pills.
The orphanage hadn’t been much better. Clint had spent years learning to be quiet, to blend in, but all the nuns had ever done was lecture him on how to get noticed by the people that had paraded through every day, their eyes scanning the line up of children the same way customers used to look at the cuts of meat in window of his Dad’s shop.
Running away to the circus had been Barney’s idea- or maybe it’d been the pills’, but either way, he’d grabbed hold of Clint’s hand and dragged him out into a world away from daily prayers to a God who’d never listened and judging eyes. They’d been happy, maybe. What was happiness anyway? He’d travelled the country with his brother at his side- and Barney- well, he wasn’t as strong as their Dad had been so his punches had hurt less.
Then Clint had begun learning archery and with every arrow- every thunk of a bulls eye, the hole in his own chest had gotten smaller and smaller until the only reason his chest ever ached was if Barney had kicked him especially hard.
For years he’d waited for his brother to find his answers. To realize that there weren’t any. That life was just fucking unfair and maybe they were all alone, but at least they were alone together. He’d been thirteen when he began to think that maybe Barney had just given up. He’d been fourteen when he’d started thinking that maybe...maybe being alone by himself was better than being alone with his brother. He’d been smart, even if Barney had called him stupid. His grades had been good, and he could remember things and he’d had his aim. He’d been fifteen when Trick Shot had betrayed him and he’d been upset, but hell, that was just life wasn’t it? People used you, and then they left and that was that. Maybe Barney had hit him and started stinking so strongly of gin that Clint could smell it from his own bed and it had given him nightmares, but Barney had stayed. And that’d meant everything.
His teachers had asked questions, but blending in was an art form he’d perfected before he could ride a bike and deflection was a close second. Friends were a luxury, not a necessity like studying. Barney had been content to work at that circus for the rest of his life, but Clint had had dreams. He’d get into a good school and get a good job and then he’d take care of them. He was seventeen when he’d realized that those dreams couldn’t include his brother anymore.
He’d been lying on the floor of the storage room where they’d slept, staring at the drops of blood that had fallen like constellations on the concrete. Clint had read his future in those murky red stars.
He’d pushed himself up, his ribs flaring with agony, and climbed to his feet. He’d left that night, the echo of his younger self reverberating in his ears, telling him to turn back; that he needed to stay with his brother. Clint had cast those thoughts aside as he’d hitched his bag over his shoulder and begun the long walk to the shelter on Main Street.
Barney had left him a long time ago. It’d just been time to return the favour.
Clint had a feeling that he wouldn’t have seen hide or hair of Phil even if he hadn’t spent the last two months being sent to various countries on missions. Since the whole Thor incident SHIELD was in high demand, which meant that more often than not Clint was off in some godforsaken country getting eaten alive by bugs and Phil was sequestered in meetings or swamped with paperwork that Clint didn’t have a high enough clearance level to work on.
Everyone was being run ragged and more than one person had had a breakdown as of late. Clint had just returned from his latest mission in Bangladesh and as soon as he’d gotten off the plane it’d been like everyone and their mother had needed to talk to him. Psych had paged him down for a six hour evaluation, Hill had put him through his paces in the training room and R&D kept calling him down to take his measurements for whatever reason (there’d been a lot of purple fabric flying around and he’d be lying to say he wasn’t a little scared).
It’d been a week since he’d returned and he hadn’t been able to take a single day off what with everyone suddenly needing to get a hold of him. It was to the point where there was nothing he wanted to do more than flop down on his couch and take a nap. But seeing as when he’d actually tried that Coulson had kicked him out because of some video conference call, he decided to retreat to the couch in Fury’s office.
The other man didn’t even bother to look up from his work as Clint dropped from the ceiling and landed on the coffee table, almost knocking over a potted orchid Hill had put there to brighten up the place. The Director mostly ignored him, only occasionally tossing him a handful of papers to work his way through, but he didn’t tell him to get back to Psych to finish his evals either, so for the most part Clint was free to doze sprawled out on the cushions. Eventually Tasha appeared with Thai and they all sat there, the scratching of their pens the only sound that broke the comfortable silence. Clint wasn’t exactly sure at this point what he was filling out, but it looked to involve an insurance claim for three houses out in Monte Carlo, a thirty-thousand liter water feature, and a Rottweiler.
“You’ve both been tapped.”
Clint glanced up from trying to calculate the approximate monetary value of a family pet. “What?”
It wasn’t the first time Fury had tried to throw them off by suddenly announcing something, but he generally only did it at formal meetings. He liked to keep the mind fucking to a strictly professional capacity.
“You’ve both been tapped for an elite team that SHIELD is putting together.”
Natasha set down her noodles as Fury stared them down, his chair creaking as he shifted his weight. “What sort of team?”
Generally speaking, they’d been on almost every ‘elite team’ their country, and several others, had to offer. Loan outs were common and in the past year alone they’d worked with the CIA, DOD, FBI, NSA, and CSIS.
“What do you know about the Avenger’s Initiative?”
Natasha simply shrugged, but suddenly numbers were flashing in front of Clint’s eyes and before he could catch himself he was blurting out everything: costs, percentages, inflation calculations, and investors’ names.
Natasha gave him a questioning look (she could do this thing with her eyebrow that he tried to do in the mirror once, but he’d only given himself a headache) as he rounded off the last sum to the second decimal place and he wasn’t sure who was more surprised with what he’d just done: Fury or her.
“You can remember all that, but you can’t remember when we’ve scheduled a training session?” she asked, clearly unimpressed.
“In my defense,” he started, grateful for the out she’d provided. “It was scheduled for five am. A lot of people in my place would’ve ‘forgotten’ about it too.”
The Director cleared his throat to catch their attention as he leaned forward in his chair, a smile breaking out across his face, and Phil had once warned him about a smile the Director would sometimes get and how it only promised suffering.
(“How the hell will I know which one you’re talking about?”
“Believe me, you’ll just know.”)
And yeah, Phil had been right about that. Even Natasha was shifting uneasily beside him and he had a feeling this was the first time she’d seen this look too.
“Where did you learn that?”
“Well, I uh, read it,” he answered lamely, fiddling nervously with the papers he’d been working on.
“Last....year? Maybe?” He said hesitantly, his eyes sliding to Natasha but she just shrugged again and left him to the wolves like the good partner she was. He could see how those rumours about her killing or abandoning her partners had sprung up. Every lie had a bit of truth to it.
Fury was still staring at him and Clint had the sudden urge to hop back up into the ceiling and go find Phil because it was really starting to freak him out.
“I take it that you’ve been withholding some things from medical.”
“Maybe a few things, sir.”
Some people lied about the amount of exercise they got in a week or if they took their vitamins, he just lied about how severe a little bit of brain trauma was. No big deal.
Fury sat back in his chair, crossing his arms as he continued to watch the archer. “You didn’t need to hide this from us, Barton. The return of your eidetic memory makes you even more of an asset to SHIELD.”
“Does it get me a raise?” He asked hopefully, because government wages were utter crap. He might have on base quarters, but he wasn’t sure he could even afford an apartment if he’d wanted one with the way New York prices were.
“But you’ll get one if you sign on to the Initiative. A rather big one actually.”
Clint perked up at that and he could tell Natasha’s interest had been caught as well. She had a thing for shoes and leather, and neither came cheap.
“Who else will be on the team?” she asked.
Clint couldn’t say he was too enthused with the thought of joining a team permanently. He and Tasha were good together. They didn’t need anyone else messing things up.
“Besides the two of you, Thor from the incident in New Mexico, Bruce Banner, Tony Stark, and Captain America.”
“Wait wait,” Clint started, cutting him off. “We’ve got some crazy god guy, the Hulk, who’s MIA last I heard, a guy in a metal suit with a drinking problem, and a Captain America wannabe?”
“We’ve located Dr. Banner in Brazil, the two of you will be sent out tomorrow to retrieve him, Thor has promised to aid us in our ‘quest to thwart evil’ and Tony Stark has joined the rich man’s version of AA.”
“And the Captain America?” Natasha asked.
“Was pulled from the ice in the Antarctic yesterday and is currently being defrosted. He’s the real deal,” the Director said, and they could hear the glee underneath his outer core of badass.
“Sir, I’m not a medical expert here, but I’m pretty sure he’s dead,” Clint said flatly.
Fury glared at him. “Due to some unforeseen effects of the Super Soldier serum, Captain Rogers was preserved and is very much alive.”
“How is that possible?” Natasha drawled, looking about as dubious about the whole thing as Clint felt.
“I don’t have time to explain—
“He means he doesn’t understand either,” she muttered in Russian and Clint had to bite his cheek to stop himself from laughing. “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
Fury might not have understood Russian, but the look he gave them said that he got the gist. “If you agree, your offices will be transferred to the Helicarrier—
“The what now?” Also, he had an office? Because no one had ever told him that.
“And your quarters will be reassigned to one of Stark’s mansions which he has generously offered up for our use.”
“The Heli-what?” Clint asked again.
“The Helicarrier,” the Direction pronounced slowly. “Stark designed it for us and it’s finally ready for actual use.
” “Stark designed us a boat?” Natasha clearly looked unimpressed, but then again, nothing really impressed her anymore.
“It’s not a boat, it’s an airship.”
“Won’t that make the morning commute a little inconvenient?” Clint asked, because unless Stark decided to give them flying cars as well, a lot of people were going to be SOL. “What if someone’s kid gets sick and they need to pick them up? We’re just going to land the thing in the middle of New York?”
“It’ll be much more costly,” Natasha added. “Insurance for the civilian workers will skyrocket. And how will we get take out? No one would able to deliver anymore.”
“Both of you just shut up,” Fury snapped quietly, as he rubbed at his temples. “We’re getting a Helicarrier, and that’s final. Don’t worry about the logistics; they’re not your department.”
Clint frowned, but yeah, a Helicarrier sounded cool. Completely impractical, but hell, he wasn’t paying for it.
“Coulson will still be your Handler,” Fury continued, his fingers drumming against the top of his desk as he stared down at a folder set in front of him. “He’ll maintain an office on the carrier and in the mansion. He’ll act as a liaison between SHIELD and the Avengers.”
Clint couldn’t help the smile that split across his face as a flutter of happiness made itself known in his stomach. Natasha sent a knowing look in his direction which he blatantly ignored.
“Now, are you in?”
They shared a glance before they both nodded. They’d never been ones to turn down a challenge.
“Good. I expect the both of you to act as good examples for your less experienced teammates,” he said, and they could hear the underlying threat in his voice. “And remember, you might be on this team, but first and foremost, you work for SHIELD. If we make a call that Captain Rogers- who will be acting as your commander- doesn’t agree with, your duty is to SHIELD first.”
“Yes, sir,” they answered flatly
“And,” he started seriously, his face grim. “If one of the other members gets out of hand, I expect one of you, or both, to take action and...pull the plug just as you would with another rogue agent.”
They both nodded again, familiar with the standard procedure. It wouldn’t be the first time either of them had put a bullet or an arrow in the head of a teammate. When you dealt with beyond classified information that even the President was kept in the dark about, it was better to tie up any loose ends that might threaten your objective. And if that meant killing a possible leak, that was simply the business they were in. Still, it wasn’t every day you got permission to kill national icons.
“You’ll be the only unaltered members on the team,” Fury warned them. “Don’t over estimate yourselves, but don’t let them underestimate you either. I have faith that you’ll do us all proud.”
As it would turn out, transferring an entire base of operations onto a Helicarrier was pretty hard. Agents were frantically running around the halls with boxes in their arms and moving crews were already beginning to remove furniture. Some personnel would continue to work out of the landlocked office, but almost seventy percent of SHIELD’s main base was being sent airborne. Clint still wasn’t sure about the logistics of it all, but since he was apparently going to be living in a mansion he wasn’t going to really let it bother him. The only problem was he wouldn’t be able to drop in on Phil whenever he wanted anymore. The whole being stuck on the ground thing would sort of mess up his standard visits and he wasn’t sure how much actual time Phil would spent at the mansion.
It’d been three days since Fury had told them about the Initiative and he still hadn’t had seen Coulson anywhere. Although he’d spent most of his time down in Medical taking memory tests—Fury might play it cool, but he’s secretly the biggest nark known to man, so Clint had spent hours memorizing trays of objects and longer and longer poems and facts to see how much he remembered and how well he retained it over time. It hadn’t exactly been fun.
But he’d finally managed to slip everyone and was making his way towards Phil’s office, intent on actually seeing him for the first time in almost four months. He cast glares in the direction of the junior agents who were heading the same way with stacks of forms in their arms, sending them scurrying off to find someone else to deal with the paperwork.
He turned to find Natasha coming down the hall in her civvies, the agents he’d just sent running dodging to the side to get out of her way.
“Here, your new uniform I had R&D make,” she said, shoving the pile of leather into his hands. Clint unfolded the sleeveless shirt, taking in the dark red detailing stitched into the front.
“What was wrong with my old one?”
“Something about this being better for PR,” she said dismissively.
“My old one was fine.”
“They were going to change it if I made some specifications or not. Besides,” she added, a smirk playing across her painted lips. “No partner of mine was going to be running around in purple spandex.”
He paled at that, slowly folding the shirt back up. Well, that explained all the purple he’d seen down in R&D. “I like purple, but not that much purple,” he grumbled as they began making their way down the hall together.
“Obviously. I changed the design and had them switch out the purple for the same red as my belt. If we’re going to continue to be partners I won’t have your uniform clashing with mine.”
“Gee, thanks,” he said, rolling his eyes as the door to Phil’s office came into sight. Another junior agent was just about to knock so he let out a loud hiss, catching her attention. He saw Natasha make some gesture out of the corner of his eye and suddenly the other women was sprinting off in the other direction. Jeans and a t-shirt made Tasha no less intimidating.
“Where are you going anyway?” he asked, giving her a once over.
“Huh, you should do something different,” Clint said, eyeing her long red hair. “Maybe cut it shorter for a change. No one would grab it.”
Natasha looked to consider his suggestion for a moment before shrugging. “We’ll see. Long is more versatile.”
“Harder to hide under a wig,” he argued. “And damn annoying in the heat.”
“Oh, and now you’re suddenly a hair expert?” she laughed and he couldn’t help but smile back at her. He’d never told her before, and probably never would, because he’d never made it a point to tell people how he felt about stuff like that, but he really loved her laugh. It reminded him of birthdays and Christmases and summers in the park; it reminded him of his mum one of her good days.
They were standing in front of Phil’s door now, and Clint could hear music filtering through the door; something soft and old sounding. Natasha leaned forward to give him a quick one armed hug which he returned.
“Get in there, you’ve been pining for days,” she said, her breath warm against his neck.
“I have not.”
“Have too.” She pulled away, mussing his hair before starting off down the hall. “Oh, and Clint?” she called, the smirk once more in place. “You might not have known this, but it doesn’t take four hours to ‘properly take your measurements’. After the first half hour, it’s just an excuse to touch you.”
He must’ve looked horrified because she broke out into laughter as she turned the corner, disappearing out of his line of sight. The archer thought back to all those hours he’d had to endure of hands touching him all over the place and shivered. He opened Phil’s door without knocking and said: “I think I’ve been sexually harassed,” by way of greeting.
He’d heard that Clint had gotten back from Bangladesh in once piece, but Phil hadn’t actually had time to see him other than shoo him out of his office when he’d had to take an important conference call. With the Avenger’s Initiative finally getting off the ground and the Helicarrier finally being operational things were hectic to say the least. Unfortunately, Captain Rogers was still thawing out, and Tony Stark was digging his heals in about the whole team thing. Out of everyone, Thor had been the easiest to coordinate and Phil knew they had Jane Foster to thank for that, bless her heart. They were going to have to reimburse her for all those Poptarts.
He’d gotten a notice from Medical saying that Clint and Natasha had both passed their physical and psychological evaluations which meant that they had officially been added to the Avenger’s team roster. He’d also received a secondary message about Barton having regained his eidetic memory. He couldn’t say he was completely surprised. He’d seen the way Clint could fly through reports and sprout off random facts, but he’d figured that Clint would tell him about it when he was ready. Apparently Fury had beaten him to the punch.
It was one of those days where the sky had clouded over, cold rain pounding the ground, making everything seen bleak and tired. No one had appeared in his doorway in the past twenty minutes, and all his paperwork was done so Phil decided he’d take a much deserved break. He along with the rest of SHIELD had been working nonstop since Captain American’s discovery. It’d been the spark that had the Avenger’s Initiative had really needed to get off the ground and everything had gone into overdrive. They’d had a few weeks to prepare, but the crews had finally managed to extract the Captain from the ice and now the clock was really ticking.
Coulson bit back a yawn as he loosened his tie, making his way over to his turntable that he kept in the corner. He picked a record at random, not really caring what he listened to at this point. The smooth voice of the clarinet began pouring from the speakers he’d had built into his walls as he flicked off the lights and sat himself down on Clint’s couch, finally letting the tension bleed from his body.
He sighed as the door suddenly flew open but when he looked over he found a rather disturbed Clint standing there with some clothes tucked under his arm instead of an agent with more paperwork.
“I think I’ve been sexually harassed.”
Was it even possible to miss someone as much as he’d missed Clint? He squinted over at the archer who was glowing in the light from the hall, and warmth that he hadn’t known he’d lost spreading through Phil’s stomach. Clint shut the door behind him, tossing the clothes he was carrying onto the desk as he made his way over.
