Chapter 1: Part 1
"Two hydrogen atoms walk into a bar."
"You promised," Pepper sighed, shaking her head ruefully.
"This is the last one," Tony said, holding her gaze until she finally shrugged in defeat. "So, two hydrogen atoms walk into a bar."
"I thought we were playing cards, Tony, not listening to your audition for open mic night," Natasha said as she placed her cards down, again, on the table, before giving Clint a smile. It was only her second night back after nearly two weeks gone on her last mission, and since her return, Tony had noted that she and Barton had become more attached at the hip than usual.
"Open mic night?" Steve asked, clearly confused by the phrase.
"What is this thing?" Thor also asked, having arrived from Asgard the week prior and planning to stay for at least three months.
"This thing," Bruce provided, leaning across the table as he spoke, "is where anyone can get up on stage or platform and tell jokes to an audience, like at a theater but smaller. The microphone is open for anyone to use. Open mic."
"Microphones?" Thor repeated. "The voice amplifiers we spoke of, yes?"
"Yes," Jane said with a smile and a nod.
"Can we move on now?" Tony asked, still poised to continue.
"Hold on..." Steve said, his face completely serious. "These are jokes?"
Everyone laughed. Everyone but Tony.
"Fine, fine" Tony conceded. "No one wants to hear my joke. It was a good one, but... never mind."
"Oh, stop pouting and tell it already," Pepper said, still the only one in the room who could properly put him in his place.
"No," Tony said with a short shake of his head. "The moment's gone. Someone else talk now."
"Why don't we just play?" Clint asked.
"Why don't we?" Tony returned.
"Because we're waiting on you," Natasha said, her words clipped by annoyance.
Tony shrugged, quirked his head to his side as he looked his cards over for a moment. "I fold," he announced, smiling at Natasha who rolled her eyes in return. "Anyone need a drink? Something to eat? Anything?" he asked as he stood up and moved towards the kitchen.
No one took him up on his offer, but continued the game as he puttered around the kitchen making far too much noise. Pepper, as soon as she'd folded her hand, got up to join him and after a few minutes passed it became clear that she and Tony were having some kind of heated exchange, albeit in muted tones.
When Pepper returned, she didn't look happy. Tony, only a few paces behind her, didn't look entirely thrilled himself, but as soon as all eyes turned his way, he put on a smile and set down two fresh bowls of popcorn.
"Brought snacks," he chirped. "Oh, and another thing..."
"Tony," Pepper nearly implored, shutting her eyes as she shook her head.
"This," he continued, dropping a thick folder he'd retrieved from a nearby buffet in the middle of the table, as if he hadn't heard her at all.
"What's..." Steve began to ask, but before he could reach for it, Natasha slammed her hand down on the folder and pulled it towards her protectively.
"Where'd you get this?" she asked, eyes narrowing on Tony with something like malice, and just like that everyone in the room tensed up.
"Wasn't that hard," he answered, returning to his seat.
Natasha continued to glare Tony down as the rest of the table sat by awkwardly, not certain what to do or say.
Clint finally broke the ice with a near-whispered, "Tasha," as he leaned forward and lightly touched the back of her neck.
Natasha never took her eyes off of Tony as she handed the folder off to Clint. Pepper couldn't speak, she only shook her head, saddened. She liked these people, and had made it very clear that she did not approve of what Tony had in store, but her disapproval had never stopped Tony when he felt justified.
Clint leisurely opened the folder and took a look, his demeanor the exact opposite of Natasha's. As he did Natasha moved closer and murmured something in his ear. He let out a laugh and put on a smile, before shutting the folder and setting it down again.
"I'm impressed, Tony," Clint said, leaning back in his chair again. "You know how to use Google."
"We both know that that took a little more work than just Google," Tony returned, always willing to banter.
"So you... what exactly? Had someone hack SHIELD? Just for me?" Clint asked. "Now I'm impressed and flattered."
"I actually did the work myself. Because I care."
"I'd have thought you had people for that."
"I do," Tony returned.
"And?" he asked, the smile having melted away in an instant.
"That was what I was going to ask you," Tony fired back at him.
"What's going on?" Steve asked, unable to take being in the dark any longer. He felt that way enough of the time. He didn't like it here, amongst friends.
"Maybe we should all just call it a night," Bruce suggested, going so far as to get to his feet.
But he was the only one who had moved.
"What do you want, Tony?" Clint asked, his face set cold as stone. "You want me to read this out to everyone? Talk about my feelings? Maybe we'll take a vote and see if I'm worthy enough to even be here." Clint paused, as if considering it. Flipping open the folder and riffling through a few pages. "Let's do that last one. We can all take turns. Since you've been so kind as to make this nice list for me, I'll go first."
"I just want the truth."
"Jesus, Tony," Bruce sighed, begin to pace behind the table. Clint took a quick look at him and knew, just knew, that he and Tony had already had this discussion in some form or another. Probably several times. "Is this necessary?"
"No," Pepper countered, turning to Tony. "It isn't. I told you..."
"You mean you did all this with him," Natasha snapped.
"I just want the truth," Tony repeated.
"About what?" Steve asked.
"And you think I have the answers to that?" Clint asked, momentarily confused.
"Someone has to. Sure," Tony said. "Why not?"
"Why not?" Clint laughed. "Man... I can't even... You are either seriously overestimating me or underestimating me, and I'm not sure which right now. You want to know about SHIELD, ask Fury. Ask Hill. I'm..."
"The hired help?"
"Yeah," Clint shrugged. "More or less."
"From what I've read," Tony said, "it's less like hired and more like indentured."
With that, everyone was talking at once.
"Do we have to do this?" Bruce asked, tapping down his own agitation as he continued to pace the floor. "Is this really the time or the place for this, Tony?"
"You are not here of your own volition?" Thor asked, turning with real concern towards Clint.
Clint began to respond, but found he couldn't. He was kind of at a loss for words upon seeing how sincere Thor was being. Jane, seeing enough of that in his eyes, immediately set about assuring Thor that wasn't the case.
"I actually thought we were just going to have a normal night," Steve shrugged as he tossed his cards on the table.
"I told you this was a bad idea, but you... "Pepper stammered.
"I just want to see what he has to say," Tony returned.
"Why?" Steve barked. "Why bother? What good are you trying to do here?"
"Enough," Natasha barked, loud enough to quiet everyone else in the room. In an instant she was on her feet. "Let's go, Clint."
"Don't worry, Natasha," Tony said after a lengthy pause. "I've still got nothing on you."
"And you never will," Natasha returned smoothly.
"How did you get this?" Clint asked quietly, still in his chair, his fingers tapping out a nervous staccato on the folder in front of him. Natasha, who had been halfway to the door, stopped in her tracks and shook her head in disbelief. "I thought only the highest levels in SHIELD had access to these. That they were encrypted or something."
"I have my ways."
"Is that..." Bruce stammered as he stalked back to the table. "That's not what you told me you were doing. You said you wanted information about programs, not people. I'd have never helped you do this."
"You didn't have to help me find this one," Tony assured him. "It was just there."
"Bullshit," Clint snapped. "Why would my --"
Suddenly, it dawned on him exactly why his file would be out there for anyone to view. Tony had snagged it when he'd unintentionally gone rogue. SHIELD would have wanted everyone to know his strengths and weakness in order to bring him down faster.
"Fury gave that to me," Steve added, not sure if he was helping or hurting at this point.
"Me, too," Bruce said.
"He gave us the edited version," Tony agreed. "The real one was only accessible off their main network."
"Oh, well, that's better," Clint said sarcastically.
The tension in the room grew steadily as the silence between them dragged on.
"This is absurd," Natasha sighed, still a few feet from the door.
"I agree," Bruce added.
"Yeah, well..." Clint shrugged.
"I'm just trying to get a better understand of how SHIELD operates," Tony said with real sincerity.
"You doubt them?" Thor questioned.
"Yes, I do," Tony admitted. "And I'd think that the fact I'd bring up these doubts with two of their agents would speak volumes of how much I trust ---"
"The fact that you even have this," Clint said sharply, holding up the file for emphasis, "speaks volumes of how much you don't. You could of asked me. You could have just asked."
"I told you," Pepper mumbled.
"I have asked," Tony countered, looking pointedly at Natasha.
"Leave her out of this," Clint said, and for the first time he sounded really angry. "This is between me and you right now."
"Don't bother, Clint," Natasha said, her words brisk. "You're just playing into his mind games. He's the smartest one here. He's got to make sure we remember that."
"I would actually not be able to claim that honor," Tony retorted, slipping back into his usual smug tone. "I believe Doctor Banner has me beat by a smidge, but I will gladly accept the title of second smartest person in the room, if I must."
"Tony," Steve said, using the word like a warning.
"Would you like to add something, Captain?"
"Yes, I would," Steve admitted. "You don't trust SHIELD. Got it. I agree, some of the things they've done are shady. But you're being unfair."
"No, I'm being completely fair," he objected. "They know everything about us, probably down to the color of our underwear, but their secrets are off limit. Why's that?"
Clint shifted in his chair, but Natasha didn't even blink.
"If we're going to be a team, there can't be any secrets," Tony continued sincerely. "We have to know one another better than we know ourselves."
"Tony," Bruce argued, "you can't force someone --"
"Read it," Clint interrupted, tossing the file back onto the center of the table, causing some of the contents to slip out.
"Clint," Bruce began to say, but this time the door slamming shut cut him short.
Natasha had left.
Chapter 2: Part 2
The only reaction Clint showed at Natasha's abrupt departure was a momentary dip of his head. But it was just that, a reaction. And it was quickly over.
"Read it," he insisted, waving his hand across the table.
Thor was the only one who made a move, but he was quickly stopped by Jane who pulled his arm back in a hurry.
"He asked us to read it," Thor insisted. "Is that not what you want?" he questioned, turning briefly to where Clint sat. "Why does no one here speak plain? Our problem is not trust. I trust each of you with my life and the lives of those I love most. Our problem is that when we speak, we are not looking for answers, but for more questions. Is this common amongst you?"
"No one is going to read that file," Steve insisted, not exactly knowing how to answer Thor or to contain whatever it was that this was becoming.
"Tony already has," Clint returned. "And, honestly, if you want to... be my guest. I don't care."
"No one needs to read that," Bruce repeated.
"Why shouldn't we?" Tony asked, and for the first time everyone in the room recognized the subtle change of tone. He was angry. He was just as angry as Clint was, but for entirely different reasons.
"Okay," Pepper said, getting to her feet. "This is too much. Clint, I'm sorry."
"It's fine, Pepper," he assured her, completely sincere. "Don't worry about it."
Pepper glanced away, embarrassed, before turning to Jane, "Do you want..."
"Yes," Jane said, anticipating the question and thankful for the escape.
