There were more rumors about Nick Fury than there were guns in SHIELD’s arsenal, which was saying a lot. The rumors weren’t surprising; it was inevitable, being at the top of such a powerful organization.
People talked; Clint was aware only because he had to be, not because he liked hearing most of it.
They said that Fury was heartless, that he was a cyborg, that he had lost his eye fighting a shark bare-handed. Clint knew that none of these things were true, though he’d had money on the shark rumor before Natasha had disproved it. Clint didn’t make bets with Natasha anymore; he learned his lesson by the third or fourth time he had lost.
They said that Nick Fury played favorites. Clint was less sure about that one.
He knew that Fury had given him and Natasha both second chances. Was it favoritism? Or was it pragmatism, considering all the successful missions they’d both completed working for SHIELD? If he and Natasha were Fury’s favorites, well, they had every good reason to be.
Fury never treated either one of them with anything less than respect, which made Natasha content not to use violence with anyone she wasn’t ordered to, and made Clint reasonably happy to take orders and not to run away. Sometimes it seemed, however, that the line between respect and affection got a little blurry. Every so often Clint got the urge to ask Natasha about the rapport she had built up with their director. Natasha was never going to be overly sentimental, but Clint thought he saw something once; Fury’s hand resting for the briefest of moments on Natasha’s shoulder, an almost paternal gesture, Clint might have guessed. Again, he was uncertain. It wasn’t as if he was the leading expert on receiving fatherly approval.
He didn’t ask her, because what would he say when she saw right through him like she always did? It was better not to hope, anyway. Clint never wanted to take for granted those rare moments when Fury would call him and Natasha into his office for a celebratory drink and a few concise words of praise. Those times didn’t happen after every successful mission, but they happened with enough frequency that people got wind of it. A lot of the talk was driven by jealousy of course. Either the agents with lower clearance felt shunned at never being invited to Fury’s office for anything except a debriefing or to receive assignments, or they felt that Clint and Natasha were trying to schmooze their way to the top, but it was always something.
One time, while Natasha was on a solo mission, Fury found Clint by the coffeemaker, wanting to gulp down some caffeine before heading to a meeting.
“Walk with me, Barton,” he had said, and Clint had followed, abandoning his paper cup of weak black coffee in favor of keeping step with the director.
“Sir,” Clint said, just respectful acknowledgement and nothing more. Fury and Coulson, they were always ‘sir’ with Clint. They had earned it.
They walked silently down the hallway for a few moments, Clint’s hands clasped behind his back as he gracefully met Fury’s long purposeful strides.
Clint was unsurprised when Fury led them to his office, shutting the door behind them. What did surprise him, however, were Fury’s next words.
“Ten years,” he said, without preamble. He didn’t move to sit behind his desk, so Clint merely stood at attention in front of him, tilting his head up to look into Fury’s eye. “That’s how long you’ve been with us.”
Clint nodded, numbers running quickly through his head. It was likely ten years to the date that he’d signed on. Ten years since Fury had given him the choice between joining SHIELD or spending some time behind bars before heading back to his shitty life at the circus. It had been a minor infraction back then, and Clint had been young, but he’d never regretted his decision. He’d likely be in prison by now, or worse. “Yes, sir.”
“It’s a long time, for someone your age. You’re still young. It’s long enough to know where your loyalties lie, wouldn’t you say?”
“Of course, sir.” Clint didn’t know what exactly the director was reaching for, saying things like that, but Clint had never given him a reason to doubt his loyalty. Sure, he’d been insubordinate plenty of times, enough times for him to have gotten a reputation in his earlier years at SHIELD, enough so that his personnel file had enough pages to resemble a phonebook. But those were early days, really, and while he still wouldn’t take any shit from a superior if he thought they were making the wrong call, both Coulson and Fury had made it a solid point to keep that from happening. Working with Natasha helped; bantering with her kept him from getting bored and being mouthy with the other agents, and together they tended to be so scarily competent that, nine times out of ten, they were left to their own devices when it came to running a mission.
Fury turned and walked around his big desk with the expansive glass top that was surrounded by monitors. Clint didn’t doubt for a second that, even though Fury seemed to be completely focused on him, he was fully aware of everything that was going on in his base at that very moment.
“And here’s the part where you’ll want to know where I’m going with this. Right, Barton?”
“It did cross my mind, sir.”
“At ease, soldier,” Fury said, smirking like it was a private joke. In a way it was, the military jargon not being either of their styles. Clint’s official title was agent, not soldier. In a way, it was Fury giving him permission not to stand up so rigidly, or to hold himself so tight. It was his way of saying that Clint could relax a little, even if they were having a serious discussion. “Have a seat.”
Clint did as he was told, and the two men sat across from each other, Clint drumming his fingers on the arms of his chair.
“Now, I’m sure you already know this, but I’ll say it for the sake of clarity, so if it comes into question, you’ll know. You’re one of a handful of agents I consider integral to this organization, and I’m certain, if you only think for a moment, that it will become obvious who the others are.”
“Natasha,” Clint stated, without looking to Fury for confirmation. It had to be Natasha. And who else? “Coulson, and...Hill?”
Clint did look up to gauge Fury’s expression then, and watched him nod minutely. Hill had been with SHIELD for only a few years, less time than any of the other agents they had just named. She’d quickly risen to a position of trust, however, through sheer determination and intelligence. Clint could admire that, even if they didn’t exactly get along.
“And a few others,” Fury continued offhandedly. “It’s not important for you to know specifics right now, but what is important is that you know you’re part of it. My right hand agents, if you will.”
“Thank you, sir,” Clint said, carefully not letting it show on his face how grateful he was to have this all spelled out for him. He knew, of course, that he was one of the best. The top sniper that SHIELD had at their disposal, and in the running with the rest for best and most reliable agent overall. If he had to guess, he would have said that he’d have to fight Natasha and Coulson for that title, not that he ever wanted to do that. A sensible voice in the back of his mind suggested that they’d both wipe the floor with him if that scenario ever came into play. Appropriately enough, the sensible voices usually sounded like Natasha, Coulson, Fury, or all three of them.
Clint wasn’t immune to subtlety, and he at last fully grasped the reason for this meeting. Fury’s time was precious, and not a thing to be wasted, but he’d taken time out of his schedule to let Clint know that he was needed. It was better than the letter of commendation that was the usual thing at the ten year mark, and somehow Clint figured that would get slipped into his file by Coulson anyway. Clint didn’t think he’d ever felt so proud.
“So,” Fury said, rising from his chair and coming around the desk to clap Clint warmly on the shoulder. “We’ll have a drink when Natasha gets back, what do you say? I’d offer you one now, but it’s the middle of the day, and I’ve got a meeting with the president in ten minutes.”
“Oh,” Clint started, a bit stupidly. Fury was going to go meet with the president, after having just spent who knows how long with Clint. Clint, who’s just an agent, really, no one particularly special, even if Fury took the last few minutes detailing the high esteem he holds Clint in. But it’s the president, man, and Clint can’t always wrap his head around the fact that he apparently means something now. He remembered a childhood where he was always in the way, followed by an adolescence and young adulthood where he had to beg, borrow and steal just to find a little space where he might be tolerated, let alone accepted or wanted. “Sounds good. I’ll be looking forward to it. Thank you, sir.”