Above a certain level of organizational importance, SHIELD agents don't get coffins. Everyone knows that -- most by word of mouth, but some by the single pale-green page in their stack of paperwork received upon promotion.
In case of death with no chance of revival, your body will be placed in stasis and relocated to a secure storage facility. SHIELD is at the forefront of experimental medical technology, and we are certain that many currently untreatable conditions will become curable, some within the span of a few years.
Your enrollment in this highly sensitive program is not optional. Your next of kin will be notified that cremation was necessary; do not inform them otherwise. SHIELD cannot guarantee revival at any point. You will be legally and practically dead.
Clint read his copy of the green page years ago, so he's not surprised by the lack of a coffin at Phil's funeral, and he doesn't let its absence spark any kind of hope. He just reads his speech blankly, wishing he had Nat's ability to give people the kind of sorrow they want to see.
(He'd protested when Fury asked him to speak, said he wasn't good on stage. Nat could pull off the trembling voice and unshed tears, make a better show of it, and wasn't that what funerals were for? He was yours first, Fury replied, and that was that.)
Afterwards, he finds a perch near 45th and Lexington and settles in. Construction crews are still working around the clock to get the streets and sidewalks clear, let alone repair the buildings. He watches children scrambling up piles of rubble, hipsters taking Instagrams of an "ALWAYS OPEN" sign poking out of a collapsed roof, packs of teenagers posing on overturned cars with hand-painted Captain America shields or Iron Man masks. As evening thickens into an unevenly-lit night, he thinks about pulling out his bow to stop the occasional carjacking or mugging, but he never bothers.
By dawn, the chill air has sunk into his bare arms, deep and numbing. It's almost enough.
Life goes on. Clint and Nat get Nick Fury as their new handler, which is a) fucking terrifying, and b) almost certainly a major demotion for Fury. Clint can't imagine that the Avengers incident was good for Fury's career in SHIELD. Then again, the last time he tried to ask Nick Fury a personal question, he ended up with eight months of excruciatingly boring scientist babysitting, followed by a few days of just-plain-excruciating alien brainwashing, so yeah, he's not trying that a second time.
They send him on missions -- sometimes alone, sometimes covert ops with Nat, sometimes combat backup for the Captain. Every so often, Fury rallies the whole team; by this point, they've made an international name for themselves as the people to call for threats extraterrestrial or supernatural.
(Fury never uses the word "supernatural," and Tony rolls his eyes whenever he hears it. But Clint's vindicated on their second wizard-battling mission when Bruce says, quietly, "It may not be outside of nature, but when it doesn't obey any of the laws of nature we know yet, I don't think that the term is inappropriate." Clint tries not to let his smirk show too much.)
Then Clint gets slammed into a cement wall by something that looks like an animate pile of boulders, and the impact breaks six bones in the fingers and wrist of his left hand. Even with SHIELD's best doctors, it's enough to keep him off his bow for a few weeks -- he knows better than to screw around where his fingers are involved -- and an archer limited to a single-handed firearm isn't much of an asset to a team of superheroes.
He gets to know the corridors of the Helicarrier really well. Clint spends hours every day brushing up on his crossbow and throwing knives, because hell, he might as well use the opportunity. The first time that the Avengers get into a major fight without him, he's standing on the bridge. Video feeds capture the energy bolts flying through the air with exquisite clarity, and Clint can feel his arm muscles tensing involuntarily, itching to loose arrows. The itch builds until it's overwhelming, and finally Clint turns to Fury. "Sir, permission to take a workstation and initiate radio contact."
Fury raises an eyebrow and doesn't turn his attention from the video channel. "Provisional permission granted, Agent, but don't abuse the privilege."
Clint can't get into the chair fast enough. He filters through their available video feeds, setting up an array that gives him a full sweep of the scene; he feels a twinge of guilty gratitude that supervillains keep choosing well-populated cities for their attacks. Then he's surveying the scene, watching for patterns and weaknesses, breaking radio silence for quick observations and suggestions. It's not the same rush as being there, but it's a hell of a lot more satisfying than shooting a crossbow at a paper target.
He's shifting cameras as the hot spots move, of course, but near the end of the battle, one of his windows abruptly switches to a new location -- pointed perfectly at the Kree aiming at Cap with something shoulder-mounted and glowing. "Cap, ballistic on your six," Clint barks, and watches Cap swing his shield around just in time to send the energy blast back at his attacker.
Then Clint looks back at the window, which has switched back to its prior video feed. "Lucky glitch," he murmurs. "Thanks, I guess."
Plain black letters appear at the bottom of his monitor, just long enough for him to read them: "You're welcome."
The hairs on Clint's arm begin to prickle.
Clint's no idiot. As soon as the battle is over and everyone's been debriefed, he heads to Fury's office. The delay gives him enough time to think through possibilities: spontaneous self-awareness of the SHIELD computer network, incredibly unlikely coincidence, external infiltration. A hostile hacker would be unlikely to reveal their presence through friendly, non-interfering advice, but it's always a possibility. Personally, his money is on JARVIS; it wouldn't surprise him even a little if Tony'd found new holes in SHIELD's security, and the polite little response sounded like Nat's stories of the pretentious AI.
In the office, Fury gives him a level gaze, waiting for Clint to speak. "I have reason to believe that SHIELD computer systems have been compromised, sir," he says.
Clint tells him about the incident, then shrugs. "Could be nothing, but we don't want a repeat of -- last time." Then he stops, because the last time someone hostile took over the Helicarrier's computer systems, it was him.
Fury steeples his fingers in silence for a moment. He looks unsurprised by Clint's story, but then Fury looks unsurprised by basically everything. After a long moment, he looks up to meet Clint's eyes. "Thank you for reporting the incident, Agent Barton. We've been implementing some changes to the computer core, and this sounds like one of the anticipated side effects. Keep it to yourself for now, and come back to me if the system ever seems to be hindering your work."
There isn't much to say to that. "Yes, sir," Clint says, and heads off, furrowing his brow. He'd thought his guess of spontaneous self-awareness was influenced by watching too much Star Trek, but it's the only option that would explain Fury's nonchalance. Clint's dealt with some impressively advanced computers in his time, and none of them have felt so polite.
It's just one incident, though, so Clint shrugs, shakes his head, and starts planning how to optimize his remote-viewing battle station.
It's not just one incident. The next day, Clint's at his workstation, watching through footage of the Chitauri to work out some of their battle tactics. I keep a close watch on this heart of mine, he hums under his breath as he counts the number of air chariots in each formation. I keep my eyes wide open all the time.
Making sense of the chaos isn't an easy task, although his experience in thinking three-dimensionally helps. He rewinds the tapes over and over, tracking each Chitauri unit from the moment it coalesces until it goes down. There's a pattern niggling at the back of his mind, but it won't quite click.
"Focus on the chariot to the left of each formation's leader." The message appears on the bottom of his monitor, and Clint raises his eyebrows but figures it can't hurt. For the first few units, he doesn't notice anything; the chariot flies in sync with the others, then gets shot down (or smashed, or blown up) like the others.
Another few viewings, and it clicks. When a formation gets incompletely attacked and the left-hand chariot goes down, the unit generally falls apart soon after, shooting aimlessly from wherever they are. As long as that one chariot survives, though, the unit tends to regroup and advance. "The front chariot isn't actually the leader," Clint says, thinking aloud. "As long as we knock out the real leader in the left-hand chariot, they're crap at attacking without clear chains of command."
"Well done, Barton."
Clint laughs shortly. "Next time, feel free to tell me straight up instead of making me work for it."
"Need to keep you on your toes. You wouldn't have taken my word for it, anyway."
"Point," Clint concedes, then kicks himself mentally. Whatever this computer feature is, and no matter how human it sounds, banter's just going to make him miss what he doesn't have.
No longer humming, Clint goes back to work.
Over the next few weeks, Clint notices the interactions (which he's dubbed Skynet for purposes of self-amusement) showing up regularly when he's on the Helicarrier's computer, whether it's watching an Avengers battle or researching background data on his latest target. At first, the changes are subtle, even what he wants to call tentative. "Skynet" will pull up files a split second before he thinks to ask for them, or shift automatically to Iron Man when he's moving faster than Clint's fingers can type. When Clint's alone, he begins to talk directly to the computer, bouncing ideas off it or asking it to bring up relevant research, and he never receives anything but polite helpfulness. It's nice. Unsettling, but nice.
Late one night, when Clint's eyes ache from reading about alien anatomy (and how is this his life?), he rests his face in his hands. "Who are you, anyway?" he mutters.
A flicker of text on the monitor catches his attention. "Someone trying to make myself useful, like you."
Clint's mouth twists; he can't miss the note of ruefulness. It's only because it's late and his eyes are literally painful to keep open that he says what comes next. "Well, you'd be more useful if you could actually talk."
"I'll work on it."
Clint laughs aloud at that. "Thanks, Skynet."
"That's Global Digital Defense Network to you, Barton."
"Careful there, smartass, or I'll get Iron Man to whip up a few Terminators and toast your electronic ass."
"Your threats would be more intimidating if I couldn't see your smile."
Clint's first reaction to that is, inexplicably, to blush, conscious of the bed ten feet away in his quarters. Been watching me sleep, then?, he stops himself from asking -- God, this is ridiculous, he's flirting with a computer program. "Well, stay in line, and you won't have to find out how serious I am."
"Go to bed, Agent Barton."
Clint smiles again, turns off the light, and does.