After the ladies left, the room was deathly quiet for a full five minutes. Tony was positively glowering at Clint, who held it together at first, but finally stood up and walked to the far side of the room where he remained, his back to them, as he looked out over the city. Bruce was uneasy, shifting his stance every few seconds, while Thor was the only one that remained perfectly still. Finally, Steve couldn't take it any longer. "What's going on here?"
Clint interlocked his fingers, resting them on top of his head, as he arched his back; the only sign he showed that he'd heard Steve at all. Tony, if anything, grew more agitated.
"I'll tell you what's going on," Tony said, pointing a finger at Clint's back. "He's been spying on us."
"I haven't been spying," Clint sighed, dropping his head, his posture taking on the stance of a man defeated.
"I'm sorry," Tony corrected sarcastically, crossing into the living room after him. "What are you calling it then, filing reports? Observing behavior? What? What is it then?"
"I haven't seen anything, Tony. If," Clint said, stressing that word, but still not facing them, "I'd been asked any questions, I wouldn't have any answers to give."
"You haven't seen anything because you spend all your time at the range or in the gym," Tony snapped.
"And why do you think that is?" Clint returned, ever word clipped short and measured.
"You've been in the lab," Bruce countered, joining them in the living room with Thor and Steve close behind. But when Clint only shook his head in response, he grew adamant. "You have. More than once. Agent Hill --"
"If Agent Hill reported my presence inside of the lab, I haven't heard of it. And if she has, she'd be mistaken, because I've never been there. I'd swear to it."
"But you don't think she's filed a report of her own," Steve said, just to be clear. Somewhat relieved to see Clint shake his head in return.
"What about Natasha?" Bruce asked, because someone had to.
"Yeah," Tony echoed. "What about her? She was pretty quick out the door. Is she off talking to the boss?"
"No," Clint answered.
"You're positive?" Bruce asked.
"I'm sure. We've talked --"
"And?" Tony interrupted.
"And what?" Clint snapped, wheeling around suddenly to face him.
"What did she say?"
"You really think I'm going to answer that?"
"No one expects you to betray a confidence," Steve said, trying to defuse the situation.
"Actually, that's exactly what I expect," Tony countered.
"Go to hell," Clint said with a brisk nod before making his way to the door.
"Wait," Bruce called, catching up to him. "You're right. Steve's right. We shouldn't ask you that. That's not fair."
"I agree," Thor said. "We should not speak of those not here to defend themselves."
"I'm sure Clint wouldn't lie," Steve said, trying not to be insulting, and perhaps missing the point that Clint regularly lied for a living.
"More the reason," Thor pressed. "The truth, hard truths, especially need defending."
Clint scanned their faces and saw that, with the exception of Tony, they'd all meant it. Still reluctant, he walked back into the living room and sat in the chair farthest from the rest of the group. After a steadying breath, he began with, "SHIELD has asked me to keep them informed on what is happening here."
"And?" Tony pressed.
"And what do you want me to say?" Clint asked, throwing his hands up in desperation. "I'm not in a position to tell them no."
"Why do they care?" Bruce asked, momentarily ignoring the implications of what Clint had just said.
"The Avengers was their project," Clint tried to explain, carefully picking his words. "They still think of it as their project, but there is concern in the upper echelons that control is being lost."
"Upper meaning Fury?" Steve asked.
"Higher than that."
"Who?" Bruce asked.
"No idea," Clint admitted.
"Ten years with the company and you have no idea whose calling the shots?" Tony asked incredulously.
"SHIELD isn't a company," Clint tried to explain. "There's no picnics or holiday parties, Tony. Hell, I couldn't tell you how many people are in SHIELD. I couldn't even tell you which countries are a part of it. They keep us compartmentalized for a reason."
"In case you start talking," Tony provided.
"Exactly," Clint agreed. "In case someone decides one day they've had enough, they're caught or they've got a better offer or they're just... " The next word out of his mouth was going to be 'tired' but even that felt like too much effort. Still, he could tell by the looks he was getting that he wasn't anywhere close to done yet. "I guess it runs like a company. Probably more like the military. Director gets a mission, he appoints a liaison, and the liaison assembles a team. You get the idea."
"Where did you fall on that scale?" Steve asked.
"Right on the bottom. Strictly a worker bee."
"And your liaison is..." Tony led.
"Was," Clint said shortly. "My liaison was Agent Coulson. He'd been my handler for as long as I've been in SHIELD."
Clint shook his head, not sure why that had been so hard to say. It wasn't anything they didn't already know. Still, it hurt. It still hurt a whole hell of a lot.
"I need a drink," Tony said, shaking his head as he headed to the bar. "Anyone else? Just me?"
"You said you had no recourse," Thor began, waiting until Tony returned to his seat. "That you were indentured. I did not think your society condoned such actions."
"I really don't think we have enough time to get into this entirely," Bruce said, pushing his glasses up on to his forehead as he rubbed his eyes, "but no. To simplify the conversation, no, most of modern society does not condone slavery."
"Were you drafted? Reassigned from the military?" Steve asked.
"No, I was never in the military and I think you're all getting the wrong idea here," Clint tried, feeling not only like he'd lost control, but that he'd never had any to begin with.
"I think they're getting exactly the right idea," Tony argued.
"No one forced me to be a part of SHIELD."
"No," Tony agreed, "they just gave you the very easy choice of joining up or prison."
If the conversation hadn't been so damn serious, Clint might have laughed at the shocked look on Steve's face. Bruce handled the news better, having been falsely accused on more than one occasion and doing a whole lot of assuming on Clint's behalf. Thor was harder to read. He seemed to be waiting for more information before passing judgment.
"Right?" Tony persisted. "that's how it went down, didn't it?"
"What did you do?" Steve asked, and for the first time since Clint could remember, he sounded harsh.
"Nothing," Bruce answered for Clint with a dismissive wave. "That's how they work. They make things up and force your hand. They trap you with lies. Half of the things I'm said to have done weren't even possible. They tried it with Tony. They've succeeded with me. Steve, they kept you in a room for how long? How long did they hide the truth from you? That's how they work. That's how they operate."
Tony locked eyes with Clint and he knew that this was, in part, what he was waiting for, and it dawned on Clint that Tony would probably believe him if he lied. And he could. Steve looked as if he was ready to believe whatever Clint had to say, good or bad. With Thor it was nearly impossible to tell, his face was nearly expressionless, but he would listen before deciding, that was certain. Tony was waiting, as if he was expecting him to confirm Bruce's assessment, which Bruce already believed on Clint's behalf.
It wouldn't be hard to do, Clint had gotten really good at lying, but he was emotionally drained. He'd told Natasha so himself. He was tired of lying and hiding from his past. These were the people who had believed in him when he'd given ample reason for doubt. How would he repay that?
"They didn't make it up."
"What?" Bruce asked, completely caught off guard.
"I know how SHIELD gets things done and you're right. They do those things sometimes. But... they didn't make it up. Not with me. "
"It's all true?" Tony asked, and he also seemed surprised.
"Most," Clint conceded. "More than enough."
"That's not what I asked," Tony pushed. "That is not what I asked at all."
"Honestly," Clint said, "I forget..." trailing off as he watched Tony get up and return again with the file folder.
After rifling through it for a minute, he pulled a few pages out and handed them to Clint without even the smallest trace of a smile. Clint looked down at the papers and shook his head. There it was, his ledger, completely before him. Almost.
It was time to admit to it.
"Can I still get that drink?"
The other man didn't answer. He was about Clint's height, with dark brown hair, and had to be at least ten to fifteen years older than Clint was himself, maybe more as evidenced by the fact that his hair had begun to thin. He didn't even look at him, just continued to lay out Clint's own items in front of him on the table. His bow. Quiver, half empty. Gloves. Jacket. Bag.
"Hey," Clint barked, slapping his hands flat against the metal surface. "I'm talking to you."
The man ignored him. He hadn't even flinched. And for some reason, Clint swore he looked familiar. He'd seen this guy around, somewhere. He just didn't know where.
"Shouldn't I have a lawyer?" Clint asked, trying to draw him into any kind of conversation. "I'm allowed that. I know my rights."
Having finished, the man took a step back and casually clasped his hands in front of his waist as he waited beside the door.
"You're not local," Clint continued to press. "What are you? FBI? CIA? I don't know what you think I've done, but --"
Clint stopped short as the door opened. A tall black man in a long dark coat, with an eye patch of all things, stepped inside and dropped a file on the table in front of him.
"Clinton Barton," the man said, somehow making his name feel like an accusation. "You've been busy."
"Who are you?"
"That's not important," the one-eyed man said as he took a seat directly across from Clint. "Not yet."
For a long moment the man sat there and stared at him until Clint began to fidget. He was still in handcuffs, and they chaffed. He'd been locked up in this room, locked to this chair, for so long now he'd lost track of time. Clint was tired, hungry, and his head begun to pound because of the lights. And this guy... this guy made him nervous.
"How old are you?" the man asked.
"Doesn't your paper there tell you that?"
The man didn't answer. He just continued to stare at him and wait.
"Who are you?" Clint asked again.
"That depends. I can be a friend. And I think you need a friend right now, Clinton, because you are looking at a whole lot of time behind bars."
"I didn't do --"
"Maybe you didn't do all of it," the man interrupted, flipping open the folder as he spoke and fanning out the pages before him. "Let's say you didn't. How about this? How about I guess which ones are yours and which ones belong to someone else."
"If this is some kind of trick..."
"No trick. I'm not a cop. There are no cameras in here. Everything we say is strictly between me and you."
"What about him?" Clint asked as he gave the room another look, nodding at the man who was standing at the door.
"Don't worry about him."
"That's real easy for you to say," Clint laughed.
"I suppose it is," the man returned. "Let me tell you something. Earn some trust."
"This should be good."
"The cops here," the man began, and as he spoke he began to shift through the file, occasionally pushing one page off to the side as he did so, "they've got nothing on you. Nothing concrete. You've been careful. Organized. Detail oriented, which I can respect." He paused over one particular page and after a moment created a new pile. "Restrained. They don't have your fingerprints at any of these scenes. No eyewitnesses. They can't even put you in the towns where most of these crimes occurred."
"Sounds like I've got a pretty good shot of walking out of here."
"You would have," the man said, stopping his work to look him in the eyes, "but you got sloppy. You got caught."
Clint looked down at the three stacks of paper and watched as the man pushed the one in the center towards him.
"What happened, Clinton? Was it carelessness or desperation? What'd you get out of it? Twenty bucks, maybe. Something to eat. You look like you could use something to eat."
Clint wanted to protest, but at that moment his stomach betrayed him. Things had been rough lately. He'd lost some weight. Hadn't shaved or showered for at least a week. His hair was grown out and shaggy. He'd been lower before, but it had been a long time.
"Take a look," the man said, nodding at the stack of papers he'd complied. "Tell me if I got it right."
"Kind of hard to do like this," Clint answered, holding up his still cuffed hands.
