Clint’s never been much of a team player.
The world’s never really shown him how to do anything but look out for his own hide. Maybe add in a couple of other people along the way, but mostly he looks out for number one, and screw anyone else who gets in the way.
He’s the little brother, so he never feels the urge to look out for Barney, who’s three years older than him and can actually remember what their parents looked like. Clint was only four when they died, and all he remembers of his mother is an aura of beaten-down trepidation, and his father holds a space in his mind reserved for stale beer, heavy footsteps, and a loud, angry voice. He doesn’t remember actually being hit by him, but Barney tells him that they had both been on the receiving end of their father’s fist, and their mother had caught the worst of it for trying to protect them.
Clint had never been able to tell when Barney was lying or not when he was a kid though, so who really knew?
Hawkeye is born in Carson’s Carnival of Travelling Wonders, which he and Barney join not long after his tenth birthday. They catch Mr Carson after the show in the big top and beg to join, showing him their orphan’s lunch cards to prove that they had no one to leave behind and wouldn’t be missed anyway. Carson tells them in his slow, sarcastic drawl (so different from his booming, clearly enunciated ringmaster voice) to see Vinny, who has been known to take passengers in his van from one town to the next for a small fee.
So they hitch a ride with Vinny, and join the circus. After sticking around for a month and proving their worth by performing a hundred odd jobs, Carson finally smiles his slow smile and starts to pay them for their trouble.
Clint learns the circus like a map and learns to make it his own. The circus in the mid-eighties wasn’t the best environment for a child, he realises in retrospect – he was taught to hold his drink at a criminally young age, he knew what naked women looked like in real life far before any of the kids his age in the audience, and he picked up more curse words than a sailor and utilised them as much as he pleased, much to the amusement of those who had taught them to him.
The circus glows bright and colourful in his memories of childhood. He first holds a bow in Trickshot’s tent, and learns to throw a knife from the Swordsman. Cook teaches him the tricks of the kitchen when he’s still too short to even see the countertop (he’s a short, skinny kid), and the three Janets show him how to backflip and somersault without hurting himself or landing flat on his face. It isn’t always perfect – the circus has always been a good place for unsavoury characters to hide from normal life, and Clint learns quickly to avoid certain people – Karl the animal keeper, Pete the mechanic, Hal the strongman. Some people don’t like kids who move too fast and are too smart for their own good, so Clint learns to shut up and do his job when needed. Besides, they leave him alone when he starts to bring in good money.
Clint Barton is a skinny kid with a smart mouth who runs full-tilt between the tents and vans and has an irritating tendency to climb anything, from trees to caravans to the inside of the big top, and spy on people just because he likes to know everything that goes on in the strange, sprawling place he’s learning to call home. Hawkeye is a prodigious child archer who can hit apples thrown by the ringmaster standing on the floor of the ring while flying through the air on the trapeze, upside down. When they hit a new town, Hawkeye can be relied on to bring in the starry-eyed kids by doing a few fancy tricks in the streets under one of the posters, which has his name in big letters painted across it – HAWKEYE THE CHILD WONDER! HE NEVER MISSES! Every kid dreams of running away to join the circus, after all. Through Hawkeye, a real child circus star, they can live that dream.
Clint never thinks of Barney, not as fast, not as skilled, left behind to be an odd jobs-man while Hawkeye is trained by Trickshot and the Swordsman, two of the best attractions in the carnival. He looks out for number one, and doesn’t see it coming when Barney leaves, leaving him a short note on his bunk in the van they share (Clint learns to drive as soon as he’s tall enough to reach the pedals and see over the dashboard at the same time). Fifteen years old, and Clint reads the note and doesn’t know how to react. Barney says he’s joining the army, and Clint sits on his bunk in silence and realises that Barney’s left all of his trinkets and personal belongings behind. He’s taken some of his clothes, and that’s it.
Clint sits in silence for maybe an hour, maybe two, and falls asleep in his clothes, which had been Barney’s before they had been his, bought dirt cheap from thrift stores and handed down from their older friends, because even being a star attraction pays like shit in a circus in the nineties. Not enough people care about the circus then. It’s a dying attraction, and everyone there knows it, and feels it in over-darned clothes and hungry animals and not having enough gas in their vans.
But Clint looks out for number one, folds the note and puts it away. Gets another van-mate called Flint, who’s the twelve year-old son of Bertha the tattooed lady and wants a bit more independence. In return for Clint letting him live in the van, Flint teaches him how to play the guitar and they’re both surprised when it turns out that Clint actually has a halfway decent voice. It makes up for Barney’s sudden disappearance, and they become friends. Clint keeps pulling back the string of his bow and loosing arrows into targets to applause and cheers from an audience that didn’t pay enough, because his bow feels right in his hand like nothing else ever has, though Flint’s guitar comes close.
That’s the point of his life, he knows. Archery and marksmanship is something he isn’t just good at – he’s a prodigy. He’s the best. Since the moment the Swordsman passed him to Trickshot to learn some basic moves to spice up their act, Clint’s known that blades are unreliable and pale in comparison to the smooth lines of a bow and the true flight of an arrow loosed from his fingers and the string. He has perfect sight and an innate ability to judge the path the arrow will take depending on his stance and the tension of the string. He can pin someone’s hat to the wall behind them with less than an inch to spare and he can shatter shot glasses from a hundred feet away. He’s the best damn shot anyone’s ever seen, and he knows it the same way he knows that his startling talent will be worth exactly shit out in the real world beyond the tent walls.
In 1991, when he’s sixteen and sure of his place in the circus if nothing else in the world, Max the magician picks up an assistant to sex up his routine. After Flint tells him to look for a pair of great legs and a head of platinum blonde hair, Clint finds her with Hal the strongman outside Cook’s van. She catches his eye and grins wide enough to display all of her gleaming white teeth.
“There y’are!” she beams and sashays over to him, tiny denim shorts and cropped tank top leaving very little to Clint’s currently overactive imagination. “I found the food van easy enough, just like y’said – ready to show me the rest of this place?” Clint’s so surprised he doesn’t say a word as she slides her arm through his like they’re old friends and leads him away, calling over her shoulder, “See you around, Hal!”
“You wanna stay away from him,” Clint tells her as soon as his voice returns.
“Y’don’t have t’ tell me, honey,” she whispers in his ear, and Clint falls so hard and fast for her right then and there he almost trips over his own feet. “I’m Lori, by the way.”
