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Second Time Around

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Canadians were an interesting breed of creature. How anyone who lived in such frigid and remote conditions could be so cheerful was beyond any kind of understanding. Now the Germans, they knew how to get it right - Russians too for that matter. Gruff, blunt, suspicious of strangers, with a language that always managed to sound like anger; that was how it should be. Snow and ice and isolation - no human being should actually enjoy those kinds of conditions.

Clint hated Canada.

But he wasn’t Clint anymore; that was the point. He’d left that identity behind, along with his identity as Hawkeye, Agent of SHIELD and archer of the Avengers Initiative.

Now he was just Corey, Corey Bouchard, a keep-to-himself newcomer in a land of friendly neighbors who waved too much and knocked on his door too often.

It was a name that was hard to stick to in his own head. Out loud it was easy; easy to introduce himself as Corey and sign his name as Corey to the receipts he was handed, to read his byline – Corey Bouchard – at the bottom of the little hunting and fishing column he wrote for the local paper. In his head and his heart it was different. Clint still hung on, the Clint who liked snow but not this much snow, the Clint who observed his surroundings almost to the point of paranoia. He might be Corey on the outside, but on the inside he was still the same old Clint Barton, broken and empty-handed.

Fleeing the country and settling down in a remote little cabin on the outskirts of a remote little city that he’d picked up some ten years ago helped. As much as he hated it, it helped, because there was nothing of Clint Barton here. No bow and arrow, no tac suit, no Stark pad… more importantly no Stark.

No Bruce, no Steve, no Natasha.

No one.

Corey Bouchard was an identity he’d never intended to use and one of the few he’d kept entirely secret, even from Nat.

Even from…

Well.

That had been a good decision, hadn’t it?

Whatever.

It didn’t matter, and it was a lot easier disappearing when you had something to fall back on. Leaving New York with nothing but the clothes on his back and the change in his pocket probably wasn’t the best idea he’d ever had, but at the time he hadn’t exactly been thinking clearly. Hell, he hadn’t exactly been thinking at all. He’d been too busy trying not to puke, to faint, to go to his knees in the middle of the nearest intersection and get smeared by a cab because his legs just couldn’t hold him up anymore. He’d only just been capable of catching a bus out of town, using his SHIELD credit card to run and then to bunker down in a shitty little motel, to spend two nights getting liquored out of his head only to wake up the third day with an ache in his chest and a cold, painful plan.

It was hard to leave his bow behind. It wasn’t the first time he’d had to leave one, but it never got any easier. For the first few hours he’d mourned the thing, but it had been Hawkeye’s, and a part of another life. Luckily he had others, stash points hidden around the globe and that was where he’d headed, booking a short flight to South Dakota where he had a safety deposit box under a fake name and a fake address. There he’d ditched his old wallet, the SHIELD money and the SHIELD badge and the SHIELD license, anything that could be traced back to Clint, and picked up the identification and the deeds and the cash that belonged to Corey.

Corey – who happened to be a lot like Clint.

Imagine that huh?

Both with tough, shady childhoods, a bit of a rough-and-tumble attitude, and both with a rather questionable set of skills.

Skills that included liberating a car from some less-than-clean hands, a car that wouldn’t be reported missing and that would take him safely across the border and into his new life.

His new life in freaking Canada.

But Clint Barton was nothing if not adaptable, and so slowly he’d begun assimilating, learning how to live a life without his archery, which was too conspicuous, and without all the bits and pieces that made him who he was. Instead he became Corey, quiet, stick-to-himself Corey, who wrote for the paper and got groceries once a week at the Quik Shop just like everyone else. The Corey who shoveled his eighty year old neighbor’s walk when it snowed because he should, and who adopted a scruffy looking mutt named Lucky from the shelter two towns over. The Corey who seemed like a good enough guy eh, but who had a habit of disappearing every once in a while to god knows where.

Because sure, Corey was pretty good at staying under the radar, but sometimes Corey just wasn’t enough.

Corey kept him safe, hidden from the eyes of SHIELD and the Avengers, but Corey was a regular guy, and the bits of Clint Barton that still clung on weren’t satisfied with the kind of life Corey led.

Corey Bouchard was no hero.

Clint Barton - Hawkeye - had been a hero, for all the good it had done him in the end.

But he wasn’t Clint Barton anymore.

That was ok.

He had an app for that.

Or at least another name.

A name that SHIELD knew, but had never connected to Clint.

Strange, stupid really, since the ruthless assassin Ronin had disappeared right around the time Clint had been taken into custody, recruited with a bow strapped across his chest and a bullet in his thigh. How they hadn’t put two and two together still baffled him sometimes.

Not that he was complaining – going back to Ronin gave him an outlet he desperately needed, even if it was something he’d thought he’d escaped, something he would never have to go back to.

Ronin was a harder, darker, more deadly entity, someone Clint wasn’t particularly proud of having been. He was the slippery slope toward murderer that Clint had had to walk, the bad guy he could have become if he hadn’t been plucked from the streets by the intervention of god and a one-eyed director of shady government dealings still untold. He was most things that Hawkeye wasn’t, but he was familiar and safe in his own right, and Clint was sure he’d slowly go insane if he had to live as Corey Bouchard for the rest of his life.

As long as he could live as Ronin every once in a while, he’d be all right.

So he’d put the word out, a few phone calls here, a few signs and signals there, and the next thing he knew the seedy, filthy underbelly of the world was clamoring for his attentions, money being flashed discreetly at every turn with the promise of the assassin’s services. It had been painful to slip quietly down to Panama, to crack the decades old seal on the storage locker there and choke through the dust to the back, where a heavy footlocker coughed up the remnants of yet another of Clint’s lives. The memories buried in this one weren’t always good, tended toward bloodstained and agonizing in fact. But slipping into the black and gold, the tailed jacket and the hood that covered his face - that felt a little like coming home. It felt like pieces locking into place, matched the chilly, dead, emptiness inside his chest in a way that fit, the same way the katana fit in his hand.

In fact he was so startled by the rightness of it, the flood of old memories that came rushing into him from the time before Hawkeye, that he’d dropped the sword onto the concrete floor with a clatter.

Once he’d caught his breath it was easier to pick it up the second time. He knew what to expect, even welcomed the relief, the release from his emotions that Ronin’s mantle afforded him. It was being able to breathe again after having his chest stomped, his ribcage caved in. It was an excuse, permission as poor as it was to do some damage, to take out a little bit of anger, a little bit of hurt on people who deserved it, and maybe that was Clint Barton’s fated, fucked-up flaw – that he’d been hurt so much he needed the permission to do some of the hurting himself.

And he had been hurt.

Lots of times, lots of different ways, but with SHIELD, with the Avengers and with Coulson, he’d thought maybe things were finally different.

That was his mistake, and perhaps the reason that this final betrayal had been the worst, had finally broken him, maybe too badly to ever be fixed.

Why else would he have gone back to Ronin, the rogue killer he swore to himself he’d never be again?

Didn’t matter.

He’d given that up, walked away from a life as Clint Barton, as Hawkeye, walked away from his friends and his teammates and everything he was and started over. Started over as Corey, who cooked and read and played with his dog and sometimes ran with Kate, the young college student down the street who watched Lucky for him when Ronin needed to stretch his legs.

So what if every once in a while cash got a little scarce and a bad guy needed to be taken out? So what if Ronin made that happen? It was a compromise – the Canadian writer and the silent assassin both together, not nearly as good a man as Hawkeye had been but not nearly as bad as the unforgiving, unscrupulous swordsman he was before.

Before SHIELD had given him a place and a purpose.

Before Phil Coulson had shown him he could be something better than what he was.

Before he’d learned to trust in and rely on other people again, and before he’d had that trust betrayed one final time.

Clint Barton’s life was full of befores.

Corey Bouchard’s was the beginning of all the afters.

AVAVA

Phil Coulson had never given much thought to dying. Consequently he’d never given much thought to what he would be leaving behind. His parents had both passed years ago, and he had no siblings or extended family to be worried about. His affairs were all in order and had been since he’d started working for SHIELD, his burial wishes and his will updated each year like clockwork. Fury would miss him, and the blue beta-fish Captain that cruised around the glass bowl on his kitchen counter, but chances were good that the two would be enough to take care of each other.

As for the rest… well.

He expected the Avengers might miss him, some of them any way, in the manner you might miss a boss who’d been good to you, one with whom you had a good working relationship and it would be an inconvenience to lose.

Clint and Natasha might miss him a little more - after all they’d known each other longer, worked together closely for many years - but it was still just that.

Work.

Even if it was more, even if he liked them, took a somewhat proprietary view of them, it was still work. They were his and he treated them like his, with respect and care and perhaps a little too much jealousy, but he was a professional and so were they, even with Barton’s ridiculous jokes and flirtation, Natasha’s rare and sudden displays of affection. In some ways they belonged to each other, the three of them, but it was SHIELD and Strike Team Delta that had brought them together, that made it so. Coulson was careful, careful to be objective and not to get to close, to only give them what they needed to keep them up and running, in the best condition physically, mentally, and emotionally for the job that they had to do.

Or maybe that was just his excuse, because sometimes he did want to touch Natasha’s hair and tell her that she was safe, or to wrap Clint in a loose hug and tell the archer that he was proud of him. That as long as they wished to be they would be taken care of, by him and by SHIELD.

And if he sometimes tortured himself with thoughts of actually letting himself fall for Clint, then that was his own business. He’d never acted on it, wouldn’t ever act on it, because he knew that that road only led to hell - rejection and awkwardness, or worse a sense of betrayal. If there was one thing he’d promised himself after becoming Clint’s handler it was that he would never let the man down the way he’d been let down all his life.

And yet here he was, doing just that, breaking the promise he’d made to himself even though it was unintentional.

In his very minor defense, he hadn’t know he would be brought back after dying in the Battle of New York. He’d signed the papers when he’d first joined up with SHIELD, experimental medicine in life-threatening situations, but it had all been vague and hush-hush. His only thought going into the actual fight was the need to get Clint back. Losing him to Loki, to the mind control was quite possibly the worst thing Phil had ever lived through, the fear and disgust and sorrow he felt enough to send him charging into the fray with an untested weapon and a complete lack of back-up plans. His last thought as the spear pierced his chest was that he hadn’t achieved his directive, hadn’t freed his Specialist as he’d intended.

It was also the first conscious thought he had on waking three months later.

Luckily Nick Fury knew him well, and gave him a full debrief the moment he could keep his eyes open long enough to listen. Clint was back and he was safe, Natasha too, and all the rest of the Avengers who had finally gotten their shit together in the wake of Coulson’s death. His words, not Phil’s. In all the week’s he’d been comatose and unresponsive they’d pulled together nicely, become a real team and had a few more successful fights, though thankfully none as large or as serious as their first battle for the city. He’d been in no shape to make demands, but Fury must have seen it in his eyes, because the very next thing he did, after all the rest of Phil’s unasked questions had been answered, was to tell him that no, they still didn’t know he was alive, and for now it had to stay that way.

He didn’t like it.

He could think of half a dozen reasons why it was a terrible idea, but Fury had a few good points of his own, and the powerful, pervasive feeling that he was being selfish, that the real reason he wanted them to know was so that he could have Clint back, was enough to keep him quiet on the subject. In the months that followed Fury brought him newspapers and a Stark pad, footage of the team that had grown out of his death, and they all seemed to be doing well enough. He’d suspected as much – who was he but the quiet, unassuming senior agent who corralled them every once in a while – but it still stung. Certainly not the reactions from Stark or Banner or even Rogers, but Clint and Nat…

That was different.

They’d known each other for years, had executed countless missions together, had been more…

Fury noticed the melancholy in him and responded by offering him the footage of his funeral, but Phil had declined. Instead he focused on getting himself back in shape, on increasing his endurance and his muscle mass until he was the fittest he’d been since the Rangers. There was something a little strange about that – it had felt too fast, too easy - but within a year of his death Phil was stepping onto SHIELD’s new pride and joy, the fully functional hellicarrier, with Level 7 clearance and a new team waiting for him.

It hurt for a while.

More than a while.

He kept waiting for Clint’s chatter to come floating across the comms, or turning to make sure that Stark wasn’t getting himself into trouble, and every time it was jarring and sent a chill down his spine. He had trouble warming up to Lance Hunter, the new sniper at his disposal, and knew that he’d been spoiled when he found himself unimpressed with the man’s shots. Even May, who was a badass in every way, fell short in his estimation of her piloting skills. It was ridiculous he knew, his agents were the best of the best, but they weren’t.

Not when he was still wishing for the Avengers, for Strike Team Delta.

But he’d made his choice when he’d made Fury promise him that his new life would never be revealed to the Avengers. Too much time had passed and wounds now ran to deep for that. So he let them go, let his old life go and embraced his new team, worked his new cases and did a damned good job of it.

Or at least he tried to.

It wasn’t easy, but eventually he began to settle, to accept.

Leave it to Nick to tear those scars back open just when they’d begun to heal over.