The man consider it for a moment before motioning the other guy forward, who quickly unlocked him and moved back in position. The second he did, Clint's eyes darted longingly at his bow, and he considered it. He really did.
"Son," the man at the table said with a hint of a smile, "on your best day, I could still break you in half. And trust me, today is not your best day."
Clint rubbed his wrists without acknowledging what was so obviously true. He wasn't going to get out of here like that. Instead, he picked up the papers and flipped through them for a few minutes.
"You think these are mine?" Clint asked.
"What about those?" Clint asked, indicating the two other piles of paper still on the desk.
"These here," the man said, holding up one set with his left hand. "These were someone else entirely. Different kinds of target. Less preparation. More violent. No, despite the unique... similarities, these weren't you."
Clint didn't say anything, but his eyes shifted to the set of papers in the man's right hand.
"You don't want to know about these? Or do you already know? Have you figured it out yet? Of course, there's nothing for you to figure out. You know, but the police..." the man trailed off, shaking his head slowly. "Do you think the police are going to believe that there are two men out there like you? Two men committing robberies with a bow and not a gun? Even if they put together that you worked together first," he continued, shaking the papers in his right hand for emphasis before letting both stacks fall to the table in a jumble, "do you think they'll care? They have you. As far as they're concerned, you're good for it all."
Clint stopped his recollection and looked up, surprised by the outburst.
Chapter 3: Part 3
"That's bullshit," Bruce repeated, having interrupted Clint's story. "I'm sorry," he said, getting to his feet and pacing the room again, as he was prone to do when agitated, "but is anyone buying this? Anyone at all? Clint, no offense, but this isn't medieval Europe. This isn't Sherwood Forrest. We're being expected to believe that not only were you out there robbing people with a fu--freaking bow and arrow, but that you had a partner? An accomplice who just so happened to be as good as you are? No. No, I don't believe it."
"He wasn't just my partner," Clint sighed, rubbing a free hand through his hair. "He was my mentor. He taught me everything I know about archery and --"
"Bullshit," Bruce said for the third time, and Clint would have enjoyed the absurdity of the situation had it not been so serious. Bruce didn't curse as a general rule, but he obviously felt that if he had to, this was the only acceptable word to use. "SHIELD trained you. You are an assassin. And a liar. And a spy."
"And a thief," Steve added.
"Okay, okay, okay," Tony interrupted. "Let's... let's step back for a minute, shall we, because, think for a minute. How many other SHIELD agents can you name that are out there with a bow? Any? Any at all?"
"None we've seen," Bruce admitted.
"Right," Tony agreed. "So, it's possible, probable even that he's telling the truth. Someone had to have taught him."
"Yes, but --" Bruce started, but was quickly interrupted by Thor.
"This is not a common skill?"
"No," Steve admitted, although he sounded reluctant to do so. "It's not."
"All right," Bruce said, finally coming to a halt and turning to face Clint directly. "Suppose I believe that. The two of you were out there, you and your mentor, committing crimes across the Midwest. Something happens, you go your separate ways and somehow you ended up being the one caught. Okay, if he's your mentor, he's better than you. A better thief. A better archer. Fine. But how did you get hooked up with this guy in the first place? How does one go about finding an archery master to apprentice under nowadays?"
Clint dropped his head and knew this wasn't going to go over well as he muttered the answer into his chest.
"I'm sorry," Tony said, stepping forward and leaning down. "Didn't quite catch that."
"The circus," Clint repeated, loud enough this time for everyone to hear.
"The circus," Bruce said, shaking his head as he and Tony exchanged a look.
Steve, on the other hand, didn't even blink and Clint had to wonder if that happened so much back in his day that it wasn't even noteworthy.
"What is this thing called circus?" Thor asked, shaking his head in confusion. "Is it like a training ground for warriors?"
"No," they all answered at once.
"Do you have clowns in Asgard?" Steve asked. "Jesters?"
"Jesters. We have those. They are amusing."
"Circuses are traveling entertainers," he continued to explain. "They have jesters, clowns, acrobats, showmen. They perform under tents and have exotic animals and acts. Like a fair or a carnival."
"You were a clown?" Thor asked and even Clint laughed.
"No, but I did learn to juggle."
"All right, so how did you end up in the circus?" Bruce persisted. "Did you run away from home or something?"
"Not home," Clint admitted. "My foster house."
Bruce had been poised to say something further, but Tony put a hand on his shoulder and gave it a squeeze as if he knew this was at least true.
"What happened to your parents?" Steve asked, dropping his voice and despite his misgivings, he sounded sincerely interested and concerned.
"Car crash," Clint said evenly and without emotion. "I was seven."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"Don't be," was Clint's curt response. "Odds are we were better off."
"We?" Tony asked, picking up on the one word Clint hadn't meant to say.
"Me and my brother, Barney," Clint said as he got up and walked back to the window. "He was ten, I was seven. Didn't have any other family so... foster care. We bounced around a few houses the first couple of years. Sometimes together, most of the time apart. Just before I turned ten a spot opened up for both of us with this one family. We ran away two years later."
"You were still a kid though," Steve said, as if he couldn't fathom the idea.
"But Barney wasn't," Clint said, turning his head slightly to answer, but still keeping his back to them. "He was fifteen by then. To me he was an adult."
"Why run?" Thor asked. "You had a family to take care of you. You had your brother at your side. I understand that here, upon your eighteenth year, you are considered adults and free to choose a life as you wish. Surely six years was not long to wait."
Clint felt trapped. He hadn't wanted to talk about this. He still didn't want to talk about this. It had nothing to do with SHIELD, or the Avengers, or who he used to be, or the person he was now. That part of his life was like a bad dream, vaguely remembered and better forgotten. If he didn't think about it, he could almost pretend it never happened at all. Clint closed his eyes and tried doing that now.
But Thor persisted.
"Why did you run?"
Clint shrugged his shoulders as he kept his eyes on his feet, which despite the fact that he was nearly twelve, still didn't touch the floor when he sat on the bed. He was short for his age and rail thin, not at all like his brother who, in his eyes, seemed impossibly grownup.
"If you hadn't have run we wouldn't have gotten caught," Barney said, his voice a low hiss of anger. "I told you to just keep cool. They weren't going to hassle us until you took off."
"I was scared," he admitted, feeling more and more like the child he still was with each passing second.
"You were stupid. You've always been stupid and you always will be. I'm going to spend my whole life holding your hand and wiping your ass."
"You will be," Barney assured him. "When she's done talking to the cops, you know what's next." Clint looked nervously at the door. "You're the reason I'm stuck here in the first place," he continued to rant. "My last place was perfect."
"I didn't ask..." Clint tried to protest. And he hadn't. Sure, he'd wanted to be with his brother, but not if it made him this unhappy. Not if it meant living here.
"I didn't ask," Barney repeated in a singsong voice. "You're such a baby. When are you going to grow up?"
Before he could defend himself to his older brother, they both heard the distinct sound of the front door shutting and the creak of footsteps on the stairs.
"Get in bed," Barney snapped, hustling across the room to shut off the light before crawling into his own bed, but he was too late.
"Boys," came that saccharine sweet voice Clint had learned to loathe. "What am I going to do with you?"
Miss Margery was a solidly built, very tall woman in her mid-fifties who prided herself on three things. One was her garden. It was massive, well-manicured, and no one was allowed to go into it except for Miss Margery. The second one was her housekeeping. Everything inside the house had a place, and was to be in its place, at all times; children were no exception. And the third thing was that all of her foster children, and over the years there had been dozens and dozens, were good children.
"Get up," she said, her voice still smooth. "I know you're both awake. Get up now. Up, boys. Up."
Clint got out of bed and stood beside Barney in the center of the room as they'd been taught.
"Why were you out so late?" she asked, but neither of them answered. Clint locked his knees in place and balled his hands up into fists to keep from fidgeting, as he stared straight into nothing. "You could have been hurt. Imagine how bad I would have felt had either of you been hurt. And that officer, knocking on my door so late at night, he scared me half to death. Now, I really must know, what were you two up to?"
Clint fought down the urge to look up at his brother because he knew that would be wrong. Barney would consider it weak and Miss Margery would pounce for certain. But he wanted to. More than anything, he wanted some kind of reassurance that everything would be all right, even if it was a lie.
"Clint," she said, pinching his chin between her thumb and forefinger to tilt his face upward, "I'm very disappointed in you. I thought after our last talk, when you promised me to behave, that we wouldn't be needing to do this again."
"Leave him alone," Barney said quickly. "It was my fault."
"I'm sure it was," she agreed as she took Clint by the arm and yanked him towards the door, "but he must learn to resist temptation on his own. It's for his own good."
"No," Barney snapped and Clint felt his self-control slipping as he was dragged away.
Mister Lloyd appeared, having heard the shout, and Clint's heels dug into the floor in protest, but Miss Margery was too strong for him. In his panic he might have even yelled something, but he couldn't recall just what it had been. The last thing he remembered seeing was Mister Lloyd shutting himself in the bedroom with Barney as he was dragged off, kicking and screaming, towards pristine white tiles and the sound of running water.
And then darkness.
He awoke to darkness, sopping wet and freezing, in the cramped closet he'd been locked in to think over the defects in his character.
Of all the things Miss Margery and Mister Lloyd did, the closet never bothered Clint. Most of the kids hated it, Barney especially, but he actually kind of liked it. Small spaces, being small himself, weren't a problem. Neither was the dark. Clint was always fascinated by that moment when your eyes finally adjust to their surroundings, and like magic, shadows became shapes and shapes became objects. And, he kind of enjoyed the silence. He knew that they wanted him to contemplate his soul, or something equally ridiculous, which he never did, but it did allow him time to think. He discovered the solitude suited him, but not this time.
He'd blown it.
Barney was right, he was stupid. He'd acted like a frightened little baby and now they'd be stuck here forever. They might not get another chance. They might ship them off to different homes again, or worse, to one of those correctional schools Miss Margery was always threatening them with. Clint couldn't let that happen.
That's when he swore, to himself, because that's all he really had to swear on, that he'd get out of that house. No matter what, he'd leave that place. He wouldn't be afraid anymore, because what could they do to him that hadn't already been done? He wouldn't allow himself to be afraid. Not of them, not of anything. Clint swore he'd become something better than he was, something better than a sniveling child who jumped at shadows.
Another hour or two passed, time didn't matter much in the closet, and the door finally cracked open as it had so many times before. And there she was, Miss Margery, glowering over him, but for Clint the spell was broken.
She was just a person now and nothing more.
"Do you have something to say for yourself, Clint?" she asked.
Clint stared up at her in perfect silence.
"Well, Clint," Tony said, repeating himself and sounding a little concerned. "You got an answer for our friend the god here or..."
Clint's eyes slid back into focus on the city spread out before him, realizing he hadn't spoken in some time. He hadn't been paying any kind of attention to what had been going on around him as he'd lost himself to his own memories.
"Yeah," he said, drawing the word out, "we ran away because... because we were kids. We were bored and thought, why not?"
