The first time it happened, he hadn't even realized he'd been messing up. It wasn't like he'd been training that long and three inches off the mark wasn't a big deal when he was just shooting at apples. Except that apparently it was a big deal. A very big deal.
After that first time, he aimed to never miss a target again. Too bad that wasn't a reality anyone could live up to.
The other kids in his dorm had fallen asleep hours ago, most of them breathing easily. Ernie was snoring like he always did, and John was having the bad dreams again, the ones where he cried a little and never stopped moving under his sheets. Clint ignored it with years of practice, laying absolutely still, his eyes seeing through the dark easily. He'd learned to stay awake as long as possible his first few months here, some of the older kids not taking a shine to him and one night of having them sneak in and whip pillow cases filled with soap bars at him had taught him quickly to keep still, silent, and awake very quickly.
He never learned why they hated him so much, but six long years of never knowing when and where they would strike from meant he was generally ready for anything. That night though, when the door to the dorm he shared with the other nine year olds cracked open quietly, he slipped out of his bed and moved quickly.
Barney grinned at him from the hallway and Clint couldn't help smiling back, following him without question to the girl's bathroom. From there it was easy to slide out the window and climb down the thick ivy past the second floor to the ground. Barney got their bags out from behind the bushes and they were off. Free. Just like Barney promised. And just like Barney promised they met up with the girl he had been meeting with the last few weeks and she took them to where she lived.
Carson's Carnival of Travelling Wonders barely blinked an eye when she announced she had two new roustabouts. They'd been glad to have Barney of course, because he was big and strong and really smart even for a fourteen year old and Clint did everything he could to make sure they were glad to have him as well.
When they first got the job, they slept in the horse tents. Clint fell in love with the animals on sight, their noise and smell soothing in the long night hours when he didn't sleep, still too hyper aware of everything around him. He watched all the performer's shows with rapt attention when he wasn't busy with the thousand and one tasks given to him. He watched them practice more carefully. The tumbling, the rope walking, the strong man, the trapeze artists, even the wide, convincing smile and easy words of the ringleader caught his attention. He didn't realize that when he started sneaking into the empty tent late at night to practice their art on his own that he was noticed.
He knew Barney had started to try and become an apprentice almost as soon as they were allowed to work at the circus for food and shelter. Barney started talking about it all the time, started to try and get the Swordsman's attention, or Trick Shot's, or even Snap's, because that man was kind of impressive with his whip, snatching cigarettes from people mouths from twelve feet away without blinking an eye.
Clint learned how much he loved climbing to the top of the tent and perching up there for hours to watch everyone below, finding the trickiest places to hide.
At the orphanage he'd learned to never back down from challenges (probably one of the reasons he got into trouble so much), and at Carson's he adopted the same motto, though there it had been more appreciated even if it had all been for good fun. So when Clint had been mouthing off at the bone yards long table while eating dinner about how easy it was to hit the balloons with the darts people paid attention. No one ever liked an untested showoff. Arie, who ran the game, lifted his big bushy eyebrows in amusement.
"Easy huh?" he ran his hand over his tightly groomed beard. "You ever tried it?"
"No," Clint had shrugged, "but it can't be more difficult than pegging the pigeons with rocks as they fly around." Madame Toulouse had been outraged to hear this, her love of all animals widely known among the folk. Needless to say Clint never aimed at an 'innocent' target again. At least not intentionally.
"All right hotshot," Arie pulled out a sharp throwing knife that instantly got Clint's attention. It had a thick dark ring at its hilt and a long neck wound tightly in a bold red leather that cut into a sharp triangular blade. It couldn't have been more than six inches long. Flipping it handle first he held it out to Clint who, cautious, didn't take it right away. That made Arie smirk at him. "What, not so sure now that you've been challenged and everyone's watching?" It was true, almost everyone at the table was watching them with different levels of interest. Clint might have only just turned ten the week before (nobody here knew that though and Clint wasn't about to complain about a missed birthday) but he hated it when people were getting ready to laugh at him.
"No, just wondering what's in it for me?" Arie raised his eyebrow at that and Marissa laughed from down the table. "I've been told that entertainment comes at a cost, unless you'd rather make a wager?" He had maybe been spying on the men's late night card games too much, but they'd never spotted him so he'd never felt the need to stop. He liked it when people didn't realize he was there., it was an easy way to learn things.
After a moment of silence Arie laughed (he'd always been a good natured guy).
"You're a sharp one eh? All right, a wager it is. I'll wager that you can't hit the middle of the block," he nodded to the other end of the table where the block, the large heavy wood post that always went up in the food tent for game or practice, waited silently. It had a target painted on it, a red bullseye in the center that was nearly unnoticeable from all the knife marks in it. "You miss and you have to fill the balloons for my game for the next two months."
"And if I win I get to keep the knife," Clint grinned. The balloons were usually a punishment detail for the carney kids who misbehaved. He'd done a lot worse over the years than have to blow up a few bits of rubber. Arie looked to the knife, looked to the table filled with people watching them, and shrugged.
"Deal," Clint shook his hand, his own lost in the massive grip, and took the knife. Everyone at the table moved from their seats to stand pressed to the tent walls. Clint might have been insulted, but then he saw Barney watching him carefully from the other end of the table and where it had been just a game before now Clint wanted to hit the target dead center, for his brother. So Barney could be proud; Barney was the one who had taught him how to throw after all.
The target was only eight meters away and Clint had watched Arie practice throwing the knives before so he knew how to hold it. He buried the knife into the bullseye, maybe not deeply and not dead center, but deep enough to stick. There was a moment of silent disbelief and then some laughing and clapping and Arie, who looked half amused and half irritated went and pulled it from the target.
"Think you can do it again?"
"Double or nothing," Clint agreed with a big grin for everyone who was egging him on. Arie gave him the knife and this time the blade dug a little deeper, and just a fraction off center. After the third throw Clint came away with his first ever set of throwing knives, a hearty slap on the back from Arie and the awareness that the Swordsman had been watching him steadily throughout the entire performance.
When he looked for Barney, his brother was nowhere to be seen.
The next day the Swordsman claimed Clint as his apprentice and Clint, not knowing what else to do, accepted.
Harry had been working at the school for the better part of twenty years, which meant he'd developed a sort of sixth sense about when something fishy was going on. He couldn't explain it, it was just a feeling, or maybe it was the way a few of the thirteen year old girls had taken to giggling together in the corner about a boy that had been hanging around. He asked the teachers about it but they didn't seem to know anything and were mostly unconcerned. That happened when you had a class of twenty-five plus pre-pubescent's to control all day long. Just because he was the school custodian didn't mean he didn't have an equal sense of responsibility over the kids though, which meant that when he'd finally figured out what the 'issue' was he had perhaps overreacted.
It was one of those memories that occasionally cropped up when he was in a dark mood, and it never did anything but make him feel worse.
The thing was when he'd walked around the corner of the building and seen the kid leaning by Miss Chester's classes open window, spying, he'd reacted without thinking.
"What do you think you're doing!" He'd bellowed and the kid, who couldn't have been older than twelve, smacked his elbow into the brick wall as he whirled around. Wide blue eyes stared his way, clearly not expecting to get caught. "Who are you spying on? Looking to cause trouble are you? Not on my watch." He'd moved to get the kid, drag him into the principal's office to let them figure out what was going on, but the kid reacted faster than any boy he'd come across to date. He grabbed the plastic bag at his feet, turned, and bolted. Harry was too old to give chase, and at that point Miss Chester was at the window to see what was going on; Harry noticed the item that hadn't made it into the mystery kid's bag.
It was a beat up notebook with a spiral binder, a half torn cover and dog-eared corners. When he flipped it open it was filled with tiny, ordered notes. Some geography, some history, a little bit of English, all crammed onto the pages and clearly labeled. When he got to the last section it was filled with numbers pressed deep into the lined paper. Algebra. There was a half finished equation at the end and later he figured out it had been one of the questions up on that classes chalkboard.
The kid had just been trying to learn.
He reported it of course, but it was a big city and chances of finding and helping one kid out of hundreds…it hadn't panned out.
The kid never came back. Harry hadn't been surprised.
Barney was mad at him, madder than Clint had ever seen. He thought coming to the circus with his brother would fix things, would make their lives easier, better. He was only ten, he was still allowed to be at least a little naive. But Barney had promised things would be better and he'd worked really hard to get them here, away from the home. He'd done so much for Clint and he said the circus would be their new family, a better one.
Clint didn't realize that Barney would get so mad that Clint was the one chosen to be the Swordman's apprentice, that he would start taking it out on him. And when he got tired of taking his anger out on Clint he just started ignoring him, leaving the room when he entered, only speaking to him when he had to. Clint didn't understand and he wouldn't begin to for a few more years (he never truly understood it though, doubted he ever would), but he spent more time trying to get his brothers attention than being angry, at least at first.
The first time it happened, the first time the Swordman started to loose patience with Clint's mistakes while training him, he didn't go to his big brother.
The second time he did. He tried talking to Barney, not knowing what else to do, but Barney was angry (jealous) enough by then to not want to hear anything his younger brother would have to say. Clint tried to tell him a few times, never getting more than five words out before Barney shut him up with words, with his fists, with whatever he had available. Clint didn't recognize his brother anymore, didn't know when he stopped being his brother and started being everyone else. It hurt more than the Swordman did.
After the third time Clint realized he'd have to deal with it on his own. It was a lesson he learned well.
He went to Waverly, Iowa for the first time since his father had gotten drunk, gotten behind the wheel, and gotten both himself and his wife killed. The orphanage he and Barney had been sent to hadn't been located in Waverly; they'd been sent to Des Moines, one-hundred and thirty-two miles from their birth town and, subsequently, from anything remotely familiar. Clint had only been five and not aware of much beyond the relief of learning that he'd be able to stay with his brother. At the time, he couldn't imagine a life without Barney to keep him safe. The subsequent six years that followed had been more than enough time wasted at the group home, unwanted and forgotten by the world.
He didn't have much memory of his hometown, but he'd gone back to Waverly once, while his bones still ached all the time and new lines of skin were still puckered red in healing. He hitched rides with strangers and stowed away on train carts with nothing but a few changes of clothes in a ratty duffle bag and the knife throwing set he'd won in a challenge when he was years old strapped to his ankle. He'd wanted to leave Carson's Carnival so far behind that he wouldn't be able to taste it even in his memories, but he had no idea where to go from there. No plans and no one to turn to. The idea of seeing his birthplace had seemed the thing to do. Besides, he wouldn't be able to find proper work until he'd healed a little more.
With a population of about eighty- five hundred people, at least seventeen churches and the slow moving Cedar River flowing through its center, the town was exactly what he expected. He spent a total of three hours there, walked the paved bike trail and pinched a new pair of jeans and sweatshirt from a line in some anonymous backyard. He stayed away from slipping wallets out of pockets only out of some strange sense of respect for the town.
Waverly hadn't answered any questions for him or solved any of his problems, but at that point in life he figured it was par for the course.
He kept the sweatshirt. Tucked it into the back of musty closets, the bottom of ever-changing rucksacks, and eventually the back of a very expensive, well-made dresser drawer. It was threadbare and the original colour was no longer apparent. He figured that as far as family mementos went, it was as close as he would ever get.
Half the time when he caught sight of it he wanted to use it for target practice.
He'd only given in twice.
Phil Coulson was a lot of things, and a good majority of those things were beyond classified. What this meant: even before Fury had head-hunted him from an elite special ops unit (one that hadn't existed on paper), he had already seen and done more things in his thirty years than he had ever dreamed when he'd enlisted.
He hadn't been the team leader, he hadn't even been the third runner up, but he was the one that had pinged Fury's radar out of all the viable candidates the military had to offer. It might have been the fact that he'd been learning his ninth language at the time (he still didn't know how Fury knew that considering that his syllabus consisted of a battered second hand Learn On Your Own manual he'd poached from his last hospital visit), or that he was proficient with virtually any weapon you put in his hands so long as he had five seconds to examine it, up to and including a bic pen (which it turned out was one of the most useful weapons of all).
Or it could be that he had not only endured and survived two separate bouts as a prisoner of war and undergone what his superiors classified as severe interrogation both times, but he had managed to manipulate his captors enough to glean their general future plans and then escape (once while dragging another wounded prisoner along, who turned out to be a rather important official).
Phil was proud of his accomplishments, but more than that he was proud of doing his job well. He'd commonly been called an overachiever as a child. And as an adult. He'd never seen any problems with this; it got him where he never imagined he'd be and exactly where he felt he was always meant to go. Five years in SHIELD, he had the second largest office at headquarters, answered only to Fury (though not many were made aware of this), and was the agent of choice to take charge of any given mission at any given time. He got shit done.
The point was that Phil had seen and done a lot of things before SHEILD. Then he had done and seen a lot more things after he become an agent, and all these things generally revolved around people: meeting them, dealing with them, possibly putting them down. He'd met a lot of colourful people in a lot of colourful ways but, for some reason, meeting Clint Barton for the first time remained, to date, his most memorable introduction of them all. He was pretty sure that was mainly because it had been so unexpected.
"I can't get a clear shot!" Stuber hissed, ducking back behind their suburban as a series of bullets rained down around them. "On any of them," because of course there was more than one sniper on the roof, forcing them to stay undercover while three of their fellow agents lay on the asphalt before them, exposed, bleeding, writhing and likely dying. One was already gone, Phil didn't need to check his pulse to know that the holes in his head and chest meant he wasn't getting up again. He locked the rage down deep. The hostiles were toying with them now, showing that they could finish the job anytime they wanted, the occasional bullet landing only a foot or two away from his injured agents when they tried to drag themselves to safety. "They're too far away and not exposed enough to take them out from down here" unless Stuber risked getting shot as well is what he wasn't saying.
Coulson was man enough to acknowledge that in long range weaponry, Stuber was a better shot than him. Best they had actually, so if he couldn't make the shots they were in a worse position than Phil had hoped for. He thought about the rocket launcher tucked away safely in the car a block over and discarded the thought almost as quickly. It would wreak too much damage and would only take one of the three impossible targets out at a time, not to mention getting to it was going to be a problem in the first place.
This whole situation had been a trap from the start. Phil hated traps. He especially hated traps that were designed for the mere purpose of taking out his agents. Worse, he knew the kingpin behind this ambush hadn't even bothered to show up. It was insult on top of severe injury and it was an unacceptable loss of life. It looked like Phil was going to have to get his agents to create a distraction so he could gain access to the nearest roof and try to salvage the situation from there. Probability of success with injury was less than fifty percent. He was well aware that their communications had been hacked. He guessed the enemy would toy with them another three minutes or so before finishing the exposed agents off and then taking the rest of them out as well, just in time to avoid their incoming backup.
"Looks like you guys could use a hand."
Never in a million years would Phil admit to being startled as he and Agents Stuber and Phung twisted away from where they had been trying to get a look through the SUV's windows. Looking down the sight of his Sig he saw, of all things, a vaguely amused man sporting a bright red ball cap and a windbreaker that was so blue it practically screamed Shoot Me! He looked at the three weapons that were trained on him from his casual crouch before dismissing them, eyeing Stuber and Phung before his sharp blue gaze settled on Phil. He quirked an eyebrow. Phil kept his face blank and his hands steady.
"Who are you?" He asked mildly, like he was asking for the time or commenting on the weather. It was overcast and heavy with the threat of rain.
"Just a good Samaritan," the man was definitely amused. Phil was not. A shot rang out from overhead, the bullet digging deeply into the ground three feet to the right of the stranger with a puff of dust. Stuber and Phung flinched and ducked a little deeper. Phil didn't move, knowing he was safe from the current line of fire. The Samaritan's lips quirked, as though being shot at was just another day in the office, as though he had purposely chosen that spot to crouch because he knew it was a blind spot from the sharpshooters, the only one that didn't involve being pressed flat against the SUV. At least not until one of the hostiles switched position. Phil tried to not be impressed and tried not to instinctively like the guy and definitely made sure his thoughts were unreadable on his face.
"You just walked across the road with no cover in the middle of a gun fight? Who does that?" Stuber demanded. He was a damn good shot but Phil was still working on training him to learn the importance of selective silence.
"An enemy playing a trick on us," Phil explained lightly.
"Orrrrr a good guy seeing people bleeding on the road from a cheap ass ambush and deciding to lend a hand before the rest of you end up dead." The Samaritan couldn't be much older than twenty-five, thirty at the most. "You can thank me now if you like, but it can wait till later."
"Who are you?" Phil asked again, politely.
"This is going to be a thing with you huh? All right, call me Harrison."
"How did you manage to sneak up on us without getting shot, Mr. Harrison?" Harrison (definitely not his real name) began to look impatient and actually rolled his eyes. Another bullet smashed through the driver and passenger windows of the SUV, glass crumbling loudly onto their shoulders and the projectile bit the ground two feet to Harrison's left.
"I took out a guy that was preparing to sneak up on you around the corner and threw on his jacket and hat so his buddies wouldn't shoot me. Not exactly rocket science but I think they've figured out I'm not their buddy now," he smirked, clearly pleased by this. "Look, I'm not a bad shot, better than your rifle guy here at least and I'm offering to keep your asses alive." Phil couldn't help blinking in disbelief, the clock ticking down in the back of his mind.
"You can't be serious?" Stuber snapped. "Sir, we need to neutralize him as a threat!" Yes, they did. Clearly this guy was insane or the enemy and they needed to take him out. Generally Phil would have dropped him the moment he'd snuck up on their position. Instinctively he hadn't and still didn't want to, but common sense won out. He felt his eye twitch in distaste at the decision. Apparently it was enough of a tell for Harrison though.
"Okay," the man said, shaking his head slightly, "I actually wasn't really asking for your permission, it's just that this is the best vantage point to take them all out at the same time and I didn't feel like getting shot by you guys before actually having a chance at them," he nodded upwards, like it explained everything and quirked his lips cockily at Phil. "I'd still appreciate it if you restrained yourselves though," he rolled his shoulders, winked at Phil, and sprung himself into the air like a damn cat.
Why go around the vehicle when you can simply flip over its hood?
"Don't shoot him," Phil snapped as both his agents shifted their aim to follow.
"That's an order!" he watched as Harrison rolled powerfully out of his flip into a single-handed cartwheel. Between one moment and the next he had a gun in his hand. Where it came from Phil had no idea. Bullets were chasing him as he moved ridiculously fast, getting close but not quite managing to catch him and he took a few strong steps, threw himself into a graceful tuck and roll and then launched high into the air. He spun mid leap, his arm whipping about, and three shots rang out loudly, near simultaneous. He completed his spin, curled over one shoulder, hit the pavement in another roll and used the momentum to carry himself to his feet where he just… stopped. His back was to Phil and his arms were outstretched, the Sig dangling harmlessly between two fingers pinching the base of its grip. Slowly Harrison knelt down and lay the weapon on the road, nudging it a few meters away with ratty old sneakers. His shoulders were relaxed. Phil wanted to see his face.
