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Washed Ashore

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One

 

The world was wet and cold and smelled of leftover ozone. Hair stood up all over his body, conductive, and he shivered as he ran. The sand oozed beneath him and tried to suck him in but he skittered lightly, barely touching down. Sea-scent came from his right, too cold too big too loud too briney crashy splashy but there was something in it? Out of it? He turned, reluctant at first then stretching himself out as far as his stride could go when the smell of distress tangled in his nostrils.

Behind him, Big Hands Scruffy Face was calling:

“No, Lucky! Come zzzzz! Stay, zzz Zzzz zZZ dog!”

Normally, he would have been butt-deep and squelching in sand by now, wagging his tail and waiting for the man to catch up, but the smell was pulling him on. It grew stronger with each sniff, until the shape resolved itself into a man, caught between sea and shore, covered in the slick watergrass that collected by the edge of the wet. A few isolated Hurty Blobs were stuck to him, and Lucky tried to nudge them aside with his paws.

Above him, Big Hands Scruffy Face had seen the man, and even if he couldn’t smell the seawater inside him, the lingering scent of gunpowder and the sharp tang of BLOOD, he seemed to understand that Things Were Bad.

“Good dog, Lucky,” he said as he hunkered down on his haunches, pawing at the other man urgently. Lucky sniffed around them both, looking up every once in a while to scan the beach for further oddities.

___

For the first horrified moment, Phil had been sure the man was dead; he’d hardly be the only dead thing Lucky had ever taken a shine to. (Decomposition is Delicious was Lucky’s motto, sadly.) It was when Lucky began nudging aside the little stinging jellyfish that had accumulated-- the ones that he’d learned with the first sting to sort from the kind that were mere glop-- that Phil began to run.

The man was breathing.

Oh, thank god, the man was breathing, and his cold skin fluttered under Phil’s fingers as they dug under the seaweed wrapping his neck.

His blue lips began to move as Phil checked him over, and a spasm ran across his chest.

Long-dormant training and years of muscle memory reacted before Phil’s conscious mind could, and he’d heaved the man over on his side into the recovery position just in time for him to begin spewing seawater. Lucky jumped back; Phil kept one hand on the man’s neck and braced him, rubbing a thumb against the rapidly-increasing pulse point.

He did turn his gaze away, though, checking what he could see of the rest of the man’s nearly naked body for damage, as the man rendered up the ocean inside himself.
____

As disasters went, it was no Sandy; that was about the most that could be said of the storm formerly known as Tropical Storm Fred, but it was saying quite a lot.

Still, Phil thought as he glanced up at the eerily calm dark skies above him,despite losing its name when it came ashore and spent its power along Cape Hatteras far to the south, Fred had managed to cause a fair amount of fuss. The early stages had raised seas nearly to the top of the dunes he stood on now. Rain had bucketed down, carving its own channels deep into the sand on its way back to the belly of the bay.

Fred had staying power, as well; it had taken a day and a half nibbling its way up the East Coast, and stalled over Atlantic City as if it had finally found something worth lingering over. In the early stages yesterday, all vessels had been ordered to take refuge and all the residences on the Jersey Shore, on Long Beach Island, and the other barrier islands had begun to put up boards and pull things out of range of the expected storm surge.

The low-lying island of North Bar was Phil’s own charge, from its big abandoned mansion in the middle to the power plant and concrete research bunkers along the shore to his own little seaside cottage and yard. He’d been glad there were no visitors when the storm began; it had allowed him to do his rounds with the efficiency of a decade and a half of routine. Lucky by his side was the only company he needed. Except that now, with so much still on his list of caretaker’s duties and with a half-drowned man on his beach, he would have been grateful for another pair of hands.

Where had this man come from? The barrier islands nearly visible across the little channel they sat on? Some damn fool boat that had thought it could make it to a berth further up the coast before the storm hit? There were several small shipping crates scattered about the beach, in various states of destruction. That gave credence to the small boat suggestion, but it was hardly confirmation.

Well, no answers were going be forthcoming from the mainland at the moment, not the way Fred had been tearing at the infrastructure. And they weren’t going to come from the bedraggled heap of human here on the beach with Phil, either. He was clad only in boxers, so there was no wallet to provide him answers.