“Sexually harassed, huh?” Phil joked, already knowing he’d waited too long to answer. Clint just smiled— and god he’d missed seeing it so much it hurt.
“Thought I’d find you in here doing work, not listening to music,” Clint laughed and he hesitated for a moment before offering his hand. “Can’t say I’m disappointed though.”
Phil stared at the proffered hand, not sure what Clint was up to.
“Come on,” the other man whined, waving his hand in front of his face. Phil finally sighed and grabbed hold, allowing himself to be pulled to his feet. When he’s standing Clint doesn’t relinquish his hand, instead he entwines their fingers, and before he knew what was happening they were swaying.
“Dance with me,” Clint smiled, his teeth flashing in the half light. Phil couldn’t help but tense as he carefully wrapped an arm around archer’s waist and suddenly they were so close that he could feel the warmth of Clint’s skin through his shirt. He forced himself to relax as a forehead pressed into his shoulder and he heard a mumbling, “I’ve missed you” along with a drawn out sigh.
“It’s been awhile,” he nodded, tipping his head so that his cheek was resting on dirty-blonde hair. If he were in the mood to be critical, Phil would’ve wondered what exactly this was, seeing as even though he knew that on some level Clint returned his feelings, they’d never really talked about it, never mind gone on an official date. But after months of not even having the time to be in the same room as him, all Phil could think to do was hold Clint close and continue to sway along to the music.
“So I heard we’re moving house,” the archer said quietly, his face still pressed into Phil’s shoulder.
“By next week things should be ready.”
“I’ll miss this office. My couch.”
Coulson laughed at that. “I’m having it sent to my office in the new mansion. It’s safe.”
“Good,” Clint huffed, his breath warm against his neck. They both fell silent as they continued to sway in the darkened office, the only light in the room coming from the open blinds, shadows chasing across the carpet as cars flitted by on the rain washed street. The music had a French flare to it and he felt Clint grin against his shoulder.
“I had no idea you liked French music so much,” he whispered.
“He was Creole actually. I spent several years there in Paris after college,” he replied quietly, listening to the crackle of the record. “It’d always been my dream.”
And suddenly was he was remembering warm Paris nights spent walking along the Seine and the taste of cigarettes on his tongue.
“Huh. Was it everything you’d hoped for?”
“There were tourists and thieves everywhere and it smelled like urine more often than not.”
Yes, everything and more.
Clint pulled back to look at him, a gentle smile playing across his face and he seemed to understand. “Liar. You loved it.”
If it’d been anyone else Phil might’ve been scared that someone could read him so well.
Before he could say anything Clint had shoved his face into the crook of his neck, so Phil just closed his eyes as they swayed. And the next time he was stressed out, or wondering for the millionth time why he even put up with SHIELD, he’d remember how Clint’s head had felt on his shoulder as they’d swayed together in his darkened office, the quiet notes of Sidney Bechet echoing off the walls around them.
The quote is from Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief .I recommend this book to everyone and view it as a personal victory whenever I get someone to read it. It’s such a beautiful, wonderful piece of writing. The song Phil and Clint dance to is Si Tu Vois Ma Mère which I first heard in Midnight in Paris, which for it's duration, made me forget just what a smelly, tourist and thief riddled place Paris actually is.
Chapter 8: The Burden (of Both Me and You)
If someone ever bothered to ask Clint, he’d tell them that saving the world was, in fact, pretty damn awesome. It was all the shit that came after that was the problem.
He’d gone in treating it like any other mission he and Natasha had ever been on. Go in, kill the target, go home, write report, and go to bed. So yeah, it hadn’t exactly gone like that this time, but in the end he’d still had to write the report and the sun was still shining and no evil overlords were in sight, so he counted it as a win. And if there’d been a moment when he and Tasha had looked at each other and known that they probably weren’t coming out again. That this was it. The show was over; the curtain coming down on their grand finale of blood and pain; no encore, just rest. Well, they didn’t really talk about it.
But in that moment, with their hands clasped tightly together, with her nails biting into his skin leaving crescents of red in their wake, he thought that if his heart hadn’t already been so wrapped up in Phil, that he might’ve loved her. Not in the way he already did, but loved her in that deep all consuming way that ended in kids and a mortgage and a dog, and definitely not aliens. But the moment had passed, because the curtain was falling, but their act wasn’t over and the show must go on— and then they’d lived.
They’d been left standing in the ruins of New York City surrounded by destruction and death, shrouded in a sudden cloying silence. And they’d laughed. Their eyes had met over a flaming police cruiser, the smell of gasoline pungent in their noses and they’d started laughing, ignoring how Bruce Banner was eyeing them like they were insane, or how Captain America was glaring and lecturing them on there being a ‘time and a place’, and they’d just laughed. Laughed until they had to lean on another so they wouldn’t fall, because if they fell down then they wouldn’t be getting back up.
They’d laughed over the alien guts on Natasha’s boots and the smears of black blood all over his arms and face. They’d laughed about the jagged cuts that still welled with bright red and their aching muscles that throbbed in agony. They’d laughed and laughed until Phil had come and tucked them away into one of the few undestroyed cars, and then they’d laughed some more. It’d earned them hours of psych evals, but what did it matter? They’d just saved the world. The entire planet.
As a child Clint had often wondered what true happiness was, and he decided then that if it was real, this was it; elation. The feeling of knowing that your loved ones were safe; that they’d had your back; that you got to see them tomorrow.
It’d been amazing, but then the adrenaline had passed and as the population came out of shock, they’d had to deal with something they’d never even thought of: the media. They’d crawled like cockroaches out from under the rubble with cameras and microphones shouting questions and poking at wounds that hadn’t even had time to heal over. They came from all over, interpreters on hand; from Japan, from Africa, from all over Europe. From everywhere. And while Stark basked in the attention, and Cap threw on a shy smile, Thor loved the attention, and no one bothered Bruce out of fear, Natasha and Clint clung to their protective shadows for all they were worth.
They stayed away from the flashing cameras and avoided any press conferences so even if the world at large knew they existed; no one could claim that they’d ever gotten a good look. And wouldn’t you know it? They ate it up.
Tabloids printed stories about them having been caught up in an accident resulting in terrible deformities, others said that it was rumoured Black Widow was a redhead which obviously meant that she was really Pepper Pots. War criminals, socialites, the president and first lady; they were someone new every morning and then someone else by the evening.
“Wouldn’t it be easier if you just let them see you?” Cap asked over breakfast one morning and Natasha and Clint both glared as they picked at their fruit.
“It’s a big adjustment,” Phil said from his place on Clint’s right side. None of the other Avengers had asked about what was going on between them and he had a feeling that whatever the hell was going on with Stark and Cap had something to do with it.
Whatever worries Clint had had about not being able to see much of Phil once their new office and living arrangements had been sorted out had quickly disappeared once everything had settled down after the Loki Incident. It turns out that as their babysitter, Phil had to spend quite a bit of time at the mansion with them. Not that Clint was complaining; it meant that he could sprawl out on his couch in Phil’s new (much nicer) office and make a nuisance of himself while Phil pretended to be annoyed with him
“To go from operating on a top secret basis to being hounded by the press. Give them time.”
Steve hesitated for a moment before nodding and going back to making pancakes. He knew Cap meant well- he always meant well. He was fucking Captain America— but he was glad to put an end to that conversation. Clint bumped his shoulder against Phil’s and returned the smile that was sent in his direction.
He knew Coulson had an apartment to go back to; that he was only around because Clint had needed him to be there. And after days of planning, he figured today was it. They’d been dancing around each other for...well years now as Natasha had been so kind as to point out the other day. And Clint knew they’d basically been dating for a long while, but he sort of wanted to make it official because then Phil would he his and he was kind of really nervous even though it didn’t really make sense and oh God, what if he said no and—
“My friends,” Thor called as he came into the kitchen and Clint could see ripples forming in his water whenever he took a step. “I bid thee good morn.”
“Morning Thor,” everyone chimed in.
“Clinton,” the huge Asgardian called and seriously? Even his own mother had called him Clint. “Would you have a friendly bout with me on this beautiful day?”
“Ooohh,” he drawled, clutching his head because a bout with Thor? Yeah, ow. “Sorry buddy, I’ve got plans with Phil today,” he said on the fly, trying to look regretful. “Maybe Cap would be—?
Steve was subtly shaking his head, his shoulders stiff as he loaded his pancakes onto a plate. You knew it was bad when even Captain America wouldn’t offer to take your place.
“I think we can postpone,” Phil said blandly as he went to take a sip of his coffee. “You go have a friendly bout.”
Thor perked up like a dog who’d just heard the magical word that was walk and before Clint could protest or call Phil a traitor he was being lifted from his chair and carried out of the room—Thor still hadn’t grasped the whole personal boundaries thing; SHIELD was working on it.
“Come my friend, it shall be glorious,” Thor assured him as everyone watched on with ‘I’m glad that’s not me’ smiles on their faces.
Clint vaguely wondered when this had become his life.
Phil had noticed how skittish Clint had been over the last few days, and while at first he’d blamed the new team and the pressure of the media, he’d come to realize that Clint was scheming something. He couldn’t say what, but some hope had manifested in his heart and since then he’d been waiting.
Moving into the mansion might’ve been the best thing they’d ever done for their relationship. With all the guest rooms Phil wound up staying over most nights after working late and every morning he’d wake up to Clint sitting at the island in the kitchen with a cup of coffee and a bowl of fruit. It was basically like living together but with training wheels.
So far the Initiative was an undeniable success although some team dynamics still had to work themselves out. Everyone’s fears over Tony and Clint meeting had been unjustified- but only because Phil had hauled Clint away and Steve had grabbed Tony before they could start throwing punches. But lately they seemed to be bonding over a shared love of some show on Disney about two brothers on summer vacation. Without fail, at three o’clock every afternoon they’d be sitting on the couch together and generally wound up watching it on demand until they both fell asleep. Fury had dubbed it Nap Time.
Bruce got along well enough with everyone, but he’d clicked the most with Natasha. They both enjoyed getting up at the crack of dawn to do yoga and had quickly bonded over that and through her he’d gotten to know Clint- who also grudgingly joined them for yoga every morning. Natasha had been making him do it for three years now and old habits die hard.
Thor had no issues bonding with anyone after he talked them into either having a ‘bout’ or a drinking contest, Steve was, well Steve was Steve and no one couldn’t like him. He and Tony had poked and prodded at one another for the first week but somewhere along the line the tension between them had taken on a more sexual nature and since then...well, Phil had stopped paying attention because he didn’t need to know about their love lives. Leave it to Tony Stark to debauch a national icon.
It was supposed to be a secret so as to help the population ease into the idea that their hometown, apple pie, thank you ma’am, hero was in fact not only gay, but in a relationship with arguably American’s most infamous man. Naturally, that meant the entire world knew about it. Fury hadn’t been pleased.
(“Have you ever had to deal with Oprah before?”
“I’m sorry sir?”
“Oprah. Have you ever had to deal with Oprah?”
“Uh, no, sir. I can’t say I have.”
“Well, I can now say I’ve had the abject pleasure, seeing as the woman has been calling me all day! She wants Rogers on a special to discuss him ‘budding relationship’,” Fury growled through the phone line.
“May I ask how she got your number?”
“It’s Oprah, Coulson. That woman has ways and connections the likes of which you and I can only dream of.”
“I don’t know sir, it might be good PR to have Steve appear,” he reasoned, tapping his pen against the pile of paperwork set in front of him.
“Have you ever watched Oprah?” the Director asked him flatly. “She will emotionally gut him in front of a live studio audience and display his innards on internationally broadcast television.”)
But overall, the Avengers were gaining more and more momentum as a team and SHIELD was doing better than ever with the government pouring in funding and the Helicarrier proving to be a major success, not that Phil had spent much time on it himself. He’d needed to make sure everything with the team continued smoothly and he knew Clint hadn’t been comfortable moving into close quarters with complete strangers so he’d figured another familiar face would help.
The archer had put up a cocky front for his new teammates but Phil had read the unease in the set of his shoulders and the way he’d only picked at his food most days in the beginning. He’d never been sure if Brandt had shared the problem or if it had something to do with those crucial weeks in Medical after they’d first transferred him from the IMF, but whenever Clint got anxious or stressed he had to watch what and how much he ate or it’d all come back up an hour later. Sometimes even out of the blue his stomach wouldn’t be able to handle certain foods. It’d only taken a week of them all living under the same roof for a list to be taped to the fridge of things he couldn’t have so that whoever was making dinner that night could consult it.
Phil had reasoned that it was sort of like owning a rare breed of dog- you couldn’t just feed it anything. The only problem was Clint was in fact just like a dog, and would eat just about anything if it was put in front of him when he was hungry.
(Clint was kneeling on the floor, his shoulders flexing while he heaved into the toilet as Phil sat on the lip of the tub behind him, running a soothing hand over his back. With one last cough Clint sat back, his head settling on Phil’s knee as he groaned.
“I feel better now.”
If he hadn’t sounded so pathetic or looked so small curled up on the floor Phil might’ve said I told you so, but instead he just ran a hand through Clint’s hair that’d been flattened against his skull with sweat.
“You know you can’t eat meatloaf.”
“It was the first dinner Cap’s made for us,” Clint muttered tiredly, looking worn out and ready for bed despite it being only six-thirty. “I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.”
“I think he’d be a lot more upset if he knew you’d made yourself sick,” Phil said softly.
Clint only hummed in answer, pale eyelids fluttering as he tried to shift into a more comfortable position on the floor.)
Phil watched trying to hide his smile behind his coffee cup as Clint was carried away with a pout firmly upon his face.
“Nice,” Natasha scoffed. “Way to throw him under a bus you two.”
Steve had the decency to look guilty as he picked at his pancakes, but Phil just smirked.
“Thor is just...a little much,” the Captain admitted as he twirled his fork. “Especially this early in the morning.”
Natasha rolled her eyes as she picked up Clint’s abandoned watermelon. “Oh Captain my Captain.”
“Clint will be fine,” Phil assured him.
“Unless Thor steps on him,” Natasha muttered innocently before biting into the piece of fruit she’d been examining.
“I’m not the one who just abandoned my boyfriend to—
“You two are together?” Steve asked curiously, a smile finally making its way back into his face.
“Not yet,” Natasha sing songed and easily ducked the chunk of cantaloupe he tossed at her.
“Captain Rogers,” JARVIS said suddenly. “There seems to a situation downtown. Reports are coming in of large unidentifiable creatures climbing out from the sewers.”
Steven gently pushed aside his pancakes, no longer hungry. “Alright, call everyone would you?”
In a few weeks Phil would look back on that morning and wish that they’d never gotten that call. It’d all been inevitable really, but he wouldn’t be able to help but wish that Clint had gotten the chance to ask him out before everything fell apart. He would’ve liked to have kissed him...just once.
Ethan hadn’t exactly been following the story of the Avengers, but like every other person on the planet he was aware of them. He’d seen the news coverage and the front page stories and he’d watched a few interviews of Captain America here and there because, come on, it was Captain America. But he still didn’t quite understand why the entire world seemed to be going crazy over new footage someone had managed to capture during one of their battles.
“It’s because no one’s ever really seem them,” Benji explained, eyes glued to the screen. “People have been going crazy trying to figure out what they look like.”
“People just want to know if they’re hot,” Jane chuckled as she settled on the couch beside them.
“Well yeah, that too.”
The news anchor was going over the battle in New York, but a bright red ribbon of text along the bottom of the screen was still proclaiming about breaking footage they’d gotten from an anonymous source.
“In related news,” the woman continued, shuffling her papers the way they always did. “We have received exclusive footage from an anonymous source today which contains the first look at the elusive Avengers: Black Widow and Hawkeye. Before now, both had remained unseen by the public at large and rumours over their identities have been speculated by bloggers, journalists, and politicians alike. Let’s take a look.”
The footage was shaky in a way that indicated it’d been taken on a cell phone, but it was clear enough that they could easily make out the two Avengers perched on a roof overlooking the ongoing battle.
“Well that’s bullocks,” Benji growled disappointedly. “You can’t even make out their faces.”
The camera lowered to face the ground as whoever was holding it started running.
“Well at least we know she’s really a redhead,” Jane said. “Although who knows if that’s even natural.”
The two men rolled their eyes as they continued watching. The camera came up again, zooming in to rest on Hawkeye who was now alone on the roof, taking aim at something off screen. This time his features were clearly visible and Ethan stared at the television screen, his eyes wide as his brain struggled to process what he was seeing. It took him a moment, for where’d he’d seen those features to click. His heart stuttered in his chest, the sound loud in his ears as his lungs struggled to regain the air that seemed to have been knocked out of them.
It-it was Will. His Will.
Before he realized what he was doing he was kneeling in front of the television trying to get a better look. He could make out Will’s eyes and face, even if his shoulders had become broader since the last time he’d seen him. His build might’ve changed a little, but it was still undeniably Will.
He turned to look at Benji and Jane, both of whom were watching the screen closely as well.
Jane seemed to know what he was thinking and started cautiously saying, “Ethan...it could be anyone. The footage is shaky, he’s far off. Up close it could be nothing but a passing resemblance.”
Ethan turned back to the broadcast and watched as Will took a running leap off the roof he’d occupied only to be caught midair by Iron Man.
“No way that’s Brandt,” Benji joked weakly, shaking his head. “He could barely jump down that shaft without having a bloody aneurism.”
“He knew Iron Man would catch him.”