"That's it, just... why not?" Steve asked, clearly not believing it.
"Didn't you want to run away and join the circus when you were a kid?" Clint asked, hoping his tone was light enough to deflect suspicion.
"No," Steve said completely serious.
"So, just me then," Clint said after a quick look around the room. "I'll keep that in mind."
"All right," Bruce said, rubbing his eyes again and trying to piece the story together in his head, "so, you and your brother ran away from your foster home and..." he stopped and seemed to be refraining from rolling his eyes, "... joined the circus. And it's there you find this mentor; how does that even work?"
"Well, it's not like I filled out an application or anything," Clint assured him. "To start with Barney and I worked the really menial jobs, that was the only reason they let us stay. For two years it was mucking stables and cleaning up puke. Anything that no reasonable person wanted to do, we did, for basically room and board. We earned next to nothing and, being kids, spent it all. I'm not going to lie, I had fun, sometimes, but it was a lot of work. A whole lot of work."
"So how did it happen?" Bruce insisted, but he no longer sounded as angry as he had.
"The same way all good things happen," Clint answered. "I was screwing around."
Tony actually laughed and Thor and Bruce smiled; only Steve maintained the same stoic expression he'd been wearing for most of the night.
"One day," Clint continued, "after an early show, I was about fourteen and had been with the circus for a few years so I felt... I don't know, it felt like a family. Maybe that's going to far, but I at least felt like I belonged. So, one of the headliners was a guy named Buck who was an amazing archer. He'd make these shots that you had to see to believe. Some people who did see it still didn't believe it. That's just how good he was. Anyway, we were supposed to be tearing down the set and Barney and one of the other guys get it into their heads that they're just going to try it for themselves. Said it looked easy and they'd have their own spotlight. Stupid shit talk was all it was, but the first guy tries it and, I kid you not, the arrow goes like two feet. So Barney steps up and snapped the string on his arm so loud I thought he'd lost a finger."
Clint stopped for a moment and shook his head at the thought. It didn't sound like it, but it was practically the only happy memory he had left of his brother.
"Anyway," Clint said, "I laughed, and he wasn't amused by that, so he tells me to try it if it's so easy. So I did."
"And let me guess," Tony interjected, "you hit the target?"
"No," Clint laughed, "but I at least hit the hay bale holding the target. Of course, Buck had been watching from the side. He screamed all kinds of profanity at us, called us all kinds of names. The only thing I learned that day was some very colorful vocabulary. But a few days later he and another guy, the knife thrower, Jacques, saw me cleaning up in the stands and called me over. I thought I was going to get screamed at some more, but nope. Buck wanted me to try again. Said he thought I might have a good eye. Thought I might make a decent shot. It took three tries, three tries, and I had my first bull's-eye. It was the first thing in my life I'd ever been good at." Clint paused and shuffled his feet, and before he could stop himself, the words just fell from his lips. "It was the first time I'd ever been told I was good for anything."
Chapter 4: Part 4
It was the way he'd said it that gave them all pause and Tony, in particular, began to feel a little guilty.
"I'm going to get another drink now," Tony said, getting up and heading to the bar after a lengthy silence. "Show of hands?"
Everybody except Bruce raised a hand, and within a few minutes Tony returned with a tray of drinks.
"I want to believe you," Tony said after he'd finished half of the contents of his glass. "I really do, but..."
"You think I'm a spy and that this is an act and... whatever."
"Basically," Tony admitted.
"Why should we believe you?" Steve asked.
"Because I am telling you the truth," Clint answered. "And, I haven't lied to any of you..."
"You just kept us from the real story," Steve finished for him.
"I still work for SHIELD," Clint shrugged. "I avoided what I could and kept my mouth shut when I had to, but I didn't lie. Who hasn't done that?"
"Steve," Tony answered to the Captain's annoyance.
"Okay," Clint conceded, "but if we're all going to be held up to those kinds of standards then I shouldn't be the only one on trial here."
"No one's on trial," Bruce said with a sigh.
"That's not what it feels like," Clint argued. "I mean, did Tony ambush the rest of you like this when I wasn't around? Did I miss that day?"
"That wasn't my intent," Tony said, earning a glare for his trouble. "Okay, it was kind of my intent, but with what we want to do here --"
"Stop," Clint said sharply. "Tony, I can't hear that. Do you not get what I was saying? I have gone out of my way not to hear that sort of talk. Don't you understand?"
"Understand what I am saying," Tony said. "Fury may have brought us together, but he doesn't control us. SHIELD doesn't control us."
"I still work for SHIELD," Clint repeated, wanting to add that Natasha did as well, but not willing to bring her into this mess. The more and more he'd explained his reluctance and misgivings with what they were being asked to do by SHIELD, the quieter she'd become. Clint was still trying to decide where he stood, and for the first time in a very long time he'd lost sight of where she stood.
"Which you do, why?" Steve asked. "Instead of prison?" And while Clint had hoped to avoid the issue, part of him knew Steve was going to be forever hung up on it.
"Something like that."
"Why steal in the first place?" Steve persisted. It bothered him more than he wanted to admit, because he had trusted Clint, and this was another rude reminder that he really didn't know any of them and that the world he'd lived in had drastically changed.
"I didn't set out to be a thief," Clint sighed, shaking his head at the thought of having to justify any of this after so long. "I was just trying to survive," he finished, and to his surprise Bruce nodded slightly in agreement.
"Bank robbery isn't exactly stealing a loaf of bread to ward off starvation," Tony said, and Clint could feel the scant amount of goodwill he may have earned evaporate around him.
"You're right," Clint admitted. "It's not."
"So why did you do it?" Steve asked, not willing to let it drop.
"What else could I do?" Clint asked, seriously wishing the man would just give him an answer. Nothing he'd told him so far had seemed to satisfy the guy in the least and all Clint wanted was to get out of this interrogation room. "I had no family, no friends, no money. Buck was the only one who stood by me. I was..."
"Obligated?" the man with the eye-patch asked. He still hadn't told Clint his name, despite the fact that they'd been talking for well over an hour.
"Yeah," Clint agreed. "I owed him."
"Owed him enough to steal for him?"
"I guess so."
"You guess?" the man repeated, starring at Clint and waiting for more.
"It's like I said, I had no one else to rely on and I wasn't in any kind of shape to help myself."
"Because of the accident?" the other man asked, pulling out a hospital report and sliding it across the table to Clint. "Admission sheet says you fell from the bleachers."
"Yeah," Clint answered, eyes down but unable to look at the photos.
"Broke both your legs," the man pressed. "That's quite a fall. Might even say you got off lucky."
"You might," Clint returned, his tone in disagreement with the words he'd spoken.
"Just before that circus was with shut down for good. Financial problems. Lot of money went missing."
"I wasn't involved in that," Clint said angrily.
"But you were questioned."
"In the hospital," Clint said. "Yes, I was. And I was cleared. I didn't steal from them. They'd been the only family I had and they'd been good to me."
"But you knew who would and they got to you first to make certain you didn't talk."
Clint shook his head slowly. Even after four years the thought of that night made his legs ache. It was the most pain he'd ever experienced in his life, in a lot of ways more than physical.
"The circus split up," the man continued. "Jacques Duquesne, your knife throwing buddy, skipped town. Your brother joined the Army."
"Like I said, Buck was the only one who stuck by me. I owed him."
"So, it took quite a few months to recover, correct?" the man pressed, continuing only after Clint nodded in agreement. "A couple more months to talk you into that first hit. Nothing major. Small bank, minimal security and no injuries. Clean and easy."
Clint shifted in his seat, a nervous habit he still, at twenty-four, had yet to outgrow.
"Let me ask you this?" the man continued, tapping his index finger on the table in front of him. "How long did it take? How long until you became suspicious?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"You do," the man insisted. "It had to have been before your falling out. Before whatever it was that happened that made you leave. You're smart. You had to have had your doubts that a man, who you thought was a good person, an honest person, was so quick to turn to crime."
Clint hesitated, embarrassed to admit how long it had taken. He had been naive and vulnerable; things he hated to confess to, even now when it was beyond obvious.
"How long did it take for you to realize that Buck Chisholm had been the one embezzling money from the circus, not Jacques Duquesne? That he'd been the one to order that beating that nearly killed you?"
"Over a year," Clint finally said in a low voice. "Year and a half."
"And by then, you were in too deep. What were you, twenty? Twenty-one? Broken, betrayed and abandoned by all the friends and family you ever knew. I almost feel sorry for you."
"Don't worry," the man said, almost cracking a smile. "I won't, because even then, you stayed. You got used to the lifestyle. Maybe thought it was exciting. Thought you were tough. So, I have to wonder, if knowing who this man really was didn't make you leave, what did?"
"We had a disagreement."
"You seem to have all the answers," Clint said, shaking his head. "Why don't you tell me?"
"Okay, I will," the man with eye-patch said, leaning forward as he spoke. "I think you were told to do something you didn't want to do and you finally reached your limit. I think that you could justify everything you'd done in your head as being victimless because of who you were robbing and why, until he asked you to kill."
Clint said nothing, just balled his hands up into tight fists and rested them on the table.
"I don't imagine he took it well when you said no."
"You could say that."
"I just did," the man returned.
Clint was quick to his feet. Quick enough, he noted, that the silent, average guy by the door flinched in surprise, but not the other one. The man at the table with him hadn't even blinked the one good eye he had. Once on his feet, Clint lifted his shirt and tugged down his pants just enough to show him the scar. It was a small, circular mound of flesh about an inch in diameter, just above his right hip that, even two years later, was still very visible.
"That looks serious," was the only remark made.
"Want to see the other side?" Clint asked as he took his seat.
"So, you gave him his answer, he gave you a parting gift," the man said, indicating the scar with his hand, "and that was that."
"That was that," Clint repeated.
"So, you never killed a man?"
Clint blinked several times, momentarily unsure of how to answer that question.
"I've killed several," Clint finally admitted, because it would be stupid to deny it. They all knew what he did for SHIELD. They all knew what had happened with Loki and the Tesseract. "Men. Women. Never if I didn't have to but... enough."
"I was actually talking about before your career as an assassin began," Tony clarified. "There are eight counts here," he said, helpfully holding up the page and all but waving it in the air. "Eight people, murdered, that they were blaming you for."
"I didn't kill any of them."
"SHIELD made you a killer," Bruce said.
"Nobody made me anything," Clint countered.
"But they forced you to kill," Bruce persisted.
"I guess that depends on whether or not you think there are people in this world that need to be killed," Clint replied.
"And that's for SHIELD to decide," Tony said.
"Someone has to. Can't always just sit around and wait for those sort of people to die on their own, can we?"
"Wow," Tony said after a minute of silence. "You really have been drinking the kool-aid."
"Just to be clear," Bruce asked, "what sort of people are we talking about?"
"The worst sort."