A ways beyond them one of the snipers tumbled over their buildings edge and smacked loudly into the sidewalk. Later Phil would waste two minutes despairing at his lack of horror over the sound and image it created and then file it away as part of the job to not stress about. Cold but necessary. He'd seen far worse done to people who didn't actually deserve it.
"And the crowd goes wild," he heard Harrison mutter, not sure if he'd intended to be heard or not. When the man wasn't shot dead where he stood, exposed in the middle of the street, Phil moved out from the cover of the vehicle and approached. Harrison turned slowly to meet him.
"No way!" Stuber hissed as he and Phung moved around the other side of the vehicle, his rifle raised and steadily pointed at Harrison. "No way in hell he made those shots! They were impossible."
"The farthest one was barely a hundred and fifty meters," Harrison snapped back, clearly insulted.
"Sir," Stuber petitioned Phil sharply, "there's no way he neutralized them all, not like that and not with only three shots. He's playing us."
"You're right, I didn't neutralize all of them," the Samaritan's eyes narrowed, heated for the first time in their short acquaintance and no longer carrying any hint of friendliness. "There are two ground crew getting away from where they were hiding behind the red building," he nodded behind him. "If I were to guess, I'd say they're scurrying back to their exit vehicle right now, and I," his voice deepened darkly and eyes narrowed at Stuber, "never miss."
Phil assessed the situation, took in the body of the dead sniper that had fallen a block away, looked at his fallen agents, noted that he and the rest of his team had yet to be shot by any remaining snipers and determined that neutralizing the retreating hostiles was necessary for continued civilian safety.
"Phung, stay here, check on our people and don't let the Good Samaritan out of your sight. Stuber, with me."
"Yes sir," Phung barked out and Phil didn't bother to acknowledge the smug look on the acrobatic sharp shooter's face as he and Stuber raced passed to try and catch up with the enemy.
When they got back, two bound and pissed off thugs in their custody, it was to see that ambulances and back-up had arrived, Phung helping to stop the heavy bleeding from Agent Crusoe's abdomen, and no sign of their suicidal saviour. Apparently the time it took to kneel down and put a hand to her wound for pressure was all the time the stranger needed to vanish.
They found the bold blue jacket and red hat on a homeless man three streets over. Video surveillance later proved that the stranger had indeed taken out (but not killed) a hostile who had been preparing to shoot them in the backs, and taken his clothes as a disguise along with his gun.
All three snipers were dead, two with bullets through their faces and one through the center of the heart. They should have been impossible shots. Phil analyzed the grainy footage SHEILD had managed to find of the stranger's performance, took said footage and played it once for Fury.
Fury watched it silently, leaned back in his chair and after a long moment turned his dark eye on Phil.
"I'll take care of this, Agent Coulson," he announced and Phil left the room.
Three days later they found the Samaritan performing at the Coney Island Circus, the stage name Hawkeye printed boldly on a poster declaring him the world's greatest marksman. He was even better with a bow than a gun. It was unprecedented. Coulson went to five performances in a row, learned the man's real name was Clint Barton, concluded that his bow was really just a detached extension of his body, determined that he didn't actually possess any form of mutation or power that made his seemingly unreal abilities possible (aside from his eyesight), and accepted that aside from his name, he hadn't lied that day on the street: he really never missed.
Two weeks later Hawkeye was SHIELD's newest recruit.
Phil took pains not to show it, but he spent years patting himself on the back for a job well done.
It took three days after his recruitment for the agents of SHIELD to begin to recognize that Barton did not appreciate his skills as a marksman being questioned. Not even as a joke.
The only people who would ever truly understand why generally wished they'd never learned. Sometimes they even wished he'd never become the gifted marksman he was, and were never certain if that made them selfish, assholes, or true friends.
Coulson just wanted to kill, and he had a very specific target in mind. He was pretty sure every Avenger involved would have no problem helping to hide the body.
Hawkeye was a mystery for many of the agents that worked at SHIELD, and not always in a positive way. Being drafted, mostly by choice, almost seven years before Captain America was chipped out of the ice meant that he had gone on more missions than God; many of them solo despite Coulson's best efforts to integrate him into a team. That was seven years of opportunities to train and mold the abilities of the less skilled agents, to be a role model, and to form connections.
That might have been easier if life hadn't taught him that despite being on the 'good guys' side you could only ever count on yourself. That was key. Also, actually being the grade A asshole that everyone thought he was helped carve his reputation as a cowboy that didn't play well with others. Which was fine even if it wasn't entirely fair. He did everything he could to keep the people he worked with safe. If he was on scene, you could guarantee he had your back. People didn't like him but nobody ever complained when they were told he was being assigned temporarily to their team.
The fact that he pretty much only took orders from Coulson while in the field, and Fury (when he had to), and Natasha (because she was different, she understood the way he operated and didn't act like it was a bad thing- and they had bled on each other enough to make her worthy of listening to) did tend to piss other high ranking agents off. The juniors generally just didn't like him because they had no choice but to follow orders. It was a jealousy thing.
Mostly they just left him alone.
Sometimes he was away on missions for so long that when he got back he had to remind them why he was there in the first place.
Sometimes it bothered him
The first mission Coulson and Barton went on together was more of a test run than an actual mission. Barton had only been in SHIELD for four months and while he had picked up on the tech and procedures surprisingly fast for someone without any kind of formal education (getting him to sit still in the agency training workshops had been a nightmare) he hadn't been cleared until now for actual fieldwork. Fury still thought it might be too soon.
The mission was supposed to go like this:
Get to the location, assess the situation, use necessary measures to attain loss stop. Coulson would lead the ground agents and Barton would provide cover from on high.
What happened was this:
They got to the location, they assessed that the problem involved a pack of giant, man-eating gerbils and an unknown mutant who thought it was the funniest thing in the world. The gerbils did not wish to be stopped and Phil very much wished for them to not eat the civilians trapped in the broken bus. A few of Coulson's agents managed to get between said bus and the gerbils but their bullets were having no effect.
Barton pierced an arrow through the psychotic mutant's heart without being told, the gerbils shrank back to acceptable gerbil size and promptly keeled over from fright, two of his agents were trying to figure out where the arrow's launch point had been and Phil shook his head as Barton reappeared silently by his side.
"I assigned you to the building on the other side of the street," Coulson said mildly.
"I know," Barton replied, clearly uninterested and grinning cockily as one of the agents led a very angry pet storeowner by their location. They watched as the paramedics tried to calm him down.
"Next time," Coulson announced dryly, "tell me if you think you have a better vantage point elsewhere instead of just switching so we don't unintentionally block your shots." That seemed to get Barton's attention, like he hadn't expected Phil to have a legitimate concern, like he wasn't used to having people he could work with as opposed to around. Phil was used to working with people as a team, but he understood Clint wasn't. Fortunately Phil was a patient man. In those early days he'd never truly understood the nearly unfathomable depth of Clint Barton's stubbornness. It would be a long seven years before the man began to truly thaw enough to accept the concept of being a part of a team that didn't solely involve Phil and Natasha. Phil would absolutely not feel any irrational jealousy when that happened.
The second mission they went on involved base jumping off skyscrapers, reincarnated sabre tooth tigers, and Barton risking his life to give Black Widow a chance to continue to enjoy her guts on the inside of her body. Miraculously, nobody was harmed.
The third mission involved good old spy work and infiltration. That's when they learned they could firmly add acting and manipulation to Clint Barton's resume. Coulson began to seriously question the veracity of Barton's psych evals.
The ninth mission was never fully disclosed, not to Phil and not to Fury, but that was when Barton began to trust Black Widow to have his back unquestionably. The two of them began training together regularly after that.
It took Coulson another seven missions before he could claim the same trust from Barton, but if asked years later Barton would say he'd trusted Coulson from the first time he'd laid eyes on him, he just liked to give him a hard time.
It wasn't until their sixth year of working together that Coulson realized the first time Barton had laid eyes on him had not involved bleeding agents, snipers and kamikaze gun acrobatics. Turns out Barton had been helping that particular day to pay a debt Coulson didn't even know existed.
The first time Clint gets hurt on the job Phil is not expecting to be called over to the med tent by a frustrated field doctor to negotiate terms of treatment. This is at a time when Phil is still under the illusion that the people he works with are not actually just giant children being given expensive, dangerous toys to play with under the guise of 'National Security,' or 'International Security' as it so often became.
It goes something like this:
"What's the problem here Agent Barton?" he asked, never mind that he'd figured it out the moment he spotted the doctor walking up to interrupt his teleconference with Fury. Issues in the field came first, fortunately, so Fury didn't balk at being hung up on without explanation.
"No problem sir," the archer insisted immediately with an easy grin. Coulson, however, was not swayed.
"I understand that you're refusing treatment."
"I don't need medical treatment at this time," he stated calmly, his hands relaxed at his sides, his bow resting against his hip, his quiver of arrows still ready for use on his back. "Sir," he tagged on as a very deliberate after thought. Coulson wasn't interested in being baited today. Or any day.
"Were you or were you not shot in the leg twenty-" he glanced at his watch, "three and a half minutes ago.
"I was, sir."
"And are you or are you not bleeding from that bullet wound," he asked very pointedly not looking at the blood soaked clothing and tear in the Archer's pants at mid thigh.
"I am, sir."
"And were you not ordered to let the Doctor's take a look at your injury," he realized the problem as soon as he repeated his order to the agent from earlier. Barton, clearly pleased with himself (at least on the surface), grinned smugly.
"I was and did sir, and I'm fine."
"You're not fine Agent Barton. You were shot in the leg."
"Tis but a flesh wound," he declared and Phil shook his head at the well-meaning doctor that moved to protest that statement. Phil looked back at Barton, noted the too easy stance, the weapons still at the ready, and the way he had placed himself with his back to the tent wall but still far enough away that he wasn't locked in. He made a decision.
"Clear the tent," he ordered.
"But sir, I need to clean-" the doctor cut himself off at the look Coulson directed at him and swallowed, before nodding. "You heard Agent Coulson, clear the tent," he ordered the nurse and medic that had been waiting on the sidelines and the three of them departed, no doubt to bitch about being underappreciated and not taken seriously by the agents whose lives often depended on them. Coulson made a mental note to send them a fruit tray later.
"You sure know how to clear a room," Barton acknowledged.
"You should see my feng shui regimen."
"That's more second date territory," he smirked and lightly picked up his bow to leave.
"Sit down Agent Barton," Coulson didn't move to block his exit, he wasn't in charge of field operations because he was an idiot, but he made it clear that it wasn't a request. Barton paused, frowned, and then gently hopped up on the stretcher. Coulson gingerly took off his outer suit jacket, snapped on a pair of medical gloves and, clearly telegraphing his intentions, moved in and ripped the pants around the injury wide enough to get a better look.
"Easy tiger," Barton warned but his tone was more amused than annoyed. The wound was actually just a graze that had bled a lot. A minor flesh wound after all. Some tension Coulson hadn't realized he'd been holding eased from his shoulders. "I told you I was fine."
"This is not the definition of fine," Coulson rebutted firmly and opened some antiseptic wipes and got to work. "Is there a problem with our medical staff that I need to know about?"
"No sir, no problem," which sounded sincere enough. Coulson at least believed that the problem probably lay with medical staff in general and not his people specifically.
"If that changes, you will let me know."
"Of course sir," translation: yeah right. The small gouge was too shallow and wide to be able to pull the skin together for stitches. He gently spread some antibacterial cream on it and looked around for the nonstick-gauze and tape.
"Being examined after missions where an operative has been harmed in any way, no matter how minor, is SOP."
"Yes sir," the stiffness was ebbing back into Barton's tone. Coulson gave him a sharp look.
"Any injuries sustained while in the field will be reported and you will submit to our medical staff's desired course of treatment and they will be the one that diagnose the injuries severity, not you."
"When I need the help, sir, I will get it." Phil resisted the urge to uh-huh disbelievingly. This was not an issue to be taken lightly.
"I don't care if you're uncomfortable around medical staff Agent Barton, this is not a democracy. You will do as ordered without fail or," he gently finished pressing the tape in place and peeled off the gloves, "you will be classified as a liability in the field." He wasn't a child any more than Coulson was, he knew the stakes and despite his blasé attitude he was one of the hardest working agents Couslon had even worked with, and Barton only been there five and a half months. He didn't want a desk job and he wasn't ready to give up this new life with SHEILD so soon. The way he stiffened at the reprimand said exactly how he felt about this. Phil stepped away and shrugged his suit jacket back in place, straightened his tie, and knew, without a doubt, that he should retreat before he said anything more.
He made it four feet from the tent flap when Barton's reflection in the medical cabinet caught his eye: irritation, anger, and a sort of unhappy dejection mingled over his normally cheerful façade and Phil paused. Damn it.
"But if the injury is minor enough that you do not believe a medic needs to attend it than you can treat it yourself under the strict condition that I assess the damage myself," and help if necessary. It was not SOP, it was not something Phil offered to any of his agents, it was not his modem of operandum. But upon their recruitment of Barton, Fury had explicitly told Phil that he wanted to keep their top marksman in shiny fighting form, and if that meant special circumstances were necessary who was Phil to argue? In the reflection Barton's look turned suspicious, then softly pleased, then smug.
"Playing favourites Agent Coulson?"
"I don't have favourites, Agent Barton," he denied matter-of-factly. "I have assets, and SHIELD would appreciate it if you simply tried to avoid getting injured all together."
"It's not like I asked to get shot, sir," he replied wryly.
"Don't make me regret this Agent," he ordered without inflection and, not waiting for a response he left to finish his debrief with Fury.
It didn't even take until that evening before Barton started spreading the rumour that Coulson spent his spare time hand sewing teddy bears for sick children at the local hospital. It was an unacceptable slur on his very carefully designed reputation of being a stone-cold hardass. Coulson had no choice but to order him to attend a weeklong 'mandatory' tutorial on the finer points of administrative procedure.
Sadly it did nothing to deter Barton's malicious rumours. Coulson never went back on his word though, and upholding his end of the bargain Barton let the medics fix him when he couldn't do it himself. There were two times he even refrained from releasing himself from their care when their backs were turned. It was a win.
It took time. It took patience. It took years, but eventually Clint managed to find less destructive ways of punishing himself when he missed his target by less than three inches. Was that fucked up? Absolutely. That was why he kept it to himself. Three inches was a big deal (that's what she said), it was dangerous, it was also generally out of his control; targets moved, atmosphere conditions switched sharply, a hostile occasionally tried to attack him from behind, shit happened. It was when he missed a target by more than three inches that he had to act to correct his mistakes. When it happened on a mission with SHIELD nobody was ever aware that he hadn't hit his target exactly where he'd planned, nobody except himself, and that was one too many.
Fortunately SHIELD had enough odd quirks and characters that when he disappeared for a few days the first two times it happened, and came back sore and bruised beneath his clothing, the tips of his fingers nearly pulpy from over use as he had pushed himself over the edge at the range, no one thought anything of it. Nobody even noticed. He was content with that. He was.
The third time his arrow missed (three-point-two inches, still a kill shot, still unacceptable) Phil Coulson silently intercepted him as he moved to sneak out of headquarters. The agent's eyes had been dark, his face a bland mask when he stared at Clint for a long moment before giving the order to accompany him to his office. Clint followed silently and without question. He spent the next thirteen hours straight doing paper work under Coulson's carefully watchful gaze. He parted no judgment, made no acknowledgement, of what he suspected (knew) about Clint's coping methods even as he refused to let him slink away to deal with his self-appointed failure. Clint didn't leave base that night, slept relatively well considering, and never brought it up with the senior agent.
He was still waiting for the next time he would make a mistake, and spent every day trying to ensure it never came.
Clint out right refuses to confirm who trained him as a marksman, fighter, or who honed his skills at breaking and entering. He answers with a 'wouldn't you like to know' and a wink.
Coulson knows that in his younger years, after his escape (because he doubted a young Clint Barton would have seen it as running away) from the large, over taxed orphanage, Clint joined a circus with his brother. He knows this circus had a few…less than upstanding citizens, and a marksman known as Trick Shot. It's written in Clint's file that Trick Shot was most likely his mentor but without confirmation, nothing is certain. It is definitely where he learned to tumble and honed his natural balance. For the most part SHIELD didn't care, so long as Barton remained good at his job and on their side. The psychologists did not agree with this mentality. They were probably right to worry.
Sometimes, watching Barton's swiftness on the mats, Coulson thinks about the one other candidate at the circus who most likely had a hand in mentoring him. He wonders if Barton doesn't talk about it because he enjoys creating an air of mystery, or because he's truly trying to keep some things to himself in an organization that deals in secrets.
Coulson is slightly shaken when he first realized how deeply he wanted to know the archer's secrets.
The first text Phil receives from Agent Barton call-me-Clint that is not work related is this:
"Phil Coulson's stare is so bland his enemies spontaneously combust from the need to emote."
He's fairly certain its creation was due to him ordering Barton to re-submit his mission report (so maybe it was work related), this time using actual sentences and spell check. Barton's also the first person within SHIELD to ever send him a personal text aside from Fury (who generally invites him out for a drink every few weeks…to discuss business). Fortunately Phil has a tried and true response to almost everything:
"Please ensure that you submit a munitions acquisition form along with your mission report by 1700." The accountants had been complaining about not having reasonable data to figure out the next terms budget allocations. Five minutes later Barton responded with this:
"Phil Coulson once took down an entire hydra unit single handed. When asked what weapons he used, he held out his pen."
Phil's lips may have twitched in amusement, but since he personally ensured that all manner of surveillance within his office was rendered useless he had no fear of anyone ever finding out. Theoretically.
Barton submitted his paperwork promptly at 1700hours. The next day.
"It's true," the voice insisted, ten feet below him and surrounded by a gaggle of agents as they huddled around the water cooler. Clint opened his eyes a crack and looked down. He recognized them all, which basically meant it had been too long since his last mission. The one woman in the group had a delicate little watch strapped on her wrist, the time stating it was mid afternoon. He'd been there for nearly seven hours now. His body was not happy with him, at all. He kept his breaths even and ignored how it screamed and strained and tried to rail against him and he refused to let it move.
"Oh come on, that's impossible," the tall corn-fed all-star wannabe shook his head before getting a chance to fill his mug with water. "You do know where we work right? The Director probably knows how many nose hairs every single person in this building has, let alone basic info on their background" he scoffed.
