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Beautiful day to get our war on

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The sun is still burning off the early morning mist when the horn blares, waking Clint and the rest of his barracks. He jumps in his fatigues, all too aware that taking his time means missing out on his only decent coffee of the day, which he is completely unwilling to relent if he’s got to deal with assholes and cocky cadets all day again. It’s not even that training’s hard; it’s not, compared to some of the shit Clint has trained for in his life – cocksure drill officers don’t scare him and he’s stupidly good at target practice. He realizes he’s training for how to get used to be around these men at all times of the day and night, and this is the hard part for him, the moments where he wonders exactly what the hell is he doing here, how this could have been a good choice for him.

It’s a better choice than staying in the circus. It’s a better choice than – Barney. A better choice than Barney finding him, or going back to the circus, or being completely, utterly alone. This is a better solution than most, and the country is even paying for him to be there, to stay in line, to hone his skills, to hide from Barney and the rest of his past. He can’t really complain.

It’s another hot day on base, but California tends to do that. Still, Clint is dressed up in full fatigues, hat on, making his trip to the mess hall the first warm up of the day, jogging down to it without forgetting to salute when walking past an officer. If he’s honest, Clint doesn’t mind 29 Palms; not half as much as the rest of his battalion, who like to shoot the shit with too many cigarettes and whisky, but most of them didn’t come in through the same path Clint did. In a way, Clint craves the constant attention and discipline.

The mess hall is mostly empty when Clint arrives, a few bored cooks poking at porridge, talking in low tones to each other; the first wave of trainees will arrive soon enough. A couple of them nod at Clint, who smirks at them as he gets himself a coffee, black as night, one sugar dumped in the sludge. When he arrives at the counter there’s already a bowl of porridge waiting for him, and he grabs it, spoon clicking against the porcelain, nodding at Sgt James on the other side of the counter. “Thanks.”

“Anything special going on today for you, Barton?”

Clint shrugs a shoulder, leaning a hip against the counter. “The usual. We’re scheduled in for some fun in Combat Town.”

“Gonna hide on some roof and take them all out?”

Clint smirks again, his mirth matched by James’. “As usual, Sergeant.”

He still wishes more often than not that he could have his bow and arrows with him instead of an M40A5, but archery is not exactly Marine Corps standardized, so Clint deals. He’s still sure he’d be even more efficient with a bow – deadly but silent where the sniper rifle betrays position too fast.

James laughs, clearly pleased. “Good. Enjoy your breakfast, cadet.”

“Thank you,” Clint replies, sharing one last amused look before moving away to one of the multiple empty tables. They won’t stay that way for long, but after his first coffee, Clint doesn’t mind the rest of the cadets half as much as he does before it, so he sets on to drain it before the uninterrupted flow of hungry soldiers starts.

Cadet Clint Barton is 17, and training to become a Marine.

//

Cambodia, 1997

The nights in Cambodia are almost worse than the days, the sluggish air barely moving around them as they keep watch, sweat and mosquitos keeping them awake when they don’t have to be. No fans can save the situation and Clint hates how badly it screws with his focus, and how much it affects the lot of them; Stevenson hasn’t slept in about a week, and it’s not just because of the random guerrilla attacks, Naulson got so sick he had to be sent back to base, Kellerman keeps on missing targets because of sweaty fingers. And it’s not only them. The rest of Clint’s squadron is in bad shape, one way or another.

It’s not the heat. They all trained together in Southern California, it’s not like they’re not used to the heat. It’s the humidity, the way it sticks to skin and eyelids(,) and it’s the dirt that gets under their fingernails and stains everything everywhere, and it’s flash attacks on random patrols in the middle of the night, rarely damaging anything but their morale. It’s all of this that makes this op hard, almost too hard.

Clint joins the line of three men on top of the hill, looking out at the pitch black plain like they could will anyone to come; Kellerman is stomping his foot a little, Sharp Harp not looking half as sharp as his well-earned nickname, and Holland is swaying on his feet, maybe drunk, for all Clint knows.

