- December 24, 1984
- October 24, 1990
- April 14, 1993
- September 16, 1996
- January 1, 1997
- March 15, 2001
The bow was too big for him, but he could still use it. “What the hell are you doing?” his dad asked as Clint pulled the string back as far as he could. He looked his dad in the eye. He let the arrow fly. It hit his dad square in the chest, a pfft followed by an oof as James Barton fell backwards. Oof was the last sound he made, oof and then the crash as he hit the kitchen floor. His beer bottle dropped from his meaty hand and smashed on the kitchen floor. The broken glass and Bud Light mixed with the red, red blood. The glass crunched under Clint’s boots as he walked over to his father. James made no noise as Clint stood over him. He was dead already, the arrow buried so deep in his heart that the tip came out the back. Clint pried his father’s fingers off the shaft and pulled. It was stuck firm. He braced his boot on his dad’s neck and pulled harder until the arrow came out with a wet sucking noise. A little more blood oozed out of the neat hole it had made.
His hands sticky with blood, Clint fumbled the arrow back into place. His hands shook too much. Clint stopped. He breathed. He flexed and unflexed his fingers until they were steady as his heartbeat. Then he notched the arrow back into the strong black bowstring. He drew the string back and aimed square at James Barton’s left eye.
“You deserve this,” he said.
James said nothing.
“You deserve worse.”
James said nothing. There was nothing left to say.
Clint fired. The body barely moved. His father was dead. Dead, dead, dead. And he was never coming back.
Clint pulled the arrow out and fired again just to be on the safe side.
Mike wasn’t a good guy and he wasn’t trustworthy. Then again neither was Clint. And Mike offered to buy the drinks so Clint figured what the hell. He’d listen to the man’s offer. Where else was he gonna be right now?
“You still with the freak show?” Mike asked as he passed Clint his beer.
“No,” Clint said. He drank. Mike waited for elaboration. Clint drank.
“That’s a shame,” Mike said finally. “You had a good act. My little girl pissed herself over you. You were a hero for a week there.” He paused so Clint could respond. Clint drank. “You need money then.”
Clint put his bottle back down on the bar with a clunk. “Couldn’t hurt. You got a job?”
“It’s not a normal kind of job.”
“Sounds like my kind of job.”
“It’s not a fun kind of job.”
“If it was fun, it wouldn’t be a job.”
“I’m serious, Hawkeye. It’s different from what we’ve done together before.”
Clint scowled at the nickname. “Jesus, Mike, just tell me what the job is.”
Mike told him what the job was.
On the long walk home—on the long walk back to the corner of a rooftop Clint spent his nights—he didn’t think about much at all. He was good at that by now. Shutting off his brain was second nature. He could stop an unwanted thought before he thought it. But there was self-preservation instinct and there was stupidity. Clint didn’t make a habit of confusing the too so he finally asked himself the question that had been dancing around his brain since Mike finished his talk.
What was the going rate for an assassin nowadays?
Not that Mike was calling him that. Not that Clint was calling himself that. He was too small fry for such a big word. Mike wanted an “enforcer,” an enforcer who would use whatever level of force Mike deemed necessary. And Mike needed a lot of force for this particular job. “Do you understand what I’m saying?” Mike had asked.
Of fucking course Clint did.
Two thousand dollars was what they agreed upon. Two thousand dollars. Seemed too low to Clint, but Mike said it seemed too high to him. And what the hell did Clint know? Did he plan on running around town asking for a better offer? Shut up and take the money, kid. It was two thousand bucks more than he had before.
“Why?” Clint had asked after Mike handed over the bills—half now, half when the job was done.
“What did this guy do?”
Mike slid Clint another beer. “Listen, Hawkeye. I like you. I think you’re gonna go far. So let me give you a bit of professional advice. Don’t ever ask why.”
