Clint looks at the pictures every night before he goes to bed, so that he never, ever forgets. There are only two, both Polaroids, and the edges are worn and cracked, though the pictures themselves are almost pristine. He never puts his fingers on the actual images; his eyes, so sharp, not missing a single detail, are the only things that touch them.
In the first picture, a boy, maybe eight or nine years old, is bent over, gripping onto the wooden foot board of a bed. A man stands behind him, huge-looking hands gripping the boy's narrow hips. The shot was taken from the side, so it's easy to see where the man's cock disappears inside the boy's ass. The shot is low enough that the man's head is cut off, but the boy is facing the camera, face turned so that he's in three-quarter profile. He looks almost blank, except for the bright blue eyes that are a little too wide, a little too bright. The camera didn't catch the dried tears on his face, or the indents his fingernails had left in the wood, or the blood that slicked between his buttocks and down his thighs.
The second picture is of the same boy and the same man. This time, the boy is kneeling between a man's legs as the man sits in a chair. This picture is taken from above, and the same man as before now has his cock crammed into the boy's mouth. From this close, it's easy to see the tears and snot and spit that cover the boy's face. He blue eyes are rimmed with red, and the imprint of a hand is beginning to rise on his cheek.
Clint spends a full minute with each picture, looking at it, studying it, memorizing images seared into his mind long ago, remembering the pain and the terror. He has spent nearly every night for the past almost twenty years doing this—ever since Buck threw them at his feet when Clint said he was leaving, one last dig from a man who always felt he deserved more—to remind himself of how weak he was, how defenseless, and that he will never be that again, not even if it kills him.
When the two minutes are over, Clint carefully slides the pictures back into the envelope he keeps them in, then tucks it away on the bottom a small box full of useless crap, and then puts that box into a drawer, among even more useless crap. Then he finishes stripping off his clothes, turns off the lights, and gets into bed.
He isn't expecting to walk in to the kitchen to find the other five Avengers sitting around the table, glaring at him. The silence isn't only oppressive, it's hateful, and if looks could kill, Clint would be thirty feet under. They're mad at him, he realizes instantly, really mad at him, and he wracks his brain, trying to think of what he's done. He knows he hasn't screw up in the last few missions, and he can't think of anything else he's done, but the look Natasha is giving him makes him break out in a cold sweat, and the look on Steve's face can only be described as complete and utter loathing. Thor is a tempest just waiting to be unleashed, Tony is nothing but cold rage, and Bruce is gripping the edge of the table in an obvious effort not to Hulk out. "What's going on?" he asks cautiously.
At first, no one moves. Then Tony does, throwing something onto the table. "What the fuck, Barton?!" he snarls, and Clint thinks the only thing that keeps Tony from hurling himself across the table at him is Steve's sudden grip on his shoulder. Clint looks down at the table and freezes. For a moment, he's truly convinced that his heart has stopped and that he's forgotten how to breathe, because looking up at him from the table are two very familiar Polaroids.
They know. Oh, God, they know. The horror and terror of the thought washed over him, and for the first time in a very long time, Clint doesn't know what to do. His traitorous body takes no more than a half-second to start working again, though now his heart is hammering wildly in his chest, and his breath keeps clicking in his throat. He can't look up at them as he asks, "How did you get those?
"So they are yours." Steve sounds so sad, so devastated, that all Clint can do is nod. Bruce makes a sound and flees the room, heading away from Clint as fast as he can.
"Did you think we wouldn't find out?" Natasha asks, voice icy cold, colder than Clint has ever heard it before, even when she's in full assassin mode.
"I had hoped you wouldn't," he says honestly, because he really hadn't, and at this point, there's no point trying to lie.
Thor sighs, a great, heavy, ponderous movement of air. "A true warrior does not act in such a way. I am ashamed that I called you my shield-brother. Whatever bonds we had...they are no more."
Clint just nods again. That Thor wouldn't want to associate with him after what he'd done isn't surprising, but it hurts more than Clint had expected it to. The terrible, humiliating burn of tears is starting, but he will not cry in front of him. He has enough self-control to do that much.
"Am I off the team?" he asks dully.
The silence is awful, and Steve's frustrated sigh is answer in itself. When he speaks, the disgust in his voice is palpable. "If we had known about this before we formed the team, you wouldn't have been on it in the first place. As it stands, we still need someone in your role, so until we find a replacement, you're still on the team. When we do find another sharp shooter, though...." Steve doesn't have to finish. Everyone knows what will happen when they find another sniper. "We're not going to say anything now, because if this comes out, it will ruin the Avengers' reputation, but if we find any more of this—"
"If we find any more, we will ruin you," Tony promises, voice every bit as hard as his alter-ego. "Everyone will know. Fury, Coulson, every single member of S.H.I.E.L.D., hell, we'll run it in the goddamn papers. There will be nowhere for you to hide what you really are.”
"There won't be any more," Clint says. There aren't anymore, not that he knows of. These two pictures are the only ones left. He reaches for them out of instinct, but Tony snatches them away before his fingers do more than twitch.
"No fucking way," he snarls. "You're not getting them back. I'm holding on to them."
Clint lets his hands still at his sides, eyes still fixed on the now empty spot on the table. Silence reigns in the kitchen again before Steve says, almost gently—and that hurts worse than anything else—"You should probably go."
