The first time it happened, he hadn't even realized he'd been messing up. It wasn't like he'd been training that long and three inches off the mark wasn't a big deal when he was just shooting at apples. Except that apparently it was a big deal. A very big deal.
After that first time, he aimed to never miss a target again. Too bad that wasn't a reality anyone could live up to.
The other kids in his dorm had fallen asleep hours ago, most of them breathing easily. Ernie was snoring like he always did, and John was having the bad dreams again, the ones where he cried a little and never stopped moving under his sheets. Clint ignored it with years of practice, laying absolutely still, his eyes seeing through the dark easily. He'd learned to stay awake as long as possible his first few months here, some of the older kids not taking a shine to him and one night of having them sneak in and whip pillow cases filled with soap bars at him had taught him quickly to keep still, silent, and awake very quickly.
He never learned why they hated him so much, but six long years of never knowing when and where they would strike from meant he was generally ready for anything. That night though, when the door to the dorm he shared with the other nine year olds cracked open quietly, he slipped out of his bed and moved quickly.
Barney grinned at him from the hallway and Clint couldn't help smiling back, following him without question to the girl's bathroom. From there it was easy to slide out the window and climb down the thick ivy past the second floor to the ground. Barney got their bags out from behind the bushes and they were off. Free. Just like Barney promised. And just like Barney promised they met up with the girl he had been meeting with the last few weeks and she took them to where she lived.
Carson's Carnival of Travelling Wonders barely blinked an eye when she announced she had two new roustabouts. They'd been glad to have Barney of course, because he was big and strong and really smart even for a fourteen year old and Clint did everything he could to make sure they were glad to have him as well.
When they first got the job, they slept in the horse tents. Clint fell in love with the animals on sight, their noise and smell soothing in the long night hours when he didn't sleep, still too hyper aware of everything around him. He watched all the performer's shows with rapt attention when he wasn't busy with the thousand and one tasks given to him. He watched them practice more carefully. The tumbling, the rope walking, the strong man, the trapeze artists, even the wide, convincing smile and easy words of the ringleader caught his attention. He didn't realize that when he started sneaking into the empty tent late at night to practice their art on his own that he was noticed.
He knew Barney had started to try and become an apprentice almost as soon as they were allowed to work at the circus for food and shelter. Barney started talking about it all the time, started to try and get the Swordsman's attention, or Trick Shot's, or even Snap's, because that man was kind of impressive with his whip, snatching cigarettes from people mouths from twelve feet away without blinking an eye.
Clint learned how much he loved climbing to the top of the tent and perching up there for hours to watch everyone below, finding the trickiest places to hide.
At the orphanage he'd learned to never back down from challenges (probably one of the reasons he got into trouble so much), and at Carson's he adopted the same motto, though there it had been more appreciated even if it had all been for good fun. So when Clint had been mouthing off at the bone yards long table while eating dinner about how easy it was to hit the balloons with the darts people paid attention. No one ever liked an untested showoff. Arie, who ran the game, lifted his big bushy eyebrows in amusement.
"Easy huh?" he ran his hand over his tightly groomed beard. "You ever tried it?"
"No," Clint had shrugged, "but it can't be more difficult than pegging the pigeons with rocks as they fly around." Madame Toulouse had been outraged to hear this, her love of all animals widely known among the folk. Needless to say Clint never aimed at an 'innocent' target again. At least not intentionally.
"All right hotshot," Arie pulled out a sharp throwing knife that instantly got Clint's attention. It had a thick dark ring at its hilt and a long neck wound tightly in a bold red leather that cut into a sharp triangular blade. It couldn't have been more than six inches long. Flipping it handle first he held it out to Clint who, cautious, didn't take it right away. That made Arie smirk at him. "What, not so sure now that you've been challenged and everyone's watching?" It was true, almost everyone at the table was watching them with different levels of interest. Clint might have only just turned ten the week before (nobody here knew that though and Clint wasn't about to complain about a missed birthday) but he hated it when people were getting ready to laugh at him.
"No, just wondering what's in it for me?" Arie raised his eyebrow at that and Marissa laughed from down the table. "I've been told that entertainment comes at a cost, unless you'd rather make a wager?" He had maybe been spying on the men's late night card games too much, but they'd never spotted him so he'd never felt the need to stop. He liked it when people didn't realize he was there., it was an easy way to learn things.
After a moment of silence Arie laughed (he'd always been a good natured guy).
"You're a sharp one eh? All right, a wager it is. I'll wager that you can't hit the middle of the block," he nodded to the other end of the table where the block, the large heavy wood post that always went up in the food tent for game or practice, waited silently. It had a target painted on it, a red bullseye in the center that was nearly unnoticeable from all the knife marks in it. "You miss and you have to fill the balloons for my game for the next two months."
"And if I win I get to keep the knife," Clint grinned. The balloons were usually a punishment detail for the carney kids who misbehaved. He'd done a lot worse over the years than have to blow up a few bits of rubber. Arie looked to the knife, looked to the table filled with people watching them, and shrugged.
"Deal," Clint shook his hand, his own lost in the massive grip, and took the knife. Everyone at the table moved from their seats to stand pressed to the tent walls. Clint might have been insulted, but then he saw Barney watching him carefully from the other end of the table and where it had been just a game before now Clint wanted to hit the target dead center, for his brother. So Barney could be proud; Barney was the one who had taught him how to throw after all.