“He knew I would catch him,” the Brit sniffed. “And he still had a conniption.”
“Your track record on the mission wasn’t exactly stellar,” Jane pointed out. “And it was the first time he’d ever met you. I would’ve had some reservations as well. But, Ethan,” she continued softly. “Think about it. Will is gone. We all wish it wasn’t true, but it is. We know you miss him, but that man isn’t him. He might look like him a bit, but he’s not our Will.”
“Did you see him die?” Hunt shot back angrily, getting to his feet.
“You know none of us—
“Then we can’t be sure,” he said, clinging to the hope- the chance that Will was out there. All along he’d been out there. Just waiting to be found. Waiting to be brought back home where he belonged.
“This wouldn’t be the first time the IMF has lied about the status of one of their agents.”
“He could be undercover,” Benji piped up, earning a glare from Jane. “Deep cover within SHIELD.”
Ethan nodded, his eyes bright. “Yes.”
“But why fake his death? Or disavow him?” Jane protested, watching as the rest of her team set to work. “If he was just undercover they wouldn’t have bothered.”
“Benji,” Ethan barked out as he grabbed his own laptop off the coffee table. “Check the IMF database and see what’s going on.”
The redhead nodded and Jane huffed in annoyance as she was basically ignored, but even she couldn’t deny the spark of hope in a part of her heart she’d thought she’d buried along with everything to do with Will.
Jane and Ethan both turned to find Benji looking annoyed and more than a little bit confused.
“There’s uh...no file on Brandt. And no sign that there’s ever been one.”
“Could Will not be his real name?” Jane hazarded a guess as she set down the bottle of water she’d been nursing as she re-watched the footage on YouTube.
“Why would he have changed his name?”
“Some do,” she shrugged. “The IMF used to encourage it, but I’ve only ever met older agents who actually did it. The regulations were changed eventually.”
“Do you know when exactly?”
“They changed around when I was recruited,” Ethan said, looking up from his work. “The offer was made to change it, but they told me it was completely optional and being phased out.”
“Well, no offence to you, but you’re quite a bit older than Will. He wouldn’t have been recruited until awhile after the regulations changed,” Jane pointed out.
“With his memory he could’ve been recruited quite young,” Benji argued.
“It could have been for personal reasons,” Ethan sighed, tiredly running a hand over his face. “He wasn’t one to talk about his childhood, but what I got was that it wasn’t exactly happy and it ended with him and his brother being on the outs.”
Benji was still clicking away on his laptop, surrounded by wires and half empty mugs of tea that he’d had room service fetch for him as he said, “Well, doesn’t really matter if it was by his own personal request, or if the IMF encouraged him at this point. Either way, his permanent file will be under his real name. And unless we know it...This could take a very long while.”
“But wouldn’t he have a file under Hawkeye with SHEILD?” Jane asked. “Couldn’t you just hack in and find it?”
Benji paled at her words and the almost continuous clicking of his mouse and clack of his fingers on the keys stopped. The room seemed strangely quiet without it.
“You- You want me to hack into a system designed by Tony bloody Stark?” He asked incredulously, voice strangely reverent.
“If that’s what it takes,” Ethan said, his eyebrow quirked as he stared over at his oddly still teammate.
“He is our God.”
Jane snorted. “Whose God?”
“Us,” Benji practically yelped. “Techies. I know some people who pray to him before they start a project.”
Jane shared a glance with Ethan, whose eyebrows had disappeared into his hairline.
“I once attended a lecture of his...and he was brilliant. Completely and utterly pissed, but brilliant. I’d never seen a man drink that much vodka and still be able to discuss—
“Alright,” Ethan laughed in way they hadn’t heard in years. “We get it. He’s your God. Can you do it?”
Benji thought for a moment, his thumb tapping against the table. “I’d have to say, probably not.”
Ethan gave him a disbelieving look.
“What? This is Tony Stark we’re talking about here! He’s been programming since he was a child. And while I’ll admit I am indeed brilliant by most people’s standards, I’m not Tony Stark brilliant.”
Ethan hummed as he thought. “I know someone who might be able to give you a hand.”
“Oh no, Hunt!” Luther yelled, shaking his head furiously on the video feed. “The last time you asked me to do you a favour I almost got my ass blown to kingdom come!”
“That was purely coincidental,” Ethan smiled at the screen.
“It’s happened every single time I’ve ever laid eyes on you!”
“Well, this time it’s a simple enough job. You can do it wirelessly. And don’t even try to play coy. You had a blast.”
“What’s in it for me?”
“My eternal gratitude?” he asked hopefully.
Luther stared at him with narrowed eyes. “Yeah, that’s not going to cut it. You know how the IMF pays. If I’m doing a side job for you, it’d better be worth my while.”
“I have a line on some software you could be interested in. Military grade of course.” That was a complete lie; but fake it til you make it and all that jazz.
“Alright, say let’s just say that I’m interested,” the other agent said, leaning back in his chair to grab a glass of water he’d set aside. “What exactly is this about?”
“I need you to help a member of my team hack into SHIELD’s database.” Timing had always been a skill of his which meant that Luther choked on his water and managed to spill most of it down his shirt.
“Are- Are you kidding me?!”
“Do I look like I’m kidding to you?” he asked, face straight. “I wouldn’t be asking if I wasn’t desperate.”
“This is Stark tech we’re talking about,” Luther said, shaking his head as he set down his glass. “One doesn’t simply hack into anything designed by Tony Stark. He’s practically the God of—
“Yeah, yeah, I’ve been hearing this all day. You guys pray to him apparently.”
“Damn right we do. And now he’s got that crazy ass battle suit with tank missiles and the blasters and— This is crazy! I’m too old for this. Hell,you’re too old for this!”
“Luther,please. I’m really— This is personal,” he said finally. “I’m actually begging you right now to help me. Please.”
Luther was quiet for a moment, obviously thinking things over before he let out a long sigh. “Fine. But only because the great Ethan Hunt is begging. Anyone else and I’d be sending them packing.”
“Thank you,” Ethan said, pouring all his relief and his gratitude into those two words.
“Now, grab your tech guy so we can get to work.”
It took Benji and Luther the better part of a week, hundreds of conference calls and endless hours of Skyping, but eventually they managed to hack into SHIELD’s agent database and retrieve the file of one Code Name: Hawkeye.
“What’s it say?” Ethan called, quickly coming in from the kitchen of the house that he’d been renting since the apartment.
“It’s an interesting read,” Benji admitted as he scrolled down. “Clint Barton ring any bells?”
Ethan shook his head as Jane came down the stairs, towelling her hair dry.
“What’d you find out?” she asked, folding the towel and setting it aside as she took a seat beside him on the couch.
“Well, going by the picture, it’s definitely Will. Or his twin. Clint Francis Barton, code name: Hawkeye. Parents deceased, has a brother named Barney who’s former FBI turned rogue under the alias of Trick Shot, current location unknown.”
“That would explain the name change,” Jane said disbelievingly. “I’d want to stay clear of him too.”
“They both joined the circus when they were fourteen, and they must’ve gone off the grid because there’s nothing in here about him until enlists at twenty,” Benji continued. “Long service record, a lot of commendations. And I mean a lot. Was a Navy Seal before he was recruited by the CIA for their Special Activities Division. The rest of his service record is redacted until six years ago when he was recruited by SHIELD. Was designated to their London base until three years ago when he was reassigned stateside and partnered with codename Black Widow. They’ve got a long list of assassinations and covert operations under their belt. Both were put up for consideration for the Avengers Initiative and were included in the roster one year ago.”
“But that’s not possible,” Ethan said. “He’d been with IMF for six years. He told me so himself.”
“Obviously the information has been tampered with,” Benji conceded with a shrug. “Which means someone is trying to hide the fact that Will- Clint- whoever, is ex-IMF.”
“Anything else useful in there?”
Benji sighed as he hit the basic physical profile section. “Not really. Height, weight, um...nothing really...oh.”
“What?” Ethan asked, leaning in to get a look.
“There’s a report from their Medical division. Apparently, there was an accident three years ago resulting in a traumatic brain injury. There’s pages worth of information,” the Brit breathed anxiously. “Retrograde Amnesia, personality changes, trouble with impulse control, and episodes of paranoia, and severe anxiety as well as seizures.”
Ethan practically collapsed into the nearest armchair looking tired, but so, so relieved.
“It’s him,” he breathed, head in his hands. “It’s really him.”
“After what happened in London they must’ve transferred him to SHIELD,” Jane said. “Whatever state he’d been in, they didn’t want him anymore. But apparently someone else did.”
“They only ever saw him as an analyst,” Ethan spat, resentment beginning to build in his chest, boiling away the flood of relief. “With that sort of trauma he’d never be able to remember all the information they needed from him. So those bastards got rid of him.”
“So he doesn’t remember us, that’s why he didn’t come looking for us once he was better,” Benji said as he saved a copy of the file and pressed print to make a hardcopy just in case.
“They lied to us. All of us!” Ethan growled, lurching out of his seat. “Benji, get online and book us tickets to New York.”
“But Ethan,” Jane protested. “We can’t just barge in and—
“Watch me,” he snarled as he began gathering up his things. “I’ve wasted three years of my life thinking he was dead! I won’t sit around when I know he’s still out there! Don’t...don’t ask me to do that,” he said, looking pained.
“We’re going to New York and we’re finding him. That’s our new mission.”
There probably won’t be an update next week. I’ve got my final exams. My goal was to get this done before May 4th so that some of the plot wasn’t completely destroyed by canon, but I fear I underestimated how long this story would be. Alas.
Chapter 9: Love (It'll Set You Free)
Clint had always wished that someday he’d get his memories back - that something would click or he’d get some hint; some little clue of what he was missing. As a child everyone had been too busy to tell him to be careful what he wished for. Maybe if someone had bothered to take the time, he would’ve known better. Or maybe not.
Either way, as he’d settled into his life, made friends and connections, that ‘someday’ he’d wished for hadn’t seemed all that important anymore. It became something that he thought of late at night as he waited for sleep to come and he got that feeling in his chest: the bone deep ache that hollowed him out and left him grasping fruitlessly for something that had been slipping away from him for years. But then...then Coulson. Phil. It was one of those names that was nice to say; the curl of the ‘i-l’ felt right on his tongue.
So yes, Phil. And Natasha. And then the rest of the Avengers. After all of them, whenever he got that feeling he’d remember something Phil had said that day, or something one of the Avengers had done during dinner until he missed that moment where thought fell through to sleep and he’d wake up in the morning to the buzz of Natasha’s text messages telling him to get his ass out of bed or to Steve’s knock at his door calling him for breakfast.
Years ago he’d stared down at a handful of stars scattered like constellations across a dusty floor as he lay beaten, broken, and wishing, and thought he’d seen his future there in the glossy red of his own blood. But no matter how many stars he might’ve seen, he never could’ve imagined, never thought to wish for something like this for himself. Something...not perfect, but right.
The nuns at the orphanage used to have a saying whenever there was a shortage in donations, or when flu was spreading through their battalion of abandoned souls: and this too shall pass. Sickness, pain, happiness, fortune.
(“This too shall pass, my child,” the sister promised, with a voice soft like the light that shone through the stained glass and the flutter of bible pages.
“You’ll see my dear. Nothing lasts forever.”
He nodded, his small hand clenched tightly in the edge of her veil as he pressed his face into her shoulder.)
He wasn’t sure if he believed in God, or that karma shit or what, but he did think that there might be a cycle. Thor went on about Ragnarök and the continual fall and rebirth of the worlds from a sea of death, but Clint was less for the idea of a giant ass battle that killed everyone except two people who were hiding out in a tree and more for the thought that there was some sort of subtle flow and ebb. Everyone took their turn getting crapped on, but they all got their day in the sun. And man, he’d had more than his fair share of sun since his accident.
Because even if he had to risk his life almost every day, even if there was no guarantee that he’d come out of every mission intact he knew that he had something to come home to if he managed to drag himself back. But this too shall pass— and maybe she hadn’t meant it as a threat, but the years had twisted a lot of things he had taken comfort in once upon a time.
So Clint couldn’t exactly say he was surprised when everything started coming down around his ears. He’d just always thought it’d involve a lot more blood. He’d never counted on the wish he’d given up on, without ever really realizing, coming true: that his someday would finally come knocking.
The Avengers were all gathered around a conference table in the tower, Phil standing at the head to debrief them after their latest mission when the inevitable began; when everything started to unravel, to crumble around him.
The mission had gone well despite having run them all into the ground- and not always in the figurative sense if the Thor sized craters had anything to say about it. At first it’d been meant to be a quick enough sortie. A few Doom Bots that needed to be taken care of before they caused too much property damage, nothing huge. But upon their arrival they’d realized that not only was Loki also there, but he and Doom seemed to be having some sort of disagreement that had resulted in the near destruction of everything within a five block radius and some hurt feelings judging by how huffy Loki had been acting- Thor had assured them that his brother was actually quite the sensitive soul.
The fight had dragged on for over fifteen hours, pulling them through the night and well into the later morning hours, before Steve had managed to mediate a truce between them and they’d kissed and made up. Literally.
(“Didn’t know Doom had it in him. Gotta’ admit, Loki’s a hot piece of— Kidding Thor! Kidding! Put down the— Cap, save me! Cap?! Oh come on Steve, don’t be that way! I didn’t mean it!”)
Coulson fished the vibrating phone from his pocket as he tried to stress the importance of the team finishing their paperwork in a timely manner— by the blank looks on their faces he’d swear he was speaking Greek, except apparently Thor could speak everything from Chinese to Squirrel. Even Steve seemed to be tuning out as he laid his chin on his shield that he was hugging to his chest, looking ready to pass out right there. Tony was staring off into the air ahead of him and Phil would bet his pension that he’d taught himself to sleep with his eyes open. Natasha was busily texting someone while Clint quietly ate the cookie that Phil brought for him after a mission, as tradition dictated, but the archer’s eyes were trained on Thor who was staring at the cookie intently. There hadn’t exactly been time for dinner or breakfast and Thor looked like he’d be willing to bite off a hand to get to it. Clint decisively shoved the rest of the cookie into his mouth.
Coulson sighed, wishing that just once they’d pay attention as he turned to read the notification from the tech department. He frowned down at the message, reading it over a few times before turning to the most definitely snoring Stark.
Tony continued to snore quietly, his eyes only half closed as he stared off into the distance. Steve shifted slightly in his seat as he blinked slowly at his partner, annoyance flickering over his face, but Phil had a feeling it was more due to jealousy than that he was sleeping through the debriefing. The blonde reached out a finger to jab him in the ribs and Tony woke with a start, nearly toppling out of his chair as he lost his balance.
“Wasn’ sleepin’,” he slurred, catching himself on the table before he could fall.
Bruce, who’d been content to read a book he’d pulled from seemingly nowhere, snorted in amusement as he flipped a page. “Sure you weren’t.”
Tony righted himself, Steve gently grabbing hold of his hand as he went to start rubbing his eyes with grease covered fingers.
“Stark,” Phil started again now that everyone was awake and alert. “To your knowledge, who has the equipment and technical ability to be able to hack through the security you designed for SHIELD?”
Everyone looked confused, but strangely enough, Tony just sat back, his face thoughtful as he yawned.
“Well, obviously they’d need some government or military grade tech, but... two guys with the brains and proper training could probably do it.”
Everyone turned in their seats to give him disbelieving looks. Even Thor seemed astounded that Tony would admit to someone being able to outdo him.
“Stark,” Coulson growled. “We hired you to design a system that was unhackable and you’re telling me two guys ‘with the brains’ could do it?”
“Uh, to be fair,” Tony objected as he crossed his legs and took a sip of the coffee that he’d ignored in favour of sleeping. “Saying you hired me implies the exchange of money, which never happened. And I did exactly what Fury told me to. He said, and I quote,” he reached up to cover his left eye and Steve let out a sighed as he looked to the sky, seemingly praying for patience. “‘Stark, I want you to design me a system no man can hack’. No man could do it. Two men? Yeah, sure, maybe. Well within the realm of possibility.”
Phil ran a hand over his face, trying to work up the will not to reach over and strangle Stark with his bare hands.
“Tony,” Steve said disapprovingly.
“What? I’d like to point out that beggars can’t be choosers,” he said defensively as he set down his mug. “And besides, bottom line, I run a business. I can’t be giving expensive handouts to every government agency that comes my way. Considering they paid me absolutely nothing they definitely got a good system. Cost generally dictates quality. I did exactly what Fury asked, it’s not my fault he wasn’t specific enough. Specificity is your friend. If you don’t have it, you’re just going to get screwed over. And by the looks of it, I’m going to say you just did. It’s like you’ve won a car from a store in a raffle,” he explained as he held up a finger.
“Now, they might have BMWs and Jaguars, but guess what? You just won a car. So you get a car. Are they going to hand over a one-hundred grand vehicle? I think not. Why waste the money when it’s not required? You get the Prius. You got the Prius of security systems. Kinda’ works, but lacks any true power. Now, maybe if you’d asked nicely or thrown in a little cash, you might’ve gotten the BMW at least, but no,” Stark slammed his fist into the table top, starting to get that manic look in his eyes that only promised bad things.
“You showed up at the store’s living room at 4am after turning off all the lights so you could make a dramatic entrance and fucking with its AI and drinking its coffee- again-and demanded that it give you a car. So yeah, you got the fucking Prius and you should be damn happy you that you even got that.”