"Okay," Clint agrees, slightly amazed at how even his voice is while his entire life falls apart. He can't move for a minute, though, and while he stands there, the others leave. Thor standing up and walking out without another word, Tony storming off with Steve following close behind. Natasha is the last and Clint finally looks at her as she stands.
Her face is still cold and closed off. "I trusted you," is all she says, and that, that breaks Clint because he thought she would understand. Of all the people, he thought she would understand, and he didn't know how much he needed her to until she didn't.
"Tasha," he says, his voice shaking just a bit, reaching out for her, but she shakes her head and walks off without another word.
Now alone in the kitchen, Clint just nods to himself. Then he turns and leaves, taking the elevator because it's the fastest way out of the tower. He has his wallet and his phone on him, so he doesn't bother going to his room for anything. The only belongings he had that couldn't be replaced are now in Tony's possession. He doubts the credit card Stark gave him when they moved in still works, but he has more than enough funds in his S.H.I.E.L.D. account. He'll find some cheap, rundown motel for tonight, and tomorrow he'll go to one of his boltholes. Clothes and other essentials he can pick up tomorrow, too, but right now he needs of a bottle of Jack, and someplace he lock himself in.
And then, somehow, he'll do what he's always done and figure out how to go on.
The next three weeks are hell. No one talks about it. It just hangs in the air, reeking. Everyone is angry and off-balance. It upsets Steve. He wants to help his friends, but he doesn't know how to. How do you deal with finding out that someone you considered a friend was that sick? That someone you had guarding your back was worse than many of the people you took down? Steve has no way to deal with any of this, and it doesn't appear that he's alone in feeling that way. Tony barely leaves his lab anymore, and Bruce spends most of his time locked on his floor. Thor seems more bewildered by Clint's betrayal than he had even been of Loki's. And Natasha...Steve is genuinely concerned for her. Clint had been her best friend, perhaps the only one who truly knew her, who she let in, and now she was alone, the trust between them shattered. Steve certainly doesn't know what he would do if he found this out about Bucky.
Clint hasn't been back to the tower since he left that night, and Steve is grateful for that. They've had two missions since then, and Clint had reported to each, but he didn't speak to any of the Avengers, unless it was a monotone warning spoken through the comms. None of them ever responded back, and Steve knows he isn't the only one who'd watched Clint be knocked from a two-story building and felt a brief surge of righteousness rather than worry.
Coulson and Fury aren't stupid. They know something is up, but everyone is keeping their mouths shut. When they have a replacement for Clint, then they will come clean. But until then, saving lives is more important.
Still, Steve mourns the loss of the team that had been, the family they had become. As angry as he is at Clint, as disgusted and sickened by his actions, he can't help but notice how haggard the other man looks, especially as he was limping off after the last mission, refusing to even stick around for Medical to check him out. His skin is gray-tinged, his eyes sunken and dark, his face drawn. Clint's lost weight, and it shows in the way his uniform no longer fits tightly. He doesn't even look clean. His hair is dull and greasy, stubble covering his face. He and Steve had caught each other's gaze for a brief moment, and the look in Clint's eyes....
If Steve hadn't known what Clint had done, his heart would have gone out to a man so clearly suffering, so obviously nearly the end of his rope. As it stands, it's a better fate than Clint deserves, after what he's done to those poor, innocent children.
Steve finds refuge in the only place he can at the moment, his art. He sits and he draws, not even aware of what he's doing half the time. Most of what he draws is garbage; pieces so poorly done a child could do better, or meaningless circles and scribbles on the page. At the moment, alone in the living room, he looks down and is horrified to discover that he's unconsciously drawn the child, the one of the boy on his knees while—
His gorge rises, and it's only by a great effort than he manages not to throw up the way he had the night Tony had shown him the pictures. He tears the drawing out of his book. This one will be burnt, not simply thrown away. He's just about to crumple it up when he stops, taking a second glance at the picture. The drawing isn't quite the same as the picture, because he hasn't drawn the boy.
He's drawn Clint.
"Sir, Captain Rogers is heading to the lab."
"Don't really want to talk to anyone right now, JARVIS," Tony says, wrenching another piece of the armor off. "Lab stays locked."
"He appears to be in a great deal of distress, sir. I believe this may be an urgent matter."
Tony pauses. Steve being distressed these last few weeks is nothing new, but if JARVIS is saying it's important, then it probably is. After all, JARVIS is the reason they found about all of this to begin with. "Fine, let him in," he snaps.
Not thirty seconds later, Steve slams into the lab, and Tony realizes JARVIS truly has a gift for understatement. Steve is completely panicked—something Tony has never seen in their leader before—as he zeros in on Tony and rushed over. "The pictures," he says, almost hysterically. "Tony, where are the pictures?!
"Relax, Cap, they're safe. That fucker isn't going to get his hands on them again."
But Steve was already shaking his head wildly, grabbing Tony's shoulder. "No, you don't understand. I need to see the pictures, right now.
"What?!" Tony recoils, jerking out of Steve's grasp. "What the hell? Is everyone on this team a sick fuck? You don't need to see those, Steve, no one does. Barton's gone, and soon we won't have to deal with him at all."
Steve grabs Tony again, literally shaking him this time. "No, Tony, you don't understand. I think we fucked up. I think we fucked up big time."
The curse words from Steve give Tony pause. He's never heard Captain America sound like this, and after everything that's happened, it's enough to worry him. He frowns. "You really need to see the pictures."
"Yes." No hesitation, no doubt shows in Steve's voice and Tony steps toward his private safe reluctantly. One hand print, retina scan and 16 digit alpha-numeric code later, Tony removes the Polaroids and sets them down on a workbench without looking at them. "There you go."