It had been an ambush, there really was no other word for it. He’d sent out a Threat Level Midnight, the worst of SHIELD’s panic codes, and called Coulson back to HQ with the promise of keeping his presence unannounced. Suffice it to say that he’d felt justified in decking the director when he’d pushed into a small, disused conference room only to find himself face to face with every single one of the Avengers. There’d been a lot of shouting after that, and Captain America himself had actually had to hold him back from going after Fury again until the room got settled. The quiet had been louder than the shouting in that moment, and the only thing he could think about was the archer, the only one out of all of them who hadn’t said a word, who’d just stared at him with the most pained, broken face Phil had ever seen.

He’d said his name, his first name.

Soft, quiet, the sound as hurt as Clint looked but he’d flinched, visibly flinched and taken a step back like Phil had swung at him too. Tears had welled hot and bright in his eyes and for just a second he seemed to fall in on himself, like he was finally, finally crumbling. But Hawkeye was nothing if not resilient, and he snapped back like the crack of a bullwhip, slipping past Natasha and out the door before anyone could stop him. He’d made to go after but she’d held him back, murmured quietly in Russian to give him a little time. Phil could only nod as his heart broke in his chest with all the promises he’d made to Clint inside his own head, and then jolt when Natasha wrapped her arms around him and clung on like a child.

He wasn’t much comfort to her that day. He could barely keep his own sobs locked behind his teeth. As it was, he’d held her tight and buried his face in her hair, his own tears hot against her neck until she’d finally pulled back again and place her palm flat over his heart, the scar beneath his shirt thick and raised against her hand.

“Don’t ever do that again,” she’d whispered, and he’d apologized in a tone that was broken and scared and small.

To his lasting shock as soon as she’d stepped back Tony Stark took her place, pulling him in for an awkward, jerky hug of his own and a hoarse ‘welcome back.’ For Banner and Rogers it was a handshake and significant looks, eyes darting constantly to the door until Phil had finally turned on Fury with hot accusation and he’d defended himself only by saying that it was full time to get the band back together. Hydra had resurfaced and there was simply nothing for it. The world needed the Avengers, and the Avengers needed him. A few nods and hopeful faces were all it had taken to have him signing the papers.

Unfortunately, even as they gained a member, the team was still incomplete.

Hawkeye never came back.

Chapter Text

“This is wrong,” Tony hissed, drumming his fingers against the rim of his coffee mug in agitation. “I can’t believe we’re actually doing this.”

“Stark, we’ve been over this,” Phil snapped, a little too harshly but it was either that or let his voice crack with the sharp, painful ache that Clint’s continued absence wouldn’t let dull. “If we’re going up against Hydra we need someone to fill the gaps.”

“It’s only temporary,” Steve cut in, ever the peacemaker between them when Tony got his feather’s ruffled. “We agreed that we need someone to take Clint’s place until we find him.”

Tony sneered, and next to him Natasha scoffed.

“No one will ever take Clint’s place,” she said icily. “Do you really expect to find someone who can do what he does?”

“No, I don’t,” Steve soothed. “But we need a sniper, and you two haven’t been able to work with any of the SHIELD agents we’ve tested yet.”

“Because they’re all worthless,” Tony muttered, covering the criticism with an obnoxious slurp of coffee when Phil glared.

While he agreed that none of them came close to what Clint could do, their skill sets were hardly the reason they’d been unable to work with the Avengers. Between Natasha’s deadly stare, Tony’s vicious ‘practical jokes,’ and the Hulk’s frequent demands for his missing friend, it was hardly a wonder that none of the agents they’d tried out so far had made the cut.

“I just can’t believe we haven’t found him yet,” Tony grumbled, frowning and obviously upset. “I’ve got Jarvis II running facial recognition and internet searches around the clock and I still can’t…”

“This isn’t on you Stark,” Natasha interrupted. “Clint’s spent his whole life learning how to better fly under the radar, since he was old enough to know when to duck and when to run. If he doesn’t want to be found, he won’t be. He’s smarter than he likes to let on.”

The words were melancholy, sadly spoken, and inspired a deep silence in all of them for a moment. Strangely enough they’d all gotten to know Clint better in his absence, to better understand his intelligence, his cunning, and his ability to remain unseen. Even with Natasha’s intimate knowledge of his old haunts and connections, with Tony going so far as to clone his AI, a new Jarvis whose sole purpose was to search for their errant archer, they still hadn’t seen or heard anything that could be substantiated. Even Captain America’s polite but heartfelt pleas to the media had gone unanswered.

“It’s been almost a year,” Bruce said quietly, and Natasha and Tony’s heads immediately snapped up in his direction, their eyes narrowed. “Maybe it’s time we…”

“We are not gonna stop looking for him,” Tony snarled, and Bruce threw his hands up in surrender.

“That’s not what I was going to say,” he replied, and a thin slice of green flickered around his pupils. “I like Clint, and the other guy…” He paused, shrugged, blinked away the unnatural color in his eyes. “Well, he’d be pretty pissed if we stopped looking. But maybe it’s time we did try to find someone to help, just until we get Clint back. Steve’s right, we do need someone, and we can’t be… selfish bout this.”

As it often did when Banner spoke, a heavy, contemplative silence followed, only broken when Tony heaved a resigned sigh.

“Hell fine,” he growled, reaching for the cut-crystal decanter on the center of the table and pouring a shot of whiskey into the remains of his coffee. Pouring another two fingers for Natasha when she gestured, he gave Phil a firm nod. “All right. Who have you got lined up?”

Unbuttoning his suit jacket, Phil took a breath and picked up the remote from the conference table, started the slides that projected onto the wall of Avengers Tower.

“Due to our remarkable success rate with numerable SHIELD agents,” he began, “And the impressive case of PTSD and paranoia that we returned the last one with, Director Fury has recommended that we start looking outside of the SHIELD pool.”

Behind him Tony snickered, but Steve was all earnest intent and Natasha deadly attention. Bruce was mostly calm but he could see the barest flicker of green still clinging to his gaze, and he knew that this process was almost as painful for them as it was for him. Clearing his throat, he clicked through the SHIELD non-disclosure jargon to the real start of all this mess.

“Option number one – Peter Parker,” he said, bringing up a photo of an unassuming young man in jeans and a hoodie. A little skinny, messy brown hair, clutching a leather messenger bag in one hand. “Intelligence says he’s branded himself as Spiderman – been doing a little vigilante work, nothing too big yet. You might like this one Stark; he’s actually got a brain in his head. He’s done some engineering and fabrication, made himself some weapons, a sort of webbing that we’d love to get our hands on. Not much of a sniper to tell the truth, or a fighter really, but with some training we could use him.”

“We’ve already got a spider,” Tony replied, toasting Natasha with his coffee mug, which was likely all whiskey by now. “Next.”

Phil raised an eyebrow at the rest of them, more interested in silent, blink-and-you-miss-it shake of the Widow’s head than in Cap’s or Bruce’s agreement. No offense to the rest of them, but he’d worked with her the longest, knew her experience and trusted her judgment. If anyone would know how to compensate for the Clint-shaped hole on their team and in their hearts it was the two remaining members of Strike Team Delta.

“All right, on to contestant number two,” he assented, clicking to the next set of photos. “Wade Wilson. Originally known as the Merc with a Mouth, he underwent some pretty extensive experimental medical treatment, not known or sanctioned by SHIELD. Now he’s pretty much immortal, and for the last few years has gone by the name Deadpool.”

“I know this guy,” Tony murmured, sitting up in his chair.

“Me too,” Steve nodded, frowning at the screen, the pictures of the man with in the red and black mask. “Wasn’t he on the news…”

“He was,” Phil affirmed with exasperation. “Honestly, he’s a pain in SHIELD’s ass and has been for a while. He’s good at what he does, a true assassin, but he’s never worked with a team before and I’m not sure he can. His ego and his brain-to-mouth-filter don’t exactly operate on ‘normal.’ He’s not like…”

Not like Clint.

Clint, who they’d learned was truly the light and life of the Avengers in the last few months. It was Clint who made them laugh, who made them smile, who always knew how to break an awkward silence or quietly comfort a team mate.

“Shelve him,” Natasha said softly. “If no one else works out we’ll revisit.”

Phil agreed, and was silently pleased that the Avengers hadn’t warmed to Wade Wilson. He didn’t care for the man and didn’t believe him capable of assimilating onto a team.

“Last but not least,” he muttered, clicking the remote.

The silence that filled the room was a little confused and Phil wasn’t surprised. After the flood of information on the previous two potentials, details on the third and final option were incredibly scarce.

“Ronin?” Tony asked, turning the name over in his mouth. “Now this one I haven’t heard of.”

“I have,” Natasha said, leaning forward and resting her elbows on the table as her eyes took in every minute detail of the two photos they had, the black and gold of the robes and glint of the katana sword. “He’s a merc, death for hire, and he’s good.”

“Was,” Phil corrected, noting the discomfort on Steve and Bruce’s faces. “That was ten, twelve years ago. But you’re right – Ronin was known as a killer for hire. SHIELD doesn’t have much on him; he kept a remarkably low profile despite being the underworld’s go-to assassin. His dealings were… questionable, but as far as we could trace he’s never made a kill that wouldn’t have been sanctioned by SHIELD eventually. There was a time when Fury wanted to bring him in, but somehow he managed to go completely off the grid. He hasn’t been heard from in years, as far as we’d heard.”

“But?” Tony questioned.

“But,” he continued, “If our underworld watchdogs are to be believed, he’s recently become active again. They can’t pinpoint exactly when he reappeared, but Ronin is officially back on the world map and doing what he does best. Interestingly enough,” he added, nodding in Cap’s direction, “He seems to have had a bit of a change of heart in the meantime. He’s still efficient, remarkably ruthless, but he seems to be picking his targets a little more carefully, taking fewer chances. Rumor has it he turned a job down when it wasn’t clear if his target was truly involved in syndicate crime, only to come back a few weeks later when it was proven and drive a throwing knife through the man’s chest.”

“He’s good,” Natasha said calculatingly.

“But can we trust that?” Steve asked, and Phil knew he’d misinterpreted. The Widow had meant he was good at what he did, at killing. Steve was more concerned with the man’s morals.

“For now it seems that’s what we’ve got,” Bruce answered.

Steve frowned, crossed his arms over his chest before his shoulders relaxed in resignation. “I suppose it couldn’t hurt to speak to the man.”

“Motion carried then,” Tony agreed loudly, pulling out his phone and tapping furiously at the screen. “Bachelor number three it is. Now…” Putting the phone down he stared up at Phil expectantly. “How do we get a hold of this guy?”

AVAVA

“Oh, gimme the beat boys, and free my soul, I wanna get lost in your rock n roll and drift away…”

Patting down the sides of his tight, tailored jacket, Clint, Corey, RONIN made sure that all his bits and pieces were in place, humming under his breath as he mentally ticked off each weapon and Kevlar inset.

“Gimme the beat boys, free my soul, I wanna get lost in your rock n roll and drift away…”

It was a Clint Barton habit, a Hawkeye habit, but one he’d been unable to shake. He loved singing, belting out country in the car or matching his morning run to a steady, pounding, metallic bass, but in the heat of the afternoon, preparing to go down to a Southern California port and slip silently across the tops of shipping containers, it was a cheerful yet soulful rhythm that satisfied him.

“Na na na, won’t you take me, won’t you take me, take me home…”

Strapping the belt of his katana’s sheath around his waist, he checked one final time for the guns at his back, the knives in his boots, and the pilfered key on a chain around his neck. It was a fairly minor job really, one a bit below Ronin’s pay grade, but things had been slow ever since SHIELD had put the word out that they were looking for him, and he’d learned from an early age never to turn down easy money. Still, best to be prepared, and if he was going in a little heavy just to steal some tech from one of the cargo containers, well that was just good sense wasn’t it? Ronin didn’t have a team to back him up like Hawkeye had had, so he needed to be prepared to take care of himself.

He probably should’ve been tipped off by the fact that he’d been hired to do a job that a lot of other mercs could do, ones who wouldn’t charge as much. Later it would stand out as a pretty big neon clue. For now he was enjoying being back in the States, in all the warm sunshine of late August that SoCal could provide him with while back home in Canada early snows had already set in. It had been a while too, since he’d gotten to run off a little steam, let his more aggressive tendencies flex their muscles. God damned SHIELD was on his tail for some unearthly reason, and while that was more than enough to piss Clint off he had no intention of facing them, so he’d lain low for a few months, languished away in the stupid, frigid white of the great north, only saved from insanity by Lucky’s cheerful presence and nights spent drinking and watching bad sitcoms with Kate.

That was probably another reason he’d taken this job impetuously, without really thinking it through.

Another dumb Clint Barton move.

Ronin was more calculating then that, more icy, intellectual cunning than hot, emotional impulsivity.

But Ronin had grown impatient just like Corey, and the burning pain, anger, resentment that flared in his chest at being hunted by SHIELD had driven him out into the alleys and dark corners of the world, searching for a distraction.

