"I think Tony's right."
Clint stared at Natasha, waiting for her to wink or grin or twitch or something to indicate that she was not being serious, that she was arguing for the sake of arguing because the Accords were such a ridiculously bad idea that no logical defense could be made. Except she didn't. She sat there, still picking at the label of her beer bottle with one thumb as she met his gaze. She was serious and he was too dumbstruck to react to that realization for a long moment. But he finally shook himself free and turned away, then turned back.
"I know 'civil liberties' is still more an abstract theory for you than a fact," he began, then trailed off. "But how the hell can you think the Accords are a good idea?"
The Accords were a terrible idea, the worst kind of idea because they came from the toxic combination of good intentions and fear and were shaped with absolutely no thought to the consequences beyond solving the immediate problem of how to navigate a world -- a universe -- now populated by supermen. Clint understood the fear, good Christ he understood; he still woke up from nightmares of what he'd done under Loki's control. But overcompensating like this, with sloppily-written regulations primed for over-reach and abuse, with requirements that invaded privacy and put so many innocent people under suspicion and at risk... This wasn't like the Patriot Act on an interplanetary level, the way the Accords' defenders promised, something that sounded worse than it was but would do more good than harm. The Accords were going to turn out like Prohibition or the internment of the Japanese during World War II or the House Un-American Activities Committee, events that turned up in American History books and looked so fucking ridiculous that even kids wondered what kind of collective insanity had deemed them a good idea at the time.
"I'm not saying they're a good idea," Natasha replied with a frown. "I'm saying Tony's way of dealing with them is better than Steve's."
Steve's reaction to the Accords had been predictable: he'd blown a gasket. He didn't seen the Accords as a Patriot Act for a new age; he saw the Nuremberg Laws. Steve hadn't been around for the Cold War, for the rise of non-state terrorism, for 9/11. He hadn't seen how the reaction to every event had been the slow erosion of privacy and freedom and how the Accords were just one more link on a chain that had begun before his body had frozen solid in the North Sea. He didn't appreciate what people were used to, what they had given up too long ago to remember they'd owned. But he'd been around for Project Insight and he couldn't understand how nobody had learned from that lesson. He didn't understand how Tony, who'd come seconds away from being murdered by an Insight bullet, could go along with such an unfathomably evil idea. The resulting argument had been spectacular, the way clusterbombs were spectacular, and had done almost as much damage.
"Tony's way of dealing with them is to go on television and say they're a good idea," Clint said, pushing off of the kitchen counter and crossing the room to lean against the pantry door just because he couldn't sit still and hear Natasha defend the indefensible and sound so sure of herself doing it. She outwitted herself sometimes, Natasha-the-person no more immune to the Black Widow's skills than anyone else, and nothing made her hate herself more than when that happened. But Clint knew from long experience that there was nothing he could do about it until she realized it herself, that she'd turn vicious and feral if anyone suggested it because when push came to shove, she still had more faith in the Black Widow's judgment than her own. Natasha-the-person hadn't existed for very long and was still tentative and unsure of herself and, especially when it came to anything related to work, easily dismissed as the lesser party. Natasha-the-person would have listened to Steve, he thought. Natasha-the-person had listened to Steve when she'd seen SHIELD suborned by HYDRA, but apparently that had been a moment of vulnerability and not one of personal growth.
"Granted that I'm a shooter and not a spy," he went on from his new spot, working to keep the sourness and sarcasm out of his voice because that would only make things escalate past the point where any conversation was productive. "But I'm failing to appreciate the genius there when Steve's doing the same thing -- and doing it better."
