A Man's Life
When its all said and done Clint knows he would make the same decision again, no matter what it meant for him. He knows this because he has made the decision before, damn near countless times; the only reason this moment is different from the rest is that this time…this time they saw. This time Phil saw.
It's staggering really, to know how only a few seconds can change everything.
Now Clint's standing here, his heart beating double time, his bow clutched in his right hand and his palm, his goddamn palm is sweating. He doesn't remember the last time that happened, and it's all because of a clusterfuck of a mission. All because he'd run out of arrows and his comm. had been smashed early into the fight. All because he hadn't been able to warn Coulson or the rest of the team about the would be assassin coming up behind him. Because Steve and Tony and Natasha had their hands full and Phil was methodically taking aim and downing the more human attackers trying to get the drop on their super-soldier and the noise of battle masked his own trouble.
All because Clint had abandoned his perch with a simple leap, and then hopped over a fence and ran the few hundred yards to take out the motherfucker who dared to even try to put a scratch on Phil.
All in under fifteen seconds.
He didn't think the timing was the reason for the cautious, unsure looks he was getting from his teammates. No, that probably had more to do with the fact that he'd jumped from a four-story building and then 'hopped' over a ten-foot fence. At this point the speed he ran wasn't all that impressive.
But now Tony was landing beside Steve, sun glinting off his suit, and his face piece slid up to reveal pinched eyes and a hard stare. Clint looked to Phil.
Phil met his gaze steadily, but for once Clint couldn't tell what the man was thinking. He couldn't tell what he was thinking. Clint very, very carefully schooled his own features, relaxed his grip on the bow, changed up his posture as easily as blinking and raised his eyebrows expectantly. First rule of survival: make like you're not a threat. Nobody relaxed their stance in response. They knew him too well. Natasha narrowed her eyes.
Clint needed to go. He needed to go now. He hadn't survived this long not trusting his instincts, he knew when to move on, when to cut his losses and deal with them later. The instinct was almost overwhelming.
"Agent Barton," Phil's, Coulson's he corrected himself forcefully, voice held no inflection, good or bad. Run run run. "It would appear that there are a few things about yourself you haven't shared with us yet." There was nothing accusing in his voice, there rarely was in the field, but Clint still heard the silent me in place of us, and his stomach rolled unpleasantly.
Run. Run while you still can.
"Shit, are you a mutant? Why the hell didn't you just tell us?" leave it to Tony to actually sound hurt and incredulous and indifferent all at once.
"Not quite that easy," Clint forced a grin, not breaking eye contact with Phil until Natasha moved, silent to anyone who didn't have his feline sense of hearing, and he switched his gaze to stare at her, warningly. She froze, and frowned, and clearly nobody knew what to think of him right now and all he could allow himself to think was thank fuck Thor and Bruce weren't here, because than he wouldn't have a hope in hell of escaping.
He'd mapped the route he would take when he'd been freefalling from forty feet above.
"We're going to need a little more than that," Steve said softly, but with a hint of warning. Clint could hear his hand squeeze and release around the grip on his shield, squeeze and release. Clint forced the feeling that was suspiciously like his world crumbling away in his chest and looked back at Phil.
"Ever hear of a project called Manticore?"
"No." Dry and to the point. Clint had always loved Phil's directness, but he couldn't, he couldn't…he had to go. It was an overwhelming instinct tight in his chest.
"Jarvis, research Manticore," Tony ordered and it would only be a matter of time now. Clint had always known he'd have to leave one day, he'd just been hoping this wouldn't be the reason.
"It's been fun," Clint pulled out one last smile for them, ignoring all the sudden frowning, even on Phil's lips. Frowning never looked good on Phil and Clint couldn't leave it at that, with flimsy words that said nothing real. He straightened and softened the smile. "It's been an honour." That would have to do.
Clint didn't wait, he turned and ran, ran hard, and leapt over the ridiculous perimeter fence that separated the constructions lot from the city, where other SHIELD agents had been waiting patiently, keeping civilians safe.
Run Run Run.