The doctors tell him, the next morning, that his bones are healing well. A couple more weeks in a cast, then a couple months of rehab -- and they sound so encouraging about it all that he has to bite his tongue to stay impassive. Fury hasn't criticized him -- which in itself feels weird -- and Cap stops by every couple of days to thank Clint for his behind-the-scenes help. Somehow Rogers always manages to make it sound completely sincere and unpatronizing, too.
But right now, none of that matters. He strides straight from the sick bay to the shooting range and grabs a set of throwing knives. They've never been his favorite -- too short-range, less efficient than a gun -- but right now he needs the physical grounding of nothing but the metal between his fingertips, the faceless targets, and the strength of his arm.
A few dozen bullseyes later, he feels marginally better. "Guess I could always get a career in a circus sideshow," he says grimly to himself, and begins to clean up the range.
As he leaves the room, the monitor near the exit flashes up at him with the now-familiar black letters. "I suggest 'The Amazing Hawkeye.' You'll need a more colorful costume, though."
Clint rolls his eyes. "Thanks for the help, asshole."
"If you really want help, all you have to do is ask. Self-pity seemed higher on your agenda."
If glaring's never had an effect on Fury or Phi-- or on Clint's past superiors, it's unlikely to work on a computer, but Clint tries anyway. The worst thing, though, is that he knows that Skynet's right. He sighs and leans against the wall near the monitor with a thud. "If you have a better suggestion, I'm all ears. But right now, I'm redundant at best and a liability at worst."
"Do you really think that SHIELD has no use for anything but your archery?"
"Other than my rakish good looks?"
"Yes. Other than that." If Skynet had a face, Clint could imagine it rolling its eyes. "Have you read your personnel profile? 'Superb tactical planning.' 'Flexibility in unforeseen combat situations.' 'Strategic pattern recognition.' I won't even get into all the impressively deadly ways you use your body that don't involve your right arm."
At that, Clint stifles a smirk. "Glad to know you've been watching."
"Agent Barton. SHIELD needs you. If Fury's too busy wrangling the other superheroes to hand-feed you how to be useful, then you need to figure it out yourself."
"Yes, sir," Clint says quietly, then realizes that he just saluted a software program. Still doesn't feel inappropriate -- and something about that realization sends an odd twinge through his gut.
He's had enough introspection for one day, though. There's work to do.
His first stop is the Helicarrier's armory, where he systematically tests his way through their (highly limited) stock of crossbows. None are quite right: too inaccurate, too weak, or too difficult to operate one-armed. Clint knows what he wants, but he knows that he just doesn't have the mechanical experience to rig it himself. So that afternoon, when Cap's aboard to meet with Fury, Clint asks for a few minutes of time. They step into a conference room.
"Fury tells me you're doing well," Cap says, a note of question at the end of his statement.
"Getting there, yeah," Clint nods. "Going a bit stir-crazy, though. The doctors say it'll be months before my hand's good enough to use in combat conditions." The news clearly isn't a surprise, judging from Cap's lack of reaction, so Clint continues. "That's why I wanted to talk to you. I'd like to get out there sooner than that."
Cap's eyebrows furrow. "You've been very helpful with remote guidance on the past few missions. I'm not sure how much more we'd benefit from having you on the field."
"Right, I get that, but that's what I want your help with changing. There are plenty of one-armed archers out there, and I still have the strength in my left shoulder and back to pull a bowstring. The part I can't do is pull and release with my fingers. But with the right equipment on my arm, something that can hold and loose the bowstring on command, I should be able to start shooting arrows again. I won't be as quick on the draw as before, but it'll be enough to get me back in the field again." Clint draws a breath, conscious of his lengthy speech, but Cap has just been nodding thoughtfully.
"And you're sure that you'll stay accurate? You know better than me that an exploding arrow --"
"I won't let myself go out there until I'm sure."
A small smile quirks Cap's mouth. "It'll be good to have you back with us, Hawkeye. What do you need to make it happen?"
"The hard part is the armpiece. It's more an issue of biomechanics than weapon development, so I'm not sure where to ask." Clint really hates the words I'm not sure, but it's the truth. A year ago, he would've told Coulson what he needed, and it would've shown up on his doorstep. Now -- well.
"You're in luck, then, soldier," Cap says. "I happen to know a certain biomechanical expert and self-proclaimed genius who owes me a few favors."
Clint raises an eyebrow. "Tony Stark acknowledges that he owes you favors? How'd that happen?"
"He -- that isn't important." Inexplicably, and rather hilariously, Captain America is blushing, a detail that Clint files away for future blackmail. "I'll let him know to make it a priority."
"Thanks. And let me know if there's anything else I can do in the meantime."
"I will." Cap pauses. "You're an Avenger too, you know. There's a suite there with your name on it. Banner's been staying with us, and Black Widow when she's in town."
"I'll think about it," Clint says. Something deep inside him is slowly, slowly beginning to thaw.
"You should think seriously about Captain America's offer. The other Avengers are your equals; they'll push you in a way that hiding up here won't."
"Maybe. You're getting pretty good at riding my ass, though."
"Don't make me blush, Barton."
"Awww, I try. Seriously though, I'd miss you, creepy 24-hour surveillance and all."
"You'll survive. I hear JARVIS is an excellent AI butler."
"I don't need someone to hand me warm towels and call me 'sir.' I need --" someone to call "sir," his brain supplies. But he can't say it aloud. He can't.
The next words flicker on and off the screen, so quickly that Clint almost misses them. "I know."
Two days later, Captain America brings back the prototype. (He apologizes and offers excuses for the delay, and Clint just stares at him, used to the months of waiting involved in normal weapons R&D. He wonders if this is just what life with the Avengers is like.) The design's basic but elegant, combining a functional armpiece with a subvocal microphone that hides under the collar of his uniform, so he can select trick arrowheads and control the draw and release. Clint practically snatches the set from Cap's hands, skimming over Stark's instructions as he hurries to the range. It's designed to work around his cast, so it's only a matter of minutes before he has the first arrow nocked and ready to loose.
He barely hits the edge of the target, but that's not important. That one perfect moment, when the bow is taut and he can just see its path to the target: that's what's important. The rest is muscle memory, and he can work on that.
So he does, feeling what has to be a truly ridiculous grin creeping over his face. The quiet breath of the fletching turning in the air, the satisfying thud of a successful hit -- God, but he's missed this.
Clint works systematically, shooting a full quiver before retrieving the arrows and starting over, again and again. It's not just enough to have perfect aim; he needs it to become instinct, something he can rely on in the midst of chaos and distraction. Each new quiver, he imagines the face of a different enemy: a Kree soldier. A shrieking Chitauri. Doctor Doom. Loki. (Always Loki.) Eventually he reaches for an arrow that isn't there (has he really run out again?), so he sets down the bow to fetch them back; the clatter of carbon polymer on aluminum plate echoes unexpectedly loud.
"Barton!" a male voice says, and Clint freezes, kicking himself for being so out of practice that someone could enter the room without him noticing. Except -- he turns around, and there's no one there. Nothing moving.
Just the computer monitor, filling the screen with a single word in all caps: "BARTON."
He looks at the monitor, confused, and realizes that his hands are trembling, both of them.
"Barton. You've been here for seven hours, using muscles that you haven't relied on in weeks. Take a break, before you lose what ability you have left."
Clint stares at the screen. His hands still won't stop shaking.
"Go. You're doing well, Agent."
Glad I have the approval of a computer, Clint wants to snap back, but the thing is, it wouldn't be sarcasm. "Half an hour. Then I'm coming back."
"Not until tomorrow morning. I will lock down the shooting range if I have to."
"Knew you'd show your evil side eventually," Clint gripes, even as he's walking toward the exit. Then his mind processes the last couple of minutes, and he stops. "Hold on. You said my name. Aloud."
"I told you I'd work on it."
"So why aren't you talking now?"
"It's more complicated than you'd think. I don't want to sound like Stephen Hawking when you hear me."
"Hunh. That's the first time you've told me that you want something."
"Yes, even I have my indulgences. Now go rest."
"You're not nearly as fun when you're bossing me around," Clint says. He suspects both of them know just how much that's a lie.
(After everything with Loki, Clint almost failed his mandatory psych evaluation for being too well-adjusted. He'd been possessed by a demigod, forced to murder good men, and contributed to the death of his handler, but still every test came out clean: no PTSD, no increased risk-taking or aggression, not even a cloud of illogical guilt, just good honest determination to get back to duty. It drove the therapists crazy.
Clint thinks it comes of being an orphan, bouncing between foster homes until the military started footing the bill. He's never owned more than he could throw into a large duffel bag, none of it with sentimental value. Where you were last week doesn't matter. All that matters is being prepared for where you go next.
Lately, though, as he realizes the sheer breadth of the Coulson-shaped hole in his life -- lately, Clint's realizing that he'd overgeneralized. Owning nothing, needing nothing, yeah, that's fine. Shit happens, and you move to the next post. What he never counted on was just how empty it feels when he isn't needed. Isn't owned.)
Two more days of near-constant training, moderated by Skynet's implacably gentle reminders, and Clint's as confident in his new gear as he can be without actual combat testing. He tells this to Steve, who replies over the vidlink with a genuine grin. "Good to hear it. Tony'll probably want to take you down to the lab for some tweaking, whenever you get to the Tower, but that can wait. Meet us in Coney Island; they're reporting that the Aquarium's jellyfish have grown to the size of cars and started shooting electricity. Also seem to be levitating."
Clint is filled with admiration that Cap can say all that with a straight face, so it's the least he can do to keep himself from snickering. "I'll bring the Quinjet and see you there."