The target’s name was Burroway. Rodrigo Burroway. He lived in a shitty apartment in a shitty building in a shitty part of town. His kitchen was painted a dirty blue. It had one cheap table, one flickering light, and one small window that Rodrigo paced back in forth in front of. He’d taped cardboard up over one of the broken panes. He had a bald spot that glistened with sweat and he muttered to himself while he walked. After ten minutes of this, he faltered, his hands fluttering to his coat pockets. He fumbled out a cigarette and clenched it in his teeth while he flicked the lighter again and again and again.
On the rooftop opposite, Clint pulled back the bowstring until his thumb brushed his cheek. It groaned as it went. He thought that the entire street heard it. Clint couldn’t remember such a silent Chicago night.
At last, a flame. Rodrigo’s eyes shut as he lit his cigarette, and for a moment, every crease on his face disappeared.
“If it helps,” Mike said as Clint got up from the bar to leave, “the son of a bitch really does have it coming.”
Clint and Rodrigo exhaled together. The smoke hid Roderigo’s face for just a moment.
The kid was just some teenage punk, angry at the world and no way to do anything about it. Mike’s boss, a beefy bastard who called himself Cervantes, hired the kid as a lookout on one of his crew’s robberies. Chump money for a chump job. Cervantes probably considered it charity. The kid had to start somewhere. Clint had done shit jobs like that for years, where the risk and the payoff never balanced and you’re the asshole they blame if anything goes wrong. But you’ve got to start somewhere.
And apparently the kid was grateful up until he got the bullet in his thigh courtesy of the Chicago PD. The alarm that wasn’t supposed to be working had worked. Terry Morse, a stupid motherfucker past his prime, panicked. He pulled his gun. The police shot him fifteen times before he hit the ground. Then they kept shooting.
This Clint learned secondhand and after the fact, when Francis and Pitbull took him out for drinks. Cervantes footed the bill. All Clint knew while it was happening was that he’d been talking about Mike and Cervantes about a job in Mexico City. They needed muscle for the cartel. It sounded like good work. Clint had always wanted to travel. So he’d been on his best behavior, keeping to “yes, sir” and “no, sir” like the soldiers in his war flicks. After twenty minutes of verbally jerking the guy off, Cervantes didn’t seem convinced.
“Come on, Robin Hood,” he said, a shit-eating grin on his face. He found the nickname hilarious. “What makes you better than anyone else here? I got a hundred guys I can send down south.”
Clint didn’t try and match Cervantes’ posturing. He’d opted a long time ago for a cooler approach. People liked their killers ice cold. It was the happy, cheerful fuckers who always started that Jeffery Dahmer shit. “I’m good at what I do.”
“Yeah, what you do.” Cervantes laughed and looked at Mike until Mike laughed too. “I don’t think there’s a place in this operation for a fairy shooting arrows.”
“I’m telling you, man, he’s good,” Mike said. “He’s got better aim with that bow that any of your boys got with their pieces.”
“There’s more to a weapon than shooting it, though.” Cervantes eyed Clint and smirked. “You ever scare up some respect with a fucking quiver?”
Clint eyed him back. His face was still as stone. “Yes.”
Something flickered across Cervantes’ face, quick as lightning. Fear. It was gone in an instant. Cervantes laughed in his face. Clint smiled for the first time all meeting.
“Cervantes!” The doors banged open. A kid hobbled in. His leg was wrapped in a white sheet turned red. He clutched at the wall to keep himself up. “Cervantes, you motherfucker!”
Two guys ran in behind him and grabbed the kid’s arms, trying to drag him away. “He’s shot,” one of them said quickly, apologetically. “He don’t know what he’s saying.”
The kid tried to pull his way free. “He’s dead! He’s fucking dead, man! What about the alarm? You said you’d shut off the fucking alarm.” The kid shrugged his friends off and collapsed against the wall. He was drenched in sweat. When the two men reached for him, Cervantes held up his hand. They stopped.