Steve immediately sets them face up, side-by-side next to each other. "JARVIS," he says, "can you scan these, create a composite of the boy's face, and then age him by about twenty-five years?"
"Of course, Captain Rogers. I will need but a moment."
Tony leans a hip against the workbench and nods. "Good idea. We can find out who this poor kid is, and give Clint to him, all wrapped up in a bow. Let him take his own revenge." Tony grins. "Didn't think you had that in you, Cap."
The look Steve shoots him is so scared that Tony blanches. "Okay, Steve, want to tell me what's going on? You're starting to worry me."
In response, Steve simply thrusts a wrinkled piece of paper he's been gripping in his hand at Tony. Tony takes it, brows furrowing in confusion as he looks at the drawing. "What the—"
"I have finished, sir. Would you like me to display the resulting image?"
They both stare in horror as Clint's face replaces the Iron Man schematic on the main screen.
Clint isn't sure where he's heading, only that he can't stay anymore.
He'd spent most of last night standing outside the tower, just out of camera range, coming to the realization that he isn't going to come back from this one. He's spent too much energy over the years trying to pretend he's something he's not, that he can't recover from this loss. He's tried. There's just nothing left, and now there's no point. If these people, the ones he would have gone through anything for, won't overlook this, then who could he possibly find that will even try in the future? All he's doing now is hurting them by staying, so he'll go, let them get on with their lives and go back to saving people without having someone like him dragging them down, disrupting their teamwork.
He stayed until the sun came up, then got on the motorcycle Steve had helped him fix, and drove away.
Maybe he'll go west, just drive and drive and drive until he runs out of pavement. Then ditch his bike, give it to some kid or some homeless bum, and then he'll just....
Clint shakes his head, refocusing on the road. He's fought too hard to just end it by gun or knife or water or rope. Maybe he'll just find someplace quiet...and wait.
"You are telling us that the child in these pictures is Clint," Thor says gravely.
"Yes," Steve replies. Tony makes some sort of sound, something like a hysterical laugh, though he's drinking straight from a bottle when he does, and ends up spilling it all over himself. Steve can't blame him. If he could get drunk, he would be, because he doesn't know how else to face what they've done to someone they love.
"Oh my God," Bruce breathes, horrified. "What did we do?"
"We have committed a grievous sin against our brother. We should be ashamed of ourselves. To have lived with him, ate with him, fought with him...we should have known that he could not be capable of committing such crimes." Thor bows his head. "I do not know how to make this up to him, but I shall try, even if it takes me until the end of my days."
"We accused him of being a child rapist, or of getting his jollies by watching it," Bruce says, still horrified. "I don't know if you can make that up to someone.
Natasha, who hasn't said a word since Steve broke the news, sits in a chair, holding Steve's drawing in her hands. "It's worse than that," she says quietly.
"How can it be worse?" Steve asks in disbelief.
Natasha looks at him, meeting his gaze with the closest thing to grief Steve has ever seen from her. "He thinks we know it was him in the pictures." She meets each of their eyes in turn. "He thinks we saw him like that and don't want him around because of it."
"How do you—" Tony starts to ask, but quickly changes his mind. "No, never mind. If you say so, I believe you." He takes another drink. "Fuck."
"Why would he believe such a thing?" Thor asks, frowning. "He was but a child, unable to prevent such an injustice. Surely he knows that, and that we could not judge him for such."
"That's not how it works," Bruce interjects before Natasha can respond. "Stuff like this...it, well, for lack of a better word, it fucks kids up. They're told that it's their fault, that they're to blame, and they're too young to know that it's just another way to break them. Some people never recover from this, even with all the help in the world, and knowing Clint, he's never gone to anyone with this. He's just held onto it and internalized it, and it's screwed up his head."
"Why did he even still have the pictures?" Steve asks. That's what he can't understand. "Why hold onto something like that? JARVIS says he looked at them every night. Every night since he's moved in, he looked at them before going to bed. Why?"
"To help him cope?" Bruce shrugs. "People have odd ways of dealing with things. If he couldn't forget, couldn't block it out, it may have been his way of getting control over it, proving to the people that tortured him that they don't control him anymore, that they can't hurt him anymore."
"And we took that from him, too." Tony laughs again, the sound harsh and ugly. "We are, officially, the worst friends ever."
There is another moment of silence before Natasha stands, folding the drawing and slipping it into her pocket. "We need to tell Coulson and Fury. And then we need to find Clint."
"And make this right," Thor adds, drawing nods from all of them, even as Bruce whispers, "If we can."
As Tony directs JARVIS to call Agent Coulson and Director Fury, Steve looks at Natasha. "Will he...will Clint...?"
"Try to hurt himself?" She bites her lip. "Normally I would say no, but...I don't know anymore. I just don't know." Her voice breaks slightly. "How could I think that of him? How could I betray him like that?"
Steve folds her into a hug and she allows it. "We'll figure this out, Natasha, and we will make damn sure no one, not even us, can ever hurt him like this again." He just hopes they're not too late.
Angry doesn't even begin to describe Fury and Coulson when Steve finishes relating their sorry tale. If things weren't so dire, Tony would have made a crack about them being furious, but the thought of joking right now just makes him feel sick. Coulson and Fury look at each other, nod, and then Coulson moves away, pulling his phone out as he goes. Fury turns toward the rest of them.