“Hey Sarge,” is the automatic greeting from Harp, his eyes meeting Clint’s for a moment before they go back to his own fingers, wrapped around each other.

Clint wishes there was anything he could say that would make a difference right now, but even a faint hope of going back home doesn’t seem to be able to lift the gloom that permeates the brains of his unit. It’s not doing a thing to stop Clint himself from thinking all the time about swamps, mosquitoes, and death from a stab wound in the night.

“Hey Holland, why don’t you go try to get some sleep? I’ll relieve you.”

Holland’s eyes flick up to Clint’s, surprise painted all over them. “Sure, Sarge? I have a couple hours more in me,” he replies, but he sways a little harder, gripping his gun like it’s going to keep him upright.

“Go, Frank. I’ll make it an order.”

Holland nods, and scampers away quickly, looking obviously relieved, even if his night is probably going to suck like all the other nights they’ve spent here. Clint takes his spot on the perimeter, reaching into one of his pockets for tobacco and paper. It’s all oily and fairly disgusting, but it passes the time, and it’s better than not smoking at all.

“Fucking shithole,” Harp murmurs, passing Clint a lighter.

//

Sudan, 1998

There are places where there are no more shadows in which to hide. In the desert the heat is unflappable and the air is dry, and Clint can try all he wants to hide from it, it chases after him, sticks his fatigues to the back of his legs and neck, relentless. Nights are cold, cold enough to keep everyone in the tents, but spirits are high anyway. Kellerman keeps on talking about his new girlfriend, calls her his sweetheart every time he mentions her, and yet gives Hell to Jones whenever he utters the same word. The squadron’s tent is full of jokes and japes; crude, racist, irreverent, completely inappropriate, which is exactly what to expect from this bunch, and exactly how Clint knows they’re good. They’re bored, but they’re good.

Clint leaves them for a while, leaves camp around midnight, the air around him crisp, almost fresh, renewing itself; tomorrow’s another day, things can still change. They’ve been here a week. They’re not going to stay much longer, either – they’re not central to this operation but they’re needed on the ground anyway, just to make sure, higher-ups would say. It’s bullshit, they all know it, but Clint sleeps better with the sound of bombing in the background and he doesn’t want to think about what it means.

He was home before Sudan, and it felt even more shadowless than the desert plains; suddenly he was alone and terrified in the middle of a city bustling with life. Barney could have been anywhere, hoping to find him, hoping to bring him back to a life Clint hated, didn’t understand, didn’t fit into. It wasn’t so much the circus. The circus had been all right. It was the after hours, Barney and his friends up to no good, spiralling Clint along with them – and then the fights with Barney, the lies and the deceptions, the threats, the pleas, Barney’s incessant mood fluctuations, one minute a brother, the next an enemy.

Clint had ran away, became Sergeant Barton, became Lieutenant Barton, and he’s started to fear coming home from a tour or an operation even more than being in war zones, because war zones are familiar, orders and men and sleeping in ditches and cursing the equipment they’re given. It’s easy in a way being home isn’t. It’s another one of these things he doesn’t want to think about. Out here in the desert, he doesn’t have to think – it’s all erased by the sand shifting under the soles of his boots, like the upper layers of skin. His past and his fears don’t exist out here as long as he doesn’t freeze during an op, and that has yet to happen to Clint.

From where he stands East of the camp, he can see the pipeline, knows exactly how it shimmers in the heat during the day, the sounds coming from it as oil travels from one end of the country to the other; knockheads keep on saying they’re not protecting it, but they all know better than to believe that. Clint doesn’t care, at this point; he’s just happy to be out here, to be allowed to have some archery practice, to be out of his home in southern Iowa, a house he’s still paying for and would never set foot into if he had the choice.