“You’re angry,” Cervantes said coolly. “I understand. I’m angry too. Angry that you dumb motherfuckers fucked up a job my grandma could have pulled. And normally, I’d be show you just how angry I am.” He let the words hang in the air. “But,” he said, his voice all cheer now, “seeing as you’ve got a slug in your leg and seeing as your brother is a very good friend of me, I’m gonna give you a hell of a chance to make things right right now.” Cervantes sat back and spread his arms. He grinned. “Beg.”
The kid spat on the ground.
“That’s a bad answer,” Cervantes said. He looked at Clint. “Now, if someone came into your house and disrespected you like this in front of all your boys, what would you do, Robin?”
It was a test. Clint didn’t want to pass. Did. Didn’t. He wanted what he would get when he passed. He wanted the chance to be somewhere else. He wanted the chance to be something new.
Clint looked the kid in the eye. He couldn’t be older than sixteen. The kid looked back. He didn’t ask for mercy.
“I’d make sure he didn’t do it again,” Clint said. “I’d make sure everyone knew what a bad idea it was.”
Cervantes’ smile turned dark and lazy. He flicked one hand at Clint. “Come on then, Robin. Let’s see what that bow can do.”
Cervantes and Clint stared at each other. What did you do when someone disrespected you? What lengths did you go to to prove whose king of the hill? This was what Clint knew: when the master says bite, the dog doesn’t argue. Clint didn’t have a choice.
No. Clint made his choice.
He got the Mexico City job.
The job went wrong.
That was Clint’s first thought as the knife sliced through the air where his neck had been two seconds ago. This job had gone pretty fucking wrong.
Clint turned on his heel and ran. He may have been the deadliest man alive with a bow, but Ada Lee was the deadliest woman alive with a knife. This close, it was Ada’s advantage. He reached the end of the roof and jumped, a leap of faith that the building he remembered being there was exactly where he remembered it. His guess was off by a few feet.
He barely caught himself on the ledge, his chin smacking against the brick as he stopped himself from falling. Blood and spit dribbled down his front as he pulled himself up. His left shoulder felt damn near dislocated from catching himself, and his right knee hit the side of the building so hard it screamed when he put weight on it.
Let it scream. Clint ran. He heard her land on the rooftop behind him without so much as a grunt. She was gaining on him as he tried to hobble forward.
Running wasn’t an option then. Plan B it was.
She was faster, but he was heavier, and she wasn’t expecting him to run towards her. Weight and surprise the only advantages that he had going, there wasn’t much elegance to his tackle, but it got her on her back, Clint sprawled on top of her. He grabbed her knife arm and twisted it against her chest. He felt the point press into her chest.
It was a moonless night on the outskirts of Kabul. In the pitch black, they fought by touch. With the palm of her free hand, she broke his nose. As he reared back she scrambled out from underneath him and kicked. Her foot missed his throat. Good. It hit his left shoulder instead. Bad. Through the haze of pain, he grabbed her ankle before she could get away. As long as he kept his hands on her, he knew where to aim. Downside was, she did too.
Quick as a snake bite, Lee stabbed him once, twice in the left leg. He barely felt it. He didn’t have the time. As she tried for a third, he yanked her leg. She fell. He heard her head crack against the concrete. Metal clattered on the concrete roof. She had dropped her knife. She reached and he pulled her back towards him. Hand over hand, he worked his way up her body as she punched and kicked. She hit his left kidney again and again. Her foot found the stab wounds in his leg and she dug her heel in. Clint’s vision turned white. Blindly, he grabbed her by the hair with his left hand. That gave him a target. With the right hand, he punched.
He felt something crack, her nose maybe, but he didn’t think. He couldn’t think. He punched again and again. Her teeth cut his knuckles open, but like his leg and his shoulder and his knee and his kidney and his jaw, he knew the pain more than felt it. The feeling came later.
He hit her until her legs stilled and her arms slackened. Even then he had difficulty stopping. But eventually the adrenaline wore off. The only movements she made were when his fists made her body shake. Then he stopped.
