Clint lives in the present tense.
He lives in tension, anticipation. He lives in the moment when his bowstring hums by his ear and his body is drawn just as tight, waiting. His thoughts are the arrow, yearning for the distant mark. By the time the arrow is loosed, he's already moved on to the next target.
He has his slack moments, of course. Even the Avengers have down time. But he isn't living then, just waiting. He plays darts with Tony, pitting his eye against whatever innovation Stark Industries has come up with that week. He plays checkers and talks football with Rogers, who really is the stand-up, earnest guy he seems to be. He tries to find common ground with Banner. He fences with Nat to keep his hand in and lets her talk him into danse lessons on the pretense that they might need to go undercover some day, as if the group of them could go anywhere without being noticed. These days he can't walk down the street without being hailed by his call sign. Well, he can, on a good day. The others can't.
He's not a semi-anonymous S.H.I.E.L.D. hired gun anymore. He's an Avenger. It works. He has a place to live and the freedom to pick up and leave, all at once. He works for justice and he still gets to shoot things. New York isn't Iowa, although sometimes in the heat, it reeks like the circus did. It's nice to be a sideshow, these days. He's the most human piece of a supernatural team (you can't tell him there isn't something uncanny about Stark, more than a touch of the Trickster), but he earns his place. He's always been good at taking orders. Fury and Coulson are certainly happy to give them.
He's caught on one moment, though. It was months ago but he's still living it as if it's now, just like he's always lived. He's standing in the rain, waiting for orders, waiting for Thor to break through their haphazard protection. His bow is drawn; his body is taut; his aim is steady despite the wavering of the platform. He hears Coulson's voice in his ear and he caresses his own cheekbone with his thumb, as if he can touch the warmth of Coulson's tone as he stands soaked to the bone in the summer storm. When he closes his eyes, he still feels the roughness of his own waterlogged skin catching on a day's worth of stubble, trying to touch something intangible. He still feels the stirring of the tiny hairs around his ear, as if Coulson were breathing the words from inches away rather than through the wireless earpiece.
Coulson talks and Clint comes unstrung. It's a difficulty, but Clint has had to walk a tightrope before. Heights don't make him dizzy and the glare off a well-shined shoe won't catch his eye. It's just that Coulson's voice is in his ear, intimate as a lover, and it sends a new vibration down Clint's straight spine. Lately it's always there, a whisper in the background, as much a part of his ambient noise as the creak of his bow and the shimmering hum of the drawn string.
There is history to ground that moment, he supposes. He was Coulson's charge before he was an Avenger. S.H.I.E.L.D. picked him up and handed him over, and Coulson thanked them gravely and took Clint to the armory to pick out a bow before they even got his ID made. Coulson has grander responsibilities now.
Clint thinks that handling him was no kind of training for Coulson for dealing with the rest of them. Hawkeye mostly does what he's told - the costume doesn't give him any airs. He doesn't want to save the world like Cap or conquer it like Iron Man. Still, it was a lot of hours on a lot of missions with Coulson's crisp undertones in his ear, and it never felt that way until that night in the rain. He never touched himself, listening to Coulson's orders. He thinks about the implications of that and blushes a little as he hopscotches over two of Rogers' checkers - in some ways, he's still a farm boy.
Things changed that night, when they took Thor. Maybe more things changed than he realized then. Maybe that's his capital-M Moment, that night in the rain with a god in his sights, like when Tony put on the suit or Rogers climbed into that pod. Something started coming true, like the "once upon a time" of a story that has been waiting to be told.
Fury comes in with that look on his face and he and Rogers abandon the checkers where they lie. The Avengers assemble. They suit up. They go out and save the world. There are new arrows in his quiver again, Stark's ideas brought to fully-fletched life, and Clint is lucky that there are earplugs to go with the ones tipped in red, which explode, and the ones ringed in blue, which are some kind of sonic something or other he doesn't really want to understand. At least they fly true, which is better than some of Tony's previous projects. He puts in the earplugs. He'll give this to Tony, he's good at what he does in the lab. The earplugs filter out the noise of the arrows but still let him hear some of his surroundings, enough that he's not in danger of getting surprised, and one of them pings the soft chime of a communicator. Clint grins as he strings and draws his bow. Today's evil genius went all out - the entire downtown is overrun by robots of various shapes and sizes.
"Nice work on these earbuds," he says.