The target was only eight meters away and Clint had watched Arie practice throwing the knives before so he knew how to hold it. He buried the knife into the bullseye, maybe not deeply and not dead center, but deep enough to stick. There was a moment of silent disbelief and then some laughing and clapping and Arie, who looked half amused and half irritated went and pulled it from the target.
"Think you can do it again?"
"Double or nothing," Clint agreed with a big grin for everyone who was egging him on. Arie gave him the knife and this time the blade dug a little deeper, and just a fraction off center. After the third throw Clint came away with his first ever set of throwing knives, a hearty slap on the back from Arie and the awareness that the Swordsman had been watching him steadily throughout the entire performance.
When he looked for Barney, his brother was nowhere to be seen.
The next day the Swordsman claimed Clint as his apprentice and Clint, not knowing what else to do, accepted.
Harry had been working at the school for the better part of twenty years, which meant he'd developed a sort of sixth sense about when something fishy was going on. He couldn't explain it, it was just a feeling, or maybe it was the way a few of the thirteen year old girls had taken to giggling together in the corner about a boy that had been hanging around. He asked the teachers about it but they didn't seem to know anything and were mostly unconcerned. That happened when you had a class of twenty-five plus pre-pubescent's to control all day long. Just because he was the school custodian didn't mean he didn't have an equal sense of responsibility over the kids though, which meant that when he'd finally figured out what the 'issue' was he had perhaps overreacted.
It was one of those memories that occasionally cropped up when he was in a dark mood, and it never did anything but make him feel worse.
The thing was when he'd walked around the corner of the building and seen the kid leaning by Miss Chester's classes open window, spying, he'd reacted without thinking.
"What do you think you're doing!" He'd bellowed and the kid, who couldn't have been older than twelve, smacked his elbow into the brick wall as he whirled around. Wide blue eyes stared his way, clearly not expecting to get caught. "Who are you spying on? Looking to cause trouble are you? Not on my watch." He'd moved to get the kid, drag him into the principal's office to let them figure out what was going on, but the kid reacted faster than any boy he'd come across to date. He grabbed the plastic bag at his feet, turned, and bolted. Harry was too old to give chase, and at that point Miss Chester was at the window to see what was going on; Harry noticed the item that hadn't made it into the mystery kid's bag.
It was a beat up notebook with a spiral binder, a half torn cover and dog-eared corners. When he flipped it open it was filled with tiny, ordered notes. Some geography, some history, a little bit of English, all crammed onto the pages and clearly labeled. When he got to the last section it was filled with numbers pressed deep into the lined paper. Algebra. There was a half finished equation at the end and later he figured out it had been one of the questions up on that classes chalkboard.
The kid had just been trying to learn.
He reported it of course, but it was a big city and chances of finding and helping one kid out of hundreds…it hadn't panned out.
The kid never came back. Harry hadn't been surprised.
Barney was mad at him, madder than Clint had ever seen. He thought coming to the circus with his brother would fix things, would make their lives easier, better. He was only ten, he was still allowed to be at least a little naive. But Barney had promised things would be better and he'd worked really hard to get them here, away from the home. He'd done so much for Clint and he said the circus would be their new family, a better one.
Clint didn't realize that Barney would get so mad that Clint was the one chosen to be the Swordman's apprentice, that he would start taking it out on him. And when he got tired of taking his anger out on Clint he just started ignoring him, leaving the room when he entered, only speaking to him when he had to. Clint didn't understand and he wouldn't begin to for a few more years (he never truly understood it though, doubted he ever would), but he spent more time trying to get his brothers attention than being angry, at least at first.
The first time it happened, the first time the Swordman started to loose patience with Clint's mistakes while training him, he didn't go to his big brother.
The second time he did. He tried talking to Barney, not knowing what else to do, but Barney was angry (jealous) enough by then to not want to hear anything his younger brother would have to say. Clint tried to tell him a few times, never getting more than five words out before Barney shut him up with words, with his fists, with whatever he had available. Clint didn't recognize his brother anymore, didn't know when he stopped being his brother and started being everyone else. It hurt more than the Swordman did.
After the third time Clint realized he'd have to deal with it on his own. It was a lesson he learned well.
He went to Waverly, Iowa for the first time since his father had gotten drunk, gotten behind the wheel, and gotten both himself and his wife killed. The orphanage he and Barney had been sent to hadn't been located in Waverly; they'd been sent to Des Moines, one-hundred and thirty-two miles from their birth town and, subsequently, from anything remotely familiar. Clint had only been five and not aware of much beyond the relief of learning that he'd be able to stay with his brother. At the time, he couldn't imagine a life without Barney to keep him safe. The subsequent six years that followed had been more than enough time wasted at the group home, unwanted and forgotten by the world.
He didn't have much memory of his hometown, but he'd gone back to Waverly once, while his bones still ached all the time and new lines of skin were still puckered red in healing. He hitched rides with strangers and stowed away on train carts with nothing but a few changes of clothes in a ratty duffle bag and the knife throwing set he'd won in a challenge when he was years old strapped to his ankle. He'd wanted to leave Carson's Carnival so far behind that he wouldn't be able to taste it even in his memories, but he had no idea where to go from there. No plans and no one to turn to. The idea of seeing his birthplace had seemed the thing to do. Besides, he wouldn't be able to find proper work until he'd healed a little more.
With a population of about eighty- five hundred people, at least seventeen churches and the slow moving Cedar River flowing through its center, the town was exactly what he expected. He spent a total of three hours there, walked the paved bike trail and pinched a new pair of jeans and sweatshirt from a line in some anonymous backyard. He stayed away from slipping wallets out of pockets only out of some strange sense of respect for the town.