Nor could the man himself; he was clearly not going to last much longer in his semi-conscious state now that he’d heaved his insides dry. His head collapsed back down, cradled on a tanned shoulder. Phil watched for a moment as his face, scrunched up as he heaved, relaxed a little into unconsciousness, long lashes dusting his pale dirty cheekbones. His pulse was thin but steady under Phil’s fingers. If the man was going anywhere, it was going to be under Phil’s power and not his own.

Phil rocked back, beginning to arrange the man for lifting, and stopped when he found blood on his hand.

Ah, so that’s what had drawn Lucky, what kept the dog pawing at them both, even now.

Muscles remembered far longer than Phil would have thought they could. His body moved nearly without Phil’s conscious volition from the moment he found the bullet wound in the meat of the man’s bicep. He tore a strip from his undershirt to bandage it, then slid his fingers across the broad expanse of shoulder, up and down the length of that barrel chest, those thick thighs. By the time he finished his clinical grope, he had an inventory and triage list set in his head: one bullet wound, a fair amount of bruising, cold nearly to the point of hypothermia, and terminally gorgeous.

All that field medic training paying off again. It was in many ways the most useful thing he’d taken with him out of the Army-- by far the most long-lasting. Now, Phil thought, deliberately turning his mind from both the Army and the surprising way his body was reacting to stroking a deeply injured man, to see if he still had that dead-man’s carry up to par.
____

Lucky streaked ahead of them, clearing storm wrack, chasing off seagulls, doubling-back to make sure his owner was following with his strange burden. Phil tried to concentrate on his boots sinking into the sand, on the looming clouds off in the distance, the increasing bite of the wind and the tang in the air that meant the storm wasn’t over yet. It was better than thinking about the surprisingly dense bulk of the man whose torso was tucked across his shoulders, or paying any heed to the fact that his hand could barely get a purchase on a bicep that broad.

It was certainly better than thinking about what he was going to do with an unconscious, half-drowned, wounded man when they got back to his cottage. The place was not exactly spacious; originally a boathouse before the dunes grew and left it high and dry, it had been converted to a caretaker’s cottage sometime ages ago. A new, larger, deluxe boat house with the ramps and rails and less dune and marsh had been built closer to the crossing to Gansett Township. Since that time-- back before the Second World War--subsequent caretakers of North Bar had built little additions to the cottage every which way, with the result that it was surprisingly easy to get lost in, for such a small space.

One thing they’d never paid a lot of attention to, sadly, was a guest room. Nor had Phil had need of one more than a handful of times in his nearly two decades of self-imposed semi-isolation and premature curmudgeonliness. The one spare room that held a daybed also held at least twenty boxes. He hadn’t tried to heat it for years.

And even if he got the man settled in somewhere warm, and got him food, there was the matter of his bullet wound, and the complete lack of communication with either the mainland or the larger island.

“God I hope you’re as used to roughing it as you seem,” Phil muttered at the unconscious man, glancing vaguely in the direction of his head with its stupid thick lashes and surprisingly gentle lips.

It was probably too much to hope that a miracle would occur and the phone lines would be up when he got home and someone would come and take temptation off Phil’s hands and put him in a nice sterile hospital bed and a backless gown.

Logistics kept Phil’s mind busy for most of the rest of the trek back, because it was certainly too much to hope for that kind of miracle. And intriguing as half-drowned handsome strangers were, the storm would be back soon, if the way the wind tossed the breakers was any indication. Phil had a lot of work to do, still. Perhaps he could forgo checking on the power plant and the concrete bunkers used for tidal power research. Those were built to withstand the depredations of the elements and absent-minded scientists. But he’d prefer to make sure the old mansion was battened down (and up, and sideways) and that nothing else had washed ashore.

His cottage hove into sight through an increasing veil of mist, and Phil realized the mansion would just have to batten itself. He barely had time to get them all inside before the sheet of rain hit.

 

Two

 

The second-- or maybe it was third-- time he woke up, he could finally focus enough to take in his surroundings beyond the basics of warm and dry and not actively being shot at or tortured. He’d seen worse.