He knew something wasn’t right as soon as he turned the key in the lock that held the container doors closed. Call it experience or a sixth sense, whatever you like, he knew that split second of suspended silence, that hush of baited breath. It was the only thing that saved him a pretty gruesome death by firing squad if you asked him, because while he couldn’t stop the doors from crashing open he could swing himself around behind them, protected from the barrage of bullets by the thick, heavy metal. All the easy humming and sunshine contentment burned away in that moment, leaving nothing but Ronin behind – cold, brutal, deadly, and if he wasn’t extremely pissed all of a sudden, at himself and the men who’d set him up, he would’ve just pulled the small explosive from his pocket and lit the whole damned container up, but the anger in him demanded more.

Clint had always been good with a bow, and his aim meant that his accuracy with a knife was excellent, but few people knew how well he could wield a sword. That was Ronin’s specialty, and his katana sang as it took hands and arms and ankles, dealt death to every soldier that came pouring from the shipping container. It was bloodier than he would’ve liked, messier, but there was nothing for it – it was do or die time. A bullet clipped him in the side of his ribcage, would’ve been crippling shot if not for the Kevlar beneath his coat, and still it stunned him, sent him staggering back only to have a fist driven into his temple. His hearing already half shit, he went a little deaf, his head ringing and the world spinning beneath him but he managed to keep himself up, to battle through the last of the men swarming from the container and leap inside, hoping…

Yup, they’d been stupid enough to actually keep their precious tech in the same shipping unit they were so obviously expecting a raid on.

Amateurs.

Prying the lid off the flimsy wooden crate with his knife, he dug through the packing peanuts inside and came up with two small hard drives, a cruel smirk curving his lips as he tucked them inside his jacket. Those were likely to come in handy, even if he didn’t really know what to do with them himself. He was sure he knew a guy who knew a guy. Somebody. Dusting off his knees he rose easily to his feet, adrenaline still running hot and electric through his veins even as his side throbbed with a growing bruise.

That was fun.

Making sure the drives were secure, he dropped jauntily out of the container back onto the dock and almost immediately froze.

Shit.

He really had been set up.

Diving for cover, he pressed himself flat against the side of another container, the metal hot against the black fabric of his coat. There was sweat beading on his forehead now, his heart pounding in his chest, and none of it was the same pleasant after-action buzz he’d had going on only seconds before. Now it was the panic of being trapped, and he had to take a few hard, calming breaths before his brain clicked over and started planning.

Three minutes, some shouting in Slavic, and a handful of gunshots later and the panic was back, because even with his eyesight, he wasn’t seeing an easy way out of this one.

He was so…

The thought trailed off as something rocketed by overhead, a metallic flash of red and gold accompanied by the familiar whine of repulsors. A heartbeat later the sound of metal colliding with a star-spangled vibranium shield rang out, just one more sound Clint Barton couldn’t shake.

What the hell?

Taking advantage of the distraction, the sudden cacophony, he took a running start, leapt, and grabbed the lip of a shipping container, hoisted himself up and automatically reached over his shoulder for a bow that wasn’t there.

“Shit,” he hissed, catching sight of Cap and Thor doing damage in the middle of a knot of bad guys while Iron Man circled overhead, looking for a landing. He had no idea what they were doing here and could only hope they’d left the Hulk at home, because he had the sneaking suspicion that if any of them could recognize him as Ronin it would be the Big guy.

Biting down on a painful wave of cowardice and fear, he left his friends and for the first time ran full tilt away from the fight, leaping the gaps between containers until something caught him around the ribs and tackled him all the way to the ground. Luckily he managed to turn them in mid air, cushioning his landing on the body of the man who’d jumped at him, but he was still a little winded and he staggered getting up. His opponent didn’t rise, the bloody bubbles at the corners of his mouth and the thready, wheezing quality of his breath suggesting a punctured lung, but the reprieve didn’t last. Four more appeared around the corner, and not a one of them hesitated as he drew his sword.

Their mistake.

This fight was just as close, just as deadly as he ducked and dodged, tumbled to avoid a knife strike and threw punches with his free hand. One idiot was stupid enough to try and get a shot off in tight quarters, taking out one of his compatriots when Clint spun them to use the man’s body as a shield. Still he took them down, one after the other until he was left panting, his ears ringing as his hearing came back and the bones in his knuckles aching. Not a bad day’s work but damn, those four had been…

Wait.

One, two, three…

Time stopped for a second as his heart paused in his chest, the hair on the back of his neck standing on end, and in one smooth draw he let instinct and every part of him that was Ronin take over, ducking, rolling, and coming back up with his sword swinging, only to bring it to a halt an inch from Natasha Romanov’s neck.

“Widow!” he snarled through gritted teeth, all his surprise and all his fondness for her hidden behind adrenaline and betrayal fueled anger.

“Ronin,” she said, and aw hell, that was her impressed voice.

She respected Ronin.

Shit.

“We’ve been looking for you,” she said, rising slowly to her feet, her hands out to her sides and empty, even as the tip of his sword followed her throat.

“So I’ve heard,” he growled. “Perhaps I didn’t want to be found.” And then, because he knew that the rest of them were listening in on her comms, that Coulson was listening… “SHIELD seems to have that effect on people.”

Natasha paled, went white as a sheet and flinched, so violently that he pulled his katana away from her skin and sheathed it in one hard, angry movement. She opened her mouth, to curse or to question he didn’t know, but he was saved the trouble of finding out by Iron Man’s arrival, touching down just yards off and retracting the faceplate of his helmet. Christ, just the two of them, his two friends on the team and the sight of them made his knees want to go to jelly, made his stomach clench with want. It had been more than a year, so long, and all of his self-isolation hadn’t done a thing to make him stop wishing he could have them back.

“Widow?” Tony questioned, looking between them, assessing carefully, and she shook her head, her mouth tight.

He could’ve just walked away.

Should’ve walked away.

All his instincts, all of Ronin’s instincts were still screaming at him to run, that this hurt too much. That if he stayed there was the potential to be destroyed here.

Instead he held up his hands, showed them his empty palms, then reached slowly and carefully into his jacket. In a heartbeat Nat had her Widow’s Bites loaded and at the ready, the laser in the palm of Tony’s suit aimed at his heart, and he scoffed low in his throat before drawing out the two drives. What the hell, he didn’t know what to do with them, and really was there a better man for the job than Tony Stark?

He knew he knew a guy.

“A little birdie told me you were good with computers,” he rumbled, tossing them in his direction. Tony managed to catch them before they hit the pavement, even as both he and Natasha snapped to attention. Taking a breath, he weighed his options, shrugged and took two steps backwards.

“Hawkeye sends his regards.”

Chapter Text

“Ok, what the hell was that?”

“Tony,” Steve chastised quietly, but everyone could tell that his heart wasn’t in it this time.

They’d had to delay their debriefing two whole days after their little skirmish on the dock. Tony and Natasha had been shaken, more than anyone had ever seen them, especially the Russian super-spy. She’d gone straight for the vodka upon returning to the tower, and the genius had joined her silently with a full bottle of single malt scotch. Phil hadn’t even attempted to curtail them - they’d all heard what Ronin had snarled before he ran, the reminder that Clint was out there somewhere and apparently still pissed.

With SHIELD.

With him.

Certain that his presence wouldn’t be welcome, Phil had run an observant eye over his team, over the two hard drives that had been dumped unceremoniously on the bar and retreated to his own floor, the floor he’d been stunned to learn Tony had designed for him even before the Battle of New York and hadn’t promptly taken apart afterward.

Now, two days after their disastrous confrontation with Ronin, they were finally together again and assembled around the conference table - Bruce, Steve, Natasha, Tony, even Thor, who’d returned from Asgard some time ago and promptly proposed a feast to celebrate the Son of Coul’s return until the news of Clint’s flight caused all mirth to drain away. Phil stood at the head of the table, strangely cold and uncomfortable in his suit, lingering anger with SHIELD’s underground informant still bubbling in his blood. They hadn’t been warned (and apparently Ronin hadn’t either) that there was a trap set for the assassin, and while in the end they’d ended up pulling him from a pretty tight spot, that certainly wasn’t the way he’d hoped the afternoon would play out.

“Don’t give me that crap Steve,” Tony snapped irritably. “I figured the guy wouldn’t be too happy to see us, but hell… they know each other! I mean, how can they possibly know each other?”

“Clint was a mercenary before he came to SHIELD,” Natasha said quietly. “That world is surprisingly smaller than you’d expect.”

“You say this Ronin was once a less than honorable man,” Thor rumbled, his face creased with concern. “How can we be sure that his message was truly from our friend Hawk?”

“We can’t,” Phil acknowledged. “But…”

“But how would he know?” Tony finished, and damn if that wasn’t the point of the problem.

The teasing metaphor had been both a cutting barb and proof that the assassin had at least been in contact with the missing archer. Why else say anything at all, why else even mention the man?

“We take it at face value,” Steve said. “That Clint has had contact with Ronin, at least once. All the more reason to try to bring him onto the team, right?”

“I think he made it pretty clear that he wasn’t interested,” Tony grumbled, and it was almost petulant the way he folded his elbows on the table, slouched forward and dropped his chin onto his forearms.

“We assumed that from the beginning,” Phil reminded them. “This doesn’t change anything - we recruit Ronin.”

“If you fight him for information about Clint he won’t give it to you.”

Phil went silent, still, because it was him Natasha was speaking to, her voice icy Russian silk, smooth and deadly.

“You’ll push both of them away.”

“I know that,” he responded quietly, but he couldn’t meet her steady stare and squeezed his eyes shut tight, listened to the pounding of his own heart, the ache beneath the thick, heavy scar. He might know but he didn’t feel it. He wanted nothing more than to slam the assassin against a well, pin him there and demand answers, demand to be taken to the man he hadn’t known he could possibly miss so much, and Natasha could see it, even if the others couldn’t.

“So we won’t push,” Bruce murmured, his hands wrapped around a steaming mug of tea and his shoulders hunched in tight.

“We bring in Ronin,” Steve agreed. “If he offers information about Clint we’ll take it - otherwise we keep looking.”

“Yeah cause that’s done a hell of a lot of good,” Tony huffed. “Birdbrain’s gone completely AWOL - I’ve got Jarvis II alerting on anything archery and cross-listing it with Clint’s specs and nothing! How could he have gone more than a year without shooting at something?”

“I told you,” Natasha said, “He’s smarter than he looks. He’s gone off the grid before - he knows how to do it. He knows us and he knows we’re looking for him, knows we’ve got all our resources on him including Jarvis. That means he’ll know how to avoid us.”

“If he speaks of us to this Ronin,” Thor said slowly, with great consideration as he often did when applying his understanding of Asgard to earthly problems, “This is a good thing, is it not? Do not you mortals say, within sight, within mind?”

“Not even close bolt boy,” Tony mumbled, uncharacteristically blunt with the Norse god. “But, fair point. He might be hating on us to his friends, but at least he hasn’t completely forgotten us. That’s something right?”

“I still do not understand,” Thor said miserably, frowning and rubbing at his beard. “Hawkeye is a good man - what can have angered him so badly?”

Phil’s breath caught in his chest, his heart juddered.

Hell.

He’d never explained it to them, not the whole thing. With the way they looked at him sometimes he knew that Natasha had tried to tell them, had given them enough of the bare bones that they could at least begin to understand, but he’d never laid out the bare bones of what he and Clint had had. He hadn’t even seen it himself, not for weeks, not until he’d accepted the cold, jagged, Clint-shaped hole that was the archer’s absence. Days, weeks, months of remembering, reanalyzing the years they’d spent circling around each other finally made him believe that there was more to it than he’d ever been willing to admit, and the full gravity of his own death, his resurrection and the betrayal that was keeping it a secret had finally hit him.

It was that that made him sure Clint would never come back to them on his own.

Steve could petition the media, Nat could battle Ronin, Tony could build a hundred more Jarvis clones, but none of it would matter if he couldn’t find a way to fix what he’d broken.

AVAVA

It took him three weeks to get back home, and one hell of a roundabout way to get there too. He didn’t want the Avengers or SHIELD tailing him back, and anyway he’d had some unfinished business with the assholes who’d set him up. Stealing a cellphone from an office block near the dock, he’d made a call to Kate (who was more concerned about him than she was annoyed at having to look after his dog), deleted the history, and put it back where he’d found it with no one the wiser before changing in a shitty little gas station restroom. Even with newly-blacked hair and an affected lilt to his gait he was sure that Tony had Jarvis scanning for his face, so he quickly headed over to the shadier side of town and stole a car to get him over the border into Mexico.

From there it was cake to hook up with a contact who owed Ronin a few favors – one of which happened to be a small, unchartered aircraft. Jet hopping over to Poland took a little longer, where he made a few discrete inquiries and left a gruesome mess behind him. A little too brutal for his tastes, but not for the assassin’s, and anyway he was sending a message. A little carnage today could well mean a lot less tomorrow, when it had been acknowledged that Ronin always paid back his debts. A quick stop for a box of authentic kolache and it was back to Canada, back to Corey.

It usually took him a while to shake off the gruffer, more cynical personality that was the black-cloaked mercenary - a few days and a few hot showers at the very least. This time it was easier. Easier because he’d already been primed back to Clint, back to Hawkeye, falling so naturally into old habits; fighting back to back with the Black Widow without even realizing it, listening for Coulson’s voice in his ear even though he didn’t want to hear it. A minute as Clint Barton made the transition back to Corey Bouchard that much smoother, and Kate did the rest.