Waverly hadn't answered any questions for him or solved any of his problems, but at that point in life he figured it was par for the course.
He kept the sweatshirt. Tucked it into the back of musty closets, the bottom of ever-changing rucksacks, and eventually the back of a very expensive, well-made dresser drawer. It was threadbare and the original colour was no longer apparent. He figured that as far as family mementos went, it was as close as he would ever get.
Half the time when he caught sight of it he wanted to use it for target practice.
He'd only given in twice.
Phil Coulson was a lot of things, and a good majority of those things were beyond classified. What this meant: even before Fury had head-hunted him from an elite special ops unit (one that hadn't existed on paper), he had already seen and done more things in his thirty years than he had ever dreamed when he'd enlisted.
He hadn't been the team leader, he hadn't even been the third runner up, but he was the one that had pinged Fury's radar out of all the viable candidates the military had to offer. It might have been the fact that he'd been learning his ninth language at the time (he still didn't know how Fury knew that considering that his syllabus consisted of a battered second hand Learn On Your Own manual he'd poached from his last hospital visit), or that he was proficient with virtually any weapon you put in his hands so long as he had five seconds to examine it, up to and including a bic pen (which it turned out was one of the most useful weapons of all).
Or it could be that he had not only endured and survived two separate bouts as a prisoner of war and undergone what his superiors classified as severe interrogation both times, but he had managed to manipulate his captors enough to glean their general future plans and then escape (once while dragging another wounded prisoner along, who turned out to be a rather important official).
Phil was proud of his accomplishments, but more than that he was proud of doing his job well. He'd commonly been called an overachiever as a child. And as an adult. He'd never seen any problems with this; it got him where he never imagined he'd be and exactly where he felt he was always meant to go. Five years in SHIELD, he had the second largest office at headquarters, answered only to Fury (though not many were made aware of this), and was the agent of choice to take charge of any given mission at any given time. He got shit done.
The point was that Phil had seen and done a lot of things before SHEILD. Then he had done and seen a lot more things after he become an agent, and all these things generally revolved around people: meeting them, dealing with them, possibly putting them down. He'd met a lot of colourful people in a lot of colourful ways but, for some reason, meeting Clint Barton for the first time remained, to date, his most memorable introduction of them all. He was pretty sure that was mainly because it had been so unexpected.
"I can't get a clear shot!" Stuber hissed, ducking back behind their suburban as a series of bullets rained down around them. "On any of them," because of course there was more than one sniper on the roof, forcing them to stay undercover while three of their fellow agents lay on the asphalt before them, exposed, bleeding, writhing and likely dying. One was already gone, Phil didn't need to check his pulse to know that the holes in his head and chest meant he wasn't getting up again. He locked the rage down deep. The hostiles were toying with them now, showing that they could finish the job anytime they wanted, the occasional bullet landing only a foot or two away from his injured agents when they tried to drag themselves to safety. "They're too far away and not exposed enough to take them out from down here" unless Stuber risked getting shot as well is what he wasn't saying.
Coulson was man enough to acknowledge that in long range weaponry, Stuber was a better shot than him. Best they had actually, so if he couldn't make the shots they were in a worse position than Phil had hoped for. He thought about the rocket launcher tucked away safely in the car a block over and discarded the thought almost as quickly. It would wreak too much damage and would only take one of the three impossible targets out at a time, not to mention getting to it was going to be a problem in the first place.
This whole situation had been a trap from the start. Phil hated traps. He especially hated traps that were designed for the mere purpose of taking out his agents. Worse, he knew the kingpin behind this ambush hadn't even bothered to show up. It was insult on top of severe injury and it was an unacceptable loss of life. It looked like Phil was going to have to get his agents to create a distraction so he could gain access to the nearest roof and try to salvage the situation from there. Probability of success with injury was less than fifty percent. He was well aware that their communications had been hacked. He guessed the enemy would toy with them another three minutes or so before finishing the exposed agents off and then taking the rest of them out as well, just in time to avoid their incoming backup.
"Looks like you guys could use a hand."
Never in a million years would Phil admit to being startled as he and Agents Stuber and Phung twisted away from where they had been trying to get a look through the SUV's windows. Looking down the sight of his Sig he saw, of all things, a vaguely amused man sporting a bright red ball cap and a windbreaker that was so blue it practically screamed Shoot Me! He looked at the three weapons that were trained on him from his casual crouch before dismissing them, eyeing Stuber and Phung before his sharp blue gaze settled on Phil. He quirked an eyebrow. Phil kept his face blank and his hands steady.
"Who are you?" He asked mildly, like he was asking for the time or commenting on the weather. It was overcast and heavy with the threat of rain.
"Just a good Samaritan," the man was definitely amused. Phil was not. A shot rang out from overhead, the bullet digging deeply into the ground three feet to the right of the stranger with a puff of dust. Stuber and Phung flinched and ducked a little deeper. Phil didn't move, knowing he was safe from the current line of fire. The Samaritan's lips quirked, as though being shot at was just another day in the office, as though he had purposely chosen that spot to crouch because he knew it was a blind spot from the sharpshooters, the only one that didn't involve being pressed flat against the SUV. At least not until one of the hostiles switched position. Phil tried to not be impressed and tried not to instinctively like the guy and definitely made sure his thoughts were unreadable on his face.