"I swear, not even Coulson knows. I overheard him and Romanov discussing it."
"No, you didn't," the woman countered, throwing him a dark look and he shrugged with a little smile.
"Okay, no I didn't, but it doesn't mean I'm not right. Nobody actually knows who trained him" the dark haired yuppy insisted eagerly.
"Maybe he's self-taught," the woman shrugged, looking bored.
"I don't believe it," corn-fed shook his head again. "There is no way a regular guy like him doesn't have some record of who taught him his trade. You don't get that good without training."
"Hemmingway thinks he did the circus route," it didn't take a genius to figure out they were talking about him anymore. Pressed with his back to the ceiling, his hands and feet braced between the wall and an I-beam with the pressure of his outstretched limbs the only thing holding him up over the exposed space, he contemplated dropping down beside them. They'd think he was a ghost, dressed head to toe in white, his eyes the only part of him not covered at the moment, not blending in with the white walls and ceiling. They would see him easily enough if they knew to look. His amused smile was hidden by the white balaclava.
"Nah, he enlisted underage in the military and went into special ops like Coulson."
"Ex-gymnast who grew up on his daddy's ranch taking pot shots at rabbits." They wandered off back to work, their cubicles not far away. Only two of them were actually qualified field agents (just out of training) but all of them had desks. Today they were supposed to be fielding calls from the concerned public about the last scuffle that took place downtown (just a gas explosion ma'am, the situation has been contained). He closed his eyes, forcing his limbs to remain still. Nobody had noticed him all day; this was one of the best spots to pick up on office gossip and as good a place as any to keep up his skills. He was a little embarrassed for his contemporaries continued ignorance though.
Six hours later, only a handful of agents still manning the phones, Coulson stopped below him and looked up. Clint could spot the humour hiding deep in his eyes, at odds with his flat expression, mainly because he'd learned how to look for it over the last few years.
"You planning on coming down anytime soon?" He asked dryly and the agents at the desks stopped what they were doing to look over at their boss. One of them reached for a weapon, clearly uncertain as to why his superior was speaking to the ceiling and possibly suspecting foul play.
"Well now that I've been compromised," Clint grumbled, taking stock of locked muscles, clenching and unclenching a moment before shifting his flattened hands to curl fingers around the I-beams lip for support and lightly dropped to the floor. His entire body ached, his wrists screamed at him for straightening them out after thirteen hours locked in position. His knees nearly buckled but he ruthlessly locked them in place, refusing to show any discomfort. He was hungry, thirsty, and irritated that he'd been outed. He ignored the incredulous looks the juniors gave him and glared at Phil halfheartedly. "You sure know how to spoil a guy's fun."
"It doesn't teach them a lesson if they never learn that you were there," Coulson's lip twitched and Clint rolled his eyes before pulling off his white balaclava and tucked it into his white pants. He'd have to find a new gossip perch now. "Dinner?"
"Nah, I'm good," Clint rubbed his forearm, fingers pressing into the warm metal of his favourite throwing knives hidden beneath the cloth. He should head to the range while his body was in this state, train until he couldn't any longer to improve endurance. He wasn't unaccustomed to waiting for his meals, a few more hours would be fine.
"Let me rephrase," Coulson had that polite 'I'm on your side but if you don't impress me I'll make not just you, but the entire State that you're currently residing in disappear' smile on his face. "Dinner."
Clint raised his eyebrow, unimpressed.
"I'd love to eat," he agreed anyway. Phil would just have his access codes to the training rooms and range blocked until he got what he wanted anyway. He was a sneaky asshole like that.
As they left the room he caught the eye of the woman who had been involved in the conversation about him earlier trying to hide the horrified look in her eyes, coming to the correct realization that he had heard every word. He winked and curled his lip up in a cheeky grin. When Coulson spared him a brief, knowing glance, he thought that maybe it hadn't been a waste of a day at all.
Coulson has been shot before in the line of duty. More than once.
The first time had been in Burundi and it had been more of a graze along his hip than anything. It had bled a lot, and not been treated with more than antibacterial crème and bandages for four days. He had been running a fever by the time his team had been extracted, but no one other than his C.O. had known at the time and he'd been glad to keep it that way.
The second time had been a through and through of his shoulder in Uzbekistan. It just missed his lung and took him out of field commission for three months. It had been friendly fire.
The third (and fourth) time, in Bolivia, had been a cluster fuck of an op and resulted in the only recorded incident of Coulson ever disobeying direct orders. Apparently when Phil Coulson disobeys orders he's rewarded by being promoted. It was when Clint learned of this he, for reasons that still remain undetermined, decided that Phil Coulson was the new Chuck Norris and has yet to be disabused of that notion.
The fifth time he hadn't been shot so much as had shrapnel imbedded into his side from a poorly executed car bomb while on a low risk reconnaissance mission in New Mexico. The shrapnel glanced off a rib, breaking it, and imbedded itself into his liver. He nearly bled out on scene and it took a week and a half after surgery before he managed to break out of SHIELD's infirmary just so he could sit behind his desk and get a few hours of paperwork done. By that time Research and Development had sent him four very polite emails requesting that he ask Agent Barton to stop insisting they develop a three piece suit made of Kevlar. They didn't have the budget or the time for his harassment.
Clint denied ever propositioning the idea.
Coulson had been shot quite a few times in the line of duty, but he'd never had someone care enough to want to make him bullet proof.
No one doubted Barton's commitment to the team anymore (if they ever had), but they still doubted their ability to understand either him or Phil Coulson.
Clint wasn't a fan of briefings, or debriefings, or anything that made him sit still at a table where the threat of PowerPoint presentations and bad coffee was a real hazard. It might be more acceptable through a sniper scope but Fury had not been impressed the last time he'd tried it. Natasha was as serene as ever, her ability to always look like she was exactly where she wanted to be something he would never be able to mimic. He eyed his coffee dubiously. Fury marched into the room, the agents around the table sat straighter in their seats and he nodded a tight response to the good mornings he received. Barton wasn't one to resist a cordial greeting when everyone else was so eager to get in the Director's good books.
"Good morning!" he made sure his obnoxiousness overpowered the rest. "Your eye patch is looking particularly refined today sir," he grinned lazily and remained slouched in his seat. Several of the agents threw him irritated glares, Natasha remained unmoved, and Fury didn't miss a beat.
"I decided to add mink oil to the daily polishing, does wonders for the shine. Are we ready to begin?" he looked around the table coolly and ignored Barton's wide smirk. He lost the smirk when Agent Killjoy rose smartly to his feet.
"As Agent Coulson will be delayed," he managed to make it sound like a fault, snide without being obvious about it, "I will be presenting in his place." It was no secret that of all the senior agents present Killjoy coveted Coulson's position the most, especially now that whispers of some special superhero initiative were in the works. He never passed up a chance to make Coulson look bad, even when the man's tardiness was no fault of his own.
"That won't be necessary Agent Killjoy," Clint's grin came right back and he looked over to see Phil Coulson, pressed suit, silk tie and not looking at all like he was supposed to still be on his way back from an emergency in Paris, stride confidently through the door. "Thank you for preparing the room for me," he walked right passed the cool faced agent and, after sharing some covert, unreadable look with Fury, moved to take the floor. Clint really couldn't be expected to pass the moment of silence up.
"Phil Coulson is never late because time itself wouldn't dream of fucking with him," he announced at large. Fury narrowed his eye at him, Natasha took a drink of her tea, an agent coughed into his hand further down the table and Killjoy turned slightly red in the neck though, to give him props, he didn't look pissed off.
"Yes, thank you Agent Barton. I'd like to remind you of the necessity of proper professional decorum at this time," he warned dryly and Clint laced his hands behind his head and leaned back in his seat in response. The first slide of the PowerPoint lit into place, and Clint was absolutely not misinterpreting the twinkle in his handler's eyes on an otherwise impassive face.
Phil prefers tea to coffee, but coffee will do if there's no option between the two. He generally takes his coffee with a splash of milk to cut the bitterness. He'll take it with sugar if that's how it's handed to him as he's not picky, but if given the option he'll have it with just a splash of milk.
Tea, though, that's something altogether different and depends entirely on his mood. It's the reason he mostly gets it for himself, relieving a subordinate of the delicate responsibility. If he needs it strong and filled with enough caffeine to fly without wings he steeps it past its life expectancy and cuts it with a bit of milk and a half-spoon of sugar. If he wants it simply for the taste or as a mid morning accompaniment to his paperwork he steeps it weak and drinks it black. On a bitterly cold day he likes it strong with a full spoon of sugar and heavy dollop of crème. When he's stressed he makes it with one part milk, one sugar and takes extra care to place both condiments in the mug before the tea itself.
When he shows up to his office after a particularly long set of videoconferences he finds the Batman mug (Barton's idea of a joke though Coulson has yet to use another ceramic while in office) steaming in the center of his desk. Strong, with the syrup sweet of condensed milk mixed in. He's never tried it like that. He wouldn't be averse to trying it again.
It's the first inkling he has that Barton is aiming to make Coulson his primary handler. It's the first time that he's aware of that someone didn't need to ask how to make his drink, his ex-wife included. He thinks it's a fluke, until a subordinate walks up to him in the field a few months later and hands him a paper cup.
"I didn't order a drink," he says as he accepts it, the idea of coffee kind of churns his gut at the moment.
"No sir, our orders came from a different source," the woman holds out one of Barton's slimmer arrows and a note that has an unmistakable hole punched through the corner. He accepts both items and she heads back to the command vehicle. The note, barely legible, reads:
Acquire for Agent Coulson: 1 xtra lrg tea, weakly steeped, squirt of lemon + honey. STAT.
Coulson places the arrow on the hood of his vehicle, folds the note into his jacket pocket, and pops the plastic tab on the lid of the cup. It's perfect, the honey soothing his scratchy throat and the heat warming him from the inside. He activates his radio (when radio silence isn't strictly necessary, Barton is surprisingly quiet).
"Hawkeye, try to refrain from misusing departmental resources in the future," he doesn't say 'in the field' because Hawkeye would take that as tacit approval to abuse his privileges back at headquarters. He already does that enough. A moment later another thin arrow appears dead center between his feet. He plucks it from the ground and unfolds the crinkled paper stabbed onto its shaft. There's a picture of a heart with an arrow through it, lopsided and with a hole stabbed through one corner from writing on an uneven surface.
Phil doesn't point out that using that arrow could be considered a waste of departmental resources. He simply takes another drink of tea before his lips have the chance to curl up in a smile.
The thing with having arrows (or bullets) as your primary weapon instead of, say, super strength, a shield that thinks it's a boomerang, or deadly laser beams that shoot from your mechanical arms and are powered by a permanently built in battery, is that sometimes you run out of ammunition.
It doesn't happen often, but sometimes this can, understandably, be a problem. Typically a Big Problem. With this in mind Hawkeye likes to be prepared when he can; it goes a long way with the whole keeping people alive thing. So when he steps from the ramp onto the quinjet with his gear strapped to his back he really doesn't think the raised eyebrows from his teammate are warranted.
"Did I miss something important at the briefing? Like the fact that you were planning on taking on an army single handedly?" Stark asked and Clint frowned before realizing the guy was staring just over his shoulder at his ammunition. Well, this was their second official mission as a team so he supposed he could cut the guy a little slack for being slow on the uptake. Especially as it wasn't often Clint could load up this heavily on the ordinance.
"Reports stated an unknown number of unknown hostiles. I like to be prepared for the unknown," he pulled the communicator out of his ear and adjusted the band that held it in place.
"You don't think it's a little overkill? Three quivers and who knows how many arrows seems a bit extreme, even for you" Stark seemed more amused than anything and, judging by the frown on Rogers face the super-soldier was probably focused on how cumbersome the extra ammunition would be. Intel on this op had Clint in a prime nest that would be easy enough to access, he knew his limits and didn't appreciate the skepticism.
"Two hundred ten arrows," Clint clarified, maybe a bit frostily, "and you don't know me enough to understand what I consider extreme." One world saving mission aside none of them really knew each other yet. Stark grinned and tipped his head in acknowledgment and Clint didn't point out that maybe he wanted to ensure he could back these people up as much as possible. He would have killed for a few more arrows against Loki.
"One for every occasion," the man smirked and Clint, letting his lips curl into a tight parody of a smile, gestured at the quiver snug over his left shoulder.
"Armor Piercing Burrowheads" he didn't add on that each came with bleeder blades that sprang open like an anchor when they imbedded in their prey, and that once they reached that point any movement by the target made them dig deeper and deeper. Instead he pointed at the middle quiver. "Explosive," which was self-explanatory and he moved to the last batch, "broadhead," because one never messes with the classics. A sound alerted him to someone's approach and he turned to see Coulson, all snugged up in his field suit with no less than four guns strapped to his thighs and waist. He held another large quiver of arrows securely in one hand and handed it to Clint unceremoniously.
"Acid," he announced and kept moving to the front of the jet without further explanation. Clint sighed and deftly shifted them into place beside the rest. This was going to be a fucked up mission if nobody could decide what type of ammunition he needed.
"Seriously?" Stark was beginning to frown. His head looked small inside his armour. "What, no sonic or bola arrows to join the party?"
"Haven't developed those yet," Clint adjusted the strap and twisted a few times to test the security of his heavy load, "I'll leave it up to you."
"Yeah sure, I'll get right on it," the sarcasm was very difficult to misinterpret and effectively ended the conversation.
At the end of the battle Clint had thirty nine arrows left, mostly of the acid variety, and couldn't help noticing the thoughtful look Stark was giving the empty quivers abandoned on the seat beside him.
"Sonic arrows huh?" He muttered to himself, barely audible, but beside him Rogers smiled. Six days later found Clint testing the first off the line. This, he thought with satisfaction as he smoothly drew back the string, he could get used to, and let the arrow fly.
The first time Steve was introduced to exactly how unpleasant Barton became when someone questioned his abilities as a marksman was only a few months after the Initiative had been formed. He, Barton and Natasha were stepping into the main cafeteria of the headquarters after a morning of grueling training only to over hear some loudmouth (who knew voices could carry so far in such a large, crowded space) besmirching Clint's ability to hit his targets.
"Seriously, I get that he's good, but there is no way he's as good as his record says. He can't hit his target every single time, not unless he's hiding some superskill."
Beside him Clint actually froze mid-step, his gaze zeroing unnervingly through the masses to lock onto the loud agent (Steve didn't recognize him, he must be from the latest hiring). His normally friendly blue eyes narrowed darkly, turning cool and distant. Steve might have found the whole situation amusing: see unsuspecting loud mouth caught in the act by his very subject and getting his just desserts. The way Clint tightened up, the way his mirth of only moments before slid away to non-existence, took any amusement out of the situation. Natasha let loose an unhappy sigh beside him.
"All I'm saying," the voice continued smartly, "is that he has to miss sometimes, he just never admits it."
Barton's blue gaze turned grey, not noticing (or ignoring) that many of the agents in the room had stopped talking at this point and were instead watching Steve's group of three intensely. Of course before Steve had a chance to even think about saying anything Barton had already made his move. Sometimes Steve forgot how quick the man could be, especially considering that during many missions Hawkeye was out of sight. Between one moment and the next Barton 'twitched' and there was a startled yelp on the far end of the room. Steve looked across to find the loudmouth agent looking in shock at the wall he was sat beside, the remains of the sandwich he had been taking a bite out of now pinned in place.
When the tomato slipped out from between the bread and landed with a squelch on the floor Barton moved. The unknown agent looked up, took in the number of people the knife must have slipped past on the way to his lunch, the way Barton was steadily getting closer, and visibly swallowed down his nerves. Steve wondered if he should do something. Natasha's hand gently touching his own in warning kept him in place.
Barton walked behind the agent and plucked his deeply imbedded knife from the drywall, letting the sandwich fall to the ground, before turning to loom behind the agent.
"Something you might want to consider remembering," Barton announced with a wide smile that, for once, nobody saw any humour in. "I," he picked up the agents napkin and with an efficient wipe cleaned his blade, "never," he slipped the blade somewhere on his leg Steve couldn't see from across the room, "miss." He leaned over and stared hard at the agent, loosing the smile, and waited until he saw something in the junior's gaze before stepping back and smacking him good-naturedly on his shoulder. "Got that?"
"Yes sir," the man agreed immediately and Barton's smile was back, still not friendly but a little more convincing this time.
"Excellent. Enjoy your lunch Agent," he bid pleasantly, nodding all around the table, and walked smoothly back to where Steve and Natasha were waiting. "I'll see you guys at the briefing later," he announced politely and left without giving them a chance to respond. Steve looked back at the table where the agent was still watching them warily, and he gave the man his best 'disapproving' look. The man nodded, understanding that Steve wasn't happy, and went meekly back to what was left his meal. The room around them burst back into regular conversation. One thing that could be said about the employees of SHIELD was that they recovered from tense moments instantaneously. This time words like 'badass' and 'scary mother' and 'asshole' cropped into the conversations around them.
Steve turned to follow Barton.
"Don't," Natasha said softly.
"He needs to eat-"
"Give him his space," she ordered and guided him to get their meal and a table that was vacated in the back corner. Steve sat stiffly, frowning at his steak for a long moment before sighing.
"Do people usually doubt him like that?" he asked quietly and after a moment she looked up from her chicken covered salad.
"It's rare, most of our agents are intelligent, highly trained people who understand and respect the hierarchy of our assets, but there's generally one person who questions our skills or our rights to be in the initiative. They're not always this stupid about it."
"Our?" He asked, because he needs to know these things, and she stabbed a bit more sharply than necessary at her food but her face remained calm.
"The Avengers that don't have a mutant ability," she explained patiently. "Normally it's not a problem. Stark is practically superhuman to everyone anyway and no one questions his intelligence. Clint and I have been around long enough and have specialties that are defined enough that only the newest recruits ever question our position with the Avengers. Most of their knowledge comes from gossip anyway, those with higher clearance know better."
"I'm sensing a but in there," he frowned.
"Agent Barton takes exception to his skills as a marksman being questioned." Her tone indicated that she was finished talking about it and Steve, wisely, let it drop. After lunch he tracked Barton to the firing range where the man had already obliterated a target and didn't look to be slowing down anytime soon.
Steve left it alone, understanding that it was one of those things that wasn't really his place to bring up. Not yet at least, their relationship as teammates was still too new. It wasn't lost on Steve that Barton was still keeping a metaphorical distance from the team, and that was something only familiarity could help with.
Barton looked honestly startled when Steve placed a large sandwich before him just before the briefing began though.
