There are not many people in the world who can do what Clint needs to be done. There had been one in the circus, which is how Clint knows about them. But so many had been hunted and killed, especially in WWII, that finding one is nearly impossible.
It takes him five months, but he does it.
In the mess hall at Ground HQ, Clint stabs another agent with a fork for making a joke about Clint's notorious avoidance of paperwork. The shrinks bench him. Clint storms out with two weeks mandatory leave. It gives him a head start.
He finds her in the Czech Republic. She is fifteen and thin and terrified. Clint lays his gun on his thigh, still visible and pointing at her, and calmly threatens her family. He will do this. He will become this. If he has to, he will go all the way to get what he wants. Anything for this.
It wouldn't be the first time he'd killed an entire family. Innocents. And he doesn't have anyone else to lay that on except himself.
But that was before the voice in his ear, pointing him in the right direction. That was before. And this is after. He will do whatever it takes.
“Okay, okay,” the girl says, tears running down her cheeks. “I'll do it, whatever you want.”
Clint tells her what he wants. She goes wide-eyed, and then bites her lip so hard it bleeds.
“I can't,” she says. “I can't, please don't hurt my family, but I can't.”
Clint lifts his gun. “Why not?” The girls starts hiccuping, clutching with white fingers the strap of her school bag.
“It's too long ago,” she chokes out. “I can't, it's too much time. I'm not strong enough. Please don't hurt my family.” Blood trickles slowly down her chin. She doesn't move to wipe it away.
“Then you'll tell me who is,” Clint says, and doesn't put down his gun.
She tells him.
The next one is old and plump and wrinkled, and Clint remembers the smell of incense and the deep red of Madame's tent. She has no family left to threaten, and Clint knows with a look that she is long past the fear of death. He comes to her with empty hands. He knows she may kill him for threatening her student. But he will do anything he needs to, to get what he wants.
“There will be a price for this,” she tells him, voice scratchy from a lifetime of smoking. “It is too long ago to be without one. And I do not give my services lightly.”
“I understand,” Clint says. Anything for this.
“Tell me what it is that you love the most,” she says, and she's pulled out a rosary and started counting them out with her fingers, watching him with half-blind eyes.
“What I love most is what I'm trying to get back,” he tells her.
“I see,” she says. “Then that is what you will lose, little killer. That is what you will lose.”
Clint lets her put a hand on the crown of his head, wondering how that will work, but he is too far gone to ask. Anything for this.
The pain is swift and terrible, but not the worst Clint has felt. There is a ripping feeling in his head, and he's felt that before too, but this is taking, not putting in. Clint falls into white, white, white, and feels panicked because it's gone, but he'd promised himself, anything for this, anything for...
Clint wakes up in an alley. He still has his gun, and his watch, but his wallet is missing. That's okay. He doesn't need it, and the old woman deserves some monetary compensation. He's exhausted and feels hungover, but besides that he can't tell what other payment she took. Clint decides it doesn't really matter.
He doesn't go back to SHIELD. He's not sure why he stayed so long in the first place. It isn't like they pay better, and the regulations have always chaffed. Clint decides it's time to work for himself again.
The Black Widow finds him in Algiers, three months into his new self employment. He's surprised it took her so long. It had only taken Clint two weeks, when he'd been on the other side of this. He supposes that just highlights the differences in their skill sets. He's always been the distance to her intimacy. It's why they've always worked well together.
Clint picks an open café and sits down to wait for her, and it's not long before she's sitting next to him. She still owes him a debt. At the very least, she owes him this.
“What is this, Clint?” she asks.
“It is what it's always been,” he says, and doesn't look at her. Out of everybody, she should understand. She's quiet as the waitress brings him coffee, and her the salad he ordered, just the way she likes it.
“I don't know how you did it,” she says finally, her food untouched. “I've seen a lot of things in my life, but this...” she trails off. Natasha shakes her head. She looks over at him, and then turns away again and begins to eat. He is startled that she trusts him so much, after he left her behind. But then, Clint has always been able to count on Natasha. It goes both ways.
“So?” Clint asks, wondering what the pitch is. Wondering if Fury will offer him more money, if Fury will threaten him.
“You did it,” Natasha says instead. “He said you'd run, Clint, but you don't have to. Don't give up on what you have just because of this. I... don't think I could stand to see you do that.”
Clint has no idea what she's talking about. He's an assassin, so he knows his face shows nothing, but he and Natasha have been working in each others spaces for a long time. She knows with a glance.