"You just walked across the road with no cover in the middle of a gun fight? Who does that?" Stuber demanded. He was a damn good shot but Phil was still working on training him to learn the importance of selective silence.
"An enemy playing a trick on us," Phil explained lightly.
"Orrrrr a good guy seeing people bleeding on the road from a cheap ass ambush and deciding to lend a hand before the rest of you end up dead." The Samaritan couldn't be much older than twenty-five, thirty at the most. "You can thank me now if you like, but it can wait till later."
"Who are you?" Phil asked again, politely.
"This is going to be a thing with you huh? All right, call me Harrison."
"How did you manage to sneak up on us without getting shot, Mr. Harrison?" Harrison (definitely not his real name) began to look impatient and actually rolled his eyes. Another bullet smashed through the driver and passenger windows of the SUV, glass crumbling loudly onto their shoulders and the projectile bit the ground two feet to Harrison's left.
"I took out a guy that was preparing to sneak up on you around the corner and threw on his jacket and hat so his buddies wouldn't shoot me. Not exactly rocket science but I think they've figured out I'm not their buddy now," he smirked, clearly pleased by this. "Look, I'm not a bad shot, better than your rifle guy here at least and I'm offering to keep your asses alive." Phil couldn't help blinking in disbelief, the clock ticking down in the back of his mind.
"You can't be serious?" Stuber snapped. "Sir, we need to neutralize him as a threat!" Yes, they did. Clearly this guy was insane or the enemy and they needed to take him out. Generally Phil would have dropped him the moment he'd snuck up on their position. Instinctively he hadn't and still didn't want to, but common sense won out. He felt his eye twitch in distaste at the decision. Apparently it was enough of a tell for Harrison though.
"Okay," the man said, shaking his head slightly, "I actually wasn't really asking for your permission, it's just that this is the best vantage point to take them all out at the same time and I didn't feel like getting shot by you guys before actually having a chance at them," he nodded upwards, like it explained everything and quirked his lips cockily at Phil. "I'd still appreciate it if you restrained yourselves though," he rolled his shoulders, winked at Phil, and sprung himself into the air like a damn cat.
Why go around the vehicle when you can simply flip over its hood?
"Don't shoot him," Phil snapped as both his agents shifted their aim to follow.
"That's an order!" he watched as Harrison rolled powerfully out of his flip into a single-handed cartwheel. Between one moment and the next he had a gun in his hand. Where it came from Phil had no idea. Bullets were chasing him as he moved ridiculously fast, getting close but not quite managing to catch him and he took a few strong steps, threw himself into a graceful tuck and roll and then launched high into the air. He spun mid leap, his arm whipping about, and three shots rang out loudly, near simultaneous. He completed his spin, curled over one shoulder, hit the pavement in another roll and used the momentum to carry himself to his feet where he just… stopped. His back was to Phil and his arms were outstretched, the Sig dangling harmlessly between two fingers pinching the base of its grip. Slowly Harrison knelt down and lay the weapon on the road, nudging it a few meters away with ratty old sneakers. His shoulders were relaxed. Phil wanted to see his face.
A ways beyond them one of the snipers tumbled over their buildings edge and smacked loudly into the sidewalk. Later Phil would waste two minutes despairing at his lack of horror over the sound and image it created and then file it away as part of the job to not stress about. Cold but necessary. He'd seen far worse done to people who didn't actually deserve it.
"And the crowd goes wild," he heard Harrison mutter, not sure if he'd intended to be heard or not. When the man wasn't shot dead where he stood, exposed in the middle of the street, Phil moved out from the cover of the vehicle and approached. Harrison turned slowly to meet him.
"No way!" Stuber hissed as he and Phung moved around the other side of the vehicle, his rifle raised and steadily pointed at Harrison. "No way in hell he made those shots! They were impossible."
"The farthest one was barely a hundred and fifty meters," Harrison snapped back, clearly insulted.
"Sir," Stuber petitioned Phil sharply, "there's no way he neutralized them all, not like that and not with only three shots. He's playing us."
"You're right, I didn't neutralize all of them," the Samaritan's eyes narrowed, heated for the first time in their short acquaintance and no longer carrying any hint of friendliness. "There are two ground crew getting away from where they were hiding behind the red building," he nodded behind him. "If I were to guess, I'd say they're scurrying back to their exit vehicle right now, and I," his voice deepened darkly and eyes narrowed at Stuber, "never miss."
Phil assessed the situation, took in the body of the dead sniper that had fallen a block away, looked at his fallen agents, noted that he and the rest of his team had yet to be shot by any remaining snipers and determined that neutralizing the retreating hostiles was necessary for continued civilian safety.
"Phung, stay here, check on our people and don't let the Good Samaritan out of your sight. Stuber, with me."
"Yes sir," Phung barked out and Phil didn't bother to acknowledge the smug look on the acrobatic sharp shooter's face as he and Stuber raced passed to try and catch up with the enemy.
When they got back, two bound and pissed off thugs in their custody, it was to see that ambulances and back-up had arrived, Phung helping to stop the heavy bleeding from Agent Crusoe's abdomen, and no sign of their suicidal saviour. Apparently the time it took to kneel down and put a hand to her wound for pressure was all the time the stranger needed to vanish.
They found the bold blue jacket and red hat on a homeless man three streets over. Video surveillance later proved that the stranger had indeed taken out (but not killed) a hostile who had been preparing to shoot them in the backs, and taken his clothes as a disguise along with his gun.
