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Love, Loss, Hope, Repeat

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Part One: Burn Season

Clint Barton is sixteen years old and a smart-ass punk with nothing in his past but his life as a carny and eyesight as sharp and clear as a hawk’s when Old Man Carson decides to close down his carnival for a few months and take some time off in Florida with his daughter and Lulu, his main squeeze. “You wanna come, you can come but when we’re there you’re on your own. Capisce?” Like he was Italian or something.

“Sure,” Barney agrees.

“Get your brother into school or something.”

“What about me?” Barney asks.

“Get a job. You’re big enough. They got cane fields down there. Cutting pays pretty well.”

“Right.” Barney says sarcastically. He's not stupid. Manual labor like that was left to wetbacks from Cuba. Like they’d get top dollar. But the alternative was Iowa in the winter where there were no jobs and Clint whining about the cold. “Sure. That’s great. Thanks, Mr. Carson.”

They ride in the back of Carson’s pick-up, huddled under a canvas tarp. Fortunately, the weather is still mild, and gets warmer as they drive further south. Clint watches the landscape pass and wonders what will happen to him and Barney when they get to Florida.

On the third day out, they cross the state line. They drive through Ocala where Clint sees horse barns and paddocks. “Can we stop here, Barn? We could get jobs working on a horse farm.”

“We don’t  know nobody here. Carson knows a guy who can get me a job cutting cane and you can go to school. In the spring, he’ll come back and get us.”

Clint hates school. He’s too small and skinny for most sports, and the teachers keep telling him he needs glasses. He doesn’t need glasses. His sight is fine, better than fine. He doesn’t see things the way other kids do; letters all run together and look backwards sometimes. Dyslexia one teacher told him, but the principal said he was just being lazy and ignored what was in front of her.

“I can cut cane,” he says.

“Sure,” Barney sneers. “You being so big and strong. That’s what they need.”

“I’m fast, Barn --”

“Shut up! God you’re so stupid. I should’a left you in Waverly and let you freeze your ass off.”

At that moment, Barney looks more like his father than ever, and Clint throws up an arm to ward off the coming blow. “I ain’t gonna hurt you, Clint.” Barney sounds disgusted. “Just shut up and go to sleep or something until we get to Clewiston.”

Clint curls himself into the smallest space possible and watches the landscape change from evergreens and cypresses to palmettos and reedy grasses. The bed of the truck is stifling and he drinks more water than he should, but his stomach still roils with acid. “Is this Clewiston?” he asks Barney.

Barney rolls his eyes. “What are you? Six?” He knocks on the back window. “Hey, Mr. Carson, how far to Clewiston?”

“The plantation is about 10 minutes from here. You’ll be okay?”

“Sure,” Barney says. “We’ll be fine.”

Clint thinks Barney doesn’t sound so sure about that anymore. He feels sorry for Barney. Barney always has illusions about what his life should be. Clint has none. He is a carny, he isn’t ever going to be big and strong and fast. His only skills are archery and his only gift is keen eyesight. He looks at Barney and shrugs. “Yeah. We’ll be okay.”

The city of Clewiston briefly raises Clint’s hopes. It’s pretty. A sign on the outskirts proclaims that it is America’s Sweetest Town. Old houses and new ones made to look like the old line the streets. Businesses fly the flag. It doesn’t look like cane country. They drive right through downtown and out into the flat land on the outskirts. Carson pulls into a long gravel drive. On either side, tall canes rustle in the wind, like dry fingers scratching sandpaper. They pass groups of men, sweating and shirtless, some carrying boots strung over their shoulders. Their skin ranged from black to pale brown to tan and they were ropey with muscles, but honed down to no flesh to spare. They were hard, and Clint looked at Barney, with his wheat-colored hair, fair skin, and strong, young body and thought this plan of his was just plain stupid. How would they survive the winter?

“Barney,” he whispered. “Ask if there’s someplace else we can work. Like a restaurant or construction jobs.”

“Don’t be a wuss. You don’t have a work permit and I don’t have the money to be choosy. We’ll be fine.” Barney talks a good game, but Clint can see the nerves behind his eyes.

The truck finally comes to a stop outside a construction trailer. The siding is rust-stained and worn. “You boys coming?” Carson asks as he climbs out of the cab.. “I want to make it to Dade County by dark. I promised Lulu I’d be there.”

Barney hauls himself out of the truck. “Come on, Clint. We don’t do this and we won’t get our jobs back at Carson’s in the spring.”

Clint doesn’t say a word. He follows Barney and Carson inside. The atmosphere inside is more stifling than the air outside, and it's dark. His eyes adjust to the dimness. There is a palmetto fan trying to stir up a desultory breeze. The only furniture is a desk and chair, two rusty filing cabinets and a cast iron safe that looks like the shack was built around it. The man sitting behind it is mostly muscle slowly turning to fat, like a retired circus strongman. He's wearing a dirty wife-beater and creased linen pants that are stained and worn. The shack reeks of sweat, the remains of a burrito and rust.

"You Jim Carson?"

"Yeah. These are the boys I told you about. Barney, here, is a hard working young man. He's strong and tough. The kid --"

"He's too scrawny. He'll burn up to a husk in the heat.'

"He's good with numbers. And he needs to go to school."

"Sure. 'Least he won't eat much," the man laughs and holds out his hand to Barney. "Luke Smith."

"Barney Barton and this is my brother, Clint."

"Okay. Let me get somebody to show you to your bunks. Work starts tomorrow before sunrise. You get paid according to how much you cut. No hourly wage. Got that?"

"Yes, sir. What about Clint?"

"He can go to school with the Cubans. Bus comes early, takes the kids to the school but they gotta walk back. It's two miles. You look like you can do two miles, right?"

"Yes, sir," Clint answers. Smith seems like an okay guy. Barney looks less skittish than he did, so maybe things will be okay.

Carson sets a hand on his shoulder. "I'll see you boys in three months."

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." Clint knows how to be polite, but the part of him that is still a boy wants to run after Carson and beg him to take them away from this place. He doesn't. He turns back to Barney and Mr. Smith. Barney is filling out paperwork. He shoves some pages over to Clint.

"Here. For school."

Clint fills out as much as he can. He doesn't know some of the information, but it seems like nobody is going to care what his grade average was in eighth grade. He makes up a number that isn't too high or too low. He gives the papers to Smith.

Barney finishes filling out his forms and hands them over as well. "So, where do we stay?"

"With the other workers. Get your gear."

They trail Smith out of the back of the construction trailer. There is a dirt road lined on either side with a variety of structures; some metal Quonsets, others rusted trailers, some no more than shanties with metal walls and rotted canvas roofs. A few workers and their families stare out at Smith. They look mostly Hispanic, but Clint can hear reggae music coming from radios, so he figures some of the workers are Haitian or Jamaican. The men wear heavy work pants and dirty wife-beaters, or t-shirts with the sleeves ripped out. Most of them are thin, muscular and their skin has the oily sheen of sweat and sun. The women wear thin cotton dresses, some in bright hues dulled by dirt, others so tired and worn that they are devoid of color. Babies and toddlers peer out from behind their skirts. One woman is nursing an infant, not bothering to cover herself. It's nothing Clint hasn't seen, or cares about, but Smith is leering at the woman and it kind of creeps him out.

Smith elbows Barney. "Nice titties."

Barney blushes and grins. "Yeah, like melons." It makes Clint feel sick. He wonders if he really knows his own brother.

They stop in front of one of the quonset huts. Smith opens the door. "You'll bunk here with Rodriguez and Suarez."

Neither of them are in the hut, which smells like rust, heat and sweat. Two sets of bunks are against the back wall. A window lets in light and air. The ragged remains of cotton curtains hang at the window, rotting in the humidity. The mattresses are thin and stained. Clint thinks of his cot at the carnival which is starting to look like paradise to him.

"There's communal mess after the cut is done for the day. I'll leave you boys to settle in. Be at the mess at seven if you want some food."

He walks back to the trailer. Nobody speaks to him. Barney is already unpacking his ruck. "Come on, slow poke or I'll take top bunk."

Clint knows he won't. He'll take the bottom bunk so he can sneak out for a smoke or whatever at night. Fine with Clint. Being on the top bunk means he'll be up high, safe from predators, like a hawk in his nest.

^*^*^*^*^*^*^

Rodriguez and Suarez are tough, skinny guys. They either don't speak English or don't want to let on that they do. Clint speaks enough Spanish that he can understand them, but he isn't about to let on that he understands just about everything they say, even the profanity. Barney shifts from innocent boy to street tough as soon as he takes their measure. Clint relaxes slightly. He doesn't feel any waves of menace from their bunk mates.

Together, they trudge over to the mess tent, not saying much, but not hostile, either. Dinner is a mess of beans and some sort of sausage, cornbread and water. After, Suarez offers Barney a cheap beer and Clint a soda. They sit out in front of their hut and watch the heat lightning in the distance.

Clint climbs easily into the top bunk. It's too hot for covers. He sleeps in a pair of cut-off sweat pants. It's all he has. He listens to Barney breathing, to Rodriguez snoring. He doesn't sleep , but that's nothing new. He's never told Barney about the Swordsman and what he did; the thought of it makes Clint's stomach roil, and he curls around it, feeling safe for the moment. Finally, he sleeps, worn out by the stresses of the day and the heat.

The next day is Sunday and the migrant workers go to church. Clint and Barney take the bus into Clewiston and look around. The shops are closed, but there is a small greasy spoon that is open and Clint is starving. He looks at Barney. "I got five bucks."

"Yeah, me, too." Barney cuffs him on the shoulder. "Come on, might as well blow it on some pie."

The waitress must have a soft heart. She gives them burgers, fries and peach pie to split for eight bucks. Barney would stiff her the tip, but Clint leaves his dollar. "She's got more money than us," Barney sneers. "She don't need yours."

"It's my dollar," Clint says. He doesn't tell Barney that he's saved twenty in an old sock at the bottom of his backpack. He decides he needs a better place to hide it. It's kind of sad that he trusts the Cubans more than he trusts Barney. He loves his brother, but he knows Barney looks after himself, first. He learned that from their father and Swordsman.