"It's me," Coulson says. "Just in case they didn't function properly, I'm here to make sure you have eyes and ears."
"Thank you for it, sir," Clint says. "I look better in a uniform than in a body bag."
"I'll take that under advisement," Coulson says.
"Can't say the same for some," Clint says cheerfully. "Who designed these things, anyway? They look like a five year old's idea of a space robot."
"Take him out," Coulson orders, sounding as if he's standing right next to Clint, and Clint looses one of the red arrows. He has another on the string before the robot explodes into shards of white-hot metal.
"Nice one," Coulson says approvingly, and Clint's thumb brushes his cheek again. He closes his eyes for a split second.
"Watch this," he murmurs, and lets this arrow fly straight down the barrel of a mechanized tank. It goes up in a ball of flame, leaving a hole in the street.
"Now you're showing off," Coulson tells him.
"It was my turn, sir," Clint says, picking off some sort of flying drone that was headed for Iron Man.
"Watch what you say," Coulson says. "The rest of the divas won't appreciate that."
"They won't appreciate it from you either," Clint says, trying out one of the sonic arrows. It shatters the windows of every building and vehicle for a city block, but at least it also brings a few dozen robotic soldiers to a halt. At least they're not held responsible for the property damage these days. You can't sue a shadow. They may be heroes, but legally, they're non-entities. Clint asked Coulson to explain it twice, just so he could listen to Coulson handle the jargon with the same ease that he handles the team these days.
"Private channel," Coulson tells him.
"Just you and me, sir," Clint says. He's brushing his thumb over his cheek every time he draws now, just a soft little stroke like touching a good luck charm. The trapeze artists at the circus did something similar, and the high-wire acts - anyone with a chance of falling hard. Clint has his feet planted at the edge of the roof and he was never afraid of heights, but still he strokes his cheekbone as he listens to Coulson's voice in his ear and looses arrow after arrow in the name of peace.
"Like it used to be," Coulson reminds him. "Barton. You don't have to call me sir. I think we're past that."
"You miss those days?" Clint asks, enjoying the resistence of the bow as he draws and fires.
"We're still here," Coulson says cryptically. The Hulk starts to rage down the street below them, smashing the remains of the robot squadron, and Clint hears Coulson sigh. It makes the back of his neck prickle. "That's the game. See you back at base."
Nobody told Clint that superheroing would be such sweaty work. The first thing they do when they get back is hit the showers. The rec room is always noisy afterwards. Tony cracks open a beer and tries to tempt Rogers into a drinking contest. Rogers refuses and heads back to the checkerboard. Banner takes Tony up on it, and soon they're all happy and chattering, Tony and Banner swapping scientist hangover cures they'll surely need. Natasha is surveying them, hands on her hips and a dangerous look on her face. Clint knows that look. His head pounds briefly at the memories. They never stood a chance against her.
"Barton," Coulson says quietly. Clint turns in his chair. He didn't even see Coulson come in - he's still across the room. Clint touches his ear to make sure that the earbud isn't still there, but it's just that Coulson's voice is that clear. He climbs off the couch and goes over to Coulson.
"Want to get a drink?" Coulson asks.
"I don't know," Clint says. "I don't think there'll be anything left after Nat gets into it."
"Not here," Coulson says, jerking his head toward the door. "Somewhere else. This is a city. There are bars."
"Aren't you on duty?" Clint asks.
"No," Coulson says. "I'm not always on duty."
"It's hard to tell," Clint says.
"I changed my cufflinks," Coulson says, a glint of amusement in his eye. He holds up his wrist. "See?" His usual S.H.I.E.L.D. emblems have been swapped out for something that Tony would wear, only less flashy. "So?"
Clint rubs a hand through his damp hair. Things are changing again. He feels it in the air, like the warm spill of sunshine that brings the flowers up in the spring. His body hums with anticipation, the way it does when he draws his bow. He lets his hand fall and his thumb brushes his cheek. Time to find out if his luck holds. Coulson stands there watching him, just as crisp and blank as ever, a tiny smile on his face the only sign of a change in the weather. There's warmth in his eyes, though; Clint's taken bets less sure in his life. This is a shot in the dark, Clint thinks, his body still strung as taut as his bow. He can either let go and trust that he'll find his target, or he can stand here until someone starts throwing up behind him.
There are better fates than holding back Tony Stark's hair.
"Let's get out of here," he says, his shoulders relaxing, and Coulson's smile broadens.