"Agent Barton stopped checking in five days ago. He hasn't responded to any attempt made to reach him, nor have we been able to locate him."
"He's missing?" Steve asks.
"In short, yes." Fury pauses. "We were worried that he might have gone rogue. Agents know better than to go off grid without any warning. Two more days, and S.H.I.E.L.D. would have switched to treating him as a hostile, which, given what you've just told me, would have only made things worse." Fury looks at Natasha. "We're checking his safehouses, but if he doesn't want to be found, he's not going to be in any of them. Do you have any idea of where he might have gone?"
"No." She looks ashamed, but she meets Fury's gaze. "If I knew, I would tell you."
"Did he have his phone on him?" Tony asks suddenly. When everyone else looks at him, he explains quickly. "Look, you can track people through their phones, even if they're off. Clint had a Stark Phone, which can't be tracked by conventional means—don't give me that look, Fury, I am not letting the government have a way to find where my people are—but each of the phones I gave you has a locator beacon."
"What if the battery's dead?" Steve asks, looking like he's just cottoned on the idea Tony has.
"Like I would build something that could be stopped so easily. The beacon normally draws from the main battery, but your phones have a smaller, secondary battery that powers the beacon if the main battery dies, or the phone is turned off. Hell, it's sort of like the black box on a plane; even if the phone breaks, the beacon keeps recording your location."
"Can you do that with Clint's phone?"
"Yes." Tony doesn't wait. "JARVIS, track Clint's phone. Show us where he went."
One of the windows darkens, displaying a map of the United States. A blue line traces its way from New York to the California coast, stopping with a small, pulsing dot of light where the edge of the Pacific Ocean begins. Two sets of numbers also appear on the window. The one over the line reads 01:15:57:13 and the one over the dot reads 02:07:32:48. As they watch, the :48 ticks over to :49, then to :50, and Tony realizes it's a counter.
"What are the numbers?" Thor asks.
"The first is how long it took Agent Barton to arrive at his destination," JARVIS answers. Everyone swears at that because from the time it's obvious that Clint didn't really stop for little things like sleep or food if he made it to California in little more than a day and half.
"And the second?" Steve asks.
"That is how long Agent Barton's phone has been stationary."
"Stationary?" Natasha gets to her feet, looking worried. "Do you mean just in the same area, or that it hasn't moved?"
"The phone has not moved at all. The system is capable of detecting movements as small as one foot. Agent Barton may have moved the phone by small increments, but it has not moved more than a foot in the last fifty-six hours."
Tony knows that the same though occurs to them at the exact same moment, because everyone's face goes pale. There is a terrible moment of stillness and then the room explodes into motion. Fury is ordering Steve and Natasha to follow him to a Quinjet, calling for Coulson to join them, Thor has Mjolnir in his hand and is spinning it on the balcony, waiting only long enough for Tony to summon his armor, and then they take off, JARVIS laying out the flight path for Tony.
The ground blurs below Tony as they race west, flowing by underneath him with absolutely no notice. Tony doesn't believe in God, not really, but at the moment, he is praying to any deity that might listening that Clint hasn't done anything permanent yet.
His suit seems too slow, far too slow, but finally he sees the glitter of the ocean. JARVIS tweaks the directions some more, but before Tony can close the final distance, his comm line opens, letting Fury's voice through.
"You and Thor will secure the area," Fury orders. "You will not attempt to engage Barton."
"And what if he's bleeding out right now?!" Tony snarls.
"I don't care! You've done enough, Stark. I'm not letting any of you go in there and screw my agent and this situation up any more than you alreayd have! You will secure the area and wait for my signal. Is that clear?"
"Perfectly," Tony grits out, and catches Thor's attention, signalling for him to touch down a few hundred feet away from Clint's location. It's a little before dawn, and in this small town, there's no one on the streets. Tony and Thor make their way toward the small motel Clint's signal is coming from, and hunker down behind a building to wait until the Quinjet touches down twenty minutes later in a parking lot.
Everyone gets out, but Coulson is the one that heads to the motel.
Clint's sitting on the floor against the wall, knees bent, arms hanging over them. By now, he's gone far past exhausted, his mind hazy as his body falters after using the last of his reserves. He can't remember the last time he slept or ate or swallowed more than a few mouthfuls of water. He's looking out the open sliding door that leads to the beach, letting the faint sound of the waves lull him when the door to his room opens. He looks over and sees Coulson walk in, the other man's eyes instantly and unerringly zeroing in on him. Part of him dies a little bit. He had hoped the others would have kept their word not to tell anyone. Clint hadn't wanted Coulson to know. Coulson was the one who found him, who brought him in, who believed in him even when Clint didn't.
On the other hand, if S.H.I.E.L.D. is removing a bad asset, at least Coulson will make it quick. The agent might be terrifying, but he isn't cruel, or a sadist.
Knowing he might only have a few second left, Clint swallows to try and get some moisture into his mouth and croaks, "I'm sorry."
Coulson closes his eyes for a moment and takes a deep breath. Then he calmly closes the door, crosses to where Clint's sitting, drops to his knees and pulls Clint into a hug. Clint doesn't know what to do, so he lets his arms hang at his sides, lets Coulson hold him. "I'm sorry," he says again, because he should say something, but he doesn't know what else to say.
Coulson makes an angry sound. "Don't," he says shortly. "Don't apologize." Without meaning to, Clint flinches away and he can't even say he's sorry for that because Coulson just told him not to.
