Clint Barton is twenty-two when he plants an arrow through the leader of an Ethiopian child smuggling ring. It pins him to the wall like a bug. The three men hired to protect him never gain the second they need to scramble from their seats to help him, or help themselves. They're dead between one breath and the next.
He doesn't make it quick for their boss. At all.
Instead he watches as the man wraps his hands around the thick arrow shaft sticking out of his chest; he can't do anything more than squirm and gasp. He's still aware enough to recognize Clint when he slides in through the open window though, and his eyes go wide as he stares. Clint moves until he's standing only a few feet away, fingers flexing on his bow, and stares right back.
"I- I-" the man gasps, blood frothing into little bubbles around his lips, drowning him from the inside. "You-" he gurgles fearfully, choking, desperate for help.
"Yes," Clint agrees softly, unconcerned, "me. You hired me to take out your competition." He blinks slowly; eyes cool as he watches his target struggle for every breath. "Objective accomplished and payment received in full. Thanks for that." His victim gasps, head drooping lower, body shuddering a final time until his hands flop down to his side, stained red and still. Clint watches him for a long moment, blankly, until he was sure it was over. He always made sure. "Consider this a bonus." His words were for the dead.
Looking over he spies the door he was here for. The one that led to a room without windows, and that currently housed at least six children that he was sure of. He doesn't let his gaze linger long, swinging silently back out the window and climbing nimbly to the ground. In five minutes the local law will be riding in to the rescue and while Clint has little confidence that the children will leave there to enjoy lives of contentment and splendour, at least they weren't going to become someone's property. They weren't going to be brutally used and discarded.
He may have damaged his street credibility with this job (potential clients tended to become uneasy when their assassins turn around to bite the hand that feeds them) but he didn't regret it. Would never regret it. What he didn't realize, as he swiftly moved to his pre-arranged extraction, was that this job would be the one that would ultimately catch the attention of an American government organization. It would change his life in ways he couldn't imagine.
If he had known this would be the fallout prior to killing the two child-enslaving men, along with the majority of their 'employees,' well, he would have still killed them.
Some people just needed to die.
When this secret organization caught up to him the first time they attempted to corner him, trying to hide their approach. He'd reacted as any decent criminal would: he wiped the floor with them and disappeared. Clearly they hadn't been expecting close combat skills, nor his willingness to use them before they'd even announced their presence.
The next time they got close he got a warning from a local contact that owed him, and slipped away.
The third time he stopped running just long enough to let them announce what they wanted. They gave him the options of a job offer or jail. He laughed. He wasn't interested in being wooed, nor was he interested in brushing up on his 'don't drop the soap' jokes. They had a sniper in place for this 'meeting,' clearly one that was not used to concealment within an urban setting, and they made the mistake of trying to take him down with a tranq dart. They failed. He did not appreciate their recruitment techniques.
Months passed before he saw them again. He'd begun to believe they'd lost interest. He should have known better.
He was in a pub in Wales, his first trip to the UK and it was actually his first ever, honest to god, attempt at vacationing. He didn't have much of a choice, recognizing that his near overwhelming exhaustion and small injuries that never got the chance to properly heal were slowing him down. He couldn't afford to be worn down, he had no one to watch his back anymore; it could get him killed.
Spying the man in the suit the moment he stepped into the dimly lit room was too easy. Clint stayed where he was though, and watched as the suit gazed placidly around before his eyes landed on Clint's little table, tucked away in the back corner. His gaze was piercing and he made no attempt to hide it before he ordered two ales from the bar before sitting down across from Clint, as though he'd been expected, as though meeting with an acquaintance. He pushed the one beer pointedly to Clint and took a deep drink from his own before clunking it on the table. Clint leaned forward slowly (he was still recovering physically from his last job) and took the one the agent had drank from for himself. The man's lips twitched in what Clint thought was amusement but he made no protest. Clint did his best to not show his apprehension. He hadn't been expecting this, not here, not now. Stupid, amateur mistake. He might only be twenty-two, but he'd been in the business long enough that this shouldn't happen. He'd dropped the ball big time here.