He wasn’t entirely sure he wasn’t hallucinating, though. It would explain why he appeared to be wrapped in blankets, lying on a-- leather? leather-- couch in front of an actual fucking fireplace with a fire blazing in the hearth and a large and aggressively scruffy dog curled up on a rug in front of it.

The only other light was from the oil lantern perched on the old magazine table behind his head. There were candles on the mantle along with a few glass net weights, a fucking corncob pipe, a few gull feathers, and some kind of weird brass thing with a chain.

Nautical paraphernalia dotted the rest of the low-beamed little room, along with, here and there, what appeared to be vintage 1940s war bonds posters. Dark curtains-- shabby even in the low light-- were drawn across a bank of boarded-up windows over a narrow built-in bench, along one edge of the room. Lightning flashed between the cracks, and the wind howled down the chimney.

Not that far from the ocean, then. Not nearly far enough to suit his post-drowning taste anyway. He hunkered down in the blankets, drawing the momentary interest of the dog, who huffed at him but didn’t get up.

And that was about it, really. He wasn’t gonna be going anywhere anytime soon, and it was quiet, and dark, and fuck the storm, he was so tired of the storm, he was just… tired. (And naked except for his now-mostly-dry boxers, but he’d been that way before the beach.) It was no kinda shape to be wandering around out there in. Even thinking about moving a limb was enough to make him want to weep, so clearly he wasn’t going to be wandering around in here, either. Wherever here was. Whoever had put him on the couch didn’t seem to be actively trying to torture him, so sleep seemed the best option.

He’d nearly drifted off into a pleasant haze when the dog perked up again and whined, staring at the doorway behind him.

Clint turned his head, wincing, and peered over the top of the couch.

There was a swamp person in yellow foul weather gear dripping in the doorway. It tilted its head at him a little and chuckled.

“Good to see you’re awake, and alive” it said, in a fairly pleasant sort of baritone, and then it sloughed off the soaked coat and hat and metamorphosized into an Irish folk singer.

No, no, the shoulders were far too good for folk singer; fisherman.

And maybe Scottish, or proper New Englander, or whatever-- someone who looked absolutely at home in one of those bulky cabled sweaters and a pair of boots that came halfway up his knees, anyway.

(Oh, and nice hands, calloused and firm on Clint’s forehead, where he was feeling for a fever. Soothing.)

“I suppose awake, alive, and coherent would be too much to ask?” the voice continued, and Clint smiled up at it-- tried, anyway-- and met the kind of eyes that… yep. Actually fucking twinkled.

Twinkling fucking eyes.

Clint was probably hallucinating again.
“Hi,” he rasped, in lieu of asking the guy why his delirium was taking the form of seaside cottages and cozily-bearded fishermen and scruffy sleepy dogs.

“Well. That’s a start,” said the possible hallucination, and a smile twitched on his face-- or so Clint assumed. At least the whiskers moved upwards. He stood up. “I need to go back out to check on the hens, make sure none of them wash away in the storm.”

And that proved he was a hallucination, this hen-checking possibly-Celtic twinkly-eyed, bearded baritone dreamboat. Because what?

“Kay?” Clint said, pretty eloquently, he thought.

“Before I do, though, do you need me to help you take a piss?”

Oddly, that was what convinced Clint this was all real.

 

Three

 

“I… I kinda do, yeah, sorry.”

Phil only realized when the stranger said it, that he was really hoping not to hear those words. He’d been a goddamned soldier, he’d seen rafts of dicks in non-sexual situations. Nor was he going to make this one sexual.

He guessed he just didn’t like being relegated to nursemaid.

“Okay,” he said and then, since he was about to be holding the man up while he pissed, it seemed only polite to introduce himself. “I’m Phil, by the way.”

The man stared back at him for a long moment, backlit by the fire so his expression was well-nigh unreadable.

“I, uh, Frank,” he said eventually. “I guess.”

“You… guess?” In all his worry over the man’s bullet wound and general bedraggled state, Phil hadn’t even thought to check for head wounds beyond anything that would have caused more blood loss. Now it was occurring to him to do so, and he was reaching underneath the man’s head before he’d stopped asking the question.