"No. No, Clint, I'm not angry. Not at you anyway. I'm telling you not to apologize because you haven't done anything to be sorry for. You haven't done anything wrong." Coulson pulls back so he can look into Clint's face. "You haven't done anything wrong," he repeats.
"But the pictures," Clint says dumbly. "They found out and they hate me for it."
"No, Clint, listen to me. They didn't know it was you. They didn't know the child in the pictures was you. Never mind the fact that they should've known better than to think you had anything to do with child porn, but I swear to you that they don't hate you. Right now, they're all worried out of their minds about you."
Clint looks up at his handler helplessly. Logic is trying to rear its head as everything slots into place in his mind, but all he can focus on is what Coulson just said, that the team isn't angry, that they're worried. All he can voice is the one thing he's wanted since this began. "Does that mean I can go home now?"
Thor comes up to stand beside Agent Coulson. They're outside Clint's private room in Medical, the door only opening for Director Fury, Agent Coulson and the approved medical staff. "How is he?" he asks gravely.
"He'll live," Coulson says shortly. "He hasn't eaten or slept in nearly a week and he's extremely dehydrated. Right now he's on an IV drip, so that'll help with the dehydration, and after he's gotten enough sleep, we'll get some food into him."
"But he will be well?"
"Physically, yes. As far as mentally, I have no idea. He was pretty out of it when I found him, by that was most likely the lack of sleep." Coulson is silent for a long moment. "You people really fucked him over, you know that?"
Thor nods. "My actions were unconscionable and unforgivable. I should not have doubted him. I had thought myself no longer rash and foolish, but...." He sighs. He has not the words to explain how heartsick he is over this. For years, he'd tried to believe the best of Loki, that there was still good in him even after all he'd done, yet when his brother-in-arms, his friend, a man who had proven the strength and truth of his convictions time and again needed him, needed his help and his understanding, Thor's heart and mind were closed to him. He'd spurned him, made his ears and eyes deaf to the pain before him, so clear now in hindsight.
Now, laying in the hospital bed, surrounded by the too-white sheets and walls, Clint looks so wounded, so sick. He looks vulnerable without his armor and his weapons, and not just the tools he uses in battle, but his quick mind and sharp words. This illness of the mind and spirit, inflicted by those who were meant to protect him, has taken its toll on his body, and his recovery will not be as swift as Thor wishes it could be. For if it were within his power, he would remove Clint's pain. But he cannot.
And though Thor longs to made amends, wants to go and protect Clint from any that would harm him, he knows his presence will do no good, may even do his friend further damage. "I will not interrupt his rest, but when he awakens, tell him we wish to beg his forgiveness. For now, I will stand vigil, to make sure that none disturb him."
Coulson gives him a scrutinizing look, but whatever he is looking for he must find, because he turns away with a short nod. "Just stay out of his line of sight in case he wakes up."
"Of course." Thor bows his head and goes back down the hallway, standing like a sentinel, one hand resting on Mjolnir hanging from his hip, the other curled in a loose fist against his thigh. Those who harmed Clint, their cruelty reaching far beyond his years as a child, should be found and made to pay for what they have done. When Clint is well, when he is returned to them again, Thor will go to Asgard, to seek out Heimdall and his parents, to find the animals would inflict such torment upon a child, and make them pay.
"Do you remember when he got knocked off the building?" Tony asks.
"Yeah?" Steve replies, wondering where this is going. He's already taken away Tony's alcohol, and JARVIS has locked him out of the lab. They're both afraid of what Tony might do if left to his own devices.
"I was upset," Tony says. "Not because he fell off a building, but because I wish it had been taller."
Steve squeezes his eyes shut, trying not to flinch, remembering his own vindictive pleasure as watching Clint tumble to the ground.
"What's wrong with me?" Tony continues. "God, he's saved my life how many times, and I was upset because he wasn't hurt badly enough, that the fall didn't kill him?" He buries his head in his hands. I can't—how do I look him in the face now?"
"I don't know," Steve answers honestly. "I'm having a little trouble with that myself."
They fall silent, each running the events of the last few weeks over in their minds. "You know we have to find these people, don't you?" Tony asks after a while.
"Yes." Steve's voice doesn't waver. "Yes, we do."
For the first time since the accident, Bruce isn't afraid of losing control and letting the Hulk out. Hulk is an icy ball of seething rage in Bruce's head, and he wants nothing to do with Bruce. Hulk likes Hawkeye, likes watching the archer send targets falling out of the sky, and the two have even developed their own macabre form of baseball, where Clint sends Doombots or alien hovercraft or creatures out of Lovecraftian nightmare tumbling down, and Hulk bats them out into the distance with cars, street lights, or whatever else is handy. Hulk likes Hawkeye, and Bruce hurt Hawkeye, so Hulk is angry at Bruce. It's as simple as that.
For the first time, Bruce misses the big guy, and thinks that when Clint gets back, Hulk should be here and not him.
Natasha sits in Clint's room, in the same place Clint sat every night, and hold the pictures in her hands. JARVIS has shown her the video—Clint's obsessive behavior is what prompted JARVIS to alert the others that there might be a problem in the first place—and she's watched it more times than she could count. She tries to imagine what it was like for Clint, to not only have lived through that, but to make himself relive it every night. She looks at the boy in the pictures, looks at the child who would someday grow up to be her best friend, and can't help but feel that she's betrayed and hurt him more than the faceless man in the pictures ever did.