The bus returns at 3pm to pick up the workers and take them back to the camp. By then, the sun is fierce, and the bus is like an oven. Clint manages to open the window a crack and spends the ride trying to get a breath of air. The air is thick with dust, but it's better than the reek of sweat and onions and garlic. Barney ignores him, bums a cigarette and shares a beer with Suarez.

^*^*^*^*^*^*^
Clint is jarred awake before first light by a pounding on the door. It's time for the workers to go to the fields. Barney stumbles out of bed, grabs his clothes. He gives Clint a rough shake. "Get up. The bus comes at six." He jostles his way out the door, heading for the latrines.

Clint dresses and wait for the workers to leave. His bladder is stretched full, but he knows the workers are more important. He laces up his boots, pulls on a t-shirt and jeans and when the trucks take the workers, he heads to the latrines. No breakfast and the bus comes at six. Clint is one of the older kids, but he looks younger than he is. The boys his age already sport tattoos and look tough. The little kids huddle in the back of the bus. When they get to the school, Clint digs out his papers and heads to the principal's office.

The principal is a thin, harried-looking woman. She gives his papers a glance. "High School classes are on the second floor."

"Yes, ma'am." He leaves the office and goes up the steps. He finds his classroom and sits in the back, trying to blend in. His blond hair isn't helping. The teacher comes in and starts speaking Spanish. She gives him a glance, but pays more attention to the other kids.

Clint isn't stupid. He's well beyond the lessons she is teaching to the migrant workers. At the end of the day, he decides he isn't going back. He can't work in the fields. He doesn't know what he can do and still survive. He stares out the window until a sign catches his eye. Barker's Shooting Club and Archery Range. A smaller sign says Help Wanted. Clint thinks about tomorrow.

Barney, when he gets back, is sunburned and tired. His arms are scratched and cut. He looks miserable. He gives Clint a glare. "Get me a beer." He tosses Clint two bills.

"We can get other jobs," Clint says softly. "Barney ... please."

"Fuck off, kid. I can earn more doing this in one day that I can in a week working at MacDonald's. Just get me the fucking beer and go away."

Clint gets him a beer from the Cubans and huddles in his bunk. He has a dog-eared copy of Huckleberry Finn, and he starts reading it for the tenth time. The Cubans come in and throw themselves down on the bunk. Barney is asleep before his beer can is empty. Clint picks it up and takes it to his bunk. It's warm and funky-tasting, but he drinks it. No sense in wasting any liquid in this heat. He falls asleep, curled around his book.

The next day is the same as the first. This time, when Clint gets off the bus, he heads back towards the range. A big man with arms like hams and a sweaty ball cap on his head is behind the counter. An overworked window air-conditioner moans and wheezes, but it's cooler in here than outside.

The man looks at Clint. "Kid, ain't you supposed to be in school?"

Clint shrugs. "Don't like it much. I can read and write and do math."

"What are you doing here?"

"Looking for work."

"You're too young."

"I can shoot real good, mister."

"Yeah, right. This is the south, boy. Everybody shoots real good."

"Test me. If I pass, you hire me. If I fail, I go back to school."

The man sighs. "Why not. What do you shoot?"

Clint walks up and looks at the bows in the rack. He picks out a recurve. "This one."

"Seriously?"

"Yeah." Clint takes the bow, strings it, and walks out to the range. Barker hands him a quiver of arrows.

"Shoot for the bulls-eye. You miss, you're out."

Clint nods and takes the arrows. "One test shot?"

"One."

Clint draws the bow. It's a little heavier than he's used to, but he can work with it. He nocks the arrow, draws, and lets the arrow fly true to the center of the bulls-eye. He doesn't miss. His final arrow splits the first one. It feels so damn good. He lowers the bow and wipes the sweat out of his eyes. "Well? Do I get the job?"

"What do you know about guns?"

Thanks to Trickshot, who is almost as good with a gun as he is with a bow, Clint is confident he can handle the rifle range. "You want to see me shoot?"

He gives Clint a rifle. It's beautiful, deadly, but not as sleek as a bow, not as elegant. Clint manages to shoot well enough to satisfy Barker. He's hired part time during school hours so he can ride the bus to the school and walk from there to the range. His job includes retrieving shells and arrows, cleaning the washrooms and locker room, mopping floors, and keeping track of stock. In return he gets paid minimum wage and he can shoot whenever the range is empty or after hours while the light lasts.

After a week, Barker tells him he can help coach people who want individual lessons in archery. Clint starts getting tips in addition to his wages. Barker feeds him and he starts putting on muscle weight now that he's not half-starved. He feels guilty about lying to Barney, but his brother hardly notices him. He's dog-tired by the end of the day, and he prefers the company of the Cubans with their beer and cigars and cigarettes, and the girls who look at him with sultry eyes on the weekends. He doesn't seem to notice Clint, and when he does, he looks at him like he's a stranger.

Clint thinks he can stick this out after all until Carson comes to get them in two months. He tries to keep a low profile, lugs his books around like he really is going to school. Barker was in the Rangers and he shows Clint how to figure out his shots using math; how to make ghillie suits for cover during a hunt, how to keep his weapons in good order even when the environment is against him. He's the closest thing to a father that Clint has ever known. Clint keeps some money in his locker at the range and hides some in a sock buried in his dirty laundry. He thinks it's safe, but somehow, when he comes home one day, Barney is holding the sock in one hand and Clint's stash in the other. His eyes are red-rimmed and there is an empty tequila bottle on the floor next to him. Clint sees for the first time how big Barney is ... how cutting cane has bulked up his muscles. He's grown, looks more like a man. He looks dangerous. He looks like their father. Clint suddenly feels like the child he was, beaten down and abused, but he stands upright in front of his brother.

"Where'd you get this? Steal it from somebody?"

"No! I ... " He tries to think of a lie and fails. This is Barney his brother, his blood. "I quit school, got a job."

"How long?"

"Two months. I got a good job, Barney. I work at a rifle range. I give guys lessons in archery. I don't want to go back to Carson's."

Barney throws the money down on the bed. "You little shit! I'm out there working like a sonofabitch -- look at my hands!" He thrusts them towards Clint. They're calloused and blistered, raw in some places, cracked and bleeding.

"Sorry, Barney. I'm sorry about school, but this is better -- " Before he can say more, Barney's fist connects with his jaw and drops Clint to his knees. Clint's head hits the corner of the bed and he blacks out momentarily. He comes to in time to see Barney's rage-engorged face close to his, but Clint isn't seeing his brother, he's seeing his father and like that terrified child, he tries to crawl away. Barney grabs his shirt and holds him down with a knee pressed into his sternum. "You fucking, lying piece of crap," he hisses. His fist comes down again and Clint barely has time to turn his head, catching the primary force on his cheekbone. He feels the skin split, feels the bone shift and he cries out.

Barney stands up, draws back and kicks Clint in the ribs. Clint doesn't know what to protect first; Swordsman said he was pretty, whispered it as he hurt Clint. If that's his value, that's what he'll protect. He wraps his arms around his head and let's Barney take out his drunken rage. Clint's survived this before. He'll survive again.

He's vaguely aware of Rodriguez and Suarez pulling Barney off of him; of one of them leaving to get Marcellita, who was a nurse in Cuba. They tell Barney to run, they'll lie and say they found Clint like this. Their voices sound far, far away. He vomits up watery blood and bile and the pain makes him pass out at last.

^*^*^*^*^*^*^

Marcellita takes one look at him and tells Ricardo that he has to go to a hospital. Ricardo can't call 911, so he has Suarez load Clint into the bed of a pick-up, with Marcellita riding in back with him. They drive to the local clinic and leave Clint in the waiting room before the clerk at the desk can ask them any questions. There isn't a doctor at the clinic, just a physicians assistant, who after one quick examination of Clint's injuries, calls for an evac chopper to take him to a hospital with a trauma unit.

Clint is in the hospital for six weeks. His most severe injuries are a skull fracture, and his shattered orbital bone. He has a broken wrist, cracked ribs, a bruised spleen and liver. He doesn't want to think about the bills. He's sixteen, broke, and alone. Barney hasn't visited him once. Maybe he shouldn't expect it.

On the day of his discharge, he signs his papers, gets his medications and is wheeled out of the hospital. After that, he's on his own. He has the papers Barney had cajoled Carson into getting for them, declaring himself and Clint emancipated minors. He lies to the nurses about Barney being at the sugar camp and having no way to get to the hospital. He walks a block and turns out of sight where he hitches a ride with a trucker back to the sugar fields. There is thick black smoke rising over the fields. It is the burning season, and the camps will be packing up, the workers moving on to their next cutting.

Hiking from the road to the camp makes Clint nauseous and weak. He gets to the office, knocks and enters. Smith, the foreman is packing. He looks at Clint like he's seeing a ghost. "Where the hell have you been?" he asks.

"Away. Where's Barney?"

"Don't know. He disappeared about six weeks ago. Left a note saying he'd write me to tell me where to send his wages and lit out. Haven't heard from him since."

"How much did he have?"

"Five hundred dollars. He was a good cutter."

"Five hundred dollars?" Clint's voice cracks. "Seriously?"

"Yeah." Smith opens the safe and gives Clint a wad of cash. "You might as well have it."

"It ain't mine," Clint backs away.

"Look, kid. Your brother ran off, and you look like shit. Take it."

Clint reaches for it with trembling hands. "Thanks."

"Where are you going?"

Clint shrugs. "Don't know. Back north, I guess. Thanks."

"You tell your brother not to come back next year. I can't have cutters running off at the height of the season."

Clint shrugs. "I don't think that'll be a problem." He turns away and walks out of the camp. He has one more stop to make. He takes the bus to the rifle range. The heat has burned the grass dry, and it looks tired and neglected. He goes into the store. "Mr. Barker?" he calls.

Barker comes out of the back. "Boy, I ain't taking you back." His usually kind eyes are hard as flint.

