The Avengers disband but it doesn’t mean that the good fight stops. The world still turns, the sun rises, and villains lurk in the shadows.
SHIELD still has an important job to do, and Clint Barton is a SHIELD agent first.
They send him to Kenitra for three weeks of reconnaissance and wasted opportunity. He brings his bow but doesn’t shoot anything living. He returns to his barren room - a standard cot, a nightstand and a bureau with no mirror - and falls asleep for twelve hours.
He has a debriefing that lasts three hours, then heads to the range for more practice.
It’s rinse and repeat of steady breathing, the cyclical sight, shoot, aim as the bow is an extension of his arm. Clint stands in front of the paper targets, decimates blank heads and chests, and breathes. The air tastes like regret and he releases the bow string when his eyes blur.
The phone on his belt buzzes just four days later and Clint is off to Novokuznetsk, infiltration of an espionage ring with ties to former KGB. He bundles up in cold weather gear and doesn’t complain when the team with him is a few moments too late rounding the corner.
Now in US airspace for the first time in not quite two months, Clint hisses between his teeth as the medic on board the Helicarrier swipes the cuts with disinfectant. He looks at Fury, back straight and head forward like the model soldier he is (he was a model soldier for green eyes and a bright blue burn too). The director of SHIELD looks at him but doesn’t say a word about the mission’s outcome or Clint’s role in it.
Clint goes to rest in his quarters and isn’t sure if he’s grateful or disappointed at the lack of acknowledgement. He tells himself it’s his due after bringing so much havoc to the director’s favorite office space and tries to keep the nightmares at bay when he closes his eyes.
SHIELD allows him eight days of downtime before calling on Hawkeye’s famous eyesight and long-range elimination skillset. He rappels into the jungles of Colombia, staying out of Bruce Banner’s side of town and hikes up the Cordillera Central. His Spanish is rusty but Clint makes do, settling in a small town and making his face known to the natives.
He’s recalled to suit up with the rest of the merry band before the timetable is reached so no one dies but Clint doesn’t breathe any easier at the knowledge. One life spared doesn’t make up for the fifteen men he killed months ago. Clint returns to New York City, not sleeping on the flight, and faces off against an oversized metal robot in a green cloak. Tony’s arc reactors blow the villain back, cracking the street when he lands.
Clint tunes out the inane banter between the Captain and the Iron Man, arrow held at the ready. He hasn’t slept in thirty-eight hours but the shaft never wavers. Maria Hill is a calm, steady voice in his ear. He appreciates her accounting for wind speed and directional shift, even though he does the calculations in his head.
Clint takes the shot on her order, arrow sliding in the joint between neck and mask. Doom topples and the SHIELD team moves in to take custody. The marksman packs up on a rooftop as the Avengers, minus a demi-god, congratulate themselves on the ground below. He heads back to base alone, silent in the black SUV passenger seat. Maria doesn’t look at him and her hands flex on the steering wheel.
He’s apologized to her before over for shooting her in the gut at the Dark Energy Research Facility but takes the opportunity to do so again during the silence of the ride. Each uttered word is met with an impassive glance, the entire exchange softened by a slight smile at the end. Clint doesn’t look at the pity and sympathy in the woman’s eyes, turns his face to the last glimpse of the sun until his eyelids burn white-yellow-hot. He takes the assignment she hands him when the car comes to a stop in the underground parking structure without question or a word of thanks.
He leaves for a month-long mission in Ar-Raqqah two days later.
(He’s becoming known as a workaholic. If only SHIELD knew they couldn’t punish Clint any more than he could punish himself.)
Syria is a still a war zone despite the tentative brokered peace signed weeks earlier. The land is unsettled, tensions high and written in the face of everyone Clint sees from his perch. Dust gets into all his gear, stationed near the city wall as he is and Clint isn’t surprised when the earbud shorts out. He isn’t expecting a replacement and keeps watch on the mark like he was told regardless. He sleeps in fits and starts, woken by car bombs and the call to prayer before the sun touches the horizon.