Clint's penance for sins he never committed is now hers, and she for all that's she's talked about balancing the ledger, she's so deep in the red now that she doesn't think she'll come out even in the end. She slips the pictures back into their envelope and puts the envelope in the box, then puts the box away. Whatever Clint wants to do with them is his choice, and she will make sure no violates him this way again.
Clint wakes slowly, wincing as every movement produces some sort of corresponding pain. He blinks his eyes open and is confused to see that he's in a hospital room. How did he get here? Did he get knocked out during a mission or—
He comes awake fully as the last month rushes back to him, bolting upright in his bed, hissing at it tucks on the IVs in his arm. The door to his room slides open and Coulson rushes in. "Hey, hey, take it easy!" The man looks awful, suit coat and tie missing, top three buttons of his shirt undone, exposing the white undershirt below, sleeves rolled up to his elbows. His hair is a mess, his face unshaven, and there are dark circles below his eyes. He slumps into the chair next to Clint's bed, shoulders slumped.
"Jesus, Phil," Clint says without thinking. "You look like hell."
Coulson just grins tiredly at him. "And I'm glad you're still around to point that out."
Clint looks down, suddenly fascinated by the weave of the blanket covering him. "I should have told you," he says quietly.
A firm, warm hand grips his forearm. "No, Clint. Only if you wanted to."
"But it was something you should have known," Clint insists. "What if it meant I couldn't do my job? Or is compromised me?"
Coulson pauses a moment before answering. "Do you ever feel like it's prevented you from doing your job? Or endangered a mission?"
"Then it doesn't matter. If you want to talk about it, I'm here for whatever you need, but you don't owe that knowledge to anyone."
Clint simply nods. He thinks Coulson is wrong, but he knows his handler well enough to know when he's not going to win this argument. Instead, he gestures to the room around him. "Does this mean the others will let me come back?"
Coulson looks at him gravely. "Do you want to go back? Be honest, Clint. If you can't work with them, we'll find you a new team."
"I don't want to be reassigned!" Clint says hastily. "I want...I like being an Avenger."
"And you'll stay an Avenger," Coulson reassures him. "That's not going to change. But if you can't work with the others, we'll find a new team to put around you."
Shock widens Clint's eyes as he realizes what Coulson is saying. "But that's—you can't reassign people like Cap and Iron Man and Thor!"
"Watch me," Coulson bites out grimly. "The Avengers are a team, and your team failed you. Right now, they'll do whatever I damn well tell them to do. If I tell them they need to crawl across broken glass, they're going to."
Coulson looks so disgruntled that Clint laughs, earning a startled look from the other man. "Nah," Clint says, grinning, though it still feels hollow and not quite right. "Your dry cleaner would never forgive you."
He manages to get a tired smile from Coulson in returns and settles himself back down against his pillows.
"Could I get a cheeseburger or five? I'm kinda hungry."
This time Coulson's smile is more genuine. "Sure thing."
By the time Medical releases him, Clint is ready to go. He feels a little ungrateful for the thought, uncharitable as it is. The last week has probably been his best stay ever. The nurses put up with all his talk, Fury even came down to see him a few times, and Coulson has been surprisingly amenable to almost all of his requests, even indulging Clint's craving for Chinese food at 2 am. It's been more like a vacation than anything else, and Clint would have enjoyed it more if he didn't know it was driven by pity.
He hides that feeling, giving Coulson a too-sunny smile as soon as they're settled in Coulson's car. "We're going to the tower, right?" he asks again, for the umpteenth time. Coulson has to be getting sick of being asked that, but Clint can't help himself. The echo of Steve's "You should probably go." and the image of the rest of the team turning on him, leaving him, won't go away. He can't quite believe, no matter what Coulson says, that they really want him back. And if they do, he's afraid they're going to treat him like the medical staff did, as if he were something fragile and breakable. He's not. If he were, he would never have made it this far. And he can't quite believe this is real until he's actually back.
But his handler just nods. "Yes."
"Good." Clint drums his fingers nervously on his thigh as they drive toward the tower.
"They want to talk to you," Coulson says quietly after a few minutes. "They want to apologize."
"They don't have to," Clint says quickly. Because they don't. Yeah, he's kind of hurt that they thought he had kiddie porn, but he knows the pictures are hard for most people to look at. They didn't know who the kid in the picture was, and the jump to the conclusion they reached was a pretty short one.
"Yes, they do," Coulson says firmly. "You deserve it, and they need to. Just...let them get it over with so they won't hassle you."
Clint nods. "Okay, yeah, that's fine."
They pull into the parking garage and Coulson stops near the elevator. "Do you want me to go up with you?"
Looking down, Clint struggles for an answer. He knows his head is messed up, that he got really low—too low—and that Coulson just wants to make sure he's okay. His recent hovering hasn't been unwelcome, but this whole thing started with just the team and Clint feels like just the team should be present when they finish it. "I think I'd rather go up alone."
"Okay. If you need anything, call me."
Reaching for the door handle, Clint nods again. Then he pauses and looks at Coulson. "Hey, Phil?" He has to say this now while he still can because the time for being vulnerable is ending. He can't keep his mind in the place it's been in if things are going back to normal soon. "Um...thanks. For...you know."
"You don't need to thank me, but you're welcome. And I mean it—if you need anything, call me. Even if it requires tasering Stark. Especially then."