"I know. I just ... " He pauses, the room is starting to spin in a lazy circle and he staggers to cling to the corner of the bar. "Sorry. I didn't run out ..." His voice fades and before he can help himself, he's on the floor.

"Clint, son!" Barker is around the counter and scooping him up. Clint's head lolls back and he feels like skin and bones, like an injured bird in Barker's arms. He's carried into Barker's office and laid on the broken-springed couch. "What happened, kid?"

"Got in an accident."

"What hit you? A Mack truck? Here." He holds Clint up and gives him a glass of cool water. "When was the last time you ate?"

Clint thinks it was dinner last night in the hospital. "Yesterday?"

"No wonder you're fading away. Drink that water, son and stay put." Clint doesn't even try to pretend he's all right. A few minutes later Barker comes in with a bologna sandwich and a glass of milk. Clint thinks it's the best thing he's ever eaten.

"Thanks." He sits upright, trying not to show that his ribs are still tender. "I just came to get my stuff, Mr. Barker, then I'll be on my way."

"Where will you go?"

"Back north, I guess."

"How old are you, really?"

"What's the date?"

"August 15th."

Clint realizes this is finally the truth. "I'm seventeen. Really."

"I got a friend, an army recruiting sergeant. You could do worse. You got the skills to be a good soldier once you build yourself up. I told him about you, and then you disappeared on me."

Clint thinks about Carson's, about Barney, about Swordsman and Trickshot. About the poster of him in his purple show costume, billed as "The World's Greatest Marksman." He'd been fifteen for chrissakes. He can't go back, Barney and Swordsman have made that impossible.

"I'll think about it."

"Get yourself up to Fort Benning. Ask for Sergeant Lew Anderson." He pulls a duffle from under his desk. "I cleaned out your locker when I figured you'd run or gone to jail, or something ... " He opened the safe. "Here's your cash, plus some traveling money."

Clint thinks of Barney's five hundred dollars. He isn't stupid. He knows that could go in the blink of an eye if he isn't careful. "Thank you, sir." He takes the envelope, surprised at it's thickness. There has to be another five hundred in there, which is nearly three times what Clint had stashed. "This is too much," he says, stunned.

"Son, looking at you right now, you can use it. Buy some new clothes, eat, find someplace to sleep tonight -- and I don't mean on the streets. You got it?"

"Yes, sir."

Barker grins. "You'll make a fine soldier. Go the lingo down already." He puts some bottles of water and some snacks in Clint's duffel. "You do as I say, y'hear."

Clint holds out his hand. "I won't forget how you helped me, Mr. Barker."

"Hell, I'm going out to Arizona to stay with my daughter. I'm closing the range. I'm gonna be a grandpa. Live the good life."

Clint doesn't know why he's smiling. It hurts his heart. "Good for you, Mr. Barker. Someday maybe we'll meet up again." He leaves, his heart still aching, and walks down to the nearest bus stop. He takes it to the end of its run, another small sugar town. This one is near the highway and has a Greyhound bus terminal, if you can call a single room shack a terminal. He buys a ticket to Ocala. It's a three hour trip, that he sleeps through to the final, lurching stop. He picks up a brochure and looks up a cheap chain motel a block from the station. He checks in, using the fake drivers license Barney had made up for him before they left Carson's. There is a MacDonald's across the street, and Clint buys a quarter pounder with cheese, fries and a milkshake. It's too much food, but he eats the burger and most of the fries. He asks the girl behind the counter where's the nearest second-hand clothing store is, and she writes down the address.

He takes his milkshake with him and walks down the street. It's mild outside, and still light enough for people to be out. Clint doesn't feel any danger. There's an Army/Navy surplus store next to the Goodwill. Clint buys a knife and a belt with a sheath. It's the South and nobody thinks it's odd for a kid to be buying a lethal weapon. He likes the sturdy boots and thick socks, and he buys a worn field jacket with a flannel lining even though he's spending more money than he intended. He's on his way out when he sees a bow hanging on the wall. His throat goes dry and his fingers flex. Longing surges and he looks at the clerk.

"How much for that bow?" he asks.

"Fifty."

"Can I see it?"

"Sure." The clerk, pleased to have made some good sales, gets a hook and lifts the bow from the wall. It's a beautiful bow made of osage wood, light and flexible. It's seen its share of use; the grips are worn and the wood is scratched. Greatly daring, Clint says, "Throw in the case and the arrows and you've got a deal."

"Fifty for the bow. Twenty five for the quiver and arrows. Clint thinks about his cash. He'd give up a night in a motel for seventy-five bucks if he can have this bow. "Okay." He pays for his purchases, wincing at the nearly two hundred dollars he's spent. But everything he brought is good quality and sturdy. The bow is ... well, it's like having his arm back.

He asks the clerk if he can leave his purchases for a few minutes while he goes to the Goodwill where he buys three pairs of jeans, five t-shirts, underwear, and two black hoodies. There's a pair of black Converse tennis shoes that aside from looking like bleach got dripped on them, are in good shape, and a bargain at three bucks. Everything together costs him twenty dollars and will see him through the next six months if he's careful. The jeans are long enough that they should fit unless he grows another six inches.

He goes back to the surplus store and picks up his purchases, then he returns to the motel where he locks the door to his room, turns on the TV and takes the longest, hottest shower he can recall in his whole life. He has a small pack of toiletries from the hospital including a toothbrush, toothpaste and deodorant. He takes the unused bar of soap and puts it in the plastic ziploc.

He doesn't expect to sleep, but he curls up under his blanket and is out as soon as his head hits the pillow. He wakes up at first light, packs and exits out the balcony. He feels a twinge of guilt, but figures someday he'll make it up. It's not like it was the greatest place, and the name on the license was Francis Burton.

He buys tickets for the early bus to Columbus, Georgia, then goes across the street to the McDonald's for breakfast. He orders hotcakes and sausage to eat in the restaurant and an Egg McMuffin to take with him for lunch. He knows how underweight he is. He's afraid he'll get to Benning and they'll take one look at him and laugh.

He really doesn't want to stay another night in a hotel and waste the cash he has left, but he's too exhausted to make his way to Fort Benning. He needs food and a place to sleep. Columbus has a lot of motels ranging from nice, family places to the kind of dives Clint knows will be dangerous for a boy with a pretty face. He settles on a place near the highway that is cheap, but looks clean; with no debris in the lot and a well-lit entrance. The room is tiny; furnished with a twin bed and a cheap pine dresser. The bathroom has a shower and a sink. If Clint were a bigger man, he wouldn't be able to turn around in the stall. The water is hot, though, and Clint has soap from the motel last night. His hair is long and rough, but he figures the army will take care of that. There is still a thin patch over the place they shaved when they had treated his skull fracture, and a ridge of scar tissue. It doesn't bother Clint. He has other, more visible scars.

He sleeps like the dead until he's awakened by a pounding on the door. "Checkout in an hour!" His knife is in his hand, his chest heaving. It takes ten minutes before he can move. He packs quickly, pays, because he doesn't want to stiff the owner over thirty-five dollars. As he waits for the receipt, he asks about the recruiting office.

^*^*^*^*^*^*^
The office is in a strip mall close to the hotel. The glass windows are covered with sun-faded posters of the ideal soldier. Tall, broad chested, decorated. Next to those are pictures of women who look more like models than soldiers even if they are wearing uniforms. They all have those white, straight American teeth. Clint's teeth are good and straight, but they don't look like that, and he sure isn't the Captain America type. He hears Barker saying he'll make a good soldier, and that gives him the courage to go inside.

The air-conditioning is fitful and the air is still and warm. There are two desks, one with a Marine Sergeant, who looks like one of the recruiting posters. Clint feels invisible as the recruiter seems to assess Clint's suitability for the marines. Clint feels like he's failed some sort of test. The army sergeant is an older, slightly grizzled African-American man. He doesn't loom over the desk like the Marine, and his eyes go right to Clint's. "Can I help you, son?"

"Yes, sir. Former Master Sergeant Bill Barker said I should come talk about joining the army to Master Sergeant Lew Anderson."

"That would be me. Have a seat Mr. ...?"

"Barton, sir. Clinton Francis Barton."

Sergeant Anderson takes his measure and sighs. "How old are you, Barton?"

"Seventeen, sir."

"You got proof of that?"

Clint nods and takes out the creased, faded birth certificate. Barney doesn't know he has it, but he had stolen it from the orphanage files, thinking it might come in handy. Barney hadn't thought much about fake ID, but Clint wasn't dumb enough to think the forged driver's license would pass close scrutiny. He hands the certificate to Anderson who raises his brow.

"This wouldn't be a stolen document, would it Mr. Barton?"

"No, sir."

"If you're seventeen, you need a parent or legal guardian's permission."

"My folks are dead. I don't have a legal guardian."

"Ward of the state?"

Clint is starting to feel desperate. "No, sir." He takes out one last document, the one that Carson got declaring him and Barney emancipated minors. Clint was pretty sure it was legal, even if Carson had probably bribed a lawyer to get it.

"Social Security number?"

Clint doesn't have a card, but his near eidetic memory had seen it on documents at the orphanage. "I lost my card, sir, but I know my number." He recites it, and Anderson writes it down.

"Tell you what, son. You give me a day to check on these documents, and if they're legit, then we'll talk about joining the United States Army."

Clint's heart is beating hard and fast. "Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." He stands up and then adds. "Sir, I can shoot real good, my eyesight is 20/10, and I never, ever miss."

"Come back tomorrow, son."

"Yes, sir."

^*^*^*^*^*^
As he walks back to the hotel, Clint sees a diner, and deciding that he needs more than McDonald's to keep his body fueled for the next day, steps inside. The aromas are incredible; he could pass out from that alone. He slides into a booth and the waitress, a brassy blonde in her thirties, comes over to him, smiling. "What c'n I get for you, honey?"

Clint can't remember the last time anybody called him 'honey.' He knows he's blushing. "What's the special?" Diners always have a special.

"Chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes, corn, and a piece of pie of your choice."