He ignored their startled shouts. He ignored the distinctive sound of Tony launching into the sky and the heavy footfalls as Steve raced after him. Steve was fast. Steve might have a chance of catching him, but Clint had a head start. He rounded a corner, flew down the street into the bowls of the subway system. He jumped onto the track and pumped all his energy into running. He was a blur as far as the human eye could see and while he could still hear Steve following him, steady and fast as hell, he was faster. Faster and quieter.
He passed two platforms before stopping just out of sight of the third, and he quickly pulled his empty quiver over his had and leaned it up against the wall and then his bow…he looked at it mournfully. He couldn't take it with him, without ammunition it was nothing but an eye-catcher. He snapped it in half over his knee, using the extra strength Manticore had genetically gifted him at birth, and gently slid the broken halves into the quiver, along with his guard. If he couldn't keep it he'd be damned if some random subway employee or SHIELD agent got their hands on it.
He pulled the knife from his boot and swiftly cut a small incision into the back of his forearm and then squeezed it until the tiny, barely there, tracking capsule slid out like a large sliver, red and glistening. The cut barely oozed a drop of blood and he wasted no more time hopping up onto the platform, seconds before the train came screaming to a stop, and smiled at the startled teenagers that spotted him. He stepped onto the train alongside them and swiftly began making his way to the forward cars.
By the time he stepped off he had lost his shooting glove and gained nearly four hundred dollars cash, a pair of ray-ban aviator knockoffs that would look too big on his face, and a thin, army-green jacket that had seen better days. By the time he left the station he also had a baseball-cap.
It was enough to get him a taxi through the Holland Tunnel, where he lifted a car to Newark. He bought an entirely new outfit at the local Wal-Mart, hair-dye, and a few essentials, stuffed them into a cheap duffle and was off again.
He had a locker in Toronto, one with passports and cash and fake identities that nobody knew about. For just this reason.
He changed his hair colour twice in three days, found green contacts for his eyes, and wore gloves wherever he could get away with it. He purchased a ticket at Pierson Airport and boarded a KLM flight to Schipol where he exchanged the multi-coloured cash for multi-coloured Euro's, ditched everything else, and set off again.
In Köln he stopped. A tiny hostel that didn't ask questions and had single rooms became his temporary refuge. It wasn't until he sat on the bed, pressed his back into the corner and wrapped his hands around his knees that he allowed himself to think about everything he had lost.
He would do it all again, in a heartbeat, without question or regret or complaint.
But fuck if it didn't ache, deep, and sharp in his chest.
When he slept, because even secret suped-up transgenic runaway soldiers got tired after a week of hyper vigilance, he slept with the image of Phil's cool, calculating blue eyes in mind, and woke up restless and weary.
Fuck his life anyway.
With a sigh he tried to figure out his next move.
Normally Phil was better at masking his emotions than this.
He glared at the screen in the Avenger mansions briefing room and very carefully did not pick up the coffee Rogers had brought for fear hurling it across the room.
Thankfully the rest of the team were dealing with their own anger issues and weren't paying a great amount of attention to his. Except for Natasha, but she had always made a special point of keeping an eye on him. She'd once told Phil it was because she thought he was the most dangerous of them all.
Fuck fuck fuck.
Phil had messed up, big time, and he didn't need to have all the facts to know that it was because he'd fallen back on his field training, locking his feelings behind a cold mask while he tried to sort out the shock for the 'what-the-fuck' about turn Clint, his lover for Christ's sake, had pulled.
Jumping four stories, leaping over a fence and moving so fast he practically blurred when he moved.
And Clint had just seemed so resigned to it, standing there, not a hair out of place after easily taking down a trained killer the size of Steve, and acting like it was normal. Acting like he did it every day.
Phil couldn't help it when his mind started reviewing all the times he'd been in the field with the man, all the times he'd watched him training or trained with him, trying to figure out how he could have missed this. Clint had never breathed a word of it.
Then Clint's eyes had changed, the casual gleam shifting to a resignation that Phil hadn't understood until the man was spouting some bullshit about what an 'honour' it had been to know them before he turned his back on them all and ran.