“Clint.” They shake hands and become friends just like that, and Clint jerks off whenever Flint’s not in the van to the mental image of what’s under those tiny shorts and cropped tank.
Lori’s fucked up and running from her past, as most people in Carson’s Carnival of Travelling Mental Health Issues tend to be, and she never even bothers to pretend she’s anything more than white trash. She’d rather buy hair dye than food, flirts with anyone in front of her, and introduces Clint to the world of music with an enthusiasm that borders on the manic and proves to be infectious. Clint buys a Walkman third-hand from Joe the clown and devours practically everything he gets his hands on, learning to pick out the tunes on Flint’s guitar and playing for anyone who cares enough to listen. He isn’t above joining Lisa and Polly (the riders who can stand on their hands on the backs of their horses and somersault from one horse to another like they’re made of air) when they leave the tents and vans late at night to break into empty houses and steal tapes he thinks he’ll like. Lori comes along sometimes to get jewellery and other girly things, and Clint steals music for her as well, as much to see her smile as to be on the receiving end of her warm, painfully platonic hugs. He’s seventeen and she’s eighteen, and apparently those few months make all the difference.
She dances her way around the circus, falls in and out of people’s vans, and on one occasion she gets so drunk that Clint finds her unconscious outside the big top and has to drag her back to his and Flint’s van so that she won’t end up sick or found by someone like Hal, who has a tendency to corner her whenever he can. He isn’t the only one, but Clint won’t step in unless Lori asks him, and she never does.
“Why do you do this?” he asks her impulsively after finding her shivering in her underwear and someone else’s shirt too far away from anyone’s van for him to tell who she’s just left.
She smiles around the cigarette she’s holding between two shaking fingers and doesn’t look at him when she says, “Gives me the idea I’m in control, sweetie. If I go to them…” she exhales a plume of smoke, “…means I’m callin’ th’ shots.”
You’re not though, Clint wants to say, and doesn’t. Instead, he pulls her up by the hand and they go into his van to smoke and listen to Dolly Parton and Creedence Clearwater Revival with Flint and Gay Johnny, who paints his nails with Lori and never leaves the circus after that time he was beaten up outside a bar and almost had to go to hospital. He shoots knowing glances at Clint every time Lori’s around, and Clint ignores him every time.
He pins songs to his past and the people he knows, and it helps him to make sense of the world. He sees past what people project and hears the lyrics in their lives, the beats they walk their lines to. Lori is Fast Car, and later when he hears it on the radio and listens to the lyrics, Like A Friend. His childhood before the circus is awful in its silence, but the world bursts into song after he and Barney join Carson’s Carnival. Here I Go Again blasting from shitty van radios as they speed along the endless roads from one town to another, and almost the whole company joining in to sing Fight For Your Right and Born In The USA late at night after a really good show.
Mr Carson the ringmaster is Any Old Wind That Blows because Clint sees how much he loves his Carnival of Travelling Cash Problems and needs it in his life to anchor him to something steady. Flint takes Don’t Stop Believing, and Trickshot is Don’t Stop Me Now before he leaves them to get a steady job in Seattle, and then he becomes irreversibly associated with Losing My Religion, because that played on the radio all week after he left. Smells Like Teen Spirit becomes the anthem for the time he spends with Lori and Flint and a few of the other kids around their age in the circus. They steal booze and smoke pot and Clint watches in resigned silence as Lori screws just about every single one of them except him and Gay Johnny.
Lori loves to hear him tell stories of the circus as it had been when he’d first joined it as a kid in the eighties. They’d had a tiger back then, he tells her. He and Trickshot had been the best archery act this side of anywhere, he grins, sketching their old routines with his callused fingers in the air for her. The cops had once bust in looking for anything suspicious, he whispers. Lisa and Polly had had to hide their loot from the past few days up an oak tree by the side of the field they’d set up in, and they had paid him in stolen booze to climb the tree for them and make sure it was too high up to be seen from the ground.
He paints pictures of the circus before it really started to go downhill, when the Swordsman had mesmerised hundreds of people and made them scream when he threw knives at a younger Clint, tied to a spinning board and grinning wide at the audience. How the audiences had really laughed at the clowns, and gasped as the three Janets fell from the high ropes at the top of the tent and twisted and twirled around each other in terrifying feats of agility. It had been brighter back then. By 1994, Clint knows that he has to leave. People are too jaded now to appreciate a good marksman and too many have already left. Flint and his family have packed up and dropped out, and Clint hasn’t found a new van-mate. Cook’s been put in a retirement home after his dementia means he almost poisons half the circus one night by accident. Lisa and Polly are caught by the cops on one of their robbing sprees and the circus has to leave town without them. The Carson Carnival of Travelling Wonders is dying, and Clint plans to get out before he drowns with it.
“Come with me,” he asks Lori. She laughs and tosses her beautiful blonde hair, takes another drag of her cigarette and refuses. He asks her every day until he leaves, and somehow isn’t surprised when she turns up with a duffel bag the second before he starts the engine of the beaten-up car he traded for his old van and jumps in with him.
Beck’s Loser, Oasis’ Wonderwall, and Peaches by The Presidents of the United States of America blare from the cracked radio in Clint’s new car as they make the road their new home and learn how to live with each other in such close quarters. Lori shows him how to hustle pool and pickpocket from drunks to pay for gas and food and they speed across the country for months on end, sleeping in the car if they can’t afford a motel room. On his nineteenth birthday, Lori gets him completely smashed, and he kisses her and doesn’t remember properly the next morning. He catches her hand a week later and kisses her again, and she kisses him back for a full minute before pulling away and sitting down on the hood of the car next to him.
“I can’t be the girl y’want, honey,” she says, and Clint shakes his head.
“I don’t care.”
“Y’will. Look, I love you, okay?” she turns to him and touches her hand to his face, brown eyes soft and kind. “But we’d just end up fuckin’ each other over. Trust me.”
“No,” he says, and kisses her again. She relents for a night and divests him of his virginity with breath-taking speed (mostly his fault, but she tells him she doesn’t mind), and in the morning she kisses him on the mouth and tells him that’s his one and only with her.