Clint's mouth is watering. "I'll have that."

"How old are you?"

"Seventeen. I ain't ordering liquor," he sighs.

"Pay up front. I've been stiffed a couple times by kids."

Clint pulls a ten dollar bill out of his dwindling stash. The waitress puts it in her apron pocket. "So, what kinda pie? Apple, cherry, lemon meringue?"

"Cherry, please."

"To drink?"

"Coffee and a glass of milk."

The waitress gives him the stink-eye over the coffee, but she goes to put together his order. When the food arrives, it takes all of his willpower to eat slowly and savor every mouthful. It's possibly the best meal he's ever had. The pie crust melts in his mouth, the cherries are sweet and just a little tart. When he's finished, he feels like he's got a belly like Santa Claus, but when he looks down, it's as concave as ever. He hasn't been full in a long time. He leaves as big a tip as he can afford and stops at a drugstore to buy a bar of soap. He picks up a paperback written by an Army Ranger. He thinks he'd like that, being a Ranger.

He falls asleep reading the book and dreams about running uphill.

He checks out of the motel the next morning and carries his duffel with him to the recruiting office. He has to believe that Anderson will let him enlist. If he won't, Clint will have to start a long journey back to the carnival. He stops back at the drugstore and picks up a cheap pay-as-you-go cell phone. Then he goes to the library and uses one of their terminals to send an email to Barney. He doesn't tell him where he is, but he sends him the mobile number. When he's finished, he goes to the recruiting office.

The marine is gone and Sergeant Anderson is alone. He looks up when Clint walks in. "You came back."

"You told me to come back today."

"I thought maybe a night to think about it would change your mind."

"No, sir. The way I see it, this is the best chance I got to ... just, the best chance I got."

"Everything checks out, Barton. Let's get the rest of this paperwork filled out, and see the doc for a physical."

The thought of another doctor makes Clint's stomach clench with nerves. He can't refuse. He pays attention as Sergeant Anderson explains what happens when he reports to Fort Benning. It sounds hard, but Clint's been through hard before. His whole life has been an obstacle course; harsher than any Drill Instructor, harder than any ten mile run, more testing than any physical obstacle course.He doesn't know how to tell Sergeant Anderson that, so he just signs, and feels an enormous relief.

"There's one more thing before I administer the oath. You up for a ride to the shooting range?"

"Yes, sir!" Clint thinks that at last he can show off his worth. "Sir, just one thing." He puts his bow case on his knees and opens it. "This is what I shoot best with."

Anderson's eyes widen. "Son, we really need to get to that range. Bring your bow."

Mercifully, it's a short ride to the range. Clint's knee is bouncing nervously by the time they pull into the lot. He follows Anderson into a brick building. Anderson signs out a M-24 basic sniper rifle with a Leupold scope. "Let's start with the bow. Get the nerves out."

Clint nods and opens the bow case. He tests the draw again, feeling the life of it in his fingers, singing to him. The target looks small and far away, but Clint's eyes narrow as he nocks the arrow and lets it fly. It hits the target just off the bulls-eye. He has the range now, he just needs to get used to the bow. He repeats the action, and this time the arrow pierces the bulls-eye dead center. His next arrow is nestled so close to the second shaft that it might be one. He hears Anderson give a sigh of satisfaction. "Sir, I can do better with practice. You tell me what needs to be hit and I'll get it."

"I believe you, Barton. Ready for a rifle?"

"I haven't shot one in a while," Clint says doubtfully. It's true. Trickshot preferred the bow, but once in a while he'd take Clint to a gun range to increase his "skill-set." Clint believed him, never thinking that there was an ulterior motive. God, he'd been such a rube. Clint takes the rifle from Anderson. It is a beautiful, deadly weapon. Clint hefts it, holds out his hand for a clip, and loads it. He detaches the scope.

"What did you do that for, Barton?" Anderson snaps, but with more curiosity than anger.

"At this range the sight blurs my vision, sir."

"Proceed."

Clint continues to shoot the lights out of the targets until Anderson stops him. "Son, I'm recommending an18X enlistment."

"What is that, sir?"

"Basically, under the 18X enlistment option, you are guaranteed the chance to 'try out' for Special Forces. It does not guarantee that the you will be accepted into the Special Forces program. It only guarantees that the you'll be given the opportunity to see if you 'have the right stuff.'

Clint's eyes widen. "Special Forces?"

"Son, you'd be wasted in the infantry. You'll need a few years to grow into the recommendation, if you do well, this will get you into the program. It's the hardest work you will ever do; the washout rate is near forty percent. But the five year enlistment bonus is considerable."

"I'd do it for nothing, sir," Clint replies. He's breathless. "What's next?"

"You'll be in a special program that combines basic training and advanced individual training. From there, you'll go on to jump school. Not afraid of heights, are you Barton?"

Clint grins. "No, sir."

"You sure you're only seventeen?"

"That's what my birth certificate says." He returns the rifle to Anderson and packs up his bow. "Sir, will I ever have a chance to use this?" he asks.

"One thing I've learned about the army, Barton. It's full of surprises. You never know. Just don't leave it behind."

They return to Anderson's truck. The sergeant pulls out five twenty dollar bills. "Will this cover you for tonight?"

Clint's eyes widen. This was not what he expected. "Thank you, sir."

"Tomorrow, when you're Private Clinton Francis Barton, this all ends. You will not consider this to be a mark of special favor, and it will not ever be spoken of, is that clear, soldier?"

"Yes, sir." Clint quells the smile at the corners of his mouth. He's good at that, too. He's bubbling over with questions, but he's not sure Anderson wants to answer them, so he watches the dusty road and thinks about the cane burning. He's read that they burn it to the ground so it comes back stronger the next year. He's been through the fire, and now he will be strong.

^*^*^*^*^*^*^
Sergeant Anderson calls an old friend that night. "Nick, I have a recruit you just might be interested in for the future. Name is Clinton Francis Barton, and I tell you I have never seen anybody shoot like this boy can."

"Boy? Is that literal or figurative?"

"Both, I think. He's seventeen going on seventy."

"There are a lot of fine shooters out there," Nick sounds weary.

"He's phenomenal with a rifle and mind-blowing on the archery range. Grew up in a circus and was billed as the World's Greatest Marksman." Anderson can hear papers rustling, the scratch of a pen. He's an 18X, going for either the Rangers or the Berets."

"Get him in the Berets. They love unconventional."

They talk a bit more, and then the door opens and another young man looking for a way to get out of Georgia's red clay country comes up to his desk, and Anderson hangs up.

^*^*^*^*^*^*^
September 11, 2002 -- Afghanistan, Panjshir Valley

The storm is rolling off into the mountain, but the rain is falling; soaking through the rough wool cloak Clint is wearing over his fatigues. His rifle is propped on a rock, his sights zeroed on the valley below. The earpiece he's wearing whispers with the voices of the combat controllers from the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron. They are guiding the bomber pilots to target the Taliban fighters lodged in the rocky valley slopes. Thunder rumbling in the distance will be replaced by the thunder of bombs. Meanwhile, there are snipers in the rocks taking shots at the marines and special forces troops making their way through the valley.

Clint can see the flash of fire from the Taliban snipers. He starts picking them off even though he knows he will be giving away his location. With luck, by the time the bombing begins he'll be out of the line of fire. The Taliban snipers are getting a bead on his position and he decides it's time to move when the ricochets start throwing up chips of rock around him. He feels a burn and sear along side of his head, and a warm wash of blood on his face. Fuck! he thinks and really can't do anything about it. He keeps moving, firing, making shots that no one should logistically be able to make. He's not anybody, he's Hawkeye, the world's greatest marksman..

There is a menacing whistle overhead, and a thunderous impact against the valley walls. Bad shot, or a range-finder for a Taliban armed with a Stinger. He thinks of the bombers coming in, of the men who will die if the doesn't eliminate that Stinger. He knows there won't be a safe haven for them if he doesn't do his job.

He breaks down his rifle and takes out his bow. It's not the same one he brought five years ago. This one has a laser sight, it's incredibly light, and when he uses it, it gives him just that tiny edge of accuracy he needs. His body and eyesight are perfect, it's the physical bow itself that limits what he can do. He takes a roll of bandages out of his tac vest and wraps it around his head to stem the blood coming from his torn ear, then pulls his dark cap over the white gauze. He fires a shot with his pistol, letting the noise and the muzzle flare betray his location. Then he pulls down his night vision glasses and waits.

The first sniper is nearly opposite him. The darkness has made him confident and he sticks his head up. Big mistake. Clint's arrow takes him down soundlessly. He loves the stealth and silence, knows that he can instill fear, which echoes a psalm that he loves for the sheer poetry of it.

Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence.
He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust ...
Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day;
Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.
A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.

He hears the low, growing throb of approaching planes. He has only a few seconds. He runs and fires another shot even as he dives behind another boulder, somersaulting to his knees, the bow already nocked. The Talib will have to stand to fire the Stinger. "Come on you sonovabitch," Clint whispers. There is a hint of motion on the periphery of his night vision goggles. He sweeps the bow towards the motion, lets the arrow fly. The arrow takes the fighter in the throat. The missile misfires and impacts harmlessly on the rocks as the first bomber drops its payload. Then everything is fire and light and chest-shattering noise.

He scrambles his way down the rocks, his ears ringing, his eyes watering from the ash and grit, his heart pounding. He stumbles towards the ancient jeep his captain uses for transportation. "Mission accomplished," he says, but his voice sounds like it's coming from deep water.

"Hawkeye, get yourself to Doc. You're bleeding." His captain is pretty awesome, Clint thinks. He doesn't make a big deal out of Clint doing his job, but his eyes are warm with concern.

"Yes, sir. Can't hear you very well, sir." He feels weak, battered and pummeled by noise.

"It will get better."

Doc shoots him up with lidocaine and stitches up his ear. "You lost some flesh there," he comments.

Clint shrugs. "My hair'll cover it."

"Yeah," Doc squeezes his shoulder. "Get some rest."