Ran. Blurred. Retreated. Whatever it could be classified as Clint had taken off before Phil could even get over the shock that his partner wasn't dead after throwing himself off a building.
Phil wasn't even trying to mask his emotions anymore, because he was so pissed.
Phil hadn't expected Clint to just run. Phil had entertained the idea that Clint would trust what they had together enough to at least give him the benefit of the doubt. He hadn't even known why Clint would run, its not like mutants were exactly a secret, they worked alongside them often enough. Fought for their rights just as much as they fought against the ones who would do damage.
Then Phil remembered who he was thinking about, and it just hurt more.
Steve had come back to them without Clint, his shoulders slumped in defeat as he wordlessly handed over Clint's quiver, stuffed with his favourite recurve snapped in two, and shook his head.
"I lost him in the tunnels." Steve wasn't blaming himself, not completely (not yet), but when they got Clint back Phil was going to make sure he apologized to them all just for making them feel bad. Natasha hadn't given chase, realistic enough to understand that if Steve couldn't catch Clint than she wouldn't stand a chance, no matter how good she was. Tony had followed along in the sky, tracking the imbedded gps they all had injected months ago. It didn't take them long to figure out that Clint had removed it, but it had been long enough to lose him.
"Manticore," Phil demanded the moment Tony had rejoined them. The genius looked to the broken weapon in Phil's hand, the agents sweeping in to begin taking care of clean up, and shook his head.
"Let's wait until we're back at the mansion," he decided firmly. Firmly enough that Phil didn't question why they didn't head to SHIELD instead and passed off the rest of the ops responsibilities to Agent Sitwell. That was where they were now, watching a holographic replay of that afternoon that Tony's suit had recorded as he dipped around in the sky. Watching Clint trying to get his attention, get all their attention, and then, without hesitation, launch himself off the roof was going to sit uneasily in Phil's heart for a long time.
"I have Jarvis scanning traffic cams and connected security footage for him but so far no sign," Tony announced as he walked into the room still wearing the skin-tight black suit he favoured under his armour.
"You won't find him that way," Natasha stood beside Phil, arms crossed and scowling, "he won't be making mistakes just yet."
"Manticore," Phil asked softly and Tony looked at him a moment before turning to a touchscreen tablet at the conference room table and replaced the image of Clint preparing to run away from them with the image of a lion-like beast in mid leap.
"Manticore," Tony stabbed at the tablet and the image changed to stream scientific jargon and what Phil recognized as DNA structures. "Originally a private foundation created by a crazy ex-breeding-cult-patriot for the sole purpose of developing supersoldiers," he looked apologetically at Steve, who merely frowned and waved at him to continue. "He basically developed a way to splice prime human genetic samples with animal DNA and create hybrid embryos."
"Animal DNA?" Phil was trying very hard to keep his calm. Tony looked at him grimly and nodded.
"Clint," he looked back at the screen with a frown. "I haven't been able to dig into the database deeply yet, it's ridiculously well-hidden even if the whole projects been disbanded, but Clint…he would have been a part of something they called the X-5 series," he narrowed his eyes and shut the image off to look at them all. "If he's actually one of these X-5's, which is pretty much a given seeing how he freaked out on us, then he has feline DNA in him, probably a tiger or leopard."
Phil nodded tightly. Deal with facts, get Clint back, and then dwell on it later when he knew his partner was safe.
"That doesn't explain why he ran," Steve pointed out in his steady, take no prisoners tone, which had Tony glaring at him. They were all a little tense.
"No, no it doesn't. That reaction might be explained by the fact that a shady not-so-honourable faction of our government stole the project before the children were even born and raised them like robotic little assassins. Basically a special forces bootcamp for toddlers, but with kids that have heightened strength, speed, reflexes, stamina etcetera. Call me a cynic, but I'm going to guess that if Clint grew up in that than he probably has bigger reasons to run than a little kitty DNA."
Phil's blood ran hot, his mind flashing, putting things together and beside him Natasha tensed.
"How did we not know this?" Steve frowned even harder. "SHIELD does extensive medical work-ups, they would have detected the anomalies in the DNA."