He mourns for about a week, and then Lori drags him to a bar in the town they’ve stopped in for the night, somewhere in Georgia, gets a few drinks down him, and finds the most beautiful woman in the bar – a dark-skinned lady called Opal whose hips sway like Lori’s as she comes over. She smirks and looks him up and down twice. “Cute,” her smirk grows, and Lori wiggles her eyebrows meaningfully over her shoulder. Clint doesn’t fancy himself particularly smart, but he can take a hint, and he buys Opal a drink. Lori sleeps in the car while Clint and Opal get busy in a motel and after that Hootie and the Blowfish sing Only Wanna Be With You from the car radio and everything is fine again.
Clint keeps his bow and arrows in the trunk of the car and practises every now and then to keep sharp, even though he still never misses, no matter how long he leaves it before he picks it up again. It’s something inside him, he knows, and he loves that certainty. Lori sets challenges for him – shoot a beer bottle off the top of the car as she drives it, shoot the little O in that billboard advertising Oreos, shoot the cowboy hat she tosses into the air and pin it by the brim to the tree ten yards behind her – and they drive on through one town to the next. They decide to go to Jacksonville just so that they can sing Jackson and play the parts of June and Johnny respectively, singing loud enough for the other drivers near them on the freeway to hear them. They buy cell phones together, and figure out how to use them through trial and error because neither of them has ever used anything but pay phones before.
On Lori’s twenty-first birthday in the sticky August heat they park the car on a road in a town in Ohio and start in one bar with plans to move on to several others. They both get hideously drunk too quickly, and Clint doesn’t notice until it’s almost too late that Lori went missing a few minutes ago. He stumbles outside and finds her being hauled into a car by two guys. She’s unconscious, and they try to spin him a line about her being a friend of theirs who’s had too much to drink before he asks them to tell him at the same time what her name is. They can’t answer, and they both get defensive, and Clint punches one in face and manages to lead them down the alley next to the bar where the bins are kept. He moves with cold precision, suddenly not as drunk as he thought, and when one of them pulls a knife he almost laughs, because he was taught by the Swordsman how to handle blades, and he knows more than they ever will.
He focuses on the guy with the knife first, letting the other man land a punch to his side so that he can get close enough to slam the heel of his palm up into the knife-holder’s face the way Trickshot showed him. The guy’s nose breaks, and he grabs the knife off him and shoves it hard into the chest of the other man, just under the ribs. When he pulls it out, the man makes a high-pitched sound and scrabbles at his jacket. Clint moves behind him, winds a hand in the guy’s greasy hair to hold his head still, and pulls the blade across his throat. The first guy only notices when his friend falls to the ground in front of him, and by the time he’s seen through the blood in his eyes what’s happened, Clint’s already behind him, cutting his throat as well. He chokes, blood spraying out, and Clint stands still for a moment after he falls, thinking.
He considers the knife, then wipes it clean on the back of one of the dead men’s jackets, pulls his sleeve down over his hand and scrubs the handle free of any prints. Drops it to the ground and squats down to go through the guys’ pockets, still with his sleeve down over his hand. He takes the money from their wallets and dumps them on the ground next to the knife. He finds car keys and considers taking their car, then changes his mind and leaves them behind. He exits the alley and finds Lori still in the backseat she’d been shoved into. He slings her over his shoulder and walks back to where they parked the car after checking that she was just unconscious, not hurt. He’s screwed if they get caught – he’s got blood on him that isn’t his, and he’s had way too much to drink to drive safely – but he starts the engine and leaves town anyway. He drives for hours and pulls over in a layby far away from anywhere. He falls asleep after checking Lori one more time, and forgets about the blood drying on his hands and clothes.
Lori screams when she wakes up and sees it, and only gets it together enough to get them a motel room because Clint yells at her. He sneaks in after her so that no one sees the state he’s in and takes a shower. He’ll dump his jacket and jeans first chance he gets, he decides, and concentrates on getting clean. Lori’s waiting for him when he comes out, and only then does he sit down on the bed and explain what happened to her.
When he gets to the part where he killed them, he has to dash to the bathroom to throw up. When he comes back and resumes the story, he realises that it isn’t the fact that he took two lives that makes him feel sick, but the memory of the way the knife had felt in his hand as he pushed the blade into the man’s chest and pulled it roughly across their necks. He’s fine with having killed them, because he knows what they would’ve done to Lori if he hadn’t caught them. Lori’s a lot less okay with the whole situation, and she isn’t reassured by the measures he went to to protect his identity.
This is the end, they realise. Lori can’t deal with this, and she wants to settle down and have a real life. Clint hasn’t ever known a real life, so he’s at a loss. “What’ll I do?” he asks her, feeling lost and a bit scared.
“You could join the army?” Lori suggests, near tears. “You might even find your brother.”
“Barney?” Clint raises his eyebrows. He doesn’t think about his big brother anymore. Barney’s departure from his life ended his childhood, if he’s honest with himself. The circus had seemed a little duller after he left, a little harder around the edges. It wasn’t helped by the steadily declining ticket sales of course, but Barney’s sudden absence is linked in Clint’s mind to a darker time of living.
Lori cries a bit and then they end up kissing, and it’s goodbye. Clint can feel it in every movement of her tongue against his, in the sound of their clothes hitting the floor, and the smell of cheap motel sheets. They have sex slowly, tender and gentle, and Clint runs his hand through her hair and kisses her bare shoulders as she falls asleep. He wakes up around dawn and watches her for a long time as she sleeps soundly, stretched out like a relaxed cat next to him on the bed.
He’s quiet enough not to wake her as he gets dressed and kisses her temple once more before going to the door. “Goodbye, Lori,” he whispers, and remembers to leave the car keys on the table for her before he leaves, taking his bloodied clothes with him to dump so that she doesn’t have to deal with it.
He hitches a ride out of town and puts his head in his hands as Wednesday Morning 3 A.M. comes on the radio, and he finds a strange kind of gladness in the way the song fits his life.
Clint hadn’t realised how difficult his uncommon upbringing would interfere in enlisting. For starters, he doesn’t know his social security number. He hasn’t ever needed it before now, after all. He needs to get a legal driver’s license, because the fake that he’d been given for his van won’t stand up under army eyes, he’s sure. The only form of official documentation he actually has is his GED, and that’s not much. He ends up having to hitch his way all the way back to Iowa and Waverly to track down his damn social security number, and then he needs to get a job to pay for a motel room to live in while he gets his license and contacts his nearest recruiter.
It all pays off though, and he finally gets his way into basic training. And what comes after that is a major shock to his system.