He's hovering over Coney Island in eighteen minutes flat, and Cap's description appears to be completely accurate. Police have cleared out most of the civilians, but the jellyfish are still bobbing out of the aquarium and through the courtyard, tossing bright blue sparks at anything that moves. There's an unfortunate smell of cooking fish.
"Hawkeye," Cap's voice appears in his ear. "Black Widow and I are working on cleaning up in here and finding the guy responsible for this. Iron Man and Hulk are busy in Oakland, so it's just the three of us. I need you to keep them contained outside. If you see someone wearing a scuba mask and a blue cape, make sure he doesn't leave the area."
"It'd be my pleasure," Clint says, and takes aim.
Jellyfish -- or at least these giant, flying, air-breathing, lightning-shooting jellyfish -- apparently don't deflate like a water balloon when punctured, which is a bit disappointing, all told. They do, however, splatter nicely when an explosive goes off inside them. From his perch, a rooftop where the Quinjet deposited him, Clint almost feels like he's playing with a sheet of bubble wrap, methodically making the translucent spheres go pop, pop, pop. He laughs to himself, giddy, as he aims his shots.
As the tide of jellyfish leaving the aquarium begins to thin out, a man scrambles out after them, looking back over his shoulder as he runs. The modified scuba mask just looks ridiculous on him, frankly. "Got this guy in my sights," Clint says to the comm line. "How do you want him?"
"Keep him here, but keep him alive," Cap replies.
"Got it." Clint aims his shot carefully; getting an explosive arrowhead into something the size of an SUV isn't hard, but this is his chance to show that he's back. Go, he subvocalizes, and the arrow flies like a dream, piercing the meat of the man's calf and skewering him to a park bench. Perfect.
Cap and Black Widow burst out of the aquarium a minute later, just as Clint's shooting down the last jellyfish. "Hey, nice of you guys to show up," Clint calls out. "I hear this place down the boardwalk does amazing calamari."
Black Widow shoots him an entirely unimpressed glare. "Missed you too," Clint says quietly.
Dinner at the Avengers Tower that night does not, thank God, involve seafood. It does involve several steaming take-out boxes from the Lebanese shawarma place down the block, which, Clint learns, has basically become the unofficial Avengers Tower caterer. (He ignores something like a twinge of guilt that he hasn't actually been here enough to know these things.)
The kibbeh is the best Clint's had, and that's including his stint training with Mossad. The company's a bit more mixed. Stark's -- girlfriend, assistant, CEO, whatever she is? -- is nowhere to be seen, but everyone else is clustered around the obscenely expensive-looking dining table. Banner is eagerly explaining Einstein-Rosen bridges to Nat, who almost perfectly conceals her deep regret at ever having asked, nibbling on a stuffed grape leaf. Cap -- Steve now, Clint supposes -- seems engrossed in a conversation with Tony about, of all things, childhood memories of the New York Aquarium. (With the way that Steve's eyes light up as he describes the old Aquarium, housed in the high-ceilinged hall of Castle Clinton, Clint suspects that a new Stark Wing may be appearing soon.)
Nobody makes an awkward effort to draw Clint into the conversation, which is fine by him; he's always preferred to watch. This way, he notices all sorts of details: the way that Nat's shoulders have lost some of their tightness; the flashes of excitement that appear in Bruce's eyes without getting instantly locked down; the way that Steve and Tony lean into each other, each man seeing and treasuring the other's smiles like they're completely unexpected and undeserved. Clint's tempted to make a joke about the superhero spandex turning red-blooded American men gay, but it's not like he has much of a leg to stand on.
(Not that he's gay, per se, just open-minded. Once, Fury had him fetch Nat while she and Steve were sparring -- both of them in tank tops and sweatpants, glistening with exertion, all hard bodies and smooth skin. The distraction of Clint rapping on the doorframe had been enough for Nat to flip Steve onto his stomach and hold him down between her thighs, his arms twisted and caught behind his back. That particular memory's gotten Clint through many, many lonely nights.)
Anyway. Watching. It's a nice thing. They finish dinner, Tony debriefs Clint and scribbles down notes to improve the gear, and then Nat comes over and says, completely casually, "Want to see your rooms?"
The Quinjet's long gone on other errands, and Clint's not enough of a diva to summon it back, even if the Avengers Tower makes him itch. It's just too damn familial, and he feels like the second cousin visiting just for Christmas. So he follows Nat up a floor and down a couple halls, to a door with no visible locks on the handle.
"Go on," she gestures, and Clint raises an eyebrow.
"No privacy in the Avengers tower, then?"
She arches one eyebrow. "There's a biometric scanning system built into the doorframe, activated when you turn the handle. Nobody but you can get in. Or Tony, I'm sure, which is why you need to stay on JARVIS's good side."
"Nice," Clint nods, and is very deliberately not relieved that a retinal scan isn't involved.
Inside the room, it's also . . . nice. Thankfully, the "Tony Stark has more money than God" opulence has been turned way down, and his area looks like a minimally furnished suite. The more he looks around, the more it feels eerily familiar, from the brand of coffeemaker to the number of pillows on the bed -- everything just how he wants it. Then he turns around and sees the vintage Willie Nelson poster hanging on the bedroom wall, and a disbelieving grin breaks out on his face.
"Yeah," Nat says, and Clint can hear the shadow of a smile in her voice. "I noticed it, too. When I asked Tony, he just said that he told JARVIS to make us comfortable. I did mention staying on his good side."
"JARVIS has good intel."
"To a creepy extent, yes. You'll be okay here? Lounge and gym are down the hall, if you can't sleep."
"This is fine," Clint nods.
After reading a few field briefs and watching a couple streaming episodes of How I Met Your Mother on the computer workstation, Clint flops down on the bed and tries to get sleep. Something feels wrong, but he can't figure out what; sleeping in a different bed every night isn't new to him.
"Fuck," he says aloud, when he realizes that he's missing Skynet. He tries to sleep for a few more minutes, letting his thoughts wander, before giving up the effort. "Hey, JARVIS, you there?"
"Yes, Mr. Barton?" The voice seems to be coming from the ceiling.
"How come you don't sound like Stephen Hawking?"
"I would be happy to elucidate any points of theoretical astrophysics that you find troublesome." Clint can't tell if that's supposed to be sarcasm, but knowing Tony Stark, it probably is.
"Your voice, I mean. You don't sound like a computer. Is that just some fancy unreleased Stark technology?"
"No, sir. No currently available voice synthesis technology can effectively replicate the intonations of a human voice. My own voice is a composite based on recordings of Edwin Jarvis, Mr. Stark's childhood valet."
"Hunh." Clint lies on his back for a few more minutes, arms folded behind his neck. "JARVIS, what do you want out of existence?"
"Having an existential crisis, sir?"
"Never mind. Stupid question."
"Sir, I cannot answer your question unless you specify more clearly what you mean by 'want' and 'existence.' As a computer program, I only exist as a set of information, and I have no independent desires. I merely function."
JARVIS's words hurt, and Clint can't even explain quite why. So he stops asking questions, and eventually, spread out alone on the too-soft mattress, he finds sleep.
Clint returns to the Helicarrier the next day, new armpiece in tow. (Apparently Tony had ended up working on it all night, and the ensuing breakfast argument with Steve implied that this wasn't unusual.) Tony and Steve both told Clint that he was welcome any time ("seriously, you should check out the underground archery range; if it's not better than anything at SHIELD, which would frankly be pretty shocking, let me know and I'll add it"). Bruce gave a quick grin and added, "These guys get less annoying with time, I promise."
Natasha just watched with cool eyes and the expression that Clint had come to recognize as her "there's something going on here, and I need to understand it before proceeding" face. It wasn't a reassuring face.
When Clint returns to the Helicarrier, Fury's waiting for him with a new mission. Jane Foster and her team think they've found a way to access the Bifrost, but they're less than 100% certain about whether the other end will lead to Asgard, rather than Jotunheim or somewhere even less pleasant. (Supposedly one of the other Nine Realms is called "Hel" and inhabited by dead people. Really.) SHIELD don't want to look like an invading army and have a bunch of soldiers standing at the gate, but they want someone in position in case what comes out is hostile.
So Clint flies back out to New Mexico, flipping through the information packet from SHIELD's Norse mythology expert. (Clint had met her when she first got hired, a rumpled-looking postdoc from Cornell who was simultaneously thrilled that her degree had gotten her a "real job" and frustrated that she couldn't gloat about any of it on Facebook.) If they do succeed in reaching Asgard, Thor's assured them that they'll receive a warm welcome, but in any other possibility, it'll help to know what he's facing. SHIELD's armed him with everything from arrows that burn underwater to silver-tipped arrowheads.
In the end, he doesn't need any of it. Dr. Foster pushes a button, and a very large and complicated machine begins to hum, starting almost inaudibly and growing to a crescendo that sounds like high, unearthly music. Clint's in his warehouse perch, watching the portal open, and it all has a horrible feel of déjà vu to it. All that's missing is Dr. Selvig; Clint knows that he's somewhere around the warehouse, but he gets the sense that he's being avoided. He's pretty okay with that.
The gateway that opens, veiled in swirling blue, reveals a dazzling bridge leading to a starlit city that rivals anything in Lord of the Rings. It's gorgeous, unreal, untouchable. From the smile that blossoms on Dr. Foster's face, this is what she was looking for.