Of course the media had gone straight to Captain America, but Clint knew that they hadn't realized what they'd be getting from him. Captain America the historical icon was still better known than Captain America the man walking around now and people didn't always appreciate that they were not the same man. History had turned Cap into America's champion, but anyone who had actually spent any time whatsoever with Steve understood that his Captain America was the champion of what America stood for as an ideal, not the enforcer for whoever was currently occupying DC's seats of power. President Ellis, who should have known better by now, had had the lesson reinforced when Steve had sat down for a televised interview in uniform and explained how he could not support the Accords and did not see them as compatible with a lawful republic, which the US still was and had always been. It had been a devastating interview as far as the pro-Registration side had gone, the polling numbers plummeting, and they went down further every time Steve gave a statement. Which was why several important news outlets that favored the Accords, or were simply close to the Ellis administration, had stopped asking him for one.
"Steve's plan is to appeal to our better natures," Natasha explained. The Black Widow explained. "He still sees people as fundamentally good and considerate and willing to do what they can for the betterment of the many. He still thinks there's a community and not a collection of people with their own wifi connections and that people will choose their neighbors over their own fears. He thinks that reason will win out, that liberty will triumph over security, and that the Accords won't be approved.
"Tony knows better. He knows that the Accords will pass because people are terrified. They see aliens pouring down from the sky in New York and London. They see robots laying waste to Seoul and Sokovia. They see the Hulk destroying Harlem and Johannesburg. They see costumed freaks big and small tearing up the streets all over the world and they're not sure if it's a bad guy or a good guy because the body count's the same. They feel helpless because they are helpless. And if someone tells them that the Accords will give them some measure of protection, then they are going to grab on to it like a life preserver because drowning people act out of panic.
"Tony's not doing press to counter Steve. He's doing press to get in with Ellis and the people who are going to be enforcing the Accords because he knows we can't stop the Accords from without. But we can mitigate the damage from within. If he can grab the wheel, then there's a chance we don't drive off the road before we can stop the car."
Clint took a deep breath and let it out slowly because now he understood how Natasha had let the Black Widow win, how she'd chosen to side with Tony, whose strategic thinking she normally didn't hold in high regard. This kind of plan was a Black Widow kind of plan, to manipulate the principals so subtly nobody even realized that the game was being played, let alone that they were one of the pieces and not the hand moving them around on the board. It was a Black Widow kind of plan, but it was also a Tony-and-Pepper kind of plan, corporate sharks swimming in what they thought were familiar seas. Stark Industries had been negotiating with and around governments since the 1930s and Tony, supported by Pepper and Natasha and Rhodey, was undoubtedly sure he knew exactly how to play this game.
"And what happens before you can stop the car?" Clint asked. "If you can? What happens to all of the people you run over before you get your foot on the brake?"
He could readily agree that Tony had chosen a strategy that played to his strengths, that in the abstract it was a good plan to have someone on both sides of the conflict as a hedge. But this wasn't the abstract and this wasn't a game and the cost of having to fall back on that hedge was appalling. If Steve 'won,' there would be fences to mend and hurt feelings to get over. If Tony did, there would be blood.
Natasha looked up from the label she'd been picking at. "To switch metaphors midstream," she said, "we're doing this as a burn out to contain a wildfire."
She shrugged to acknowledge how far from ideal it was to have collateral damage, but he knew her and he knew that she saw it as regrettable but acceptable loss and fury flashed through him like lightning. He couldn't believe she didn't see who was going to be caught up in her metaphorical blaze.
He walked over to her and grabbed her elbow with no thought to gentleness, pulling her up and toward the kitchen door, which was open with only the screen to keep out the bugs and the animals. Outside, the kids were running around in the near yard. Lila was chasing the baby, who was chasing a chicken, and Connor was building something with the plastic blocks they left outside. His latest architectural marvel was going to be knocked down by his siblings -- or the chicken -- sooner than later, setting off a screaming match as predictable as a sunrise.
Clint held Natasha by the triceps in front of the door, standing behind her so he could talk by her ear. "Take a good, long look at who you are going to set fire to for the greater good," he ordered. "Take a good look at who you are okay with being acceptable loss."