This is his life now; these men he spends so much time with like his brothers. This is his home, all over the world, where he’s needed and when he can help. He doesn’t need shadows to hide in, as long as he can see things from a distance.

//

Yemen, 2000

It’s been raining for three days. It’s a big deal for civilians and for some reason they like to shake Marines’ hands when they dare, like they brought the rain with them when they were deployed in Aden. They didn’t; they mainly brought stupid Command and disgruntled men who, once again, aren't sure why they were there and whether or not they can shoot anyone. Rain, unfortunately, has nothing to do with it, but Clint doesn’t speak the language and can’t explain that to the civilians that crowd them on every tour of the city they do. He doesn’t have the heart to turn them away.

The whole place is wet and humid and makes it hard to breathe sometimes, but Clint doesn’t necessarily mind. He likes the patrolling and being posted on top of buildings, water clinging to his eyelashes as he stands guard, sniper rifle by his side, ready to be used; the rain doesn’t really change much but a few settings and a few seconds more to get the right angle, to work with the wind and the rain and the speed of bullets – nothing Clint has never managed before.

Not that he has anything, or anyone, to shoot. He’s not like Harp, who runs in circles and whimpers to get something to aim at, but the lack of action in some operations wears on everyone’s nerves, even Clint’s. It’s not only the lack of targets, but the lack of sounds and the overflow of adrenaline and tensions break and hurt sometimes, soldiers turning on each other because they have no one else; it’s exactly why Clint makes the most of being the best fucking sniper in his unit. He doesn’t even take his spotter with him half the time, relishes in the peace and quiet of a few hours away from the rest of them. It’s not even that Evan is talkative – he’d be a poor spotter if he was, but the complete lack of company helps Clint focus, regroup, put his energy in the right places again.

It keeps him from feeling useless. Because fuck he knows he’s not; he’s got too many medals already telling him how much they like him, and his unit has told him enough times that it wouldn’t be the same without him at their head – he knows he’s not useless because somehow, he’s helping in a way he never would have been able to outside of the Corps, but in places like this and operations like this, he can’t help but wonder.

Won’t do any good, Clint thinks as he sits up, a hand against the low wall and the other scratching idly at his forearm around the edges of the tattoo he knows is there. It’s a stupid thing but barely any soldier goes through as many tours as he has without getting inked, usually somewhere that smells of sweat and piss in South Asia, the kind that gives an infection and fever and makes you piss your pants. It’s kind of ugly and it’s not aging well, but it’s there. Clint doesn’t really give a fuck about it, but touching it has just become kind of habit. For a moment he’s lost in the rain, in the bustling sounds of the city, in his own reassuring touch, and maybe that’s why he doesn’t hear the crunching footsteps behind him.

“Lieutenant Barton,” a voice says, surprisingly gentle, and Clint jumps and blinks, digs his fingers in the stone for a second before standing to attention. He’s never seen the man in front of him – he reads Coulson on the nametag, checks the uniform, a Ranger, the insignias, Major, and Clint frowns. What the hell?

“Sir, yes, Sir,” he says anyway, because this man outranks him, even if there is no reason for him to be here with Marines.

“At ease,” Coulson replies, his hands behind his back. Clint goes at rest, and the two of them stand five feet apart, gauging each other through the flimsy, oily sheet of rain. “I’ve heard a lot about you, Lieutenant.”

“Good or bad, Sir?”

“Good. Mostly. Your XO has been raving about your archery skills.” Coulson smiles a little, the corners of his mouth turning up on one side, and he suddenly moves closer, sits on the wall, his back to the street, like it’s not dangerous.

“Sir...”

“Relax. We’re too high up for any shooter in the windows around, and have you seen a sniper in Aden?”

Clint hasn’t. Still, he gets into position next to his rifle again, just because, Coulson smiles at him, looking for all he’s worth like he really wants to reassure Clint. For some reason, it makes Clint feel like there are fire ants under his skin.

“Well, if you don’t mind,” Clint says finally, gesturing at his gun.