He’d gone straight to her after scrubbing the last of the fading dye out of his hair, tucking away his sword and his mask, locking the darker, crueler parts of himself away in the trunk with all the rest of Ronin’s accoutrements. Lucky met him at the door, all exuberant barks and wild joy, covering him with slobbery kisses and an abundant dusting of dog hair. Kate’s greeting was more subdued but the look in her eye told him she was just as glad that he was home safe. He’d told her he was on a business trip, he always told her that, but he’d never thought she believed it. Still, she never called him on it, just took his dog and told him to be careful and to bring her something good from wherever he went, and that was nice, having someone.

Even if it was Corey she was worried about, not Clint.

There just didn’t seem to be much guile to Kate and he liked that, so when she dragged him inside and turned on FRIENDS, ordered enough pizza to satisfy all three of them – Pizza Dog included – and brought out the beer, he let himself be tempted.

Because he was allowed to have this, right? A normal life with friends and a dog and bad tv?

Maybe Clint hadn’t been in the end, but Corey seemed like the type.

So he’d stayed, stuffed himself with sausage and pepper pizza, laughed at the bad jokes on the television and split the box of Polish cookies with the college girl he shouldn’t get along with so well, except for the fact that he was basically a huge kid himself. They both got a little drunk and sprinkled powdered sugar everywhere, collapsing on either end of the couch in the beginning stages of a food coma while Lucky licked crumbs from empty boxes.

“You’re such a dork,” she accused, watching him balance a beer bottle on his forehead. It was a throwback to his circus days, something he hadn’t even realized he’d been doing, but he laughed anyway.

“Not nice Katie-Kat,” he teased. “Didn’t your parents teach you any manners?”

Kate snorted.

“My father didn’t teach me anything,” she said flatly, and then she was thumping him in the belly with a pillow, making the bottle wobble. “And anyway, I’m not a kid. I’m not that much younger than you!”

“Are so,” he countered, giggling because he’d hardly proved his own maturity with that comeback.

“Please,” she scoffed, waving a hand in the air. “Now you sound like one of those old gossips up at Maggie’s Diner who tsk at me whenever I come in because they think we’re sleeping together.”

“What?” he yelped, and this time the bottle when all the way to the floor, landing with a clink and rolling away across the hardwood.

“You didn’t know?” she asked curiously. “I mean, it’s a pretty rampant rumor – this town lives on gossip and you’re literally the hottest news we’ve had in like, forever.”

Clint buried his face in the throw pillow, groaning loudly.

“Do I even wanna know?” he asked when he re-emerged.

“Probably not,” she replied, but the grin on her face said that she was going to tell him anyway. “You seem like a very nice young man,” she began, “If a little mysterious and not nearly as social as the ladies would like. Still, you’re far too old for me and I should be careful that I’m not being taken advantage of.”

Clint’s cheeks burned.

“I wouldn’t… I mean, why would they even think…”

Kate shrugged.

“It probably doesn’t help that whenever they get on me about it I just start talking about what a great ass you’ve got.”

“Aww, Katie, no,” he mumbled, sticking his lower lip out in a pout. Then, after a minute’s contemplation… “I do have a fantastic ass.”

“Right,” she sniggered. “So. Tell me why you’re not back in the states busting it with the rest of the Avengers Hawkeye.”

Clint froze.

Then, heart pounding in his chest and throat tight, he carefully lifted a corner of the pillow and peered out at girl who was apparently far more observant than he’d thought she was. Katie was looking at him with one eyebrow arched, a wry sort of smirk on her face, and when she saw the panic on his she snorted, cracked up, and toppled tipsily off the side of the couch.

“Oh, come on,” she teased from the floor, reaching over to punch him in the calf. “Did you really think I wouldn’t figure it out? What was the very first thing you said to me Corey?”

Compound or recurve?

Yeah…

Whoops.

In his defense, he’d met her only a couple of weeks into his new life and hadn’t quite made the transition from Clint to Corey yet. When she’d shaken his hand and introduced herself he’d been so surprised by the bow callouses on her fingers and her inner forearm that he’d blurted the question out before he could think better of it.

“Shut up,” he mumbled, but Katie just laughed and laid her head down on top of his socked feet, stared up at the ceiling while Lucky snuffled his way under her arm.

Her silence, the ease with which she was able to just flop out on the floor beside him made him relax a little - he didn’t know what he’d expected but it wasn’t this. He wondered if maybe he trusted Kate and then decided that it didn’t matter. She knew and there wasn’t really anything he could do about it. And it would be all right, wouldn’t it? She hadn’t sold him out to the media or asked for an autograph or anything, hadn’t even mentioned it till now.

“So I can call you Clint now right? Not Corey?”

“Sure Katie-Cat,” he replied quietly, and it came out like a massive sigh, his body sagging back against the couch with relief. He hadn’t expected that, wasn’t sure what it was about, but decided to go with it.

“And we can shoot together? It’d be nice to have a range partner again - it hasn’t been the same since I moved up here…”

“Definitely,” he agreed, dropping his hand over the side of the couch to ruffle her hair and getting slapped at for his efforts. “I’ve actually wanted to see you shoot since I met you. Not a lot of people are committed enough to get those kinds of callouses.”

“You know it,” she crowed with pride, grinning up at him drunkenly. “I am gonna kick that fabulous ass of yours, World’s Greatest Marksman or not!”

“Yeah, we’ll see girly girl,” he laughed, thumping her in the face with the pillow.

If he was being honest it put a spark in his belly that he didn’t want to admit to - the thought of shooting again, even if it was just for fun. To get out the bow he’d stashed in a case beneath the floorboards, unable to sleep or function without one nearby, to feel the string cut against his fingers and to lose himself to the nock, draw, release that he hadn’t had in so long. And Kate, knowing she knew and that it kind of didn’t matter, that meant more to him than he thought it possibly could. Until that moment he hadn’t realized just how isolated he’d become, without Nat, without the Avengers, without…

It wouldn’t fix things, but maybe a friend and a stupid dog and doing what he loved, maybe it could be enough, could start filling the hole that carved an invisible scar across his chest.

Chapter Text

So they had a plan.

It wasn’t a very good one, maybe even the worst that he’d ever had the displeasure of filling out the paperwork for, but there it was. Iron Man had come up with it, Cap had signed off on it, and he sat behind a desk and filed the paperwork. Too bad it didn’t do a thing for the knots in his stomach, the twisting emotions that tangled his thoughts and threatened to destroy his calm.

He was being actively avoided by the team now, even Thor, who’d given him a pained, pitying sort of look before slipping away just like the rest of them. They’d taken his advice, his suggestions and complaints in the briefing where they hammered out the last of the multi-step, scatter-shot plan to lure Ronin, but then it had all been silence and retreat, and in the hours following the meeting he found that he didn’t mind so much. He needed the space, the silence, because if he’d had to stay in that room with them for another minute he thought he would’ve screamed.

It wasn’t Stark’s fault. He was doing the best he could with what they had. He couldn’t help if they had jack shit. It was hard on everyone that Clint hadn’t turned up by now, hadn’t come back or at least been sighted by Jarvis II or one of their contacts. Even Natasha, who could hold a full conversation about Clint being smarter than he looked, was starting to sound like a broken record, an automaton repeating the same phrases over and over again to reassure herself as much as anyone else. Ronin’s cryptic parting words were the best lead they had on Clint, and without the assassin there to explain himself, the clue wasn’t worth a damned thing.

So for now they would focus on the ninja-spy, as Tony had so aptly named the man, and the best they could do, the very best that SHIELD and the Avengers and Tony Stark himself could pull together were a half-dozen half-assed little attempts that would hopefully add up to something bigger.

It was throwing a handful of darts at the board with the hopes that one or two would stick.

Sighing, he slumped forward and banged his forehead against his desk once, twice, three times before going boneless, letting the tension drain out of his shoulders and melt him into a puddle of angst and unresolved…

“Coulson.”

Huffing a breath against the top of the desk, he pushed himself upright to face Natasha’s stern, scolding glare, tempered only by the fact that she’d come bearing a steaming mug of coffee. Scrubbing his hands over his face, he loosened his tie with one hand and worked the button open at his collar, reaching for the cup with the other. She held it back for just a second as she ran her eyes over him, a once-over that must have made her think better of depriving him of the caffeine because she promptly handed it over before perching daintily on the edge of a spare chair while he drank deep.

“Thank you,” he said, his voice rough and raw when he finally came back up for air.

She didn’t respond.

Just sat there silently and looked at him in that way she did, in that way that made him feel like she could see right through to his heart, his bruised, battered, stitched up heart. Unable to meet that gaze, unsure of how to challenge it, he looked away, stared into the shallow depths of what little dark coffee he’d left in the bottom of his mug.

“Don’t do this to yourself.”

It was quiet, so much so that he almost wasn’t sure she’d really said it, but the wrenching ache in her tone was enough to convince him.

“Please,” she murmured, meeting his eyes for just a second before looking down and away and shoving off his desk. “I know you think this was…”

“It was my fault,” he snapped, more harshly than he’d meant to, but it was the truth and they both knew it. Nat was the one who went straight for the throat, bit at you with blunt honesty where Phil always tried to be diplomatic and Clint had just stumbled his way through a lie with dumb commitment, despite how shitty he was at it. But Nat, Nat told it like it was, and he couldn’t handle anything else from her now.

“It was my fault,” he said again, tapping his fingers against the handle of the mug in an uncharacteristic display of anxiety. “He left because of me, because I came back.”

“No,” she insisted, and then suddenly she was turning his chair around and taking his face between her hands, too close too fast and far too intent. “If Clint ran off because of you, it was because you were dead, not because you came back. It’s… not my place to say,” she trailed off, letting him go again and stepping back, “But he missed you. He… he needed you back, even if he still can’t admit it. You make him better, Phil, and he knows it.”

“What does that matter now?” he growled between gritted teeth, shoving to his feet and beginning to pace behind the desk. “I fucked up Natasha, I’m man enough to admit to that…”

“You died Coulson,” Natasha argued. “You died trying to get him back, and he knows it. You know what he’s like - he’s blaming himself and probably more pissed about his own behavior than yours. And at least be a little fair sir. You were in a coma. I don’t know that much about having your heart nearly cut in half, but that seems like a fairly legitimate excuse to me.”

“Maybe so,” he conceded, “But I should’ve at least checked in. I should’ve at least made sure that he was…”

“You’re no more at fault for that than we were.”

Phil chuckled bitterly, collapsed into his chair again.

“I never thought about it, you know,” he admitted. “Tried not to think about it. I never realized…”

“Of course not,” Nat scoffed, rolling her eyes and crossing her arms over her chest. “Neither of you two idiots ever figured it out.”

“But you saw it.”

“Of course. Though in your defense, the two of you only ever looked at each other when the other was looking away.”

“I’ll take your word for it.”

Leaning back in his seat, he gave her a once-over of his own, contemplated the way she stood, the way she looked back at him in return. She was quite possibly the one person who knew Clint best in this world, even if she’d been just as unsuccessful as the rest of them in bringing the archer home. But her loyalty had always been to Clint - perhaps…

No, he wouldn’t ask.

If she did know she wouldn’t tell him, and would quite possibly warn Clint that he’d asked, and if she didn’t…

Well.

He’d mostly just look like an ass wouldn’t he, making it obvious that he didn’t trust her word or her judgment.

“What would you say to him, if you could?”

Phil froze, felt his heart skip a beat, because that was the question wasn’t it? What would he say, what would he give up, just how far would he go to have something he hadn’t even realized he wanted until it was gone?

“I don’t know,” he admitted quietly, ashamedly as he picked up an ink pen and turned it between his fingers. “I know what I want to say to him. What I’ve planned to say to him. But honestly…”

Tossing the pen aside, he lifted his eyes and met Natasha’s gaze straight on.

“Honestly, I think I’d be willing to say almost anything he wanted to hear.”

Tilting her head to the side, Natasha smiled, sweet and sad and a little dangerously.

“Maybe that’s the problem.”

AVAVA

The little shooting range that Katie had a membership at wasn’t anything particularly special – certainly nothing like the range Stark had custom-built him – but just stepping through the doors felt a little bit like coming home. The high, echoey ceilings, the smell of sawdust-stuffed targets, the quiet ‘thup’ of arrows finding their mark – it was all familiar and new in the best ways, and Clint found himself bouncing on the balls of his feet with anticipation.

“Chill out, you massive dork!” Kate laughed, giving him a playful shove. “I know people here.”

“Gonna have to cut me some slack Katie-Cat,” he grinned, slinging his bow case up over his shoulder as they walked down the length of the building, slipping behind two or three other shooters until they reached two empty lanes on the far end of the row. “It’s been a few months.”

More than that.

Too many.

“Nope,” she declared, shaking her head. “No slack! As a junior competitive archery champion who at one point may or may not have totally had a trade-crush on the Amazing Hawkeye, I now reserve the right to demand demonstrations and not be judged for fan-girling.”

“Oh god, please don’t,” Clint huffed, rolling his eyes.