"And you always know," Tony pressed. "You really know that they're as bad as SHIELD says they are?"
"How are you sure?" Steve asked, Thor nodding along with the question. Of the four of them, Steve and Thor almost seemed as if they agreed with Clint on this issue. Almost.
"I make sure. I make sure I see it for myself," Clint answered.
"And SHIELD lets you decide that, do they?" Tony asked, his tone doubtful. "Because that philosophy doesn't jive with what I know of them."
"Coulson does," Clint said, before quickly correcting himself. "Did. He did. He trusted me to make the right call."
"Tony," Bruce said, shaking his head as he got to his feet, "I need a break. I... I seriously need a break from this."
As soon as Tony nodded in agreement, Steve and Bruce both took off on separate walks around the building. Tony meandered into the kitchen leaving Clint and Thor alone. Once they were gone, Clint shut his eyes and threw his head back against the chair.
After several long minutes of silence, Thor surprised him by saying, "I believe you." Clint opened his eyes, sure he'd been mistaken. His face must have betrayed his doubt, because Thor repeated his statement, saying, "I believe you are telling the truth."
"Well," Clint sighed, with a weary smile. "One down. Three to go, I guess."
"They will come to see it for themselves soon enough," Thor assured him.
"I really hope you're right."
"I am. They will see that, throughout all of these tales, one trait of yours shows through again and again."
"Stupidity?" Clint guessed.
"Might as well call it stupidity," Clint said with a brutal shake of his head.
"I may also call the sun the moon, but that does not make them the same."
Clint let that answer sink in. "You think I'm loyal?"
"I do," Thor answered. "Time and again, from your own telling, you have stayed with those who have helped you in some way. I cannot say if that loyalty was always well placed, but it has been consistent."
"I've been called a lot of things but loyal... that's new."
"I do not see why."
"Because," Clint said, and left it at that.
"Because is not an argument my friend," Thor said with an almost laugh.
Clint stood up, suddenly unsure what to do with himself, and began to walk around the room aimlessly. Before he could decide what to do next, Steve returned. He came in without a word and took a seat on the couch. A few minutes later, Bruce was back, but instead of joining them in the living room he went straight to the kitchen to talk with Tony.
Clint excused himself and made a beeline for the bathroom, his nerves completely shot. It wasn't just the prospect of having to continue on with these conversations, but the idea of what he had the potential to lose. Never in his life had Clint courted anyone's good opinion, and it was frightening to find that he wanted that; he wanted these people to like and respect him and he was blowing it.
"Where'd he go?" Tony asked as he and Bruce returned.
Steve gestured off to the hallway and for several long minutes they waited.
"You don't think he busted the window and made a break for it," Tony said, jokingly at first. "Do you?"
As one, they each turned their heads in the direction Clint had left in, and realized that could actually be the case.
But it wasn't. Another few minutes passed and Clint finally emerged, looking calmer than he had when he'd left, if perhaps a little paler.
"Sorry," he said, retaking his seat. "Didn't mean to keep anyone waiting. Let's finish this thing."
"This isn't an interrogation," Bruce said, shaking his head and obviously having second thoughts about proceeding at all, in any fashion.
"No," Clint agreed. "It isn't. I've been interrogated before. Several times. This is way worse."
"Look," Tony said, throwing his hands up, "this has gone far beyond what I ever wanted it to be. All I wanted to know was what SHIELD wanted from us. They started this. This was their idea."
"Yes, Tony," Clint said, shaking his head. "It was. And when they were in control of it, it seemed like a good idea. But they're not now and they know it."
"Do you think they'd try and stop us?" Steve asked, and it was as close of an admission as Clint had heard from him that he was as involved in separating this thing from SHIELD as Bruce and Tony were.
"No," was Clint's honest answer. "Not as long as Fury is the director."
"But they let you and Natasha stay to keep tabs on what we were doing," Bruce said, more resigned than angry.
"So, I guess the question is..." Tony said, drawing it out not for dramatic purposes, but because he really wanted to make sure he meant it when he said it, "...what do we do about this?"
Chapter 5: Part 5
"Okay," Clint said, getting to his feet, knowing that the rest wasn't for him to hear. "I can see that I'm done. I'll just let you guys..." And, without another word, he left.
Tony waited until the door clicked shut before turning to the rest of them with a shrug. "I don't know. I really don't know."
"Until you do," Steve said, "you should ask them to leave."
"I disagree," Thor said, shaking his head. "Neither has betrayed your trust. Asking them to leave now would create a wider rift than the one already existing. If you mean to make this work, if you mean to keep them as part of this team, they must stay."
"Bruce?" Tony asked.
"It's your place," was all he would commit to for the moment.
As their conversation continued, Clint went to the elevator and pressed one floor and then, changing his mind, another. His first thought had been to pack his things up and leave, but that really wasn't what he wanted. So instead, to blow off some steam, he did what he always did and headed to the weapons range.
An hour into filling targets with arrows, Tony arrived. Clint took the shot he'd already lined up before slinging the bow across one shoulder and shaking his head.
"I can be gone in ten minutes."
"Why?" Tony asked, looking around as if surprised. "Got a date?"
"Don't," Clint said shortly. "Don't screw around with me, Tony. Just tell me and I'm gone."
"If you want to leave," Tony said, "no one is going to stop you, but I'm not asking you to leave. Not yet."
"Because there's no place left for me here," Clint said with a shrug. "Steve doesn't trust me. Bruce doesn't believe me. You think I'm spying."
"You've still got Thor," Tony said with a wry smile.
"Yeah, well... give it time. I'm pretty sure that, in another week, I can alienate him, too. Easy. I've gotten pretty good at it."
"You sound sure of yourself," Tony agreed. "What? Are you planning a coup?"
"I'm not planning anything."
"I was joking," Tony said, growing exasperated by Clint's attitude. "Is that part of the signing bonus with SHIELD? They take away your sense of humor?"
"No, but they did give me some sense of purpose."
"Purpose is overrated," Tony remarked, still joking even if Clint was not.
"Then what exactly are we doing here?"
"Thought you weren't going to ask any questions," Tony said with a smile. Clint folded his arms across his chest and waited, knowing Tony wasn't finished talking yet, because Tony rarely finished talking. And he wasn't wrong. "So, we talked it over... but before we get into all the dirty little details, I need to know something. See, I looked over that rap sheet of yours, and Fury didn't lie. They had nothing on you. Sure, they might have tried to pin it on you but, with a halfway decent lawyer, you'd have walked. What gives?"
"What gives?" Clint repeated with a laugh. "Tony, a halfway decent lawyer? Really? The best I could have hoped for was a court appointed hack who might have seen me as innocent, but likely would have wanted me to plea out to avoid a trial. I didn't have much of an education, but I was smart enough to figure that one out on my own."
"All right then," Tony said, turning to go. Done with non-answers and excuses.
"Wait," Clint called out, just before Tony reached the door, knowing this was probably his last chance. "You want to know why I took Fury up on his offer? Why I really joined SHIELD?"
Tony turned back around and smiled, because of course that's what he wanted. The truth. All night, that's the only thing he'd asked for, and Clint had been skillfully skirting the issue.
"I wanted to be something better than I was. SHIELD could do that for me."
"So assassin is a step up from thief?" Tony asked.
"I'd be helping people. I have helped people. You may not agree with me on that, but it's my truth."
"And?" Tony pressed. "That still doesn't explain your sudden change of heart."
"It wasn't sudden. I'd had two years on my own to think it over. I didn't want to be a thief, Tony, I just didn't know how to be anything else."
"But you don't exactly strike me as the trusting kind," Tony argued. "Just a hunch I have. So, why trust Fury? Why trust SHIELD?"
"Because they knew."
"Knew what?" Tony asked.
"They knew what happened that night. That last job I did with Buck, they knew exactly how it went down because... because they were there. They knew and there was no hiding from that."
"What were you hiding from?"
"I wasn't hiding," Clint countered, gracefully swinging down from tree limb to tree limb before touching the forest floor. "I was picking my spot."
"You make me jumpy when you do that," Buck said, shaking his head and looking up at the tree Clint had just left. "What if you fell? What then, huh? I couldn't carry you out of here. You break another leg and you're done for and I need your eyes tonight."
"Guess I won't fall then."
"Smartass," Buck said, smirking this time as he'd said it and walking back towards the truck they'd come in. "You just keep focused. Stay alert up there. No napping."
"Right," Clint said, rolling his eyes behind the man's back. "Because that's what I do."
"If this goes badly..."
"It won't," Clint said quickly. "You said it yourself. It'll be easy. They owe you and we're collecting."
"I know it won't go bad," Buck said, coming to a halt and wheeling on him. Buck was taller than Clint was, broader too, but older. Clint had better reflexes, something Buck would never admit, and even after having broken his legs, Clint was the faster of the two. In a fight, Clint thought he could take him, he just always hoped it never came to that. "But if it does, you better follow through."
"I'll defend myself," Clint said, squaring off with him. "And I'll keep anyone off you. Other than that..."
It was something Clint had been adamant about. Something he remained adamant about. Originally Buck had wanted to ambush them all and take what he'd been owed instead of just making peace and letting this whole thing go. He'd wanted to kill the lot of them and he'd wanted Clint to help, but Clint wouldn't do it. He'd refused because he had to draw the line somewhere or else... or else what would he be?
"Other than that and we'll both be dead," Buck snapped. "Just... stick to the plan."
Clint watched as the other man turned his back on him and continued his progress up the rough path before them. "Don't I always," he muttered under his breath.
An hour before sunset and Clint was back, this time alone, climbing silently up the tree he'd picked out earlier as the best place to oversee the drop. He'd dressed warmly and brought only his bow and quiver with him. If things went well, he wouldn't need them.
After a couple hours passed and the moon was up and full, giving him more than enough light to see by, the first people started to arrive. There was about six of them, all dressed similarly in dark clothes, every one of them armed. They were there to scout the location and while they looked, Clint stayed perfectly still. He was too high up for them to see, especially in the dark, but he wasn't about to take any unnecessary chances.
While they searched, Clint hardly breathed.
Finally satisfied, the men began to talk to one another casually. Clint didn't bother to listen. He didn't care what they had to say. He just wanted Buck to go in, talk to whoever he had to, and get out again. But, when another half hour passed, Clint began to get nervous.
"Well," a voice called out, and Clint could hear the approach of several more people. "Where is he?"
"Not here yet," another guy answered. "I don't like it."
"Buck's no fool," the man who had just arrived said, obviously the one in charge. "He'll be here. He wants his money."
"And if he --"
The man who had been talking dropped, an arrow through his neck, and Clint was probably more surprised than anyone.
"What the hell?" another man called out, only to be immediately felled.
Clint, throwing out caution, stood up and looked around. Buck was out there, somewhere, but he couldn't pinpoint where. This wasn't the plan. This wasn't what they were supposed to do at all. Buck had promised that he'd just take what he was owed and that would be that. He'd sworn to it, and like a fool, Clint had believed him.