Clint’s mind, shut down in favor of instinct, whirred back into action. If he didn’t get medical attention soon, he would bleed to death. His target was not only not neutralized, but aware of the threat to his life to the point that he’d hired an assassin of his own. A woman who Clint had beaten to death. A woman whose body Clint was still straddling.
He pushed himself off her and collapsed. They lay side by side as Clint fumbled for his walkie-talkie with his left hand, his battered and bloodied right curled uselessly against his chest. It took all his strength to hold raise the communicator to his lips. “This is Barton,” he grunted into the static. “Mission compromised. Require immediate medical evac, over.”
“State your location, over.”
“Rooftop one building due south of the duck blind, over.”
“Hitchcock’s en route. ETA driving time. The captain’s going to be pissed, over.”
“The captain can blow me. Barton out.”
In the distant night, Clint heard the sound of sirens. They were further than they sounded, he knew that, but Clint’s heart beat faster anyway. Didn’t matter. He’d be gone before they got here, one way or another.
He reached for his leg to keep pressure on the wounds. His arm bumped into Ada’s. Still warm. Of course she was. She’d only been dead a minute. He pressed the back of his hand to her arm. Her skin was very soft. He followed it up past the curve of her shoulder and up the swoop of her neck until he found her face once more. It didn’t feel like how a face should feel.
The sirens raced closer and Clint’s head got lighter. Maybe he’d make it. The realist in him doubted it. Ada was too damn good for that. They’d talked once, in Hong Kong last year. She’d tried to recruit him for some secret job, but he’d said no. He wasn’t a freelancer. She’d bought him another drink anyway and they’d danced to music they didn’t understand. He’d kept her card.
He skimmed his fingers up over what had been her lips, up over what had been her nose, until he found her eyes. Her eyelashes brushed against his palm. He slid them shut.
Then Clint woke.
The man in the suit smiled at him. It was a cool smile. A cool face. He’d been the last thing Clint had seen before he passed on. He’d smiled then too. “Mr. Barton. We’ve been looking for you. It’s a pleasure to finally meet in person.”
Clint blinked. Lifting his eyelids after was almost impossible. He felt stupid and blind, his eyes blurring and unblurring. He reached his hand up to rub his vision clear when his arm stopped with a metallic clank. Why? He looked down at his wrists. Metal rings. Bracelets. Handcuffs.
The time span between understanding and attacking was less than a second, but the man was ready for him. As Clint lunged forward, the man dodged to the side and jammed a taser into Clint’s neck. He fell to the floor, the chair he was handcuffed to falling on top of him as he twitched and screamed. When the pain dulled and Clint stilled, save for the occasional inadvertent spasm, he felt awake finally. So that was a positive. His face was smashed into the floor. When he tried to move, he couldn’t. His legs, he realized now, had even less movement than his arms. They must have been taped to the legs of the chair.
“That wasn’t smart,” the man said mildly. Clint was thinking the same thing. The man’s feet, covered in the most sensible shoes Clint had ever seen, walked into Clint’s vision. They were so clean, Clint could see his own face in them. He didn’t look good. Clint craned his neck until it burned and followed the feet up to the man’s face, that same meaningless smile still stretched across his lips. He was a shlumpy, balding man with an unremarkable face and a suit designed to be forgotten.
Espionage, then. Intelligence agencies pumped out beige men like this by the dozen.
“If I sit you up, will you behave?”
Whatever drug they’d given him still had a hell of a hold over his system. Words weren’t working right now. Clint grunted. The man took it as affirmative. He grabbed the back of the chair and pulled it back onto its feet. The sudden shift from down to up tossed Clint’s stomach. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried not to puke on himself.
The man lightly slapped his face. “Eyes open, Mr. Barton.” Clint jerked away. His head pounded for it. The man sat down opposite Clint. As his mind slowly whirred into action, Clint took stock of his surroundings. It didn’t take long. The walls were white. There was one bare light bulb dangling above the two chairs. The door must be behind him. There was nothing else.