"What's this?" He looked pained as soon as he let the surprised question pass his lips and Tony took in the situation.
"Really? It's called a sandwich, a foodstuff commonly consumed by-"
"Tony," Steve warned and Tony frowned in displeasure before going back to his laptop.
"I worry about the success of this Initiative every day," the billionaire grumbled to himself and Barton looked like was thinking about pulling out his knife for the second time in as many hours.
"I figured since you didn't get a chance for lunch, you might be hungry," he explained and took his seat, pretending not to notice how Barton peeled the top layer of bread off to peer at the contents. It was more difficult to ignore when he jerked in his seat and turned to glare at Natasha, who was seated next to him.
"Damn it Tasha!" Barton almost whined. She twirled a pen between her fingers in a way that managed to be threatening and raised an eyebrow. Clint glared at her and breathed deeply before looking across the table to Steve. "Thanks."
He didn't add anything more, but he did pick up the sandwich and take a bite dutifully. That was all Steve needed.
She didn't know what had started the conversation she walked in on, but it didn't particularly matter to her one way or another. What did matter to her was the way everyone seemed relaxed and happy sitting around the kitchen's massive island, a variety of drinks before them and easy slopes to their shoulders. Except for Clint, who stood with his back against the stainless steel fridge, his arms crossed and an easy going slouch to match his easy going smirk that was, to Natasha at least, a mimicry at best. It was hard to spot, but she had a history with him that the others in the room hadn't even come close to touching yet and they were still too easily manipulated by his casual deflections, brash words and big smiles. He was uncomfortable, that meant they were probably discussing personal things.
"It doesn't surprise me that you got two master degrees by the time you were nineteen," Bruce said mildly as he hugged his coffee closer and Tony looked affronted. "I'm just surprised you didn't try for more."
"Please, I went to MIT at fifteen, I had more important things on my mind than school if you know what I mean." That also didn't surprise Natasha. Tony had that natural genius that simply didn't understand that most other people had to actually try to earn their education, not spend it sleeping their way through the students looking to make use of his status. If he'd had any shame at all they may have even managed a blackmail photo or two, but more likely than not it would be Tony trying to show them to people as opposed to hiding them away. Not to mention they wouldn't have wanted to be arrested for fucking a minor. "Enough about me though. Clint, where did you go?" Clarity was easy to come by now that she had the facts and she threw together a coffee while waiting to see how Clint would respond.
"Seriously?" He smirked at them and stood a little straighter at the unwanted attention. "There aren't a lot of universities that specialize in marksmanship," he waved it off and Tony, apparently not taking the hint, shook his head at him like he was a particularly dim agent.
"Yeah, I kind of guessed that a post secondary education wasn't something that interested you," he declared with the delicacy of an erupting IED. "Where did you go to high school?" Clint tensed, his lips pressing together in that slightly uneasy way that most people never saw as he tried to decide how to answer that question and Natasha, owing him for bailing her out of an undercover ballet op just three days ago, interrupted smoothly.
"Coulson was looking for you" she announced mildly and Clint cut cool blue eyes to her across the space. Tony and Bruce frowned and Steve just looked… actually his was a hard face to decipher so she filed it away to sort out later.
"Yeah?" He looked inordinately pleased for a brief moment before he caught on, which was another kind of tell altogether as far as she was concerned. Either way he took the out without a moment's hesitance. "He's probably trying to pin that group of feathered armadillos that got loose at headquarters on me."
"That's because it was you," Steve said blandly and Clint grinned widely as he pushed away from the fridge.
"Prove it," and between one moment and the next he was gone. Natasha turned away from the coffee maker to find three sets of eyes watching her. She leaned back against the counter, took a drink, and waited.
"What was that?" Tony asked, his eyes intense as he realized he was missing something. He hated feeling left out. She raised an eyebrow and could practically feel the curiosity rolling off him. "Seriously, I feel like I just got cock-blocked when I didn't even know an offer was on the table." Beside him Steve blushed a little but didn't take his inquisitive gaze away from her. "Did you just cock-block me from Barton?"
"Tony," Steve sighed with the weariness of the well versed, "shut up. What did we just miss Natasha? All he asked was what school Clint went to, not for the code to Fury's office."
"He knows that?" Tony looked moderately impressed, most likely because he had been the one to reprogram it the month before. Natasha took another drink from her mug, uninterested. Beside them Bruce suddenly winced as he figured out at least part of the problem.
"Clint never went to school, did he," it was more statement than question and Natasha felt no urge to break her silence as she watched them piece it together. Clearly it wasn't a concept that had ever occurred to any of them, which wasn't unreasonable, it just kind of hit home how tight Clint kept things to his vest. He was worse than she was, and frankly that wasn't healthy.
"Of course he did, everyone goes to school," Tony actually seemed appalled at the thought. He hadn't had it easy growing up, frankly no one in the Avengers had, but his money and family connections had left him naive about so very many things.
"They would have schooled him at the orphanage," Steve kind of slumped back in his seat and she wasn't surprised he knew about the orphanage, he would have access to the abbreviated version of their dossiers as team leader. Though that was one of the few things the whole team knew about, and the fact that his father had been a drunk; something Bruce and Steve had been able to relate to when Clint had spent an evening trying to get them both plastered and ended up being the only one suffering in the morning.
"But he ran away to the circus when he was ten," Bruce looked pained and Natasha kept the surprise off her face, because not even she had known he'd been that young. She did know he had had a brother that had run away with him.
"That's not in his file," Steve frowned. Tony didn't have anything to add and Natasha, finishing her coffee, left the mug on the counter and exited the room.
Sometimes the most enlightening conversations around her happened without her needing to say a word.
The first time the Avengers came across him they had been battling an…actually, it was hard to say what it was aside from the fact that it was sort of gelatinous looking and, oddly, as hard as a rock. It had also been orange and the size of a small house. Other than roll around and collect things to its slimy, shifting exterior it had become obvious fairly quickly that its main purpose was to be a distraction. A distraction for an acrobatic, sword-wielding, angry thief.
A thief who had been getting ready to square off against the Hulk (that was the first indication that he was possibly unhinged) when one of Clint's arrows sniped one of his entourage. The thief was distracted, only for a moment but long enough for the Hulk to send him flying to the other side of the street. Hulk would have made chase but at that point Iron Man had somehow gotten his knees stuck to the sticky ball that was slowly rolling around to crush him and Hulk was the only one tall enough to pull him off without risking getting stuck himself. The sword-wielding thief was gone long before Hulk even reached Iron Man.
Later Coulson would inform Fury he thought it was odd that the unknown thief left without the shipment of neurological gasses he had been trying to secure from the government lab; especially considering that the building had been left wide open for minutes as the Avengers had nearly been overwhelmed by the jellyrock. Fury agreed it was odd, than decided that it probably had to do with the sheer authority the Avengers presence instilled.
Coulson nodded, neither agreeing nor disagreeing and Fury smirked before sending him on his way with an order to keep an eye out. When considering some of the things the Avengers had to deal with it wasn't a surprise that this unknown thief was not a priority.
Maybe that had been the first mistake.
Long missions were not unfamiliar territory for Agents Coulson, Natasha and Barton. They had spent weeks, even months away from home performing their duties, sometimes together, sometimes not.
Being ordered to remain in lock down due to biohazard contamination for four days should not have been arduous.
Apparently that meant jack all when it involved pretty much the entire Avenger Initiative and their privacy was reduced to a glorified dormitory with a walled off toilet and a walled off bathing/changing area.
Steve of course didn't have any problems with it, probably thought it was comfortable compared to some of the places he'd been. Tony was bored (re: unbearable) within ten minutes. Natasha…nobody could really tell how she felt about it one way or another. Thor took it as an opportunity to dust off some of his more obscure adventures while growing up and sharing them enthusiastically (only Steve was polite enough to pretend to listen for the first two days). Barton seemed about the same as usual, which was equal parts annoying as he riled Tony up and enthusiastically encouraged all of Thor's anecdotes, and quiet when he was around people directly for longer than two hours.
Nobody questioned when he perched on the balls of his feet on the thin metal railing at the foot of his cot for six hours straight, talking but not moving an inch. Or when he flipped off the bed to land on his hands and walk to the corner of the room where he preformed an unknown but impressive number of inverted fingertip shoulder presses. That wasn't any more unexpected than Tony magically producing a marker to start writing equations on the walls or Thor experimenting with ballads for his hammer (they mostly didn't touch that one because half the time they suspected he was trying to get a rise and the other half he was dead serious about the craft).
When the third day rolled around and they realized that Clint hadn't slept, not even for five minutes, they began to notice the fine lines of stress around his eyes and the tension that squared his shoulders that he was trying to hide.
"Training or not, it's not healthy Clint," Steve tried to suggest gently. The look Clint gave him didn't leave much to the imagination of what he felt about that order, or that it would be one he would ignore.
Thor told a story of a fellow warrior who once remained awake for three years sitting on a mountain peak so as not to miss the prophesized appearance of his sworn enemy.
"If you've figured out some way to bypass sleep all together and you're not sharing, I'll let Dummy loose to clean your room," Tony threatened as he pretended not to care.
"That's going to be hard since you don't let him out for field trips," Clint scoffed and did a very good impression of a well rested man who had not been up for the better part of fifty-four hours. That made Tony pause in his staring contest with three black squiggles on the wall and look at Clint with a frown.
"He has tracks, he's perfectly capable of marching from the basement up to your room," he sounded offended. Clint's lips quirked.
"You have selected a resting chamber at last, that is grand news," Thor seemed genuinely pleased by this until Clint shook his head negatively.
"What do you mean at last-" Tony looked confused. "Wait, you haven't moved in yet? You're there all the time!"
"Some of the time," Clint shrugged. "You spend too many hours in your lab to notice," which successfully derailed further comments on his lack of sleep as Tony became genuinely upset that Clint didn't live at the mansion with the rest of the Avengers. He moved to a blank wall and began an elaborate design that eventually revealed itself to be a shooting range that he had apparently decided to build somewhere on the grounds.
Natasha remained watchful and silent on the subject. Clint knew how she felt about his continued segregation; there was no point in rehashing their passive-aggressive argument in front of the others.
At seventy-six hours Phil Coulson wandered into their private quarantined dorm with a mildly embarrassed tilt to his head and a thick stack of folders in hand as they all looked at him in surprise. He wasn't wearing any HAZMAT gear.
"Accidental lab exposure," he explained curtly and promptly removed his suit jacket and claimed the bed at the far end of the room. The one next to where Clint's was tucked up against the wall.
Right. Accidental lab exposure. Sure.
Clint's eyes flashed angrily and for a moment everyone thought he was going to start something.
Coulson sat on his selected bed with his back to the wall, his folders resting by his knee, and folded his arms across his chest.
"It's late," he said mildly to everyone at large and the lights in the room dimmed to some silent command, "time to get some rest."
Nobody questioned him though Tony's silence came from a well placed jab to the ribs from Steve.
It was an hour later when Clint finally moved to his own cot without a whisper of sound, his back to the wall.
It was four hours after that that he jerked awake with a strangled gasp of air that was just as quickly quashed but nonetheless like a horn in the silent room. He didn't move for long minutes, until he managed to completely even out his breathing, and when he did it was to find Coulson still sitting up quietly in the dim light, wide awake and not watching Clint, but watching out for him. Clint didn't fall back asleep after that, but he rested for the remainder of the night, which was more than he'd done before.
Nobody mentioned it the next morning, Tony went back to his drawing wall and doubled the distance of the range he was planning to have built, and adding something that looked suspiciously like moving flamethrowers.
Three months later Clint and Phil moved into their own rooms at the mansion, Clint by choice and Phil because Fury had a mean streak a mile wide and was still pissed at him over an incident at a cloth dying factory that nobody but the two of them knew about.
Tony only ever sent Dummy to 'clean' Clint's room once. It was expensive having to replace robot heads that had been pierced by arrows.
Somehow it worked out.
Coulson had a headache, and it had nothing to do with being beaned in the head by flying rubble and everything to do with the local head of council yammering on and on and on about damages and costs and reimbursement. Sometimes Coulson wanted to drop his calm, easy going, bland, forgettable image and say things like: You are absolutely right, the damage to your buildings and main street is completely unacceptable! Next time we'll refrain from providing aid and let the giant rock monsters obliterate your entire town instead. Clean up is easier then prevention; my people are injured less that way. He didn't, because that wasn't his role, but he could dream as he nodded along placidly and tried to calm the raging councilman.
"Sir," Barton's business like tone was a calming balm to his brain (dear god, he must have been hit harder than he thought) and he turned without regard to the local to address Barton.
"Agent," he looked him over briefly for injury and pointedly did not notice the amusement dancing in Barton's stormy blue eyes.
"As per ordered I am reporting an injury accrued during the line of duty. Medical assistance is necessary."
"Don't you guys have medics over-" the councilman started to ask and Coulson turned to sharply face him.
"I'm sorry sir but I need to deal with this. Agent Yessir will be made available to you shortly." He didn't waste another moment, following Barton away from the upset man and down the street to where his sedan was parked, miraculously undamaged.
"Agent Yessir?" Barton slowed to walk beside Coulson and Coulson, because he could, took half a step ahead without missing a beat.
"That's his name," Coulson informed him dryly and cut him off when it looked like Barton had more to say on the matter. "Where are you injured?" He popped the trunk and pulled out a med kit the size of a small suitcase, laying it on the smooth surface with little regard to the paint job and efficiently zipping it open. He looked up to find Barton watching his hands before promptly holding his own out, the pad of his index finger extended.
"I have a booboo," he pouted. Coulson looked at the finger, and then looked a little closer before spotting the sliver that couldn't have been more than three millimeters long and only half imbedded. Coulson met his eyes, unimpressed. "What? It's my trigger finger," Barton waggled the finger in question. "This injury could- ow!" He grinned despite the complaint and Coulson placed the tweezers back in their designated home.
"If your career threatening injuries have all been dealt with Agent Barton, I have actual duties to attend to."
"Not just yet you don't," Barton reached around him, careful not to press their bodies together before he plucked out a bottle of painkillers and shook two out.
"That sliver must have been more serious than I thought," Coulson couldn't help quirking an eyebrow as Barton then fished out a water bottle. "Maybe you should see medical after all."
"Shut up and take the pills, sir." Barton shoved them into Coulson's hand and Coulson capitulated quicker than his pride normally allowed. Just having Barton's concern was already doing wonders for the pounding behind his forehead, but then Barton moved behind his shoulder and his fingers began combing gently through Coulson's hair.
"Don't think I didn't see you drop to your knee for a moment when you got hit from the explosion. You can either let me look at it, or the docs can take care of it, it's your choice sir."
Coulson didn't complain after that and Barton efficiently cleaned the tiny gash at the base of his skull, checked his motor function and pupil dilation and declared him fit for duty. Considering Barton's lack of medical training but heavy personal experience with injury, Coulson decided to take him at his word. Besides, he'd already known he was fine. They stood there for a moment, frozen, watching each other before Barton took a quick step back and turned away, some unreadable emotion flashing through his eyes before disappearing and he smirked.
"Come on sir, Hulk and Thor were about to start comparing who could lift the heaviest chunks of rock carcass," as if on cue Thor's booming laugh could be heard from down the street and Coulson sighed, imagining a future of complaints from the locals over the Avengers not displaying the appropriate dismay for property damage. It was never a good idea to explain that property and damage were two words the Avengers didn't understand. Then a group of kids went running by, two of them clutching arrows in their hands. A moment later an agent in a rumpled looking suit and sunglasses went jogging past after the kids.
"So, rock lifting competition, sir?"
"Lead the way Agent," he could take a few minutes, besides, he needed to assess the rest of the teams status in person anyway. If he felt a bit lighter all of a sudden, it had everything to do with the painkillers.
Any doubts that might have still been lingering about Barton's commitment (cowboy/lonewolf see: Hawkeye) to his teammates ended three months and fourteen days after the official activation of the Avengers initiative. His commitment to protecting Agents Coulson and Romanov were almost legendary, in the fact that most agents weren't sure if they believed it and those that had witnessed it suddenly became immune to gossip, their lips sealed.
The doubts were crushed, right along with Clint, when he had stood on his crumbling sniper perch with one of two options: make the shot and save the life of a downed Tony Stark, or take the three seconds he had left to dive to safety.
He took the shot while he started to fall. He didn't miss.
His unresponsive body was pulled from the rubble by Steve and the Hulk while Thor forced Tony, injured and with his suit unreliably malfunctioning, to stay back. Natasha travelled with him in the air evac to the nearest equipped hospital and Couslon calmly stayed behind to control the scene.
"Jesus Christ! Do you not even care?" Tony still wasn't used having people so willingly put his life before their own, and he took it out on Coulson. Steve firmly dragged him away and Coulson continued doing his job until the situation was completely under control.
He drove himself to the hospital and stood in the corner of the private waiting room (having the Avengers pacing in the hospitals regular ER waiting room made the civilians around them understandably twitchy), pretending to sip from a cup of long cold coffee. When the doctor finally came to them they stood as a group, but it was Phil's name he called for and Phil was already standing ahead of the rest.
"We've repaired the internal damage, which was far less serious than we had anticipated, considering the circumstances. He suffered no fractured bones but he does have a fairly serious concussion that we'll be monitoring for a few days."
Phil heard this, he did, but where it might normally be enough to calm him today it wasn't.
"He's going to be okay?" He managed to keep a tight lid on his emotion and the doctor, apparently seeing right through him, nodded immediately.
"Yes, he'll make a full recovery barring complications. He'll remain asleep for the rest of the day but if you would like you can see him now." Phil would like that, he would like it very, very much.
"How soon before he can be moved?" He asks instead. Clearly the doctor hadn't expected this, but considering that he was currently standing in a room with a Norse God, the poster child of American hero's and a very tightly leather clad assassin (Hulk hadn't quite calmed down enough to bring along yet), he took it in stride. Apparently he also understood Phil's need to move his team to a safer location. When this crisis was over Phil would look further into his records and see if this Dr. Karuppiah was a viable candidate for SHIELD.
"Minimum of two hours and I wouldn't let him leave without at least two nurses and a doctor for escort." Phil nodded, because that was acceptable, and looked over his shoulder imploringly at Natasha. She stepped silently forward to follow the doctor through the swinging doors.
"Be ready to depart in four hours," he ordered and left the room with three silent stares aimed at his back.
He had Clint safely back at SHIELD headquarters six hours later, all the critical reports and debriefs had been completed and submitted to the appropriate individuals and nobody could question that he had failed to perform a single aspect of his job.
He spent the next nine hours sitting silently by Clint's bed, close enough to touch but not reaching out until Clint's eyes fluttered painfully open and he held his hand out first.