A horn of warning echoes from the other side of the Bifrost, and within minutes, a delegation is striding out on the bridge. Clint can see Thor in the front row, walking beside an older man with an eyepatch who has to be Odin. As soon as Thor spies Dr. Foster, he erupts in a grin and races ahead of the group, leaping through the portal and picking up Dr. Foster to kiss her eagerly on the lips. It's all charmingly dramatic.
(What Clint carries with him from the scene, though, is the moment after that, the moment when Thor sets her down and they pause, hands around each other's waists, just looking at each other. There's no fear in their eyes, not one trace of it, and Clint wonders what it's like to have that perfect confidence that you can't live without someone, but you won't ever have to try.)
Clint relaxes the tension on his bow and sets it down; the movement's enough to catch Thor's eye. "Hawkeye, my brother in battle!" Thor roars. "Come down from your bird's nest and let me greet you."
"Only if you promise that I don't have to kiss you," Clint shouts back with a grin, and there's a split second when he wants instinctively to turn to see Coulson facepalm. He tries not to let his smile falter.
Getting down quickly is trickier with one arm, but Clint finds a nearby pole he can slide down. Then there's greetings, including a hug from Thor that nearly re-breaks his healing bones, and mutual introductions. Maria Hill is on-site to supervise formally, so all Clint has to do is stand back and look just threatening enough to be worthy of respect.
Once Hill explains that there's no emergency going on, just an equipment test for future interactions, most of the Asgardian warriors return home with Odin. Thor stands next to Foster, conversing quietly. They still haven't stopped touching.
At last, Dr. Foster turns to Hill. "So, hypothetically, how would SHIELD feel about Thor staying here for a little longer this time?"
"Director Fury thought you might ask," Hill says, and a corner of her mouth quirks. "He said that Thor can stay on one condition: Stark has to foot his drinking tab."
Clint shakes his head, trying not to laugh. Breakfast at the Tower is about to get even more interesting.
It's late by the time that he and Hill fly back to the Helicarrier. Thor and Jane have stayed behind, though Clint suspects they'll be heading to New York soon enough. For now, he doesn't envy whoever's trying to sleep on the floor below them.
Then it's him alone in his quarters. He sits down at his computer for a minute to check e-mail. "Hey, Skynet. Missed me?"
"I've been hearing great things about your work out there."
Clint rolls his eyes, inexplicably annoyed at the non-answer. He skims his e-mail subject lines as he talks. "Yeah. Thanks. Guess it's not hard to find someone else to stalk while I'm gone."
"You're usually in a better mood after successful missions. Was your suite at the Tower not comfortable?"
Something about the question strikes Clint as odd, and when he runs over it in his head, pieces fall into place. "You. You've been feeding JARVIS information about me."
"I may have passed along a few preferences. Nothing more. I wasn't aware that your fondness for outlaw country was classified."
"It's not that. It's just that you know every fucking thing about me, and for all I know, you're a Russian spy virus, or a 13-year-old hacker in his mom's basement."
"If you really thought that, you'd have told more people about me."
"Maybe I'm just scared that you'll figure out I'm snitching and fill my room with cyanide gas." It's a joke, but Clint just doesn't care enough to put his usual teasing voice behind it. He's tired.
"You're tired. Go to bed. I have something to show you tomorrow."
"Fuck you," Clint mutters, but he's not going to stay awake just to prove the computer wrong. When he gets into bed, he's still prickling with emotion, a witch's brew of frustration and need and aching loneliness. He's in the stage of tiredness that feels like intoxication, dreamlike but not asleep, and later he'll blame that for what he does next.
It starts with a simple habit. Usually, when he's feeling this kind of tired restlessness, jacking off helps his thoughts calm down. He's been avoiding doing so lately, though, waiting until his morning showers; even if Skynet's nothing but a computer program, it feels strange to know it's watching.
Clint's hand slides down, cupping himself through his boxers. He tells himself that if Skynet's only a computer program, this doesn't matter. When his fingers press tight around his length through the cotton, though, his body shudders involuntarily, and he realizes that that's not his motivation at all. It's that he wants it to matter. He wants something from the computer that isn't just calm supportiveness, and maybe this will anger or embarrass or arouse it enough to actually care.
Clint closes his eyes, so he's not tempted to glance over at the computer monitor. He forces himself to go slowly (Hawkeye's always been good at patience), and imagines what it must look like: not much yet, just the up-and-down movement under bedsheets of his hand, the barely-parted lips and quickening breathing of his face. He holds his hand still for a moment, right at the end of his shaft, and strokes his thumb in a tiny, light circle around the head of his cock. It feels delicious. He wants more.
He tells himself that he's throwing off the bedsheets because he's starting to heat up and sweat, but Clint can't help but picture himself as he might look through the lens of unseen cameras. He's wearing nothing but his boxers, and even they're coming undone, the head of his dick peeking out obscenely. When he slides his hand back down the cotton-clad length, he can feel his hips canting up slightly, pushing into the touch. Watch me, he thinks fiercely, and bites his lower lip.
After a few more exquisitely slow strokes, Clint fumbles around in his nightstand for his bottle of lotion. It's out in a minute, and then he's squeezing out a generous dollop (something else that's harder one-handed) and sliding his fingers below his boxers. The shock of cold and pressure and touch makes him breathe out a soft cry.
With the help of the lotion, Clint can jack himself more smoothly, but he keeps it measured, slow, arching his body upward with each stroke. His boxers slide lower and lower until Clint tugs them all the way off, and then he's naked, spread out on the bed, fucking his hand hard and sure. He tilts his neck back, open and vulnerable, and imagines teeth nipping below his jawline and marking him as owned. It's good, so damn good. "Ride me," he whispers, voice rough and breathless. "Use me. Want to -- fuck, God, yes -- want to come for you."
His hand is sliding over his cock faster now, firm, relentless, and he knows he's going to come soon if he doesn't stop. So he lets go entirely, then traces a single fingernail upward from the base of his balls all the way to his slit, torturously slow, letting the steady pain ground him. "Ahhh," he exhales and tries to remember how to breathe.
Clint can't resist opening his eyes then, just for a moment. The monitor's still blank. Maybe Skynet left at the beginning, he thinks bitterly; surely it can turn off input streams. But then his thumb rubs over his head again, teasing at the tender flesh and feeling the wetness of pre-cum, and he doesn't care. He only wants.
If he had two hands right now, Clint would be making use of them, playing with his balls or sliding a couple fingers into his ass. (Flexibility of a trained acrobat: surprisingly useful.) Still feeling that hot tingle of being watched, though, he merely teases, stroking a single finger over his perineum to press at his hole. He holds it there for a moment, fingertip just barely pressing in, and the hunger to be fucked hard is so intense that it leaves him panting. "Need --" he starts to say, then breaks off. His harsh pants of breath fill the room.
Fuck patience. A moment later, Clint's hand has a fresh dollop of lotion, and he's working up and down himself fully with long, twisting strokes. He feels like he's on fire, dripping sweat and lotion and pre-cum, hips thrusting fiercely into his grip. In his mind's eye, he's being ridden by sleek abs and firm thighs, hands that grip his shoulders hard, a face that -- a face that he won't let himself see. "Please," he hears himself saying. "Please. Want to come so bad. Tell me. Please. Need you to." It's incoherent and he doesn't care, he's so close to the brink, he's --
"Come for me," the man in his head says, soft but urgent, and God, Clint is coming all over himself helplessly.
He lies for a few minutes, wipes off his stomach with his dirty t-shirt, and focuses on breathing. "Hunh," Clint says, half-dazed and smiling at what has to be the best orgasm he's ever had alone. When he casts a glance over at his computer, the monitor's still blank.
Sleep's enveloping him swiftly now, and Clint relaxes into its grasp. In his last moments of consciousness, he has a passing thought that feels like it ought to be important. He's realized that he's not sure whether he heard that last command in his mind or in his ears.
Clint wakes with his stomach churning uncomfortably, but when he remembers what happened the previous night, he knows why. He showers and dresses without saying anything, without looking at the computer screen at all, and he heads to the range for some pre-breakfast target practice.
The ritual of shooting calms him; he focuses on perfecting his off-hand quiver draw, on speeding up the time to nock and draw. By the time he finishes his second quiver, he's come to a decision. Friendly or not, Skynet's been distracting him and influencing his decisions. He's getting emotionally invested in a fucking computer program, and that is bullshit if he's ever heard it. He's pretty sure that Fury will be fine with him moving to the Tower full-time, as long as he stays available for SHIELD ops; all he has to do is make the request. The decision feels good to make, a solid platform in crumbling sand.
Time to start the day. Clint gathers his things and starts to leave. The range workstation is flashing "Barton, you're avoiding me." He ignores it.
"Clint," he hears, just as his hand touches the door. "Wait."
Clint whirls around and glares at the room's central security camera, for lack of a better target. "Now you've decided that you can talk after all?"
"I told you that I had something to show you today. This is it."
It's the first time Clint's heard a full sentence from the program. He can feel the blood drain out of his face. He knows this voice. "Not. Funny."
"This isn't a joke."
"So what, it's a punishment? Haunt me with the voice of the man I helped kill? I swear, I will find and kill whoever programmed you."
"I hate to disappoint you, but Loki got there first."
Clint's nails are digging into his palm. "Whoever or whatever you are, explain. Now."
"You know who I am. My body's in a cryostasis chamber in Iowa, but this is me, all the memories, everything."
"And why should I possibly believe you?"
"Budapest. Five years ago. I visited you in the hospital afterward, and you were killing yourself over how many men we'd lost. So I told you to talk to me, tell me what improvements we could make to your bow. By the time I left, we'd hashed out your first interchangeable-shaft quiver."