Tony settled back in his seat, looking vindicated as he picked up his mug again and took a sip.
“I’m...sensing a little resentment here,” Bruce observed quietly as he continued to stare down at his copy of the Life of Pi while everyone just watched Tony go about his business as if the outburst had never happened.
“Bit of an understatement,” Clint grumbled, his eyes trailing worriedly to meet Phil’s gaze. “How severe was the breech?”
“Someone managed to access the personnel files. IT says copies were made.”
“If it was military grade tech, could it be another agency?” Natasha asked, looking tense as she fingered a knife she’d pulled from somewhere on her person.
“We all know how easily shipments of equipment can get into the wrong hands,” he said, taking a bit of pleasure in the sour look that spread across Stark’s face.
“Tony will try and figure out who did it,” Steve told him reassuringly as he gripped said man by the shoulder.
“I will?” Stark asked dubiously as he was easily hauled to his feet.
“Yes,” Steve hissed unhappily as he dragged his boyfriend away. “And we’re going to have a long talk about this!”
Bruce finally looked up from his book as Tony clawed at his arm, trying to anchor himself to something as Steve continued to tug at him.
“Sorry buddy,” the doctor apologized as he gently pried the grasping fingers off his arm. “You’re on your own with this one.”
“Traitor,” Tony called as he was pulled out the door by an exasperated looking Captain America.
“What shall the rest of us do, Son of Coul?” Thor asked with his hand already wrapped tightly around Mjölnir, always ready to help.
“Right now, nothing,” Phil said as he gathered up his files, getting ready to leave. “I have to contact Director Fury and then we’ll take it from there, but thank you. Natasha, Barton, walk with me.”
The two agents jumped to their feet and followed in his wake as he strode from the room, leaving Dr. Banner and Thor to their own devices.
“Do we know whose files they retrieved, sir?” Clint asked, his voice calm and cool and business as usual as if he hadn’t just been fighting over a cookie with Thor.
“IT is working on it, but at this point, we have no way of knowing.”
It wouldn’t be the first time someone had managed to gain access to classified SHIELD files, but Phil could feel a knot of worry growing in the pit of his stomach, spreading like a cancer through his veins.
“But I want you both on your guard,” he continued, trying to ignore the way his hands wanted to tremble as they clenched tightly around the manila folders he was carrying. “This constitutes an attack, so every sector is going on high alert, which means you both need to get back to base.”
The two shared a look, something unsaid passing between them as they arrived at the elevator bay.
“We’ll ride with you,” Natasha said as she punched the down button on the elevator. And by ride with him, she meant commandeer his vehicle to go on a coffee run on the way to headquarters, not that he was really complaining.
His phone continued to vibrate in his pocket as he reminded Natasha to get a cup for Fury. IT was steadily narrowing down the files that were accessed and copied. With every bit of progress they made the sinking sensation in Coulson’s stomach worsened. He tried to reason with himself: everyone from the IMF thought William Brandt was dead and the media hadn’t gotten a very good shot of Clint yet, just as the Director had wanted. There was no reason to think that someone would’ve recognised him—
But he knew that sometimes all it took was a quick glimpse of a profile, maybe a view of him running down the street, to give someone a flicker of hope. A hint of doubt. Because he knew that if Clint disappeared- died- that would be all it took for him to search every avenue; he would be relentless until he found out for sure. Until there was no doubt in his mind. And he’d always known that somewhere out there, there was a person who loved William Brandt just as much as he loved Clint Barton. And there was a lot of guilt to be found in that. These sorts of things were like time bombs. And their fuse might be growing shorter by the second.
If that was what was happening...he stared down at the coffee Natasha had handed him, listening to Clint ramble on about something from the backseat.
“Are you all right?” she asked quietly as she held up the transponder to lift the gate to the underground parking. “You seem...nervous.”
He could hear the unease in her voice; how unnerved she was.
Coulson allowed himself a second to take a deep breath and pull everything together. “Just stressed,” he said flatly, absentmindedly sipping his coffee before downing it in one go. “This is the biggest breach in security since Stark hacked our files. And as least we knew he was more or less on our side.”
He could see Sitwell waiting just inside the glass doors, ready to debrief him on the full situation as he climbed out of the car, taking in the smell of motor oil and damp.
“I’ll see you both later,” he said by way of goodbye as he shut his door.
“Wait,” Clint called as he clambered out after him, almost tripping when his foot caught on the doorframe. Phil caught him before he could go flying and pulling him close, wondering how in the hell Clint could manage to be so graceful in the field and a bit of a klutz otherwise.
“You amaze me sometimes,” he muttered, watching as a surprised little smile spread across the younger man’s face.
“In a good way, yeah?”
“Most of the time,” he conceded, setting Fury’s coffee down on the roof of the car. Sitwell could wait a minute.
“I uh, well,” Clint started, nervously scratching at his chin and Phil couldn’t help the way his heart skipped a beat because this was it and Clint had the worst timing in the history of mankind.
“I keep meaning to ask, but the moment never seems right and I—
“There’ll be plenty of moments when all this blows over,” Coulson assured him, a gentle smile firmly in place as he slid his hand from where it’d been holding Clint’s elbow down to intertwine their fingers. God he hoped that was the truth. “I don’t mind waiting a few more days.”
“You make me so fucking nervous sometimes,” Clint grumbled, tightening his hold on Phil’s hand.
“I’ll take that as a complime—
The words died in his throat due to the lips that were suddenly pressed against his and it wasn’t his first kiss by a long shot, but it was definitely the one he’d think about for the rest of his life. Because Clint tasted like coffee and warmth and love and everything good in the world.
If Phil were a lesser man he would’ve dropped to one knee right there, ring be damned, because it was really hitting him that he loved this man and his chest ached with the weight of it all. It ached with the weight of knowing that he never wanted to kiss another pair of lips again; that maybe he’d finally found that thing that all the books and movies were about. And maybe things weren’t perfect, but for that moment, none of it mattered because he was kissing Clint Barton and more importantly: Clint Barton was kissing him and everything was right and bright and wonderful.
Barton pulled away first, his breath warm against Phil’s lips. “You should definitely take it as a compliment.”
“Are you two just about done?” Natasha called and Clint flipped her off without even bothering to look in her direction. “So...have a good day? Try not to make the junior agents cry again?”
Phil laughed as he nodded, giving Clint’s hand a longing squeeze before grabbing the coffee and heading towards where Sitwell was waiting. He turned back once and Clint gave a quick wave goodbye as he smiled.
The agent gave him a knowing look as they greeted one another and began making their way towards the Director’s office.
“Don’t say it.”
“Wasn’t going to,” Jasper chuckled, handing a file off to a junior agent. “...So, did he finally work up the balls to ask you to Prom?”
“You’re terrible,” Coulson said flatly as they got into the elevator. “And next time you ask me to cover for you because you’re too hung over from going out with Agent Williams I’m going to laugh in your face.”
“You’re a disgrace to all assassins,” Natasha said as Clint tried to fight the smile on his face that just wouldn’t go away. “You’re a killer. You shouldn’t be able to look that giddy. A five year old girl shouldn’t be able to look as giddy as you look right now.”
“Shut up,” he said, no heat to his voice as they locked up and started towards the service elevator that led down to the range and gym. “Just because I like to kill people for a living doesn’t mean I can’t be happy. You’re just jealous because Phil’s a sexy badass.”
There was a ding as the doors slid open and she hit the appropriate button. Clint’s heart was still pounding as the last few minutes replayed in his head. He couldn’t believe he’d finally managed to...damn. Just damn. This was his life. This was his fucking life and he couldn’t understand what he’d done to deserve it. He wanted to jump. He wanted to grab Tasha by the shoulders and make her jump for joy with him because he’d just kissed Phil. He settled for punching the air and when that didn’t seem to be enough allowed himself to bounce on the balls of his feet. Natasha rolled her eyes, but he knew he well enough to know that she was happy for him.
“I’m going to marry that man,” he announced, the goofy grin still in place and he really couldn’t give a shit. “I’m going to spend the rest of my life with Phil fucking Coulson and it’s going to be awesome.”
Tasha laughed, “Does Phil know that?”
“Yeah,” he said, utterly sure. “He knows.”
The plane ride to New York might’ve been the longest flight Ethan had ever sat through. His stomach twisted itself into knots as he stared out the window, his thoughts only of Will as his eyes followed the paths of the lights coming from the cities, looking like billions of stars.
He could still remember the exact pitch of Will’s voice; could still trace the line of his shoulders and the curve of his nose; the cupid’s bow of his lips pulled taught with a grin. Time had taken the memory of his smell and the feeling of Will’s skin on his own. But he’d clung so tightly to everything else that when he closed his eyes he could still see him there, sitting in the bay window laughing quietly about something he’d just heard on the radio and calling for Ethan to come sit with him.
(“Come on,” Will grumbled, his closed book perched in his lap. “You’ve got a few minutes, sit with me for a bit before you go.”
“Can’t,” Ethan said shortly, pulling on his sock and grabbing his shoe. “Later.”
“Ah yes, but I’m you’re jackass,” he said in response, smiling over at Will as he stood to leave.)
In his dreams he went to Will and sat with him instead of darting out the door after a quick kiss to go meet the Secretary about the mission in London. In his dreams Will pulled him close and they dozed in the sunlight flooding through the window panes, listening to the radio hosts bicker about something to do with Iron Man. In his dreams Will was still alive and warm against his side. In his dreams he told Will that he loved him and Will was still there to press a kiss to his lips in reply.
His stomach gave a particularly uncomfortable jerk at the thought of coming face to face with a Will who no longer remembered him. He’d faced down armed psychopaths, nuclear warheads and everything in between, but it was Will’s face twisted in confusion at not knowing him that sent chills down his spine.
It was like something out of a movie or one of those damn soap operas. But even in those shows there’d always been that annoying hospital scene where everyone realized what’d happened- where the wife or husband tried to jog the person’s memory; begged them to remember. He and Will been robbed of that chance for so long; torn apart by scheming men who hid behind their office doors and played them for the pawns they were. And maybe that only made it worse, because none of this had been personal. No one had set out to hurt them. It’d just been business; collateral damage; a foreseen consequence but not the intended result.
But here they were, and what was he supposed to do now? Just walk up to the Avenger’s mansion and knock on the door? Hello, you might not remember me but I’m actually your long lost husband. Isn’t amnesia a bitch?
There should be some sort of pamphlet on this kind of thing. Something to help him. He could feel his ears beginning to pop as the pilot announced their descent towards New York City. Ethan took a deep breath, steadying himself when Jane leaned over to grab his hand.
“By this time tomorrow, we’ll have him back,” she assured him and Benji nodded in agreement from his place in the seat to the right of her.
“No man left behind.”
He forgot sometimes that they’d loved Will too. As a teammate; a brother in arms. A friend. They’d been hurt just as much as he had by Will’s dea— disappearance.
“We’ll bring him home,” he agreed, squeezing her hand tightly in his.
They hadn’t failed a mission yet.
Thank you all for the lovely comments, kudos, and well wishes! My exams went well enough and I’m finally home. I’m sorry for the delay, I had a hard time bridging the gap between two scenes and fiddled with it for ages only to decide to cut one of the scenes.
Ethan Hunt couldn’t say that he hated Phil Coulson for what he’d done. In his younger days he’d killed people for less, but time had tempered certain parts of him; worn down some sharp edges- Will had probably played a role in that. He hated a lot of people for what’d happened, but how could he hate someone for loving Will? Will was the sun. He was a sleepy Sunday morning in bed. Will was everything good in the world. So how could he hate someone who felt the same way? They were both in the same boat, carried away by swirling tides that they’d had no control over. Sure, Phil had taken advantage of the situation, but in the end they were sinking together. The reality was that one of them would drown in this; become a reminder to the survivor of what could’ve happened if things had gone the other way. Treat him right, or I’ll drag you down here with me. So, no, Ethan couldn’t hate Phil Coulson. He could be angry though.
He could be so burning angry that he wanted to take the man’s neck in his hands and twist until there was a satisfying snap. He wanted to douse him in petrol and toss a match just to watch him burn. To watch him feel some of the pain that Ethan had been living with for three years. He wanted to take Will home; back where he belonged; and know that Phil Coulson laid alone in bed every night feeling the empty space beside him- felt the gaping hole left in his life where Will had once been. He wanted Phil Coulson to know the pain of someone left behind.
“Ethan,” Jane started cautiously, the heels of her shoes clicking loudly against the tile floor of JFK as she jogged to keep up with him. They’d just cleared customs and grabbed their bags from the carousel and Ethan still seemed intent on marching directly down to Avenger’s HQ.
“If we go through proper channels- contact the Secretary—
“No,” He cut her off viciously, dodging a young family struggling with a stroller and trolley. “The proper channels were what got us into this mess to begin with- they’re the ones who took Will away in the first place!” he snarled, almost hitting a confused looking tourist with his bag as he swung around to face her.
“Barging in isn’t going to solve anything,” she snapped. “What the hell are you going to say?! Oh hi! I’m your long lost fucking husband?”
“Both of you need to just...simmer down,” Benji hissed quietly, ushering them out of the middle of the hallway before security intervened. “If we’re going to do this, we better have a plan because I for one, think Jane has a point.”
Ethan took a deep breath to steady himself, fighting the urge to pull away and hail the nearest cab. “We’ll head to the Avengers HQ and...we’ll ask for Will— Clint. We’ll ask to see Clint.”
“Alright,” Jane said flatly. “Sure, we could do that. But what the hell makes you think they’ll actually let us in to see him?”
“If we can’t get in, Benji will just hack through security and we’ll go in ourselves.”
“Um, what’s this about Benji hacking into Tony Stark’s top of the line security system?” the redhead asked, looking panicked. “I don’t think you understand how advanced- frankly, I’d be completely out of my depth. It took Luther and I a week to get through the SHIELD firewalls and it didn’t even have many of the tricks Stark normally includes in his work. It was a half-asked system. And it took two of us a week. Can you please try to imagine how long it’d take just me to break into his home?”
Ethan rolled his eyes. “If you can’t manage it, we’ll find a better access point and go from there. I’m not against scaling the outer wall or using an air vent to get in. If we can’t get in, we’ll retreat for today and come up with something else. Worse comes to worse, Jane is about the same height as Pepper Potts and you're approximately Stark’s. Put you in a suit and no one should notice anything right off the bat. We can use the disguises to get past the personnel on the lower floors and hopefully buy you enough time to hack the system.”
“Again, while your confidence in my skills is flattering Ethan, I’ve just got to say: you’re bloody bonkers!” Benji yelled. “It’s just not possible!”
“You’ll try,” the other man told him, his voice firm. “That’s all I ask: that you try.”
The redhead heaved a sigh before nodding his assent.
“We’ve done a lot of impossible things, Benji,” Ethan said. “And I know I'm asking a lot of you here, but please just try. For me.”
Tony grumbled to himself as he made quick work of tracking down the IP address of whoever had hacked through the SHIELD firewalls. He'd tried to put it off for awhile- nothing like impromptu workshop sex- but he'd only just managed to cajole Steve into joining him on the couch for a bit of not so friendly groping when Natasha had texted asking about his progress. Steve had been pretty adamant about him getting it done after that.
The work was decent- maybe a little amateur and inelegant compared to his, but it’d done the job. He could hear Steve pacing behind him and tried to ignore the annoyance and- maybe just a little- anxiety that was building in his chest. There was nothing quite like Captain America’s ‘look at your life, look at your choices’ face. It was sort of like a punch to the gut and a kick to the balls all at once. When they’d first met, it’d driven him absolutely crazy, but he’d come to kind of –secretly- enjoy having someone who could keep him in line. Pepper, bless her heart, the woman was like a cross between Mother Theresa and Wolverine, had tried for years, but even she hadn’t been up to the job. There was something to be said for Steve’s pure ragged determination. The man had hunted down Nazis. Compared to that, keeping one little Tony Stark in line was a walk in the park. Well, maybe not a walk. Maybe more like a...healthy jaunt. Or a decathlon. Whatever. Either way, when it came down to it Tony Stark equals: bad. Nazis equal: worse. So Steve was well equipped.
“Sir, I’ve determined that the perpetrators only accessed one personnel file.”
Tony frowned, switching his gaze to the screen that Jarvis’ processors were open on.
“So they were targeting someone specific?” Steve asked, coming to rest behind him and Tony couldn’t help the small smile that played across his lips as the Captain wrapped an arm around his waist. All was apparently not lost.
“It sure would seem that way,” he said, scanning the page, the smile slipping off his face, his heart sinking in his chest. “Looks to be like whoever hacked in was going after Clint.”
Steve leaned in, looking over the information on the screen. “But why would they target him?”
“He does tend to piss a lot of people off,” Tony pointed out, scrolling down the page. “All that sass in one hot little package.”
They didn't know much about Clint's tenure at SHIELD- more so for reasons of trust and privacy than not actually being able to find out about it if they'd gone looking. While almost all of SHIELD's agents had their files stored in the database a lot of their work tended to be 'off the record'. Nick Fury had a way of letting you see only what he wanted you to see.
The billionaire skimmed through Clint's digital file, noticing it was pretty much the same one that he’d been given by Phil back before the Avengers had formed, only updated slightly to show his new position on the team.
“The team hasn’t been together for that long,” Steve reasoned aloud. “Could it be someone from one of his other missions?”
“Possible. With all the television coverage and the shot of him and Widow that Fox News got the other day...”