No one doubted Barton's commitment to the team anymore (if they ever had), but they still doubted their ability to understand either him or Phil Coulson.
Against all reason, it's Clint Barton that teaches Steve Rogers how to dance. If anyone other than Steve and Clint ever learned about the private lessons, late at night and often when they both needed a distraction that didn't involve pain or wallowing, they would probably have not believed it. Not at first at least. Except for Phil Coulson, who always knew what was going on, or Natasha simply because she was Natasha.
Steve, unsurprisingly, wasn't the most graceful gazelle out of the gate. Barton led initially, uncompromising when Steve tries to move the wrong way, his arms locked like steel bands around the larger man to guide him exactly where he wants him to go. It takes a few lessons before Steve starts loosening up, stops being nervous and learns how to actually let someone else lead, just for a little while. When Barton hands over the reins and Steve starts to drive it's only the archer's remarkable agility that keeps him from suffering broken toes until Steve understands how to flow with a grace not born to him.
If his solid steps in the process of battle occasionally shift into a smooth glide on the balls of his feet, nobody but the most finely trained warriors pick up on it. Mostly it's due to long, relentless hours of training with their Russian assassin, but sometimes, sometimes…
The next time Stark decides to have some fun at the expense of Steve's lack of experience on the dance floor Steve is confident enough to put him in his place. Stark doesn't quite know how to react at first, other than flushing in shock, before rolling with the punches (as he does with many things in life) and allowing Steve to skillfully waltz him about their massive kitchen.
Thor declares Steve should teach him so as to impress his lady Jane. Bruce spares them a brief glance as he fishes a glass of water from the fridge before disappearing back to his labs. Natasha takes discreet photos to show Fury later and Clint is two thousand miles east, perched high in the hidden folds of an oil rig with his snipe scope trained on target, rain soaking him to the bone, finger on the trigger, waiting patiently for Phil's order.
The second time they came across the mysterious sword-wielding thief was during a mission that has nothing to do with him. This mission involved the entire team, snow giants (which, seriously? Getting old), and some kind of spontaneous pneumo-vortex thing that kept appearing and disappearing all around them.
The Thief did nothing but watch from a distance, stationed on the edge of a building high enough get a decent view of the action. It put Clint, perched on the very edge of a giant billboard platform, directly in his line of sight. He imagined he could feel his gaze on him the entire battle, but between trying to keep their teammates alive he and Iron Man couldn't spare a moment to investigate unless the observer also became an immediate threat.
He disappeared between one moment and the next and Hawkeye couldn't help the suspicious unease that began creeping up his spine. Running across him one time could be a coincidence, a second time was concerning. Reporting it was a no brainer, but he didn't mention the odd feeling that the guy had been there for him, that was just a little too narcissistic, or so he told himself. Still, there was something familiar about him, and it wasn't difficult to acknowledge where his unease stemmed from. He was not comforted by the familiarity at all.
"Maintain radio silence from here on out," Phil ordered over his headset, ignoring the agent very discreetly checking out his ass behind him. She was twenty years his junior and days like these he wished Agent Romanov hadn't convinced Fury that he needed a field suit to work with the Avengers.
"Yesssir," Hawkeye immediately disregarded the order and Phil resisted rubbing his temple, "and might I just say how dapper you look this morning. I'm sure a few of us can agree that leather is your friend." Phil did not point out that his field suit wasn't made from leather, same as the rest of the Avengers. That would be impractical. It did get the agent behind him to stop checking him out though.
"Hawkeye, maintain silence," Captain America didn't sound too hopeful as he reiterated Phil's words, most likely distracted by Stark yammering in his other ear through the private comm link they shared. The one Phil wasn't supposed to know about. If this had been a real mission and not just a training exercise within SHIELD grounds he might have been annoyed. As it was he just wanted to get this over with so he could finish the pile of work on his desk and, barring any emergency, enjoy one of those mythical long weekends he'd heard so much about.
"There is no such thing as silence," Hawkeye rebutted grandly, "the world is simply waiting for Phil Coulson to give it permission to speak."
"Permission denied," Phil deadpanned and, thankfully, the comms went silent. For a full three minutes. It was longer than he'd expected, Clint must have seen his lips twitch in amusement and felt generous. Maybe it would be a good morning after all.
On the surface it seems so easy, so natural, an inevitability that has been in the making for years and all they needed to do was take that one final step; the one that neither of them wanted to cross too soon. Their push comes in the form of a mid-level gang of mutants that try to bring down times square and end up bringing the Avengers down on their heads. There are some explosions, the large McDonald's golden M is beyond repair, straggling civilians wander around taking in the carnage as SHIELD's agents swoop in to control the scene and make sure everyone is okay.
Neither Phil nor Clint are injured, just covered in a fine layer of dust and sweat and breathing heavily from the adrenalin and intense confrontation. Oddly enough they are swept up in a large crowd of people who don't recognize them as a part of the Avengers and are herded along the street. They can't help grinning at the situation (because who wouldn't look at Clint in his uniform or at the ordinance they're both carrying, and think they were a separate entity of the battle that just took place?) until Phil wraps a firm grip around Clint's upper arm and pulls him into an alleyway, softly relaying their situation to the team so no one would worry. Then they're standing there, Clint leaning against the brick wall, wide grin on his face and Phil attempting to brush dirt off his Kevlar woven three-piece suit (compliments of Stark Industries, or so Tony had pronounced when he'd unceremoniously handed it over) when they just stop and watch each other. The air is charged with things that have gone unspoken for years, with an understanding that had never needed words, with a want that they have let simmer just beneath the skin.
Phil doesn't move, he watches Clint steadily, sees the emotions that are normally guarded so jealously in his stormy blue eyes, and waits. He knows better than to corner this man. Maybe that's what finally has Clint moving forward, fast and sure as he wraps a warm calloused hand around the back of Phil's neck, the other just above his thigh holster, and moves them until Phil is pressed against the opposite alley wall and their body's flush together. Clint doesn't hesitate to kiss him, fast and hard and not giving either of them a chance to pull away, telling Phil more and more with every moment that passes until they have to break for air.
A light huff of laughter escapes Clint and he closes his eyes as their foreheads press together, his hands rhythmically flex and grip to hide their shaking as they hold on tightly to Phil. Phil doesn't think it's the lagging adrenalin causing the shakes. He rests his hands lightly on Clint's hip and lower back, feeling the heat radiating off him from all over, and tries not to be overwhelmed. Clint. Phil had crossed the line of no return when it came to this man so long ago he can't even recall when he hasn't been willing to do anything, anything, for him. He's not sure if Clint knows this yet, or if he does he's not sure the man truly understands what it means. Phil has time to teach him, he's always had the time.
The radio crackles between them, reminding them that there's still work to be done and Clint hesitates briefly before moving in for one more quick, possessive kiss and then pulls away altogether, steadily meeting Phil's eyes. There's a shyness about him Phil has only ever witnessed once, just before he and Natasha got together, and he can't help the rush of jealousy but, even more so, the thrill of knowing that it was his now. Clint was ready to give this to him now, and Phil wasn't planning on ever making the mistake of letting him go.
Clint was a proud man. This was not a personality trait he was blissfully unaware of, because one of the keys to surviving in his world was being brutally honest, at least with himself, about his strengths and his faults. He was proud, he had an ego that he loved to shove in other people's faces (if only to see their reactions), he had difficulty blindly following orders and an inbuilt need to push and antagonize the people around him, test their limits and generally piss them off. He liked to be recognized, to be acknowledged for his skills, to know that others understood he had earned his place within SHIELD and now, perhaps more importantly, alongside the Avengers (even if he sometimes doubted it himself).
He worked hard, day and night, to earn that right. He sweat and bled, suffered the aches and pain silently because he preferred people to think his talents were as natural as Rogers physical strength and Stark's ability to breathe technology. He got up again and again because he refused to ever be as weak as he once was, and he laughed at his opponents when he had the air to do so.
So yes, he was a proud man, and he had fucking earned that right and he had thought the others had understood that, understood what he had to offer to the 'team.' Therefore it was more of a dark surprise than he expected when he realized that while they trusted him to have their backs one hundred percent, they only really trusted that from a distance. Best marksman in the world, he boasted it often and loud enough that nobody would forget, but apparently to the majority of the Avengers that was where his worthiness in the field ended.
The first time he noticed their reluctance to let him get more hands on in a fight was when they had been battling creatures that refused to die unless you sliced off their heads. Mutant zombies. Gross. Up until that point he'd always been more useful to the team where he could pick of targets from a far, or be the unexpected advantage waiting in the wings for when their enemy needed extra incentive to surrender.
"Captain, I'm not going to be any help from a distance," he asserted over the comms., bow already snapped in its harness on his back, ready for quick use. He pushed smoothly to his feet and began heading to the fire escape on the opposite end of the rooftop. "I'm coming down," because he could lob off heads with the best of them and his arrows weren't doing a damn thing to slow the enemy down. Unlike Iron Man, he didn't currently have his explosive charges that could just blow their heads off.
"Negative Hawkeye, maintain position and support," the Captain didn't even sound tired, but the authority in his tone made Clint pause. And frown.
"I'll be more use on the ground," he insisted and started moving to the ladder again. "ETA forty-five seconds."
"Negative Hawkeye, maintain position," he ordered, this time with a little more steel in his tone. He did not want to be disobeyed. Clint paused again, fists clenching tightly and frustration building. Two months ago he would have ignored the order and done what he wanted anyway (unless Coulson had that tone that Clint learned the hard way not to disregard), but he was an Avenger now. He was a part of a team, and he had been trying very hard to be on his best behavior. He didn't want to give the higher-ups that didn't think he deserved his place on the team an excuse to have him removed.
"Acknowledged, maintaining position," he made sure his frustration wasn't transparent over the waves and in seconds was back at the ledge, arrow cocked and ready. He tried taking out a few knees (an arrow through the eye and into the skull did nothing, nor did one sliding between the first and second cervical vertebrae), piercing cleanly through the joints, but the flesh held the limbs together and the creatures barely stumbled. It was ten more minutes before the situation was under control and Clint was already moving down the fire escape before the all clear was called. He wasted no time marching right up and getting into Rogers face, ignoring the gore on his uniform.
"What was that?" he demanded, more upset about feeling useless during the fight than feeling underappreciated as a whole, and Rogers actually looked startled to have Clint glaring up at him.
"Why did you order me to maintain position when I would have been more use on the ground?" he tried to keep his tone even and almost managed it. Temper Issues came up more than once in his file.
"We needed to maintain eyes up top to warn of any new threats," he frowned down at Clint, trying to discern what could have upset him so much. "You were more of an advantage to us up there."
"I call bullshit," Clint rebutted and Rogers, to give him credit, merely blinked. "Coulson had agents strategically placed on the perimeter that would have spotted new threats just as easily as I would have. I would have been more use on the ground than perched up top, watching."
"You had our backs," Rogers stated, like that was exactly what he had needed at the time.
"My arrows did jack shit to those things," Clint pointed out as Stark landed beside them, faceplate folding back as he settled in to watch with interest as Thor and Hulk meandered up. The Hulk was in particular need of a shower. Poor Banner.
"You slowed them down, stalled them enough to let us hit them where we needed to. That's what we needed at the time and I stand by my order," Rogers declared, leaving no room for arguing before his features softened slightly, most likely in understanding (Steve Rogers knew, more than most, about feeling sidelined). "You had our backs where we needed you, you did great." Clint was calming down a bit now, unable to find fault in Rogers' words, and he backed up a step, relaxing his shoulders but keeping his glare of irritation.
"I don't need affirmation of my skills," he felt slightly better though.
"Does Hawkeye want a lollipop for a job well done?" Stark made a show of patting his suit down, looking for the treat and Clint narrowed his eyes at him darkly.
"Fuck off Stark, why don't you build me some arrows with head-severing blades in the tip if you want to be useful," he growled.
"Aw don't be like that," Stark grinned and held his arms open, "come on, let's hug it out."
"Not a chance, I don't know what you rolled in last," Clint turned his back on them and started heading over to where he'd last seen Coulson.
"Hawkeye, we need to start helping with the clean up," Rogers tone was all frown now and Clint laughed at him loudly, waving a hand dismissively over his shoulder.
"Yeah right, I didn't make that mess." If he was still irritated by being relegated to the sidelines, he felt better after that quip. He put the incident away as a one off, but it had bothered him enough to make him start paying a little more attention to how the other Avengers treated him.
When he combat trained with Rogers and Thor, he began to get the impression that Thor was humouring him as much as sparring with him. The god pulled his blows because he could very easily break Clint, and praised him when he was occasionally able to use his speed and agility to get in a few hits of his own. Clint figured it was all in his head, but he began spending more time off the clock sparring with anyone who would take him on (though when he went up against the regular agents he usually needed at least three at a time to make it a challenge), on top of his tumbling and agility training. He glared at Natasha when she frowned at him disapprovingly. It wasn't her business.
The second time Rogers ordered Clint to stay uselessly on high while the rest of the Avengers handled a crises he could have helped with on the ground, his anger began to build. Natasha had watched silently from the sidelines as Clint once again called Rogers on it and Clint was grateful for her not interfering. He could fight his own battles, just as she could.
The third time it happened the only thing that kept Clint up on his perch was when he looked down to where Coulson was carefully sequestered to keep control of the scene, and Coulson had looked right up at him and very slightly shaken his head. Because it was Phil, he maintained his position, making perfect but unhelpful shots and simmering in his rage. When he climbed down and joined the team they were all bleeding from somewhere but generally high on endorphins and a job well done. While Rogers and Stark were discussing the next step with Coulson Thor thumped Clint on the back and grinned his wide, easygoing smile.
"It is good that you remained on high," he declared and beside them Hulk sat down on the ground and began to poke at the gaping injury on his large green leg, "that was a fierce battle." Clint knew the god meant nothing mean by that, knew that he wasn't trying to disparage his abilities as a fighter, but the underlying (most likely unintentional) message was clear enough: stay out of sight and let the big boys handle it. Clint said nothing, just turned and walked off to where Natasha, the only one who remained unharmed aside from him, was triaging the few injured agents for when medical arrived on scene. He felt Coulson's cool gaze following him, along with Rogers confused one, and ignored them.
Enough was enough.
Three missions later, Clint found himself atop another building, tense and coiled like a tight spring as he methodically took out one hydra agent after another while his team were completely involved in battling the creature Loki had gleefully dropped into what was supposed to be a simple Hydra base takeover. To make things more complicated the bastard of mischief had done something to Iron Man's suit before he disappeared, and Tony fell like a rock from the sky. He'd hit the ground hard and was still not responding to them.
"Stark!" Rogers demanded sharply, diving out of the way of one of the many long reaching arms, the distress in his voice unmistakable. He threw his shield with all his might at the beast's massive wrist. The shield ricocheted off the creature, off a lamppost, and back to Steve but caused no damage. Clint fired four arrows rapidly into the things neck and two stuck briefly before falling out.
"His reactor's still functioning," Coulson's steady voice reassured and Clint spared a quick glance to see him, in all his dark purple field gear glory, and several other agents swarm over the prone Iron Man. They immediately began trying to dig at the asphalt to get to the bottom of the crater his landing had made while Coulson stood calmly in front of them all with a rocket launchers resting almost casually on his shoulder. The creature roared, Clint looked back to see Natasha back flipping out of reach and flinging a few more poisonous darts from a low crouch, one leg stretched long for balance.
Hulk roared back, louder, and charged the creature that was, unfortunately, more than five times his size and had four extra arms. Hulk's green body was almost blurred against the greys and blacks of the beast's bristly hide as he went for its head. Two of the thing's long arms managed to get a hold of him after a few hits and heaved him into the building across the road. He disappeared somewhere inside, debris crumbling around the hole his body made.
"Thor! What is it?" Rogers demanded, just diving out of the way of its long tail, the heavy bone knob at the end smashing into a pile of newspaper dispensers and sending them skidding down the road.
"It is a-" he proceeded to say something that no human could ever hope to decipher "— from the deepest mines of Muspelheim."
"Yeah, that's great," Clint had moved swiftly along his buildings edge until he was as close to it as he could get from down the road, and shot off two more arrows that managed to bounce neatly off the back of its neck. Apparently they didn't even tickle. Clint's arrows were designed to pierce concrete. He was useless up here. "How do we kill it?" Thor swung Mjolnir, managing to deflect the hand that had nearly grabbed him.
"It is a savage creature built to withstand battles with those of thrice its size, its skin is said to be born of metal, its sparse hair could carry cities! There is but one way to fell such a beast! A place on the back of thy neck, below the skull, that is softer than the rest. It must be pierced, and deeply, but the angle is such that attack from above or below is impossible.
"Jesus," Stark groaned over the line, "did someone get the license plate of that mountain the hit me?" His words slurred, but at least he was talking and Clint pushed the relief down, there was no time for it.
"Coulson, Hydra agents?" Clint asked sharply, twisting away from the eight-story view and racing back to the stairwell.
"Acknowledged. I'm coming down," Clint announced, already on the sixth floor landing.
"Negative!" Rogers barked through the line sharply. "Maintain your position Hawkeye," he ordered.
"Hawkeye, confirm last transmission!" Rogers demanded.
"You're breaking up," Clint confirmed, clearly. He'd feel bad if he wasn't so furious. He wasn't being sidelined again when they were clearly outnumbered. Besides, he had a plan.
They probably weren't going to like it though, so he figured it was best not to share.
He heard a roar through the buildings thick walls, felt the ground beneath him shake in the brief moments his toes touched the floor, and burst out of the building into the fierce afternoon sun. He was a short block away and he full out sprinted forward, sizing up the massive creature.
"I'm on ground level," he announced to keep them in the loop.
"Get back to your post, Hawkeye!" Rogers snapped.
The Hulk was back and was battling three of the creatures arms while Thor attempted to sweep out its legs. It had five of them, which made that task difficult. He watched as the creature stomped down heavily with one clawed foot, barely missing Rogers. Natasha squeezed between the building and its back and launched herself at it, no doubt intending to try and climb up behind it to find its Achilles heel. Its tail clipped her leg mid air and she went crashing to the ground hard, unable to stifle a cry of pain. He watched as Steve dragged her out of the way while the Hulk tried giving Thor a leg up by throwing him at the thing. It swatted him down like a fly.
"Thor! Any indication of what this soft spot looks like?" He demanded he stopped a few feet away from Coulson, whose men were just managing to drag Stark onto flat ground.