It was the flinch that stopped him, the way the man recoiled from his sudden movement. Phil put up his hands and plastered on his best harmless hermit smile.

“Sorry,” he said. “Just trying to check your head. Sounds like you might have knocked yourself good.”

“Yeah? Maybe,” the man said, and rearranged himself on the sofa to get Phil more firmly in his view. “What made you think it, though?”

“You don’t sound very sure of your own name,” Phil said, trying to keep his tone light and ignore the fact that the way the guy’s face scrunched in confusion was unexpectedly compelling. Unconscious, he had been kind of ageless, full lips and nose softening an otherwise hollowed face. Lucidity had drawn a scowl on him, and when it disappeared Phil had to work hard not to lean right in. Again.

Hell.

“Huh, yeah.” The guy felt the back of his own head, then glanced at his palm as if expecting to find blood. “I don’t think so? ‘Course I wouldn’t remember, would I?”

“I suppose not,” Phil frowned. It was the last thing he needed; the seas were still too rough to get him off the island by boat. An airlift seemed excessive-- if it could even be achieved at the moment-- if only he could be sure he’d really found all the trauma.

“No, no, I don’t need the hospital,” the man said in a rush, and Phil realized he’d voiced some part of his thought out loud. “Really. Look, you can wake me up every four hours or whatever it is for concussions. Just… can I take a piss now? Please?” He lifted up those sinewy arms as if expecting to be picked up, and Phil gulped.

“Sure,” he said, draping the guy over his shoulder and cursing the fact that he hadn’t found him any clothing. “Let’s go.”
___

Attempting to piss while he could barely stand on his own was not going well, unfortunately. Phil was holding him up but had his eyes averted out of whatever sense of delicacy crusty fishermen had about these things. It left Clint to try and fumble things on his own-- not that he was gonna ask for help with his own dick, good fucking god. He’d have to actually have a head injury before being that far gone, even for someone that smelled as good as the man currently holding him up.

Uh, which was a bad thought to have when he was about to whip it out, since he didn’t want to startle the guy.

Clint gave up after the third attempt at getting his dick out of the fly one-handed failed-- maybe he had hit his head after all-- and just pushed his boxers down.

A wet smack brought Phil’s head back round, and they both stared at the floor together.

“Okay now, that was unexpected,” Clint said, blinking down at the jellyfish that had slipped out of a very intimate place and plopped into the circle of his boxers leg. “Swear I wasn’t trying to smuggle sea creatures or anything.”

Phil’s laughter, when it came, was a revelation. It lightened the entire room, never mind just his face.

“Damn,” Clint breathed, and pretended he was talking about the jellyfish still, when Phil glanced over at him.

"It happens to everyone sooner or later," Phil replied. "Just be glad it wasn't the stinging kind. I got one of them stuck once. Didn't get back in the water for a week after. My balls'd shrink up at the very sight of waves."

Clint's own laughter felt good, weirdly relieving, until it hit his bladder. The resulting slosh reminded him what they were there for, and he reminded Phil, and things happened quite efficiently after that. He was bundled back up on the sofa, a pleasantly empty feeling in his stomach, before he quite noticed how he’d gotten there.

Phil did a number of other brisk, competent little maneuvers that enhanced his comfort (as much as anything could do considering his condition) and then gave him a little space, with a promise to check on him in a few hours.

Clint slid down and curled into himself and stared at the fire a little more, trying to sort his head out.

He was going to have to get better before the storm lessened, or this Phil’d move heaven and earth to get him to a hospital.

Which was really just a slight detour on the way back into detention in a SHIELD cell-- if not back to the bottom of the ocean or off a dock in Atlantic City or wherever. He’d just fucking come from there, he thought, and he had no plans to go back.

He just had to get well quickly, give the vaguest truth possible about how he’d gone overboard, and keep Phil from asking what he’d been doing before that….
____

Light-- firelight?-- filtered through water, and wet streaked his hand.

The dog was licking him awake.

Clint reached out to scratch behind a furry ear, and was rewarded with another enthusiastic lick for his trouble.