Clint manages a grin and gets out, giving Coulson a little wave before closing the door and going to the elevator. It opens soundlessly and Clint stares at the buttons for a long moment before pushing the one for the common floor. The doors slide shut, and he feels the slight pressure as the elevator begins its ascent.
"Welcome home, Agent Barton," JARVIS says quietly, somewhere around the fiftieth floor.
"I wish to apologize for my role in the misunderstanding. I did not realize the sensitive nature of the situation."
It's a testament to the odd turns that Clint's life has taken that he's not really fazed by an AI saying he's sorry for accidentally exposing his childhood trauma and making the rest of the Avengers think he's a pervert.
"It's okay, JARVIS," he says. "You were just trying to help."
"You are too kind, sir."
Clint just smiles and leans against the wall until the soft chime tells him he's reached the common floor. He takes a deep breath, and when the doors open, steps out.
The team is waiting for him when he emerges from the elevator, and Clint thinks they all look a little ridiculous, perched on the edges of seats, eyes glued on him as he walks in. A part of his mind notes that they've all adopted body language meant to be non-threatening. They're seated, all lower than him, posture as relaxed as they can make it.
"Hey, guys," he says, shoving his hands into his pockets and waiting awkwardly for whatever they have to say.
Steve stands first. "Clint, we are so, so sorry."
"No problem, Cap," Clint replies easily. That clearly rattles Steve, obviously not the response he was expecting.
"What we did, it's unforgivable. I know you must be angry at us, but whatever we can do—"
"It's fine." Clint interrupts him, because if he doesn't, Steve isn't going to let this go. "No, really, it is."
"Why aren't you pissed?" Tony asks abruptly. "You should be yelling at us, or shooting arrows at our heads."
Clint shrugs. "It was a misunderstanding. Shit happens." He looks at the others quickly. "So you're all okay with me being back?"
"Why would we not be?" Thor speaks this time. "You would be well within your rights to ask for us to leave, Clint, but there is no reason we would not welcome you back."
"Great, then we're good." He wants to suggest going for some food, but given how confused the others look, he knows he's not going to get out of this that easily. He sighs. "Okay, fine, this is going to drive you all nuts until you ask, isn't it? So go ahead, shoot."
"We have no right to ask about that," Bruce says, looking pained.
"It's okay, Doc, really. I'd rather get this over with now than have to dig all up again later."
Bruce starts to protest, but Tony cuts in. "Who was it? The guy in the pictures...who was it?"
"Don't know." Clint gives another little shrug. "It doesn't matter."
"Of course it matters! You're sure you don't remember anything that could help us find him?"
"No, but I don't really remember anything about most of them. There are a few that stand out, but those are the ones I tried to forget, you know?"
"There were others?" Steve sounds stricken and Clint realizes that he, that none of them know what really went on. He rubs a hand over his face. Fuck. Well, best to get this over with quickly.
"Okay, listen, you know how I was in the circus?" He waits for them to nod. "When Barney and I signed on, it went without saying that we would have to earn our keep. For the most part, it was feeding the animals and cleaning their cages, carrying shit for others, that kind of stuff. About a year in, Buck gave me another job." Clint manages a smile he knows isn't very convincing. "That's why I said it doesn't matter. You can find guys who fucked me from one end of the country to another. It wasn't like the night the pictures are from are anything special."
He knows he's said too much when a horrified silence is all that follows in the wake of his revelation, but he doesn't know how else to make them understand that he didn't keep the pictures in order to facilitate revenge someday down the line. They were just to remind him that he can never be weak like that again.
"I'm just...gonna go to my floor. Tomorrow, can we pretend this never happened?" He doesn't wait for an answer, just turns and heads for the stairs.
He watches some TV for awhile, ignoring his stomach urging him to get dinner, and decides to turn in early. Out of habit, he goes to reach for the box, surprised when he sees that it's actually there, and that the envelope with the pictures is back inside it.
He hesitates, though, his hand hovering over the envelope before he puts the box back without looking at the pictures. Maybe he doesn't need look at them, at least not every night.
"Is he awake, JAVRIS?" Natasha asks, standing in the darkened hallway leading from the elevator to the door of Clint's apartment.
"No. Agent Barton's sleep has been fitful, but he is asleep at the moment."
"Thank you." Natasha opens the door to silently, slipping in with all the stealth of a shadow. She makes her way to Clint's bedroom and right up to his bed, sliding in next to him with as little noise and movement as possible.
Still, this is Clint, and he comes sleepily awake as soon as she begins to set her weight on the mattress. "Wha-?" he slurs, blinking up at her in the darkness. "Tasha?"
Natasha doesn't say anything, just wraps herself around him, molding her body against his until there's no space between them. "I'm sorry," she mumbles into his shoulder. "I'm sorry." She repeats it again and again, switching to other languages, apologizing in every way she knows how to do.
After a several minutes, Clint's arms come around her and hold her against him, letting her litany of apologies carry on until they finally lull him back to sleep.
She doesn't go back after that night, but she always makes it a point to sit next to Clint from then on.
Tony and Thor are still hellbent on revenge, but after Clint's confession, they realize the odds of finding the exact men who raped Clint were extremely small. They settle for the next best thing, and Tony has JARVIS locate child porn on the internet, and then trace back until they find who is uploading it.
The next month sees a rash of random attacks by Iron Man and Thor, the result of each being a group of people being handed over--usually unconscious--to the local police, with all of the incriminating evidence safely secured.
Fury and Coulson don't even make them do the paperwork.