“You’re woozy,” the man said. “Disoriented. Maybe a little nauseated as well. Don’t worry. The side effects should wear off in an hour. It won’t do you much good, of course, since we plan on giving you another dose then.”
Clint kept his mouth shut. He’d never been good with men in suits. He had a hard time not pissing them off. Now didn’t seem like a good time to piss this one off.
The man nodded at Clint's right hand. "Hell of a scar you've got there."
Clint tightened his fist. He knew the scar. It was courtesy of Ada Lee's front teeth.
The man rested his hands on his knees and smiled. "Do you mind if I ask how you got it? I love stories about scars. I don't have any interesting ones myself. My organization’s medics are too good for that. I have to live vicariously through other people's stories."
Clint said nothing.
"I'll guess," he said. "I'm good at guessing. Now let's see." The man stroked his chin with one hand, an exaggerated thinking face on. He pointed at Clint's hand. "Well, if my prior experience is any indication, that looks the kind of scar brawlers get. The human body's harder than you think. It can tear you up pretty bad just by being torn up.”
The doctor who patched Clint up afterwards had clucked disapprovingly. “Go to the throat next time,” he’d said. “Nice and squishy. Much easier on the hands. Do it that way, you can kill someone with your bare hands and open a jar a minute later.”
“What's curious,” the man continued mildly, “is that you have them. They must be recent. But that doesn't make any sense. You're Clint Barton! Well." The man sat back, his eyes fixed on Clint's even as the rest of his face and body was as relaxed as before. "That's not what they call you on the street. That's not the name people use to solicit your services. I don't anyone's called you Clint for at least, what, ten years now? Am I right, Hawkeye?"
Clint said nothing.
"So forgive me for being nosy, but it seems odd to me that the most successful sharpshooter the criminal underground has ever known has scars like a common street fighter. Do you care to explain that, Mr.Barton?"
Clint kept his eyes fixed on the wall above the man’s head. The man moved into his line of sight. The man's eyes darted down to Clint's clenched fist. "Was that Ada?" he said, his voice low and quiet. "Was that her last hurrah?"
“Are you planning on torturing me at some point?” Clint asked. “Or is this it?”
For a moment, the man looked disappointed. In one swift move, he grabbed Clint's right pinky and jammed it backwards with a quick crack. Clint didn't scream. The man held on, pushed it back further and further until finally Clint couldn’t stop the gasp that slipped out. Then the man let go. He sat back down, his hands on his knees. Clint breathed through his nose and glared. He wasn’t afraid to die. He wanted this man to know that. It might save him some pain.
"We're not going to torture you, Mr. Barton," the man said. Clint snorted. The man ignored it. "We don't have to. You're a man of reason. You don’t get to your position in the world without a ruthless practicality that my bosses happen to respect. I think you'll find our proposal under the circumstances quite generous."
"What?" Clint spat.
"A job," the man said. "Starting immediately."
Clint stared at him.
"We don't blame you for killing Ada. Officially. She wasn't on a SHIELD assignment and she attacked you. You, of course, provoked her attack by attempting to kill her charge.” The man paused. “But we don't want to get into a messy game of finger-pointing. You killed her and nothing we say can bring her back. However, this does leave a gap in our roster. A woman with her kinds of skills was an invaluable asset to our organization. You have robbed us of that asset. We did consider killing you for it, of course, but that wouldn't have solved our problem. You have a particular kind of skill set yourself, Mr. Barton. You could also be an invaluable asset.”
The man raised his hand like Clint was preparing to interrupt. Clint was not. Clint was listening very hard. "You could say no. We're not slave owners. We won't hold you against your will. We will, however, shoot you and dump your body in the apartment of whatever crime lord we feel like getting rid of. An inauspicious end but not a surprising one, considering your life."
He paused to let the words settle. "Or, Mr. Barton, and I think you'll agree that this is the better option, you work for us. You live in our housing, you work our jobs. You collect paychecks with a little SHIELD logo in the upper corner. You make the world a safer place. For once in your life, you can do something good. And if you do anything to make us think that you are misusing this opportunity, your death will not be nearly as generous as a shot to the head." The man held out his hands. "What do you think?"