"Yes, they should have," Phil agreed quietly.
"He would have hacked the medical systems, convinced the tech. that his genetic coding was normal, human and not raised any flags," Natasha frowned and Tony looked appalled.
"Clint Barton hacked and recoded all the medical databases and scanners of SHIELD," it sounded ludicrous.
"You just finished telling us he is a genetically advanced being raised by our government to be a super soldier. Computer skills would probably be a fairly high priority if they wanted their soldiers for any kind of espionage." She glared at him.
"Doesn't matter right now," Phil cut off Tony's rebuttal with a snap and took a deep breath to focus. Just thinking about all the ways Clint could have been hurt these years, all the ways the doctors could have made his injures worse as opposed to better because he had hidden basic DNA structure from them…Phil was beginning a list in his head, it looked something like this:
-Get Clint back
-Teach Clint why he should never doubt Phil
-Withhold sex for the rest of their lives until Clint realizes what a self-harming asshole he is and agrees to stop doing stupid things like lie to the doctors that are trying to help him.
-Make Clint apologize to teammates
-See what Clint is really capable of
"Tony, find out more about this organization," he didn't need to specify that he wanted him to focus on Clint's position within it. That he wanted to know everything. "Let's keep this between us for now." Tony nodded silently and left the room. Steve looked at Phil, nodded once, and left as well.
Natasha perched on the tables edge and looked at him hard, her hair stull dusty from the fight a mere two hours ago.
"Not your fault he left Phil," she said after a long while and he pressed his lips together.
"He left because he didn't trust us," he responded softly, not meaning the us at all.
"He left because he panicked, just like we all did for a second there," she brushed her fingertips over her wrist, where her poisonous darts were housed. "We'll find him, and then we'll figure it out." She slid off the table and bumped his shoulder as she walked away. Phil didn't feel better for it, but he didn't feel worse. He figured that no progress was better than a decline. Now he just needed to figure out a way to explain to Fury why one of their top assets had taken an impromptu vacation without raising any alarms.
When three days passed and they still hadn't found Clint they began to get truly concerned. It became apparent pretty quickly to Phil and Natasha that Clint had a 'just-in-case' bag somewhere that went beyond the five he had registered with SHIELD and the other three that Phil knew of that were not at all SHIELD associated.
He couldn't begrudge Clint this, Phil had a few of his own he'd never told anyone about, but that didn't mean Phil was happy about it.
At this point Stark had taken to monitoring the public sale of any kind of bow across the country, using a not-at-all-legal means that Phil wanted to know nothing about. Clint wasn't going to buy something so obvious so soon, but it never hurt to cover all basis.
Thor and Bruce had returned to the mansion the day before and Tony hadn't bothered to consider Clint's privacy as he told them all about it and Bruce had immediately confiscated all the scientific files Tony had dug up, disappearing to his lab.
Tony had found more information. None of it had been particularly nice.
Phil's mind kept recalling things he foolishly wished hadn't happened. The image of a five-year old Clint constructing a bomb that, at a glance, looked destined for a car. The video of him as an eight-year old in combat with three larger kids, of how he was beaten into the training yards dirt and kept getting up, like a machine, to be beaten back down. Again and again. He'd been carried off on a stretcher, but by the end the other boys hadn't been getting up either.
There had been images of all the genetically bred soldiers in the database Tony had ripped out of hiding, and this hadn't been limited to the X-5 series. There had been front and side profile pictures for every child, their designation printed in dark black letters beneath their emotionless faces. Most soldiers were a part of a unit designation, a select few were not. Clint was not.
Clint wasn't even called Clint.
When Tony cracked open Clint's file his picture was the first thing they saw. He couldn't have been older than fourteen.
"Even my robots have names," Tony angrily muttered as he deleted the numbers.
On Asgard names were practically sacred; Thor hadn't understood what the numbers meant but he'd fallen silent for a long time after Steve quietly explained. Asgard wasn't the only place names meant something.