“Of course. Lieutenant, you surely realize that this is not some random visit, right?”

“It crossed my mind that it wasn’t.”

“As I said, I’ve heard a lot about you. We have heard a lot about you.”

“Sir, I mean no disrespect, but I’m not looking to join the Rangers.”

“Oh, no, that’s not it.”

Clint looks up for half a second, eyes on the man sitting next to him, his back to danger like it doesn’t mean anything. Clint finds himself impressed, for a reason he can’t quite fathom.

“Is this Black Ops or something?”

The smile is back on Coulson’s face, somewhat secretive as he smoothes his hands down the front of his uniform, his fingers lingering as if he’s feeling the fabric under his fingertips for the first time in a while.

“Or something, yes. We’d like you to consider SHIELD. We, being my boss and I.”

“Never heard of SHIELD.”

Coulson stands, turning towards the city, looking out, and Clint wonders what he sees, just for a moment; is it what Clint himself observes, tiny dots of population through the scope of a sniper rifle, or does he see it like a photograph, frames and shadows and beauty even in the horror? Or is it something different, something peculiar and special and completely personal? Clint will never know.

“We’re a governmental agency, based off New York City, and we take care of...rare threats. We’re recruiting agents; people with extraordinary abilities like yours – I’ve been told you’ve never missed a target in your life, amongst other things. We need men like you.”

Clint wants to ask about the other things Coulson’s heard, but he’s pretty sure he wouldn’t like the answer, so he keeps quiet, looking into his scope and breathing steadily, trying to understand.

“I’m not really that special, Sir.”

Coulson turns to Clint then, full-on, spine straight and eyes shining brightly against the darkening sky. It might have been the rain.

“Let me be the judge of that, Lieutenant.”

Clint takes a breath, then looks away. “I’m happy where I am.”

Coulson hands him a card, fat drops of rain splattering over the paper. “Keep this, if you change your mind.”

//

2001, Afghanistan, First tour.

“Two degrees to the left,” Evans whispers in Clint’s ear, his weight solid over Clint’s side, and Clint changes his angle, almost imperceptible. When he shoots, it’s only once, and there is a crumbling sound from the other building, faint. Clint doesn’t take the time to smile, running his dry tongue over his dry lips, and Evans shifts, bringing a straw to Clint’s lips, who sucks in the juice, almost dizzy with relief.

“How many more?”

“Two.”

It’s a silent, strange dance; death and dust in the scope of his sniper rifle, Evans’ steady breathing over his ear, minute changes in angle, the sun beating down on them, dry dirt caking their lips, their cheeks, their hair, everything sticking together, almost unmoving as the air simmers above the ground. Clint knows that one wrong move could mean the two of them dead. There is radio silence; nothing to perturb their focus and concentration.

Five, six years ago, Clint would never have been able to align three perfect shots in a row with a spotter on his back. He would have needed the space, his own breathing rhythm, his own eyes. But sometimes now it feels like Evans is an integral part of him, telling him what to see, how to look, keeping him grounded and sure of his himself and his aim. They breathe in sync, sometimes even when they’re in completely different places.

Clint could do it all alone, he knows that. But he’s grown accustomed to the weight of Evans pressing him into whatever floor he’s lying on, and he likes that he’s got this to rely on. It’s something, at least, even if it’s not much. Having a partner is not something Clint ever needed, or wanted, but he’s got one now and the benefits are making themselves clearer with every passing day. He wouldn’t want to give it up now.

It reminds him of that strange, strange Ranger and his strange conversation back in Yemen, offering him a job, something new, something away from all the shit he sees and trudges through every day out here, like it’s something he’d want, to live in the city and operate for a shady governmental agency. For all he knows, Coulson lied to him from beginning to end, killed an unfortunate Ranger on the way to steal his uniform, make himself look reassuring to the eyes of another soldier, make himself seem anything but a threat, someone to trust, to listen to. Maybe.