All three snipers were dead, two with bullets through their faces and one through the center of the heart. They should have been impossible shots. Phil analyzed the grainy footage SHEILD had managed to find of the stranger's performance, took said footage and played it once for Fury.
Fury watched it silently, leaned back in his chair and after a long moment turned his dark eye on Phil.
"I'll take care of this, Agent Coulson," he announced and Phil left the room.
Three days later they found the Samaritan performing at the Coney Island Circus, the stage name Hawkeye printed boldly on a poster declaring him the world's greatest marksman. He was even better with a bow than a gun. It was unprecedented. Coulson went to five performances in a row, learned the man's real name was Clint Barton, concluded that his bow was really just a detached extension of his body, determined that he didn't actually possess any form of mutation or power that made his seemingly unreal abilities possible (aside from his eyesight), and accepted that aside from his name, he hadn't lied that day on the street: he really never missed.
Two weeks later Hawkeye was SHIELD's newest recruit.
Phil took pains not to show it, but he spent years patting himself on the back for a job well done.
It took three days after his recruitment for the agents of SHIELD to begin to recognize that Barton did not appreciate his skills as a marksman being questioned. Not even as a joke.
The only people who would ever truly understand why generally wished they'd never learned. Sometimes they even wished he'd never become the gifted marksman he was, and were never certain if that made them selfish, assholes, or true friends.
Coulson just wanted to kill, and he had a very specific target in mind. He was pretty sure every Avenger involved would have no problem helping to hide the body.
Hawkeye was a mystery for many of the agents that worked at SHIELD, and not always in a positive way. Being drafted, mostly by choice, almost seven years before Captain America was chipped out of the ice meant that he had gone on more missions than God; many of them solo despite Coulson's best efforts to integrate him into a team. That was seven years of opportunities to train and mold the abilities of the less skilled agents, to be a role model, and to form connections.
That might have been easier if life hadn't taught him that despite being on the 'good guys' side you could only ever count on yourself. That was key. Also, actually being the grade A asshole that everyone thought he was helped carve his reputation as a cowboy that didn't play well with others. Which was fine even if it wasn't entirely fair. He did everything he could to keep the people he worked with safe. If he was on scene, you could guarantee he had your back. People didn't like him but nobody ever complained when they were told he was being assigned temporarily to their team.
The fact that he pretty much only took orders from Coulson while in the field, and Fury (when he had to), and Natasha (because she was different, she understood the way he operated and didn't act like it was a bad thing- and they had bled on each other enough to make her worthy of listening to) did tend to piss other high ranking agents off. The juniors generally just didn't like him because they had no choice but to follow orders. It was a jealousy thing.
Mostly they just left him alone.
Sometimes he was away on missions for so long that when he got back he had to remind them why he was there in the first place.
Sometimes it bothered him
The first mission Coulson and Barton went on together was more of a test run than an actual mission. Barton had only been in SHIELD for four months and while he had picked up on the tech and procedures surprisingly fast for someone without any kind of formal education (getting him to sit still in the agency training workshops had been a nightmare) he hadn't been cleared until now for actual fieldwork. Fury still thought it might be too soon.
The mission was supposed to go like this:
Get to the location, assess the situation, use necessary measures to attain loss stop. Coulson would lead the ground agents and Barton would provide cover from on high.
What happened was this:
They got to the location, they assessed that the problem involved a pack of giant, man-eating gerbils and an unknown mutant who thought it was the funniest thing in the world. The gerbils did not wish to be stopped and Phil very much wished for them to not eat the civilians trapped in the broken bus. A few of Coulson's agents managed to get between said bus and the gerbils but their bullets were having no effect.
Barton pierced an arrow through the psychotic mutant's heart without being told, the gerbils shrank back to acceptable gerbil size and promptly keeled over from fright, two of his agents were trying to figure out where the arrow's launch point had been and Phil shook his head as Barton reappeared silently by his side.
"I assigned you to the building on the other side of the street," Coulson said mildly.
"I know," Barton replied, clearly uninterested and grinning cockily as one of the agents led a very angry pet storeowner by their location. They watched as the paramedics tried to calm him down.
"Next time," Coulson announced dryly, "tell me if you think you have a better vantage point elsewhere instead of just switching so we don't unintentionally block your shots." That seemed to get Barton's attention, like he hadn't expected Phil to have a legitimate concern, like he wasn't used to having people he could work with as opposed to around. Phil was used to working with people as a team, but he understood Clint wasn't. Fortunately Phil was a patient man. In those early days he'd never truly understood the nearly unfathomable depth of Clint Barton's stubbornness. It would be a long seven years before the man began to truly thaw enough to accept the concept of being a part of a team that didn't solely involve Phil and Natasha. Phil would absolutely not feel any irrational jealousy when that happened.
The second mission they went on involved base jumping off skyscrapers, reincarnated sabre tooth tigers, and Barton risking his life to give Black Widow a chance to continue to enjoy her guts on the inside of her body. Miraculously, nobody was harmed.
The third mission involved good old spy work and infiltration. That's when they learned they could firmly add acting and manipulation to Clint Barton's resume. Coulson began to seriously question the veracity of Barton's psych evals.
The ninth mission was never fully disclosed, not to Phil and not to Fury, but that was when Barton began to trust Black Widow to have his back unquestionably. The two of them began training together regularly after that.
It took Coulson another seven missions before he could claim the same trust from Barton, but if asked years later Barton would say he'd trusted Coulson from the first time he'd laid eyes on him, he just liked to give him a hard time.