Nearly all the X-5's had a twin (re: clone), Clint's had been a part of a unit and was killed in a training accident when he was four. Phil wondered if Clint knew, or if he would have been too young to care at the time.
"The place blew up in '98," Clint's file was suddenly replaced by the image of what had once, clearly, been a compound of sorts in the middle of a forest outside Seattle. The walls were crumbled, smoke still smoldering in clumps all around. A few bodies splayed out by the fence line.
When Clint was nine he went on his first solo assignment: three days in Sweden. There was no more information than that, but Phil didn't need any more to understand. In 1989 political leader Ansgar Olander was assassinated on his way home from a movie theater. Shot in the back. It looked like amateur work. Phil knew it was anything but.
After that assignment reports stated X5-446 became slightly more reluctant to perform his duties, so they doubled his training regime until he fell into line once more.
Clint stayed in his tiny hostel room in Köln for seven hours. He slept for three, dyed his hair a blonder shade then he was used to and shaved off five days facial growth, leaving just enough for the beginnings of a 'stash and some chin cover.
He very carefully did not think about the fact that he would rather be waking up next to Phil in a bed with actual lumbar support.
When he left he climbed out the window, scaling down the three stories silently in the dark and moving cautiously through the streets. It wasn't particularly busy out, a dusting of snow and the crisp wind enough to keep the majority of people inside. He wrapped the navy coloured scarf he'd lifted from the hostels lobby more securely around his neck, hunched his shoulders to make himself more unnoticeable, and contemplated borrowing another car.
He didn't waste time feeling guilty about all the stealing, it was the least of his worries and regrets at the moment.
He kept himself moving so he couldn't falter. By the fourth day he'd palmed three different phones with the tenuous thought that he might call Phil, just to make sure he and the team were okay, before the uncertainty and training kicked in once more and he tossed them away.
Stay hidden. Do not surrender under any circumstance. You belong to Manticore. You belong to the government. The world will turn its back on you the moment it learns that you're not natural. Not human, or mutant. You exist because we say you do. Without the missions we assign you are nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
Clint wasn't nothing. It took him a long time to learn that, but he knew better now. He sure as hell didn't belong to anyone, least of all Manticore.
Move move move.
He slipped silently into the eerie echo filled train yard and selected an empty boxcar at random. He would figure things out. He always did.
On day eight Charles Xavier finished saving the world and called Phil back.
He knew the moment Clint realized someone was watching him. There was no outward sign, no hesitation in his movements, but Phil just knew. When he pushed away from the shipyard crate he was leaning against and into the middle of the path Clint stopped moving altogether. Stopped and shifted his weight to his left leg, prepared for anything. Phil was not happy about that, but at least Clint hadn't slipped a weapon in hand. That would have hurt.
Two yard-workers that had been approaching them in the early morning light paused and smartly altered their course down another path.
For a moment all that was heard was the distant call of gulls and the mechanical groaning of cranes as they loaded the ships for departure.
Clint watched Phil carefully, uncertainly, but not with any surprise and Phil made sure he stood with an open posture and very carefully did not hide what he was feeling. Not here and not this time, because he'd be damned if he lost Clint for good for that reason alone.
Clint stared, and then swallowed thickly.
"I don't belong to SHIELD," the archer said, very carefully. "I'm not government property anymore."
Phil already had agents very diligently tracking down the last of the individuals involved in Manticore. Phil was going to enjoy debriefing them, personally, and off the clock, but most especially the ones involved in handling Clint.
"No, you're not. But you belong with us." With me. Clint's hand twitched forward, but he remained in place, still weary. Phil had to remind himself that this Clint had reacted on years of instinct, on the belief that hiding who he really was was the only thing keeping him from being locked away as a governmental tool once more. A heartless assassin. A prisoner.
Phil didn't need to ask why Clint, for all his secrecy and fears of being exposed, had joined an organization like SHIELD. Why, when he knew the variety of beings SHIELD employed he thought he might be treated differently. Didn't need to ask about indoctrination and brainwashing and the meaning of choice and free will.
He didn't even need to know why Clint had run away from him, from them, not anymore. That may or may not come later; it didn't matter. The only thing that mattered was now.