It wasn’t that he was above a few compliments or a little fawning – he was a flirt and a showman after all – but fans were a little more… aggressive now than they’d been back in his circus days. Where The World’s Greatest Marksman had been a horny teenager and happy to take advantage of whatever was offered him behind the big top after a show, Hawkeye was smarter and a little more world-weary. Besides, he kind of had a reputation to maintain now as a superhero, and he’d had his fill of fending off Avengers groupies.

Besides, he liked Katie, and with the exception of Natasha, getting involved with people he liked tended to end in utter disaster.

Recent events as case in point…

“Fine, fine,” Kate huffed, waving a hand in his direction while she fitted clear, protective goggles over her eyes. “That mess is a little too undignified for me anyway. But seriously Clint, you’re kind of like, an archery god. You’re what everybody on my old team wanted to be, you know? A role model or whatever.”

Clint snorted.

“I’m no role model,” he protested mildly. “Trust me. I’m a breakable human running around with superheroes and geniuses with a stick and a string from the Paleolithic era.”

Kate paused, cocking her head contemplatively as she bent over her own case.

“Well, when you put it that way…” she said slowly, and Clint barked a laugh.

“Anyway,” he chuckled, “I thought we came down so I could see you shoot.”

“Please,” she scoffed, lifting out a short-limbed Matthews compound. “Don’t give me that crap. You’ve been tweaking since we got in the car – don’t tell me you’re not dying to let a few go.”

“I can wait,” he shrugged, even though he really, really didn’t want to. “Come on, I wanna see watcha got!”

“You know on second thought, it might be a really bad idea to shoot in front on my archery idol,” she frowned, looking off down the lane as she tugged an arm guard over her elbow and slipped a set of finger-tip guards onto her other hand. “I’m not as good as you.”

“Most people aren’t,” he said, not conceitedly but casually and honestly. “That doesn’t mean you aren’t awesome.”

“Whatever,” she breezed, hooking a quiver of black arrows onto her belt and taking her place facing the lane. “Just don’t set the bar too high, ok?”

This time Clint stayed silent, just stood with his arms crossed and watched closely as she took a deep, calming breath, nocked and arrow and drew. Her form was good, easy and square to the target, the tension even across her shoulders, and she’d found the right place against her cheek to anchor her hand as she drew back on the string. She didn’t hold it too long and she let the bow rock in her palm after the release, didn’t try to control the recoil. At seventy-five yards, an impressive distance for an indoor range, she hit the bulls-eye at what appeared to be dead center. Of course Clint’s eyes could see the slightest drag to the left, knew that she’d let her elbow drop the barest millimeter when she’d fired, but to anyone but Hawkeye it was a perfect shot.

“Damn girl!” he cheered, clapping loudly.

“Not too shabby huh?” she teased, grinning at him over her shoulder as her bold-faced confidence came flooding back. “Told you I could kick your butt.”

“Do it again and I’ll believe you.”

Kate just laughed and drew another arrow. Over the next ten minutes she emptied her quiver, until the target at the end of the range was bristling like a porcupine. She wasn’t perfect but she was good, damned good, and with a little bit of strength training, a little bit of guidance she could be incredible. Get her better gear, a better range to practice more complicated shots…

Clint swallowed.

He wasn’t sure where that train of thought had been going but he wasn’t sure he liked the look of the black-mouthed tunnel it had been headed toward.

“Cliinnnnnttttt!” Kate whined, jarring him out of a slowly gathering panic. “Come on! I showed you mine…”

“All right, all right,” he chuckled, trading places with her and drawing out the bow he’d gotten from under the floorboards that morning. “Back up, ok?”

Kate rolled her eyes but stepped to the side of the lane, out of his way and slightly behind him so that he lost sight of her.

He was surprised that he didn’t immediately settle into his stance but had to wriggle around some to find his balance and his footing. Sure it had been a while, and he was wearing those terrible protective glasses as per range rules, but it was supposed to be just like riding a bike right?

Nocking an arrow, he felt his muscles strain to pull back the string, a strangely pleasant burn even though it made his heart kick up. He’d cut way back on his upper body work, opting for cardio instead to keep Ronin lean and quick and flexible. After a year there was a noticeable difference in the definition of his arms and shoulders, his silhouette. As necessary as it was to adjust form Hawkeye to Ronin (and bonus, maybe Jarvis wouldn’t recognize his body scan!), it still felt a little bit like a failure that he might have to drop the poundage on his bow to accommodate the change.

Not today though.

Not in front of Kate, who idolized him for his archery skills like a lot of others had, but who understood them at the same time.

Taking a steadying breath of his own, Clint breathed out and drew.

The wire tenses.

Back muscles tighten and lock.

Slow your breathing.

Exhale.

Relax your hand

Oh yeah, that was the stuff.

Bullseye!

“Not too shabby huh?” he mimicked with a smile, breathing through a hot wave of perfect-relieved-contented rightness that swept through him so hard it threatened to make him stumble just a little.

“Do it again and I’ll believe you!” Katie laughed, but her eyes were wide and shiny with a hero-worship Clint could actually handle. At least she idolized him for what he could actually do, the craft in his skill. It was different than all the others because Katie knew, understood the rhythm of the nock-draw-release and the way you could lose yourself in it when you narrowed your world down to just you and a target and the arrows that would connect you.

Grinning from ear to ear, Clint conceded and did as he was told, willing to sacrifice a few arrows to the cause as he split one after the other neatly down the middle, five shots to put Robin Hood himself to shame. There was a giddiness and childlike joy in shooting after going so long without that nearly overwhelmed him, and Clint had never claimed humility.

He was Hawkeye after all, no matter how far he ran.

Chapter Text

“Bad idea,” Clint muttered under his breath, tapping idly at the keys of his laptop. “Really bad idea.”

It had been more than a month since he’d first gone to the range with Katie, and despite having fallen into an easy pattern of practice three or four days a week, he was getting twitchy. It was almost like being a druggie, because shooting only made the days he went without that much worse. He felt distracted and irritable and couldn’t focus on his job, trapped at his desk with a blank screen staring at him accusingly, waiting for a column about a moose hunt he’d never gone on.

Man, moose, what was the difference?

At least he’d been to Alaska.

And anyway, he was a showman wasn’t he - that was what he did - hid behind costumes and stage names, made up stories...

After deleting line after line, one by one, Clint was ready to start using the computer as a target, so he minimized all the windows he had open researching moose habits and opened a new, locked profile, the one he used for Ronin. Technology was an incredible thing if you knew how to use it, and time had only made it better. The internet made finding jobs infinitely easier than when he’d first started out as a young punk mercenary, and over the years Clint had become a cyber-ghost, one who knew every dark basement and filthy back-alley out there. A Craigslist existed for just about anything blood-money could pay for, and anyway, Ronin was not an uncommon search term.

Jobs came to him now, even with the assassin’s newly emerged sense of morals.

Which was of course why he was sitting here now, staring at a copy of a request for services clearly written by the Avengers.

A copy because he wasn’t stupid enough to linger on the original posting page, waiting around for Stark to track his IP address.

Obviously from the Avengers because he could trace a computer too, thank you very much.

Not to mention he could recognize Phil Coulson’s brand of paperwork anywhere - the pacing, the cadence, the word choice… jesus, he’d worked with the man for years, was halfway (all the way!) in love with him. Of course he’d recognize Phil’s voice behind the message!

But maybe that was the point.

If there was one thing Clint could count on in all this world, it was that Natasha would have his back. True she didn’t know that he was Ronin, but she would expect him to be keeping an eye on things and an ear to the ground. Hawkeye was just as likely as the rogue assassin to catch a coded message, and she had been leaving them for him to find since the day he’d run off. He’d never responded - now a message from Phil was upping the ante. She would know that he was smart enough to see through the fake username and to know that the Avengers were really the ones behind the post, and all she would have had to do to convince Coulson to write it would be to threaten to write it herself.

This was a warning to Hawkeye, as well as a message to Ronin.

Come home… before they replace you.

Well fuck that!

If they wanted to replace him they could just go right ahead!

Snarling in frustration, loud enough that Lucky cowered and crept away toward the space behind the sofa where he liked to hide, Clint shoved back from his desk and scrubbed his hands through his hair, a sudden, irrational (completely rational!) fear swamping his veins. It was adrenaline shots, jumping off a building without a net, and it had him stomping back and forth across the hardwood as he paced, his heart pounding against his ribs.

Then, as soon as the anger had come, it left again, leaving him weak at the knees and nauseas enough that he toppled onto the couch and dropped his head between his knees.

He chose this, he had to remember that.

And what right did he have to be pissed anyway, at Stark or Cap, Banner or Natasha? Hell, what right did he have to be pissed at anyone but himself? This was intentional exile, self-imposed isolation, because he couldn’t deal with the fact that Coulson - Phil - was still alive.

It didn’t even make sense - running away.

Sure, in the moment he’d been pissed, pissed that Coulson could do that to him, betray him like that by dying and staying dead for months. In the moment it had been the reason he’d run, the only reason, the anger and the burning betrayal he’d never thought would come from the man he trusted more than anyone else in the world except for Tash. He was still pissed, pissed enough that he had hadn’t gone back, and he knew that that wasn’t going to change any time soon. The hurt that still clenched in his belly and in his chest every time he said Coulson’s name was enough to know that things couldn’t be the same, that he couldn’t…

So why was he even considering it?

Going back as Ronin?

It was probably the guilt.

He still felt it, intensely, every damned day.

Guilt for being so easily taken by Loki, for being unable to break the demi-god’s hold and for causing so much damage. Guilt, for being the reason Coulson had gone charging off half-cocked with an untried weapon, being the reason he’d been killed. Guilt, that he hadn’t been able to suck it up and take it like a man when the Agent had come back, that he’d run off to hide and lick his wounds instead of facing his punishment and sticking around to watch his teammates’ backs.

And that was it right there, the heart of it, the only reason he’d even clicked on that post.

If they could get along without him, if they were safe, they wouldn’t be trying to recruit new team members.

They wouldn’t be looking for Ronin.

Patting a concerned Lucky on the head, Clint went back to the computer, sat down gingerly and logged back on to the locked screen. He hadn’t been sure why the Avengers had shown up that day at the docks, but he’d assumed they’d been working with SHIELD, maybe trying to retrieve the hard drives or maybe even doing Fury a favor by taking Ronin into custody. He hadn’t thought that they were there just as themselves, just as the team. Kind of a shitty way to go about a job interview, ambushing him like that - still, he’d come away one round in his favor.

Now the blog posts made it clear that they wanted a rematch, one more stealth attack on Ronin to try to convince him to swap sides.

Kind of pathetic really, how transparent the message was. There were no Russian mafia based in Nevada, and he didn’t doubt that if he showed, Natasha would be there to greet him. Her and the rest of the Avengers, and maybe even a few SHIELD agents thrown in there just for kicks.

So.

He had choices to make.

Ignore it or go the meeting.

Join up or tell them to fuck off.

He was shit at making decisions.

Like, seriously, he probably shouldn’t even be allowed to keep a dog.

A dog who had gone trotting off toward the front door, whining a high-pitched whine that he reserved for only one person.

Ingrate.

“Clint!” Kate shouted, having let herself in with the key he’d made the mistake of giving her. “I brought Thai! You better be wearing clothes this time!”

Yup.

Big mistake.

“Relax girly girl,” he grumbled, logging out and getting to his feet, trailing into the kitchen to find her lining take-out containers up along the countertops. “Fully dressed, see?”

“Good, cause my young eyes can only take so much ok?” she huffed, dragging a drawer open and fishing through the miss-matched silverware. “I mean seriously, with the arms and the abs…”

“Try knocking next time,” he suggested, grabbing a six pack of beer from the fridge. “Whatd’ja bring?”

“Pad thai, tom yum soup… oh and that red curry you like.”

“Great.”

“Hey,” Kate frowned, pausing and turning away from the waxy white cartons to look at him with suspicious eyes. “Are you ok?”

Clint stilled, turned his eyes to the floor.

“I don’t… I don’t know.”

“All right,” she said quietly, then again more firmly, “All right. Couch. Here carry these.”

Stacking his arms up with boxes, she shooed him out of his own kitchen and back into the living room, got him situated on the couch with a beer in his hand and a bowl of curry and rice in his lap. She was quick and casual about it, no hesitancy, all Kate, and that was reassuring in a way that it probably shouldn’t be. In the time he’d known her she was always sure, always confident, except for that first time down at the range when she’d let her nerves show. She reminded him the tiniest bit of Coulson that way, and of Natasha with her flair and her attitude, the smile she flashed when she was being underestimated.

“So,” she hedged once he’d gotten a mouthful of fiery curry and couldn’t stop her. “You look like you’re maybe kinda freaking out.”

“Yeah,” he choked gruffly, throat burning. “I think maybe I kinda am.”

“Wanna talk about it?”

But they’d already talked about it hadn’t they, just a week after they’d started shooting together.

I don’t get it. Like, I thought maybe you were hurt or something and just… recuperating up here. But you’re fine! So… what?