It’d been quite the scandal. The press had been frothing at the mouth to get a hold of some solid pictures of Black Widow and Hawkeye. In an age where you couldn’t walk down a street in New York without getting your photo taken at least a thousand times, it’d been a wonder no one had gotten a good picture until then. Fury had probably had a hand in it.
“So, whoever this is probably saw the shot on the news, recognised him, and then hacked in to get his files. But why?”
Tony turned to look at him. “Crazy people, Steve. They don’t need a reason. Maybe it’s some obsessed fans. I’ve heard of weirder things happening. In fact, there are currently four registered Twitter accounts dedicated to Barton’s arms and we won’t even get into the ones for his ass.”
With a few more clicks and some privacy laws laid to the wayside Tony was pulling up the address of their hacker.
“So, apparently whoever's after Barton was in California. Checked it out, and the house was rented under the name Aaron Roman, but I’d bet that’s an alias. Unless this guy is really stupid, which considering he hacked a system that I, however reluctantly designed, is highly unlikely. Well, I guess he could be a moron but have smart friends, but smart friends don’t let dumb friends conduct illegal activities in a house rented under their actual name. That’s basic Bro Code right there.”
Steve glared at him testily and the billionaire sighed as he looked back to his screen. “Jarvis, make note: I’ll have to introduce Steve to the magic that is Neil Patrick Harris.”
“You’ll love How I Met Your Mother. It’s crazy, there’s this woman- Canadian- who’s a dead ringer for—
“Tony, stay on track please,” Steve sighed, but Tony could feel him smiling against his neck.
He scrolled down a bit more taking in the brief history- parents dead, orphanage, circus, army, SHIELD recruitment, before he hit the medical history section.
“Huh. Um, hey, Steve? Is it just me, or is this a hell of a lot longer than it was in the file we were given? Because the one I read sure as hell didn’t say anything about seizures and brain damage.”
The Captain leaned over his shoulder to get a better look and Tony could feel him tensing with every line. Tony had never been an expert on the whole ‘team’ thing. He’d been enrolled in Little League for all of two games before the coach had told him that calculating the velocity and trajectory of the ball to determine where to stand in order to hit a home run or to catch it was unsportsmanlike and thus counted as cheating. At the tender age of six, Tony had yet to truly grasp the art of sarcasm, so he’d taken the liberty of loudly calculating the exact force he’d need to apply in order to break the coach’s windshield with his bat and then proceeded to demonstrate in front of all the other children and their parents. There’d also been an incident involving a hockey stick and a referee who’d made a joke in poor taste. His father had then suggested boxing which had lead to him trying out some MMA style fighting and the skills had served Tony well throughout the years. There was nothing like attempting to beat another person into submission tp help work off some steam. So yeah, solo sports had always been more his style. But he had a feeling that this sort of information was probably meant to be known by everyone on the team, especially the team captain, just in case something were to happen.
“I take it we should call and see what this is about?” he asked.
“Get Fury on the line.”
“Uh, Steve? Hate to break it to you bud- it's like telling a kid Santa's not real-disenchantment and all that jazz- but Nick is the most lyingest liar to ever lie. Phil. We're calling Phil.”
Steve nodded solemnly, looking ready to go all Captain America on somebody's ass.
“Sir, if I may interrupt, there appears to be someone attempting to override the security in the elevators.”
“Is it Coulson again? I gave him the cod- did I change the codes?” he asked, trying to think back. “I don't think I did. Either way, let him up. We've got to talk to him anyway, might as well save him the hassle.”
“Agent Coulson is presently at SHIELD’s temporary headquarters along with Agents Barton and Romanoff.”
“So then who the hell is trying to hack my security?” He growled, slipping out of Steve’s arms and marching over to the stairs.
“They are not in the SHIELD database, nor are they from SI.”
“Tony, wait,” Steve called, catching up to him. “You don’t know who it is, you need to be careful. Jarvis, why don’t you bring them up to the foyer and we’ll deal with them there.”
“Right away, sir.”
“Hey,” Tony protested as Steve began dragging him up the stairs, trying to pull his hand from the other man's grasp. “You can’t boss around my AI.”
“This isn’t the time for your control issues,” the blonde said as he picked the billionaire up and began carrying him up the stairs.
“No manhandling!” Tony yelped as he poked Steve hard in the chest. “Well, alright, in the context of sex, sure, but I'm not a nicknack. Or a purse dog. You can’t just pick me up and put me where you want.”
Steve laughed as he did just that and set him down in front of the elevator bay, watching as the number on the screen above the door steadily climbed. Tony sniffed, haughty, as he straightened his shirt, ignoring how it was already covered in motor oil and maybe just a smidge of blood from an unfortunate accident with a potato peeler.
“Bring them in, Jarvis.”
“Right away, sir,” the AI drawled.
The elevator pinged and opened to reveal three people Tony had never laid eyes on in his life. Or well, not that he could recall. Pepper was better at faces than he was.
“Um...hi?” a redheaded Englishman said nervously, lifting a hand to wave shyly. He had a small handheld plugged into the control panel of the elevator.
“I’m going to have to ask you to slowly vacate the elevator,” Steve ordered.
“Bloody hell,” the man said, apparently in awe. Yeah, Steve had that effect on people.
“You’re- you- Tony Stark!”
Huh. Well. Yes. That was more like it. Bow bitches.
“Considering you just tried to hack your way into my private floors, I don’t know why you’re surprised,” he said easily, adopting the smooth smile he liked to give fans and press.
“You’re our Go—
“Benji,” the other man snapped, giving the guy- Benji apparently- a cold glance.
“We’re sorry to intrude like this,” the woman began diplomatically. “But we’re here on rather urgent business.”
“So urgent you had to break in?” Steve asked, striking an intimidating figure as he stood there in full uniform with his shield held at the ready.
“Yes,” the brown haired man said as he stepped out of the elevator, his movements smooth and controlled in a way that just screamed secret agent man. He was older than Tony had thought at first glance. Maybe a few years older than him actually.
“We’re here for Clint Barton.”
Clint was really popular today.
“Yeah, just one question: who the hell are you people? Because if I’m not mistaken, and frankly I doubt I am, because, come on, Tony Stark. I’d bet that we’ve just found the security breech I just spent the past twenty minutes of my rather valuable time tracking down.”
“Twenty minutes,” the redhead whispered, looking fit to be tied. “The encryption and rerouting I used would’ve made it almost impossible for a normal hacker to trace.”
“Yeah, well, not exactly a normal hacker, am I?” Tony drawled.
“Can I just say, Mr. Stark,” Benji said, stepping out from behind the brunette that was apparently in charge. “That I am a huge fan of your work. I mean, the advancements you made in clean energy technology alone are astounding, but your work in artificial intelligence is just...mind blowing. I heard you speak at—
“You’ll have to excuse him,” the woman cut in. “Benji’s a little star struck. I’m Jane Carter, and this is Ethan Hunt.”
“We’re with the IMF and we need to know where Clint Barton is,” Hunt said, looking ready to attack the next thing that moved.
“Whoa. Little aggressive for bankers aren’t you?” Tony winced as Steve elbowed him sharply in the ribs and resisted the urge to pout as Steve stepped in front of him.
“Better question,” the blonde started. “Why exactly, should we tell you anything?”
“Because I’m his husband.”
The room fell silent at that and if he didn't know better he'd swear even Jarvis was holding his breath. Steve looked baffled and rightfully so because last they'd checked- as in that fucking morning- Clint was kind of not yet technically dating because he was a nervous moron, but still totally in a committed relationship with Phil.
Their surprise seemed to have a calming effect on Hunt; some of the righteous anger managing to slip away until there was really only pain left.
“Huh,” Tony said, peeking out from behind his boyfriend, never one to let an awkward silence linger. “Wasn’t expecting that, but yeah, good reason. Nicely done. Weird day, that’s for sure. Gentlemen, lady,” he muttered with a neat little bow. “If you’ll excuse me.”
And with that he scuttled off, mumbling to himself, apparently leaving Steve to his own devices along with the three agents. Steve watched him go, incredulous that he was effectively being abandoned.
“Tony,” he hissed after him but the other man had already ducked through a door and disappeared from their line of sight.
The hall seemed stiflingly quiet without Tony there to fill the silence and Steve resisted the urge to shove the three agents back into the elevator and leave them there until- well actually, Steve wasn't entirely sure what was going to happen. It wasn't everyday your teammate's unheard of husband appeared. He finally lowered his shield as he fished for something to do and, at a loss, could only think to fall back on the manners his mother had instilled in him.
“Can I offer you some coffee?”
“Sir,” Phil sighed, more than a little annoyed as he stared down the Director who was seated at his desk. “With this severe of a breach in security, I'd think that it'd be top priority-
“That's why I'm trusting you with it,” Fury said, not looking up from his work, although Phil knew he had the man's complete attention. “Hill is wrapped up trying to deal with PR. Fox is complaining about our lack of transparency and L’Oreal is still sending over contracts and crates of poptarts for Thor. If I had the time I'd be doing it myself. But as things are, you're the only person I can trust with this. You can have Jasper if you want, but I can't spare anyone else who isn't Tech. There's something going down in the Bermuda Triangle. Has Stark come up with anything?” He asked, finally setting aside his laptop.
“He'll contact me when he's got something,” he said, glancing down at his silent phone.
Anxiety was a slow burning fire in the pit of his stomach. He couldn't explain why he was so worried- it'd been three years, even with the photo on the news, what were the odds? Still, he'd spent most of his life relying on his gut instinct and he wasn't going to stop now. It felt like this was it- like it was the culmination. Like how a terminal patient could tell when it was their last day. He could feel it in his stomach- vibrating through his bones.
“Is something wrong, Phil?” Fury asked and Coulson realized he'd been staring down at his phone for longer than he'd meant to.
“About the breach,” the Director nodded, tapping his fingers across the wooden top of his desk.
“About who's behind it.”
“You're worried about Clint.”
Nick nodded and sighed as he sat back in his chair. “I won't tell you not to worry, but I'll tell you that the chances of someone using those grainy ass photos to identify him are slim, and even if they were to, Brandt is gone. And Clint is our boy now. He renegotiated his contact last year and seeing as he never officially changed his name to Brandt in the first place, it's legally binding.”
Phil grimaced. “That's not exactly what I'm worried about.”
“I know,” Nick laughed not unkindly. “Just relax. Clint...well, he loves you to say the least. You've got to stop looking over your shoulder. You're chasing ghosts. One day you're going to wake up and realize you've been worrying all these years for nothing.”
His phone began to vibrate in his hand, the name Stark lighting up the caller ID. Do not ask for whom the bell tolls...
“I hope you're right. If you'll excuse me,” he said, sending a final nod in Fury's direction before ducking out the door.
He was tempted to hit ignore. To pretend like he'd never gotten the call- put things off just awhile longer. Enough time to go for lunch with Clint and Natasha before everything was shot to hell. His finger hovered over the screen for a moment before he hit accept.
“Coulson.” “So, Agent,” Tony hissed, not bothering with a hello. “You wanna tell me what the fuck is going on? Because it seems to me like you’ve been withholding some pretty important things from us considering I've been reading up on Clint's brain damage this morning, and oh, Clint’s fucking husband just knocked on my damn door!”
It felt like the world had fallen out from under his feet as his heart stuttered in his chest. It felt like when he thought there was another step on the staircase- like his knees were about to give out. Husband. It was- he'd expected it. He'd know it was coming, but- but...
“What nothing to say?”
Tony was mad. Tony was very mad, but Phil honestly didn't care. He powered his phone down and shoved it into his pocket. Okay. Okay. He could do this. He'd basically been expecting it right? It'd only been a matter of time. He'd spent entire nights in bed thinking about this day. About this moment. Damage control. That was all he needed to do; that was the first step.
He grabbed a Page who was running back by the arm. “Get Barton from the range. Tell him to meet me in my office.”
“Right away, sir,” the twenty-something said as he raced back from the direction he'd just come in.
He took a deep breath, trying to stop the constriction in his chest. People gave him odd looks as he stood frozen in the hallway, trying to figure out where to go from there. God. Just...just fuck. FUCK. He couldn't think. Couldn't breathe. He- He needed to go and find Clint. Needed to explain.
He almost walked straight back into Fury's office before realising he was headed in the wrong direction.
All that time getting to know him- getting to love him and it was all falling apart so quickly. He wanted to run. To grab Clint and take off and never look back. Go where no one would ever find them. He felt sick. He felt...afraid. Jesus Christ. Right. He tried to pull himself together- took a deep breath- and then another. And another. Until he was more or less hyperventilating in the middle of the fifth floor hallway where anyone could see him and people were watching him- judging him- and he if were in their place he'd be judging him too because he had to look absolutely insane. Nothing was supposed to upset Agent Coulson. Not an alien invasion- not a Norse god with both an inferiority and a superiority complex-nothing.
Phil rolled his shoulders and walked off down the hall, not even in the direction of his office. He'd meet with Clint in a bit, but he couldn't go in there looking like Armageddon was upon them.
In the end, he'd done this to himself- well, Fury had done it really, but he'd gone along with it done nothing to stop it. Guilt by omission. He'd never been one to believe in karma but if there were such a thing he figured this would be the universe's attempts to level the scale. He'd had nightmares about this- about some person showing up looking for William Brandt. About Clint finding out and hating him for what he'd let happen. They'd only gotten worse as they'd gotten closer; as he got more invested in Clint and began to forget that there'd ever been a Will in the first place.
Phil wandered aimlessly through the halls, working up the courage to head over to his office. When he finally found himself standing outside his door more than an hour had gone past and some distant part of him felt bad for keeping Clint waiting, but really he wished he could take off back down the hall and stay away for just awhile longer. He pushed open the door just as he'd pushed 'accept' on his phone because it was time to face up to what this all really was.
Clint must have either gotten bored or he'd stayed up late reading again after Phil had gone to bed, because he was fast asleep on the couch with a record crackling quietly in the corner, the music already played out. He shut the door quietly behind himself, not wanting to disturb the other man just yet. He sat down on the coffee table, looking at the rings in the stain from all times Clint and Natasha hadn't bothered to use a coaster.
He'd lose her too, he realised then. She'd never forgive him for this. She'd been Clint's first. Before she'd ever considered Phil anything other than a superior she'd been Clint's best friend- his partner. Hell, all the Avengers- all the other agents and doctors and cafeteria workers who loved Clint. One tiny lie: William Brandt never existed- that had spun out of control and he was going to lose everyone over it.
Coulson sighed as he eyed Clint where he slept. He could remember countless evenings sitting on that couch over Chinese food and paperwork, sometimes sitting with a laptop on the table watching the newest Nolan movie that he'd promised Clint they'd go and see but had missed because of a mission.
He cleared his throat and Barton stirred, groaning as he stretched and rolled onto his side.
“Lil' late,” he said, his voice rough with sleep.
“Yeah,” Phil acknowledged. “Sorry about that.”
“So what did you want to see me about?” the archer asked as he sat up, shoving the pillow he'd been using away.
“I....” How exactly was he supposed to even begin explaining what he'd done? “I...did something.” Something horrible. “Something...terrible.”
Clint had a sort of dawning horror on his face and for a moment Phil thought he knew.
“Did you break one of my bows?”
He could hear the anxiety; the apprehension in his voice and Phil had to stop himself from laughing. Because the worst thing Clint could imagine Phil doing was breaking one of his bows- though to be fair, he really did love them.
“No, I broke something a lot more important than a bow.”
So much more important, but he could practically see the 'what's more important that a bow?' on Clint's face- could see him taking a breath to ask.
Phil hadn’t cried since his father’s funeral back when he was twenty, but in that moment he wanted to sob. He wanted to collapse onto the couch next to the man he’d wanted to spend the rest of his life with and cry his heart out because everything was collapsing around his ears and he couldn’t see a way out of the labyrinth of lies he’d trapped himself in.
“Phil, baby,” Clint started worriedly, as he reached out and pulled Phil down beside him. “What’s the matter? What happened?”
Coulson shook his head silently as he leaned into Clint’s hold, taking comfort in the way the other man’s arms tightened around him. The other agent began to slowly rock them back and forth, the record’s crackling the only sound in the otherwise quiet room.
He could feel it all slipping through his fingers; getting away from him. And Phil remembered the day he’d first set eyes on William Brandt and warned Fury that this would all blow up in their faces. Detonation in T-minus ten.
“You up to telling me yet?”
Phil heaved a sigh and he tried to work past the lump in his throat. “I-I did something. Something awful.”
“We all do awful things every once in a while. Especially in our line of work. No use freaking out about it,” Clint said smartly, leaning down to press his face into Phil’s hair.
“You don’t understand.”
“Yeah, well, maybe that’s because you haven’t explained what’s freaking you out.”
Phil turned to look at him, taking in the gentle smile that was a ball of snark, comfort and encouragement all rolled into one. Oblivious; Clint had no idea that he'd been in love with a monster who could think of doing this to him.
“In a second,” he said, before leaning in to press his lips to Clint’s. The archer made a confused noise in the back of his throat before he poured his own trademark of aggression and love into it and tangled his fingers in Phil’s hair, pulling him closer.
If he could stop time, Phillip J. Coulson would’ve ground everything to a halt right then and there and spent the rest of eternity with the taste of Clint Barton on his tongue and the sensation of his warmth bleeding into his skin.
Clint pulled away and he was tempted to pull him back; to make it last just a little bit longer, but the moment was over. Everything was over.