Clint's eyes narrowed, looking almost ethereal in the sharp light of sunrise, and he squared his shoulders challengingly.
"I killed my first man when I was nine," he said coldly.
"I murdered my handler when I was fifteen."
Phil nodded, because he had guessed as much from what Manticore didn't say about X5-446's sudden disappearance from the program. He also guessed there was far more to it than what Clint was trying to paint for him now.
"I know that Natasha is five stacks back, leaning on the other side of the blue crate." Phil frowned at this.
"Agent Romanov was supposed to wait at the Quinjet," he said dryly, and Clint's lips twitched in humour before all amusement fled.
"I'm not human."
Phil was done keeping his distance. He moved forward, steadily and with intent and when he reached Clint he wrapped both hands around the side of his neck to hold him in place and kissed him. Hard. And kept kissing him when Clint froze. And absolutely did not sigh in relief when Clint Finally surrendered, melting into him and opening up. Phil softened his approach but did not pull away, not nearly ready to be finished tasting, re-familiarizing himself with Clint, his movements, the feel of his hands at his waist, gripping hard now and saying more than Phil ever needed in words. Eight days of uncertainty and loss and the ache of just missing his partner and Phil didn't let up until he felt that Clint understood what he was trying to show him. Even then Phil still had words, and he rested his forehead against his lover's as they caught their breath.
"You're more human than most of us."
They were silent a long moment and Clint closed his eyes, before nodding and finally straightening. He rolled his shoulders, adjusted the pack that had shifted across his back, and then shook his head with a smile.
"I can't believe you just said that," he teased, the uncertainty was still there, it was always there, would most likely always be there, but he tried to hide it with light words and smiles. Phil didn't think this was something Manticore trained into him. This was pure Clint.
"Yes you can," Phil turned and began walking towards the water. The jet was parked at the very end of a cruise ship dock, he wanted to leave before the ship pulled in at oh-seven-hundred. Clint grinned and Natasha silently stepped up to join them, her black field suit not at all subtle in the gleaming Portugal sunlight.
"Do I want to know how you managed to find me?" he asked and arched an eyebrow at Phil. Phil didn't smile back, no humour present because he would always find Clint, and Clint should know that by now. The archer's shoulder bumped his own, gently.
"Where did 'Clint' come from?" Natasha asked with all the subtlety of a battering ram, which had Clint's shoulders relaxing even more as he walked between them. Phil wondered if the protectiveness of their positions was lost on the archer, but figured it wasn't. He was going to have to start taking into account that there was a lot more Clint noticed than he'd ever let on.
"First movie I ever saw was A Fistfull Of Dollars. Clint Eastwood. Seemed as good a name as any," he replied easily and fell into silence.
Phil knew that movie. Knew it because Clint watched it a few times a year, silently slouched in the common area couch, lights down and volume barely a whisper. It starred a gunslinger with no name and a quote he'd pulled out more than once just before diving into the fray. 'A man's life in these parts often depends on a mere scrap of information.'
Ansgar Olander had been watching that movie with his wife the night he was killed; a late night screening with Swedish subtitles, buttery fingerprints on his slacks and grimace of pain on his face in the autopsy photos.
"You guys couldn't park a little closer?" Clint broke the silence halfway down the mile-long dock, taking off his hat and squinting up at the sky.
"No," Phil watched Clint from the corner of his eye, noting the paleness of exhaustion and stress still too evident for his peace of mind.
"Do you at least have breakfast waiting?" There was a hint of eagerness there and Phil didn't have the heart to remind him that food had been the last thing on their mind when they'd left New York.
"No," Phil absolutely did not sigh when Thor's voice suddenly thundered a greeting to them. The jet was still a dark blur to Phil, but he could just make out the red of the Norse God's cape, and it looked like it was getting closer and closer. Or maybe it was Stark, he had insisted on bringing his suit after all. "Maybe we can swing by a drive through somewhere."
Beside him Clint grinned. It wasn't quite real yet, Phil knew the difference, but it would get there eventually.
They had time now. Time was all Phil ever needed.