"It is-" he paused to take a deep breath, actually winded after that punishing blow, "-of a lighter shade." That would have to do. He looked at Coulson and Coulson raised an eyebrow, expectantly. Funny how an expectant eyebrow could also declare that if Clint got hurt doing something stupid he would be doing Phil's paperwork for the rest of his life.
"Right," Clint winked at Coulson, who remained unmoved, and pulled an arrow from his quiver, "I'd appreciate it if you all kept distracting our little friend," he announced, shoved the arrow shaft between his teeth and took off.
"Hawkeye! Fall back!" Rogers ordered, clearly worried even as he threw his shield at the creature once more. Clint ignored him and, in swift procession, cocked his arrows and let them fly as he ran.
One, two, five, eight, eleven arrows sailed rapidly through the air, imbedding deeply into the brick wall the beasts back was nearly pressed up against. It wasn't a staircase, but it was the best he could do. He'd often wondered if something like this would work, he guessed he was about to find out. Rounding out so he was moving parallel to the brick wall he dropped his bow to the ground, eyed the distance, adjusted the length of his steps and, before he had more time to think on the insanity of this decision, he jumped.
His foot landed on the arrow shaft as close to the wall as he could manage. The thing still bent beneath his not inconsiderate weight, but he had always been agile and light on his feet, never having difficulty with tightrope walking, balance or speed. This was all about angles and pressures. He was leaping up to the next arrow before the first one could protest his presence, and then the next, running up the wall and closer, with each step, to the things back. Half way up he spotted the lighter patch of skin that was his target zone and seconds later he was two stories high and almost even with the creatures shoulder. It would have to be enough. He pushed off the last arrow, one step higher to place his foot flat against the wall, twisted, and launched off the wall with all his strength at the things back.
The creature noticed him peripherally as he was flying through the air, too late to stop him but if Clint missed he wouldn't get a second chance.
His right hand removed the arrow clenched carefully between his teeth as he flew through the air, his left hand outstretched and ready like he'd done a thousand times on the trapeze. He grabbed at a thick, wiry hair protruding from the side of the monsters neck, squeezing tight enough to prevent his grip from sliding. He needn't have worried; the 'hair' had spiky bumps to help lock him in place, enough to hold him. He angled his knees and feet to slam into the creature, freeing up his shoulders and giving him that fraction of a second he needed to line his arrow up. He tightened his grip around the arrow's shaft; the delicate fletching crushed beneath, folded his thumb over the nock for leverage, and thrust it into the beast with all his strength. His hand screamed with a sharp pain as his thumb dislocated from the force but the arrow slid home, and he kept pushing until it refused to go any deeper, mere inches of the synthetic fletchings and shaft still visible.
The nearly overbearing heat of the body beneath him froze, a strong shudder threatened to rip his aching hand free from its hair and send him to the ground. He'd already mapped his decent just in case, but it became a moot point when he heard a pitiful mewl fill the air and the shuddering ceased. The body tipped forward, beginning to fall and Clint adjusted his stance, riding it down, shifting his feet, and jumping off in that brief moment before it hit the ground. Pulling into a basic tuck and roll that avoided damaging his quiver he came to a swift stand. Ten out of ten if he did say so himself.
Feet braced apart, shoulders squared, his left hand dripping blood from several shallow gashes, the thumb of his right hand bent grotesquely out of joint, and a billow of dust rising behind him as the giant lay still. Dead. He couldn't help feeling a deep, visceral satisfaction bursting bright beneath his anger, at the shock on Steve and Thor's faces. The Hulk had already moved beyond him to make sure the creature was really dead and Natasha, standing with one leg clearly injured, was watching with a satisfied quirk on her full lips.
Clint looked between Thor and Steve before settling on their team leader and stepping forward.
"I understand that you are trying to protect me," he kept his tone even through sheer force of will. He needed to make a point, not upset Steve. "But I don't need that kind of protection. I might not be a super, but being a sniper is not the be-all and end-all of what I can offer this team." Seeing understanding finally dawn in Steve's eyes he took another step closer, getting into his face. "I can do more than sit on the sidelines with my dislocated thumb up my ass when my long range skillset is not needed, so you either make me a part of this team," he backed off a step, Steve's unwavering gaze steady on him, "or I won't be a part of this team." When Steve's eyes widened slightly at that he figured he'd gotten his point across and turned to Natasha. She looped her arm over his shoulder and they started walking towards the van Coulson was leaning against. When they reached it, she sank smoothly to rest on the passenger seat. The side door was open and in the back Iron Man was laid out, unmoving.
"He okay?" he nodded at his teammate and Coulson nodded, tapping something into his blackberry.
"Has a bad headache but doesn't think it's a concussion. He's stuck in there until we get him back to the mansion, his machines should be able to free him." Clint nodded and looked down at the thin slices across his palm. He began looking around for a place to wipe it, eyeing the corner of Coulson's suit jacket. "Try it," Coulson said serenely, still tapping away and Clint diverted to gently folding his fingers closed protectively, he'd clean it later.
"So," Natasha looked at him with a little grin on her face. "Feel better?"
"Sure," he agreed easily, lightly, knowing she heard the simmering irritation, the bitter anger, at not being recognized for his full potential.
"When the majority of your fighting takes place out of sight, people forget. You know they didn't realize what they were doing," Natasha pulled a knife out and started cutting away the pants on her injured leg.
"Yeah, doesn't mean I have to like it."
"Hard to think they might actually care," she said, enough jest in it to make it casual but he paused all the same before looking up at the sky and groaning loudly in despair.
"Being on a team sucks," he declared. Beside him Coulson put his phone away and began issuing orders through his radio.
"You know I can hear you right?" Stark's muffled voice came from the suit and Clint frowned at him.
"How long do you think we can leave him in there before he suffocates?" Clint interrupted Coulson and Coulson serious gaze turned thoughtful.
"That might be funny if anyone other than you said it," was Stark's miserable reply. Clint ignored him, the ambulance pulled up for Natasha, and across the street Steve was watching Clint thoughtfully, not bothering to hide his attention at all. Coulson moved to block his line of sight and started examining Clint's damaged thumb before raising an eyebrow in question as his fingers gently palpated the area. Clint sighed and nodded, preparing for the pain of have the joint realigned, and wondered, not for the first time, how this was his life.
Steve stopped keeping Clint in a protective bubble after that, and Thor presented him one of the creatures tusks as a horn, intricate images depicting the battle carved delicately into it by his own hand and, apparently, of Steve's design. It was beyond Clint's realm of expectations, he hadn't known what to say, hadn't known how to react, so he disappeared quickly, cradling it protectively in his arms and shimmying up to the roof where he spent hours looking at it.
Clint hadn't expected this. He just didn't want to be disregarded as a full member of the team. As far as apologies went it was above and beyond, and if he sequestered it away in a fortified, cushioned box (thank you Phil), hidden carefully and only pulled out when he needed to be reminded that he was actually a respected member of the team, well, that was nobody's business but his own.
"He's not telling us everything," Fury reached out and shut the projection off, "I'm not comfortable with this." Coulson didn't respond, didn't need to. "Let Rogers know I want Barton watched; he doesn't go anywhere alone until we understand exactly what's going on. I'm not losing him to some egotistical mind-fucking blade-dancer who has mentor issues and wants to take it out on our asset."
Phil nodded efficiently. He couldn't agree more
Warnings: sexual child abuse (implied), sexual assault (not-graphic)
The grins and sudden silences whenever Phil entered the room began just before oh-nine hundred on a Tuesday morning.
Phil noticed immediately. He pretended not to.
The quiet chuckles and looks of approval continued throughout the day. He might have become irritated by this time but there was no maliciousness evident whatsoever. He was curious about the phenomenon but willing to wait out the discovery of the source over asking about it directly.
When he walked into the cafeteria he found the answer with a group of agents clustered around the main bulletin board, or more specifically he found the answer in a worn looking piece of paper pinned front and center. When one of the agents spotted Phil he looked like he wasn't quite sure how to react, before shrugging slightly and grinning. Coulson cocked his head very slightly in response and the three agents stepped aside as he joined them at the bulletin. The first thought he had when he looked at the paper:
Barton was once again slandering his painstakingly built reputation.
His second thought after he read the first few lines, ink pressed deep into the paper in a more legible chicken scrawl then usual:
He could live with it.
He left the paper with its painstakingly printed list where it was for three days. Then it was secretly relocated, its new home a carefully pressed file folder labeled "Employee Disciplinary Action Form EDA2-5" in the bottom locked drawer on his desk. Next to his Browning (his forth favourite back-up weapon).
The next time he opened that file there were two new points added to the list and a bright pink sticky note with a smiley face.
Phil upgraded the security measures on the entire floor. Personally.
When Phil Coulson disobeys direct orders he gets promoted.
Phil Coulson once took down an entire hydra unit single handed, when asked what weapons he used he smiled and held out his pen.
If at first you don't succeed, you're not Phil Coulson.
Phil Coulson's stare is so bland his enemies spontaneously combust from the need to emote.
Phil Coulson is never late because time would never dream of fucking with him.
If Phil Coulson doesn't feel like kicking your ass he'll have his suit do it for him.
Phil Coulson doesn't interrogate people, he stares them down until they beg to tell him what they know.
Phil Coulson can lay out a royal flush with just one card.
There is no such thing as silence, the world is simply waiting for Phil Coulson to give it permission to speak.
Phil joined Fury in the far corner of the cafeteria, his appearance generally disregarded by the majority of agents around, just as he liked it. He nodded at his superior, accepted the puzzle page from the newspaper that was passed to him and pretended that the man was reading the business section and not the Sunday comics. Across the room a group of agents voices were beginning to rise, good-natured ribbing, letting off steam after a difficult week. Coulson sipped his tea and circled three words in quick succession. When the agents began to get louder he glanced briefly their way and suppressed a sigh.
"I take it this means Agent Barton has finished placing Starks latest bugs in our duct system," Fury intoned and Phil nodded, moving on to the first of three Sudoku's. Clint had actually finished over an hour ago. He'd made good time.
"Yes sir. I have agents in the ducts removing them now," most of them at least. Barton was getting more creative in his hiding places, but a few of them could actually come in handy in the future, so long as they weren't near Fury's or his own office. He pondered his cherry danish, wondering if he wanted to save it for a little longer. He was going to be here a while. "Seven was the last count."
Across the room tables were suddenly scraping across the floor, loud and obnoxious as the agents around them moved out of the way. Five-thirty in the morning was too early for this, even for Phil, but considering that the majority of men and woman in the room had been pulling night shifts for eight days straight it wasn't unexpected. Neither was it unexpected when Barton sprang up onto one of said tables dressed in worn jeans and a bold red t-shirt with a cherub holding a bow and arrow front and center. The image was only partially hidden by the suit jacket (the very nice suit jacket) that hugged his shoulders. Phil's eyes narrowed. Barton didn't look in their direction as he shrugged the jacket off and callously tossed it to the group gathered round. He raised his arms to get a cheer, strutting around like he was the main attraction and clearly enjoying it.
"Looks like he found your secret locker," Fury commented wryly, eye still focused on his paper. Phil very carefully did not scowl at his director. Across the room Agent Polanski jumped up on the opposite table to another round of cheers. Now Fury looked up. "I'm not certain Barton is the most logical choice for this lesson," he sounded more amused than disapproving and Phil shrugged; best way to shut an ego down is to have an even bigger ego put it in its place. Besides, Fury secretly adored Barton, at least for an hour or two every other month.
"You think you can challenge this?" Polanski, one of their newer agents who looked like he may have been a recipient of the super-soldier serum, gestured to his very fit form. There were catcalls all around and the man grinned widely, soaking it up. "You can't handle this Old Man," he goaded Barton, who had his back turned and was making eyes at the agent he had given the jacket to. She looked back with interest just as his attention was pulled back to Polanski. He eyed his challenger up and down skeptically, his look saying everything he thought of the junior agents self-inflated ego.
"I'm not sure I know anyone who'd want to handle it," Barton smirked back, rolling his head and shoulders for show. "We doing this or are you planning on outgrowing your training pants first young whippersnapper." Polanski, rolling his shoulders in imitation of Barton, grinned sharply. Barton was barely ten years older than him.
"He does realize who he's challenging right?" Fury looked genuinely curious and Phil nodded.
"Barton's shirt is a pretty dead giveaway and Polanski has been trying to get the Avengers attention for a while now. He knows who he is." Sisco, Polanski's immediate supervisor, pulled out a chair and joined them at their table.
"When I casually mentioned that I needed to cut Polanski's ego in half and you told me you'd take care of it, I didn't think you'd meant within the next hour," he looked suitably impressed. Phil tilted his head in acknowledgement, having no intention of revealing that Barton had been balancing on the drop down ceiling above their heads at the time of the conversation; Phil hadn't asked Barton to step up here. Sometimes Barton had a weird fixation with invisibly stalking Phil. The fixation of showing up the agents around him was old hat.
"Let's do this," Polanski agreed eagerly. Phil took a small bite of his danish. Delicious.
The two men across the room moved to the tables edge, lined up, and then dropped stiffly forward. They caught themselves easily when their readied hands landed firmly on the table across from them, but only one thud was actually heard. Another agent stepped forward, one of Polanski's teammates who looked a little too gleeful about the entire scenario.
"Rules of the challenge are:" his voice carried well, "you will lower yourselves into a half extended push-up on my mark and remain in said position for as long as possible. The first man to fall loses."
"I hope you have an icepack ready, 'cause you're going to need it," Polanski ribbed, mostly good-naturedly.
"I'm sure I could dig a frost giant up from somewhere to cool down with," Barton smirked. Phil managed to not roll his eyes.
"Begin!" The agent ordered and both men dutifully bent their arms until they were locked in a half push-up. Phil contemplated getting another tea.
Five minutes in Barton became bored and began a conversation with the woman holding Phil's jacket for him.
Fifteen minutes in Polanski had a sheen of sweat on his forehead but he was still going strong.
Twenty minutes in Barton started asking him about his training regime, commenting on his stamina, asking him where he bought his shirts because they hid sweat stains really well. Fury sighed and lifted his hand. A moment later a fresh coffee was laid before him and a black tea with all the makings on the side for Phil. Sisco had moved to a different table by then, clearly uncomfortable in Fury's silent presence for longer than five minutes.
Thirty-five minutes in Polanski's arms were shaking visibly and he was beginning to loose his form.
Forty-two minutes in the junior agent crashed to the ground amidst a long series of cheers and backslaps. He was impressively fit, even as far as athletes went, just not fit enough. Barton turned his head and watched with a grin as the man pulled himself to his feet.
"It was bound to happen, I have fifty pounds on you," the guy grumbled, clearly not used to losing.
"What? I'm sorry I'm having trouble concentrating, so tired," Barton gasped dramatically, and his arms started bending. "Oh, oh no I'm going down, I'm going…wait, no," he paused, his chest a centimeter above his hands, and smirked at Polanski, "actually, I think I'm good," he easily pushed back up halfway, then went down again. "Woah, little unsteady here, but I, actually no, no I'm still good," he pushed easily back into place. "You know what would make this even more embarrassing than having an old guy like me already beat you so easily?" He quirked his head and between one moment and the next he shifted up onto his fingertips, digits digging white into the tables surface. The muscles in his arms shifted nicely.
Fury stood from his seat and left without a word.
Polanski noticed and turned to leave as well.
"Hey? The challenge isn't over yet," Barton exclaimed and Polanski turned back to him.
"Looks over to me," he stated blandly, trying to shrug it off as no big deal as the agents around him began slinking back to work.
"Nah, not when you have an extra fifty pounds on me. Clearly I'm cheating here, so grab a seat and join me. We'll see this through." Polanski did not look interested and Barton's eyes narrowed, all humour suddenly gone.
Polanski sat. And sat, and sat. Three hours later when Phil wandered back to check on his progress Polanski was still sitting and Barton was still frozen in place, a long hard plank connecting the two tables and looking like he wasn't going anywhere anytime soon. Silent. Still. A predator. Polanski looked like the message had been received, but Phil would have to wait for Sisco's report in a week or so.
Barton would probably make the man sit there all day to prove his point. Phil wanted him to get some rest, and Barton was well aware of this if the wink he sent his way meant anything. Phil allowed a brief flash of amusement to cross his face, just enough to make Barton frown at him, suddenly wary. Phil always got what he wanted.
Stark chose that moment to burst loudly into the room, all sound and movement and energy while Banner moved beside him, nodding along easily. It took three seconds flat for both men to take in the situation before Stark gleefully strolled up to Barton and looked him over appraisingly.
"You know, I'll just bet you're ticklish."
"And I'll just bet your Bugatti needs a little aerating," Barton sing songed. Stark's fingers froze just before they dug into Barton's ribs, and then fell away.
"You play dirty Barton."
"Like you wouldn't believe." Polanski looked a little wide-eyed and started to get up. "Sit," Clint ordered softly and he did as he was told, quickly. Stark looked amused, and then contemplative, and then shrugged.
"Never let it be said that I don't follow your orders," he declared grandly placing his hands on Barton's back and hoisting himself up in one smooth, twisting move. He looked appallingly pleased with himself, parked solidly on the curve of his teammates lower back. Barton grunted under the sudden weight, barely having time to drop from his fingertips to his palms before Stark landed and, after dipping a few inches, he compensated and locked himself in place. His eyes were now pinched.
"It's a good thing you let me drive your car," he declared, the strain clear. Stark frowned, swinging his legs back and forward.
"I don't let you drive any of my cars."
"Oh, you do now," Barton assured him and Stark shifted, making sure he bounced a little in the process. Barton sucked in a sharp breath.
Six minutes later Barton was still in place, albeit his face was red and sweat was dripping off his nose. Two agents actually had the nerve to pop in and take pictures, which Stark cheerfully waved for while his other hand clutched a coffee. Then he apparently got bored.
"Would you just give up already? I've got places to be," he might actually seem irritated if not for the grin on his face.
"Looks like your going to be late," Barton snarled between clamped teeth. Stark began to bounce again, this time with intent. Polanski had taken it upon himself to be Barton's cheerleader (Phil was certain Barton had just won himself a fan for life), and Banner was clearly enjoying himself as he hadn't left yet.
One minute later, his arms visibly shaking and Stark becoming more insistent, he dropped, suddenly and without warning. Stark ended up on his back, spread eagled and grinning wide while Barton was already on his feet and rolling his shoulders, right where he'd planned to be. He gave Phil a dark look that clearly said he was on to his devious tactics and did not approve, before walking out of the room with Stark's half finished coffee in hand like he hadn't just spent the better part of four hours exerting himself.
"Hard to believe he's just a normal guy sometimes," Banner said softly before moving to help Stark to his feet and Coulson shook his head.
There was nothing normal about him.