It doesn’t change a thing, in the end. Because Coulson hadn’t harmed Clint, he'd just talked, given a card, left; like a few words and smiles would be enough to turn Clint around from his life, from the only life he's ever wanted to know; like whatever he'd had to offer would have been too good and too big for Clint to even think about it, to just say yes right away. Or maybe Coulson had thought Clint would decline, and that was why he'd had the card ready, to remind Clint, every time he opened his trunk and scanned his things, that it was right there, an open invitation hidden away in the battered pages of Clint’s notepad.

Maybe. None of this matters, not in the here and now, breathing along with Evans and making checks on his gun as he disassembles it, Evans opening an MRE for him. It’s always in the back of his mind but it’s never quite there either. He lives with it.

//

2004, Iraq, Second tour

“No disrespect, Sir, but –“

“You’ve not been given the permission to speak, Lieutenant.”

Clint’s mouth snaps shut with an audible click, and he’s winded like he’s just been slapped. Captain Perdesi didn’t even turn his head to address him, just dismissed him with a hand, his eyes still on the map in front of him, scanning the roads ahead of them. Clint hates the Captain with a passion, but there’s no disrespecting an XO, so he stands at attention, waiting. Perdesi and his Gunner keep their voices low for a while, fingers pointing at different paths and roads on the map, like they have any fucking clue what they’re doing with this besides trying to please the Colonel.

In the digs, they call him the Fairy – they don’t really have any reason for it aside from that time where Kellerman had seen him piss and hold his cock with his pinkie raised, and that was it for Colonel Lort, that easy, just one second of inattention and lapse and he was stuck in the minds of all his grunts as a Fairy. They wouldn’t call him that to his face, ever, just like they’d never call Clint Hawkeye to his face even if that’s what they call him behind his back, but the nickname was here now, and at least for this tour, it’d stick with the Colonel.

“Lieutenant Barton,” Clint hears at his side, and he snaps his focus back on the situation, his muscles tensing again as he stands just under the cover of Perdesi’s tent.

“Yes, Sir. Permission to speak, Sir.”

“Granted. Go ahead.”

“I don’t mean any disrespect, Sir, but I think we should have gone south of Dahuk. Going through the city when EOD teams have not been through seems suicidal at best.”

“There were sweeps.”

“Not enough, sir. There are new IEDs every day.”

“Decision was made, Lieutenant. There is no changing it now, Colonel Lort approved. You have your orders.” Perdesi looks about to burst a vessel, his face tense, red – he’s never liked having his decisions and orders contested, even if they were obviously so fucking wrong it makes Clint murderous.

Dismissed, Clint inclines his head. “Sir.”

He walks off, and it’s hard not to punch a Humvee on his way back to his unit, hard not to shout at someone or kick someone, make a Private shit his pants just for the sheer joy of it. Perdesi and his inability to listen to lower command drives right home, back to a world where nobody listens to Clint, whatever he might be saying. He’s right, they all knew he’s right; the city will be full of rebels and soldiers and IEDs and it’s going to be slow, and dangerous, and stupid, so fucking stupid.

And there's nothing, absolutely nothing Clint can do about it.

//

2004/2005, Iraq, Third tour

Evans disappears.

Well, he doesn’t disappear, per se; but one day he’s here, and he stays behind as Clint heads a mission into the neighborhood of Tikrit, and when Clint and his unit come back, Evans isn’t here anymore. Not a trace of him anywhere, like he's actually disappeared, vanished into thin air with all his stuff – it’s not even like he's died, because there is no huge white box of belongings and people looking sad and dejected, no, no, everybody is keeping a straight face and looking deceptively blank whenever Clint mentions Evans, wonders about him, where and what and how.

And this, this is the most eerie of it all, this weird feeling that everybody knows what happened but nobody says anything until one night when they’re just outside the camp. They're shooting empty cans of beer and building a bonfire to grill sausages on when Kellerman grins at Clint, bumps his fist into Clint’s hip, and says, “ So, Lieutenant, do you miss your fuck buddy, Sir?”