He’d been vague at first, hinted at shit, but Katie, she was smart. She let it go, lulled him into complacency, then got him drunk on some weird, fruity, girly drink that tasted like pineapple upside down cake but packed a nasty punch, and Clint had always been a talkative drunk. He’d blabbered the whole ridiculous story about the agent who’d fallen in love with his boss, gotten the man killed, and then panicked and run when he’d come back to life. He’d even told her about Ronin when she’d asked where he disappeared to for days at a time, leaving Lucky on her doorstep with little more than a hi-thanks-bye.

And Katie had listened, a little pale and wild-eyed, taken aback by the flood of information he’d tried to drown her in until she’d gotten herself together, declared that his life had sucked, and dragged his head into her lap for a nap in front of AdultSwim.

Point was she knew, and it hadn’t changed anything, so it was probably ok to confide in her again, right?

“The Avengers want Ronin,” he mumbled, staring down into his bowl.

“Really?”

“Yeah really.”

Beside him Kate let out a long, low whistle, making him raise his head with a frown.

“What?” he demanded defensively, and Kate huffed an unimpressed sort of laugh.

“Just… damn Clint. I mean you know me, I’m a huge Hawkeye fan so I get that you were good enough to be recruited once, but twice? That’s grade-A badass right there.”

“Captain America was recruited twice,” Clint shrugged, brushing off the praise.

It was kind of weird, twice in a lifetime...

“Not really,” Katie argued, reaching for another beer. “I mean, he just sort of picked up where he left off didn’t he? A shady government agency is actually trying to recruit you a totally separate second time.”

“I guess.”

“So you gonna go?”

Sighing, Clint put his bowl back on the coffee table and slumped back on the couch, sighing heavily and scrubbing his hands over his face.

“I don’t know Katie-cat,” he huffed, nudging Lucky away from the leftovers with his foot. “Seems like a bad idea. I mean, I know they’re planning to ambush me, but if Ronin was the one getting the message and he was a little stupider than I am, getting set up like that wouldn’t end well.”

“So what would Ronin do?”

“It doesn’t matter,” he groaned. “It doesn’t matter because I’m Ronin and I’m not smart enough to leave it alone.”

“So what are you gonna do?”

“See what they want I guess,” he answered reluctantly, pushing himself to his feet and heading for the computer. “Ronin’s not exactly the type to turn down a job without even knowing what it is.”

“Right.”

For a moment Kate was quiet, long enough for Clint to bring up the original posting again and verify the date and location of his little tete-a-tete with the ‘Russian mafia.’ He wouldn’t write a response - that wasn’t how this worked - but it was easy enough to decipher the coded meeting place and he knew that the Avengers would be waiting for him there, whether he RSVP’d or not.

“Maybe this is a good thing,” she said quietly behind him, her tone so careful that he couldn’t bear to turn around and look at her. “Give you a chance to test the waters, you know? Find out where people stand.”

“Don’t get your hopes up for a big romantic reunion girly-girl,” he said gruffly, his voice hoarse. “It’s not gonna happen.”

“Well duh. This isn’t a movie. But… maybe something to think about huh?”

“Maybe.”

AVAVA

“We got a hit!” Tony shouted, far too loudly considering all members of the Avengers team were currently grouped around him on the couches, an old episode of Star Trek on the flat screen.

There was an immediate explosion of movement in response to his words, people shooting upright from their slumped and slouched positions like the furniture had been electrified.

A hit?”

On Clint?”

On Ronin?”

Where from?”

“Ow, easy!” Tony yelped as Natasha wrenched the Stark Pad from his hands, Phil glued to her side and peering over her shoulder. The charts and numbers and schematics didn’t mean much of anything to him, so he turned his attention back to Stark, who was massaging his wrist and glaring at the Widow like he’d downloaded Iron Man’s lasers into his own eyes.

“Explain,” he demanded, and Tony blinked out of it, rushing to clarify.

“A hit on our blog post,” he elaborated, “You know that shady murder-for-hire site?”

“I thought Natasha said we wouldn’t get a response to that,” Cap frowned, clearly bewildered. He had been shocked that those kind of sites existed in the first place, let alone that the Avengers would be contributing to one by posing as real-life bad guys seeking a real-life hit.

“We didn’t,” Tony continued, “But I set it up so that if the post got more than one view by the same address we’d be notified.”

“Can you track the computer?” Phil asked, but Tony shook his head.

“Tried that. If it is Ronin he’s smart - he was on and off again too fast for Jarvis to get a bead on him. Well, at least to get the original bead on him. What I was able to trace bounced through at least thirteen different countries before it cut out. He must’ve re-routed the addresses…”

“If it’s him,” the Captain argued sensibly.

“It’s him,” Natasha said.

The rest of the team stilled and fell silent, turned to look at the assassin who stood staring down at the tablet in her hands. Her face was serious, her tone grim, and to Phil she’d sounded as certain as she ever did.

“There’s a courtesy to these sorts of things,” she murmured, her fingers tracing the screen. “Others might read it, just to take the temperature of things, to stay ahead of the latest turn of the tide, but we made it clear that the message was meant for Ronin.”

“No one would risk pissing off the ninja by scooping his job,” Tony said slowly, nodding along with his own words as understanding dawned.

“Exactly,” Natasha confirmed, handing the Stark Pad back to him. “At least not until he’s made it clear that he’s turning it down.”

“So we know that he’s seen it,” Bruce mumbled, folding his arms over his chest and hugging himself tight. “That he’s read it. Now what?”

“Now we get ready,” Phil intoned heavily. “He may show, he may not, but we have to operate under the assumption that he will. He’s likely to be… upset when the Avengers are there to greet him instead of the Russian mafia so we need to be prepared for that, but all our sources say that Ronin works alone. We have one week to come up with a pitch that’s good enough to at least make him consider joining up, so let’s get to work.”

Suddenly revitalized the Avengers got to their feet, made to head toward the war room where they planned their missions one floor down.

“And remember,” Phil added, making them pause and look back as his voice broke. “We leave Clint out of this.”

Chapter Text

“Still a bad idea,” Clint muttered under his breath, checking the perimeter of the warehouse one more time through his rifle scope. No rifle attached of course - why draw attention to himself? He was already walking around dressed up in full ninja-garb.

Hell if the black jacket and hood might not have been a serious mistake in costuming too - not exactly designed for lying on the top of a tar roof in Nevada in the middle of summer. He was damn well sweltering up here.

It had been three days since he’d driven back into the states, a few days ahead of schedule to give himself the time to scout out the location of his meeting with the “Russian mafia.” Nice place really, not so busy that they might be disturbed, not so secluded as to be too obvious, sunny, a lovely, dry heat…

Shifting position, Clint shook his head, scoffed lightly to himself.

Yeah right - like any self-respecting mafia member would be caught dead holding a meeting in an abandoned warehouse in the middle of a damned desert. With those shifty bastards it was all fancy hotels and the backrooms of five star restaurants, cigars and expensive liquor, anything they could do to show off their influence or their cash.

No, this was obviously something else, something that smacked of a set-up, a trap, evident even to those who didn’t see as well as Hawkeye.

Just as well - made it highly unlikely that there would be any uninvited guests to this little tete-a-tete. The evil of the world weren’t exactly the brightest bunch, but none of them were stupid enough to willingly walk into an ambush.

All in all it was probably a good thing that he was Ronin too - any other assassin, any of the other mercenaries he knew wouldn’t be likely to take the lie as calmly as he was taking it.

Not that he wasn’t still pissed, on both fronts. Ronin wasn’t exactly excited about being head-hunted by SHEILD, and Hawkeye, Clint, wasn’t at all happy about the fact that he was being replaced, as childish as that was. It was his own damned fault, sure, but he wasn’t ready to go back, didn’t know if he ever would be. He missed Nat like hell and he even missed the rest of them, the bare bones of the family he’d begun to build, all cobbled together with grief, but the way it hurt, the fierce, cutting ache in his chest…

It made him wonder why he was here.

Even though, if he was being honest, he knew that too.

He was here because he needed to know how bad it was, how serious the trouble they were facing was about to get. He needed to know because no matter how badly it would hurt him, he couldn’t leave his teammates without someone to watch their backs. He’d let his heart be cut out of his chest before he sat back and watched one of them die - and hell if that wasn’t exactly what it felt like, every time he thought about coming back, every time he thought about facing Coulson and having had to give up the hope, the illusion of what he might be allowed to have one day…

Like his insides were being carved out.

Was the only reason he knew he still loved the man - wouldn’t hurt like that if he didn’t.

Clint closed his eyes against a sudden sting - the wind across the roof of course, just the wind - and swallowed down the knot that had built in his throat.

Fuck if he didn’t miss them, all of them.

Nat had told him once that he was a masochist at heart, because why else would he love the people he did? In the face of insurmountable supporting evidence he had always denied it, but now Clint was beginning to suspect that she was right. His was one that easily bruised, and he’d never really learned to protect it.

All the more reason to play Ronin then, to lock himself into a colder, harder mindset, an identity in possession of a heart that couldn’t be betrayed or broken because it neither trusted nor cared.

Back to scouting then.

On the surface it was a good enough location for their purposes, huge and empty with good sight lines, simply because it only had the one way in. Warehouse type deal, easy to swarm if that were the Avengers’ style and fairly set aside from the main bustle of the city, but for an ex-carnie with a background in acrobatics and tightrope walking, an ex-SHIELD agent with a penchant for travel via air ducts, getting in and out unseen would be easy enough.

That left him with options, entrances to be made.

Then again, maybe he would just chicken out and tuck himself away in some dark corner of the metal eaves, watch and listen and wallow in the dull ache of want and loneliness as he traced their movements below him.

Through the heat of the sun beating down Clint felt his cheeks burn with a guilty flush.

Seemed kind of shitty that that was the only thing he tried not to admit to - that maybe he did just want them back but was too proud to give in, that this was the only thing he could think of as a safety plan. That maybe he was just selfish, and that this was the only way he could have them without giving them himself in return.

Shitty and selfish then, but he himself had never claimed to be a good person, not under any of his names.

Aw, to hell with it, if he was going to be Ronin he was damn well going to be Ronin.

Grand entrance number three it was.

AVAVA

"Phil. You need to merge.”

Phil blinked, ground his teeth, but nodded and engaged his turn signal, merged into the left lane of traffic just in time to successfully make his exit. He was distracted, restless, and not really sure why, his palms damp against the steering wheel and his foot twitchy on the gas.

Maybe he should’ve let Natasha drive…

“Talk to me Coulson,” she murmured from the passenger seat. “You’ve gone over all the contingencies at least ten times, you’ve got your three mandatory backup plans… what’s bothering you?”

Phil just shook his head and stayed silent.

He didn’t know what to say anyway.

They’d done this before, hell, he’d done this before. He was Fury’s go-to for recruitment, he’d been the agent to single-handedly bring in Hawkeye and then later, admittedly with help, the Black Widow. He’d planned and run dozens of ops that ended in new contracts for SHIELD and he’d never been so anxious before, so unsettled. More than almost anything he simply wanted this day to be over with. There were any number of things that could go horribly wrong, and even if nothing did, he still didn’t think this would work.

Wasn’t much of a plan anyway, was it? They’d left Ronin an address and a date, expected him in the afternoon if he showed at all, but no explicit time had been stated. Theirs would be a waiting game, and given that it was only just mid-morning as he pulled his blacked-out SHIELD SUV in behind one of Tony’s flashy sports cars two blocks down from the warehouse lot, it was going to be a long one.

Tapping his fingers against the wheel, Phil ignored Natasha’s heated gaze, well aware that she’d wrangled the seating arrangements just to get him alone for a bit going in. She’d crammed Tony, Steve, Bruce, and Thor together against all protests and they looked rather ridiculous piling out of the tiny convertible, too many clowns spewed from a miniature car. All for nothing though because he’d managed to hold his peace for the entirety of the ride despite her pointed silence.

He suspected that wasn’t helping his case with her in the least.

Giving it up as a lost cause, Phil shoved roughly out of the car, pausing to double check the lines of his suit where it fell over his shoulder holster. Everyone knew anyway, that he’d been the only one too stupid to realize that Clint was head over heels for him and hadn’t come to recognize his own feelings for the archer until after he’d run. Hell, he’d overheard Tony explaining the situation to Thor (for what must’ve been the thousandth time given the genius’ frustration) and he’d been incredibly succinct and insightful if painfully blunt when he’d called them both moronic, lovesick puppies. And moronic was certainly the word for it too, for every decision Phil had made - from his aggressive denial of feelings for his agent in all the years they’d shared to his silence after his resurrection to walking up to a warehouse to wait for an assassin of unknown loyalties to replace him.

One moronic decision after the other, and he was on quite the roll wasn’t he?

Well, why break his stride?

“All right,” he called, rounding up his little group of heroes with a carefully toned word. “There’s a farmer’s market just down the street between us and the warehouse. Split up and browse a bit - Bruce go with Tony, Steve, you’re with Thor. We’ll meet up at the end of the second alleyway at 1100 and cut across to the back of the unit.”