“His name’s Lucky,” Phil’s voice floated from behind him. Because of course it was. Clint looked at the happy, one-eyed dog staring back at him, then up at his bearded savior where he was hovering above the couch holding on to something steaming in a pottery mug, then back at the dog. “Well, it beat the alternatives. I’ve got broth,” he set it down on the coffee table in front of Clint, and the smell nearly knocked him backwards. “If you can sip.”

“I can sip,” Clint rasped, but made no move for it. He’d stiffened during his nap, and the prospect of sitting up wasn’t at all attractive. If he could just take a moment to gather himself, before Phil noticed….

Too late. Phil clearly noticed, because somehow Clint found himself propped up on the couch, one long, calloused hand holding the mug of broth up to his lips while another cupped the back of his neck.

“Hens, is it?” Clint mumbled when his mouth and vision had cleared after the first sips of broth had slid down his throat, chickeny and rich. Phil chuckled.

“None of mine in there, if you’re worried,” he said. “I haven’t had a chance to check on them, yet, so we may yet see a few in broth in coming days.”

“Sorry.” Clint tried to ignore the “we” in that sentence, and found he couldn’t. The implications of one tiny word loomed pretty big. “‘We’?” he said.

“Ah, well, the bridge is out,” Phil told him, looking away at the fire. “And the phones are down, and the wireless network is jammed, and the storm is still going out there. The motor’s swamped on the runabout, and I’d really prefer not to try the skiff in these seas, unless you’ve got lots of internal bleeding.”

They both looked down at Clint’s stomach for no clear reason.

“Don’t think so,” he whispered back. Not that there was any way for either of them to tell, he didn’t point out.

“I’ll get you to a hospital as soon as I can. You know where you are?”

It was a relief, weirdly, to be able to answer that one honestly.

“Not really. On some island, I guess?” he said, and Phil grunted.

“You guess right. This is North Bar; it’s a private island. We’re in Barnegat Bay, if you know where that is; not quite a barrier island ourselves, but right at the tip of Long Beach Island.”

“But none of that is going to do us any good at the moment, since we can’t contact anyone. And I can’t ask the neighbors for help; apart from the chickens, you’ve met everyone who lives here. So, we’re on our own right now, and it would help, Frank, if you could tell me what happened to you?”

Clint heaved in a breath. Now for the truth or… never, probably. Phil was looking down at him, his expressions tucked away behind his beard, eyes dark in the shadows where the fire didn’t hit them, his high forehead wrinkled thoughtfully. The man still looked like he belonged sometime else, someplace else, not just off the fucking Jersey shore. This wasn’t a guy who catered to the vacationing throngs that migrated back north when the last fireworks of Labor Day faded from the sky.

This guy, his dog, his chickens and this little island he’d washed up on-- they weren’t that big a part of the larger world; couldn’t be, or Phil’d never have bothered to ask Clint his name. Wouldn’t have tucked him onto his couch, under a moth-eaten afghan, or propped him up and averted his eyes while Clint pissed. Not, at any rate, in that nonchalant fashion, as if Clint were just another consequence of the storm to tuck under hatches and splice back together.

It wasn’t like his face had been that common a sight in the papers before now-- other parts of him, sure-- but after the last few days? That had all changed, and not in a pleasant way. The anonymity brought its own comfort and, hopefully, a measure of safety. A chance to keep this little haven safe and hidden. If Phil knew who he had on his hands, though-- Hawkeye the Avenger (Hawkeye the fugitive, a voice in his head whispered)-- it all went to shit right there.

Clint dug his fingers more firmly into Lucky’s fur, and accepted another sip of broth.

“I think you must be right, I musta hit my head. I remember being on a boat, it being dusk. That’s about it.” He shrugged. “Not much after that till your couch and your dog,” and your hands and your beard and a stupid fucking jellyfish. “It’s all kinda a blank between.”

“Huh,” Phil said, and set the broth down. “Can I ask a few questions?” At Clint’s nod, he went through the familiar set: president, date, how many fingers, etc. Clint didn’t falter until he got to “what’s your full name? Why were you at sea?”