Bruce doesn't know what to do for Clint, doesn't know how to help someone who's clearly dealt with trauma in their own way, albeit in an unhealthy manner. So he tries to be there for Clint, just in case. Clint gives him some odd looks at first, clearly wondering why Bruce is working on his tablet while he plays a shooter on the Xbox, but he doesn't ask, and after a while, relaxes completely around him.
They don't talk about it, any of it, but sometimes Clint looks at him and says softly, "I'm okay, Doc. And you can tell the big guy."
The pictures and what they represent stay with Steve. He, of all the Avengers, knows how powerful images can be, how they can affect people. He spends a long time talking to JARVIS, working out a plan, until he has what he needs.
He leaves the pictures, one each day, outside Clint's door. They're all of Clint, but never of him alone. One of them is always in the picture with Clint, and they're all of Clint grinning or laughing. Steve can't erase what was done, but he needs Clint to know that whatever meaning he got out of the old pictures, whatever he reasons he had to keep going back, there are reasons to keep going forward, that while there are people who would hurt him, he has people now who will protect him.
After a while, after Clint realizes that the new awareness and care in the group isn't going to go away, he decides that he needs to do something for them. He thinks about the stacks and stacks of pictures Steve has given him, and about the two Polaroids still tucked away in a box. He still looks at the Polaroids from time to time, but they don't have as much impact as they used to. He knows that he's no longer the boy in the picture, that he can't be hurt that way again, but now he understands that even if someone tried, he wouldn't be alone, that he has people, friends, family who would come for him. And even if someone did hurt him, wounded him so terribly like he had been as a child, he wouldn't be alone after that either. His family knows what he is, accepts it, and loves him anyway. Clint being hurt had hurt them, and he's come to realize that each time he hurts himself to remember the old lessons, he's hurting them as well.
The first thing Clint decides to do is easy. He simply goes out to a store and buys and couple dozen photo albums. They're all small, only holding a couple dozen pictures each, but they're pretty and brightly colored. He sorts through Steve's photos and pulls out his favorites. These he puts in a sturdy, black leather album and places it on his bedside table. The rest he sticks randomly into the other albums until they're all filled and then scatters them throughout the tower, on everyone's floor and in every room of the common level.
When Clint goes to bed now, he opens the album he kept and flips through the pictures and looks at them instead. His fingers trace over the curve of Natasha's smile, the glow of Tony's reactor, the arch of Thor's throat as he throws his head back to laugh. He grins at a foam covered Bruce who was a victim of DUM-E's aggressive fire safety programming and at Steve who's frowning down at yet another destroyed punching bag while the others laugh at him from the side.
Mostly, though, Clint looks at himself. At him laughing and smiling, a few of him sleeping, sprawled out across the couch with one or more of the others and another of him glaring at Tony who had taken a Sharpie to his face during one such time. He has trouble reconciling the man in the pictures with the boy in the Polaroids. Neither one feels like him, but he's feeling a little more like the man in the pictures and a little less like the boy everyday.
He catches them all looking at the albums, and more often than not, if they see him, they pull him down next to him to laugh and trade stories.
The second thing Clint does for his team takes him a lot longer to work himself up to. He knows he needs to do it, and he knows the others need to be a part of it, but letting go is harder than he thought it would be
Over the course of a week, he asks them all the meet in the common living room one evening. Everyone shows up, even Coulson and Fury. There's a small fire going in the gas fireplace and he can see the curiosity in their faces.
"Thanks for coming," he says when they're all there. "I wanted to do something, and I'd like you to be a part of it, if you want to."
"What is it?" Steve asks.
From his back pocket, Clint pulls out the two Polaroids, and everyone stiffens just a bit. Clint ignores it and picked up a pair of scissors he brought in earlier. In silence, he cuts each picture into four pieces, and if his hands tremble a little, no one embarrasses him by saying anything. When he's done with both pictures, he picks up all eight pieces and goes around and gives them each one of the little squares, keeping the last for himself. Each person looks at the piece they've been given and then at Clint and then at the fireplace.
Thor is the first to move. He goes and thrusts his piece into the fire, his hand so close to the flames that Clint wonders if he's burned himself. Thor watches his piece of picture blacken and crumple and turn to ash, the faint acrid smell drifting into the air, and then steps back. Natasha goes next, then Tony, Steve, Coulson, Fury. Bruce places his piece gently into the fire, letting the flames lick at it for a moment before he lets it go.
Finally, Clint is the only one that's left. He looks down at the piece in his hand. It's the one where's he on the bed, the section that shows his face turned toward the camera. Clint remembers Buck calling his name, remembers looking and being blinded by the flash of the camera, remembers how rough the blanket below him felt, and how much he had hurt. This picture will always be a part of him, but the picture isn't the important thing anymore. He nudges his piece, the last piece, into the flames, watching them flicker and dance until the small square is long gone.
Then he shuts the gas off, letting the flames die. The ashes will need to be cleaned out later, but for now, they're done here. "Thanks," he says, turning back to face his friends and then finds himself caught in one of Thor's bear hugs before set back on his feet.
"Come!" Thor says. "We shall celebrate in the way all true warriors do!"
"By getting drunk?" Steve says dryly, and their tones are so free and easy that something tightens in Clint's chest.
"Well, I was going to suggest a small, quiet meal, but I like your suggestion much more, Captain," Thor teases.
"This wasn't exactly a battle," Clint mutters.
Coulson's voice is quiet in his ear as he gently pushes Clint after Thor. "Yes, it was."