Clint gets fired on a Tuesday.
It's not like he doesn't know that SHIELD fires folks, but at his level of clearance, he'd've assumed that any firing would include, uh, a firing squad. Not a group from HR talking about worker's comp (apparently he's been eligible, which is unexpected) and a hostile work environment (apparently people are hostile about him, which is fair) and a healthy severance package (apparently they think he needs the money, which is correct).
There's no non-compete agreement he has to sign or anything like that and Clint knows they expect him to walk out of here and get a job at basically any other secret agency in a square mile. And Clint can't pretend he doesn't get some interested and interesting phone calls.
But Clint looks at his bank balance and then he rummages through his sock drawer and then he thinks: you know, I don't have enough purple underwear. I should fix this.
Then he thinks: I've got money now. People with money can start companies. I should start a company for underwear.
It's an expensive way of getting what he wants, but he has Tony Stark on speed-dial, and Tony Stark has Pepper Potts on speed-dial, and, long story short, six hours later, Clint is the founder and owner of a specialty clothing store. Six hours after that, he wakes up hungover, not sure what just happened, but figures, what the hell, let's roll with it.
Natasha walks in on a Friday. They get a nice afternoon rush on Friday, people stopping by to pick up something special for the weekend. It's a holiday weekend, so it's even rush-ier, and Clint is busy in the back, seeing what's left to stock onto the shelves. When he comes out, Natasha is chatting up Darcy Lewis, Clint's best and longest employee. They bond over being fired by SHIELD. It's great.
Natasha and Darcy are chatting about fit and how Natasha can be armed without ruining the lines of her dress, so Clint figures Darcy can handle this one, and so goes back to looking busy and avoiding getting stopped by his customers and asked for recommendations. He's given way too many recommendations since he opened the store. He knows he is very bad at them. There's a running tally on the white board in the back on how many times Clint has lost them a sale. It's shameful.
It is, Clint thinks, vaguely proud and extremely horrified, not good for the bottom line when he gives his opinion. Phil, may his soul be enjoying the most action-filled after-life ever, would approve. He would say: Barton, you're growing as a person. And: Barton, self-reflection is good for the soul.
So Clint leaves Natasha to it, but Natasha does not leave Clint to it, because she ambushes him between the panties and the garters and smiles sweetly. "I need something for my partner to wear when I make him cry and regret his life choices."
"Nothing is usually a good bet," Clint offers.
"I was thinking something more chartreuse," Natasha says. "Or a nice vermilion. And then I'll use the fishnets in aisle 5 to strangle him."
"Those won't make a very good rope," Clint says.
"I'm good at improvisation," Natasha says, which is very true. She crosses her arms. "Barton."
"C'mon, Nat," Clint says. "If you were gonna look for Clint Barton Code Name Hawkeye, where would you start?"
"Well," she draws out, "I'd probably start at the place called Hawkeye's Lingerie."
Yeah, but no one else would, which is the point. And, look, Clint's been killing people for a long time. And guys like Clint, either they die fast or they die slow, they don't just fade away. Clint's not as young as he used to be and he's rattled. Loki messed him up pretty good. No wonder SHIELD didn't trust him or want him around anymore. Clint barely trusts himself some days. He definitely doesn't trust himself on the end of some agent's tether, being told to kill or let live on someone else's whim.
Clint's been killing people for a long time. He's seeing if he has any other salable skills.
"Yeah, but just you," Clint says to Natasha, who nods knowingly, and then helps him stack some boxes.
After that, Natasha always comes in on Fridays, usually once every couple months. But in February, she walks in on a Thursday. Darcy squeals from behind the counter and comes out to hug Jane Foster. Natasha jerks her head towards them.
"Hey, Darcy, isn't it time for your break?" Clint calls, and Darcy agrees, dragging Jane not to the back room to talk, but towards the back wall of the store. Um. Well, Darcy knows what she's doing. And possibly Dr. Foster does as well. That puts a whole new spin on New Mexico, Clint thinks.
Natasha slips Clint a ripped piece of paper, which contains some numbers. After Clint blinks at it for a few moments, it resolves itself into a man's measurements. Those better be Thor's measurements, because otherwise Clint is feeling seriously inadequate. If they're Thor's, then he can just feel inadequate on behalf of the entire human race.
"No," Clint says.
"There is no point in having a friend with connections if you cannot get this for me," Natasha says.
"We don't stock menswear," Clint whines.
Natasha slugs him on the arm. "Then I think it's time to start, don't you?"
They put up the sign on a Sunday that they now stock men's items and a guy walks in, baseball cap over his eyes. It's taken them like four, five months to get everything sorted out, and Pepper even made Clint do a cost-benefit analysis and figure out shit like the consumer demand. Clint feels so adult right now. They've erased the white board so they can track daily sales on it and see what they need to stock more of. Clint's thrown himself into this pretty hard, yeah. After what went down in DC, he's been having a lot of second thoughts. And third thoughts. And fourth thoughts.
Mostly he's just glad he doesn't work for SHIELD anymore.
Mostly he's just glad that Phil didn't live to see this.