It wasn't until their sixth year of working together that Coulson realized the first time Barton had laid eyes on him had not involved bleeding agents, snipers and kamikaze gun acrobatics. Turns out Barton had been helping that particular day to pay a debt Coulson didn't even know existed.
The first time Clint gets hurt on the job Phil is not expecting to be called over to the med tent by a frustrated field doctor to negotiate terms of treatment. This is at a time when Phil is still under the illusion that the people he works with are not actually just giant children being given expensive, dangerous toys to play with under the guise of 'National Security,' or 'International Security' as it so often became.
It goes something like this:
"What's the problem here Agent Barton?" he asked, never mind that he'd figured it out the moment he spotted the doctor walking up to interrupt his teleconference with Fury. Issues in the field came first, fortunately, so Fury didn't balk at being hung up on without explanation.
"No problem sir," the archer insisted immediately with an easy grin. Coulson, however, was not swayed.
"I understand that you're refusing treatment."
"I don't need medical treatment at this time," he stated calmly, his hands relaxed at his sides, his bow resting against his hip, his quiver of arrows still ready for use on his back. "Sir," he tagged on as a very deliberate after thought. Coulson wasn't interested in being baited today. Or any day.
"Were you or were you not shot in the leg twenty-" he glanced at his watch, "three and a half minutes ago.
"I was, sir."
"And are you or are you not bleeding from that bullet wound," he asked very pointedly not looking at the blood soaked clothing and tear in the Archer's pants at mid thigh.
"I am, sir."
"And were you not ordered to let the Doctor's take a look at your injury," he realized the problem as soon as he repeated his order to the agent from earlier. Barton, clearly pleased with himself (at least on the surface), grinned smugly.
"I was and did sir, and I'm fine."
"You're not fine Agent Barton. You were shot in the leg."
"Tis but a flesh wound," he declared and Phil shook his head at the well-meaning doctor that moved to protest that statement. Phil looked back at Barton, noted the too easy stance, the weapons still at the ready, and the way he had placed himself with his back to the tent wall but still far enough away that he wasn't locked in. He made a decision.
"Clear the tent," he ordered.
"But sir, I need to clean-" the doctor cut himself off at the look Coulson directed at him and swallowed, before nodding. "You heard Agent Coulson, clear the tent," he ordered the nurse and medic that had been waiting on the sidelines and the three of them departed, no doubt to bitch about being underappreciated and not taken seriously by the agents whose lives often depended on them. Coulson made a mental note to send them a fruit tray later.
"You sure know how to clear a room," Barton acknowledged.
"You should see my feng shui regimen."
"That's more second date territory," he smirked and lightly picked up his bow to leave.
"Sit down Agent Barton," Coulson didn't move to block his exit, he wasn't in charge of field operations because he was an idiot, but he made it clear that it wasn't a request. Barton paused, frowned, and then gently hopped up on the stretcher. Coulson gingerly took off his outer suit jacket, snapped on a pair of medical gloves and, clearly telegraphing his intentions, moved in and ripped the pants around the injury wide enough to get a better look.
"Easy tiger," Barton warned but his tone was more amused than annoyed. The wound was actually just a graze that had bled a lot. A minor flesh wound after all. Some tension Coulson hadn't realized he'd been holding eased from his shoulders. "I told you I was fine."
"This is not the definition of fine," Coulson rebutted firmly and opened some antiseptic wipes and got to work. "Is there a problem with our medical staff that I need to know about?"
"No sir, no problem," which sounded sincere enough. Coulson at least believed that the problem probably lay with medical staff in general and not his people specifically.
"If that changes, you will let me know."
"Of course sir," translation: yeah right. The small gouge was too shallow and wide to be able to pull the skin together for stitches. He gently spread some antibacterial cream on it and looked around for the nonstick-gauze and tape.
"Being examined after missions where an operative has been harmed in any way, no matter how minor, is SOP."
"Yes sir," the stiffness was ebbing back into Barton's tone. Coulson gave him a sharp look.
"Any injuries sustained while in the field will be reported and you will submit to our medical staff's desired course of treatment and they will be the one that diagnose the injuries severity, not you."
"When I need the help, sir, I will get it." Phil resisted the urge to uh-huh disbelievingly. This was not an issue to be taken lightly.
"I don't care if you're uncomfortable around medical staff Agent Barton, this is not a democracy. You will do as ordered without fail or," he gently finished pressing the tape in place and peeled off the gloves, "you will be classified as a liability in the field." He wasn't a child any more than Coulson was, he knew the stakes and despite his blasé attitude he was one of the hardest working agents Couslon had even worked with, and Barton only been there five and a half months. He didn't want a desk job and he wasn't ready to give up this new life with SHEILD so soon. The way he stiffened at the reprimand said exactly how he felt about this. Phil stepped away and shrugged his suit jacket back in place, straightened his tie, and knew, without a doubt, that he should retreat before he said anything more.
He made it four feet from the tent flap when Barton's reflection in the medical cabinet caught his eye: irritation, anger, and a sort of unhappy dejection mingled over his normally cheerful façade and Phil paused. Damn it.
"But if the injury is minor enough that you do not believe a medic needs to attend it than you can treat it yourself under the strict condition that I assess the damage myself," and help if necessary. It was not SOP, it was not something Phil offered to any of his agents, it was not his modem of operandum. But upon their recruitment of Barton, Fury had explicitly told Phil that he wanted to keep their top marksman in shiny fighting form, and if that meant special circumstances were necessary who was Phil to argue? In the reflection Barton's look turned suspicious, then softly pleased, then smug.