Clint staggers over to a jeep and pulls a blanket from the back. It smells like horse, but he's used to that. He spreads it out and lies down. He doesn't remember falling asleep. He isn't sure that what happens next isn't a dream. He hears voices, Cap and somebody else, speaking.

"This is the guy that took out the entire sniper nest? He's just a boy."

"He's the best marksman we've got, sir."

"What's his name?"

"We call him 'Hawkeye'. His real name is Clint Barton."

"Hawkeye suits him."

Clint feels another blanket come down to cover him and he pull it to his chin, savoring the warmth.

"When he wakes up, tell him the Rangers thank him."

"I will do that, Major Coulson, sir."

Clint doesn't hear anything more after that, not even the thunder of the bombs falling in the valley just over the ridge.

^*^*^*^*^*^*^
Bethesda, MD. 2005

Clint sits in the doctor's office at Walter Reed. On the light board there are two x-rays of his skull. One shows a depressed skull fracture before surgery. One shows the remaining damage. He finds it rather unsettling. Even now, he can barely stand without the room spinning alarmingly; which is aggravated by his lack of balance on the crutches he's been using while his broken leg heals. At least he's out of the cast and in a brace.

The doctor comes in briskly, white coat flapping around his knees. He looks at the x-rays, hems and haws a bit. "So ... Sergeant Barton ..."

"Clint. I don't see the Berets being an option for me."

The doctor looks at the x-rays again. "You've healed well, but no. Not in the field. There are desk jobs."

Clint gives a short huff of laughter. "That's not going to happen. I've started the discharge process."

"I'm sorry to hear that."

"Yeah, me, too." At least it's an honorable discharge to go with the chest full of medals he's earned. He wonders how far that will get him in the real world. "When do I get out of here?"

"Ten days. After that there will be therapy to help you with regaining strength in your leg and working on exercises to help combat the vertigo from the head injury. You can expect that to linger for several months. Some people take longer."

Clint is screwed if he can't deal with the vertigo, but he doesn't tell the doctor that. "Okay." He reaches for his crutches and levers himself upright, closing his eyes as the room spins. When he feels steady, he leaves the office, feeling the pity in the doctor's face and hating it. He doesn't want pity, he just wants a place to land.

^*^*^*^*^*^*^
Two weeks later Clint walks out of Walter Reed using a cane instead of crutches, but still pauses to clutch at a planter as his vertigo hits. It's not quite as severe, but still troubling. He's wearing his civilian clothes which hang on him loosely. He has instructions to eat with the intent to regain muscle mass. He also has prescriptions and sheets of therapy exercises to work on outside of his weekly appointments at the hospital. It exhausts him thinking about it.

There is a taxi pulling up to the curb. Clint opens the door and slides in. He isn't sure where to go when the Korean taxi driver asks him. "I need a furnished room, nothing fancy."

The taxi driver who barely speaks English, looks puzzled. Clint tries his limited Korean, and the man's face splits into a grin. "We go. I know place."

They drive into the Columbia Heights neighborhood, one of those areas that is becoming gentrified, but that is still not entirely homogeneous. The taxi slows to a stop in front of a Korean grocery store on the ground floor of a five story building. There is a sign in the window advertising an apartment for rent.

The driver gets out and opens his door. "My uncle Kim Sun Park owns building. Apartment for rent. You see?"

Clint figures it can't hurt to take a look. "Okay."

Mr. Park is a middle-aged gentleman who comes from behind the counter and stands, sizing Clint up. "You have job?"

Clint lifts a shoulder. "I was in the army. He gestures to his leg. No more."

Park frowns at him. "You pay rent?"

Clint sighs. "I won't stiff you ..." Clearly Park is confused. "I'll pay the rent." His head is starting to ache. "Can I see the apartment?"

"Wife take you." He disappears in back of the grocery and emerges a few minutes later with a plump gray-haired Korean woman who says something in Korean, too fast for Clint to completely understand. She gestures to him and he follows her to a doorway that opens into a hall. There is a row of mailboxes on one wall and a door to the street to the right. Clint looks at the stairs and sighs, wondering what floor the apartment is on. If Mrs. Park can make it up the stairs, he'll be damned if he can't.

He makes it up to the sixth floor, panting and sweating the last flight. Mrs. Park is watching him gravely. "You hurt bad?"

Clint sighs and nods. She opens the door and he steps inside. The walls are a dirty white, the carpeting the color of mud. The window looks out on an alley and opens onto a metal fire escape. The kitchen is tiny. No stove, just a hot plate, a microwave and a tiny refrigerator. The bedroom is large enough for a double bed with a sagging mattress and a single dresser. The bathroom is so small Clint can touch the opposite walls without stretching. There is no tub, just a rusty shower stall. The tiles are green and white, and the grout is crumbling away from some of them. Somebody has written on the mirror in marker, Nobody gets out of here alive. Clint wonders if this is the last stop on the road to hell.

The furniture in the living room is a long, old sofa in a brown and green plaid, a fake leather recliner that has been mended with duct tape, a cheap end table and an old tube TV. The plaster shows signs of a recent leak. Clint sinks down on the sofa. He digs out his wallet. "I'll take it."

He pulls out enough money to cover one month plus a security deposit. He literally can't move another step, and he prays that Mrs. Park will take his money and leave him alone. "Please."

He thrusts the money towards her and she takes it from him timidly. "You stay now?"

"Yes."

"I have bags carried up." She makes a small bow and leaves him. Exhausted, Clint lies down and closes his eyes. The cushions smell of smoke and sweat. He doesn't care. He's slept in worse places. The stains in the ceiling look like clouds circling lazily over his head. If he had more energy he might waste it on wondering if the roof still leaked.

"I bring your bags." The cabbie drops them inside the door and Clint digs into his pocket and gives him the fare plus a generous tip.

"Thanks for bringing me here," he says sincerely. "I appreciate it."

"You look like a good guy. Keep my aunt and uncle safe."

"Sure thing, buddy." He shakes the cabbie's hand and is grateful when he leaves. He drops to the couch and falls asleep, his face pressed into the cushions. When he wakes up, the room is nearly dark. There is an ugly turquoise lamp on the end table. Clint turns it on. The bulb can't be more than 40 watts. He'll have to buy light bulbs. A quick look in the kitchen cupboards reveals two ceramic bowls, two plates, and two mugs, all made of cheap white china. There are two place settings of flimsy stainless steel cutlery, two very dull paring knives, and dented pots and pans that have seen better days. He'll worry about cleaning supplies and linens tomorrow.

He's hungry, and realizes he lives over a grocery store. That's convenient. He washes his face, drying off on his tee-shirt and putting on a clean one. He's still wearing his dog tags. They're so much a part of him that taking them off seems sacrilegious. He tucks them under his shirt and goes downstairs.

Mr. Park is behind the counter, reading a Korean newspaper. Clint picks out two cans of soup, milk, a box of cereal, a jar of apple sauce and a loaf of white bread. He heats chicken noodle soup in the microwave and tears up the bread to thicken it. That, milk, and applesauce is his dinner. He hears the doctor telling him to eat to build muscle. Right now, he's eating to keep his stomach from knocking against his backbone.

He rustles through his bags and finds a worn terry robe that he'll use as a blanket. A pair of sweatpants rolled in a t-shirt makes a pillow. He takes his pills, brushes his teeth and curls up on the couch. He dreams about IEDs, pain, and crawling in his own blood to reach his captain where he lay dying. He never reaches him ...

"No!" He wakes himself up with a cry as he's crawling on the floor towards ... nothing. He lurches up gasping and sweating, shaking like he has a chill. He wraps the robe around him and sits with his back against the couch, waiting for daylight when he can pretend to be normal again.

^*^*^*^*^*^*^
He spends the next week working on the apartment. He cleans, stocks the cupboards, buys decent cookware and knives and groceries. He shops at a Goodwill for lamps and a second hand desk and chair. He buys a new mattress and nearly kills himself hauling the old one down the stairs.

The next week, Mrs. Park gives him an official-looking envelope. "I sign," she says. "Okay?"

Clint knows what it is. "Yeah. Thank you." He takes the envelope upstairs. He sits there with it balanced on his fingertips until he has to turn on the lamp to see. His formal discharge papers, the conclusion of his military career, ended in pain and nightmares. He's plain old Clint Barton, another vet with a monthly check and a bank account that has most of his earnings and his enlistment bonus. It should keep him for a while, until he can think about getting a job. He isn't employable right now; not with his head injury causing vertigo, and his leg still weak. He doesn't have a car, doesn't need one and probably shouldn't drive. He's utterly, completely alone. He hasn't been alone since he was a green recruit. Maybe that was the price of survival.

Being a sniper has taught Clint patience. He starts repairs on the apartment; tarring the cracks in the roof, patching the plaster, painting the walls a soft gray. He buys a flat screen TV and invests in a laptop and cable. He gets a library card and downloads books onto his e-reader. He has long since given up on contacting Barney. The last time he tried sending an email, it bounced back. He looks up Carson's Carnival of Traveling Wonders and finds a Wikipedia article that mentions the amazing acts, including "The World's Greatest Marksman." Carson's, he learns, closed in 2001 after the WTC attacks. Carson lost a son-in-law in the collapse. The article was last updated two years ago. Clint files that part of his life away.

He realizes that if he doesn't find someplace to practice his skills, he'll lose them. He uses too much of his money joining the Greater DC Archery Club. He doesn't go to their events, he uses their range, however, and manages to attract more attention than he likes. He stays away for a few weeks, returning to shoot at the end of the day, nearly at close, just for the privacy.

He does his exercises, tries to eat, and gains back some of the weight he lost; not enough to make the doctors happy, but enough to have them sign off his supervised therapy. He doesn't realize that he's been using the therapy as a job, and now that it's over, he has nothing left.

He takes an online skills assessment test and stops half-way through. His only skill is the ability to kill. That doesn't translate well into everyday life. He has a GED, his math skills are limited to angles and wind and elevation -- standard deviation calculations on the efficacy of ammunitions. He thinks about law enforcement, goes so far as to inquire what he needs to do but he falters when he gets to the physical requirements. He isn't sure they'd take a man with a steel plate in his skull who occasionally suffers from migraines and vertigo.