“What exactly is the job?” Clint asked.
“Whatever we tell you it is. Yes or no, Mr. Barton.”
Clint wasn’t afraid to die, but that didn’t mean he wanted to. “I don’t have a choice.”
"You always have a choice. They just aren't always good ones." The man stood and tugged the wrinkles out of his suit. "I'll pass your acceptance onto the Director. I'm sure he'll be thrilled." He started to walk away and paused. He pressed a finger to his lips in thought and turned to Clint. "There is just one more thing before we can consider your application. We understand that you might feel some qualms about leaving your old boss in the lurch. How do you feel about Hector Jones? I'm sorry, how do you feel about Cervantes?"
Clint looked sidelong at the man.
"It could be awkward," the man said. "Divided loyalties make for lackluster work performance."
"Do you want me to kill him?"
"Please. We can call it your first mission."
"I've worked as his right-hand man for three years."
"Yes, I know. I can see why that might make this difficult."
Tests. There were always tests.
"You don't understand,” Clint said. “I've worked directly with him for three years. I know everything he has done in that time. Killing him would be my genuine pleasure."
The man didn't respond to that. His face was still, his eyes hooded. His hand covered the lower half of his face. Then he took it away and smiled another one of those smiles that didn't reach his eyes. "Good to hear. We like initiative here.”
The man walked behind Clint, his feet tapping on the sterile floor. “See?” Clint said. The footsteps stopped. “I can be agreeable. You didn’t even have to break anymore fingers.”
“Oh,” the man said lightly, “that wasn’t to make you join.”
“Just for fun then.”
Clint’s head snapped backwards so hard he thought his neck might break. The man had a death grip on Clint’s hair. “That was for Ada,” the man hissed in his ear. He kept Clint like that for a moment before he pushed his head forward. The footsteps went back to the door. He heard the door swing open.
“My name is Agent Coulson,” the man said. “I look forward to working with you, Agent Barton.”
The light flicked off. The door slammed shut.
According to her file, her name was Natasha Romanov. According to Natasha, she didn’t remember what name she was born with. She was twenty-six, maybe, or thirty-two, or nineteen. She couldn’t be sure. All she knew was, however old she was, she felt older.
“You were supposed to kill her,” Coulson said as they watched her through the one-way glass. She sat with her arms crossed on the table, her head drooped. She looked very, very tired. She looked very, very young.
“I know,” Clint said.
Coulson crossed his arms. They watched her in silence. “Why?” he asked finally.
Clint thought about staying silent. It wasn’t Coulson’s business. But Coulson could make what needed to happen go a hell of a lot smoother. He might be willing to do that if he understood. “You said we’re the good guys. I thought I’d practice being the good guy.”
“By sparing the life of one of the most notorious killers in Eurasia. By saving the Black Widow.”
Coulson didn’t seem convinced.
“She’s a kid,” Clint said. “She’s got her whole life ahead of her. She should spend it doing something good. She wants to spend it doing something good. She just needs a chance and someone to show her how.”
“And that person is you?”
Coulson had his poker face on, the one where it looked like he found everything mildly interesting. He watched Natasha. Clint watched Coulson. “And how did it feel?” Coulson asked finally. “When you saved her.”
In the room, Natasha put her head in her arms. When this was done, Clint would bring her something to eat, take her someplace she could sleep. He knew how frightening a new life could be. “Like I did something right.”
Coulson sighed. “Well, I suppose we can find something to do with her.”
Clint’s mouth twitched. “I bet you can.”
An assassin saving an assassin. Hell of a good deed. Still. It was a tally in a new column. The other one was too full. He couldn’t do anything to clear that slate. But it might do him some good to fill up this one. Make himself of list of people Clint Barton saved. Right now: one.
Everyone starts somewhere.