“I still think that’s a bad idea,” Tony grumbled, crossing his arms. He’d worn a pristine white button-down under the vest of one of his five-figure suits despite Phil demanding they dress inconspicuously, and he stood out like the eccentric billionaire he was amidst the rest of them, even built-like-a-brick-wall Thor. “Going in all together like that…”

“You have your suit?” Phil sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. They’d been over his objections a dozen times before finding themselves here, but neither Phil nor Natasha were comfortable splitting up. Tony frowned, raised his wrists to show off the bracelets that would call the Iron Man armor from the car. “Good. Captain Rogers?”

Silently, Steve lifted a large black portfolio case slung over his shoulder, heavy with the shield zipped inside.

Phil didn’t even bother asking Natasha - he was sure she had half a dozen weapons hidden away somewhere on her person, regardless of the sleeveless green top and jeans she’d worn - and Thor could summon Mjolnir with a thought from wherever he’d left it. Bruce was looking a little pale but at least he wasn’t green. He supposed that was the most he could ask for, even if he had, purely out of habit, glanced around for Clint.

“Let’s move,” he said gruffly, practically barking the order to keep the edge of pain out of his voice. Waiting until the rest of them had split off and started walking up the sidewalk toward the sound and bustling movement of the market, he gestured for Nat to follow and crossed the street to approach it from the opposite side.

“Watch for a tail,” he muttered out the side of his mouth, an unnecessary reminder. “Keep an eye on the rooftops.”

“Ronin works alone,” she reminded him quietly, her eyes darting from side to side none-the-less. “We know this.”

“That doesn’t mean there isn’t someone out there happy enough to take advantage of a distraction like this,” he argued. “He was ambushed before - who are we to say it won’t happen again?”

Beside him Natasha’s mouth twisted but she didn’t comment, instead focusing on her surroundings as they walked into the center of the crowd that milled between stalls and booths full of produce, fabrics, and hawkers, all color and music and movement, voices in all directions. It was a good place for an attack, either to be pickpocketed or killed, the tables too tight and close and too many people moving between them to see anything coming. He caught a glimpse of Thor’s long, blonde hair swinging over the crowd, spied Tony grinning widely with cash in one hand and a caramel covered apple on a stick in the other, but nothing that set off any red flags. For a while he trailed silently after Natasha, waiting patiently while she lingered over glass earrings and brightly colored, summery sundresses, until she edged in close and linked their arms together.

“We’re in the clear,” she determined, turning him toward the end of the market. “Let’s go.”

Bruce and Tony were waiting for them when they emerged from the tangle, the former fidgeting with arms folded and the latter perched on a bike railing crunching on his apple. Phil approached quietly and took a seat on the other end of the steel bar, ignoring them and turning himself to face Natasha instead. They might be going in together but there was no need to draw any more attention to themselves than necessary. As soon as Steve and Thor began fighting their way out of the edge of the crowd, Phil met each of their gazes, nodded once, and slipped away without a word. By the time his shoes hit the brick of the alleyway the others had flanked him, and he led point as the Avengers strode forward, intent on their target.

“Remember,” he commanded, all Agent “Ice-Man” Coulson now as they approached the door, “We keep this short, sweet, and to the point. Bruce, try to stay calm, Stark, keep your mouth shut. Natasha?”

“On it,” she replied, disappearing half a second later like a shadow.

“Spread out,” he ordered, heading down to the center of the floor. “And keep your eyes open for… Ronin.”

Chapter Text

Ok, so maybe it wasn’t the most mature thing he’d ever done, but it was fun right up until the point that Agent Phillip J. Coulson came marching in and practically tripped over his name.

Was actually becoming a bit of a distressing pattern that - him moving along just fine, content with what he had, where he was, and then Coulson waltzing in and throwing everything, his whole world, on its head.

Three times now - and that was a pattern wasn’t it?

Whatever.

Focus.

Taking a subtle, measured breath, Clint ran a whetstone carefully down the length of his katana, the hissing bbbrrrring of the motion echoing in the silence that had fallen.

It was a cute trick, he had to admit it - getting in unseen, bringing a chair and a little table with him, setting up camp. They weren’t expecting him yet, that much was obvious from their unnerved faces, the cautious stillness coming from the corner he’d tracked Natasha to. To find him already waiting for them, sitting there in full Ronin attire all black and glittering gold, sharpening the blade of his sword…

Had to be a little bit of a kick in the teeth.

He couldn’t deny feeling a little bit smug about it.

Placing the stone onto the table beside him, he picked up a tiny bottle of clove oil, dampened a cloth, and concentrated on not nicking his fingertips as he polished the gleaming steel in one long sweep, ignoring the Avengers as they slowly came back together in front of him. It was hard, especially when Natasha finished her circuit of the overhead above him and came back down, stepping in close to Coulson’s side. The two of them together, standing strong and battle-ready, they were everything that Strike Team Delta had been minus one, and looking at them sent a fresh, hot flash of hurt and anger and want through his belly.

It was more than enough to crack him, so he locked on to the anger instead, let it fill him up and harden his resolve.

Finished with the sword, he stood smoothly and slipped it back into its sheathe with another sharp hiss, smirking beneath his hood at the way Bruce and Cap jumped.

“This is the second time you’ve dropped in on me uninvited,” he growled, pitching his voice low and gruff. “SHIELD seems to be teaching the Avengers some bad habits.”

“Heh,” Tony chuckled, shoving his hands into his pockets, “That’s what I keep saying.”

“Stark,” Coulson warned, “Shut up.”

Turning back to Clint (his eyes had never left, even as he’d chastised Stark), his handler frowned, a firming of the corners of his mouth that Clint recognized. It was a tell such as it was - barely visible even to someone like him who knew what to look for - the face he made when he was about to make a tough call, do something he didn’t like, and that…

What the hell did that mean?

“Mr. Ronin,” he began, straightening up to his full Agent Coulson height, “On behalf of the Avengers, SHIELD would like to make you an offer.”

Clint snorted.

He couldn’t help it - he’d known that was what was coming but it was just so short, so flat, so straight-to-the-point that he barked a scornful sort of laugh.

“That’s your pitch?” he sneered. “SHIELD would like to make me an offer? Well.” Shifting back on his heels, he settled his wrists on the narrow pommel of his sword, the picture of relaxed ease. “You certainly don’t woo your recruits the way you used to, do you Coulson? You used to be all dinner and drinks and promises, from what I hear.”

Coulson paled as the words left his mouth and Clint fought a wave of nausea as the memories ripped through him, memories of being coaxed in out of the rain like a feral dog with bits of hot food and gentle words, right up until Coulson had run out of either time or patience and put a bullet through his leg. He’d never asked which it was and in the end it hadn’t really mattered, but he’d always wondered if the agent used the same tactics with the other potentials he brought in, if he knew all the right things to say and all the right things to offer to each of them, or if Clint had once been worth the extra effort, if he’d been just a little bit special.

“Things change,” the senior agent finally managed to choke out, his teeth showing and his hands fisting at his sides.

Clint huffed a dry, pained chuckle that he only just passed off as unimpressed.

“Don’t they just.”

“Be that as it may,” Steve cut in, looking at Phil like he’d lost his mind, and Clint rolled his eyes at the man’s obvious attempt to diffuse the situation. “SHIELD is a fan of your work, and we…”

“I don’t really give a flying fuck about SHIELD,” Clint snarled. “Fan of my work - Jesus! What I do is not art, Captain, it is fear, and death, and dying.”

Turning sharply away, Clint gave them his back, almost threw an arm up to scrub his hand through his hair, tell-tale Clint-speak for frustrated. He caught himself in time but only just, spinning back to face them again and dropping into a crouch, hugging his ribs tight to better get a grip on his emotions, rattling around in his hollow chest like marbles. The sheath of his katana scraped at the concrete floor, the sound grating and harsh as it echoed through the empty building but it was the only sound breaking the silence. His team, his friends, his handler, they were all staring at him like they’d never seen him before, and hell they hadn’t had they?

He was going to go to his damned grave reminding himself that he’d chosen this.

“SHIELD does its homework, Mr. Ronin,” Phil said finally, his voice strangely hoarse in Clint’s ears. “You declined the Latvian job…”

Clint scoffed low in hos throat, turned away to stare at the wall.

“Temporarily.”

He’d known that one was going to come back to bite his reputation in the ass.

“You’ve been on our radar for some time. Our sources tell us that your… style has changed since you’re return to mercenary work.”

Don’t answer that.

Don’t look at him, just keep it locked down

“The Avengers are looking for a temporary member, someone to fill an open position on a… probationary basis.”

Probationary basis?

Heat rippling down his spine, Clint’s head snapped up to glare at the man because fuck that! Fuck him and fuck the Avengers and fuck their temporary position because whoa there cowboy…

This was harder than he thought it would be.

He’d been ready for some pretty shitty dealings... this though, this was hard. This hurt. God, all he wanted to do was run into Tasha’s arms and collapse, fall to his knees and sob because he’d be safe with her holding him, with Steve and Tony standing guard until he managed to pull himself together again.

And Coulson, god, Coulson - that son of a bitch! Clint wanted to punch him, right in his damn teeth so that when he turned around and kissed him a second later it would hurt just a little bit, so that the man would have to feel even a fraction of what he’d put him through.

Shaking his head, Clint shoved roughly to his feet.

Maudlin motherfucker, hell.

Ronin was supposed to be sharp, harder and nastier and stronger than Clint was. Cruel, cold, wicked poison, he cursed more and hit more and lashed out more. He should’ve been enough to keep Hawkeye under wraps, to keep Clint under wraps, but his softer side was still showing through, his pale, vulnerable underbelly. He needed to get out of here, to find someplace high and quiet where he could breathe and let his anger settle, his disappointment.

But he couldn’t go, not yet.

Not without knowing what they were up against.

Because that was the whole reason he’d come down here wasn’t it, the only reason he’d committed to suffering though this? Because as much as he hurt and as much as he hated what had happened, wished that everything was different and wished that he’d never let himself fall so hard, let himself trust so much, he still couldn’t walk away.

“And who is it that has SHIELD so nervous they’re willing to bring a mercenary like Ronin into their inner circle?” he finally growled between clenched teeth. “Who’s got the Avengers so scared they’re willing to take on a liability?”

Phi opened his mouth to speak but behind him Tony snorted.

“We’re all liabilities, Man-in-Black,” he shrugged. “You’ll fit right in.”

Beneath his mask and cowl, Clint sneered.

“Don’t mistake me for a super hero Stark,” he snarled. “Never was a good guy. Was never even much of a good man.”

“And a man can’t change?” Steve asked quietly, and his face was so calm and earnest that Clint had to bite down on a laugh.

“I suppose he can try,” he muttered before turning back to look Phil up and down. “But the world is full of disappointments.”

Thor scowled, folded his massive arms across his chest and drawing Clint’s attention for the first time. As big and awkward as the guy was, as much as Clint liked him, he had an impressive way of fading into the background.

“You should not speak of things you know not of,” he intoned. “The Son of Coul is an honorable man.”

“That’s all right Thor,” Coulson said flatly. “Mr. Ronin may speak as he chooses. Though I’d prefer Clint express his opinions himself.”

In the stunned, flinching silence that followed his name finally being said aloud, Clint rumbled a cold, dark laugh, a deep, wicked sound he’d never made before. It was a laugh that any villain would be proud of, and he was just a little proud of it himself.

“What makes you think he hasn’t?” he asked when the echoes faded.

It was a little too close to the truth and he wondered if any of them would guess at it, but there was nothing, just the slightest narrowing of Natasha’s eyes. No recognition, just wariness, and hell, Clint could deal with that. Might even enjoy it a little, if he was being honest.

A good fuck-off was enough to make anyone feel better.

“But you didn’t answer my question,” he continued briskly, straightening up and turning away again, moving to collect his whetstone and bottle of polish. “So as fascinating as this has been…”

“Hydra has recruited AIM.”

Clint froze, his back to the rest of the Avengers, to the exit.

Fuck.

On their own Hydra was bad enough, and while for all their effort AIM was mostly just an annoyance, together they could be a serious problem. Would be a serious problem. Especially if they brought in…

“M.O.D.O.K.,” Clint growled.

Not that giant-headed twerp again!

Shit.

“You understand our dilemma,” Coulson said flatly, and wasn’t that the understatement of the year?

Fuck, fuckity-fuck, fuck!

Nothing for it now, was there?

It was either join up with the Avengers today, as Ronin, or watch the world burn half to the ground before he came crawling back as Hawkeye with his tail between his legs, still hurt and ashamed and angry.

Yeah, he’d take the more dignified of the two, thanks very much.

At least this way he could pretend that he was still in control, that it was his choice to make. Tell himself to suck it up and deal with the consequences.

Hands shaking, Clint fisted them at his sides, tensed his muscles and ground his teeth together to stop himself from screaming.

Jesus Barton, grow a pair! So he left you, so what? Hell, everyone’s left you, even Tasha’s left you before. It’s not any different. Stupid, stupid! It’s not betrayal if he doesn’t

Except it was.

Damn it, it was a betrayal, because even if Coulson didn’t know he was breaking Clint’s heart, he damn well knew he was breaking Clint’s trust. He’d promised, years ago when he’d first become Clint’s handler, he’d promised he would always come for him. No matter where he was, what mess he’d gotten into, he’d promised.

Oh god, he needed to get out of here.