Clint presses his eyes closed. "I remember being so pissed off at you, like you were implying that a better bow would've meant fewer men down. Should've known you had your reasons." He takes two controlled breaths. "It is you, isn't it. I guess this is all thanks to Fury?"
"In a way. He got me uploaded, but I don't think he expected me to explore as much as I have." There's a pause, and Clint can practically see Phil's smiling shrug. "I wanted to be able to help."
"Jesus." Clint starts to pace, thoughts tumbling over each other too quickly to detangle. I thought you were dead. I missed you. You lied to me. You watched me. Maybe I knew all along. It's overwhelming until he pulls out an old mental trick, imagines each thought as a pigeon fluttering around and obscuring the single white dove that he's aiming for. There. "Who else knows?"
"Fury suspects. JARVIS probably noticed my footprints. No one else. It was experimental technology; I'm the first guinea pig."
"Why not tell them it succeeded? You died a hero."
"It took me weeks to get out of the prison that they programmed me into. I've learned how to move wherever I want, including places that were well above my clearance level, and they don't like any one person having that kind of power. They'll find out eventually, but I want to do this right."
Clint tries to imagine what an electronic prison would be like -- the worst kind of solitary confinement -- and feels a pang of sympathy. "Tell me what you need me to do."
"You were about to leave and request a transfer to live in the Tower, weren't you?"
"How'd you know?"
"You had that face you get when you're resolved to do something stupid because you think you don't have an alternative."
"That's a disturbingly specific description, sir."
"Only because it happens disturbingly frequently. And you don't need to call me 'sir'; I'm not your handler any more."
Something like an ache passes through Clint, and he covers it with a cheeky smile. "I know that I don't have to. Sir. Anyway, you never answered my question."
"I'd like to come with you."
"You mean, keep a remote linkup when I leave the Helicarrier?"
"I mean leave the Helicarrier. I'm a liability to SHIELD as long as I'm floating around here; they know I can go where I want, so their only alternative is to bottle me up or erase me. Stark's ego is big enough that he'll think he can allot me space without compromising his own systems, and he might even be right. Once I'm in place, I can support the Avengers initiative directly. Everyone wins."
Clint draws in a slow, whistling breath. "It's a decent plan. There's one thing I don't get: why didn't you tell me earlier?"
There's a delay before Phil begins to speak. "I needed to get a few things in place."
"Yeah, bad news. When you don't have those deceptively innocent eyes looking back at me, you're a really crappy liar."
An even longer delay. "I -- liked it."
"You let yourself be vulnerable in front of me, the way you never would when you were my agent. I knew that once you knew who I was, you'd snap shut again, and you needed more than that."
"Let's get one thing straight, sir. If you ever again pretend to be dead for months just because you think it's good for me, I will personally ensure that those rumors are not exaggerated."
"Duly noted. Now, I believe you're about to get a text summoning you to a briefing with Director Fury. I'd appreciate it if you held off on saying anything to him just yet."
Just as Phil finishes speaking, Clint's pocket begins to buzz. "Someday, you're going to get something wrong, and I will never let you forget it."
Clint ends up getting caught up all day in paperwork and planning, with PT taking up the early evening, so it's late before he and Phil have a chance to touch base. They agree that this is something the Avengers need to know about before they start (particularly Stark, for obvious reasons). Clint schedules a meeting the following day with everyone; he has to reassure Steve three times that he's not about to announce his resignation from the team.
Then they've done all they can for now, and it's just the two of them, quiet in the room. Clint's contemplating turning on some David Allan Coe, just to fill the awkward silence.
"So, I've gotta ask," he finally says, aiming for a light tone. "You've got access to all the cameras here, right? So are there any dirty secrets I can use as blackmail, next time Fury's pissed off at me?"
"Well, there is the pink teddy bear that he keeps in his bed and snuggles every night."
"You're kidding me."
"Yes, I am."
"Oh, fuck you. What good is an all-seeing stalker if you won't share juicy details?"
"I'm told that superheroes are only supposed to use their powers for good."
"Trust me, if you can get me dirt on Fury, I will make it very, very good for you." The words slip out of Clint's mouth before he can stop himself. It's the kind of careless flirting that he might try with Nat (because they both know that it will never, ever, ever happen), but Coulson? Clint values his job too much for that.
Then again, he's increasingly, uncomfortably certain that Phil kept watching last night, all the way to the end, so. Well. Not much left to hide. Still, he's expecting Phil to ignore or shoot down the comment, anything but what he's actually hearing.
"Really, Agent Barton? I'm not sure you can be that good."
Clint's mouth goes dry. "Try me."
There's a long silence, so long that Clint starts worrying that he scared Phil away by calling his bluff, but finally the voice returns. "You have five minutes to close down your evening work and get ready for bed. When those five minutes are up, I want you to kneel at the point five feet from your bed and equidistant from the desk and dresser, facing the door.
"Yes, sir," Clint says; he's hard already, shivering slightly. He takes a measured breath, then prepares for bed, shutting down the computer and brushing his teeth. He hesitates for a moment at the end; Phil hadn't told him whether to keep his clothes on. Clint finally reasons that he'd said to get ready for bed, which normally includes stripping down to his boxers, so he tugs off his clothing piece by piece. Phil's silent, but Clint can feel his gaze pressing in from all directions.
Four minutes have passed when Clint measures the five feet with his eyes and sinks down to his knees. He feels exposed and aroused; he feels like he could kneel in place forever if that's where he's needed to be.
Clint's used to lengthy kneeling, thanks to countless sniper stakeouts; he knows how to do it so he can jump up and into a run at a moment's notice. It never gets comfortable, especially bare-legged on a hard floor. Still, he uses the minute to center himself, letting his eyes flutter closed. Waiting.
"That was very good, Clint," Phil says, exactly at the five-minute mark. "I know what you were trying to do last night."
"Did it work?" Clint can't help but ask.
"Not the way you wanted it to." Phil's voice is neutral, and Clint has no idea what to read into it. Silence stretches between them, oddly unsettling until Clint realizes he's listening for a pattern of breath that's not going to come. He can feel every muscle of his legs in the stretching and tension of his position. Clint waits.
"Tell me about what happened with Loki."
Clint raises an eyebrow. "You can't tell me that you haven't read every report and evaluation about that. Sir."
"I've read them. I've also watched you since then. Something changed in you. Clint, this is me; I know you, or I thought I did. You're functioning just fine as far as SHIELD is concerned, but you keep looking for something more than that, something Fury isn't giving you. So tell me about what happened with Loki. That's an order."
"Yes, sir." His sharp arousal from earlier has begun to fade into something slower and quieter. "The thing is -- the thing is, he didn't turn me into a remote-controlled robot. I wasn't just a body to him. I was myself, except that all the different things I wanted in the world, all my motivations, they got shoved aside and replaced with just him. I mean, the other things were there somewhere. I wanted to get Loki out of the compound safely, but I could choose to shoot Fury in his body armor instead of his head. But what I wanted, more than anything in the world, was to do exactly what Loki wanted me to do."
Clint stops for a minute. His hands are clenched on his thighs, nails digging in sharper than he'd realized. The next part is the hard one, the one he didn't tell any of the therapists.
"You've been to SHIELD's mind control training. You know all the tricks they teach us to help resist. But they didn't matter with Loki, because I didn't want to resist. And God help me, but that felt so damn good -- that certainty, that focus. Having someone who wanted me to be completely his." Another breath, a way to stall. "Loki -- he called me into his room once, when we were waiting for Dr. Selvig to get to the next stage. We were alone. Turned out that he just wanted me to tell him everything I knew about each of the Avengers, so I did, but there was this moment, before he told me. This moment when I didn't know what he wanted, and my brain started working through all the possibilities, just so I could be prepared. I would have let him do anything -- slice me open, fuck me, cut off my bow hand and put it on a platter. The worse the thing was, the more that this place in my gut was happy, because it would prove to him just how obedient I was, and that was all I wanted."
"Clint." The name hangs in the air. Phil's electronic voice doesn't do emotional nuance well, but this time, it sounds so broken. "Please get up. Stop kneeling for me."
So Clint does, even though he's rapidly becoming annoyed. "I wasn't asking for your pity, and I sure as hell wasn't asking you to stop."
"Really? It sounded to me like you were putting me in the role of a sociopathic alien murderer. That's not the most flattering comparison I've had, and not the most healthy experience you've had."
"That's not my point," Clint grimaces, and he flops down on his back on the bed. "Loki's an evil bastard, what happened to me was awful, I get it, I've been through this a dozen times with the shrinks. My point is that Loki put himself in my head where he didn't belong, but that doesn't mean it's wrong for me to figure out that I want someone else there instead." He shrugs. "I kill people. It's what I do well. None of us here are good people, not even you. But you were the best of us, so when you told me to kill someone, I knew it was the right call."
"I need to think about this."
"You do that. I'll be waiting. Oh, and Phil?"
"We need you for the Avengers initiative, whether or not -- however this thing with you and me goes. I'll vouch for you whatever you decide. Not that I think you'll need it."
He doesn't need it. When Clint tells the team the next day, their reactions range from delight (Steve, to whom computers are all magical anyway) to annoyance (Tony, though it seems to be mostly directed at Fury), but nobody questions that they want Coulson around.
Well, Tony tries once, but Steve gives him this look, and he just shuts up. It's pretty impressive.