The Accords were going to be enforced by SHIELD, but they weren't going to be managed by them. There would be a separate agency, created for the purpose, and it would be that agency that would be the repository of the Registry that Clint would have to be put on even if he retired from heroics and just became a farmer. He didn't have any powers, but he was in the special class of 'normal' people who were deemed on par with those who did and would have to register because of it. Anyone affiliated with the Avengers was automatically on the list regardless of their DNA -- him, Sam Wilson, Natasha, Tony, Rhodey -- because they remained a potential threat in or out of a costume.
"How long do you think before someone hacks the Registry?" he asked Natasha, who tried to pull free of his grasp. He was stronger than she was and unless she wanted to resort to gymnastics, she wasn't going anywhere and he knew she knew it. "How long? A day? A week? An hour? How long before that list goes up on the internet? How long before someone finds my name and face on it? How long before someone I've pissed off or put away or put down comes here? Will you have things under control by then?"
SHIELD had had the best data security in the world once upon a time and, even then, Fury hadn't trusted HR with Clint's family. And now Natasha expected him to hand them over to an agency no better protected than the Department of the Interior? He could give the Registry a fake address, a fake marital status with no dependents, but once it was public -- and it would be public -- it was a very short line from Clint Barton to the farm. Their neighbors knew who he was, but not what he was. Laura and the kids didn't live under fake names; they'd been hidden in plain sight, protected by countersurveillance and common sense the way most every secret warrior's family was. There would be no way Clint or anyone else could protect them once the world knew who he was. And Natasha knew that, too.
"Where does my family fit in your calculations, Natasha?" he growled in her ear. "Has Tony done the math and figured out their survival percentage? Is it high enough that you're okay with it? What about everyone else's family? Why do you get to decide who gets to be cannon fodder? Where do you get off playing God?"
Natasha tried to pull free of his grip and he he let her, stepping back so she could turn around.
"Steve can't win," she said and he could hear the pleading note in her voice. "He can't. You know he can't. And the longer the fight goes on, the worse the peace will be after it's over. And we won't have any way to mitigate it unless we have someone already on the winning side. I know what happens if there's a Registry, Clint. I do. I will do whatever I can to make sure nothing happens to Laura and the kids. I will die to protect them, you have to know that. But if we don't do this, there will be no way to keep things from turning out much worse than anyone can contain."
He shook his head. "I can't accept that," he told her simply. "You're not losing a battle to win the war. You're losing the war. The Registry is going to kill people and it's going to ruin lives simply by existing. How much less awful will it be if Tony -- or you or anyone else we like -- is in the inner circle? How many people are hurt before you can put yourself in a position to save a single life?"
Opponents of the Accords warned that it would be like Salem or the Inquisition or any other historical terror with ever-widening circles of casualties. Even if the Registry never went public, which was a nonsense proposition, then how long before it got misused? HYDRA wasn't gone and the Registry could just be added to their list of Insight targets, if there wasn't already a complete overlap. But even without that, what happened? What happened when people started suspecting their neighbors -- or falsely accusing them? The Accords had committees and tribunals allegedly to prevent it from turning into a witch hunt, but it was awfully hard to prove a negative -- I don't have these powers/skills/whatever versus I am just not showing you these powers/skills/whatever. There was no surefire test to prove guilt or innocence. Supporters of the Accords called it all scare tactics and too much imagination, but it was hard to just brush it off when the Patriot Act already coughed up so many false positives. This was much more inconvenient than accidentally winding up on a no-fly list -- violators of the Accords weren't fined; they were imprisoned in places like The Raft. And for those who registered lawfully? People on the Registry were supposed to be left alone, but there were already proposals to intern anyone with powers away from population centers for the common good and/or their own protection. The Registry didn't need to be misused to be a threat -- it just had to become law.