His financial stash is dwindling. His only income is his disability, and he isn't sure how long that will continue since it's not like he's permanently disabled. Basically, he's fucked.

That night he goes to a bar. He's never been a drinker; he's been the victim of drunken rages too often in his life, but he's lonely and his thoughts are too damn depressing to be alone with them. He picks out a local place that is shuttered during the day, like it has secrets of its own. At night, the shutters come up and the windows are outlined with tiny, multi-colored lights. It's a tawdry kind of cheer, perfectly suited to his mood. He pushes the door open and warm, humid air envelopes him. It smells of beer, cigarettes and sweat. It's just a bar. Clint sidles inside, finds a seat in a corner and orders a beer. He really doesn't want to be noticed, but he likes the feeling of being in a group yet still being anonymous.

He's sitting in the darkness with his beer, listening to the jukebox play Darkness on the Edge of Town., when a woman comes into the bar, a cloud of untamed red hair flying around her shoulders. Something about her; the way she moves, the look in her eyes, the way she takes in everything as a threat assessment. He knows her as well as he knows his own nature. They're predators, wounded but dangerous. She sees him and strides over to him, sliding into the booth. Her body is warm and spectacularly curved as she presses against him. "Help me or ..." Clint's fingers close hard around her wrist.

"You'll cut me?" he squeezes and her fingers release the knife she had pulled. Her eyes widen in surprise as she realizes he's as dangerous as she is.

She allows her eyes to fill with tears. "I need your help. Just ... hide me."

Clint doesn't fall for the tears, but he can feel her pulse thrumming under his fingers. He shoves his watch cap across the table and she quickly knots up her hair and stuffs it under the cap. She shrugs off her black leather jacket and Clint hands her the denim shirt he had been wearing over his black t-shirt. She gets out soft pink lipstick, takes out her earrings, and digs in her pocket, taking out a diamond ring that she slides over the knuckle of her left hand. It slips around her finger. A pair of horn-rimmed glasses completes her disguise.

"Nice diamond," he says. "Who'd you steal it from?"

She hisses. "I can still kill you. Just ..." she breaks off as the door opens and two men come in, scanning the room. They aren't garden variety thugs. They're suits, with guns. The woman grabs Clint's face and kisses him. Clint wraps her in his arms, pulling her closer into the shadows. Her leg is wrapped around his, her hand roaming over his chest. "Don't get any ideas," she hisses. "I'm letting you live."

Clint laughs in her ear, "Yeah, I'm shaking in my shoes." He rims her ear with his finger, and despite everything, he thinks it's the softest thing he's ever felt. "What do they want?"

"Me."

Clint keeps on kissing her, as the men looks around the room in confusion. "God, they're idiots," Clint says and he can hear her surprised huff of amusement. "They're heading to the back. They probably think you went out the washroom window."

"They'll wait for me."

"Not if you come home with me. Two blocks. Come on." She looks at him, nods. They leave the bar, twined in each other's arms, pausing to kiss, stumbling a little like they're drunk. The two men emerge from the alley, their eyes pass over Clint and the woman in his arms. Clint pulls the woman into the entry to his building, opens the door and pulls her inside. She's shaking, and when Clint touches her side, his fingers come away wet with blood.

"What the hell happened?"

"It's nothing." She pushes away from him. "Thanks."

"Come on. Those guys aren't giving up easily. You go out there and you're dead."

She slumps against him, and he thinks she's hurt worse than she's letting on. She makes it up the stairs, though. Leans against the wall while he opens his door and walks inside on her own power. She stands in the middle of the room and assesses it with those cool eyes. The first thing she blinks at is the bow hanging on the wall. "You shoot that?"

"Not that one." He keeps that bow for its beauty and the memories it holds. His real bow is in a locked case under his bed, but he isn't going to tell her that. "You should let me take a look at that wound."

"It's nothing. Do you have gauze and tape?"

Clint goes into his kitchen and gets her a glass of water and an ibuprofen. "Here."

She looks surprised. "Thank you."

"I'll get my first aid kit." He brings it out, and she is perched on the edge of the couch, looking pale. He sits next to her and says, "The way I see it, you can let me help you, or I can wait until you pass out. I'd prefer you didn't bleed all over my couch."

"It's an ugly couch," she whispers in a fading voice. "Fine. But you try anything beyond putting on that gauze and --"

"You'll kill me. I get it."

She sighs and grips the hem of her sweater, lifting it up. There is an ugly slash across her porcelain skin. It's inflamed and looks like a bullet graze to Clint, whose seen enough of them to know.

He gets out an antiseptic wipe. "This is going to hurt."

"Fuck you."

"Okay, just saying." He carefully swabs the wound. "I'd use some dermabond, but you'll be better off letting it drain. The bleeding is slowing anyway." He takes out a roll of gauze and makes a thick pad. "Hold that." She does, and he sees her fingers trembling. "I'm going to tape it and then wind a pressure bandage around it to keep it in place. Okay?"

"You've done this before," she says.

"More than once."

"Military?"

"I was, until a suicide bomber dropped a building on top of me. Now, I'm just another unemployed vet." He finishes wrapping her ribs. "I'll get you something to wear. The bathroom is down the hall. It looks like hell, but it's clean."

She's bloodless, drained and weary. Clint goes into the kitchen and pours whiskey in a glass. He adds a splash of water and takes it out to her. "Here."

"Thank you. I prefer vodka."

"I don't have vodka. How could I know what when I don't even know your name?"

"You can call me Natasha."

"Russian?"

"You catch one quickly," she tilts her head at him, and he rolls his eyes. For the first time, there is a hint of a smile at the corners of her lips.

Clint thinks this is improbable, impossible. How is this his life? He rummages through his drawers and takes out a plain white t-shirt and a dark sweater. He takes them out to Natasha. "Sorry, this is all I have that might fit you."

When she returns to the living room, she is wearing the sweater. It's too big for her, making her look waif-life and fragile. He knows most of it is an illusion. Underneath all that soft skin, she is as tensile as steel and as dangerous as a loaded weapon.

"Thank you. I'll leave now."

"Who were those guys?" Clint asks. "They weren't your usual thugs."

"They think I have secrets to sell."

"Do you?"

She picks up her jacket and tosses her bloody sweater to him. "Burn it."

"My name is Clint," he says quickly.

"I don't care," she says. She opens the door and leaves like a drift of smoke.

Five days later, his clothing is returned, neatly folded and smelling of lavender and vanilla.

^*^*^*^*^*^*^

Natasha reappears in his life periodically over the next three months. She climbs his fire escape, waits in dark halls, walks brazenly into the bar where they first met. There is no pattern to her appearances and disappearances. One day she walks into the bar where he's having a solitary drink. She looks at him and says, "I need a partner. Somebody who won't screw me over."

"You think that's me?" He finds that hilarious. "That's insane."

"I think you know what it's like." She takes a sip of his whiskey. "You were a Special Forces sniper," she says. Just like she would say, Your eyes are blue.

"How did you find that out?" He hisses softly. "It's not public record."

"Did you think that can stop me?" She curls up, her fingers drifting down his cheek. "You miss it."

Clint can't deny it. His skill has defined most of his life. Target practice can only keep him sharp for so long. He was born to hunt and strike. Right now, he doesn't have much of a future and Natasha is alluring in ways beyond mere sexuality. "Tell me about it."

She shrugs. "I need somebody to watch my back, and if things go downhill, I'll need to you kill somebody." Clint doesn't say anything. "Does that bother you?"

"They didn't put a rifle in my hands and tell me to peel potatoes."

"This isn't a game."

Clint grabs her arms. "Neither is a fucking war!" His grip is cruel, but she doesn't flinch or pull away.

"You're in?

"I'm in." Clint feels like he's stepped off a precipice and fallen into the dark. Natasha kisses him, winds herself around him, and they have rough, bruising sex for the first time. It's more intoxicating than liquor, more addictive than a drug. Clint is in trouble, but he's too ensnared to recognize the trap that it is.

^*^*^*^*^*^*^
They are a lethal team. Natasha trains him to use his body in ways the army never had, calling up old muscle memory of the circus; of the feats of archery and tumbling that earned him his nickname. She teaches him martial arts and sends him to a krav maga master who hones his skills into deadly steel.

He's slightly irked that Natasha can still beat the snot out of him. He's just glad they're partners and not adversaries.

They spar, they argue, they fight, they make love, and then they do the jobs that Natasha has lined up. Clint doesn't ask too many questions. He just takes his bow and his gun. He sets up shots, but mostly he watches through his scope as Natasha works her marks. That the jobs are so rarely lethal is due to their skills. Clint knows they are living on a razor's edge. He doesn't know which he loves more, the danger or Natasha.

He knows they aren't good for each other. They're too volatile. She's too calculating and he's too impulsive. They fight, they make up, they have sex that is more like sparring. There isn't any tenderness between them. She is a rose with thorns and he's become used to living with pain. He isn't surprised one morning when he wakes up alone and finds she's moved out; her perfume the only lingering hint of her presence.

After, he finds himself being approached by people who want him for jobs; some barely legal, some illegal, some criminal. He takes the ones that pay well, that skirt the edge of legality, or the ones he knows he can pull off without being caught.

One day, a contact gives him a fat envelope and asks him to kill a man. It's not like Clint hasn't taken lives, doesn't have blood enough on his hands, but the idea of doing wet work for criminals sickens him, and he refuses. Two days later he comes home after a run and finds his building on fire, and the Parks outside, wringing their hands and wailing as they see their livelihood go up in smoke. The bile rises up in his throat and the world goes black for a moment, before he gathers enough courage to approach them.

Mrs. Park clasps his arm. "You okay? You have place to go?"

Clint nods feeling guilty as hell. He's not the one who had the most to lose, and he brought this down on them. "I'll be okay, ma'am. I'm so sorry for this." He can't say he's responsible. He can't do that to them. Once he's gone, they'll be safe, they'll rebuild. Mr. Park holds out his hand, and Clint shakes it. Then he turns away.