Clint made sure to be watching Natasha's face when he told everyone, because he knows her. Sure enough, there was a brief moment where he could see everything in her wide eyes, the shine of unexpected hope, before it shut down again into interested blankness. Now Nat's busy giving Clint a different kind of look, one that has a lot more to do with "why you, and why'd you take so long to tell us." He ignores it.
The main objection seems to be Tony's possessiveness about his computer networks, so Clint tries the strategy Phil suggested and goes for Tony's pride. "So you're saying that JARVIS isn't capable of locking down your information well enough to keep it from Coulson's hacking abilities?"
Tony opens his mouth, then closes it. JARVIS speaks up. "Sir, I should be more concerned about Agent Coulson's ability to keep secrets than the converse."
"Actually," Bruce says, and everyone turns around in surprise, because it's the first time he's spoken -- "Actually, I don't think that should be a problem. Based on Hawkeye's descriptions, they didn't decode and upload the knowledge from Coulson's brain; they literally uploaded his neural net in its entirety. So unless JARVIS can decode and translate the patterns of firing neurons -- in which case, congratulations, you've invented telepathy -- Coulson should be safe."
(At the mention of "inventing telepathy," Tony gets this faraway, contemplative expression. Steve gives him another Look.)
Clint surveys the room. "So we're agreed?" He gets three nods, plus a pair of rolled eyes from Stark, which he figures counts. "JARVIS, could you send an encrypted e-mail to my e-mail address, summarizing this meeting?"
"Of course, sir."
When Clint focuses back on the group, everyone's looking at him oddly. Steve finally says, "You're comfortable with assuming that Agent Coulson reads all your e-mail?"
Clint is not blushing. "Number one, it's a lot less suspicious than sending an e-mail to Coulson's own account, which is definitely being monitored. Number two, it's not like I use the account for anything interesting anyway."
"Yeah, okay," Tony says in a way that makes it clear nobody believes Clint. But then he's turning back to his datascreen and muttering with JARVIS about firewalls, Steve is asking a quiet question to Natasha (while pointedly not looking at Clint), and Bruce is shrugging and pulling out his Starkphone to poke at. Eventually, Tony speaks up, without looking away from his screen. "It'll take some time to get everything prepped and transfer him over, since we're talking about a minimum of several terabytes, so don't expect anything for a few hours." Clint takes that as his cue to leave.
A few hours later, Clint's almost managed to distract himself from the nervous tension pulsing through him. He's taken the time to unpack his things (such as they are) and explore the Tower. Turns out that more than the suite is his; the whole floor is designed just for Clint. There's a customized armory (guns, knives, crossbows, compound and recurve bows, even a couple of gorgeous longbows), a high-tech practice room that projects holograms to shoot at, even a small guest bedroom. A few dozen floors down the elevator is the below-ground training area, which includes a full-size range with programmable moving targets, full fitness facilities (including a full-time massage therapist), and a gym filled with things that look like punching bags but don't even budge when Clint hits them at full force. Then there's the sauna, the marble-walled showers, and the Olympic swimming pool.
Clint makes a mental note to do something really, really nice for Tony Stark. Maybe persuading JARVIS to accidentally trap him in the elevator with Steve for a couple hours would count.
Anyway, by the time that Clint ventures up to the social floor on the texted promise of curry, he's pleasantly sore and humming "Mammas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys" under his breath. "Hey JARVIS," he says as the elevator takes him up, "how's the transfer coming?"
"Phil Coulson was successfully transfered to local data storage twenty-three minutes ago. Upon Mr. Stark's instructions, I have been guiding Agent Coulson through the local information structures, input sources, and output methods."
Clint's throat goes dry. "So he's here? Can I talk to him?"
"I have been instructed to delay response to that request on the grounds that it would, and I quote, 'spoil the surprise.'"
"Of course you have." They get to the penthouse level, and Clint heads to the cluster around the dining table, starts to make himself a plate of chicken tikka masala.
It's a flash of light in the corner of his vision, and Clint is whirling around, automatically assessing what within reach could become a weapon or cover. Instead, standing in front of the closed elevator doors, crystal-clear but translucent, is Phil. Agent Coulson. Whatever. Phil looks over and meets his eyes, and Clint can't move. He. He can't.
Tony strides forward, and if his skin's a shade too pale, nobody else is doing any better. "Welcome to the Tower, Agent Coulson," he greets him.
"Just Phil now, thanks." It's an eerie effect -- his lips move in synch with the words, but they're coming from the closest speaker, so the echo in the room feels wrong.
Silence. Clint suppresses the ridiculous urge to offer Phil some curry.
"It's good to have you back," Natasha finally says, and everyone nods.
Steve puts on his Captain America face and steps up to join Tony. "Sir. You were an inspiration to all of us."
"So I hear," Phil says, and there's a wry twist to his voice. "I hope that my return won't be too inconvenient to the team dynamic."
"We'll manage," Natasha replies, just as dryly.
There's another long pause, and then Phil gives them a polite smile and says, "So, I'll leave you to your dinner. We can talk tomorrow about how I can best contribute to the team."
"Oh, I see how it is, you turn into an electronic ghost and suddenly you're too good to hang around while we eat?" Tony turns back to the table with his you are stupid beyond words, and I have lost interest sigh. (It's a sigh that Clint is very familiar with.)
Phil chuckles, shakes his head, and sits down on one of the couches, and conversation slowly returns to its usual rowdy buzz. Ten minutes of dinner later, Tony and Bruce are doing their intellectual-circle-jerk thing by discussing Phil's holographic projectors and the video extrapolation algorithms that make them possible, while Steve's talking intensely with Phil himself, probably already revising battle strategies. Clint's watching the room, carefully looking at Phil neither more nor less than anyone else. Natasha is watching Clint.
She stands up abruptly. "Barton. Follow me."
Phil doesn't look up (which is ridiculous to care about, because Phil's hologram isn't how he sees), but Tony gives Clint an exaggerated wink. "Try not to leave dents in the walls."
"Don't be jealous, Tony," Clint smirks back. "You'll make Steve sad."
"What?" Steve starts, but the blush on his cheeks makes his innocently confused eyes less convincing. Clint is still laughing when the elevator doors close.
"My floor," Nat says, and the elevator begins to descend. She doesn't say anything until they've exited and the doors close behind them.
"My first day here, I removed all the surveillance devices from this floor and told Stark that if he tried putting any back in, he'd get them forcibly implanted up his ass." The completely unsmiling look on her face stops any giggles in Clint's throat. "We can talk here."
"Okay," Clint says. "What are we talking about?"
As usual when it's just them, Nat doesn't mince words. "You and Coulson weren't fucking when he died, and you were both happy pretending you didn't want to. What changed?"
"Wait. I -- he -- you're wrong."
"Wrong about you two never fucking, about you both wanting it, or about the dynamic changing?"
Clint resists the urge to hit his head against a wall. ". . . Yes?"
She gives him a level look. "I'm ignoring the claims that you know are factually correct. You were interested, and you never did anything about it. As for him, he worked harder to hide it when you were around, and you were too busy worrying about your own interest to figure out his. That leaves the new developments. I can figure out what happened through guesswork, but it'll be easier if you just tell me."
"Hey, you're pretty good at this interrogation thing," Clint tries for a smile.
"It's -- not that complicated. I got to know him on the Helicarrier before I knew who he was. That blurred the lines."
Natasha waits, but Clint doesn't say anything more. What he said was true, and he can't fully explain the rest of it to himself, let alone to Nat's scrutiny. Just to break the silence, he adds, "It won't affect my work."
"I know that," she says with a look of mild exasperation. "It's not your work I'm worried about."
After that, there isn't really much to say.
Clint doesn't venture back to the common floors that night. He spends a while training on his floor, getting used to the balance of each weapon in the armory (inasmuch as he can with one arm). He doesn't say anything to the empty walls, and they don't say anything in return.
Only when his muscles are practiced to exhaustion does he set down the crossbow and head to the living suite. He strips off his sweat-damp shirt out of habit, then pauses. "Hey, JARVIS, you there?"
"Indeed, Mr. Barton."
"How much access did you give to Ph -- to Agent Coulson?"
"I was instructed to give full audio and visual access to all common spaces to Agent Coulson by default, sir. Would you care to override that default for any part of your floor?"
"What about you? Can I turn your input on or off?"
"Sir, completely disabling my presence is strongly discouraged for reasons of safety." Clint thinks of Nat's floor, but keeps his mouth shut. "However, part of Mr. Stark's contract with the Avengers Initiative specified that I may be shifted to dormant mode, where I will neither react to nor record any data until you request my presence by name."
"Hunh." Clint suspects that Tony's built himself a backdoor, despite the wrath of Fury as a deterrent, but at least it gives him the veneer of privacy. "Okay then. How about you give access to this floor to Coulson, tell him that he can come by whenever he's comfortable, and go to dormant mode after. And if you could refrain from telling Stark about all this, I'd appreciate it."
"Done. Good night, sir."
JARVIS's voice fades, and Clint half expects Phil to appear right away, but he doesn't.
Clint brushes his teeth and strips down to his boxers, flashing a saucy grin to the most obvious security camera, and Phil still doesn't appear.
He gets in bed and enjoys a slow, teasing session with his hand, until he comes with Phil's name on his lips. Nothing.
As he's about to fall asleep, Clint's has the horrible realization that of course Phil didn't show up, because Phil has what he wants already. He'd worked to gain Clint's trust in order to get off the Helicarrier, and now that he's achieved that, Clint's just another member of the team.
"Fuck," he whispers to himself. He doesn't end up finding sleep for a very long time.