Because Clint’s not a team player, but it turns out that the army is all about playing as a team, and there’s something about everyone being thrown in together with the same uniform and having to eat the same food and deal with the same shit and live the same lives as everyone else around that cements people together. Clint hadn’t gone in expecting anything like this, but he finds that not only can he do it, but that he enjoys it, to a degree. He doesn’t entirely trust the others, but he takes pride in the fact that they can trust him.
He pushes his way through the parts of physical training he doesn’t enjoy and excels at the obstacle courses, climbing having always been a particular skill of his. He tells the others about the circus, because he definitely comes from the weirdest background out of any of them, and juggles and walks on his hands and does backflips to raucous applause. He adapts to the guns and quickly becomes the best damn shot anyone’s ever seen, and he knows exactly how that goes. At the graduation ceremony, he genuinely doesn’t care that there’s no one in the stands for his sake because he’s decided what he wants to do in advanced training. Although the bow will always be his first and favourite weapon, he’s not too shabby with a gun, and being a sniper definitely sounds like his kind of gig.
Clint celebrates his twenty-first birthday on base, and the next four birthdays out of the country. He manages to be back on home soil for the birth of the new millennium, which is hailed in in a party that Clint doesn’t remember much of the following morning. By that time he’s killed enough people to mentally cover up the first two men he killed in that alley back in Ohio, and he’s killed enough people with bullets to know that it takes getting up close and personal to the kill, close enough to feel how hot blood is when it comes out of the middle of a living body for the death to really sink below the skin and stay. He watches the men around him laugh and walk tall like proud lions in the sun and listens to some of them cry when they think no one can see them. But he’s always been a nosy shit, so he knows everything that happens even if he never says a word about it.
Clint hums O Death and sends men to their graves when their time is up. Back in the field later that year, he nearly trips over his legs when someone holds up a bow they bought from a local store and asks if anyone knows how to shoot. By the time Clint has shown what he can do with a real precision weapon singing in his hands, everyone’s calling him Robin Hood, and Clint’s face aches from grinning. Guns are fine, but he’s missed shooting with a bow, he realises, and thinks sadly of his old bow from the circus, sold on with all of his other belongings when he joined the army.
Word must get back along the line somewhere, and Clint finds himself called into a private office a few weeks after the bow incident to see a nondescript man with a small smile and a black suit. Man In Black, he thinks, and it plays in his head as the man stretches out a hand and introduces himself as Agent Phil Coulson.
SHIELD is something else. Clint passes their basic training tests with flying colours, passes their psych evaluations with no apparent problems, gets his own little room in a base in New York. He’s under lockdown for the first couple of months, so he learns the layout of the base like the back of his hand and learns Coulson’s face above all others. Coulson is the model of a model of the face of a faceless organisation. He’s always dressed impeccably, he always looks approachable and unassuming, and he can deliver threats with a sort of kindness that makes Clint laugh out loud for their daring as much for the fact that Coulson could actually carry them through with no trouble at all.
SHIELD is like the army, but looser. There’s more room to breathe, and Clint hadn’t noticed before that breathing space was something he had been gasping for. He sits alone in his room and relaxes for the first time in what feels like years. It’s contained and quiet, he has a new place where his real skill set is not only going to be acknowledged, but actually utilised, and there’s a 24 hour kitchenette down the hall. Life is looking up.
Lockdown would be boring, but Coulson comes in halfway through his first week and finds him throwing cards in the rec room, feet up on the table, eyes half-closed and lazy. “Having a relaxing day?”
“I sure am, sir,” Clint looks up at him and flicks a card up in the air. It spins crazily and he catches it between two fingers before turning it and presenting it to Coulson with a tiny smirk. “Thanks for asking.” It’s the ace of spades, and Coulson takes it from him without looking at it.
“You’re due in training room in five minutes, Barton. I’d get moving.”
“Training room?” Clint sits up properly, sliding his feet off the table. “What am I training for?”
“For the future.” Coulson puts the card down on the table. “You’re accuracy is off the charts, but you move like an elephant on steroids.”
“I’m a sniper!” Clint says, offended. “Best in the damn force!”
“Which is why we picked you,” Coulson’s voice remains calm and matter-of-fact. “But SHIELD has higher standards of stealth than the armed forces, Barton. If you ever want to make it to being a proper agent, you’d better shape up.”
Clint scowls and stands up. “How long did you say it takes to become an active SHIELD agent?”
“Two to three years.”
“I’ll do it in one,” Clint tells him, and stalks out. He regrets his words as the prickling sensation of his anger fades. He’s too used to army bravado, he thinks, but he’s meant to be a spy now, keeping his cool at all times. And if he’s just made a vow he finds he can’t keep, it’ll burn every time Coulson smirks at him.
He trains with an agent called Jimmy Woo, who explains that he’s on extended leave to teach instead of working in the field, but he makes exceptions if Fury asks nicely. Clint doesn’t know who Fury is, but he gets the impression that he’s higher up than Coulson is, which is a minorly intimidating thought.
Jimmy wipes the floor with him. It would be humiliating if he wasn’t such a nice guy, but since he is, Clint doesn’t mind as much as he usually would when his flaws are pointed out and dissected in painful detail. If Coulson was trained in stealth like this, Clint thinks as Jimmy demonstrates walking across a room in absolute silence for the tenth time, it’s no wonder he thinks that Clint moves with all the grace of an elephant.
Though actually, Clint’s seen elephants in action, and they’re pretty graceful animals in his opinion. But he gets the point behind it, and it’s just as embarrassing when Jimmy successfully ambushes him for the seventeenth time as it was when he did it the first time. The man moves like a goddamn shadow.
“How the hell are you doing that?” Clint asks after the nineteenth ambush, when Jimmy had simply walked behind him, matching him step for step so well he didn’t hear him until it was too late and he was on the floor with Jimmy’s foot on his throat. Embarrassing.
“I’m just walking quietly,” Jimmy grins and rolls off him, offering him a hand up. Clint takes it and sighs as Jimmy pulls him easily to his feet.
“Okay, show me how to walk quietly again?”
They spend about five hours in the training room (which is more like a hall, with adjustable equipment to simulate corridors, trees, rocks, and any other basic things an agent might need to utilise in the field. Clint manages to walk with less noise than he had before, but he still doesn’t manage to ambush Jimmy once. He doesn’t mind because Jimmy is basically the god of sneaking around, and Clint’s only realised from the training session how noisy people actually are. Moving quietly is actually damn hard.