"Playing favourites Agent Coulson?"
"I don't have favourites, Agent Barton," he denied matter-of-factly. "I have assets, and SHIELD would appreciate it if you simply tried to avoid getting injured all together."
"It's not like I asked to get shot, sir," he replied wryly.
"Don't make me regret this Agent," he ordered without inflection and, not waiting for a response he left to finish his debrief with Fury.
It didn't even take until that evening before Barton started spreading the rumour that Coulson spent his spare time hand sewing teddy bears for sick children at the local hospital. It was an unacceptable slur on his very carefully designed reputation of being a stone-cold hardass. Coulson had no choice but to order him to attend a weeklong 'mandatory' tutorial on the finer points of administrative procedure.
Sadly it did nothing to deter Barton's malicious rumours. Coulson never went back on his word though, and upholding his end of the bargain Barton let the medics fix him when he couldn't do it himself. There were two times he even refrained from releasing himself from their care when their backs were turned. It was a win.
It took time. It took patience. It took years, but eventually Clint managed to find less destructive ways of punishing himself when he missed his target by less than three inches. Was that fucked up? Absolutely. That was why he kept it to himself. Three inches was a big deal (that's what she said), it was dangerous, it was also generally out of his control; targets moved, atmosphere conditions switched sharply, a hostile occasionally tried to attack him from behind, shit happened. It was when he missed a target by more than three inches that he had to act to correct his mistakes. When it happened on a mission with SHIELD nobody was ever aware that he hadn't hit his target exactly where he'd planned, nobody except himself, and that was one too many.
Fortunately SHIELD had enough odd quirks and characters that when he disappeared for a few days the first two times it happened, and came back sore and bruised beneath his clothing, the tips of his fingers nearly pulpy from over use as he had pushed himself over the edge at the range, no one thought anything of it. Nobody even noticed. He was content with that. He was.
The third time his arrow missed (three-point-two inches, still a kill shot, still unacceptable) Phil Coulson silently intercepted him as he moved to sneak out of headquarters. The agent's eyes had been dark, his face a bland mask when he stared at Clint for a long moment before giving the order to accompany him to his office. Clint followed silently and without question. He spent the next thirteen hours straight doing paper work under Coulson's carefully watchful gaze. He parted no judgment, made no acknowledgement, of what he suspected (knew) about Clint's coping methods even as he refused to let him slink away to deal with his self-appointed failure. Clint didn't leave base that night, slept relatively well considering, and never brought it up with the senior agent.
He was still waiting for the next time he would make a mistake, and spent every day trying to ensure it never came.
Clint out right refuses to confirm who trained him as a marksman, fighter, or who honed his skills at breaking and entering. He answers with a 'wouldn't you like to know' and a wink.
Coulson knows that in his younger years, after his escape (because he doubted a young Clint Barton would have seen it as running away) from the large, over taxed orphanage, Clint joined a circus with his brother. He knows this circus had a few…less than upstanding citizens, and a marksman known as Trick Shot. It's written in Clint's file that Trick Shot was most likely his mentor but without confirmation, nothing is certain. It is definitely where he learned to tumble and honed his natural balance. For the most part SHIELD didn't care, so long as Barton remained good at his job and on their side. The psychologists did not agree with this mentality. They were probably right to worry.
Sometimes, watching Barton's swiftness on the mats, Coulson thinks about the one other candidate at the circus who most likely had a hand in mentoring him. He wonders if Barton doesn't talk about it because he enjoys creating an air of mystery, or because he's truly trying to keep some things to himself in an organization that deals in secrets.
Coulson is slightly shaken when he first realized how deeply he wanted to know the archer's secrets.
The first text Phil receives from Agent Barton call-me-Clint that is not work related is this:
"Phil Coulson's stare is so bland his enemies spontaneously combust from the need to emote."
He's fairly certain its creation was due to him ordering Barton to re-submit his mission report (so maybe it was work related), this time using actual sentences and spell check. Barton's also the first person within SHIELD to ever send him a personal text aside from Fury (who generally invites him out for a drink every few weeks…to discuss business). Fortunately Phil has a tried and true response to almost everything:
"Please ensure that you submit a munitions acquisition form along with your mission report by 1700." The accountants had been complaining about not having reasonable data to figure out the next terms budget allocations. Five minutes later Barton responded with this:
"Phil Coulson once took down an entire hydra unit single handed. When asked what weapons he used, he held out his pen."
Phil's lips may have twitched in amusement, but since he personally ensured that all manner of surveillance within his office was rendered useless he had no fear of anyone ever finding out. Theoretically.
Barton submitted his paperwork promptly at 1700hours. The next day.
"It's true," the voice insisted, ten feet below him and surrounded by a gaggle of agents as they huddled around the water cooler. Clint opened his eyes a crack and looked down. He recognized them all, which basically meant it had been too long since his last mission. The one woman in the group had a delicate little watch strapped on her wrist, the time stating it was mid afternoon. He'd been there for nearly seven hours now. His body was not happy with him, at all. He kept his breaths even and ignored how it screamed and strained and tried to rail against him and he refused to let it move.
"Oh come on, that's impossible," the tall corn-fed all-star wannabe shook his head before getting a chance to fill his mug with water. "You do know where we work right? The Director probably knows how many nose hairs every single person in this building has, let alone basic info on their background" he scoffed.