The next morning, Thor and Jane arrive at the Tower in a flurry of scientific equipment and muscled blond demigod. (As if Clint needs yet another reason to feel completely outclassed here.) Thor's grinning and embracing everyone with painfully strong back-slaps, while Jane hangs back, introducing herself but only really lighting up when she meets Dr. Banner and they start fangirling each other's research shamelessly.
Then, as Thor loudly decries the flying jellyfish, whose existence apparently "debased the noble force of lightning to a mere beast's plaything!", he stops mid-sentence and whirls around, Mjolnir already crackling in his grip. "A draug! Be cautious, friends," he warns, waving a get out of here gesture at Jane.
Clint follows the direction of Thor's hammer to the floor's entrance, where Phil's hologram just appeared. "Thor, stand down," Steve commands in his Captain America voice, and Thor's stance relaxes marginally. "Coulson's no ghost, or whatever a draug is. He was --" Clint can practically see Steve's thoughts racing to frame his explanation appropriately "-- his spirit was preserved before he died by a kind of magic. It's the same Agent Coulson you knew, just without a body."
Thor looks at Steve then, with a face full of disgust. "Your people would trap the spirit of a warrior fallen in battle and keep him from his reward in Valhalla? That is a cruel punishment for a friend as faithful as the Son of Coul."
"Trust me, Thor," Phil says, and Thor's hand twitches again around Mjolnir, "I'm much happier here than the alternative. Welcome back to Earth, by the way. And hello again, Dr. Foster. I'm sorry I couldn't be here for your arrival, but I just finished my meeting with Director Fury."
"That's fine," Jane says, a little too brightly. "It's good to see you again."
Thor's visibly calming down now, probably because Phil sounds like a bland human instead of a mythic monster. He still keeps a watchful eye on the hologram, but he lets Tony segue the conversation. "So, how's Fury doing? Picked up a parrot yet, to match his eyepatch and pirate airship?"
Phil gives them a tight smile. "He's not entirely happy about my situation, but we came to an arrangement. I'm now the unofficial official SHIELD liaison to the Avengers Initiative; they won't be trying to bring me back in. In return, I'll help them close their computer security gaps, make sure that lines of communication with you all stay open, and keep my mouth shut about certain information that I may or may not have discovered on their servers."
The relief of it, not to mention some serious envy at Phil's Fury-negotiating skills, startles a laugh from Clint. "Nice going, sir."
"I'm your teammate now, Hawkeye, not your superior," Phil says lightly, but the reprimand has a definite undercurrent of Not here and now.
"Well then," Steve nods with resolution, "welcome to the team." There's an awkward moment where he starts to reach out to shake Phil's hand, then realizes there's nothing but air for him to grasp. (Clint figures that awkward moments will be happening on a very regular basis, between the team additions of an electronic ghost and a godlike alien.)
(He's not wrong.)
Life settles into an odd kind of normality. Steve and Phil work out a set of rotating team and partner configurations, so that they can learn to match their strengths and weaknesses. Bruce occasionally goes out to the front lines, when the necessity for invulnerable strength outweighs the inevitable property damage; mostly, he putters around the lab with Dr. Foster, whose single-minded focus on her work rivals Tony's.
Clint's arm heals, as all things do, with time. A month into living in the Tower, his cast's gone, but the SHIELD medics made it clear that they'd put it right back if he even thinks about drawing a bowstring. He's gotten damn good at one-armed shooting in the meantime, though, if he does say so, and he knows his offhand pistol aim's better than ever.
Coulson and Cap work out an impressive kind of synergy; Cap takes charge when he's on the field, while Coulson maintains communication between teams and with SHIELD, feeding them information and updates and keeping an eye on everyone. Clint gets used to the sound of Coulson's voice on his comm, telling him that reinforcements are coming or making sure that Nat keeps his line of sight clear. He gets a few minor injuries, just burns and scrapes, but as a whole, it's oddly comfortable. He'd just started to get used to a world that wasn't centered around taking orders from the one person he could trust, and suddenly he's surrounded by a team of people -- crazy, infuriating, surreal people -- whom he actually can trust to have his back.
Nat doesn't bring up his non-thing with Phil, even when the two of them go out drinking alone together. Despite the standing invitation to Clint's floor, Phil never shows up, except to notify him about paperwork or an imminent meeting. Eventually, Clint can even get himself off at night in bed and not hope that -- not wonder whether Phil's watching. It's just him, the quiet hiss of the climate control, and the coolness of cotton sheets.
He still doesn't go out to meet people, though, the way he occasionally would to blow off steam. More satisfying to spend the time training. The ache in his muscles means he's crafting himself into the most efficient agent that Phil could ever want him to be.
When things change, it's all Darcy's fault. Clint remembers her vaguely from the New Mexico business, but he doesn't actually meet the girl until Jane persuades Phil to bring her in as a general lab assistant and superhero babysitter.
"Holy shit" is the first thing Darcy says when she meets Clint, not even pretending to disguise her gaze as it rakes up and down his body. "I seriously cannot believe they managed to build a team where Tony Freaking Stark is the least hot member."
"Hey now!" Tony protests from the other side of the room, and Clint knows right away that he's going to like her.
As the next few days reveal to him: he really, really does. Darcy calls Thor out on the bullshit that Jane indulges; she appears to venerate Natasha as a goddess, which bemuses the Widow to no end; and she develops this ridiculous relationship with Tony Stark where she bounces between geeking out over the global impact of his clean energy technology and teasing him for his age ("oh yeah, my dad totally loves oldies like Black Sabbath!"). Also, she makes truly world-changing coffee.
They end up on the couch together one evening, watching a Guy Ritchie marathon (because Darcy swears that Clint hasn't lived until he's heard Brad Pitt speaking Shelta), drinking rum and Coke, and eating Sour Gummy Worms. By the midpoint of RocknRolla, Darcy's snuggling into Clint's side and enunciating her words carefully as she explains which of the film's men are "obviously" sleeping with each other.
"So what 'bout you?" she asks, tilting her head up toward him. Clint's not quite sure whether she's trying to bond or lean in for a kiss, so he waits for her to continue. "I mean, Jane says Thor said you have a spies-in-love thing with Natasha, because she went all angsty when Loki did his mojo on you. And seriously, if you do, more power to you, because oh-em-gee. That woman is, like, a gravitational singularity single-handedly sucking me toward her end of the Kinsey scale. Heh, I said 'gravitational singularity'; Jane will be so proud. Crap, I'm rambling, aren't I."
Clint chuckles quietly and brushes his hand over her hair. She's like a puppy, really. A puppy with double-Ds. "You were asking something?" he prompts.
"Yes. Right. Okay, so, as hot as the mental images are, I don't actually get that vibe from you and 'Tasha. And besides, I won't tell Jane, but you're not exactly subtle when Thor's wandering around shirtless in the morning. So anyway, is there anybody nocking your fletches, or whatever weird terms you archers have?"
Despite the real and attractive possibility of making Darcy's brain explode by describing (in juicy detail) a threesome with Tony and Steve, Clint's just tipsy and tired enough to give her the truth. "No. I mean, there's someone who . . . I'd like there to be something. But there isn't."
Darcy's face suddenly goes horrified. "Oh god, you're not actually carrying a torch for Thor, are you? Because I like you and all, but I'm not about to help you steal the only thing that gets Jane excited and isn't a mathematical equation."
"God no," Clint shakes his head, smiling. "Nice view, yes, but . . . just no." He's still sober enough not to add that the thought of being naked with any Asgardian still makes bile choke up his throat. "No, he's not taken. That I know. He just isn't interested. In me," he adds unnecessarily.
"U.S.T.'s the worst," Darcy says sagely, if cryptically. "I'm gonna ask the obvious question: have you tried telling him?"
"He knows," Clint says. There's a pause, as if Darcy expects him to continue, but he doesn't. There's nothing more to say.
Darcy snuggles closer and wraps her arms around his waist in a quick hug. "Oh, sweetie. I'm sure he doesn't deserve your gorgeous ass anyway."
Clint may have to hack into Stark's servers to make sure that photos of tonight never get out. But for the rest of the movie, he lets himself relax into her arms, stroke her back gently, and indulge in just a hint of self-pity.
When Clint gets out of the shower the following morning, wearing nothing but sweatpants and a stray trickle of water, Phil's hologram is sitting on the edge of his bed. All Clint can feel is annoyance. "If this is about last night, you don't have to worry about it," he snaps. "Darcy's virtue is safe."
"I'm not jealous, Clint," Phil says, calm as ever.
"Then why?" The question comes out sounding more hurt than Clint intends; somehow it encompasses not just why are you here?, but also why didn't you ever come before?
"Because this isn't about what I want, or what you want. It's about what you need."
Clint narrows his eyes, readying a retort, but nothing comes to his lips. Yeah, Phil's assuming that he knows what Clint needs, better than Clint himself -- but that was always Phil's job, and he was always scarily good at it.
"The combination of Loki's control and your injury left you isolated from the Avengers, right when they were beginning to coalesce as a team. You needed to get out of your self-indulgent mindset and get back around people who would challenge you. As I saw it, your experiences with Loki left you in a space where having a clear directive and mission would accomplish that best. I thought I'd succeeded."
"Sounds like there's a 'but' coming."
Phil gives him a small smile. "But I'd miscalculated. I knew I was a natural target for you to transfer your desire for authority, thanks to our working relationship. I thought that was all it was."
"You . . . seriously?" Clint can't do more than stare at Phil's hologram in disbelief. "You've been staying away because you thought I wasn't actually interested in you?"