Coulson schedules him for a session every day. Clint’s a fast learner, and by the same time next week he’s got a good handle on walking quietly, and he’s learning more every day. There are tricks to positioning the feet as they come down to spread the weight and lessen the force of the connection between sole and floor, and techniques to stifle the sounds of material shifting against the skin. Clint learns to control his breathing even when he’s out of breath, and to adapt his style of walking to every situation. He learns to dance, and how to blend into a crowd.
He doesn’t even notice when his lockdown ends, because he’s so caught up in learning stealth from Jimmy. He doesn’t stop when he leaves the training room either, because he figures that being a secret agent (he doesn’t think he’ll ever get used to that idea) is a full-time job. Coulson can appear silently like Jimmy can, and he doesn’t ever make any noise that isn’t necessary. Clint admires that ability, and imitation is the highest form of flattery.
He’s been at the New York base for a month when he disappears.
He’s last seen leaving the training room at one in the afternoon. On the internal cameras, he turns a corner, enters a blind spot, and doesn’t leave it.
Clint watches the slow decline of calm with a childish glee he hasn’t felt for a long time.
At three-thirty, Coulson arrives on site. Clint watches him examine the camera footage, and go to the spot where Clint vanished into thin air. Clint grins huge and wide as Coulson narrows his eyes, looks up at the section of the ceiling not covered by the camera’s gaze, and then suppress an amused smile. He cocks his head and then smiles properly, casually adjusting the strap of his watch as he says, “Get out of the ceiling, Barton. The walls of this facility are not your personal playground.”
Clint only just manages to stop himself laughing, but he does commit the furious and astonished face of the head of security and his underlings as he pulls one of the panels in the ceiling free and drops down through the hole. He lands almost silently, knees bending and one hand bracing himself on the floor before he stands up and gives Coulson his best shit-eating grin. “How’d you know I was there, sir?”
“Your movements have caused a lot of dust to shift up there. I noticed it when I entered the building, but the reason behind it became obvious when I saw that you could access those crawlspaces from this particular blind spot.”
“Good to know, sir.”
“Dismissed, gentlemen,” Coulson glances at the head of security, who shoots Clint the filthiest glare he’s seen in a long time before stalking away, his posse of camera-hens clucking behind him. Clint keeps his smile when Coulson turns back to him and raises an eyebrow. “Please refrain from panicking the staff, Barton.”
“I did them a favour,” Clint shrugs. “They wouldn’t’ve known about that blind spot if I hadn’t pointed it out.”
“I think there are probably less unnerving ways to point out flaws in the security, don’t you think?” Coulson smiles slightly though, so Clint considers it a victory. “You’re grounded for a week, Barton. Get back to your room.”
Clint looks back over his shoulder. Coulson gives him a nod, something like appreciation in his expression.
Clint bows deep, arms spread out the way Mr Carson always did at the end of a show, legs a straight line below him. Coulson’s smile widens just a fraction, and Clint grins and commits that to memory as well before he turns the corner and makes his way back to his room. Being grounded isn’t a problem – he’s got plenty of stealth techniques he still wants to work on, and he’s still got rec room privileges. Training to be an agent of SHIELD is more fun than he would have expected.
Clint gets his first solo mission a year and a half after being recruited. He reads the whole briefing folder in the briefing room (files like that have to be burned on camera – the information on that paper leaves the room in Clint’s head, or not at all), rereads the important bits, and looks at Coulson when he’s finished. Coulson doesn’t look back. He’s been sitting on the other side of the table doing his own paperwork, waiting for Clint to be done.
“I could sum up everything in this folder in three sentences,” Clint says bluntly. Coulson’s eyes don’t leave his phone, but he raises an eyebrow. “Find old guy. Track old guy. Kill old guy. There, done. Did I really need to know all of this?”
“Forget the bits you don’t think you need to know,” Coulson suggests mildly. “Would you rather we just gave you a target and let you loose?”
Clint sighs and leans his chair back on two legs. That’s something he really likes about SHIELD, actually; they don’t just give you a target and expect you to follow orders blindly. He’s allowed to refuse a mission if he wants to (though more than five refusals in six months earns a referral), and he’s allowed to ask questions up to a point. He knows the reasons behind SHIELD wanting his target dead, but since most of it is a lot of political stuff he doesn’t care about, he figures he’s wasted time reading the huge briefing folder.
“I guess not, sir,” he says as Coulson presses the button on his side of the table that means they’re done, “but a lot of the information in that folder was unnecessary. I don’t need to know his favourite flavour of ice-cream, or where he went on holiday as a kid.”
“You never know what information you might need in a tight spot,” Coulson reminds him. Clint scowls, but falls silent as the door opens and a man with a shredder comes in. The file is destroyed, and the thin strips of paper will be sent to the incinerator. It’s a tidy system, which is something Clint can appreciate.
His target is an American diplomat on foreign soil. He takes out the guards at the man’s residence with guns, the security system with electrostatically charged arrows, and he strangles his target up close and personal with a thin wire. It’s the preferred assassination technique of one of the man’s rivals in the area. Coulson guides Clint through hacking the man’s computer via his earpiece, and they steal everything of value before Clint leaves. The bodies will be discovered in the morning by the delivery man and the maid, and Clint is back on home soil before the news reaches enemy ears.
“Good job,” is all Coulson says once he’s cleaned up. “That was your final test.”
“I passed, right?” Clint sounds cocky, but his stomach clenches suddenly at the thought of failing. SHIELD has accidentally become his life. He’s good at this. And he gets to use his bow, which will never stop being a fantastic bonus.
“You passed,” Coulson nods and shoots him a faint smile. “Now you get to meet the boss.”
The enigmatic Nick Fury, who only has one eye which he uses to glare people into submission until they’re quivering wrecks under his legendary gaze. Clint’s picked up a lot of stories from Jimmy and the other agents and trainees he lives with in the New York base. He’s interested to see whether Fury lives up to his frightening reputation.
“Why, sir,” he widens his eyes and puts a hand on his chest, “aren’t you the boss?”
Coulson gives him a look that tells Clint that he’s both amused and totally able to break each of Clint’s fingers without breaking a sweat while he holds him still for the procedure. “I’ll always be your boss, Barton,” he says, and Clint grins wide and unrepentant.