"Up there," someone yelled. The men on the ground had all done the best they could to take cover, but Clint's sudden movement had caught their attention.
Ducking, while he still had the chance, Clint flung himself into the next nearest tree and did the only thing he could, he climbed higher.
"Get the boss out of here and take that one down."
Clint knew he was the one they were talking about, and from his vantage he could see two men rushing their boss away. And finally, not far from where they were, he spotted Buck moving in the shadows.
"Shoot him already," a new voice yelled, leaving Clint little choice but to return fire.
Still, he wasn't aiming to kill. Clint fired off several arrows at once, close enough to scatter the men on the ground, but purposefully missing. Then, to further distract them, he shot several more into the trees tops over their heads, hoping they'd think he'd moved above them when he really intended to move away.
Mostly it worked, two of the three guys left in the clearing looked up, but the last one had already locked eyes on Clint.
"I've got him," the man said, raising his gun.
"Leave him," one of the other guys said, his voice surprisingly calm given the chaos. "He's not important. We need to get back and provide cover. That one's not important."
While they talked it over, Clint made his move. He jumped back to his original spot and, distracted, maybe even a little shaken, lost his footing.
He slid more than fell from the tree, which was a lucky thing as he ended up practically on his feet. Rattled now, for certain, but still capable of movement. However that was where his luck ended. Clint had come down less than fifteen yards from the man with the gun who had spotted him first and never once lost track of him.
"Let's go," the one who had been urging the other two to leave persisted. "He's been there the whole time. He's not the one firing on us."
Clint recognized the tone. Recognized the meaning and intent behind the words and reacted, just as the gun was beginning to be leveled at him, the only way he could react. Clint notched an arrow and fired. He hit the man right where he wanted to, high and to the right, deflecting the gun and realizing, too late, the last thing he recognized.
"Barney?" he said, letting his bow fall to his side and taking a step forward, hoping he'd been wrong.
Hoping it was the lighting or the stress or anything other than the truth. Clint had to be mistaken. It couldn't be him because Barney just couldn't be here. It wasn't possible.
Except that it was. It was him. It was his brother, even though every part of Clint screamed out that it was a lie, it wasn't. It was the truth. It was him, lying on the dirt floor of the forest, bleeding from the arrow Clint had shot in him.
"No," Clint said, shaking his head, stunned by what he'd done. "No. I didn't know. I didn't... Barney..."
The next thing Clint realized was that, instead of moving forward as he'd intended, he was falling backwards. It was a push, a tug at his side, and suddenly he couldn't move at all. Dazed, Clint looked at the two men still standing there, dumbstruck, over his brother and locked eyes with the one who had wanted them to leave in the first place.
Years would pass before he'd recognize him, but that night he hadn't known him at all.
"Help him," Clint managed to say. "You can still... you can help him, right? You can. You have to."
"He's right," the man agreed, stopping the other guy from picking up the fallen weapon. "Grab him and let's go," he continued, taking Barney around the arm and beginning to pull him away. "It's the other one we have to worry about now. Not him. This one's dead already."
"Wait," Clint tried to say, but his voice was weak now. He was sweating despite the cold and he still couldn't move. He couldn't tell if it was shock or if it was blood loss. "Tell him..."
Clint couldn't speak any more and it didn't matter because they were already gone. Finally he looked down to find that he was pinned to the tree. Buck's work, he was sure. But where was Buck?
Taking several deep breaths, Clint readied himself for what he knew had to be done. Grasping the arrow in both hands, he attempted to pull himself free, but with no luck. He was too tired and weak to help himself. His hands were shaking. His whole body was shaking, but whether it was the shock of the wound or the shock over what he'd done Clint couldn't say.
That's when he heard him coming. Clint looked up as he approached, and as he met Buck's eyes with his own, Buck laughed.
"That wasn't the plan," Clint said, panting through the pain.
"Had to make some changes."
"Did you know?" Clint asked, close to passing out now. He could feel it. His hands and feet were going numb, but he pushed through it as best he could. "Did you know he was here?"
"Your brother? Of course I did. Thought it would make things more interesting, and boy, did it ever."
"You'll what?" Buck asked, leaning closer and enjoying the moment. "What are you going to do, Clint?"
"I'll..." he tried again, but resigned himself. There was nothing he could do. This was how he was going to die. Being laughed at by bitter old man after shooting his own brother. It was what he'd deserved.
"You were never cut out for this. I'm doing you a favor really. And myself one. Now I don't have to take care of you and I don't have to pay you your share."
"So this was your plan? All the time?"
"What? You don't like my joke?"
"Joke?" Tony interrupted, and Clint could hear the anger in him.
Clint rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands, feeling like he'd aged ten years over the course of the evening. "Buck always had a sick sense of humor," he said quietly.
"What happened to him?"
"No idea," Clint admitted.
"And he just left you there? Pinned to a tree?" Tony asked, but he didn't sound skeptical. "How'd you get away?"
"Took awhile. Couldn't pull myself free so I had to break off the end and push. Or, kick I guess. It's a little fuzzy. Lost a lot of blood. I was lucky nothing major got nicked. I spent the night under that tree and then made myself go. Forced myself up and out of there. I had a few... well, I wouldn't say friends, but I knew some people. They let me stay a couple of days, but not long. After that I was on my own."
"Yeah," Clint answered.
"But that still doesn't --"
"Phil," Clint interrupted. "I recognized him during my interview with Fury. He'd been standing by that door for hours, staring at me, but it wasn't until he spoke that I remembered him. Realized he was the guy who didn't kill me that night. He helped my brother and..." Clint trailed off, in no way capable of finishing that thought. After a few moments of silence, he continued. "He'd been undercover for SHIELD. Took him the rest of the night to get away. Said they went back for me but by then I was already gone."
"And you believed him?"
"Maybe not at first," Clint admitted, "but... that's how they found me at that police station. I was always very careful about wearing gloves. But that night, after... I took them off to break the shaft. To get free. Thought I was dying so it didn't seem to matter much at that point what kind of evidence I left behind. "
"So that was it? They gave you a handbook and swore you in?"
"Not quite, but not so different actually," Clint answered with a laugh, feeling a little better now that they were seemingly past fully reliving that experience. "They explained what they did. Told me what they expected me to do. Asked if I thought I could do it. I was told that I could say no and that they'd leave, wouldn't tell anyone what was said. Wouldn't assist in the case currently against me."
"I sense a but here."
"But," Clint continued, "they'd still be watching me and they wouldn't help. This was my only chance. The next time they'd come after me it wouldn't be for recruitment. And, in case I had any ideas of using SHIELD as a means of escape, if I left with them and later turned up missing... well, Fury didn't say what would happen, but he didn't really have to."
"And that was that," Tony finished for him.
"That was that," Clint repeated.
"All right then," Tony said, one of the few times in his life he could remember floundering for words. He got it. He understood why Clint wouldn't want to share that particular story. Tony didn't know how the others would react, because he wasn't sure how he should react.
"I know what you're up to, Tony," Clint said, shaking his head ruefully. "SHIELD has an idea, but they aren't sure yet. They'll want to be sure first. When they are, they're going to come for you and shut you down. Hard."
"And you don't want to be in a position to have to choose a side."
"I don't," Clint said.
"And if, hypothetically speaking," Tony said, rocking on his heels as he spoke, "I was asking you to join the Avengers?"
"I don't see how you can be in two places at once."
"Are you just asking me?" Clint asked, quick to add, "Hypothetically."
"I'm sure we have room for... one more. But only if they're a redhead. I like redheads."
"She might say no."
"She might," Tony conceded. "Would that change your mind?"
Clint wanted to give him an answer, but truthfully he had none to give.
"Doesn't matter," Tony said, sensing his internal conflict. "Just throwing out scenarios."
"Maybe I can... throw out some of my own to any redheads I happen to run into."
"Okay then," Tony said, nodding once more and ready to go. "It's late. I'm exhausted. Try not to... I honestly don't know what you do down here all the time. Don't you get bored? Whatever. Just, don't do too much of it." He turned to leave and the part of him, the one that usually listened to Pepper, screamed at him to keep going, but he didn't because Pepper wasn't actually there to stop him. So instead, Tony stopped, turned back around and asked, "One last thing. About your brother..."
If Tony had slapped him, he wouldn't have been any more surprised. The fact that Clint should have been expecting him to ask didn't dull the pain in the least. He'd thought he had avoided it. Thought they'd moved on and neatly past it and that he wouldn't have to say it out loud. But even as Tony tried helplessly, in his own way, to backpedal, Clint knew that there was no escape.
No more hiding.
"Dead," he said shortly.
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"So was I," Clint said, with a laugh like a bark, because if he didn't laugh he might lose it entirely, and the very last thing he wanted to do was break down in front of Tony Stark. "He was a pain in the ass most of the time. Had a temper, a real bad one but... but he was my brother. He was the only family I had."
"You know what," Tony said, after a long, silent pause. "Fuck it. Let's go out. I'll call the car around. We'll take Thor. He still likes you. We'll get shit-faced and make him tell us Viking war stories."
Clint laughed for real that time and shook his head.
"You don't understand," Tony insisted. "This is me telling. Consider it an order. I command you to drink. Come on."
There really was no way for Clint to say no.
Chapter 6: Part 6
It was half-past three when they arrived back at the Tower and, as Tony had promised, Clint was completely plastered. It was so bad that, at one point, he was fairly certain Thor had carried him up some stairs, but the recollection was so fuzzy he wasn't sure if it had actually happened or not. Either way, the idea of it happening was hilarious to his tequila addled brain.
Clint hadn't been exactly cheered up by their little outing, but it had let him forget his problems and relax for awhile. A very short while as it turned out since, once back at the Tower and safely, maybe even literally, dropped off at his room, Clint found Natasha waiting for him, as she had apparently been doing for most of the night.
Clint had opened his bedroom door, flipped on the light, and froze as soon as his eyes met hers.
Natasha took one look at him, shook her head and declared, "You're drunk."
"So that's where you've been?" she asked as she headed to the bathroom.
"Not all night," Clint answered, as he propped himself up in the doorway and attempted to kick off his boots.
Natasha reentered the room with a glass of water and a couple of aspirin, which she immediately handed off to him before sitting down on the bed and fixing him with a glare. "You didn't have to tell them anything."
"How do you know I did?" he asked after swallowing the pills and downing the glass in one shot. He'd given up on the boots. They'd have to stay on. He was in no shape to work shoelaces.
"I know you."
Clint sighed and put the glass on the nightstand before sitting down beside her, just close enough that their legs touched.
"They didn't have any right to ask," Natasha said, tilting her head towards his. "They didn't need to know."
"They did have a right," Clint countered, trying hard not to slur his words too much. "And... I wanted to tell them. It felt good just... I hated not... I don't know what I'm saying," he finished with a laugh.
"You know what you're saying."