"I swear, not even Coulson knows. I overheard him and Romanov discussing it."
"No, you didn't," the woman countered, throwing him a dark look and he shrugged with a little smile.
"Okay, no I didn't, but it doesn't mean I'm not right. Nobody actually knows who trained him" the dark haired yuppy insisted eagerly.
"Maybe he's self-taught," the woman shrugged, looking bored.
"I don't believe it," corn-fed shook his head again. "There is no way a regular guy like him doesn't have some record of who taught him his trade. You don't get that good without training."
"Hemmingway thinks he did the circus route," it didn't take a genius to figure out they were talking about him anymore. Pressed with his back to the ceiling, his hands and feet braced between the wall and an I-beam with the pressure of his outstretched limbs the only thing holding him up over the exposed space, he contemplated dropping down beside them. They'd think he was a ghost, dressed head to toe in white, his eyes the only part of him not covered at the moment, not blending in with the white walls and ceiling. They would see him easily enough if they knew to look. His amused smile was hidden by the white balaclava.
"Nah, he enlisted underage in the military and went into special ops like Coulson."
"Ex-gymnast who grew up on his daddy's ranch taking pot shots at rabbits." They wandered off back to work, their cubicles not far away. Only two of them were actually qualified field agents (just out of training) but all of them had desks. Today they were supposed to be fielding calls from the concerned public about the last scuffle that took place downtown (just a gas explosion ma'am, the situation has been contained). He closed his eyes, forcing his limbs to remain still. Nobody had noticed him all day; this was one of the best spots to pick up on office gossip and as good a place as any to keep up his skills. He was a little embarrassed for his contemporaries continued ignorance though.
Six hours later, only a handful of agents still manning the phones, Coulson stopped below him and looked up. Clint could spot the humour hiding deep in his eyes, at odds with his flat expression, mainly because he'd learned how to look for it over the last few years.
"You planning on coming down anytime soon?" He asked dryly and the agents at the desks stopped what they were doing to look over at their boss. One of them reached for a weapon, clearly uncertain as to why his superior was speaking to the ceiling and possibly suspecting foul play.
"Well now that I've been compromised," Clint grumbled, taking stock of locked muscles, clenching and unclenching a moment before shifting his flattened hands to curl fingers around the I-beams lip for support and lightly dropped to the floor. His entire body ached, his wrists screamed at him for straightening them out after thirteen hours locked in position. His knees nearly buckled but he ruthlessly locked them in place, refusing to show any discomfort. He was hungry, thirsty, and irritated that he'd been outed. He ignored the incredulous looks the juniors gave him and glared at Phil halfheartedly. "You sure know how to spoil a guy's fun."
"It doesn't teach them a lesson if they never learn that you were there," Coulson's lip twitched and Clint rolled his eyes before pulling off his white balaclava and tucked it into his white pants. He'd have to find a new gossip perch now. "Dinner?"
"Nah, I'm good," Clint rubbed his forearm, fingers pressing into the warm metal of his favourite throwing knives hidden beneath the cloth. He should head to the range while his body was in this state, train until he couldn't any longer to improve endurance. He wasn't unaccustomed to waiting for his meals, a few more hours would be fine.
"Let me rephrase," Coulson had that polite 'I'm on your side but if you don't impress me I'll make not just you, but the entire State that you're currently residing in disappear' smile on his face. "Dinner."
Clint raised his eyebrow, unimpressed.
"I'd love to eat," he agreed anyway. Phil would just have his access codes to the training rooms and range blocked until he got what he wanted anyway. He was a sneaky asshole like that.
As they left the room he caught the eye of the woman who had been involved in the conversation about him earlier trying to hide the horrified look in her eyes, coming to the correct realization that he had heard every word. He winked and curled his lip up in a cheeky grin. When Coulson spared him a brief, knowing glance, he thought that maybe it hadn't been a waste of a day at all.
Coulson has been shot before in the line of duty. More than once.
The first time had been in Burundi and it had been more of a graze along his hip than anything. It had bled a lot, and not been treated with more than antibacterial crème and bandages for four days. He had been running a fever by the time his team had been extracted, but no one other than his C.O. had known at the time and he'd been glad to keep it that way.
The second time had been a through and through of his shoulder in Uzbekistan. It just missed his lung and took him out of field commission for three months. It had been friendly fire.
The third (and fourth) time, in Bolivia, had been a cluster fuck of an op and resulted in the only recorded incident of Coulson ever disobeying direct orders. Apparently when Phil Coulson disobeys orders he's rewarded by being promoted. It was when Clint learned of this he, for reasons that still remain undetermined, decided that Phil Coulson was the new Chuck Norris and has yet to be disabused of that notion.
The fifth time he hadn't been shot so much as had shrapnel imbedded into his side from a poorly executed car bomb while on a low risk reconnaissance mission in New Mexico. The shrapnel glanced off a rib, breaking it, and imbedded itself into his liver. He nearly bled out on scene and it took a week and a half after surgery before he managed to break out of SHIELD's infirmary just so he could sit behind his desk and get a few hours of paperwork done. By that time Research and Development had sent him four very polite emails requesting that he ask Agent Barton to stop insisting they develop a three piece suit made of Kevlar. They didn't have the budget or the time for his harassment.
Clint denied ever propositioning the idea.
Coulson had been shot quite a few times in the line of duty, but he'd never had someone care enough to want to make him bullet proof.