Barton laughed as he leaned back, trying to put a bit of distance between them so he could get a look at Phil’s face. “Feeling better?”
Phil shook his head, taking in the concerned look on Clint’s face; the curve of his nose, the shape of his eyes, the bow of his lips.
“I love you so much, you know that right?”
He could still remember Clint- maybe Will at the time, sitting on that windowsill looking ready to jump and then holding him close as they slid to the ground together on that hospital room floor all those years ago. Holding that warm body to his as hands clutched at his suit. Phil couldn’t say when exactly he’d started loving Clint, but looking back he couldn’t really recall when he’d ever not loved him. He could remember being five and getting his first replica Captain America shield and thinking how Barton would tease him endlessly for it. His first date- how Brian wasn’t half as good of a kisser as Clint was. His graduation- how Clint had never gotten to experience anything like that. Somehow Clint Barton had slid into the cracks of his life and filled gaps that Phil hadn’t known to exist.
“I know,” Clint said, looking nervous now. “And you know I love you too. You’re starting to scare the shit out of me here, so can you just tell me what the hell is going on so I can stop thinking you’ve got cancer or got transferred to Siberia?”
“What if I told you something?” Phil whispered, his heart pounding loudly in his ears. “What if I told you that this is all a lie? That we’re a lie?”
“I’d tell you that you’re crazy and maybe we should get you down to Medical,” Clint said, beginning to stand and looking ready to do just that.
“I’m serious, Clint,” Phil growled, latching on to the other man’s arm. “Fury- we- we’ve been lying to you. We did this to you.”
“Did what?” he asked, looking confused. “Phil, you’re not making any sense.”
He could see his vision beginning to blur; could feel the tears threatening to well in his eyes as he tried to blink them back. Phil grabbed Clint’s hand, clutching it like a lifeline that was about to disappear.
“Your accident. Your accident in London, we lied to you. About a lot of things.”
“...What?” the archer asked frozen where he stood, disbelief colouring his voice.
“You don’t remember,” Phil started slowly, trying to fight the urge to vomit. “But after leaving the army you changed your name to William Brandt. You never worked for SHIELD before your accident. You were an operative for another agency. You were a field agent but also worked as Head Analyst. After London, you couldn’t remember anything and from what they could tell your eidetic memory was gone. Fury saw your credentials in a meeting with the Secretary of the IMF and thought that SHIELD could use a man like you. And – we couldn’t risk you remembering classified information so—
“My pills,” Clint said quietly.
“Yes,” Phil nodded. He could see understanding beginning to dawn on Clint’s face, could see any trust between them beginning to burn. He watched as the archer slumped back down onto the couch as if his will to stand had suddenly abandoned him.
“The seizures,” Clint started blankly. “All those weeks in the hospital. The psych evals. Everything. That was all…?”
“The pills...came with some very severe complications, yes,” Coulson said, practically crushing Clint’s hand in his.
“And you and Fury…Y-You just took me? Like I didn’t mean anything?” Barton asked sadly, pale and shaking as he did and Phil knew he was thinking of all the foster parents who’d abandoned him on the orphanage’s steps without a second thought; thinking about Barney who hadn’t cared about him enough to stay sober. About all the people who’d told him he wasn’t anything special; not worth their time or their money or their love
“To anyone? Like my life didn’t fucking matter?!”
He was screaming then and Phil couldn’t blame him.
“Like I was nothing? And then you fucking lied about it?! Lied about everything?! ”
Clint looked at his disbelievingly; as if seeing him for the first time. And Phil wondered what he looked like in this new light; because he’d been a monster all along, sewed into beautiful suits and hidden behind calm smiles.
“Yes,” Clint echoed numbly as he stood. Phil was tempted to hold onto him, but let the other man’s fingers slip from his grasp, leaving an aching warmth in their wake. He watched as Barton made his way over to the record player and stared down at the still spinning vinyl.
“I…I don’t know what to say. Did Natasha know?” He sounded lost. Lost and young.
“No,” Phil said gently. “She had no idea.”
You can trust her. You still have someone to hold on to; not everything was a lie.
“Do any of the Avengers…?”
“Tony and Steve have noticed some…discrepancies in your records. And today, a man showed up looking for you. For William Brandt. But, before today…no.”
“You’re right, you know,” Clint said quietly, his voice cold as he hit the switch on the turntable and plunged them into a stifling silence. You are a monster. A liar. A traitor. A vicious bastard.
“You did break something a lot more important than a bow.”
So sorry about the delay! It took me a while to figure out how I wanted to write this chapter, but once I worked out how I wanted it, I buckled down and got it done. Thank you to everyone who's left Kudos and reviews, they mean a lot to me! I hope you all continue to enjoy the story :)
Chapter 11: Love was Kind (For a Time)
I've only been to New York City once- and I sure as hell didn't drive, so I've no idea of distances or speed limits.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“The circus, Clint,” Barney had grinned, looking more manic than happy, his lips dusted with white from the chalky pills he’d swallowed while Sister Margareta had been busy reciting the Glorious Mysteries.
“We’ll run away to the circus, like in all the books.”
Clint had stared down at the rosary clenched tightly in his hand; rolled the beads between his fingers and thought of the God who’d abandoned them.
“I don’t know,” he’d whispered hesitantly, his words almost swallowed up by Hail Holy Queen: To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve; to thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.
“Don’t be stupid. I’m going, so you’re either coming or I’m leaving you here alone,” Barney had growled lowly, ignoring Sister Margareta’s glare. Then Clint had thought of staying in the orphanage without his brother- giving up the only thing he had anymore. Barney had always known what buttons to push.
Clint had been young then, young enough that people who came through snapped him up,
(“Blonde hair and blue eyes,” the woman cooed down at him. “You’re just darling.”)
but eventually they would all bring him back.
(“He’s too quiet,” the man hissed to Sister Olga, ignoring the fact that Clint could hear what he was saying. “He doesn’t talk and he stares all the time- he’s scaring my wife. You didn’t tell us he had problems. I thought he was supposed to be smart.”)
“I guess the circus could be fun,” he’d relented as he’d side eyed his brother who was rocking in his seat, his hands shaking, and the beads of his rosary rattling loudly.
There was a type of weight that came with growing up the way Clint had— the weight of betrayal. Of lost faith. The weight of your own worthlessness. It settled right in your chest like a stone. Barney had had a hole in his chest, but Clint had had a stone to ground him. To drown him; pull him down. But Barney, with his hole and with his weightlessness, had blown away.
When he’d still been young enough to cling to Barney’s hand- hold on, weight him down, keep him there forever- as they wandered through the tents, but old enough to know what all those pills meant, he’d been terrified that Barney would leave him. Return him to the orphanage just like some of the nicer ‘parents’ had, or dump him in an alley in a town he didn’t know like some of the not so nice ones.
(S’cuse me m-mister,” he called, his lips blue from cold and his teeth chattering so badly he’d bitten clean through part of his tongue. Mr. Clark had said that he was taking him for a drive to see the Christmas lights, but they’d driven for hours and when he’d finally stopped he’d pulled Clint out of his booster seat and left him on a corner, his socks quickly getting soaked through.
“C-can I borrow a q-quarter?”
The man stared at him, setting down his huge green duffel as he took in the little boy who’d wandered down the sidewalk in the dead of winter wearing nothing but a t-shirt and Sesame Street pajama pants.
“I g-gotta call m-my brother and I-I haven’t got any m-money.”
Clint couldn’t understand the look on the man’s face as they stood there watching one another, the cold making clouds of their breath.
“I’ll take a dime if that’s all you got.”
Clint never did get the change he’d asked for, but years later, when his run at the circus had come to a screeching halt and he was wondering what to do next, he would remember the soldier who’d picked him up, wrapped him in his jacket and carried him through the snow on Christmas Eve.)
Blood is thicker than water- and that was true, but one thing Clint had learned was that blood didn’t have to mean family, because Barney hadn’t been the premiere example of familial love. Blood could mean the gush of femoral red staining Natasha’s hands as she tied a tourniquet around his thigh- it could be the knick on Phil’s neck from where his hand had slipped that morning. It could be Natasha’s hair and the packages of cinnamon hearts he and Fury split sometimes or the cheery red of the Chinese takeout boxes from Phil’s favourite place. Blood could be a lot of things.
Blood was the people who hadn’t left him; had helped to lift the weight that he’d been bearing all his life.
But now what? Because the stone of his own distrust and betrayal sat heavy in his chest. It wasn’t anything new- but Barney had always been too light to stay grounded with Clint- that’d been true when their parents were alive and it’d been truer after; and the ‘parents’ he’d gone with...well, he hadn’t had much luck with his actual set, so he couldn’t say his expectations had been high, even if it’d surprised him just how badly not being wanted- not mattering- hurt. But Phil? Clint had loved Phil. With all his heart. The kind of love he’d never really felt before- never received before either. And that was why this betrayal hurt impossibly more than anyone else’s- because was it really betrayal if you were expecting it all along?
No...everyone else had just lived up to his expectations. But this. This was...Phil. This was Phil. His Phil. Or well, it had been.
Ethan couldn’t sit still. It felt like his skin was ready to peel off and his muscles jumped and twitched beneath it as they sat on the soft leather couch. Jane was casting worried look in his direction, but Benji only had eyes for ‘please, just call me Steve’ now that he’d gotten over his awe of Stark. Captain America was...impressive to say the least. Tony Stark equally so, although for different reasons.
But Ethan couldn’t help but feel the burn of resentment in the pit of his stomach, knowing that they’d have Will to themselves for months now. Been able to see him in the morning; talk with him over breakfast; wish him goodnight. It was difficult to reconcile that hate with the two men who were sitting across from him, their shoulders brushing.
“Well, this is nice and awkward,” Stark smiled, ignoring the glare that Steve sent in his direction. “And seeing as this is my home, I think it’s within my right to demand you tell me what the hell is going on.”
“I think you’re the one who owes us some answers,” Ethan shot back hotly.
“If you think we’re responsible for this shit storm you’re—
“Tony, stop it,” Steve growled his voice thick with authority, and in that moment Ethan could understand why entire platoons of men had followed him. “We’ve known Clint since the attack on New York,” the Captain continued, now addressing them. “His file had said he’d been a member of SHIELD for nine years, and he had a lot of commendations. He seemed, and has proved to be, a strong solider, a good man, and a wonderful friend. Beyond that,” he shrugged “We didn’t even know about the brain damage and memory loss until today when Tony tracked down the files you’d downloaded. Obviously, we know nothing of any life he might’ve lived that isn’t recorded in his file.”
“Will- Clint,” Jane corrected herself. “Was a field agent and Head Analyst for the IMF for six years before he was injured on a mission in London. He was struck in the head.”
Ethan could hear the pain in her voice; see the tightening of her jaw as she remembered that day. Remembered Will lying on the ground, his hair a mess of dust and blood and his eyes staring blankly up into the bright blue sky.
“When we were extracted he was loaded into separate transport. When we were able to get to the hospital where he was being treated we were told he’d died several hours earlier.”
Before we could get there.
He could hear her thinking it- see it on her face. Benji was grey as he stared down at the mug of coffee in his hands. Will and Benji had been close, best friends even if they antagonised each other relentlessly. He’d taken Will’s death hard- he hadn’t been close with Agent Hanaway like Jane. Had never lost anyone to the job before Brandt had disappeared into that helicopter and never come out.
“We...had no idea,” the redhead piped up quietly. “Until we saw the footage of him. Ethan knew right away- Jane and I, we weren’t so sure. But Ethan knew. Could tell right away. So an associate and I hacked into the SHIELD database to compare Clint Barton’s file and picture with Will. You can imagine it was...a bloody shock.”
“Can’t say I’m surprised Fury would be in on something like this,” Stark mumbled, but the shock belying his cool exterior was clear. And so was the anger.
“From what we can tell,” he said, picking up where Benji had left off. “With the brain damage and memory loss he’d suffered from, the Secretary decided that Will’s services were no longer needed. I’m guessing your Director stepped in and offered to take Will off his hands.”
“Like a back room trade,” Tony snarled, his hands digging into his knees.
“Clint Barton isn’t even his real name?” Steve asked, his hand trailing across the couch to intertwine his fingers with Tony’s.
“It is, but he changed it for personal reasons within the agency. Legally, he’s always been Clint Barton,” Jane explained.
“Look,” Steve started calmly, but he his eyes were pinched with stress. “We get that you want to see Clint, but what you’ve got to understand is that he probably has no idea. And he’s got a life here. A team, Phil—
“Screw Agent,” Tony yelled. “You think he wasn’t in on this?! Fury’s right hand man?! He might as well have done it himself. And sure, Fury’s an asshole, but at least he’s not dating the man whose life he erased and decided to rewrite!”
Clint couldn’t bring himself to look back, afraid of what he’d find sitting where Phil used to be. Walking into the hallway was like stepping out into a new world. The noise was muffled and the colours muted; as if everything had been swept away by a wash of grey; like he was drowning. His knees wobbled as he stumbled down the hall and he could feel the weight of eyes on him.
“Barton,” Sitwell called as he leaned out of his office door, looking worried. “You didn’t forget your pills again did you, because you look awful. Do you need me to walk you down to Med?”
If everyone wasn’t staring at him before, they sure were now. He tried to choke out a reply but stopped when he felt bile rising in his throat.
Sitwell took a step towards him. “Why don’t you just sit down while I call down, huh? They can come and get you.”
Clint waved him off and basically picked up a junior agent and set her aside so that he could have the elevator to himself; pounding the door close button and ‘P’ before anyone could get any ideas.
He pressed back against the wall, trying to stop from falling over as the elevator descended. He wanted to vomit; to scream. He wanted to track down Fury and put an arrow between his eyes. He wanted to cry. Everything...everything had fallen apart so quickly. He could remember that morning, kissing Phil goodbye, telling Natasha that he wanted to be with Phil for the rest of his life. And now he didn’t think he could look at Phil without hitting him.
The elevator pinged as it arrived at the parking garage and Clint realised he didn’t have a car- couldn’t drive. He stared at the countless rows of matte black Acuras, wondering what the hell he was going to do. Where would he go? Where did he fucking start? How was he supposed to go about figuring out who he was- who he’d left behind?
He’d left his phone in Phil’s office so he couldn’t call for a lift and wouldn’t even think about going back inside to look for Natasha. Public transit was a no seeing as he’d left his wallet with his phone.
Well, maybe Clint Barton couldn’t drive, but he’d bet his ass that William fucking Brandt could. He punched his pin number into the nearest car, the door popping open and the onboard computer letting out a simple, “Welcome Agent Barton.”
He slammed the door closed behind him and pressed the start button.
“You are not authorised to operate this vehicle.”
“Override: beta-one-seven-nine-Victor-indigo,” he growled, tugging on his seatbelt.
“Override protocol accepted. Initiating engine start.”
The car purred to life under his hands, the GPS lighting up in the dash and the doors automatically locking as the headlights flicked on. Clint took a deep breath, re-familiarizing himself with the feeling of being in the driver seat for a moment before reaching down and grabbing the gearshift.
He threw the car to reverse, the engine revving as he spun around. The tires squealed as he tore out of the garage and out onto the street, neatly swerving in to join the traffic and flooring it, weaving through the lanes with ease. People beeped at him as he passed, the speedometer slowly climbing as his foot pushed closer and closer to the floor.
The lights of the city blurred around him in sweeps of colour, his ears thrumming with the hum of the engine. He could remember rolling through the desert; sand and sun beating down on him from all sides with the sound of gunfire screaming in his ears. He wondered if William Brandt had owned a car- gotten that dog- been happy.
Clint swerved to avoid a stalled car, accelerating smoothly to get in front of a pickup in the next lane. The traffic was beginning to pick up- people taking to the streets as the lunch hour neared- slowing him down- trapping him.
He decided buses were the worst- they were huge and slow and were constantly stopping. Cars were slamming to a halt in front of him- probably an accident. He waited as the Honda in the next lane began to slow and then floored it so he could cut in front as the other car hit its breaks. He could see an on ramp ahead took it without thinking.
He needed to go- to get out of the city- to get away from Phil and SHIELD and everything that he’d thought he was.
The ramp was backed up so he took the paved shoulder and sped past them all, flicking on the flashers so they’d let him in at the end. The cop in the speed trap near the next exit didn’t even spare Clint a second glance as he tore down the highway. He pressed down on the gas, going thirty- forty-fifty over the speed limit until he was almost doing one-ninety, the engine handling it smoothly.
There was something to be said about the quality of vehicles SHIELD used.
He could see the blue of the water breaking through the landscape of offices and high rises and he knew where he wanted to go. He took the next exit, cars pulling to the right to clear the way for him. The roads were smaller in this part of town- less crowded too. He didn’t slow as the beach came into view. He ignored the gate that bridged across the road to stop cars from driving out onto the sand; didn’t pay attention to the screech of metal as he ploughed through it. He disregarded the way the tires spun uselessly on the sand for half a second before they gained some traction, the engine thrumming beneath his fingers. All he noticed was the pain in his chest- in his heart- the burning rage that was working its way up his throat. He paid no attention to the jolt and the crash of the waves breaking over the hood of the car as he drove straight into the ocean.
“Agent Barton,” the computer chimed. “I am detecting rising water levels. Are you in need of assistance?”
“No,” he answered, leaning back in his seat.
The onboard computer beeped an alert- water in the engine- as it shut everything down. The flashers went dark and the dashboard flickered for a moment before giving out too.