Five weeks in exactly and Clint takes the shot. Then it’s a matter of getting out of the country without alerting the authorities, leaving the room with tiled mosaics on the wall and screams behind him.
They don’t disappear, wailing ringing in his ears even as he closes the door to his room. Clint feels gritty and bone-tired. Most agents do infiltration work two, three times in a year. Natasha’s average, he knows, is more around three or four if deep cover isn’t necessary. Clint does the calculations, head resting on his pillow, and comes to conclusion he’s been assigned to four missions in the past six months with a total of three weeks of downtime in it all. He can’t wait to see what the future brings.
Clint sighs at the math and turns over on the cot, thin sheet pulled up to his waist. Best get some sleep while he can.
Of course that’s when Natasha slips in, without setting off the jury-rigged trap he has on the door handle. She slides between the sheet but doesn’t curl close to his body. Clint cracks open an eye.
“Let me guess, you missed me?” he says with a grin that feels a little forced. It’s been a long time since Clint’s had a reason to smile.
Natasha lifts a hand and runs the pads of her fingers down his cheek gently. Her hand is cool and Clint closes his eyes at the feeling. He’s weary and this emotion shown by his partner might be enough to undo him, if Clint let it.
“Go away,” he orders quietly. “I need my beauty sleep before the debrief tomorrow.” He turns his back to her, wincing at the wall as his bruised ribs protest. It seems sleep won’t come easy to him tonight.
Natasha leaves the cot, only to turn on the lights. They’re bright and unexpected; Clint growls, throwing an arm up to cover his face.
“There’s a room waiting for you in Stark’s tower, a whole floor, in fact. We all have them.” Natasha’s tone is brusque and she pulls his duffle bag away from the foot of the bed. The woman falters upon seeing it packed for a new mission and halts in her steps to the bureau.
“How many missions have you been taking? Is that why I never see you in the halls, Clint?” her voice is accusing and underneath the anger, hurt leaks through. The bag drops to the concrete floor with a soft sound, ignored at her feet.
The man pulls the sheet to his chin and answers to the ceiling. “It’s only been four, nothing more than I can handle. I’m a big boy,” He shoots her a grin and thinks this is almost like it was before, Natasha berating yet another stupid action of Clint’s and his heartfelt promise to not do it again. Except you can’t, you don’t say no to SHIELD, not when the choice is work or the Raft; Clint has too many of mistakes to make up for to even consider it anyhow.
“Get up,” and Natasha pulls the covering off him with no more warning than that. “We’ll put you on Bruce’s floor since he’s back in São Paulo for the rest of this month since you still haven’t designed yours. That won’t take long, though, and you’ll be in by the end of the week, I’m sure. Stark can run interference with Fury, or I will,” her voice is a growl of anger and Clint swings his legs over the side of the cot, catches her wrist.
“Nat, it’s nothing. You know the rules of this place.” He looks at her blank mask of a face, the green eyes boring into his. “I’m making it up, I have to.”
“You don’t,” she responds quietly. “Not like this.” Clint shakes his head as she continues, “Come home. Steve could use a new strategist and he’s getting along better with Stark now. It’s not like before, I swear.”
“You don’t need me.” Clint insists, even as he pulls on a shirt. Maybe he won’t ever learn because it would be nice to be wanted, even for a brief while before he greets the waiting cold, lets the other shoe drop as he knows it inevitably will.
“Do I need to hit you again?” Natasha has moved from anger to amusement, green eyes laughing as her lips quirk up in a fond smirk. “Then you’d get both sense and sleep.”
Clint groans at the mention of unconsciousness. The woman peers at him and her mouth thins out. Clint knows what she sees, the same thing he sees in the mirror: dark circles like bruises under his eyes, bone-tired weariness writ in every line of his body, and new scars littered across his skin. She doesn’t lift a hand to touch the puckered marks but he can feel her eyes linger on the white starburst left from the Siberia op.