If it was anybody other than Clint, Kellerman wouldn’t have said it, would have kept it to himself or to the other grunts, but it’s Clint and that’s how it works – they mock him and they tease him just as much as he does them, and they follow his orders and they sleep next to him and they trust him to have their backs, just like they do his. But for a second Clint is stunned, despite it all.

Because it’s crude and irreverent and obviously a joke, and yet it hits Clint square in the chest, makes it hard to breathe for him, for just a second, for a moment there where he’s losing his footing and suddenly it all makes sense, nothing makes sense. That’s what happened and that’s why Evans disappeared and now he’s the end of all the jokes, whether it’s true or not, it doesn’t matter, not to the rest of them.

It’s only that; the next moment Clint shakes his head, grunts a negative and smirks like he does, but his thoughts are swimming, sticking to the sides of his head – he knows exactly who’s responsible and he knows it’s probably based on nothing but thin air, and there is nothing he can do to change it.

Clint has never felt threatened, in the Corps. That had been the whole thing, the whole reason he'd joined up from the start – it was safe, it was well paid, it was away from Barney and his destructive life style, and he didn’t have to tell anyone about who or how he liked to fuck if he didn’t feel like it. Here and now, it doesn’t matter, that Clint likes both women and men; it doesn’t change his ability to kill anyone within a hundred yards and to protect his unit. But apparently that hadn't been enough to keep Evans around and suddenly, suddenly Clint feels unsafe, prickles under his skin as he looks around at his unit, wondering exactly just how much he can trust them. Evans trusted them and it got him nowhere, nowhere.

Fuck.

When Clint calls Coulson, he has no idea what to say at first. The voice on the other end shouldn’t feel familiar but it is anyway.

“Coulson.”

“Coulson, Sir, this is –“ Clint pauses, a beat, a second of hesitation. “This is Lieutenant Barton.”

It’s been five years, and yet there is no hesitation in Coulson’s answer, like they met just yesterday. “Lieutenant, am surprised to hear from you, but not displeased. How is the Corps treating you?”

Clint takes a deep breath, knowing that his next words could be heard, listened in on maybe, recorded somewhere, but he’s too far deep in his own mind. “Why did you leave the Rangers?”

Coulson takes a breath. “We should meet up.”

Clint licks his lips, nods at the clear dark sky above him. “Yeah. Yeah, let’s do that.”

//

2005, New York

Clint has two more weeks before his next tour, and New York is making him feel claustrophobic already, after two days in the city. The night before he’d picked up a woman in a bar, a tall brunette with almond-shaped eyes and incredibly long legs who had done all sorts of unspeakable things to him before falling asleep in the low thread cotton sheets of his hotel room. Clint wouldn’t have said it out loud but he was glad she stayed, although he still felt it, something settling deep in his bones at the sound of her steady breathing and little snuffles through the night.

Now he’s in a Starbucks, nursing a plain black Americano as he waits for Coulson to show up. Clint doesn’t want to stay in the city for longer than he has to, he feels better with more emptiness and less people around him, but it’s an effort, a gesture, the best he can do right now. He hasn’t heard from Evans in weeks, and doesn’t expect to, but it still hurts, it still makes Clint short of breath when he thinks about it too hard. He tries not to.

“Good afternoon, Lieutenant.” Clint looks up and blinks; Coulson is standing right in front of him with a mug, black sleek suit, hair pulled back neatly, shiny shoes on the sticky floor, looking every bit the government agent. Clint asks himself what exactly he’s doing here, because this? This is definitely not him. “Can I?” Coulson motions the chair in front of Clint.

“Of course.”

Coulson sits, opens his jacket after he puts his mug down, black coffee, not surprising – silence stretches between them until Coulson starts, fingers tight around his drink.

“So, last time we spoke, you asked me something. Do you still want to know?”