"Agent Coulson's tie can kill a man five different ways but when he takes it off it becomes twenty, no, thirty-three times deadlier!" Clint said with the severity of a man pumped very full of painkillers. Sadly he sounded just as sincere as the last time he tried to convince someone of this fact, though the numbers had changed. From the corner of the spacious room Phil remained silent and still, his face a stony, emotionless mask as he stared at the only entrance into the room. He was still in fight mode, tense and waiting.
He was not wearing his tie.
"Right, that's our cue to head out," Steve ordered, making no move to step forward and touch Clint in a kindly farewell. The first time Thor had done that when their archer was drugged to the gills he had ended up on his back with the sharp end of a scalpel nobody had been aware Clint had palmed pressed to his neck and blood from where he ripped his IV's out dripping onto his shirt. Lesson: A drunk Barton you could manhandle to your hearts content but don't touch him in unexpected ways when he was heavily drugged until he gave you explicit permission.
"Awwwww, leav'n so sooon?" He slurred, bleary eyes trying to watch them all at once.
"Fraid so, Tony needs his beauty sleep," Steve explained and Barton nodded gravely in agreement.
"'K" he muttered, trying to fight the pull of his drooping eyelids.
"Hm, what? I'm here." Tony broke out of his distracted trance and looked at the group, clearly ready to fall asleep where he stood if that wasn't what he had just been doing. Steve ushered him to the door gently.
"A speedy recovery mighty Hawk," Thor grinned widely, before turning to follow on their heels and addressing Steve grandly. "Thou failed to mention the cloth adornment around Son of Coul's neck was such a formidable weapon. Very clever! Tell me, how does one acquire such a tool?"
His voice drifted off down the medical wings hall, loud and distracting and no doubt waking up several patients from the mornings early hours.
It was enough to drown out any possibility of overhearing soft words spoken closely in the room they had left. To distract from warm hands layering and fingers tangling above sheets. To ignore grey-blue eyes refusing to close until reassurances of sentry were assured an accepted.
"And then- and then-" Barton was laughing so hard he couldn't get the words out, tears threatening at the corner of his eyes and he smacked a fist onto the table to try and center himself enough to speak. "And then Sigrid, our hoopers mother, said that if- if she'd known it was his corndog she would have eaten it sooner!" He barely pushed the last words out, leaning back in his chair with an abandon that was almost foreign and everyone erupted with laughter around him. Thor nearly knocked him out of the chair he clapped his shoulder so hard, Tony did fall out of his own chair (though that could have something to do with the five martini's he'd already downed), Steve was shaking his head and covering his eyes while Bruce jumped up to go see if they actually had any corndogs in the walk-in freezer. Natasha looked upon them all fondly, though most would probably interpret the dry look as annoyance.
"God what a hammer-squash! Nobody could ever get a word in edge wise with that woman, and if they did she never let them forget it," Clint wiped at his eyes, reached for his beer and settled down in a comfortable slump.
"Not even you?" Steve asked with a grin and Clint shrugged, his lips quirking.
"Maybe me, but I had a soft spot in her heart. Plus she was pretty set on hitching me to her daughter when we turned eighteen, which was practically an automatic get-out-of-jail-free card, " he smiled fondly at the memory.
"I should like to meet this fine woman," Thor declared grandly, shaking Clint's shoulder before reaching for his own ale (supersized).
"You know, I have no idea where she is anymore," Clint shook his head. "I dropped back in a few years ago to help a friend out and she was gone, along with the Bearded Lady; now there was a woman after my own heart! Best cook in the state and a right hook that would make Hulk cry."
"You ever miss it?" Steve asked and Clint hesitated, only for a moment but too long to go unnoticed, and settled on a soft smile.
"Some of it. There were some good people there, really good, but it wasn't for me. Maybe in a different life," he took a long pull of his beer and looked up to see Phil watching him from kitchens door, his gaze steady and calming. 'I'll never regret leaving' he wanted to say, holding Phil's gaze and taking another deep drink. At that point Tony began daring Thor to do a cartwheel and the conversation smoothly slid on around him. Phil disappeared as silently as he came.
Clint didn't bother waiting a minute before following him, ignoring Tony's catcalls and Steve's hissed 'have some respect Stark!' and spent the rest of the early morning showing Phil exactly how much he didn't regret leaving.
The third time they come across the sword thief they realize that the man is actually stalking them. Or, more definitively, he's stalking Clint. Coulson had had his suspicions after the second run in with the man, but the archer hadn't brought any specific concerns forward, even when prodded in debrief, so it had only been a working theory.
It was hard to deny when theory became fact as the sword thief appeared once more during a battle the Avengers were called to. This time he hadn't remained distant from the scuffle, choosing instead to sneak up on Hawkeye as the archer covered his team from their rear.
"It would have been nice to know we should have added 'sword fighting capabilities' under the skillset heading in your file Agent Barton," Fury eyed Barton with a disapproving frown and Barton shrugged with deceptive nonchalance.
"I wouldn't say I was necessarily sword-fighting sir-" he trailed off as Fury pointedly activated the holographic display in the center of the debrief table. The group watched in silence a moment as the satellite recordings began to play out in 3D. In the image Barton's attention was focused over the hood of the pick-up truck he was using for cover, his arrow drawn and thumb resting steadily at its anchor point. With his attention on the fight beyond him he almost didn't notice the masked man armed with a sleek looking broadsword moving in on his back. Almost being the operative word. Barton released his arrow and twisted around just as his attacker reached him, bringing his bow up to block the thrust of the sword. The sharp blade nicked the string and the recurve snapped violently with the loss of tension but the weapons alloy reinforced limbs were strong enough to repel the sword. The swordsman's lips curled up in the parody of a grin, Barton adjusted his stance and grip on the bow, and they were off, a clash of weapons and fists, feet twisting and gliding across the pavement fast enough that it was difficult to follow.
"Yeah, I'm not sure I'd classify that as sword fighting either," Stark unhelpfully added as the scene progressed.
"I'm not interested in your opinion at the moment Stark," Fury narrowed his eye at Barton, still daring him to deny that he had any formal training with sword fighting. It was clear enough to see that he had done better than any novice against his attacker, especially with his highly unconventional blade.
"I thought you knew sir," appearing repentant also wasn't a skillset listed in Barton's file, the reason of which was clear now as he eyed the director challengingly. Fury watched him right back, unimpressed.
"Maybe he was afraid his sword would ooof-" Stark hunched slightly over his side to catch his suddenly misplaced breath, throwing a wounded look where Natasha stood beside him. Nobody had seen her move and she remained unfazed, her dark eyes studiously watching the reconstructed satellite recording of the fight.
"It's clear now that this guys second appearance was aimed at getting Clint's attention," Rogers looked suitably worried, especially as Barton didn't seem outwardly concerned about this twist of events. "What's your connection to him?" He asked and Barton, shoulders squared, pretended he was engrossed in his fight displayed before them. Once upon a time that distracted look might have convinced the people in this room that there weren't a hundred thoughts connecting lightening sharp behind the shuttered gaze. They didn't make that mistake anymore.
"I don't know him," Barton answered.
"That's not what I asked," Steve rebutted and Clint cut a dark look at the team leader, more openly guarded than he'd been in a long time. If it unsettled anyone in the room they didn't show it, but the increase in tension was palpable, until Barton looked back to the fight again and softened his shoulders, seamlessly making himself appear more at ease.
"I had a few mentors growing up, teaching me the tricks of the trade," he nodded that the dark purple clad attacker on the screen, the silver highlights on his outfit matching the gleam of his weapons as he pulled his second sword from its sheath. "I've never met this particular piece of work but his fighting style is familiar. I think he was trained by a man called Duquesne, also known as the Swordsman."
"The man who put you in critical care when you were seventeen," Coulson clarified, his tone as emotionless as they had ever heard, which said more than enough about the seriousness of the situation.
"We had a slight difference of opinion at the time," Barton lifted a sardonic eyebrow and looked back at Rogers, who was watching him intently. "I'm guessing the Swordsman took this guy on as an apprentice after he took to the criminal underworld and before you ask," he looked at Fury, "no, I have not had any contact with Duquesne since our last dance. There is one very notable difference between Duquesne and this protégé though" his voice was far too chipper as he turned back to the holographic representation of what had taken place only an hour before. Those who weren't watching the unsettlingly violent dance focused on it again just in time to see Barton pull a wicked looking knife from his ankle sheath, preparing to attack, when he just…stopped. Froze in place, like a snapshot.
His image, panting hard from the exertion, tossed his broken bow-come-sword to the ground and, with a flick of the wrist, tossed the knife away behind him. He straightened from his braced position to an unshielded stand and then did nothing to defend himself as the Swordsman's apprentice moved right into his personal space, one deadly blade lifted to rest gently on his shoulder, pressing into Barton's neck.
"He's a mutant," he finished, just in case it wasn't obvious when Barton had stopped fighting cold turkey and just stood there for the slaughter. "He has some kind of suggestive telepathy, calls himself 'Compello,'" Stark snorted at the name. "He said a few things during the fight that didn't affect me but the moment he ordered me to stop with intent behind his words I lost control. Couldn't resist doing what he ordered but mentally present throughout."
"What did he say?" Steve looked away from the image as Compello finally stepped away from Barton, gently lifting his sword away to salute him mockingly and then retreated down the nearest subway entrance.
"I'm the greatest swordsman blah blah you will rue the day blah blah evil laugh and more of the same," Barton rolled his eyes and then hesitated a moment, enough to be noticed. Behind the group Coulson narrowed his eyes at the distracting tactic. "I get the impression he wasn't loved enough as a child. Also, he might be a little crazy. For real crazy, not just megalomaniac crazy."
"Great," Rogers sounded thrilled as Barton crossed his arms, leaned one hip on the edge of the table and shrugged.
"Yep," Barton agreed solemnly.
"Why is he after you specifically?" Fury asked and Barton uncrossed his arms enough to raise his hands in a 'how the hell should I know' gesture.
"Maybe he wanted a chance to clash sw-oooow. Okay!" Stark took a very pointed step away from Natasha and rubbed his arm. "I get it, no sword jokes," he glared at her in clear irritation.
"He was introducing himself to you for a reason. He must have said something that explained what he wanted," Fury continued flatly and Barton pressed his lips into a brief thin line.
"He didn't tell me what he wants, he didn't give away any master plans, all he did was rant about being the better warrior, reiterate his name a few times, lord over the fact that he could kill me and I wouldn't be able to stop him, and then left. I don't know what else you're looking for me to say here," Barton said, his body held still against the table, no twitching to hint at unease, his blue-grey eyes daring Fury to keep asking what he considered stupid questions.
After a long minute of this Fury turned back to Rogers to close the debrief and dismiss the team. When it was just Coulson and Fury standing around the table, they watched the image of Barton meeting up with the team after his nearly fatal fight, strutting around like nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Like he hadn't nearly been taken from them permanently only moments before.
"He's not telling us everything," Fury reached out and shut the projection off. "I'm not comfortable with this." Coulson didn't respond, didn't need to. "Let Rogers know I want Barton watched; he doesn't go anywhere alone until we understand exactly what's going on. I'm not losing him to some egotistical mind-fucking blade-dancer who has mentor issues and wants to take it out on our asset."
Coulson nodded grimly, pretending he didn't notice the searching gaze Fury was leveling on him. He and the Director might not always see eye to eye on how to handle the Avengers (though Fury was most likely unaware of most of Phil's misgivings), but in this instance they were very much on the same page.
"What do we know about the Swordsman Duquesne?" Steve asked, frowning at the mansions live security feed before him. Clint, in ratty shorts and well-worn tank top, ran with a single minded focus on one of their gyms heavy duty treadmills. He'd been running for forty minutes. Neither Steve nor Phil pointed out that the man should be recovering from the afternoon's fight, not running himself into exhaustion.
"He was at the circus Barton joined as a child," Phil said with the most business-like tone he could muster. He wanted to go to Clint. It wasn't time yet, he wasn't sure there would be a time at all. "Intel suggests Trick Shot was his primary mentor but in light of this new evidence it is reasonable that Duquesne was more involved with his training than we thought."
"Should I ask why you think Barton hasn't mentioned this before?" Phil's silence was answer enough. Rogers looked back to watch Clint. "Has either man made appearances lately?" He moved on and Phil forced himself to relax his stance.
"Not in North America," Phil replied promptly. "Trick Shot was sighted in South Asia two months ago, possibly involved in a Cambodian Ambassador's assassination. The Swordsman hasn't been seen in years. Rumour speculates he was somewhere in France, close to Italy's border, but I wouldn't hold my breath. I have agents looking into it." They were silent for a long moment.
"We'll keep an eye on him," Rogers softened his tone, and Coulson, damn it, was grateful to hear it confirmed even if he had never doubted that would be the case. He nodded tightly, took a seat and logged into the mainframe. He could work from the security room as well as from his office. Rogers left silently. A few minutes later Natasha walked onto the security feeds screen, dressed in tight shorts and a tank top that left nothing to the imagination. The only thing that singled her out from any other gym-goer Phil had ever seen was the blade strapped to her ankle. Never leave home without it.
She took the treadmill next to Clint without a word. Clint ignored her.
Phil sighed and went back to work.
Clint marched into the Avengers lounge with a storm cloud thundering over his head and the first thing Bruce thought was that at least it wasn't raining. Of course his teammate looked more prepared to blow up a couple buildings than shed a tear so he stopped worrying about protecting the schematics he'd been sketching on the brown paper towel, and began paying more attention to how disgruntled his teammate was.
"Feeling under the weather?" Tony grinned from beside Bruce. Bruce pulled his napkin drawings closer for protection, just in case, when a tiny arc of lighting flashed above their archer's head. Clint ignored them both as he headed straight to the state of the art coffee maker where he eyed it darkly and then moved to the fridge instead. He grabbed a bottle of orange juice. For a moment a beam of sunlight split through the roiling cloud and glanced across his hair, teasing a golden glow into the spiked locks. Clint swiped at his hair in irritation, the sunbeam disappeared, and he scowled at them as he disappeared out the door just as fast as he appeared. He practically snarled when he almost crashed into Steve on the way by. Steve looked subtly amused.
"What's got his tighty-whities in a bunch?" Tony almost looked interested as he scribbled what looked suspiciously like stick people on the corner of Bruce's improvised tablet.
"You mean aside from the fact that he was zapped with A.I.M.'s version of a meteorological mood ring?" Bruce pointed out pliantly and gently pulled his paper towel away from Starks pen tip.
"Yes. As amusing as this whole things been these last few days I haven't seen clouds that dark yet, so spill," the genius looked to Steve and Steve stood straighter, squared his shoulders, and let a little smile loose.
"SHIELD's making him get his driver's license with me."
There was a long moment of silence. Bruce very carefully did not show his surprise or all the reasons behind their teammate not having said license in the first place.
"You're kidding," Tony at least didn't hold back on his incredulity. "The guy has been driving their cars, their bikes, their boats, their airplanes and helicopters and now they're worried about him having his official drivers license?" Tony barked out a laugh. "Oh my god! Are we seriously working with these people?"
"Being in the public eye-" Steve started and paused and held out his hands in a 'what can you do?' gesture. Steve probably didn't understand the point of a drivers license either. He retreated to the massive coffee machine and swiftly punched in an order. Tony jumped out of his seat.
"How long before the mood ring floating above his head disappears?" Tony asked innocently.
"Another five hours or so but we can't be sure," Bruce replied without thinking, his mind drifting back to the synthetic homing endonuclease he'd been sketching out.
"Tony," Steve warned and Bruce looked up from the table to find Steve casting his 'stern' gaze on the billionaire.
"What? I'm just going to test how dark that cloud can turn. It would be scientifically negligent to pass the opportunity up." His returning smile was not at all innocent. Steve narrowed his eyes a little more.
"If you get hurt playing with Barton again Coulson's not going to hear the end of it from the higher-ups." Their leader warned severely. One of the first team rules the Avengers set for themselves after forming was:
'Do not make Agent Coulson's life more difficult than it needs to be. Ever. Seriously.'
One didn't mess with Coulson. Coulson could make their lives a living hell should he choose. And if Coulson didn't choose than they had recently learned they needed to start looking over their shoulder for Barton.
"I'm just going to talk to the guy. We're all friends here," Of course Stark was unconcerned and slipped out of the room. Steve shook his head and looked at Bruce with a wry grin.
"He's going to be struck by lightening before the hours up," their leader sounded very put-upon and Bruce frowned.
"Being electrified is never good for his reactor," he pointed out, though if Tony were struck by some out of control mini-lightening bolt it would most likely be justified.
Steve was silent for a moment, looking to his still brewing coffee, and clenched his hands into annoyed fists. "Damn it," he growled and left to chase after Tony.
A moment later Bruce slipped out of his chair to head back to the sanity of his lab, where there where no thunder storms brewing over teammates heads and nobody near to provoke the rage. He snagged Steve's coffee on the way out. It was a good afternoon.
Phil Coulson doesn't need a gun to kill a man; he only needs a reason.
The Avengers are six extraordinary beings, each with their own very individual, very strong personalities. Put them under one roof, add a highly trained agent (the unofficial Avenger), a few very select support staff and you get a living space that is supercharged with energy and emotion. Occasionally the tension can be overwhelming.
Clint coughed wetly, sucked in a laboured breath and shook his head to clear it, almost disbelievingly.
He'd just wanted to get out for the night, just wanted a drink on the town. With Phil, Tony and Steve along for the ride it shouldn't have been a problem.
Compello didn't give him a chance to catch his breath, once more driving a fist into his gut. Clint folded forward as the pain spiked and his breath stuttered in his chest, but managed not to fall face first into the dirty ground. His knees were already aching from the abandoned parking garages cold floor. His wrists ached even more, locked behind his back twisting and rubbing together in his wasted effort to break free. The truly frustrating thing was that there was nothing forcing his hands to stay there save the order from Compello. No cold metal, rough rope or even duct tape. Clint thought he might feel better if there were some form of restraint, something material to struggle against, something that might cut in sharply or rip out hair, something that should be more difficult to fight against than air.
Compello flexed his fingers against the sting, eyes narrowed as he stared down at Clint before he shifted back a half step and let an empty grin curl his lips.
"My actual name is Simon," he shared at large and glanced where he had Steve and Tony trussed up in thick, elaborate restraints that look like they took a while to install. Phil, Clint swallowed as he carefully didn't look their way, was next to them, handcuffs bolting him securely to a thick anchor in the wall. He was watching Clint and Compello silently, his shoulders slumped in a mimicry of capitulation, making him look smaller than Clint was familiar with.