So Clint's all set to track sales and figure out their marketing strategy, and first thing Sunday morning, which is always a slow start, a guy walks in. And he walks in like a spy walks in, and Clint knows a few spies. Natasha still texts him a status report every night, she's still alive, she's still alive, she's still alive.
Clint gives Darcy the signal and Clint intercepts the guy while Darcy looks completely innocent and also grabs the panic button and a gun.
"Can I help you?" Clint asks.
"You hiring?" the guy asks. Both hands are in his pockets, but his eyes are moving, and Clint knows the moment he notices what Darcy's doing, because the guy takes his hands out of his pockets and holds them carefully to his sides, his palms flat and empty. He's wearing gloves. "You've got some new stock in, I thought you might need someone extra to help out. I know a lot about... men's clothing."
No way this guy knows a thing about men's clothing. Well, maybe men's clothing. Not men's pretty frilly panties. "SHIELD?"
"I'm honestly not sure right now," the guy says thoughtfully and, yeah, Clint can emphasize about that. He doesn't know how many of his missions were SHIELD or HYDRA. He knows how many people he killed for Loki. He doesn't know how many people he killed for Nazis.
"Got a name?" Clint asks. He's not expecting the guy's real one.
"James," the guys says. He hesitates. "Um, Barnes."
The name rings exactly zero bells, which is a good sign or a really bad sign. "All right, James Barnes," Clint says. "I'm betting you won't pass a criminal background check and I don't drug test employees. I'll give you a try-out day and we'll see how it goes. If you steal from the register, I'm calling my investors." Also known as Tony Stark and Pepper Potts, but really, in this situation, known as the remnants of the Avengers. It's a decent threat, even these days. Especially these days.
Barnes nods. "I accept those terms."
Clint pretends he isn't realizing that Barnes has a metal arm.
On Wednesday, Clint officially hires Barnes on, has him fill out all the paperwork. Barnes is really good about dressing to de-emphasize the prosthetic, which would be great for him if Clint didn't know who the Winter Soldier is. Was. Maybe still is.
Clint is harboring a master assassin in his store. Employing a master assassin in his store. Actually paying a master assassin to do inventory and sweep the floors and do opening and closing and actually give customers decent recommendations for products they might enjoy.
Barnes isn't half-bad at that. He's got a way with people, a charm in his eyes. It's an act, but it's a good one, and it's great customer service.
Clint's just not sure he should tell anyone about this. Or, if he should, who he should.
Well, Captain America for one, because Clint does owe him a few huge favors, and this would go a long way to paying them off. And Natasha for another, because she and the Winter Soldier have a history. And it's not like Nat didn't slip him a new emergency number a week ago. Clint totally has people he could call about this.
The thing is, though, Clint can read, and he's read the SHIELD files, and he's thinking, the Winter Soldier was a brainwashed tool, a machine. A master assassin, but his handlers were more than Clint's handlers ever were. They weren't Barnes's Phil. They were Barnes's Loki. And Clint had needed time after Loki had been forcibly ejected from Clint's head. Time to himself, time to think. The best thing SHIELD had ever done for him was fire him.
Clint figures he should extend Barnes the same courtesy, except in the opposite direction. Hire him, give him space, give him privacy and respect. Clint does, however, set it up that if he doesn't check in to an e-mail address once every seven hours, it will e-mail Natasha everything. Clint ain't stupid.
It's a Monday three weeks later when Captain America shows up. They close early on Mondays and they're switching around displays when there's a polite knock on the door.
"We're closed," Clint calls, but then he turns around and Steve waves.
Clint glances at Barnes, who looks like a deer in the headlights. "You can go out the back if you want," Clint offers. "We'll pretend you called off sick."
"I don't get sick," Barnes says.
"Okay," Clint says, and goes to open the door. "Hiya, Cap."
"Clint," Steve says. He looks beyond Clint, stares at Barnes. "Can you introduce me?" he asks, sounding hesitant.
Clint looks over his shoulder at Barnes, who is staring at Steve and not saying anything. Maybe he doesn't remember he can talk. "Name on his paystub is James Barnes," Clint says.
"Can I call you James?" Steve asks the air over Clint's right shoulder.
Barnes steps forward. Clint gives in to the inevitable and steps to the side, both literally and figuratively.
"I'm going to go check on the computers," Clint says. "Don't burn down the store."
Barnes and Steve aren't breaking eye contact. "We won't go anywhere," Steve promises.
Clint leaves them to it. And by that he means he watches the security camera from the break room, because he still ain't stupid.
It's the first Saturday in September and Clint has things to do today. A list, even. He's going to pet his dog a lot, then go for a walk, then find his way to the cemetery. He might bring flowers this year. He didn't last year. Clint's never been sentimental about anniversaries, but something about hanging out with two guys who were MIA for half a century and then showed up alive is bringing out the maudlin in Clint. He needs to remind himself that people die. He needs to remind himself that everything ends.
A key turns in the lock. Probably Natasha.
Clint looks up. It's not Natasha.
Clint holds on to the couch because he thinks he's going to fall off. "What," Clint says.
"Hi," Phil says.