Clint calmly shifted the car into neutral, the waves pulling and pushing the car down the incline as the water flooded in, already up to his ankles.
The water was cold despite the warm weather, making Goosebumps rise on his skin as it began to lap at his knees. He needed— he wasn’t sure what he needed. He couldn’t go back. He didn’t think he could look at Phil’s face. And the thought of meeting the people who’d come looking for William Brandt left a bad taste in his mouth.
They’d been given a spark of hope that their friend was still alive, and he couldn’t bear to crush their dreams. Not now. Not today. Because who the hell was William Brandt? What had he been like? Gone through?
Clint shivered as the water reached his waist, his knuckles white as hands gripping tightly to the steering wheel.
What was he supposed to do? There wasn’t any protocol for this- no Phil to whisper orders in his ear.
The water was up to his ribs, his tactical vest and t-shirt doing little to seal in any body heat. He could just sit there if he wanted. No more bullshit. No Phil to face- no people to disappoint. Nothing. Nothing but water and cold that was already beginning to claw at his lungs.
The water kept rising; passed his ribs, up his collar bone to his neck.
Before he knew what he was doing he found himself unbuckling his seatbelt and forcing open the door, struggling for a moment against the water pressure before the ocean rushed into the cab of the car and he was free.
Clint pushed himself from the car, the waves washing over his head as he bobbed to the surface.
A couple with a dog were standing on the beach, watching as he struggled against the water to make his way to shore. The drag of his pants and the endless waves only made him more frustrated- made the anger boiling inside him even worse.
“Sir!” the woman called worriedly, tugging on her dog’s leash to keep it from running to join Clint in the water. “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” he yelled back, trying not to sound angry.
“Are you sure?”
“YES!” he screamed as he finally the shallows. “I’M FINE! I’M ABSOLUTELY FUCKING FINE.”
The woman hesitated before nodding and pulling her partner along down the beach leaving him to stand there, drenched through.
Clint tired to breathe- to relax the way he’d seen Bruce do more often than not. Breathe through the anger and the pain- reach inner peace of whatever the hell Bruce was always going on about. Zen. Nirvana. He didn’t give a shit. He just- he just needed—
His voice echoed and bounced off the waves as the water swallowed up the car.
He tore at his hair, kicking uselessly at the rippling water as he stalked back up to shore, his clothes clinging uselessly to his body.
His throat ached and his voice cracked but he couldn’t stop- couldn’t swallow up his screams as he swore. He could feel anger boiling underneath his skin; he raked his nails over his arms, trying to claw it out, the pain making him scream even louder.
He screamed and swore, railed against his own anger until his voice gave out and his arms were a mess of cuts. Tears were burning in his eyes as he collapsed down onto the sand, the dirt scrubbing painfully against his raw skin. He choked back a sob as he stared down at his hands, his nails bright red with his blood as he wondered just what the hell he was going to do.
“Dating...?” Ethan asked, almost afraid of what he was going to hear.
It had never really occurred to him that Clint Barton would have a life built up around him. People he loved- someone he loved, just as Will had loved Ethan. The thought made the bottom of his stomach drop out.
“They’re not officially,” Steve admitted, looking wry and it was clear that there was a story there.
“Oh come off it,” Tony said, rolling his eyes. “Those two are all over each other and were long before we ever met them.”
They’re very committed to each other,” Steve told him. “Truthfully, when I first met them I’d assumed they were married at least. But regardless, I don’t think Phil is capable of doing this to Clint. To someone else? Maybe. But I can’t see him doing this to Clint. He’ll be able to explain things to us and we’ll get to the bottom of this.”
“Yes, because completely innocent people hang up when you confront them,” Tony laughed humourlessly.
“Completely innocent, shocked people just might,” Steve shot back. “I may not have heard the conversation, but knowing you it consisted of ‘hello Phil, your boyfriend’s husband just knocked at my door’.”
“Well...,” Tony trailed off chagrined.
“Dear God, Tony,” Steve sighed, embarrassed for his partner. “This is why Pepper doesn’t let you do Press anymore. You have no sense of tact!”
Ethan got the impression that this was an age old argument as the two Avengers glared at one another with barely any heat. It was similar to how Will used to nag him about not reading instructions. It made his heart ache. He just wanted Will back. Wanted to see him again.
“Sir,” Jarvis- the AI butler. Only Tony Stark.- interrupted. “Agent Coulson is at the door.”
“Speak of the devil and he shall appear. Let him up,” Tony called as everyone’s eyes shifted to the elevator.
“Alright, now don’t everyone jump at his throat,” Steve instructed firmly as he stood from the couch. “We’ve no idea what his involvement was in this. Give him the benefit of the doubt; he at least deserves that from us, Tony.”
Stark grumbled out an agreement, slinking down further into the cushions as the elevator pinged.
Ethan stood and turned to face the man who might’ve helped rip Will away from him, and he wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, but Phil Coulson sure wasn’t it. Unassuming was putting it lightly. But he’d dealt with the type before- the kind of person who looked harmless only to hold a gun to your head the minute you let your guard down. They were always some of the most dangerous. Half of the IMF had the same sort of calm, collected, banker look.
But ever since this had stared Ethan had imagined faceless people sitting in an office, pulling the strings. To finally see one of the men who might be responsible...it made it more real. But it also tore at his heart. Because apparently this man was in love with Will- just like him. This sad, trodden down looking man wasn’t what he’d wanted. He’d wanted an imposing bastard who wore a smirk that could rival Stark’s. He wanted a goddamn monster in a suit. And all he got was a man who looked like his world had just fallen out from under him.
Coulson stopped short at the mouth of the elevator when he saw that they were waiting for him and their eyes locking. Ethan could see the resignation there, and in that instant he knew the hand that Coulson had played in the death and disappearance of William Brandt.
He wasn’t aware of moving; didn’t notice Benji trying to grad his arm; didn’t realise he’d tackled the other man to the floor until he’d already done it, and by then three years worth of grief and rage was telling him to make this man hurt- hurt him until he felt some iota of the pain Ethan had been feeling while Phil Coulson been off falling in love with Clint Barton. People were yelling- shouting for him to stop as he drove his fist into the other man’s stomach.
“How could you do this!?” Ethan screamed, his fist pounding into Coulson’s face, the other making no move to defend himself from the attack. “How could you do this to us?!”
Us; Will, Jane, Benji, Ethan, the Avengers, himself- Phil Coulson had built a maze of lies and trapped them all in it.
He felt someone- Steve- grab him and hoist him into the air, pulling him off of the man despite his struggling.
“You fucking bastard! I thought he was dead! I thought I’d never see him again! He was gone!”
“Ethan,” Jane shrieked, “Stop it!”
“I’m going to kill you! Do you hear me?!” He snarled, ignoring the pain of Steve’s grip around his waist and ribs. “They’ll need dental records to identify your damn body.”
Steve tossed him back onto the couch as Tony rushed over to the still downed Coulson.
“Holy shit, Phil!” the billionaire swore as he dropped down to his knees beside the man he’d been cursing out not five minutes ago. “What the hell was that?! Just going to let him beat your face in?”
“Deserved it,” Coulson said around a mouth full as blood as Tony helped him sit up.
“Christ,” Tony hissed as he took in the damage. “You’re going to regret this tomorrow.”
Coulson shrugged as he staggered to his feet, blood rolling down his chin and dripping onto the carpet. Ethan was still on the couch, fighting the urge to swing at the Coulson again. Jane grabbed his hand, her fingers squeezing his tightly- a warning and a reassurance.
“I take it,” Coulson stared thickly, as he wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his suit. “That you’d be Will’s husband.”
“Yes,” Ethan hissed, seething. “Where the hell is he?”
“He took off,” Coulson told him flatly. “Took a car and drove off once I told him everything.”
“Clint can’t even drive,” Steve protested.
“Of course Will can bloody well drive,” Benji scoffed loudly.
“I...,” the Captain trailed off, looking just on the wrong side of confused.
Ethan’s stomach twisted- he was so close. So damn close. And Will was running away- but Ethan would chase him. He’d been chasing after Will for three years now, even if he’d been chasing a ghost until a few days ago. He wouldn’t give up now. Not ever.
“So you’re responsible for this shit?” Tony asked accusingly.
“Partly, yes,” Coulson admitted easily, but the guilt was clear on his face.
“Tell us,” Steve ordered as he took a seat on the other couch, pointing the man towards a free chair.
Coulson sat, obviously in pain as he took a deep breath and began:
“Director Fury obtained William Brandt from the IMF- the Secretary was at a loss as to what to do with him. From what I was told, it sounded as though the Secretary was low on options; eventually he might’ve made the decision to euthanize him as a precaution, but that’s just conjecture,” he added quickly. “Fury saw his file and offered to take him off his hands, and the Secretary agreed. When he arrived I was put in charge of overseeing his care and preparation for basic training. I...disapproved at first. But I went along with it anyway.”
Coulson looked down at his hands as he licked his lips that were still bright red with drying blood. “Will was basically gone already. His IQ had taken a bit of a hit, his eidetic memory was gone, his personality was all over the place. He couldn’t remember anything passed coming back from the Middle East.
“The doctors told him that he’d been in an accident while on a mission for SHIELD, of which he’d been a member for six years. He was...distraught.” He said the word carefully, the ‘t’ sharp off the edge of his teeth. “He tried to escape, but I managed to stop him. Told him he could trust me; that I’d known him for years; might’ve inadvertently contributed to the creation of a new distinct personality. He told me that... he needed someone. He couldn’t remember who- but he kept saying ‘I need him’. I suppose you’re ‘him’,” Phil said wryly, looking up at Ethan who blinked back tears as he struggled to regulate his breathing.
“I’ve known him for years now,” Phil started again slowly, his fingers trailing over a spot on blood on his knee. “And I’ve never seen him as wrecked as when he remembered that you weren’t there. He couldn’t remember you; your face, your name, where you were, what your voice sounded like. But he knew he had to get back to you. That you were waiting for him. He knew that he needed you with him. But he was Will then,” he said, his voice gaining strength and momentum; a kind of conviction coming over him.
“And I know that when you get a look at him, that’s all you’re going to see. This must be like all your dreams coming true. I-I can only imagine the pain of losing him- I have imagined it- for years now, and I’m deeply sorry that I had a hand in this. But I won’t allow you to that; to treat him like the husband that you lost back in London. He’s not that man anymore- if you want to blame the accident itself or the medical intervention afterwards— he’s still a different person. You loved Will, but I love Clint, and I’d do anything to make sure that he’s happy. And you’d hurt him so badly if you did that to him.”
“I would never hurt Will,” Ethan snapped, ready to rise.
“Maybe not, but this is Clint we’re talking about.”
“They’re the same damn person!” Ethan yelled, red faced as Jane squeezed his hand even harder.
“They’re not. Once you see him, you’ll know it.”
“Then let me see him,” he urged. God, just let me see him. Let me hold him. “Where the hell is he?”
Coulson dug into his pocket and pulled out a small device. He stared down at it for a moment, gripping it tightly before holding it out. “The car has a GPS. Follow this and you’ll find him there.”
Ethan pulled away from Jane and reached to tug the device from Coulson’s hand.
“You can use one of my cars,” Tony offered stiffly, looking pale and sad. Everyone was so damn sad. “I figure this is something you’ll want to do one your own, so we’ll all wait here. Come back when you’re both ready.”
“Yes,” he whispered, staring down at the screen and the tiny red pulsing dot that would lead him back to Will. “I...I need to be alone with him.”
Steve stood and gripped his shoulder, his eyes pained but his hand encouraging.
“Go and get him.”
Thank you to everyone who favourited, subscribed and sent Kudos! It means a lot to me. Sorry this chapter took a while, I meant to get it done over Thanksgiving weekend, but alas, I had exams to study for. I'm not sure how many chapters are left, but I feel as though 3 is probably about it.
After this story, I've got a couple AU fics planned. One where Clint is found quite young and is raised by Fury, and another where the Avengers are all models who are signed to the fashion magazine: Stark. I plan to have it follow a year in their lives. I hope that if you like this story, that you'll join me for those adventures as well :)
Chapter 12: Bury My Heart (Next to Yours)
Steve had seen his share of broken men. Seen the way their shoulders caved in, like all the air had been sucked out of them. He'd seen them wandering the alley ways in Brooklyn, laying in the trenches, or peeking from blown out windows. He'd seem them marching with the American flag sewn onto their shoulders, and with the swastika wrapped around their arms. They didn't tell you about that in basic: how broken men could be German, American, French- it didn't matter.
They all had that same look to them. It made having to kill them harder- because in that moment you were all just men. Fighting for your country, some not by choice. With families and mothers worrying at home, wondering if their little boy would come back safe.
He could see that pain; the concave look starting to take hold, in Phil. The look of a man giving up after a long battle. Steve could tell that Tony was angry, could feel it in the line tension of his shoulders and the line of his jaw- but he couldn't echo it. Couldn't work it up within himself. Could only see sad eyes and a hopelessness that hadn't been there before.
War made monsters of everyone, but somewhere along the line, SHIELD had made a monster of Phil Coulson.
Phil could feel the weight of Steve’s eyes; of his disappointment. Tony had disappeared quickly enough, leaving him to sit with the two IMF agents and his childhood idol. The silence was oppressive, everyone either afraid to break it or content to let Phil suffer. He filled it with thoughts of Ethan and Clint, of them falling into each others’ arms- finding common ground in their mutual hate of him.
They all looked up as the elevator pinged, but any relief Phil might’ve felt disappeared as the doors opened to reveal a livid Black Widow, answering the question of where Stark had disappeared to.
Clint had been hers first, as much as a person could ever belong to someone- her partner, her best friend- before Phil had become anything special. There was a part of him that had realised in the beginning, that when Clint had decided to take their relationship further, Natasha had permitted it.
There was something to them that Phil could never be a part of. Some bond that had formed when they were both still broken and jagged and looking for something to sooth their rough edges. No matter what Clint had felt, if she had advised against it, said that it wasn’t a good idea, Clint would have agreed. Just as she would have if the situation were reversed.
Most of the encoded paperwork listed them as Blackhawk. Not Hawk and Widow, but Blackhawk. Two people, one word. One unit. They were inseparable and indistinguishable and Phil might’ve accidently created Clint Barton’s basic personality, but Natasha Romanov had created Clint. Taken the shaky skeleton of a man he’d been and fleshed him out and given him life. He was her partner, her friend, her brother, and her son. A creation spun from dust and cobwebs; from hours spent talking in dark rooms about even darker things; from bruises and blood and sacrifice and gun oil.
Phil saw death in her eyes and hate in the set of her jaw and knew that Natasha was now out of his reach- had become some far off entity reserved for the trusted and the loved and Phil was now neither of those things.
“How dare you,” she growled as she stalked towards him, her voice low, and her hands twitching with the need to inflict pain. “How could you do it? To him of all people."
"Easily," he said before he could stop the words from coming out. Easily; because if anyone can understand the plight of a Company Man born and bred, it was her. That won’t change anything; wouldn’t make her trust him again, but she'll know. He did it with the same ease that he pulled a trigger for the blessed trinity of SHIELD, Nick Fury, and national security; his maker, destroyer and driving force.
"He trusted you."
We trusted you.
"He'll never get over this."
I would kill you right now if it would solve anything.
I'd let you.
Jane was no stranger to death, even before being recruited by the IMF. But Brandt's had hit them all hard. They hadn't known each other for all that long in the grand scheme of things, but as it was with all the best of friendships, it felt like a lifetime; as if Brandt had always been there- just out of sight. In an office off the main hallway; in a conference room the level below, in the elevator she'd just missed. Like they'd circled around each other like ships in the night, never crossing paths but coming so damn close.
The feeling hadn't left once he was gone- the feeling that he was just out of view- flicking in and out of her peripheral vision like a shadow, just beyond the corner, waiting. She missed his laugh. How his Technicolour eyes had crinkled when he smiled that goofy grin he couldn't always manage to choke down. The way he'd rub at his nose and chin while he was thinking- how Ethan would reach out and catch his fingers before bringing them to his lips.
Jane was no stranger to lost love either. Trevor had been...a possibility. An addicting idea that never became reality. They'd danced around one another- fooled around a bit along the way- but never tried for anything more. Had she loved him? Maybe. Yes. In a way. In that sort of way that you loved an idea. She wasn't sure if she could have loved the reality, but he would always have a place in her heart where she kept their walks around New York at night and kisses traded in his studio apartment. She couldn't fool herself into thinking that what she'd felt came anywhere close to how Ethan had loved Will. She'd seen it when Ethan's eyes kept straying to the rear-view mirror to catch a glimpse of him until they'd almost driven straight into a herd of camels. In the way their hands sought each other out. In the lines of anger on their faces as they screamed. In the smile Will had on his face when Ethan had slipped the gold band onto his finger.
She'd predicted their end countless times, only for them to be pulled back to each other with an almost magnetic force. It was a quiet sort of love, but so damn strong that she'd thought Ethan wasn't going to make it without him. He'd battled his way through life, overcome every challenge that anyone had ever tossed his way, coming out whole if not hale. But she'd thought this was it- that he'd finally roll over and die. But just like with everything else, he'd clawed and dragged himself through.
Going into this, tracking down Will, she'd figured it'd all work out. That they might need to figure some things out, and then they'd be happy again. That all the clawing and fighting would pay off. But doubt was creeping into her mind as she watched another man's shoulders slump and face pale, at the thought of Clint Barton disappearing from his life. There'd always been the possibility that Will had moved on- made himself a life in his new reality, and here it was, sitting across from her.