"I do?" he asked, smiling at her and relieved to see her smile in return, even if it was just for a moment.
"You were always a horrible spy," Natasha said, still looking in his eyes. "But you were a great partner."
"I'm still your partner," Clint said, sobering some from her words, by the seriousness of her tone, as he leaned in and brushed the hair back from her neck, his hand lingering longer than strictly necessary.
"You're done," she whispered after staring at him for what could have been an eternity. It felt that way when she looked at him. "I know it. You've been... you've been trying to tell me, but you won't just say it because you feel obligated. So instead, you keep fighting it. Fighting how you feel. You brought me in and you don't want to leave without me. I'm right, aren't I?"
Clint sat there, staring at her and unsure of how to proceed. Maybe it took her saying it for him to see the truth of it all. Maybe he really hadn't known it himself. But now he did. Clint saw it pretty clearly. That's how it had always been with them. She knew him better than he knew himself.
"You could come with me."
"I could... but I'm not done. I still have things to do."
"And you can still get them done, just... just not with SHIELD. Don't you get that this is our chance to call the shots? To help plan and decide and not just to be used like... like that's all we're for. We can actually do something good."
"We are doing something good."
"We can do better," Clint argued, feeling half the battle was already lost. Fighting with her, reasoning with her, was like fighting the wind.
"And that's the only reason why?" she pushed, and he knew it was because she could.
In her mind, the conversation was over and there was nothing left to really say on the subject. She'd been pushing him for years because he always relented. This was her game, the same game they'd been playing now for years.
Clint thought about just leaning in and kissing her as an answer. It would be easy. They'd even done it before, several times in fact, but never like this. Never alone and never without some mission as a pretext. But, he didn't because it would be what she'd expect him to do if he ever was to challenge her. And he didn't because it wasn't the right answer. Either way, Natasha didn't want an answer, she wanted him to abandon the topic altogether.
Clint may have finally understood himself, and Natasha might know how firmly she stood, but this wasn't something they discussed. It wasn't something they could discuss and Clint was certain, with how he felt, that it wasn't anything he could ever find words for.
Still, if he was going to try, it had to be now. Now was the time for words. They were each decided and it couldn't hurt more than it already did.
Natasha looked surprised. She couldn't hide that reaction from him. Clint had called her bluff and for a moment she didn't know how to respond.
"It's not it," he continued, gaining confidence from her silence. "You know it isn't. As long as we're with SHIELD, there's no chance for us. Not together. Not --"
"Stop it," she said sharply, getting up and crossing the room to put as much distance between them as possible. Natasha didn't like that answer, or this game, purposely missing the point that, to Clint, it wasn't a game and never had been. "You're drunk."
Clint stared at her for a moment before sighing, "You're right." Not waiting for a reply, he flopped back on the bed and continued to gaze up at the ceiling as he shook his head. "I'm drunk... I am, but... I know what I'm saying. I know what I'm about. We could have normal."
"We're not normal."
"Okay," he laughed. "We could have normal-ish."
"What exactly is normal-ish?" she asked, and without seeing her face, Clint could still picture her smile. Without looking he could tell she'd come back to his side of the room.
It was like hitting a mental reset button. Natasha could do that. Shut it down, turn it off, start again. She could easily change from angry or indifferent to flirtatious and happy. Whatever she needed to be. Clint never got the hang of it. He'd always only been capable of being himself.
"I don't know," he said, waving a hand through the air and relieved to feel the bed shift as Natasha sat down on the edge of it. It wasn't how he wanted to have this conversation, but he'd take it. "We could start with a kiss. I could kiss you whenever I wanted. Or you could kiss me. Not just when our lives depend on it or we need a distraction or to blend in with all the other happy, real couples around us."
"What else?" she asked, laying down beside him, head propped on her hand as she met his eyes with her own. Perhaps playing along because she could. Clint hoped it was because she wanted to.
"We could share a bed without building a pillow fort between us," he said with a smile. "Without being afraid we'd be breaking some stupid, unwritten rule, that said we were somehow betraying ourselves if we occasionally woke up in each other's arms." His eyes momentarily darted towards hers to try and determine how she was taking this. If she was as serious as he was. With her, he never quite knew. "We could wake up in each other's arms. That's normal. God," he muttered, his voice low and intense, "I want that."
"If that's all you want you could have just picked up some girl at whatever bar you spent your night in," she said, trying to pass it off as a joke.
"That's harder to do when sitting between a demi-god and a billionaire," he returned with ease, but wouldn't be deterred for long. Clint was determined to speak his mind for once. "And that's not it. I don't want some girl. I want you."
"I'm not a prize."
"Good, because I haven't earned one," Clint answered, reaching up and tucking her hair back behind her ear. "But I have earned some happiness. So have you. We both deserve something and if you don't want me, say it. I've heard no before. Hasn't killed me yet."
Natasha hesitated for only a moment before leaning down and pressing her lips to his. It was slow and deliberate. She already knew the contours of his mouth, the way he tasted, but this time was different. This time there was no doubting the meaning. It was no act. It was just them.
Natasha pulled back, slowly, because there was no rush. She lingered because she wanted to and because she was in hurry for what had to happen next.
In her mind, this really could go no further. In her mind, it had already gone too far.
"You're drunk," she repeated for the third time.
Clint shut his eyes and shook his head. "You can't use that excuse forever."
"But I can tonight."
"Fine," he said, eyes still shut, "but I won't be the next time."
"You sound pretty sure of yourself, Barton," Natasha said, sliding off the bed. Her tone light and playful, the way it always was between them, but he knew better. And so did she.
"No games," Clint said, still serious as he sat up and looked her in the eyes.
"I'm not playing," she smiled, hand already on the door.
"Neither am I."
"We'll talk later," she insisted, brushing off the seriousness of his tone. "When whatever it is that has gotten into you is gone."
"You always say that but we never do. There's no later for us. There's now, Nat."
"Get some sleep," she said, heading out of the room without a single look back.
"Just leave then," he yelled after her, too tired to get up and go after her. "That's fine. That's what you do."
Her reply was the slam of the front door.
"That's right," Phil said, with a crisp nod as he continued to stack up the notebooks from the meeting. "Everyone does think that because you've given them no reason to assume otherwise."
"Why are they assuming anything in the first place?" Clint spat back at him. "We're partners. We work together. Hell, you and I work together and no one assumes we're fucking."
Phil paused long enough to give him a stern look.
"Do they?" Clint asked, curiosity getting the better of him.
"You and Agent Romanoff have worked closely together for well over four years now. People talk."
"People should mind their own business."
"It's not just that and you know it, Barton."
Clint started to say something in his defense, but stopped. Partially because of the look on Phil's face. Partially because he already knew what was coming next.
"Geneva," Phil said. "You broke that informant's nose."
"He hit her."
"And you had to be restrained."
"I'm not sorry about that," Clint said, shaking his head adamantly. "You were just as angry as I was. I just got there first."
"Tasha can handle herself," Phil answered, finishing up and exiting the conference room with Clint right at his heels.
"That isn't the point."
"It is actually," Phil returned. "She doesn't need your protection. Not that way. I stand by my decision. You both need a break from each other."
"So you're just going to reassign her?"
"Not her, Clint," Phil said, dropping his voice and looking genuinely sorry.
"Me?" he asked, shaking his head in frustration. "That's... that's great, Agent Coulson. Thanks for the heads up."
"Don't start Agent Coulson'ing me," Phil said as he opened the door to his office and Clint burst in ahead of him.
"Well, I wouldn't want people to get the wrong idea."
"To be fair, you earned that reputation," Phil said with a hint of a smile as he sat down.
Clint kicked the door shut and slid into the chair opposite Phil's desk, his whole face changing as it all sunk in.
"I know there's nothing inappropriate going on," Phil assured him, "but my hands are tied."
"So untie them."
"Clint," Phil sighed. "Natasha asked for a solo mission. And as it happens, I had something new come up and she'd be of use."
"That Adventurers thing?"
"You know what it's called. The Avengers Initiative," Phil corrected, shaking his head. "That's right."
"And while you two are off saving the world... where am I going to be?"
"How's your Portuguese?"
"You might want to brush up on it then."
Phil sat behind his desk, working, as Clint continued to stew a little longer. Silence was always comfortable between them and Clint had a lot on his mind.
"Is this permanent?" Clint finally asked.
"It doesn't have to be."
"But right now it is."
"The perception is that I can no longer handle you," Phil said, eyes down on his work, which made it next to impossible for Clint to get a good read on him. "That you are borderline out of control, irresponsible, reckless, careless, and prone to snap judgments."
"I didn't say I agreed with them."
"But you didn't defend me."
"That's how you're seen..." Phil sighed as he stopped long enough to throw him a pitying glance. "And, with your record..."
"So what do I do?"
"Be serious," Phil answered, without looking up from his computer. "Clint, you're great at what you do, but your attitude is off-putting. You get too close and you make it too personal."
"And that's a bad thing?"
"No," Phil said, looking up with complete sincerity. "I don't think it is at all."
"But that's why I'm being shipped off to nowhere. That's why Natasha doesn't want me around. That's why you think I'm a liability. That's why I got rejected for your little Introverts Association. Isn't it?"
"I can't speak for Tasha, you two have to work that out on your own. But I do not think you're a liability, Clint. I think of you as an asset. And as a friend. And, as your friend, I have to tell you truthfully that you'll never be on the Avengers team if you don't make some changes."
"Cameron's never letting me on that team, no matter how serious I am. We both know that. He hates me."
"You slept with his girlfriend."
"I didn't know she was his girlfriend."
"Really?" Phil asked, eyebrow raised in disbelief.
"Does it matter? He hated me before that anyway."
"Well, Cameron may not be in charge of it for much longer," Phil said.
"Two weeks from tomorrow."
"Congratulation, Phil," Clint said, smiling and meaning it. Clint couldn't think of a better person for the job.
"It's not official yet," Phil answered, never one to get ahead of himself. "And, it won't be until we actually get some momentum going. But when we do, Clint, I'd like to bring you back."
"But I can't have you acting the way you have been acting," Phil said, turning on his most serious voice. "Do you know why I wanted you in SHIELD?"
"Because you didn't want to track me down again and put a bullet in my head," Clint answered.
"No, I didn't," Phil admitted. "But that's not why. I wanted you in SHIELD because of your humanity. You're not a cold blooded killer. You don't enjoy this and you shouldn't. What we do is serious work, and I know that all of this attitude and bluster is a defense, Clint. But it's working too well. Other people are seeing you in the wrong light. You have to correct that. You have to correct it now."
Clint didn't want to believe him, but knew Phil was right. Phil was always right, which is why Clint always listened to him.
"Okay," he said simply, glad to see he still had the power to surprise Phil, who looked as if he'd expected an argument.
"That was easy."
"Well, I'm not promising much," Clint corrected. "But, I'll try. I'll change."