“Frank Barney,” he said after a long moment, knowing that by so doing he was leaping off the dock and praying the undertow was mild. “And why? Dunno. Like I said, it’s a blank for a bit before, but I remember the seas were pretty rough. Maybe I just wasn’t paying attention.” Phil’s frown was not unexpected, nor was the dart his eyes made towards the wound in Clint’s shoulder, but it threw him into alarm anyway. “It’s okay,” he half-babbled. “I don’t want you to try and move me right now. Not with the storm still going, like you said. Hate you to lose your chickens. Or house, or….” He drifted off at Phil’s hand on his shoulder.

“Then don’t agitate yourself, you idiot.”

Clint ducked his head, concentrated on the lumps of his bare knees beneath the itchy wool. Yeah, don’t agitate yourself, right. Only half of New York looking for you. Only half the world, maybe.

“What do you suggest, then?”

“More broth, more sleep.”

And what was he gonna do while Clint slept?

“You’re not gonna try to… contact someone, somehow?”

“Not sure how I’d do that-- not even semaphore is going to work in this weather. But… we’ll play it by ear. As long as your head is feeling better, I won’t. Tonight. We’ll reevaluate tomorrow.”

It was such a sensible plan, presented in a matter-of-fact manner by the not-so-ancient mariner, that Clint couldn’t think of anything to do but say yes, and sip broth.

 

Four

 

Captain America was waiting for her when she stepped off the elevator into the split-level common room the Avengers shared at Stark Tower. He was leaning over the rail that led up to the kitchen area, backlit an almost celluloid silver by the stormclouds gathered outside the full-length windows. The studied, serious nonchalance with which he glanced back at her was not at all a good sign. Natasha Romanov took a moment, as she slipped her umbrella into the stand next to the door and shook the last drops of rain from her boots, to read what she could from his face.

Strictly speaking, Steve was Steve Rogers at the moment, not Captain America. He’d shed his uniform in favor of a t-shirt and a pair of jeans, both of which hugged his form in ways that probably had their makers weeping at the fulfilment of everything they’d been stitched for. His pretty pale face was twisted, with the particular tuck of eyebrow and pout of lip that meant bad news about a teammate.

Which teammate, though? If only Natasha could have believed that Tony had managed to blow up a lab or Bruce had hulked out in Times Square, or some other normal and domestic disaster, she’d have been very much relieved. But no, she doubted she was that lucky.

“They’re calling off the search,” he said when she raised an eyebrow at him, and Natasha sat hard, sinking far into the overly squashy suede couch Stark had insisted go in the common area. She curtained herself with her hair, not wanting to see anything, not wanting to be seen, just for a moment.

A truly spectacular rear sank down on the cushion next to her, and the displacement of mass was great enough she canted against Steve’s shoulder. She tried not to flinch but he felt her shiver, she knew he felt it because he put an arm around her for a brief squeeze. Which was even worse, damn the man.

“They can’t search in the storm, anyway, and if he was at sea like SHIELD’s reports suggest-- they say it’s unlikely he survived. Natasha--” he paused. Natasha, with that little hitch between the syllables that meant he was trying to remember that only Clint got to call her Nat.

Only Clint had gotten to call her Nat.

“No,” she said, and shook her head.

“I know,” he tried. “I agree. But unless you’ve found something that SHIELD, and the CIA, and the NSA, and the FBI, and the NYPD and the New Jersey State Police and half the covert and overt intelligence agencies in this goddamn world have missed?” He shrugged. “Clint was… Clint’s an Avenger. You can’t believe they haven’t been putting everything they have into this.” She couldn’t raise her head to his gaze, because she was morally certain that he believed she was quite capable of beating the whole alphabet soup of agencies out. And he wasn’t wrong. She just hadn’t-- yet.

“Tell me about those SHIELD reports,” she said instead, and, when Steve got up and crossed to the window, if anything her heart sank further into that torturously plush couch. Running away, Captain?

“Agent Hand brought a packet over; I’ve left the copy on the counter.” He gestured up at the tiled counter that ran the length of the kitchen There was an honest-to-god eyes-only paper file neatly squared on it next to the translucent Stark-issue console tablet. It was a good try, but she waited him out, and after a moment his shoulders slumped and he continued. “They’ve found witnesses that state he was on a yacht belonging to some hot shot named Quinn. Hawkeye tried to steal something, but no one knows what. There was a scuffle, he fell off the boat-- they couldn’t find him and they couldn’t wait. The storm was coming up too fast.”