"As I said, I was mistaken." Phil's voice sounds uncomfortable, and Clint suppresses a wry smile; he's not used to hearing him admit to screwing up. "I didn't realize it until last night."
There are so many things that Phil isn't saying, but the very fact that he's here is enough to give Clint the boldness to make his next move. He sinks to his knees in front of Phil, slowly. When a droplet of water slides down the center of his bare chest, Clint swipes it up with one finger, then sucks the finger into his mouth and licks it slowly clean. "So what do you want me to do for you now, sir?"
Phil looks at him intently. "First, I want you to know the limitations of what you'd be getting into. I won't ever be able to touch you, or let you touch me. Even what you see will be limited, because the holographic projectors can only extrapolate based on expressions and parts of my body that they have on video record. I won't be able to reach orgasm, and the absence of physical feedback means that you won't be able to arouse me in the way you could affect someone else."
Half of Clint's brain is still reeling with the thought, Agent Coulson just said the word "orgasm," but the other half nags at him with a memory. "Is that what you meant when you said that my show didn't affect you?"
Phil's lips quirk. "What I said was that it didn't affect me the way you intended. You didn't catch my attention or make me want you. I already did."
"Oh. So then --"
"You're an attractive man, Clint. Watching you reinforced that you deserve someone who can lick and bite at every inch of you. I can't give you that."
"With all due respect, sir, your logic's for shit. I have hands. What I don't have is your voice, telling me what to do with them." Clint takes a deep breath and tries to let every ounce of his want into his voice. "I need you."
Phil sits without speaking for a moment, studying him; Clint can imagine the data flowing into his brain from all the angles of the room, looking for any sign of hesitation or foolhardiness. Apparently he doesn't find any. "Then you have me."
The ensuing day is long and exhausting, and only Phil's promise of "Tonight." keeps Clint moving. They thwart a Maggia drug delivery, take down a pack of Iron Man knock-offs, and put on their brightest smiles for a cocktail party that Coulson insisted was absolutely mandatory. (Apparently demolishing Rupert Murdoch's favorite penthouse isn't the kind of property damage that can be fixed with repayment plans.) By the time Clint trudges back into his suite, stripping off his tux as he walks, he's stifling yawns.
Then he sees Phil's hologram sitting on the end of his bed. Phil's fully dressed, but his eyes are intent on Clint, and Clint can feel himself already getting hard. "Keep going," Phil says, not an invitation but an order.
Clint pulls off his half-unbuttoned shirt and undershirt, then kicks off his shoes, never taking his eyes off Phil. Socks are next, then pants, but Clint pauses and looks up at Phil before getting to his boxers.
"You can stop there for now," Phil nods. "Go and stand with your back against the wall."
"Sir," Clint agrees, the word sending pleasant shivers over his skin. He leans against the wall, a hint of chill settling into his skin through the wallpaper, making him feel that much more vulnerable.
"Good. Now spread your legs just a little wider." Clint does, feeling his cock tenting his boxers. Phil's voice is low and dark when he speaks. "You look very wanton like that, Agent. I want you to slide your hand down over yourself, just once, then leave your fingers there without moving."
Fuck, Clint thinks brokenly, and obeys. The graze of fingertips through thin cotton is so good, drawing him to full arousal, and it takes all his willpower to keep from bucking up into his hand. His fingers curl around his cock, perfectly still even as his legs tremble, and he whimpers. His body feels like a taut bow, drawn to its limit.
"You're doing so well," Phil soothes him. "Stroke yourself now, but slowly. I want to see how patient you can be."
Clint's hand begins to slide up and down the length of his clothed cock, light enough not to chafe, slow as ocean waves lapping up and down with pleasure. It takes away some of the unbearable tension, makes him breathe deep and harsh, almost panting.
"Stop," Phil says abruptly, and Clint stifles a groan of protest. "Suck on your forefinger for me, please. I want you to get it nice and wet."
"Yes, sir." Just because he can, Clint makes a show of it, sliding his finger between his lips and sucking it down like a substitute cock, pumping it in and out of his mouth until it's slick.
Phil's expression is unchanged, but his eyes never leave Clint's mouth. "Very nice. Now rub your wet finger over the head of your cock in easy circles. Not too fast, just enough to feel that warm touch. That's right."
Clint doesn't even care what sounds he's making now; the sensation is both unbearably intense and not nearly enough, and he wants so badly to just grab his dick and start pumping, finish this teasing helplessness and fucking come. He's glad, now, of the wall at his back, because his legs are honest-to-god shuddering with desire. "Please," he gasps at last. "I can't --"
"You can. You will for me. Give yourself one more full stroke, but lightly."
Clint does so, nodding in response because he doesn't trust his voice, and fuck, it feels good.
"Thank you, Clint," Phil says, still so calm. "Now I want you to pull off your boxers and come to the bed. Do you have lubricant here besides your hand lotion?"
Clint nods his head. "It's, ah, in my bathroom kit." He almost adds, so're the condoms, but stops himself short.
"Go get it for me, won't you."
With some effort, Clint stands up straight and manages to walk to the bathroom, mostly without shaking. He finds a packet of lube after some digging and returns to the bedroom. Phil's moved over to the side of the bed now, leaving a large space for Clint.
"How do you want me, sir?" Clint asks as he approaches.
"Lie down on your left side. Make sure your wrist doesn't have pressure on it." Clint opens his mouth, then shuts it when he realizes that Phil's probably keeping closer tabs on the doctors' reports than he is, and even that thought -- that he knows exactly how far to push his physical limits -- feels so damn good.
When Clint's settled into place, Phil shifts so that he can continue to meet his eyes. "One of these days, I want to watch you being penetrated. I think you'd look beautiful sliding a thick dildo into your ass, pumping it in and out to fuck yourself as hard and fast as you could crave. I want to see you bite your lip at the stretch of it. I want to see you rutting against the sheets for friction to get off. Maybe some day I'll order one of those machines from the internet. I'll tell you to hold still on your arms and knees for me while I have the engine ream you again and again, and you'd just have to take it until you were loose and sweat-drenched and exhausted. And then I'd have you pull your legs just a little bit wider, so that the machine could penetrate you even deeper than before. You'd do that for me, wouldn't you."
"Yes. God yes," Clint groans. Any arousal that might have faded when he got the lube is back in full force, and his naked cock is leaking precum against his stomach, desperate to be touched.
"Good. Slick up your first two fingers for me."
"Yes, sir." If Clint's fingers are trembling as he tears open the lube packet with his teeth, then squeezes it onto himself, Phil doesn't say anything about it.
"Now I want you to slide just one finger into yourself, nice and easy. Feel your body opening up for me. In and out, gently. Work yourself open." Phil's words are soothing, gentle, but Clint feels like he's burning up. He can feel the flush on his skin, the trembling desire to be filled and fucked hard. Every time he blinks his eyes open, Phil's there, meeting his gaze, watching him intensely.
"You're so lovely like that, spread open just for me. I want you to use your second finger now. Just slide it in with your first one, just like that. Perfect. Can you go a little deeper for me, Clint? Work your fingers in there, pressing deep and sure. I bet you're so tight, so warm and smooth."
Clint nods shakily. He's fucking himself now on his fingers, feeling their slick glide in and out of himself. Then he shifts his legs slightly, and yes, there, the angle becomes perfect, and it sparks a shudder of pleasure so hard he cries out involuntarily.
"I bet I could bring you to orgasm just like that," Phil says softly. "You have no idea how much I want you, do you, legs spread open, falling apart at the touch of your own fingers. Keep going, but don't come. Not yet."
So Clint obeys him, and he keeps thrusting his fingers, keeps sliding against that spot that makes him arch and whimper, until he's gritting his teeth and nearly crying with the effort not to come already. He almost doesn't hear Phil's voice saying, "It's okay, Clint. You can stop now. Stop."
Clint's hand stills, and he slides his fingers out, shivering with want and more turned on than he's ever been in his life. "Good," Phil says. "You've been so good for me. You can wipe your hand clean and stroke yourself now. Bring yourself over the edge for me."
And just like that, Clint does. He pumps his cock in his hand with a few swift strokes, and then he's coming all over himself, thick spurts slick against his stomach.
"Jesus." His body's still twitching a bit with aftershocks, and he can't seem to get quite enough air, but Clint feels like he's been slammed headfirst through a wall of solid fucking sex. "Jesus," he repeats, and Phil chuckles slightly.
"I wish I could get you a glass of water, wipe you clean, and tuck you in," he says, and his voice is -- wistful. "You deserve all that, and much more."
"Seriously, sir?" Clint asks, still gulping in air, but grinning. "The only thing you have to apologize for is ruining me for anybody else, ever. That was unbelievable."
"I'm glad," Phil says, responding with a smaller smile. His hologram slides fully onto the bed, lying down on his side so he's face to face with Clint. Phil's still wearing his full business suit, but the effect is comfortably intimate.
Clint grabs a handful of tissues and wipes himself off, then flops back on the bed, arranging himself on a pile of indecently comfortable pillows. "So. That happened."
"Do you want me to leave, so you can get rest?" Phil asks.
"I. Ah." Clint steals a glance at Phil, who's still watching him comfortably. "You can go if you want, but I'd -- be okay if you didn't."
I got used to knowing you were there while I slept, he doesn't say.
You've always been the one I want having my back, he doesn't say.
I trust you, he doesn't say.
But without Phil saying a word, the room's lights dim, and Johnny Cash starts to sing his twanging baritone quietly in the background. Maybe, Clint thinks, this is what it feels like to move forward.