"Mr. Barton," the man leaned back in his chair, unconcerned as Clint stared at him silently. "Having a nice break from your life of crime?" Clint wrapped his hand around the pint glass and wondered if the guy had realized what an effective weapon he had handed him. When he failed to respond to the jibe the agent's eyes darkened a little in irritation. "Intelligence doesn't have you pegged as the silent type," he intoned blandly and reached for the second beer. Clint tensed, prepared to react in case the man attacked, and didn't bother relaxing after nothing happened. He had six possible exits, three of which would require breaking glass and one that would probably end up with some roof jumping. All of them would be relatively simple, theoretically, so long as this agent had arrived alone. Chances of that were pretty slim, but Clint knew for a fact that he was the only suit in the pub's main room.
The agent settled back in his seat after another drink, his hands clasped loosely on the table. He watched Clint steadily.
"It's been reported that you're possibly the best marksman up for sale at the moment," there was a superior cut in his tone that rankled Clint, unease and dislike climbing up his spine in a way that none of the previous agents had instilled. Clint grinned back sharply, knowing there was nothing even remotely friendly in his flash of teeth.
"Best marksman, yes," he agreed. "For sale, occasionally, but for you? Not at all."
"You haven't even let me present your options yet," the guy responded coolly, eye twitching, and Clint had had enough. It was time to leave. He moved to stand, and made it as far as releasing the glass his hand had been curled around before slumping back on the chair at an angle that did nothing for his sore ribs. He might have even grimaced in pain if he wasn't suddenly gripped with panic at the fact that his body wasn't listening to him. He jerked a hand towards his belt, intent on whipping out the small knife and embedding it deeply in the agent's shoulder (he tended to try to avoid killing government lackeys, it was just a bad idea). He got as far as managing to twitch his fingers and clench an ass cheek before it became clear that his body was no longer co-operating with his brain.
He panicked. Internally.
Across from him the agent smiled dryly and took another pull from his glass.
"Topical neuromuscular-blocking agent," he explained, rubbing his fingers across the palm of one hand to demonstrate how Clint had been hit with the drug. "Fast acting. It's so effective that, as you've probably realized by now, the individual dosed with it tends to not notice until it's too late. Fortunately one can protect themselves from this particular formula with a simple inoculation."
Clint didn't know enough about chemistry or biology to know if 'fast-acting' also meant it was quick to metabolize, but he would bide his time, and then-
"I'd appreciate it if you refrained from thinking violent thoughts in my direction, Mr. Barton, it's not going to do you any good."
"What do you want?" he asked, or tried to. His tongue was too thick and not cooperating, his jaw barely shifted from the effort, and his vocals were fucked as he barely cracked out a frustrated whine. He felt lethargy slowly creeping in, the edges of the room starting to grow dimmer.
The agent watched him struggle, waving off the barmaid as she approached with menus, and then leaned forward over the worn wooden table.
"You've impressed a lot of people, Barton, people with connections, and I'm not going to sugar coat it: our agency wants you working with us. Badly. But you've been rather difficult to track down, which makes the higher-ups want you even more despite your keen disinterest."
Clint struggled against the drug. He knew a lost cause when he felt one, and he knew he wasn't getting out of this easily. He tried to keep the agent in his sights as his eyes drifted closed, tried to ignore the flood of fear burning in his chest. He was alone, and completely vulnerable, and any moment he could end up dead. Any moment could be his last, and he wasn't ready for that. He wasn't ready-
"Now, Mr. Barton, perhaps you'll listen to your options."
Except that he wouldn't, because Clint had already slipped into oblivion.
When he woke up, his mind cloudy and vision blacked out by a cloth over his eyes, he learned that he really had only one option.
He didn't get far, wrists and legs secured on a soft surface, straps over his shoulders, torso, and thighs.
"My name is Marcus Warner," the name burned into his brain, bright and all consuming and he fought harder as something hard and cold was pressed into his temple. There was a soft click, felt through his skin, felt like it was burrowing into his bone, and then the same spiking pain on the other side. The unison crushing, compressing, making him wish his ears would begin to bleed to relieve the pressure.
He choked. He tried to scream. Words filtered through the haze, mingling with the cool, bitter tasting water that occasionally found its way into his mouth, down his throat.
-Warner. I am an agent of SHIELD and your superior. You report to me first and foremost-
He could see colours behind his eyes, tiny lights that blurred and danced and distracted him from the tingling of his flesh, the thousands of tiny hairs being plucked from his skin. The knife in his brain.