Fury wears a calf-length black trench coat that should by all rights look ridiculous and melodramatic. On Director Fury, it looks intimidating. Clint’s always been impressed by costumes since getting his first one made for him in the carnival. Clothes make the man, Jenny the seamstress had told him, and showed him how the light would make the fabric shine a bright, regal purple as Clint somersaulted through the air. Fury’s coat and eye patch are as much a costume as his old purple leotard, but it’s the way he wears them that makes Clint draw himself up tall and look the man directly in the eye.
“Director Fury,” Coulson says in the background, “this is Clint Barton, the archer I told you about.”
“You shoot straight, Agent Barton?” Fury asks, and Clint doesn’t let the thrill that buzzes through him at the title show in his face.
“I never miss, sir.”
Fury raises an eyebrow, but nods after a moment and holds out a hand, palm up. Coulson puts a file in it without looking up from his phone, and Fury flips it open and takes a photograph out. He turns it round for Clint to see and Clint’s breath catches in his throat.
“Yes, sir,” Clint forces his emotions down but can’t pull his eyes away from the familiar face. The man in the photograph is older than when Clint last saw him, but there’s no mistaking it. “That’s my brother, sir. Barney Barton.”
“I believe you wanted to know whether SHIELD would be able to find him for you.”
“Well,” Fury slides the photograph back in the file and flips it shut, “we’ve found him. Roughly speaking.”
“What does that mean, sir?” Clint keeps his voice steady, but images of the soldiers he’s fought with flood his mind – soldiers who were there one minute and dead the next, blood on cold sand and expressions of shock and twisted agony when the pain hit. Not Barney, he thinks, needing it to be true. Not my brother. He’d thought he didn’t care that much about Barney since he’d left, but since the thought of Barney being dead makes his stomach clench, apparently he does still care.
“He’s off-grid at the moment, Agent Barton,” Fury says, and Clint lets out a breath he hadn’t realised he’d been holding.
“Sir?” he asks to cover it.
“He’s been recruited by General Ross. Soldiers under Ross’ jurisdiction are cut off from outside influences. It’s unlikely that you’ll see him for the next few years at least.”
“Thunderbolt Ross?” Clint frowns. He remembers that name. “Isn’t he involved in science projects?”
“Vaguely speaking,” Fury says darkly, and Clint lets it go. Barney is alive. That’s enough. “Agent Coulson tells me you’ve got serious potential, Agent Barton,” Fury fixes him with his one eye and Clint looks back steadily. “You’ve reached agent status in half the time it normally takes, you’ve got a specialist skill, and your progress in stealth operations is something of a discussion point among Agent Woo and his colleagues.” Clint smiles, not bothering to hide it. “You also spend too much of your time sneaking around in the air vents and crawl spaces, sneaking up on people and breaking into places you have no right being in.”
Clint grins. “I like to keep in practise, sir, and keep others on their toes.”
“I’d say you’ve done that,” Fury narrows his eye. “Miss Estevez has requested a transfer, and several complaints about your ‘stalker tendencies’ have been lodged.”
“No one told me, sir,” Clint only just stops himself from shrugging. “I’ve heard nothing about that. And besides, if they’re gonna be SHIELD agents, shouldn’t they be prepared for that sort of stuff?”
“There’s a limit,” Fury warns him, and Clint nods, dropping his smile.
“Hm.” Fury hands the file back to Coulson. “You weren’t kidding about the attitude.”
Clint raises an eyebrow at Coulson, who gives him a calm ‘what did you expect?’ look.
“Here’s what I’ve got on you so far, Agent Barton, stop me if I’m wrong,” Fury leans his weight on one leg and gives Clint a penetrating stare. “You’re not stupid, but you’re no brain either. You follow orders, but you can change your tune if the situation requires it. You’ve had an unconventional childhood, but you’re not real close with your brother – no high family values. You value a job well done, and you can work hard, but you’ve got a smart mouth and a tendency to run it off. You don’t put enough trust in others to have your back, so you’re not a great team player. You’re confident, bordering on cocky, and you like to piss people off by showing off and playing practical jokes, but you don’t feel the need to own up to them, so you’re not an attention-seeker. You don’t like secrets, or having anything hidden from you, so you have this really irritating habit of spying on everyone you know. How am I doing so far?”
Clint tilts his head and considers it. “I can work fine in a team, sir.”
Fury gives him a flat look. “You prefer to work alone.”
“Fewer people to worry about,” Clint shrugs one-shouldered. Fury nods.
“Here’s what I think, Agent Barton – you don’t really care. You take pride in your skills and your work, that’s true enough, but it’s the process that drives you, not the end result. The good news is, I can work with that.” He holds out his hand and Clint shakes it, not entirely sure what’s happening. “Welcome to SHIELD, Agent Barton. I hope you hang around for a while.”
“I’m not fixed on going anywhere else, sir,” Clint tells him. Fury nods, drops his hand, and leaves. His coat flares out behind him, but he manages to flick it in just before the door closes on it. Clint’s impressed – it’s hard to get a good flare like that and not get it caught on things. He looks at Coulson and grins. “Serious potential, huh, Coulson?”
“Don’t let it go to your head, Barton,” Coulson tells him dryly, though there’s a smile playing around his mouth. “You’ve only got one mission under your belt so far.”
“So set me up with another.” Clint’s grinning and feeling good, riding high on the promotion. “You point me in the right direction, I’ll bring the arrows.”
Coulson huffs air through his nose and shakes his head, but when Clint slings an arm around his shoulder, feeling daring, he says, “How do you feel about Rome?”
“Never been. Is it nice?”
“Lovely this time of year,” Coulson finally cracks a proper smile, and slides out from under Clint’s arm to lead the way out into the corridor. “There’s a certain gentleman who’s been causing some trouble with an Italian contact of ours…”
Clint barely sleeps in his room for the next six months. He goes to Rome, Cairo, Belfast, Cape Town, Sao Paulo, Montreal, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, St Petersburg, Oslo, and even Dubai. And those are just the major cities – he races through dozens of smaller towns in countries ranging from China to Germany, Egypt to the US. On one memorable mission, his target happens to live on one of the islands in the Thousand Islands archipelago in Canada. He enjoys that one – he finishes up early and drives to Niagara Falls to watch the sun rise over the glittering mists that hover over the water.