He keeps a go bag on the back of his motorcycle. He has money in the bank and everything he owns is replaceable. The only thing he regrets is the loss of the Osage wood bow. He swears he will find the people who did this -- not for himself, but for the Parks, who have been nothing but kind and generous to him. He takes out his phone and texts to a number that Natasha has used in the past. He doesn't know if it will go through, but a few minutes later, his phone chirps and he reads. Come to NYC. Meet@GCS, Tu. 2:15am. Cryptic, to the point. Clint doesn't know if he should be relieved or scared to death.

^*^*^*^*^*^*^
Grand Central Station can't be called deserted even at two o'clock in the morning. Clint takes a position on the West balcony with a view of the concourse. He orders a coffee and a cannoli from Cipriani's and sits watching the activity.

"I should have known I'd find you up here," Natasha slides into the chair opposite his. She is wearing black; jeans, boots, sweater, jacket and her hair is the color of blood. Her fingernails are short and polished into perfect ovals. She looks like she belongs in New York. She appraises him. "You look ... ragged."

"Yeah, well that's what happens when all your worldly goods go up in flames." He scours a hand over his stubbled chin. "My place was torched."

"By a client?"

He doesn't dignify that with an answer. "You even hear of the Ten Rings?"

To his surprise, Natasha pales slightly before she recovers her composure. "Don't deal with them, Clint," she warns.

"Let's just say it's too late for that. I turned down some wet work. The next day, my place was ashes."

"The Parks?" Natasha asks, her voice low and husky.

"They're safe as long as I'm out of the picture."

"Clint, revenge is not a good idea, here."

"Have I ever cared about good ideas?" Clint smiles crookedly. "I need intel. Can you get it?"

She shakes her head. "I know where to get it, but I can't risk getting it for you."

"Afraid, Tasha?"

"I have other work, Clint. I can't afford free jobs. Not even for you."

"Okay, where is this intel that you won't risk a good old B & E.?"

"S.H.I.E.L.D."

Clint blinks as his brain files through all the secret organizations and spy networks he's come across in the army and beyond. "Never heard of them."

"That's how secret they are," Natasha says wryly.

"Let's go."

"We need a plan," Natasha sighs, "and you need to rest up and re-fit." She hands him a card. "This is a safe house. You can stay there for two days, no more. I'll see you the day after tomorrow." She writes an address on a small piece of paper with red lipstick and pushes it across the table.

Clint looks at it. He is blessed with a near-eidetic memory. He holds the note to the candle on their table and burns it to ash in his saucer. When he looks up from the flame, Natasha is gone. He hates it when she does that.

^*^*^*^*^*^*^

The building he's watching from across the street is fifteen stories of glass, marble and concrete sandwiched between two massive skyscrapers of offices and condos. Clint wonders if that S.H.I.E.L.D. 's tentacles stretch into those structures, but after watching for a while, he doubts it. There are too many suits going in and out of the other buildings; women in bright blouses and high heels are not your typical government drones.

However, there are a few police and military types going in and out of the lower building, as well as men and women in sober suits. Clint can't do what he needs to do in a suit. He moves his observation post to an alley behind the other buildings. Every office building relies on a hundred different, nearly invisible contract services; cleaning, trash removal, office equipment repair people, delivery drivers and the ubiquitous bike messengers. He snaps a few shots of the trash removal employees and then goes to a thrift store where he purchases a drab second hand coverall with a faded name patch. He goes online at the library and does some photo-manips of the trash company logo which he freehands onto the patches with marker. It's nowhere near a perfect job, but he knows people don't look beyond the surface of menial laborers -- a quick once-over and he'll be in. At least he hopes that's how it will work. He finds a sporting goods store in Bed-Stuy and buys a mid-price bow and arrows. He trusts that his skills are good enough to make up for any lack of quality in the equipment. Then he rolls the bow and arrows in the coveralls and takes a taxi to the address Natasha gave him two days ago.

She is waiting there, dressed in black jeans and a black leather jacket, high black boots on her feet. It doesn't look like particularly good burglar gear to him. "You look like you're going to an art gallery opening," he observes and sees a momentary guilt crossing her eyes before they turn cool and bland again.

"Did I say I was going with you?"

"Well, I kinda thought ..."

"Don't. I'll help you get in and give you directions." She tosses a blue-tooth device to him and a small key cloning device. "That should get you in the door. After that, you're on your own."

"Tasha --"

"Don't call me that!" She rounds on him. "What we were to each other is nothing. Nothing! Just do what you have to do, get the names. That's all the help I can give you."

Clint's stomach is heavy and cold. He's been abandoned before. "Fine. Let's do this so you can get to your gallery opening or assassination, or whatever."

"Clint --"

"You don't have the right to call me that," he whispers, low and hoarse.

"Don't be a child."

He has never been a child. He straps his bow and quiver to his back and puts on the coveralls,"Fuck this. I'm ready, with or without you."

She drives him to the alley, just a block away, and they wait for the trash pick-up to pull up to the dumpster. Clint gets out of the car. He looks at Natasha's profile, cold and pure in the light from the street. Clint shakes his head and gets out of the car. He slips behind the trash truck. It's blocking the camera to the building entrance. Clint waits until the dumpster starts being loaded, then he opens the door using his lockpicks and slips inside one of the most secretive and secure government agencies on the planet. Piece of cake he thinks. "Where now, Natasha?"

"Down one floor. Second door on the left. Use the key clone I gave you."

"Got it." He finds the stairwell, uses the device to decrypt the lock. The lights turn from red to green and he's in ... another corridor. "Tasha, now where?" Silence. "Tasha?" He doesn't know if the corridor has some sort of shielding to stop radio signals or if Tasha has tossed him to the wolves. He strips out of the coverall and frees his bow. There is a camera high on the wall, nearly invisible in the corner. He takes out an arrow and shoots out the lens. A small shower of sparks falls. At this point, he's pretty sure he's been noticed, but he turns to the first door on the right and opens it. He nearly laughs. No matter how high-tech S.H.I.E.L.D. is, they still keep paper files; but Clint has no idea where to begin. There is no sound from the corridor, so maybe the super snoops aren't as careful when it comes to policing their own premises ... or maybe the security desk guard decided to watch the Rangers on his monitor, which would be fine with Clint.

He opens the first drawer. The files are numerical, not alphabetical. The numbers mean nothing to Clint. He pulls a file and looks at it. The damn files are in code and now he hears heavy footsteps in the corridor. He is so screwed. He slides down to the floor trying to figure out if he'll be better off surrendering or fighting. It isn't in him to surrender without a fight. He doesn't want to hurt anybody, but the thought of being incarcerated is more than he can stomach. He kneels, ready to launch out once the door opens. He's honed his parkour skills to the maximum. If he can get out of here, he's sure he can escape. He takes out an arrow, nocks it, and waits for the door to open.

It doesn't just open. It flies open and three men in black field dress burst inside. Clint launches himself towards the door; the first man isn't expecting him, and he is knocked aside, the second's first instinct is to go for his gun. By then, Clint has drawn his bow and shoots wide, not aiming to injure, but to surprise. Which he does. He sees the man's eyes go wide in shock as his arrow zips past his neck and sticks in the wall behind him. He sweeps his legs out from under him and lands a kick to his jaw.

Hitting the third man is like running into a brick wall. Clint falls to the ground, his knee cracking painfully on the tile, his head hitting the wall behind him. For a moment, he's stunned, but in his fall, he's tripped up the third man who goes down hard, his weight working against him. Clint hears the crack of bone and winces, but the way is clear. He readies another arrow.

He's out of the file room and turning towards the exit. A guy is a suit is standing in front of the door. "Looking for something?" he asks, stopping Clint in his tracks.

"I have a bow," Clint says. "I can shoot out your eye before you can blink."

The man shrugs. "I have a gun." He calmly shoots Clint in the leg.

Clint looks down. It's not the gaping hole in his flesh he'd imagined. It's small, neat, and his jeans are just darkening with blood. He feels hot and cold, his head hurts and his eyesight is blurring in and out of focus. "You drugged me," he murmurs and drops to the floor. The last sensation he's aware of is the man's firm, warm palm cushioning his head before it hits the floor. It's the kindest thing anybody has done for him in a long time.

^*^*^*^*^*^*^

Clint wakes up slowly, painfully. He tries to move, but he's cuffed to the sidebars of the bed -- which means he's in some sort of medical facility. Prison? Panicked, he fights the restraints, trying to collapse his hands the way Trickshot had taught him so many years ago; but he isn't a small, flexible child. He's a man and the cuffs are unyielding. One leg is also cuffed; the other is free, but propped up with a pillow and is swollen with bandages. "Hey!" he hollers, not expecting any response.

Instead, his door opens and the man in the suit comes in, along with a doctor and a nurse. The man in the suit frowns at the doctor. "Why is he restrained?"

"Orders."

"Really? They didn't come from me. Keys?" he holds out his hand and the nurse passes them over. "Sorry about this," he says and unlocks the cuffs on his hands.

"You shot me," Clint rasps.

"Yes, I did. I didn't expect you to have such an adverse reaction to the sedative. You nearly died."

"Wouldn't be the first time."

"I'm aware of your history, Mr. Barton."

That sets Clint back. His past isn't exactly common knowledge. He doesn't have the strength to deal with this, to deal with the man in the suit with his weary, kind face. He closes his eyes. "I'm tired."

"I know. I'll let you rest for now. Don't think about escaping. Your knee is badly damaged, you need surgery, which we will provide."

"Thanks, but what happens after that?"

"We'll talk when you're feeling better."

"Sure." Clint is trying to picture the vents in the ceiling without opening his eyes again. He's aware of the moment when he's alone. Experimentally, he tries moving his knee and the room blurs at the edges of his vision from the pain. There is something ... ignoble ... about being bested by a mild-mannered accountant in a suit.