"You might think that Steve is fighting an ideological war," he said when Natasha didn't answer. "But he's not and neither am I. I'm fighting for my family and for everyone else whose life is going to be destroyed -- or ended -- by this bullshit. I can't do anything less. There is no possible version of a world with a Registry that I'd want to give my children as their inheritance. If they even survived long enough to see it. I'm sorry, Natasha."
She knew what he was apologizing for and nodded. "Can I say goodbye?"
He gestured outside with a tilt of his head and she nodded again, turning to push the screen door open and go out. He stayed inside and went to the table to get her abandoned beer bottle, pouring it out in the sink. He could hear the kids protest that Auntie Nat was leaving so quickly, but Connor and Lila, at least, were more or less used to sudden departures and so there wasn't a whole lot of crying.
He was emptying out the dishwasher when he heard the screen door open, but he didn't pause in his work.
"I'm sorry," Laura said as she put her arms around him from behind, resting her cheek on his shoulder blade. "I hoped..."
They'd talked about this for months, since the Accords had first been proposed. The discussions had become a little less theoretical once it had become clear that the Accords weren't going to be laughed away, that there was a chance it could actually come up for a vote. They'd been surprised by Tony's support, but in hindsight it had seemed less of a shock -- Tony had been a different man since Ultron. Steve's position had surprised them not at all. Natasha's... Natasha's had been a betrayal and he wasn't sure how this breach would heal.
"Me, too," he admitted and his voice broke a little because he could admit now how much it hurt. Natasha had been entrusted with everything he held most dear in the world, more dear than his own life, and this was how she valued that gift.
They stayed like that until the baby started shrieking in anger and Lila immediately went "I didn't do anything!" and Connor started calling for Mommy or Daddy in a tone that was more tattletale than urgent. The kids and dinner took up the next hours and it wasn't until much later, after bedtimes and stories and glasses of water, that they were able to talk.
"Do me a favor," Laura said as they sat on the porch swing holding hands. "When you plan for the worst, build in an option where we get to see you again."
Because she knew what would have to happen and didn't want it any more than he did.
It would be harder to do everything on his own, not using Natasha's connections or Tony's tech or SHIELD itself, but not impossible. He wasn't a spy, but he knew how to go clandestine and he knew how to drop off the grid. They had cash to hand and he'd get more to do what needed doing, everything old-school and off the internet. But the only way it worked, the only way any of it worked, was if he severed all connections between him and the family he had to protect.
"I know you have to do this," she went on, squeezing his hand. "But a world where our children don't know their father isn't a very good future, either. I'd rather you be here to show them how to live by their principles than have to tell them tales about how you did. Also, you already owe me so many diaper changes and I expect you to pay up."
He nodded, but he really didn't want to think about this anymore, about what might have to happen if the Accords were enacted. What he would have to give up and what he risked if he found himself unable to. So, instead, he looked over at her and gave her a smile that was also an offer of alternate payment.
"That's how you built up that debt in the first place," she pointed out wryly. Which was not a no.
In the end, Natasha was right and Tony was wrong on a scale that none of them could have anticipated. Fighting his former teammates -- real fighting, in the streets and not just with words -- was hard. But not as hard as it had been in the wake of Insight; there was almost a sense of deja vu this time around going up against familiar faces who'd once worn the same uniform and believed in the same things. Fighting Natasha hurt differently, more acute, but he had no hesitation. This was for survival, for his children's survival -- Peter Parker's unmasking had already shown what kind of danger there could be -- and he would die a thousand times over for them. He would kill anyone, including Natasha, to save them. He didn't have to do either, but the casualties of the battle were appalling and profound and, in the end, too much.
Registration happened and Clint had to put his plans into motion, but only for a while and Natasha was a big reason why he got a chance to work his diaper debt down in person instead of as a sacrifice from afar. He wasn't sure they'd ever be as they were, but none of them would be, not after all that had happened. But they were all around to try and, if he'd learned anything, it was to not throw away second (or third) chances when they appeared.