“That was you, wasn't it?” she asks. “There's nobody else crazy enough to try. There's nobody else who cares about him the way you do. It had to have been you.”
“I didn't do anything.” Clint slips a hand under the table and thinks maybe Natasha has betrayed him. She must be distracting him while SHIELD gets into position. He'd thought he could read her lies better than that.
“Then why did you run?”
“I didn't run,” he corrects her. “I left. I'm done with them. I was there too long anyway.”
She looks at him, surprised. “Clint, I'm saying he's alive. Even if it wasn't you, come back. He's alive.”
“I have no idea what you're talking about,” Clint admits, starting to get worried. Natasha's face does not change, but he knows that she is worried now too.
“Do you remember what you said to me, when you spared my life?”
“Of course,” Clint says, not sure what point she's trying to make. “I said that it's better with someone you trust watching your back. I'd found that at SHIELD, and I promised you would too.”
And suddenly, Clint realizes that memory must be wrong. Natasha is the only person he trusts. His head snaps around to stare at her, alarmed, because that doesn't make any sense-
“What did she take?” he whispers, dread curling in the bottom of his stomach.
“What did who take?” There are gaps in places, now that he's looking. Holes in his memory. He doesn't even remember why he joined SHIELD in the first place. And if she'd done something to his memory, if she'd violated him that way, was he even still himself?
“Is that what I said to you?” he asks. Clint's not sure which answer he wants to hear.
Natasha is the only person he's ever trusted. What I love most is what I'm trying to get back, he'd told the old woman. Then that is what you will lose, little killer, she'd said. That is what you will lose. Clint can't even remember why he'd gone to her in the first place.
“Tasha,” Clint says. This is worse than Loki. Worse than waking up strapped to a bed and knowing he'd gotten his own people killed. His own people. Clint used to think about SHIELD that way. He doesn't anymore. He has no idea why. “I remember you being the only person I've ever trusted at my back. There's never been anyone else.”
And if that wasn't true, could he trust anything in his head? The only thing Clint can trust is that he went to the old woman for something, because she'd done this to him in exchange for giving him what he wanted. Anything for this. Except Clint can't fathom anything worth that much.
Natasha does not look at him for several long moments. “I think you should come in with me,” she says.
“Yeah,” Clint agrees. SHIELD has the best. They'll help him figure out what's wrong. If he needs to leave after, Natasha will get him out. “Yeah, that sounds like a good idea.”
SHIELD whisks him into medical to do some tests, DNA and fingerprinting and what he's told is an fMRI. Then they put him in a room that has no door handle on the inside. He's not restrained, which Clint supposes is a good thing. He waits three hours before a man in a suit comes in and sits across from him. He's about Clint's age, maybe a little older, with thinning hair. For a minute, they just sit there.
“You here to interrogate me?” Clint asks, when the man doesn't say anything.
“I'm here to debrief you,” he responds. Clint shrugs. It's the same thing. The man continues to watch him, as if waiting for some other reaction. Clint looks him in the eye and doesn't blink. “Do you know who I am?”
“You haven't exactly introduced yourself.” Clint still doesn't blink. He'd been waiting for some shrinks or some more doctors from medical, but this man doesn't strike him as either. He wonders how this is supposed to help him figure out what the old woman took from his memory.
“Eight months ago I died,” the man tells him.
“Sorry for you?” Clint hazards.
“I was cremated,” he continues. “And then three months ago, I woke up.” Oh, he realizes, everything coming together in his head. Clint thinks about the old woman and her words, and it hurts. He has no idea who the man in front of him is. Clint looks away.
“There's always a cost for that sort of thing,” Clint says finally. His mouth twists bitterly. Anything for this, he remembers thinking. He doesn't know if it's something he should regret or not. “You must be something else.”
“Clint,” the man says, and he sounds so terribly sad that Clint thinks maybe he should regret it. But for some reason, he can't. Anything for this.
Clint smiles at him, and it hurts, the way his face stretches. “Will you tell me your name, at least?”
“Phil,” the man says. “Phil Coulson.”
“Phil.” Clint reaches his hand across the table separating them. “It's nice to meet you.” Phil takes his hand and doesn't let go. His face crumples. “Maybe we can, I dunno, hang out or something, sometime. I'd like to get to know you.” Clint doesn't pull his hand away.
“Yeah,” Phil says. “I'd like that too.”
Clint smiles, and it doesn't hurt as much. Anything for this.