Now Natasha moved, coming to stand next to Steve and stare out at the gray curtain of rain as it swept along the rooftops and streets of Manhattan. She had not yet gotten used to that being her daily view, nor did she think Steve had. He came from the tenements, she from the shadows. Life in a high tower was too novel, too exposed, to be comfortable.

Clint hadn’t seemed bothered, but Clint Barton rarely seemed bothered by little things like being dozens of stories up with glass-- however safety tempered-- all around. He’d taken the events of the last couple years, from being the puppet of an alien godling to the near-destruction of SHIELD, with the sure step of a tightrope walker. And the awkward sarcasm of a stand-up comic. Even becoming a media star, a superhero, didn’t seem to crack his sense of humor.

Underneath, he was as much of a mess as the rest of them, but Clint didn’t believe in showing his soft underbelly to anyone. To her, yes. Natasha was the repository of his thoughts and fears, but even she never got all of them, never saw all of him.

Still, she was the one who’d sat by his side on the narrow bed as he came out from under Loki’s spell. She was the one who’d handed him his bow when they met beneath the dam the day they decided that the only way to save SHIELD was to burn HYDRA out of every limb, even if it took down the organization that had given them a home. They had walked into Stark’s tower shoulder to shoulder the day they left behind the life of spies to become Avengers. He had never failed to come back to her.

“He’s alive,” she said, voice coming out even. Steve nodded, staring at her face as it was reflected in the glass.

“That’s not all,” he said quietly. “They’re quite certain, now, that he was the one passing on the files that went missing from SHIELD. Hand says the timing fits, the place fits-- the drop was supposed to go down in Atlantic City, but Clint never arrived-- it all fits. They think he might have been trying to gather proprietary information from Quinn’s files, as well.”

“If Clint had been doing that, no one would have been the wiser,” Natasha snapped.

“Clint wouldn’t do that,” Steve replied, and his voice held all the conviction of the man who’d stood beside them as the Triskelion fell, and found it good. The man who’d talked around a brainwashed HYDRA assassin armed only with the certain conviction that he was Steve’s friend. She found it equal parts impressive and irritating; irritation bubbled up now.

“And what are you going to do about it?” she asked him. His puppy dog stare was answer enough, in all truth, but she wanted to make him say it.

“I’ll continue to talk to SHIELD, I’ll continue to talk to everyone,” he said. “And I’ll continue to hope Clint turns himself in so we can get to the bottom of this.” He gave that little pout at her again, that I know you’ll do the right thing twist, and she met his gaze steadily. “Natasha, if I knew which direction to go, where to search for him or how to clear his name I would do it in a heartbeat. But I don’t. SHIELD’s trying, too. They’re not his enemies. No one wants Hawkeye to be guilty. Least of all Director Fury. We may have our differences, but I trust him on that. Clint needs to come back.”

“It’s no good telling me that,” she said. And it’s no good telling Clint that either. He knows the spy game too well to trust anyone right now. He knows that even the people closest to you might betray you unwittingly. I taught him that.

“I know,” Steve said, and buried his head in his hands. “I wish he’d come to us for help, Nat, whatever it was.” Ah, and now he had forgotten. “I wish he’d just asked. This is not how… I never wanted to… I’m not going to bury an Avenger, Natasha.”

If SHIELD is right, the sea already did that for you, Natasha didn’t say. She just curled a hand around Steve’s forearm and squeezed.

“He’s not good at help,” she said, mild. It was the understatement of the century; every single evaluation from Clint’s intake forms on had some form of that statement on them. They were mostly disapproving, although some of his SOs-- Garrett, for instance-- had encouraged that self-sufficient streak. She mostly wanted to shake it out of him, but admitted that Garrett had a point; Strike Team Delta had been able to make its own way out of spots tighter than Steve’s uniform pants, all because they relied on no-one.

Except each other.

Clint you fool, she thought to herself. Wherever you are, I’m going to find you. And I am going to force my help down your throat.

_____

To Be Continued....