Ethan and Will were like magnets, yes, but polarities could change.
The tracker in the car led him to a beach about a half hour out from the city, the bright red of the blinking light looking like a beacon in the half-light of early evening. The beach was almost deserted, but Ethan could make out the silhouette of a man huddled in the sand close enough to the water’s edge that waves had to be lapping at his legs. The thought that the man was Will sent his heart into overdrive, pounding loudly in his ears until he could barely hear the tide coming in, tattooing a name against his ribcage. Will.Will.Will.
He felt like he was walking in a dream as he made his way down the sand towards where the other man was sitting— expected to wake up in bed all alone with the outline of Will burned into his retinas— so, so close but never close enough. He wanted to call out, but his voice caught in his throat as he tucked the tracker into his pocket. Will turned, his head craning around to get a look at whoever was attempting to sneak up behind him.
It felt like Ethan’s heart had stuttered to a stop- a final relentless Will hammering into his chest before it went silent at the sight of those grey blue eyes. Of dark blonde hair, and gentle crows’ feet. Of William Brandt, hale, whole, and healthy, sitting there on the sand looking up at him like he’d never laid eyes on Ethan before and that was just fine because it was Will. Because the last time Ethan had seen his husband those eyes had been glassy and his skin bleached white from blood loss as he’d stared blankly up at the empty blue sky above them. He’d been dying. And then he’d been dead. Burned and scattered.
He’d never been a man of God, but he’d prayed then. Begged. Begged to wake up and have Will grumbling about the light shining through the blinds. To walk into the sun-room and see him asleep on the couch. Hear him complain about Ethan’s cooking because he couldn’t be bothered to actually follow the recipe properly. To have all the little things back like the toothbrush laying next to his, and the black razor in the cabinet and the rings of coffee stains.
But now there he was, staring over at him with red tired eyes.
Will slowly stood, looking as though the weight of the world was trying to press him down into the ground. His clothes were damp and most of him was caked in sand, his shoes kicked off farther down the shore. For the first time in a little over three years, Ethan found himself standing face to face his husband.
He looked pale, his jaw working tightly in a tell that Ethan recognised as a sign of stress.
“I- you’re one of the people who came looking for me,” Will said, his voice lower than he remembered, more worn.
Ethan nodded uselessly, “I- I’m Ethan Hunt.”
He wasn’t sure what he’d been hoping for- well, that was a lie. He knew exactly what he’d wanted. He’d wanted Will to look at him and have something click. For him to recognise the man he’d married despite all the talk of permanent brain damage and memory loss and drugs
“We...were friends?” Will asked, his voice hesitant and his eyes searching, as if trying to see what had been between them once upon a time.
“Married, actually,” Ethan said delicately, the words physically paining him. Everything felt so stilted and awkward where once they’d been fluid, perfect, together.
Will paled, looking almost impossibly white as he took a step back. “I-no one—
“I figured,” Ethan said, burning with the need to touch- to hold- as he reached out. The other man hunched in on himself, bracing his hands on his knees as if he were winded.
"This morning, I sort of thought I was unmarried and in an almost steady relationship."
"It's a shock," Ethan agreed, trying to maintain some distance and failing wonderfully.
"That's putting it lightly," Will said, trying to smile, but only managing to pull off a pained grimace. "I know this can't be...how you imagined all this going."
"Beggars can't be choosers. I'd rather have this than nothing at all," Ethan said, collapsing down onto the sand. God knew it wasn’t how he’d imagined it. He’d dreamed of this for years, but anything he’d ever come up with seemed impossible now. Some far off fantasy that had slipped through his grasping fingers.
Will followed him down, keeping a respectable distance between them.
"It's just... amazing to see you walking around." To see you alive.
Will curled tightly around his knees, managing to look small despite his corded arms and solid frame.
"The last time I saw you," Ethan continued, staring out over the water. "We were in London and there was an explosion."
"SHIELD told me I took a hit to the head," Will nodded.
"If by hit they meant half of your damn skull was caved in, yes, you took a hit to the head," he growled, remembering how he'd almost retched at the sight, how Will had been completely unresponsive, but conscious. Almost doll like in his stillness
"When our evac came, they took you in a separate copter. Said I'd get in the way while they were trying to work on you. It took a few hours for clean up and for another to get clearance to land. By the time I got to the hospital... you were gone," Ethan choked, finding himself back in a white washed hallway staring uselessly at the doctor who'd worked on his husband.
"I should've- I should’ve gone with you. Told them to fuck off and insisted! I've regretted it ever since. None of this would've happened- I could've stopped them from doing this to you,” he told him, his voice and soul heavy with guilt.
Will turned to look at him, still curled tight, but in the dying light of the setting sun his expression was determined. "You couldn't have done anything, Ethan. H- I wouldn't begrudge you for not being there. No one would. You got there as soon as you could. You don't have to feel guilty."
Ethan sat back, taking it in as the waves clawed at the sand. In the many dreams he’d over the past three years, this had been one- of Will telling him it was okay. That it was alright. But now that he'd heard it, his heart was still aching. The weight of the guilt was still there, pressing down on his chest and constricting his lungs.
"I don't think I can stop," He said sadly.
A hand closed tightly around his, and although the calluses were new, he'd have never forgotten the feeling of Will's hand in his. He stared down at their entwined fingers, not really sure how to process what was happening.
"Surreal?" Will guessed.
Ethan laughed brokenly, pulling Will into a hug before the other man could duck away. Will tensed for a moment, and Ethan froze, realising he'd probably just crossed the line, but relaxed as Will leaned into him. He smelled of saltwater and sweat, but Ethan had never smelled anything better.
“Oh God,” he whispered, shoving his nose into Will's hair as if to inhale him. He never wanted to let go again. Didn’t think he’d be physically capable of trying to. “Oh God. You’ve no idea how much I’ve missed you,” he gasped, his breath catching as tears stung at his eyes. “How empty I’ve been without you.”
Will reached up to return his hold, his strong arms –finally, finally, finally- wrapping tightly around him.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” he chanted; could never say them enough times to express how deeply he felt them. To explain the regret that ate away at him.
“I should’ve been there. I should’ve been there to hold your hand. You died all al— before I could tell you just how much I loved you. Before I could say goodbye,” he said brokenly. “I’m sorry. I’m so fucking sorry.”
Clint pressed his forehead into Ethan’s shoulder, taking a deep breath as they both tried to keep it together. He’d cried enough already. Wallowed for over an hour in his own misery- but he was done with that. He had to be, or else he’d fall apart without any hope of ever putting together all the pieces again. People used you; that was a fact of life. It was unfair and shit, but that’s just how it was, had always been and always would be. He hadn’t made it this far in life by breaking down. He needed to keep going- to- to do something. But—
“I don't know what to do,” Clint groaned, as they rocked back and forth.
“I know,” Ethan nodded , sounding haggard as he tightened his hold.
“I thought he...”
Clint couldn't get the words out, they stuck in his throat until he was choking on them, his eyes burning.
“I know,” Ethan said again, his voice gentle and kind and everything that anyone could ever dream of, but he wasn’t in love with Clint. He was in love with some gone-dead-whatever the hell he was, version of him named Will, and everything was so damn fucked.
“How'd you meet?” He asked quietly, wanting to know everything and nothing at the same time. A part of him wanted to know what’d been taken from him- what he’d been missing all this time- but a large part of him also wanted to plug his ears and pretend he was alone again. Wanted to forget that the day had ever happened, that Ethan Hunt had ever wanted into his life, and go back to the life he’d been living. Ignorance, Clint realised, really was bliss.
He shifted out of Ethan’s arms, ignoring the other man’s look of longing, the entire thing feeling awkward to him. He collapsed down into the sand, trying to ignore how uncomfortable his damp jeans were.
“You actually knew me before I met you,” Ethan started, sitting down beside him so that their shoulders brushed. Clint wished he could push him away- wanted to walk back into the water and swallow the ocean until the empty feeling in his chest subsided.
“In Croatia. But we officially met in Moscow.”
“Whirlwind romance?” Clint asked, attempting to sound good humoured.
“No,” Ethan said simply, looking at him fondly; with hope. “Not at all.”
“Yeah,” Clint sighed, thinking of Phil. “Guess it wasn’t really his thing either.”
“You’re cautious,” the other man shrugged. “You’ve never been one to just jump right into things.”
Clint stared at him, something building in his chest until he couldn’t force it down anymore, and then he laughed. “A-Are you kidding me? Oh, God, all I do is jump into things!”
He knew he must’ve sounded half hysterical, out of his fucked up mind. Ethan looked at him like he was as crazy as he felt, but the laugher just kept spilling over.
“Fuck,” the archer swore, smiling now. “Will sounds like he had a stick up his ass.”
“You,” Ethan said.
Clint blinked. “What?”
“You sound like you’ve— you’re Will,” Ethan amended. “You...you get that right? That...you’re not two separate people? You’re William Brandt, no matter what your name is.”
Clint flinched, twisting his fingers in the sand by his knees. “Right- yeah, I know.”
He did. He did. Sort of. Seeing as he’d only found out about all this shit half a day ago, he figured he was adjusting pretty damn well all things considered, and anyone who said otherwise could go fuck themselves.
“I...I just. God,” he huffed, shivering in his wet clothes from the breeze that was coming off of the water as the sun began to disappear behind the horizon.
“This is all so unbelievable— and I deal in unbelievable things, buddy!” he said. “I work with a fucking giant green rage monster for Christ’s sake, but this? This is— this is...fucking unbelievable,” he said, deflating.
“There’s no Yahoo Answer to this shit, you know? There’s no protocol. I don’t...I don’t know what you want from me, Ethan. I’ve no goddamn idea.”
“Your name is Will,” Ethan told him again.
“Look, you’ve got to stop,” Clint growled, climbing to his feet, anger swooping down on him from nowhere. “I get it, alright?! I get that we’re the same person, but for the love of— just call me Clint, alright?” he shouted, storming up the beach to grab his shoes.
“I might’ve been Will once,” he called back to Ethan who was sitting stalk still in the sand. “And I know, you loved him and he loved you, but right now I’m Clint Barton. Just- just I can’t- this is a lot, okay? So- so just go home! Go back to where you came from! I can’t help you!”
“Will!” Ethan yelled, scrambling up from the sand and onto his feet. “Wi— I mean Clint. I’m sorry- Clint, wait!”
Clint ignored him, making his way to the street to try and find a cab. He’d walk back to the fucking tower if he had to.
A hand grabbed his shoulder, spinning him around. He lashed out but Ethan deflected the blow, wrapping his free arm around Clint’s waist to pull him in until they were pressed chest to chest.
"I'll take you away," Ethan said urgently. "Home. We'll go home and I'll help you remember everything. You may never be exactly as you were- but we’ll be happy. I promise. I promise, Clint.”
“Ethan, even if I wanted to go, I couldn’t, not with being on the Avengers. They’re a bunch of insane idiots, but they’re my team. I couldn’t just up and leave them.”
“We’re your team, Will. I’m you’re damn husband!”
“Listen, just listen,” Ethan growled, the grip on Clint’s shoulders tightening. “You don’t owe them- SHIELD, The Avengers, Phil, any of them- you don’t owe them anything. Not a damn thing. You’ve given them enough. We’ve given everyone enough of ourselves. Let’s just...let’s just try to get better. Together. Just- just come with me,” Ethan begged, pulling him close. “Please. They can visit us whenever they want. Stay in the guest rooms. Come for Christmas. Whatever you want. Just please, please come home.”
“I’m not Will, Ethan,” Clint told him gently, reaching up to hold the other man’s hands, trying to press his regret into the scarred skin he found there. “I’m sorry. But...Will’s gone.”
“He’s not,” Ethan choked, shaking his head. “He’s not. I can’t believe that when I’m looking right at him. You just- you just need to remember.”
Clint squeezed Ethan’s hands, feeling some distant part of his own heart break in his chest.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever remember. Even if I stopped the meds.”
“We’ll try. We’ll try and if it doesn’t work, we’ll just go from there. But we’ve got to at least try,” Ethan told him desperately.
Clint stared into hopeful eyes and couldn’t find the strength to say no. Couldn’t bring himself to see another strong man fold in on himself today.
“I...I’ll think about it,” he said, pulling away, looking towards the road that was bathed in the soft yellow light of the streetlamps. “Let’s head back to the tower.”
He needed familiar ground. He needed his bed and a sleeping pill to keep the nightmares at bay.
“For now,” Clint said. “I can’t do this right tonight. I’m too tired.”
So damn tired that he could feel it down to the marrow of his bones.
Ethan nodded, following alongside Clint as they made the trek up the beach to where the car was waiting.
“Wait,” Ethan started, stopping in his tracks as he glanced up and down the beach.
“Where's your car?”
Clint turned around and kept walking.
The drive back to the tower was one of more awkward situations Clint had experienced. Ethan was quiet as they went, the traffic blessedly light as they drove back into the city proper.
The thought of facing Phil again left Clint exhausted, but given the time, Phil had probably cleared out and gone back to SHIELD instead of attempting to stay the night. He figured they’d all had enough confrontation for one day, but the thought of Phil not being there in the morning for breakfast was a bleak one. He hadn’t known it was possible to be so fucking angry at someone- so betrayed and hurt- but still want them near you; still want them to be curled up next to you on the couch to watch Kimmel.
Clint tried to ignore the swell of guilt as he glanced over at Ethan- his husband was next to him and he was thinking of another man. A man who’d helped to essentially kill William Brandt. It was like some sort of TV melodrama.
Ethan noticed his staring and spared him a tense smile as they pulled off of the highway. The city lights raced passed them as they kept pace with the flow of the other vehicles, the trip seeming infinitely longer now that Clint wasn’t weaving through the lanes. When they finally pulled into the underground parking lot and Ethan cut the engine they fell into an eerie silence. The weight of the building above them and what was waiting up there pressed down on them as the overhead lights flickered off.
“Tomorrow,” Ethan suddenly said. “Tomorrow we’ll go talk to your Director and...and you can have the night to think things over.”
Clint nodded helplessly. “Yeah. Yeah, that sounds good.”
He wasn’t sure a year of thinking things over would do him any good- make him any less conflicted.
Clint climbed out of the car, looking anywhere but at the other man as he darted towards the emergency stairs, trusting that Ethan would take the elevator up to the residential floors. The heavy door clanged shut behind him as he slipped into the stairwell, but somehow he could still feel Ethan’s eyes boring into him- staring into his soul and searching for something he hadn’t known was there- was long gone.
The exertion was hell on his tired body, but the steady thrum of his heart pounding in his chest and the regular inhale-exhale helped to centre him. By the time he reached his floor he was breathing deeply, but not out of breath, too used to running for hours on missions in full tactical gear.
His suite was- thankfully- terribly- empty, Phil’s coat gone from the closet and the bed in the guestroom made up. A part of him wished there’d been something left- something he could rip apart, ruin until it was as ugly and broken as he was.
Working his way through the apartment was like walking through a dream. His head felt muffled and his ears were ringing again. He blinked and he suddenly found himself in the bathroom, staring down at the pills he’d been taking for just over three years. He thought of Ethan somewhere below him in the guest suites; of Phil back at SHIELD; of how something so small could fuck up so much; could ruin everything.
He pried off the cap, tipping out his normal dose and popping them into his mouth without a thought. His throat worked to swallow, but his stomach churned as they refused to go down, the chalky bitterness beginning to coat his tongue.
He thought of Ethan crying on the beach, looking so relieved for someone who’d only found the shell of his husband, apologising for having left Will alone to die even if there’d been nothing he could’ve done.
Clint’s stomach roiled, bile rushing up his throat as he fell to his knees, lunging for the toilet as he heaved. His chest spasmed as he struggled to catch his breath, a sob snatching away the air from his lungs.
“Shit,” he groaned, his nose running and his eyes streaming as he leaned back against the cool wood of the vanity, trying to get his lungs to cooperate with him. He slammed his head back against the wood as he cried, trying to muffle the screams that wanted to come out.
He couldn’t- he couldn’t do this. It’d only been a day and he was falling apart at the seams that had already been stretched taught and frayed from years of strain. Clint Barton had always been a fighter, but this wasn’t something that could be won with good aim or a sharp mind. No matter what he did it was going to hurt. Him, Phil, Ethan, Natasha, everyone. There was no right answer, but so many wrong ones.
Clint grabbed the bottle of pills from the counter with a clumsy hand and dumped them into the toilet, flushing before he could think twice about it.He sat sour mouthed and red faced, watching them swirl away in a wash of water.
I’ll just say low for a day or two, he told himself. Go to the barracks and camp out there while he got everything out of his system. And then he’d be okay. He would be. Should be. Probably. He could ride of the seizures- had had to do it on missions occasionally and that’d been out in deserts and forests. The bunks weren’t exactly hospitable, but they weren’t hostile territory either. He’d give it seventy-two hours; detox; and maybe he’d come out a new man. Or rather, an old one.
After all, Clint Barton was too tired to keep going, so maybe it was time to give William Brandt a fighting chance.
Sorry for the long wait, got caught up in school, and this chapter was a bit of a doozy to write. I just want to thank everyone who's commented- they mean so much- and left Kudos and bookmarked. I'd say maybe...three chapters left. Now that I'm back in the swing of things, it won't take as long for the next one, I promise.