"Which is both ironic and coincidental," Simon continued, not sounding amused by his own words as he watched his captives darkly. His back was to Clint and it would be so easy to jump him, to wrap his arm around his throat and squeeze. Clint didn't move. "Simon says stop trying to get free Captain," he ordered with that special tone of voice, and like a puppet with his strings cut Steve sagged in his restraints. Clint was sure that if he looked he'd find Steve's glacier blue eyes narrowed steadily at Simon, promising retribution that the man would just laugh at. Simon didn't need to make eye contact for the order to hold, but he did need to repeat his orders every ten minutes or so, which he was clearly well-practiced with. Clint would know, he's been fighting against Compello's hold since the man walked into the bar, up to their table, and simply ordered them to follow him: do not resist, do not call for help. They were fucking putty in his hand, following him out without an even token of resistance and catering to his every request.
Clint was going to take this fucker down, if only because he put that look of strain in Steve's eyes, the worry not so hidden in Starks, and the sheer impassiveness in Phil's.
Simon, Compello, who-the-fuck-ever, turned back and crouched down in front of Clint. He looked him over, eyes darting everywhere and not settling until he reached Clint's face, his lips, and then his eyes.
"I've been wanting to meet you for a long time," his voice rumbled, eyes darkening as he stared at Clint, mostly black amongst the unusually vibrant green that Clint remembered so well after their last encounter.
"Thought we met a few months back. That wasn't too memorable for you either, huh?"
He saw the blow coming before he'd finished speaking, was almost anticipating it, and was not disappointed as the blossoming heat spread across his cheek and made his ears ring. He turned his head to the side, spat out some blood and grinned.
Apparently Simon didn't like it when Clint grinned either. This time Clint was unable to stay vertical, twisting to the side just enough that his shoulder hit the unyielding ground instead of his face. He didn't have a chance to pull himself back to his knees as Simon grabbed the collar of his shirt and hauled him back up. It took a long moment for him to let go, his knuckles brushing beneath Clint's jaw before he pulled away.
"Have you given any thought to our last discussion, Clint" Simon asked softly, enunciating the end of his name sharply as he started to circle him slowly. Clint was used to feeling eyes on him, being watched for so many different reasons at any given time, but this…this made his skin crawl.
It didn't help that he could practically feel the way Phil's attention sharpened, which was kind of scary since the man was hyper alert at this point anyway, at Simon's words.
"No." Liar liar pants on fire. The word rolled off his tongue easily.
"Answer the question truthfully," Simon snapped, coming to a stop only a few feet away and inhaling slowly through his nose. Calming himself. Clint didn't notice, his focus turned inward, trying to keep his mouth shut against the overwhelming need to do as Simon said. He lasted mere seconds.
"Yesss," the word hissed out between teeth clenched tight, his lips pulled back in a snarl from the internal struggle. He twisted his wrists viciously, bones pressing together, bruising, and then he stilled. He needed to rein in his temper, it had no place here. Not yet.
"And what did you conclude?"
Clint felt no pull to answer truthfully this time, but he did anyway. He could be giving like that when he felt like it.
"I'm just made of awesome," Clint pulled out his best what-can-you-do shrug to help make the point.
Simon blinked, his odd green gaze heavy on him and Clint met it steadily. Daring him to disagree. Simon blinked again and then twisted about on one foot, giving Clint a real good look at the two swords crossing over his back (the silver swirls imbedded in the deep black sheaths gleamed even in the dismal garage lighting), and eyed his other captives.
"A super-soldier, a trust fund baby with authority issues and a-" he paused as he looked over Phil, eyeing his dress shirt and tie and pressed black pants, "government issued pencil-pusher." Phil meekly avoided eye contact, everything about him screaming 'don't hurt me.' Clint didn't smile. "You sure keep interesting company," he turned back and looked down at Clint. "Think they could explain to me why it is that you're so special?" he sneered and yep, the crazy was back. Clint had been hoping he was wrong about that.
"Don't think Stark will be much help seeing as you tell him to shut-up every time he gets his voice back," Clint had always thought finding a way to keep Tony quiet would be hilarious. It really wasn't. Tony certainly didn't seem to be enjoying it, his mouth rapidly shaping words as he struggled against his own bindings, no sound escaping. Simon didn't care.
"I trained with him longer," he hissed. "I trained with him harder! I never disobeyed orders, I never once turned my back on him, I did everything he asked of me and it still always came back to you." Simon crouched in front of Clint, his hand snapping out and grabbing his jaw in a crushing grip and holding him in place. Clint breathed through his nose, nostrils flaring wide for air. A thumb dug across the corner of his mouth smearing blood over his lips and chin. When he let go he remained eye to eye with Clint, close, too close, and Clint wanted to spit into his face. He would have, he would, but not with the others here. Not when Simon could turn on them.
Behind them Tony whined, the sound sudden and sharp and cut off almost as soon as it happened. Simon stood back and kept his eyes on Clint, not giving any further orders to keep Tony quiet.
"I even offered myself to him," the swordman stated, matter of fact though his eyes narrowed in dark displeasure. "I offered him everything and he didn't want it. Why do you think that is?"
"Maybe you just didn't have that 'it' factor that makes a star," Clint bared his teeth in a smile, tasting iron on his tongue. Simon straightened at the dig, eyes narrowing in anger and between one movement and the next the reached over his shoulders and pulled his swords free, the slide of metal on leather unmistakable, and then the swish, swoosh of blades whipping through the air too fast to see followed. Clint held himself still, not even breathing as the man moved around him, twisting, twirling, bending and weaving in an all to familiar dance. The swipe swipe of the blade gliding too close to skin as he weaved his art and when he stopped and looked down at Clint with a feverish gleam in his eyes Clint allowed himself to breathe. He slowly squared his shoulders, and then shrugged his right one until the last shreds of his shirt slid to join the tatters on the floor about him.
"That shirt was a gift," he said mildly. He'd mourn its loss later.
"He told me all about you," Simon announced conversationally, sliding his swords back into their homes smoothly. "Keep your hands behind your back," he ordered Clint, and then over his shoulder "cease your efforts to get free Captain." Clint could feel Steve's frustration from here as his near return of self-control was stripped from him again. Clint's wrists pressed together tightly, his elbows and shoulders aching from the strain. "He told me all about how he trained you, about how he realized your talents and had such great plans for you. His first apprentice. 'You never forget the first' he would say."
"You know you're a little bit crazy right?" Clint tried to derail the guys train of thought, the garage far too quiet around them and a sick feeling rolling in his stomach at the green eyed stare. Simon grinned.
"I want to know what was so. Damned. Unforgettable. What made you so Special!" He stepped forward and backhanded Clint again, Clint turning away at the last moment to try and soften the blow at least a little. "Well?"
Clint didn't have an answer. He'd spent years wondering it himself, though 'special' wasn't the word he'd use.
"Maybe," Simon looked him over cruelly, surveying him, "maybe I just wasn't young enough." Clint couldn't help the icy feeling that flooded his chest at that, knew that he had paled uncontrollably. Knew that it was noticeable when Steve broke his stout silence, demanding that as team leader Compello should be negotiating with him, and Tony squeaked again as he got closer to regaining his speech.
Clint fought to keep his face impassive, unconcerned. Simon saw right through it.
"He told me all about his correctional punishments," he sneered. "Told me how he would make your assignments more and more impossible and how you would work harder and harder to stop fucking up. I used to mess up on purpose after he told me that, but he never so much as touched me outside a training session. I used to lie awake wondering what I was doing wrong."
"I think we can all agree the crazy boat left the bay a long time ago," Tony finally managed to force words out, his voice still shaky. Later Clint would appreciate his efforts to help him. For now he struggled not to let on how much this fuck's words were revealing, how much he wanted him to shut the fuck up right now. Simon ignored Tony completely.
"You must have had one hell of a mouth on you," the man sneered and Clint couldn't help the sheer horror he felt. He snarled, ferocious words building in his chest but before he could get a single one out there was a fist wrapped tightly in his hair, jerking his head back, and a cloth covered dick shoved up against his face. The zipper cut into his already torn lip, the fabric chaffing the bruising on his cheek as Simon pressed into him suggestively, grinding forcefully before pulling away and shoving Clint back hard enough that he toppled over, landing awkwardly on his clasped arms. Clint instantly moved to sit up. "Stay," Simon ordered and Clint froze, leaning on one elbow, knees in a half-bent sprawl. He felt more vulnerable and exposed than he had since Compello had held a blade to his throat and whispered how easy it would be to bleed him dry then and there.
"How was it the punishment went? You miss the target by more than a few inches and he took what he wanted?" It was a rhetorical question, the man had already moved off, grabbing what looked like a spray paint can. He stopped before Phil, eyeing him like he still didn't know what to make of the government lackey, before swiftly stepping before Tony and Steve. He looked back and forth between them and then unceremoniously popped the cans lid, shook it briefly, and sprayed a bright yellow circled across Tony's white Armani covered chest. He then sprayed a quick dot in its center, just below his glowing arc reactor. Tony down looked at the target and didn't say a thing.
"He said you missed less and less as you got older," Simon announced into the near silence. "He'd make you stand on a trotting show horse and you'd still hit a target swinging wildly from the trapeze. He'd have you hang from that trapeze and hit a pea at the other side of the tent." He went to a bag at the side and pulled out a glossy black compound bow and single arrow. "You're nothing but a man, no powers, no loyalty to him, and fifteen years and a betrayal later you still mean more to him than I do!" His rage and confusion was clear and he loomed over Clint for a long moment, eyes dark with jealous hate. Clint felt nothing but disgust and anger and didn't know if it was directed at himself or at the Swordsman. It was hard to tell on a bad day, and this was turning out to be a very bad day.
He could feel the gaze of his teammates on him, of Phil on him, and fought hard to bury the sense of shame that he knew he shouldn't feel, but couldn't help, deep down.
"I want to see how good you are. I want to see what it is that makes you the prodigal protégé so here is what I propose: hit the center of the target or I will punish you the same way he did."
Phil played the part. He played the meek office worker, played the scared hostage, played the hapless guy who wouldn't know the first thing about escaping handcuffs bolting him to the wall just above his shoulders. He made himself a non-threat while Steve and Tony kept Compello's attention. While Clint kept Compello's attention. He played the part and waited until the hostile forgot about him and the right time to move appeared.
It hadn't been when Clint was getting the shit beat out of him, on his knees and bleeding.
It hadn't been when the swordmaster danced around him and shredded his shirt without leaving a scratch on his already too scarred skin.
It hadn't been when the man had ground himself into Clint's face, gripping his hair tight enough that his fingers went bloodless white and he had a smear of blood on his pants when he stepped back.
It hadn't been when Clint, only for a moment, such a brief moment, let the anguish of terrible secrets being so callously revealed flash like a beacon in his eyes before shutting the emotion down. Hard.
It hadn't been when Compello ordered Clint to his feet and ordered him to make the choice: Tony dead or Clint any way Compello wanted him. Tony watched Clint steadily as he lined up the arrow, his eyes so dark they were black and he softly said 'it's okay' as an absolution for the choice they all knew Clint would never make. The arrow hit its target, two feet above Tony's head.
Compello smiled darkly and moved to Clint.
"Give to me what you gave to him," he ordered and then ordered Tony to shut-up when the avenger started turning the air blue. Tony's teeth cut through his tongue they snapped shut so tightly, blood easing out the side of his mouth. Steve was once more locked into immobility, his knuckles flushed red over white skin where his hands clenched.
The devastation that crossed Clint's eyes, the way he bowed his head and refused to look towards his team, towards Phil, it made something sharp spike in his gut. Sharp and hot and too close to something breakable.
When Clint helplessly dropped to his knees and reached his steady hands up to Compello's silver belt…that was when Phil stopped playing meek office worker.
His vision didn't turn red in his rage, his body didn't come alive with retribution, he was not overwhelmed with bloodlust and he did not blank out. His fury was calm. His fury had him dislocating his thumb without feeling a thing. It had him moving across the lower level parking garage with the silent steps of a predator. It had him stepping up behind Compello and wrapping his hands around the mans chin and the back of his head without any thought whatsoever.
Twist, wrench, snap.
Smooth, efficient, final.
It should not be so easy to break a full grown mans neck, not even one who was distracted.
Phil likened it to snapping a pencil in half, only a thousand times more satisfying. He never once entertained the thought of letting the man live.
With his hands still gripping the bodies head he flung it aside, away, and dropped to his knees so he was level with Clint. He gently placed his hands on his own knees, and waited.
Clint didn't look up right away, taking a few steadying breaths before his stormy blue eyes rose to meet his own. Emotion controlled, tightly pushed aside but still too close to the surface for his comfort. Phil could sense the unease, the uncertainty, and damn near gasped in relief when Clint raised one perfectly calloused hand and rested it on the back of Phil's neck. Warm, covered in tiny rocks and grit, and just right.
"I'm alright Phil, I'm good," he said softly, trying for a smile. His hand squeezed and Phil took that as permission to slowly lean forward and brush his lips against Clint's bloody ones, briefly, reassuringly, and pulled back because now wasn't the time and they both knew it.
Later. They would deal with this later. Together.
Clint went off grid for three days after Compello.
Phil told Fury it was nothing to worry about and Fury let the matter drop with the silent understanding that if Barton didn't return soon he would make it his business.
Rogers and then Stark both expressed concern to Phil, but accepted it easily enough when Phil confidently informed them there was nothing to worry about, not yet.
On the third day Clint showed up at the safe house the two of them and Natasha had arranged together years ago. Separate from SHIELD. It was a tiny little loft in one of the more rundown buildings in SoHo that had not been affected by the popularity of gentrification. Phil was waiting on the couch, mid afternoon light streaming through the windows and picking up on all the dust motes when Clint slipped silently into the room and sat beside him. The old cushions sagged under their weight, their shoulders and thighs brushed together.
For a long while they just sat there, the sun hot where it drifted across their knees, Clint's hands restless over his jeans until he sighed and rubbed hand down his face.
"I didn't know what to do when it first started," his voice was gravelly from disuse, heavy and he huffed out a laugh so far from amused it hurt Phil's throat. "I wanted to leave, so badly, but there was- there was nowhere to go. Shit, I was ten, a runaway orphan, and Barney was dead set on staying." Phil heard what Clint wasn't saying, that Barney had started pulling away and Duquesne had most likely used threats against his older brother; that Clint couldn't trust the other adults around, that nobody had listened to him for so long he didn't think they'd believe him. "So I made the best of it."
The best of it.
Sometime in the near future Phil was going to discreetly locate Duquesne and make it so nobody would be able to find him ever again.
That night, curled up under heavy blankets, Phil wrapped his arms gently around his partner and got to work on reminding him that he wasn't alone anymore. He never would be again if Phil could manage it.
Things changed. Not in any way that matters or is surprising, but it's hard to learn something about a friend, something so personal and guarded, and not react in some way. Clint understands this, he's been guilty of it himself once or twice, so he decides that the best way to deal is to pretend it never happened. Unfortunately amnesia was not in the cards, which makes pretending virtually impossible. Clint is not surprised by this either, but he didn't survive to adulthood, didn't become one of the Avengers, by giving up easily: if he couldn't forget or pretend to forget than he could ignore with the best of them.
He ignored the way Steve was careful not to touch him as much when they sparred the first few weeks after. Mostly ignored. Actually, he took advantage of the near tentative combat and knocked the super-soldier onto his ass an embarrassing (and unbelievable) number of times. His formidable reputation grew in the eyes of SHIELD's agents and Clint soaked it up, taunting Steve until the man got over his uncertainty and finally hit back the way he was meant to.
They never spoke about it, about what had been revealed, what couldn't be unseen, but Clint understood that he hadn't been the only one hurt that day. He may have been the only one physically damaged, but the others had had their control stripped away just as forcefully as he had. He honestly didn't know if being made to watch and do nothing was worse than being the…injured party, but he never wanted to find out. The idea of seeing any of his friends, of seeing Phil, in that position made him shake just as much as the nightmares.
He ignored the way Tony became louder and overcompensated more than usual around him. With everything. Clint gladly spent hours on the range testing new arrows, new bows (that he didn't need because the ones he had were fine), new guards and gloves the billionaire suddenly insisted on. He didn't say no when Tony wandered into a room and froze for a moment, staring at Clint like a deer caught in the headlights, like he felt guilty for something out of his control, before loudly declaring that his treasured Bugatti was feeling neglected and tossing Clint the keys.
Clint understood growing up around people who should have loved you and feeling completely alone. He understood that suddenly having people care about you meant that you probably cared back and the sharpness of the concern was as daunting as it was difficult to accept that at times. Tony didn't know what to do with it.
Clint felt no guilt about manipulating Tony into buying him a state of the art gaming console. Or a Ducati 848 EVO fresh off the showroom floor with a few Stark upgrades and a sweet silver hawk engraving. Or flying the team to Hungary for dinner one night because Clint declared he missed the goulash soup the Strong Man used to make him (that man had been a badass chef!) on the colder evenings in the circus. He was pretty sure he managed to rack up nearly a quarter of a million in frivolous, and not-so-frivolous, bills before Tony caught on. His sulk was epic and Steve frowned at Clint in disapproval while Phil and Natasha and the rest of the avengers stood off to the side and tried not to laugh.
Clint made it up to Tony by buying him a cheap, bright red, fiberglass longbow from the nearest hunting store and five equally bright arrows and dragging him (not quietly, Stark never did anything quietly) down to the range. It was Tony's first and last lesson with Hawkeye on the finer points of archery. He bitched about it the entire time and leered when Clint made a point of getting real close to show him the proper stance before something in his shoulders finally gave and the Tony Clint was more familiar with came back to them. That was the end of it, or so he had thought. Years later, when he was helping Tony haul an injured Steve into Tony's bed to recuperate he spotted the red bow and arrows leaning between the wall and bed table, looking gaudy and out of place in the sleek, modern room. It made him smile.
Phil, Clint paused in the doorway to the Avengers kitchen to see his man standing between Thor, Steve and Tony as the three avengers argued about who-the-hell-cares with his bland 'the director and I are going to have words' stare. Natasha was perched on the counter with a delicate looking cup of tea and a sneaky look in her eyes. Phil. Jesus. Phil hadn't changed a bit since Compello. He was Clint's favourite recurve, his coconut gelato, his badass GI-Joe all mixed into one sexy, dependable, tie-loving package. Phil was his fucking rock. He wouldn't have it any other way.
"If Thor and Captain America got into an arm wrestling competition you know who would win?" Clint announced grandly, the argument abruptly halting as everyone turned to look at him and he pushed away from the doorjamb, ready to head to the gym. "Phil Coulson."