He goes anywhere they send him, and does whatever is in the order briefing. It’s not always killing. Several of his targets just need to be warned that someone’s keeping an eye on them. A mission in Singapore involves breaking up a meeting by panicking the participants. In the panic that ensues when he shoots a few smoke bomb arrows into the house, Clint knocks several of them out and steals the contents of a briefcase from a thin brown-skinned woman wearing a choker of rubies. The papers are in a language he doesn’t read, some form of Russian, but he folds them and stashes them in his bag and leaves enough sheets of blank paper in the woman’s briefcase that she won’t immediately notice the difference when she wakes.
Some of his missions fail. Just a few, and usually because the target alters their pattern or brings in a factor SHIELD hadn’t accounted for. Those missions usually turn into waiting games where Clint stays very still and watches very quietly while his window of opportunity shrinks smaller and smaller, and when it vanishes, he leaves. It’s disappointing, but it’s never marked against him as long as the target never knows Clint was there. And all the time, Coulson’s voice is calm and ever-present in his ear, keeping him up to date, helping him do his job, and making sure Clint is alert and unharmed. Coulson becomes synonymous with his work, and when he’s given a mission with another handler because Coulson’s busy on something else, Clint doesn’t like it.
He’s a professional, so he doesn’t say a word when the name in the briefing isn’t Agent P. Coulson. He just frowns.
“Problem?” Coulson asks.
“Who’s Agent Tenner?” Clint looks over the folder at Coulson, who sighs and keeps signing papers that need signing.
“He’s a handler like me. He’s perfectly competent, Barton.”
“You getting tired of me, Coulson?” Clint pulls a sad face, and though Coulson doesn’t look up, he smiles faintly.
“Contrary to what you might believe, Barton, I do have other responsibilities besides you.”
“I don’t believe you,” Clint pouts, “I’m the centre of your universe.”
“Your lack of close friends baffles me.”
“Aw, that’s just mean. I’m too busy to make close friends! Besides, aren’t you my close friend, Coulson?”
“I’m busier than you are, Barton. Agent Tenner is your handler for this mission. Deal with it.”
Clint sleeps on the flight over to Papua New Guinea. Tenner is a tall man with hair so pale it’s almost white. His cheeks are red and sallow, and Clint doesn’t like him very much. But he wants to prove that he can actually work with handlers who aren’t Coulson, so he doesn’t protest, and falls asleep to avoid making awkward conversation.
The mission goes horribly wrong the way only assassinations can.
It isn’t Tenner’s fault. Clint knows this as he flees from far more armed guards than they had known about and tries to find running water to make the dogs lose his scent. It isn’t Tenner’s fault the intel was wrong, any more than the target’s kids had come to visit and brought their damn Pomeranian puppy with them. It isn’t Tenner’s fault that the dog had pissed in the room Clint had been hiding outside of, causing a maid to come in to clean up the mess.
It is Tenner’s fault, Clint thinks furiously as his breath burns in his lungs and his legs scream at him, that he had decided on that exact moment to tell Clint to verbally confirm his position. As if that wouldn’t draw any attention. Clint hadn’t answered, because the silence was deafening and the woman would definitely have heard him, so Tenner shouted at him, and then started to panic. Issued an ultimatum – Clint confirmed he was alive or they would send in back up.
Clint had breathed as loudly as possible, hoping that Tenner would pick that up. Coulson would have. But Tenner didn’t, so Clint had whispered, “I’m here,” and the maid had heard him.
And now he’s miles away from anyone, lost in the middle of the damn jungle with armed men and sniffer dogs on his heels. Clint howls curses in his head and thinks of the maid’s scream, silenced abruptly by his arrow in her throat. Too late, of course, but he had panicked like Tenner had panicked and that was that. He has absolutely no idea where the hell he’s going, and in his opinion, it’s a miracle that he hasn’t gotten himself killed yet. He knows exactly zip about what kind of animals live in the rainforests here, so for all he knows there are panthers stalking him in the choking darkness. He’s getting nothing but static from his earpiece, which is terrifying, because he’s so used to always having a helpful voice in his ear.
“Couldn’t pick a city job, Barton,” he whispers, squinting through the darkness as though it will make any difference. Under the thick canopy, he can barely make anything out. He’s tripped and fallen too many times to count, and he’s pretty sure he’s bleeding from cutting himself up on the ground. Leaving a truly excellent trail for the dogs. Why the hell did the target have to live right on the edge of the damn jungle? And why the hell hadn’t he run back towards Upoia, where his rented car was?
He’s never been scared of the dark before, but before the dark hasn’t held terrors like poisonous spiders and snakes, and god knows how many biting insects. Clint forces himself to stand very still and breathe. He can’t hear any dogs or other sounds from his pursuers. There’s just the racket of animals in the undergrowth and the heavy, humid heat. He wants to sit down and cry like a lost child, but that’s really not an option. He doesn’t dare get the torch in his backpack out in case the men following him see it through the trees, but he really, really doesn’t want to sit down. Knowing today’s luck, he’ll sit down on a nest of army ants or something.
So Clint sets his teeth, hoists his backpack up on his shoulders and starts walking. Even in near pitch-black darkness on unfamiliar terrain, he knows how to stay quiet. Jimmy taught him well how to walk like a ghost, even on noisy ground like this. He keeps his bow in one hand, an arrow in the other, ready to attack if needs be. His watch reads 2:45 am and his earpiece keeps up a faint buzz of static at all times. It’s irritating as hell, but he doesn’t dare remove it in case he comes back in range again and someone tries to talk to him.
Clint decides that he hates everything and tries not to fall over too much as he walks until the world begins to lighten, sometime around five thirty. As soon as he can be sure there are no bugs or spiders or anything with too many legs hiding in the bark, Clint climbs a tree and ties himself to the branch, leaning back against the trunk. He dozes for several hours and snaps awake when the static in his ear goes from a background fuzz to a sudden burst of buzzing sounds.
“Hello?” his voice cracks. He swallows a couple of times and tries again. “This is Agent Barton. Can anyone read me? Does anyone copy?”
More buzzes. Like a voice, but he can’t make anything out. He unties himself and drops to the forest floor, ignoring the horrible stickiness in his mouth and the hollow feeling in his stomach. Physical discomfort can wait. “Okay, anyone copy?”
More buzzing. Fantastic. Clint sighs and rolls the stiffness out of his neck.
“Okay, if you do read me, I’m seriously lost, deep in the rainforest somewhere outside of Upoia. Earpiece is on the fritz, but I can hear buzzing, so I’m gonna keep walking and hope that the buzzing starts to sound more like voices soon. I’ll try and walk in the direction the signal gets clearest. Obviously. Buzz like a fly if you can hear me.”