Clint nods, then says, “Yes.”

“I liked being a Ranger, I really did. I liked the discipline and the camaraderie, and I liked thinking I knew where I was going. I thought that was it for me, I had found my path. In 95, my unit was doing an op in Costa Rica when we were attacked by smart, sentient apes; very much like Planet of the Apes, actually. Two of my friends died. A week later, my Colonel was drafted somewhere else, and nobody told us anything about it while they told us to do our best to forget about the apes.”

“You couldn’t do that, though,” Clint muses, his lukewarm coffee mug at his lips.

“Could you? No, I couldn’t let it go. So I kept on trying to contact the Colonel, since we were friends, and it took almost a year but he came back to me, and he made me an offer to join SHIELD, which he’d been setting up after the apes incident – which wasn’t a first for him, apparently – and was supposed to deal with this kind of threats.”

“So what happened with the apes?”

“They were chip-controlled by a scientist gone mad called Hector, who was apprehended in early ’95 by Colonel Fury and his men.”

Clint put his coffee down, looked straight into Coulson’s calm, serene eyes. It was unnerving. “You’re telling me all this shit we hear on the radio’s real? Aliens and Captain America’s not dead and all of this bullshit?”

“It’s not all bullshit. Aliens are – for now. And Captain America is not dead,” Coulson replied with a somber voice. “Do you think I’m bullshitting you?”

Clint considered, for a moment, before shaking his head. Coulson was not lying to him or playing him, not really; he would have gone for something much more sobering than this if he was, because this was too Hollywood to be a lie.

“Not sure about Captain America, but I guess I don’t think you are on the rest. Why do you want me to join?”

It didn’t even take half a second for Coulson to reply. “Villains, mad scientists, crazy fuckers, whatever you want to call them – they like it, when it’s loud, when the attention is on them, when there are explosions and blood and civilians shitting their pants. You are the perfect counterpoint to this. An arrow, a sniper shot; quick, deadly, efficient, quiet. You’d be a nightmare for them, and this is exactly what we need.”

“Hrmm,” is all Clint replies to this, too busy with his own thoughts, with possibilities, with leaving the Corps and changing his life, becoming a ghost for so many, a guy with a bow and arrows, like in the circus but not – this time hiding away, doing something good, something right.

“Can I ask, what changed your mind about meeting with me?”

Clint hesitates, ponders. He doesn’t have a really great answer. “The Corps...doesn’t really feel safe anymore.”

“Ahh. Well, I can assure you that SHIELD operations will not be safe for a second, but at least you’ll be in control. Your weapons, your team if you want one, your own uniform. Whatever you need.”

Of course Coulson would get it – because he’s lived it, because he’s been in Clint’s shoes, even if the circumstances were different. Clint has a ton of questions left, about Barney and about the Corps and about the missions for SHIELD and everything else he needs to know and wants to learn, but at least communication is open, and Coulson seems willing to tell Clint as much as he can, which is one up over the Marines command.

“Hungry?” Clint asks, and Coulson smirks.

“Starving.”

//

2005, Pakistan

In places like this, life and death walk hand in hand, and no matter what kind of weapon you carry, you’re just as much of a target as the child walking next to you – it’s almost reassuring, and it probably is for civilians, for all of these those who don’t carry any weapons but their hands and feet and hopes, these people who cling to Clint’s uniform like he can save them. He can’t. Nobody can.

Clint had been called in, a week after his meeting with Coulson; earthquake, need for help, international mission going out, go do some good for once, so he went, because SHIELD can wait if he wants to join and he has nobody else to tend to, nothing else to care if he's here or not. Command is made up of different people, but it's still the same bullshit anyway.

“I am not going in, Sir, nor am I sending anyone from my unit in!”

Clint is standing in front of an half demolished building, several large holes gaping in the structure, the roof collapsed in on itself, and his XO, this time one Colonel Grant, is looking at him with steely blue eyes and his arms crossed over his chest.