The nurse comes back in and injects something in his IV. "For the pain," she says. "It's nothing you'll react to, don't worry."

He isn't worried. He's resigned. At least for the moment, he's been tethered.

^*^*^*^*^*^*^
Two days later, he has the surgery on his knee and when he wakes up, he's still in the same medical facility and the Suit is sitting at his bedside tapping away on a futuristic looking tablet. Clint's mouth feels like cotton-wool and he tries reaching for the covered cup of water at the bedside. Annoyingly, he's still weak and his hand hits the rail with an audible clunk. The Suit looks up. "You're awake."

"Yeah. Water?" The Suit raises the bed and hands him the cup. "Thanks ... um .. Mr.?"

"Coulson."

"Mr. Coulson?"

"Agent Coulson. You're in the medical facility at S.H.I.E.L.D."

"I'm not stupid."

Coulson smiles. "If I thought you were, you wouldn't be here." He waits until Clint has finished with the water before he rises. "They'll start physical therapy tomorrow. I'll stop by if you don't mind."

Clint shrugs. "Hey, it's your gig, not mine."

Coulson just raises a brow and leaves. What the hell does that mean?

Therapy hurts like hell. Clint is worn out, sweaty, exhausted. He's sick of the hospital - medical facility - whatever. He just wants some fresh air. He can't get up and walk. If he could, he'd be out of here and no suit could stand in his way.

His door opens and Coulson is standing there with a wheelchair. "Want some fresh air?"

Clint is floored. "I'd like that ... a lot." An orderly shows up at Coulson's back to help Clint into the chair. It hurts, but not worse than the therapy session. Then he's being pushed out to the elevator. "Where are we going?"

"Up. I gather heights don't bother you?"

"Not so much," Clint grins. They seem to ride up forever. When the doors open, they are on the roof. There is a rooftop garden and a view across the Hudson River. The breeze is warm and smells like hot asphalt and green grass. Clint tips his face up to the sun, drinking it all in. This is amazing. "Thank you."

Coulson wheels him over to a bench under a tree. He listens to the leaves rustle overhead. He feels some of his jagged nerves calming. Coulson takes off his suit jacket and sits across from him, gazing out over the city. He seems to be considering whether or not to say something.

"Go on. Spill it, Coulson. I can take it." He expects to be told to prepare to go to Rikers, or Fort Leavenworth, if he's lucky.

"This isn't the first time our paths have crossed."

Okay, not what Clint expected. "I've never been to New York before." He's pretty sure Coulson knows that.

"It wasn't here. It wasn't even in the States." He takes the cufflink off one of those impeccable cuffs and rolls it up. There is a tattoo on his forearm. Clint has seen it before.

"You were in the Rangers? In A-stan?"

"My company was passing through the Panjshir valley when we came under fire from the Taliban with an RPG. We thought we were dead meat, but suddenly there were a lot fewer Taliban and no RPG. When we reached our base camp, I found the SF Captain so I could thank him. There was a young man sleeping next to a jeep, his arm curled around his rifle and a bloody bandage around his head. His name was Clint Barton -- Hawkeye. I was sent home shortly after, got a job at S.H.I.E.L.D. and never thought I'd find Hawkeye. You know the rest of the story."

Clint meets Coulson's ironic study. "I don't remember ..." Until he does. "You covered me with a blanket."

"You looked cold."

"I guess I can finally thank you. But that doesn't explain what you want from me."

"You seem to have a facility with unusual weapons."

Clint laughs. "That's one way of putting it."

"And you can still shoot a rifle?"

"I might be rusty, but yeah. I can still shoot." He says it casually, as if telling Coulson he can still breathe, but his hands are clutching the arms of the wheelchair.

"Would you consider working for us?"

It's the last thing Clint expects. "You ... want me ... to work for you?"

"A rather simplistic way of putting it, but yes."

"And if I say it's not my cup of tea? Do I get a free trip to Rikers or Leavenworth?"

"No. You get buried deep in a S.H.I.E.L.D. facility somewhere unpleasant."

"Coulson, that's cold. I did save your life."

"Why do you think I convinced my boss to make this offer?"

"Fair enough." Clint looks out over the view and shivers as the wind picks up. "When do I need to decide?"

"You need time to think?"

Clint doesn't, not really. He just wants to rile Coulson a little. He doesn't have much to amuse himself here. As if Coulson read his mind, he stands up and wheels Clint inside. Despite his protests that he's fine; his shivering seems to put quit to that argument.

Coulson takes him down to an unfamiliar level. Unlike most of what Clint's seen of the S.H.I.E.L.D. facility, this level looks battered, well-used. There are scuff on the walls, a few dents in the doors. "What happened here? Run out of decorating dollars?"

"This is our training floor. Occasionally, the corridors are used to simulate real conditions, but that's not why I brought you down here. He runs a card through a reader and scans his retina. The door slides open. It's a shooting range, Clint can see that. "Is this the S.H.I.E.LD. Rod & Gun Club?"

"Thinking of joining?" Clint sighs and Coulson simply smirks as he wheels Clint over to a long, rectangular aluminum case. He unlocks it with a combination and raises the lid. Inside, is a bow. Clint has never seen one like it. He reaches towards it, yearning to touch the sleek lines and curves. "I wish ..." he whispers.

"It can be yours," Coulson says. It sounds for all the world like a seduction. "Our R&D department works with Stark Industries. Top of the line engineering and materials." He takes the bow from the case and holds it out to Clint. "Touch it."

Clint knows that once he takes that bow in hand, he won't be able to resist. His fists clench on his knees. "If I do, I'll be lost," he says, his voice trembling. Coulson gives him one of his kind smiles and Clint realizes he was lost when he first saw Coulson in his perfect suit reacted to his wry sense of humor. There is no laughter in his smile, however, as he continues to offer Clint the bow.

"Don't think of it as being lost. Think of it as being found."

Clint takes the bow, which is light and balanced and perfectly curved. He can't draw it sitting in the wheelchair, but he promises he'll be back as he hands it to Coulson.

"Yes?"

Clint is silent for a moment. His options are limited. As in two. "What are the terms?" Everything has a cost.

"You'll be on probation for as long as it is deemed necessary. When you're past probation, you'll be classified as an asset, which means you will be called out on missions that require a certain type of expertise --"

"I don't like killing people unless I have to," Clint says.

"It's not always about taking a shot. You might not be expected to kill anyone. Your orders may be to watch a subject, report to your Agent in Charge --"

"To you?"

"As an asset, you will report to the AiC who most likely will not be me."

"Why?"

"When you're cleared as a specialist agent, you will work with a small team on complicated, sometimes extended, missions; undercover assignments, deep cover work. At that level, you'll have a handler who will supervise you, but you'll have autonomy if you want it."

"Are you a ... um, handler?"

"Yes."

"I want to be on your team," Clint says. He's really not in a position to be negotiating, and Coulson gives him a sidelong look that makes him shiver.

"If you make it to specialist, I can request to be your handler."

"That's a lot of 'ifs'."

"Your fate is in your hands, Barton. I hear Siberia is lovely this time of year."

"Sir, that's coercion."

"You just called me 'sir.' That's a yes in my book."

Clint blinks, and then laughs. "Yes, sir. I guess it is." He's made harder decisions in his life, and this one just seems right. "So, when do I start?"

"That isn't my department," Coulson says. "But I can probably spring you in the next day or so."

"Got a nice cozy cell for me?"

"We have some quarters here. Nothing fancy, but there won't be bars on the windows."

Clint can live with that. "Deal." He holds out his hand and Coulson takes it warmly.

When he speaks, he's deadly serious. "It won't be easy, this life. It's chewed up and spit out a lot of good agents and killed even more."

"That's the story of my life," Clint is suddenly weary, wilting in the chair. He wants this to be a home, or at least a place to rest his head. Before he signs anything, he has one thing to ask. "Sir, you never asked what I was doing in the file room."

"No, I haven't. However, given your background, I'm going on the assumption that you're not a terrorist or seeking to overthrow the government and take over the world."

"No, sir. Here's the thing. I was in D.C., doing ... jobs ... for just about anybody who came knocking at my door. I wasn't proud. I wasn't a good guy. I did things I knew were wrong but I never went after an innocent, I swear it."

"I believe you."

The funny thing is Clint believes Coulson. The only other person who believed him clear down to his bones was his captain in the Berets. His captain who he couldn't save. He looks down at his hands, clenched again on the fabric of his robe. "I turned down a job -- wet work. I mean I've killed people, most didn't see the bullet coming, but this thing they wanted me to do was wrong. So, I said no. I thought that was the end of it ... I know there are people out there who wouldn't blink at what they wanted done. I was stupid. The bastards burned down the building where I was living, nearly killed my old Korean landlord and his wife. They lost everything. They were kind to me when I didn't have anything, when I didn't know if I had the strength to survive. I owe them some sort of retribution."

"I see. What led you here?"

Clint doesn't want to lie, but he can't betray Natasha. "I had a contact, somebody I met in DC who had a lot of info. They told me about this place." It's as close to the truth as he's willing to get. He's known for a long time that the best lies are simple. He can tell from the way Coulson's eyes crinkle that he knows Clint is lying, but he just nods and wheels Clint back to his room in medical. There is a large man standing outside the door. Coulson shakes his head. "You can leave, Thorson."

"Director Fury's orders, sir."

Phil looks at him. "I'll assume this is protection and not incarceration."

Thorson doesn't blink. "Yes, sir."

Clint wants to laugh, he really does, but he won't steal Coulson's thunder. Seriously, they want to protect him? He doesn't think so, but it sounds better than the alternative. "So, what happens next?" he asks Coulson when the door closes.

"Come see me when you're released from Medical."

Clint nods. "Sure thing."

Coulson lips twitch. "There is no sure thing in this business, Barton, except maybe a guarantee that you'll be surprised."

"Great. I love surprises."

"No, you don't." Coulson leaves him with that. An hour later, a thick envelope is delivered to him by Thorson. Clint opens it up and starts to read the terms of the contract that will change his life forever.

End Part One