"Don't change," Phil said, shaking his head. "Just... become a better you."
"A better me?" Clint laughed. "What is this, an infomercial? Are you going to start a new career as a motivational speaker?"
"You know what I mean."
"I thought I did but now..."
"Try to act more professional, okay? That's it."
"I'm not wearing a suit," Clint said, as he got to his feet.
"No one expects you to," Phil returned, and as was his custom, he stood up as well. Even though Clint came and went from his office so much people thought they shared it, Phil always stood when anyone came or left the room.
"You really think they'll let me do it? That they'll let me join the Avengers Initiative?"
"Show them you want it and they'll have to. Prove them wrong, you're good at that, and I'll make it happen if I have to."
"You promise?" he asked, dropping his guard momentarily and letting on exactly how much he did want this. He could do that with Phil. They'd always understood one another.
"I do," Phil said as Clint nodded, determined not to let Phil down. Not to let himself down either.
"Thanks, Phil," Clint muttered, still staring up at the ceiling just before shutting his eyes and falling to sleep.
Clint had never been a heavy sleeper, even drunk, and the slightest noises tended to wake him, no matter the hour. So, when he heard the front door click open just after seven that morning, after just about three hours of sleep, he was wide awake and called out, "Shooting people isn't how I like to start my day."
"It's just us," he heard Steve reply, and Clint, who really did have a gun already drawn and ready to go, let out a sigh and shook his head.
"Who's us?" he asked, almost dreading the answer.
"Bruce and I," Steve answered, pushing the door open. "May we come in?"
"You seem to have already done that," Clint returned, putting the gun back in its hiding spot, behind his headboard, before setting to work on his boots, which he'd never gotten off that night.
"For arguments sake," Bruce said, stepping into the room and leaning against the wall nearest the door, "how many weapons do you have stashed around the Tower?"
"Enough," Clint answered, which obviously didn't please anyone, so he explained. "First thing you do in a safe house is keep it safe. Make sure you can defend it. Know the exits. The weak spots. Stuff like that."
"That part of SHIELD training?" Bruce asked.
"I actually thought it was just common sense," Clint fired back at him, in no mood to go another twenty rounds of 'This is Your Life' right now. His head was pounding and his whole body ached. Clint had a vague memory of Thor picking him up, and now he wondered if he'd also thrown him down at some point in time.
"It is, if you're expecting an attack," Steve agreed. "Or, if you're expecting to run."
"I've already told Tony that I think his security systems are weak," Clint countered. "And I'm always expecting an attack. But, no, I'm not running."
"Good," Steve said, coming further into the room and sitting down on the edge of the bed, "because we've been talking and... I want to be honest with you. I don't know what Tony offered you or said to you last night, but I'd told him that I thought it was best for you to leave."
"Okay," Clint said with a nod, appreciating the honesty if nothing else. "What about you?" he asked, turning to Bruce.
"I told Tony it was his call, but personally... I agreed with Steve."
"I don't suppose you're both here to tell me you've changed your minds," Clint said with a laugh as he ran his hands over his face in an effort to wake up a bit more. It was way too early for this.
"Yes," Steve said with a nod of his own. "That's exactly why we're here."
"So, you had a good night's sleep, a nice breakfast, and a complete change of heart?"
"No," Bruce answered. "We talked, after Tony left, and then some more when he came back for Thor and... and it wasn't really fair. Any of this. You work for SHIELD. Of course you can't tell us everything, they're a secret organization and we're not a part of it."
"Just... just stop," Clint said, waving his hands in the air. "Sharing time is over. I'm... I'm done. Tony didn't make me any offers. I'm not going to tell SHIELD anything about what is happening here because... because I'm done."
"Done?" Steve asked, not sure he understood exactly what Clint meant by that.
"Yes, done. As in... done with SHIELD. Honestly, I don't know how that's going to work. I have no idea what I'm going to do. If Tony asks, yes, I'd accept. I kind of like it here and... and I want to do this. I want to be a part of it. Had things been different... If the man who should have been in charge of this for SHIELD was still around, then things would be different. But he's gone and he's why I was with SHIELD in the first place so... so, I have no reason to stay."
"What about Natasha?" Bruce asked quietly.
Clint shook his head. "I don't know. I've known her for eight years and every day she surprises me so... I don't know. You're guess is as good as mine. I've asked. I'll keep asking but..." He trailed off, not wanting to talk about it anymore. Clint had talked more in the last twenty-four hours than he'd previously talked in the course of a whole year.
"And if Tony doesn't ask?" Steve asked, because he felt he needed to know.
"Assuming SHIELD doesn't leave me in a ditch, well... if he wants me gone, I'll leave. If I'm in a good enough mood, I may even tell him where I've hidden all my weapons first. I've got enough money stashed away to take care of myself and... I don't know. I don't have a plan and I guess I'll figure something out."
"And what if he asked you to take a position in Stark Industries?" Tony asked from the doorway, still in his pajamas and looking only half awake.
"I told you, I'm not going to be your bodyguard," Clint answered. "Learn to block a punch already."
"Stop catching me off guard and I might," Tony countered, coming into the room and laying on the bed without any preamble.
"How did you know we were here?" Steve asked, scooting over slightly so he could look Tony in the eyes.
"JARVIS told me," Tony answered. "Said you asked him to override Barton's door lock."
"That's exactly what I was telling you about, Tony," Clint snapped. "That's the exact opposite of secure."
"Don't insult JARVIS," Tony fired back at him. "He only does that for officially recognized voices. But not for my room, so don't get any ideas."
"So we can all just ask to get into each other's rooms?" Steve asked, to which Tony nodded in the affirmative.
"I'm not real sure I like that," Bruce said.
"It's only for emergencies," Tony assured him.
"Emergencies like accosting me in my sleep?" Clint asked, shaking his head.
"Calm down," Tony said. "There are kinks, I admit, but that's why I need you to work for me. I need someone who can point out these flaws and help fix them. I need a head of security."
"Don't," Tony said, quick to interrupt him. "Don't say yes or no or anything right now. We can talk about it later, when the room stops spinning. Hey, I'm curious, did Thor throw you last night? I think he did, but it's kind of a blur."
"Tony, I really can't --"
"As your future employer, I order you to stop talking," Tony said, getting to his feet and stretching. "We can't have you slipping back into a life of crime once you tell Fury to shove it. Also, someone needs to make this place defendable. I'm pretty certain that someone should be you. And, I pay well. There's health care. Dental. A nice retirement package. Oh, and you'll only have to carry my bags when Happy isn't around. There are other parts of the job we can discuss later but... yeah, that's about it."
"I don't really get a say in this, do I?"
"No," Tony said with a smile. "Who's hungry? I'm famished. Let's get pancakes. Come on."
Tony threw an arm around Bruce and pulled him from the room, leaving Clint and Steve momentarily behind where they both seemed frozen in place.
Steve let out a laugh and shrugged his shoulders. "Are you going to hire all of us, Tony?" he asked as he set out after them.
"Just the beautiful people," Tony answered. "You and He-Man are on your own. But Bruce... I think we can squeeze you into the company somewhere."
Clint didn't hear Bruce's entire response, but enough to know he was gently refusing. He also knew enough to guess that Tony wasn't going to take no from Bruce any more than he had from Clint. For a moment, he didn't realize that he wasn't alone. Steve had stopped. "You coming?" he asked from the doorway.
"I'm not exactly... dressed," Clint commented, giving himself a once over for emphasis.
"Neither is Stark," Steve returned with a shrug. "But, apparently we're getting pancakes so..."
Clint shrugged as well and followed Steve out the door and down the hall after Tony and Bruce, but just missing them on the elevator.
As they waited on the next one, Steve grew serious again. "I want to trust you. We all make mistakes and it's not my place to judge you or offer forgiveness. But this... this isn't going to be easy."
"I know," Clint said with a nod. "And I don't expect you to just start believing everything I say or do. That'll take time, for all of us. And given what... given the person I was, I understand if it takes a little more time with me. I'm just asking for a chance to prove myself."
"Fair enough," Steve said, holding out his hand for Clint to shake.
Clint hesitated a moment, eyebrow raised in disbelief, before relenting and grabbing the other man's hand. "You shake on everything, don't you?"
"Okay then," Clint said with a smile.
For a moment there was silence, until the elevator finally rang and opened before them.
"Where'd you two go?" Tony asked, still on the elevator with Bruce. They'd apparently picked up Thor along the way, which wasn't a surprise since food was involved. "You were supposed to be right behind us. What gives?"
"You walk fast," Clint said, getting on board just after Steve.
"Okay, sure, I walk fast. But what if there had been a terrorist attack? You just let me get away from you and I could have died. That's a horrible way to start a new job, Barton."
"I don't work for you yet, Tony," Clint said as he leaned into the back corner of the elevator.
"Not yet," Tony said, making room for Steve as he pushed the correct button, "and if every former SHIELD agent has as much of an attitude as you do, I may have to widen my recruitment pool."
"If Fury has anything to say about it you'll definitely have to widen your recruitment pool," Clint countered. "He's not going to be happy about this."
"He's never happy," Tony shrugged. "And, I'll leave the rest of his agents alone. Maybe."
They continued the ride down to the garage in silence. Tony, not content to eat pancakes in his own kitchen, was evidentially taking them all out to eat. Apparently, he did not care that he was still in his pajamas, or that Clint wasn't wearing shoes, or that Bruce and Steve had obviously not slept or changed since the previous night. Thor was the only one of them reasonably attired, but since he was twice the size of a normal person, he drew stares no matter where he went. Not that it mattered; pancakes mattered at the moment, and nothing else.
Well, almost nothing else.
"So," Tony said as the doors slid open, "two hydrogen atoms walk into a bar."
"Are you serious?" Steve asked, shaking his head as he strode ahead of the group towards the waiting car.
"I do not understand your Midgardian humor," Thor commented, still getting there ahead of Steve, before squeezing himself into the car. "But I like your pancakes."
"If you expect me to listen to this all the time, I quit now," Clint said, following Steve into the car.
"What?" Tony called after them. "It's a good joke."
"Tony," Bruce said, stopping him and shaking his head. "No one wants to hear your joke."
"Are you sure because --"
"I'm positive," Bruce interrupted, breaking into a rare, full smile before getting into the car after the others.
Tony sighed and shook his head.
"You could have just told me you'd heard it."
A few things about this fic. Obviously, I based as much as I could off of comic book canon for Hawkeye. I may have changed a few things or omitted a few details, but it's a great backstory and this is my take on it. Another thing is that I wrote this as one gigantic fic and, because it was so long, felt the need to break it up. If it felt choppy, or cliff-hanger-y (that's a word, right?) I apologize, that wasn't my intent. However, I think 18000+ words in one sitting is kind of a lot, so I did what I thought was necessary. This was my first ever use of flashbacks and I'm happy with the outcome. I've started drafting the next two pieces to this series, so hopefully... soon! Thanks!