The earpiece hums obligingly, and Clint tries to work up some saliva in his mouth as he starts to walk. “So much for a rainforest,” he mutters, talking to keep himself calm as much as to keep whoever’s on the other end of the earpiece buzzing. “If it rained I’d get a drink, but not a fucking drop so far. Typical. I hate the tropics. It’s all false advertising. I swear, if I get mauled by a panther, I am haunting your asses. Especially you, Coulson. You’ll never get rid of me.”
He walks and talks until his voice is nothing but a rasp, and it’s hours before a buzz on the line suddenly turns into a word. “Zzt zzzzzt zzton, do zzou copy?”
“Hello?” Clint grabs his bow in his left hand and presses his fingers eagerly to the earpiece. “This is Agent Barton, do you hear me?”
“Zzeeep wzzalkingz, Bartzzzn.”
He can’t tell who the voice belongs to through all the static, but Clint doesn’t care. He massages his aching throat and picks up the pace. The background buzzing begins to fade and he grins wide enough to make his cheeks hurt. “I’m still here,” he croaks, “this is Agent Barton, still talking, and still walking, do you read me?”
“We read you, agent,” there’s only a trace of static now, and Clint wants to close his eyes and cry with relief because it’s Coulson’s voice in his ear.
“Never been so happy to hear you, man,” he whispers, running a hand through his hair. “Orders?”
“Is your position secure?”
Clint looks around. “There’s this weird animal in a tree over there, sort of like a ratty bear, but fluffy. Reddish brown and white. Long tail. Apart from him, I think I’m okay.”
“Tree kangaroo,” Coulson says calmly. Clint’s lips crack when he smiles.
“Shall I bring it back as a present for you?”
“I think you should leave it alone,” Coulson sounds vaguely amused, and Clint wants to sink to the forest floor and weep for joy.
“You sure? It looks very fluffy. Perfect for stroking. You could be like the villain in a Bond movie, except with a – what was it?”
“A tree kangaroo.”
“Right, except with a tree kangaroo instead of a white cat. It’s a bit big though. I could get you a baby one!”
“I have allergies.”
“Liar, you just don’t want me to give you a present so you won’t have to give me a present.”
“I think the fact that I’m rescuing you from a hostile environment counts as a present.”
“Nah, that’s just your job.” Clint has to break off and swallow repeatedly because his throat has completely dried up.
“Barton? Barton, do you copy?”
He makes a wheezing noise and then manages to dredge up enough saliva to get his throat working again. “Thirsty, sorry,” he breathes. “Position secure, by the way. Someone coming to get me?”
“We’re locating your position accurately now,” Coulson tells him.
“How long will that take?”
“It’s eighty percent complete. Just stay where you are.”
“Okay. You’re less than two miles from the road. Head south-east.”
“How far away from Upoia am I?”
“Roughly six miles.”
“That all?” Clint coughs.
“It’s a fair distance considering the steep terrain.”
“You always know just what to say,” Clint smiles and gets his compass out of his bag. He starts walking south-east as briskly as he can. “You gonna be waiting for me?”
“Have some water ready, will you?”
“Of course. You’ll be submitted for a full medical examination.”
Clint wishes his throat wasn’t too sore to groan dramatically. “Coulson,” he whines instead.
“Standard procedure for exposure to an unknown environment, Barton.” Coulson clearly doesn’t care about his drama, and Clint sighs and falls mostly silent. Talking hurts too much to keep up a conversation, though he wants nothing more than to do just that.
“How close am I?” he asks after a while.
“Less than half a mile now,” Coulson tells him, “I’m sending a team out to meet you.”
“Okay,” Clint whispers, “thanks.”
He recognises one of the women in the team – Agent Harrison. He breaks into a relieved smile at the sight of the familiar face and lets one of the other men take his backpack as Harrison gives him a water bottle. He drains the whole thing in seconds, and gasps when he’s done. “You have no idea how much I needed that,” he tells her. “You got any more?”
“Here.” Another agent hands him his water bottle, and Clint drains that as well, a little slower this time.
“Thanks,” he says, heartfelt.
“Have fun in the jungle?” Agent Harrison asks him, shooting him a grin as they start to walk back the way the team came from.
“I partied all night,” Clint replies sarcastically. “What the hell happened to the signal? I thought these things were meant to be super-boosted or something like that.”
“You vanished off the grid,” Agent Harrison shrugs her shoulders and makes a gesture with her arm to send two men ahead to make sure it was clear. “If those guards and their dogs hadn’t jumped up to follow you, we wouldn’t’ve even known you were alive.”
“Gee, remind me to send them thank you notes.” Clint rolls his eyes and she laughs.
“Pity you didn’t leave your sense of humour in the jungle.”
“It’s in my bones,” he winks at her and she snorts, shaking her head.
“Behave,” Coulson says in his ear, and Clint grins.
The shakes hit him two days later when he’s back in New York in his own (seldom used) bed. He wakes up suddenly from a dream where he was with his old army unit, but in the tropical rainforest instead of the Middle East. He’d wound up getting shot, and the complete lack of light that greets him when he jerks awake sends him into a complete panic. He tries to get out of bed, but his feet tangle in the sheets and the world spins and doesn’t stop spinning when he hits the floor with a painful thud. He can feel his heart thumping too fast, and he can’t get himself up off the floor because the floor keeps tilting and he keeps overbalancing and it feels like the darkness has physical form, like it’s smothering him and he can’t breathe properly.
A high-pitched whine rings in his ears, and he realises after a moment that it’s him making the noise, desperate for light, any light, any sort of light at all, anything, god please, anything. By the time he manages to haul himself over to the other side of the room and hit the light switch, he’s hyperventilating, and it’s all he can do to curl up on the floor and shiver like he’s in the arctic.
Panic attack, he thinks distantly, but he can’t grab onto the thought and focus on it because the floor’s still rocking like he’s on a boat and his heart won’t slow down. He feels himself break out in sweat and he shivers in a terrified ball on the floor for what feels like ages. When he finally calms down enough to crawl back into bed, he leaves the light on and swallows down the fear, but it still takes him a while to get back to sleep.
The memory of crashing desperately through the unfamiliar, humid rainforest, fleeing from baying dogs and men with guns and no mercy with his heart hammering a tattoo into his ribs from sheer terror takes a long time to fade.