-loyalty to SHIELD – hierarchy – follow orders-
Eventually even the agonizing pain clouded, became fuzzy, became an afterthought.
-will not harm me – will never run-
Until something shifted, something deep, something crucial. A slick slide/rip/grind settled where it shouldn't. Where he didn't want it.
-secret – never reveal – mislead – misdirect-
When he woke up, a lifetime later, naked and curled on his side in a puddle of his own sick and filth, his head begging to fall off, he wondered if he hadn't died after all.
He remembered running out of air to scream.
He dragged his head off the floor, coordination shaky, his whole fucking body shaky, and immediately focused on Warner. Warner. The man was sitting casual in dress pants and a button down, eating the remains of a salad from a takeout container. The room smelled of chicken. Clint's stomach rebelled and churned at the scent. He flexed his fingers in the short carpet beneath him, pictured exactly where he was going to attack, which limbs he would break before he crushed Warner's throat. He pushed to his knees with feet pressed into the wall, ready to lunge.
He did nothing.
On the bedside table by his side there was a knife. He grabbed it and threw, picturing it lodging in Warner's temple, right where the agony would crush him like it had crushed Clint.
He missed by three feet.
His rage stuttered in his chest as fear began to rise. Warner finally glanced up from his meal, looked at where the sharp blade was imbedded in the drywall up to its hilt, and looked back at Clint, unfazed.
"Shower and get dressed, Barton," Warner ordered. "We've got a rendezvous in two hours."
Clint moved to his feet, balance unsteady and body screaming at him, sore and aching, like a three-day training bender that he hadn't been on, still healing injuries burning deep. His vision swam and he braced himself on the wall. His still healing ribs did not thank him.
"What the fuck-" He croaked, barely getting the words out through his dry, burning throat. All his instincts were screaming at him to attack Warner, to take him out of the picture and regain control. Clint glanced at the knife he had tried to do just that with resting harmlessly in the wall. Change of plans: he needed to get out of the room. Now. He managed to straighten from the wall and take one step towards the door before he changed direction and moved towards the bathroom. He froze after two steps, struggling to turn around. Half a room away was the unlocked door to the outside world, to his escape, and he couldn't- he couldn't go to it. His body wouldn't comply. "What did you do to me?"
"You're not as bright as I'd been led to believe, are you," Warner sighed, eyes narrowing as he met Clint's. He hadn't noticed what a pale shade of brown they were earlier. He wanted to make them red. He was shaking with the need. Run you idiot! He didn't move. "You belong to me now Barton, and more abstractly, you belong to SHIELD. Congratulations. Now go shower, you stink."
"I don't belong to anyone," he growled through clenched teeth. Warner looked unimpressed, and then turned to flip open his laptop, ignoring him.
Clint went to the washroom and slammed the door shut hard enough to shake the walls. He turned just in time to dry heave into the pale pink sink, his fingers wrapped around the cold porcelain edge. He braced himself until the dribbles of acid stopped and he took a steadying breath.
There was no mirror, he wasn't sure he wanted to see what he looked like anyway.
He showered, as ordered. He dressed in the clothes Warner pointed at when he re-entered the room. He finally walked out the door with the intention to fight off any attempt at restraint.
"We leave in half an hour Barton, be here." Warner's deep voice followed him out the room. Clint walked into bright sunlight, quickly slipping into the shadow of a wisteria laden stone wall. Still in Wales. He rounded the corner and picked up speed, slipping down one alley after another. He had nothing but jeans, a hoody, and sneakers to his name. He lifted some cash and a butter knife from a café. Same country, different town. He'd be three towns away in half an hour and had a contact in Blackpool he could use for quality fake papers.
Twenty-nine minutes later he met Warner by his car. He hadn't been able to walk away. It had been physically impossible. He didn't understand how the man had gotten such a hold on him. He did understand one thing though.
"I'm going to kill you," he promised, voice thick with rage, fist wrapped around the pilfered knife that he was unable to use. He was trembling he was so furious, feeling weakened and vulnerable. It was unacceptable.
"No," Warner smiled and knocked his sunglasses over his eyes, "you won't. Get in the car Barton, it's time to put your game face on."
Clint got in the car.