She picks up his duffle bag and tilts her head to the corridor outside. Clint follows her through the hallways, hand stuffed in his pockets. Natasha’s boots click on the tile floor and he watches her red curls bob in front of him. It’s easier to concentrate on the familiar wave of his partner’s hair than to take in the sidelong glances from the SHIELD agents they pass on the way to the parking garage.
New York City blurs past the windows of the sedan, Clint’s bag in the backseat. He presses his face against the cool glass of the window and watches the tourists with their cameras, noting their obliviousness to everything around. The bright lights shine down, advertising this play on Broadway or this restaurant, personal insurance sold by a talking animal, even the legal services of Nelson & Murdock. Clint takes it all in, all of it and nothing at all. His mind is far away, caught in a blue cage delivered by a spear.
He gives up his partner with hollow words ringing in his ears, laughter bright around him, body cold and worn down, aching and starved - Clint jerks awake as the car comes to a stop.
Natasha looks over at him, no ounce of sympathy in the assessing stare. Clint is pathetically grateful and reminds himself that she of all people understands.
They don’t speak, riding the elevator up floor after floor. The little bell chimes just before the door opens and Natasha ushers him out. Steve stands in the foyer, arms crossed over his chest.
“Glad to see you, Clint.” Steve says, and shakes his hand. Clint lets go of the larger palm like it held an asp and hears Natasha let out a small sigh behind him. “I don’t know your schedule, everyone here is a bit different,” the Captain falls into step with Clint as he explores the floor that is meant for Bruce. There’s a lot of Asian influence in the design style, the marksman notices. “but if you wanted to join me for a run, I leave the tower at half past six and loop around the park?” He sounds hopeful, like a schoolboy asking a friend to come out and play.
“I don’t know,” Clint answers shortly, poking his head into the bathroom and getting an eyeful of a dark green shower curtain before shutting the door. “I might have to work soon. Duty calls, I’m sure you understand.” He’s not sure if he imagines the shadow passing over Steve’s face.
“Yeah, not anytime soon.” Tony Stark’s voice comes from nowhere and everywhere, disembodied and hidden from sight. “I’ve got JARVIS running a software program that should give SHIELD enough trouble to think about calling you. Come up to the top floor, I’m making drinks.”
Clint trades looks with Natasha and Steve. The soldier nods definitively so Clint sticks his bag in the bedroom and takes the elevator up with them.
His phone buzzes as he steps off and Natasha grabs it before Clint can. She holds it to her ear and smiles viciously at the window overlooking the skyscrapers, talking softly. Clint knows better than to try and take it from her. He wanders over to the bar, taking vindictive pleasure in stepping over the glass-covered crater where Loki’s body once lay.
“I like what you’ve done with the place,” Clint offers as Stark slides a glass of something that smells potent across the counter at him.
“Glad to hear it,” the genius answers, busy mixing another cocktail. “You’re staying for a while, right? I have a whole floor just for you, between the scary Russian and the morning ray of sunshine. I figured you can handle both of them, being a military man like you are. No rules here, except I beg of you to wear clothes.”
Clint doesn’t ask what led to that and takes a sip of the drink. The alcohol is strong, burning down his throat not unlike the local brew he’d experienced years earlier in the desert regions. He lets Steve question Tony about what went into the drink and wanders over to his partner.
She hangs up the phone with a sound that’s not really a snarl and tosses it to him. Clint catches it and raises an eyebrow.
“You’re on paid leave for the next two weeks. Bond with your new team, Hawkeye.” Her voice is low, uncannily mimicking the director and Clint snorts.
“What did you threaten him with to get him to say that?” Not that Clint isn’t thankful, because he could definitely do with a break. He’s only human, despite his marksmanship skills. Soon enough, at the pace SHIELD was setting, he would falter and screw up.
Natasha smiles briefly without answering the actual question and he lets it drop. She leaves him looking over the twinkling city lights and goes to get a drink of her own.
With enough time, Clint might learn to like it here. He drops onto the plush couch and lets the voices of the other three superheroes lull him into a resting state. The tower isn’t home and these are mostly strangers, not teammates, but Clint could settle in just fine, he thinks. The idea makes him smile, slow and small. It comes easier than before.