“You want to let the civilians trapped inside die, Lieutenant?”

“Sir, this building in not structurally safe. If we go in and make it collapse, the civilians will die, and so will we. I don’t think we can take these chances before the engineers are around.”

Grant snarls at Clint, getting into his face like it’s going to change anything, like Clint will change his mind. He’ll sooner face disciplinary charges than to pretend he’s going to risk his unit’s safety for the whim of a Colonel who cannot wait 15 minutes for his orders to be followed safely.

And there they are again, Coulson’s words in Clint’s head, his choices his people his weapons his decisions; people to report to, and discipline, yes, but also freedom to explain his choices, the opportunity to be listened to, for his voice to matter, for the people he chooses to matter, too. It runs up his spine like a chill, like a touch of electricity, and suddenly it’s clear, and Clint cannot wait to get out of there.

“If any of them dies, it’ll be on your conscience, Lieutenant.”

Clint squares his shoulders. “Sir, yes, Sir.”

The civilians trapped in the building wait for 15 minutes for rescue to be ready for them; they don’t die. Clint is 27, and he is getting the hell out of the Marines.

//

Clint could have burnt out. He could have kept on going on in the Corps, started to hate it, started to resent it, fallen into that spiral of misconduct and disciplinary charges rather than letting Command walk all over him – it’s something he had seen happen, right before his eyes over the course of a few months, officers with so much potential going out in a shower of flames. And Clint could have been like that, could have given in the exact same way, could have lived to regret it, only he chose another path, another possibility; he chose Kevlar uniforms and compound bows, top of the range vehicles and firearms, he chose Coulson as his handler and he chooses his operations, now, at least to a certain extent. More than before.

Walking in the hallways of the SHIELD headquarters, making his way down to the cafeteria for a coffee – surprisingly for a government agency, SHIELD coffee is awesome from early morning to way after hours – to drink while he’s poring over his latest mission brief, Clint is reminded of a life he’s left behind. 29 Palms, Harp, Kellerman, Holland, Evans, all these days and nights spent with them, it all feels like a million years ago when Clint thinks about what he’s witnessed since leaving the Corps, all these strange, unspeakable, or simply alien things he’s seen, shot, talked to.

He used to think his friends in the Marines were FUBAR, just like he was, but he had been wrong, terrifyingly wrong; they were so normal it was laughable to think about them as strange now. Now his life is made of Russian spies and Tony Stark, and it's okay, it's his fight now, it's what he does, what he believes in, exactly the same thing he used to be and do and completely different at the same time. This part is the safe part, the easy part, and so is Coulson, handling Clint like more than just an asset – taking any and all of Clint’s words into account, so far away from military Command it's a wonder Coulson had ever been a part of it himself.

Clint gets his coffee, sits in the cafeteria with his brief just to have the buzz of discussions and work in his ears; he still doesn’t sleep without a sound machine, and quiet he doesn’t gather around himself for focus makes him uncomfortable, too close to jumping at him. During missions, surrounded by chaos, he’s fine; it’s in between these times that he struggles and wishes for noise, wishes he had someone to sleep next to him, snore and breathe and kick him in their sleep. The sound machine has to do.

The chair across from his scrapes against the linoleum floor, and Clint looks up to see Coulson sit in front of him. “Working hard?”

“Just making sure I know all the parameters.”

“I freed up the range for you tomorrow morning, by the way.”

“Thank you,” replies Clint, looking down at his papers again. New Mexico. Nice, will be like a holiday.

“Get some rest, Clint, okay?”

Clint looks up again, a smile tugging at his lips. “Is that an order, Sir?”

Coulson grins, which is unusual and pleasing all at the same time. “Take it as you will.”

Clint nods as Coulson stands up, holding his mug to his lips. “I’ll get some rest, Phil.”

He almost adds that it’s a promise, but they both know it already is. Just like everything else.

//

The End