“Saturday,” he barked, quickly pocketing his bits and pieces and turning sharply on his heel. “New York. I’ll contact you for the location and you’ll make me a better offer than the one you half-assed today.”

It didn’t matter.

He didn’t care.

He was already in - already convinced, already committed - but it was something Ronin would say. Something he would insist on.

Behind him he felt the Avengers bristle, heard Stark scoff, and knew he’d successfully set up his exit.

“What, that’s it?” Tony demanded. “We just let him go?”

“Stark,” Coulson warned, but Tony was shaking his head, his fingers twitching at the bracelets around his wrists.

“Nu-uh Agent!” the man snapped. “You’re the one who thinks we need him so bad - you haven’t even tried to get a damn commitment out of him! You’re the reason we’re here in the first place, why don’t you…”

“Shut up Tony.”

Natasha’s quiet command cut through the man’s building tirade like butter, shut everything down in a snap. Clint stood dumbfounded, mouth hanging open under his mask and heart thudding in his chest.

Was Stark… Was Stark defending him?

Did they blame Phil?

They shouldn’t… sure, he did, but….

Yup, it was definitely time for him to go.

“Saturday,” he reiterated, more sharply this time. “Call it an exercise in trust.”

For a minute Phil stared at him with unreadable eyes, and he was Phil in that moment, not Coulson, not Agent Agent. Just Phil, and he was sure that the man was about to ask after Clint, after Hawkeye. It choked him, that feeling, stopped his breath in his throat, and for several heavy, panicked seconds he was sure that if his handler actually asked, actually opened his mouth and said Clint’s name, that he would rip off his mask right then and there and end it.

He didn’t.

Instead he nodded, once, seriously, perfunctorily, and lifted a hand to straighten his tie, a move so familiar Clint could’ve cried.

“Trust then,” he said, making a gesture intended to gather the Avengers and sweep them toward the exit. “We’ll be awaiting your call.”

Clint didn’t answer.

Just watched, still and silent as they all trailed back out of the warehouse. Watched, until the last of them disappeared out the door and it slammed shut behind them, and it was safe to drop to his knees.

Chapter Text

Kate picked him up at the airport.

Well, he said airport...

Really it was just a lane of mowed grass in a field two miles out of town, a private landing strip for anyone willing to hand over a fistful of cash to the old man that owned the property. There had been no detours this time, no costumes or hair dye, no precautions except for the fact that he’d booked a single-passenger plane through private means instead of a commercial flight, had one man take him up and drop him down again. He hadn’t had the energy for anything else, had been too emotionally drained to do anything except drag himself out of that warehouse and down to a little hidey-hole he had stashed away across town. It was a nowhere place, just enough to cover his back while he broke down into a full-blown panic attack; sweating, gasping, heart racing in his chest, sure that at any moment something horrible was going to happen and he would die. As soon as he’d managed to pull himself out of it he’d bolted, gotten himself to the tiny airstrip and the waiting plane, buckled himself in and kept his mouth shut until his feet were back on solid ground again.

It was middling fall - already winter in Canada - but the early cold snap had broken, the first snow starting to go a little bit slushy as the sun attempted a comeback. The air was chill and damp on his face, fresh and clean and clear in his lungs, and he knew he was really out of sorts when the thought passed through his head that maybe this wasn’t such a bad country after all.

Leaning back into the plane, Clint grabbed the single duffel that held his Ronin get-up, the long, narrow case that protected his katana. Handing a thick roll of hundreds off to the pilot, who hadn’t even blinked at his sketchy black hoody and low-riding ball cap, he slung the strap of the bag over his shoulder and headed up through the furrowed field toward the farm house, purple VW Beetle waiting in the drive.

“You look like shit,” Kate called as soon as he got within earshot, lounging against the side of the car.

“Gee, thanks,” he muttered, jerking open the passenger door and shoving his stuff into the non-existent back seat. “That’s… that’s…”

He couldn’t think of anything.

Frowning, Kate looked at him over the roof of the car, her face softening with concern.

“Come on,” she said finally, “Let’s get you out of… all that.”

Blinking, Clint looked down, confused and for just a second certain that he’d forgotten to change, that there was some remnant of Ronin still clinging to him. Steel-toes, blue jeans, fraying sweatshirt - he’d gotten down to his civvies but he hadn’t shaken the mindset, felt haggard and dirty and worn. No doubt that was what Kate was seeing, the shadows in his eyes and the heartache in the set of his shoulders, and in that moment there didn’t seem much else to do but collapse into the passenger seat and let her drive.

They didn’t talk. They were at least an hour outside of town, another ten minutes from their street. Kate tapped away at her phone with one hand, took corners a little too fast on the slushy streets but Clint kept his mouth shut, his hood pulled up and his forehead pressed against the window. It began to rain partway through the drive and the soft, rhythmic sound of the wipers lulled him into a hazy sort of half-sleep, one he rode out silently until the thump of the car door had him blinking back to awareness.

Handing him a heavy paper bag across the console, Kate looked at him warily, hesitant concern amped up to blatant near freak-out as a result of his obvious dissociation. Pulling away from the curb before he could look around, figure out where she’d stopped, she broke the speed limit all the way back out of town, passing his cabin without even tapping the break. For his part Clint wasn’t sure if it was a good idea for him to be alone right now anyway so he didn’t argue, just waited until she came around and jerked his door open, took back the bag, and pulled him out of the car and up the driveway by his sleeve.

Lucky met them at the door and that snapped him out of it a little, his barks harsh and loud in Clint’s ears and his body heavy as he dance around his legs and buffeted him with his tail. Standing on the threshold, he bent over to wrestle the dog a bit, accepting slobbery kisses and lifting his front legs off the ground in a bear hug until Kate yelled at him to shut the door and stop letting the heat out. Once inside he stood in the hallway, feeling kind of lost and thinking about a shower, another change of clothes, but he didn’t think the hot water would work this time and truth be told he was so damned hazy he thought he might drown himself anyway.

Letting his feet carry him without any input from his brain, he moved into the living room and curled sat down in the middle of the couch, Lucky tucking himself in close against his shins, happy his master was home. It felt like a lifetime that he just sat there, staring at the wall above the TV, but it could’ve only been a few minutes, light and color and sound slowly filtering back in on him until he recognized the familiar notes of one of Kate’s concerts, little rich girl raised on pianos and strings. It was the cello this time, the notes rich and deep, and he’d laughed himself half sick the first time she’d played it for him because Coulson had dated a cellist for a while before the Battle of New York and it had nearly driven Clint crazy at the time. He didn’t know what it was about bows and strings with them, but Kate was good and the music was low and comforting in the quiet of the house, soothing on his jangled nerves.

The next thing he knew she was sitting down beside him, pulling him against her so that he was half leaning against her shoulder, half lying in her lap and he let her move him, let her take control of the body he couldn’t really feel. If he’d been present enough in his own head to really analyze it the numbness might’ve scared him, but as it was he could only watch silently as she opened up the paper bag she’d brought in from the car, took out a quart of milk and a box from the local bakery.

So that was where she’d stopped.

There were wine glasses on the coffee table that she must’ve brought with her from the kitchen and he’d never had milk out of a wine glass before, but for whatever reason it struck him as appropriate when she handed one over. The cardboard box revealed a dozen double-fudge cupcakes, Clint’s favorite and one hell of a sugar kick, and for the next hour she didn’t do anything but pet his hair and refill his glass and hand him another cupcake when he’d finished picking at the last one, until between them half the box was gone and he’d come back to himself, cuddled close with his head pillowed on her thigh and his hand hanging down over the side of the couch buried in Lucky’s fur.

“Are you ready to talk about it now?” she asked quietly, her concerto still playing in the background. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to.”

Swallowing, Clint squeezed his eyes shut and turned his face into her lap.

“They didn’t recognized me,” he confessed in a choked whisper, and he didn’t know why that part was hurting him so much when it was exactly what he’d wanted. “They didn’t even… they didn’t even ask about me.”

For a minute Kate was quiet, then her hands started stroking his hair again and he felt her sigh.

Why didn’t they recognize you Clint?”

She didn’t start out soft-pitching them, did she?

“I didn’t want them to,” he admitted. “Or maybe I did. I don’t… But it’s different, you know? I’m different, when I’m Ronin. I never told anybody who I was, and when I’m him… I’m not the same person. I move different, I talk different, I sound different. Hell, I even look different. Ronin, he’s all speed and agility, fast, lean. I don’t weight train like I do for Hawkeye and it’s been so long since I was... You saw I had to take my bow down.”

“So you didn’t look like you,” she hummed, tugging on his hair as she listed back all the things he’d said. “You didn’t sound like you or move like you or act like you. They certainly weren’t expecting you. And the last time you guys ran into each other, you made it pretty clear that you didn’t want to talk about Hawkeye. So can you blame them?”

“Yes,” he muttered petulantly, because he did, and because it wasn’t fair, and because it didn’t matter if it was right or wrong or sideways - it still sucked!

“Clint,” she sighed, pushing at his shoulder until he reluctantly sat up and gave her her legs back. “Don’t get mad at me for asking this ok? But… why are you doing this? I mean, you could go back if you wanted to, shoot your bow, be with your friends. Wouldn’t that make you happier?”

“I don’t know,” he mumbled, pulling his knees up to his chest and hunching in on himself. “I mean I know I… I know I miss them. I knew I would even before I left. And I know I still…”

Swallowing hard at the lump that had risen in his throat, he looked away and shrugged.

“It doesn’t matter. It could go ok I guess, but it could go really bad too, and I’m not much of a gambler.”

“You know you’ll miss every shot you never take,” she chided.

“Smart ass,” he scoffed, but he was feeling marginally better after the cupcakes and the bad joke, so he didn’t shove her off the couch like he wanted to. “I don’t know Katie Cat. What happened, it… it hurt. And I left because I knew that if I stayed it would never get better. But you know how you can tell if your shoulder’s still sprained? Like, it doesn’t ache all the time, but when you stretch it you can tell when you hit your limit, and you know better than to push any harder ‘cause if you do you’ll just mess it up all over again? Feels kinda like that.”

“You’re still hurt,” she concluded, nodding with understanding. “Maybe a little mad too?”

“Maybe.”

“I get that. I mean, from what you’ve told me you were crushing on that Coulson guy pretty hard – kinda sucks, what he did.”

“Yeah,” he sighed.

It really did.

“You know you’re allowed to feel like that, right Clint? You’re not doing anything wrong, being mad.”

Clint didn’t answer.

Sure, logically she could say that and he could hear it and maybe even logically he could agree with it, but he wasn’t sure he believed it. Definitely didn’t feel it. But he was used to guilt hanging around – wasn’t like that weight was anything new.

When he didn’t answer her Kate frowned, but she was smart and she knew Clint pretty well by now so she let it go, moving on to the next hard question.

“So what are you gonna do now?”

Unraveling himself from the couch, Clint snorted a deprecating little laugh.

“Help out, I guess,” he replied, picking up their scattered cupcake wrappers, sweeping up the few crumbs Lucky hadn’t managed to sniff out. “I’m gonna text them this weekend – we’re supposed to meet. Probably train a little, teach Ronin the whole teamwork thing.”

“And then you’ll be an Avenger again?”

“Not really,” he shrugged. That part wasn’t important to him. “I’m gonna be a probationary member, get a temporary position.”

“So what, like a consultant? They just call you in when they need you?”

“Sounds like it.

Pausing, Clint looked around Kate’s living room, out the picture window at the deserted street and the heavily wooded places creeping in between the few, widely spaced cabins that were in view.

“Should probably think about moving back to New York,” he frowned. “Be easier. And just when I was starting to like the place.”

“Oh, come on Clint,” Kate scoffed affectionately. “It’s Canada. What’s here that’s not in New York, besides moose and negative degree wind chills?”

“You’re here.”

He said it so immediately, so simply that it was blatantly obvious how honest that statement was, how much that fact meant to him. Kate had been his only friend for a while now besides Lucky – she put up with him and shot with him and laughed with him, she loved the color purple. She was pretty much his spirit animal, and he wasn’t exactly looking forward to ditching her, though the face she was making at him had him seriously reconsidering.

"Aww!” she squeaked, and Clint grimaced.

“Yeah yeah, knock it off,” he huffed, scrubbing a hand over her hair and getting slapped at for his trouble.

“Seriously though,” she said, straightening her bangs after fending him off, “My rent’s gonna be up here pretty soon, and the semester ends in like, a couple weeks. It wouldn’t be too hard to transfer, or even finish the year online.”

“Whoa, wait,” Clint demanded, stopping in his tracks on his way to deposit their glasses in the kitchen sink. “Are you serious? You’d move to New York with me?”

It wasn’t a big deal… except that it was totally a big deal, and he’d be… happier if he didn’t have to lose another important person in his life.

“Well when you say it like that you make it sound like we’re dating,” she complained. “Eww.”

“Hey, I am a catch girly-girl,” he protested.

“Yeah, like cooties - contagious. But… yeah. I think I would go with you, if you want. I mean, we could split rent - that’s awesome, since the little I was able to funnel out of my trust fund when I took off is about to run out. And I always loved New York.”

For a second Clint watched her silently as she got up, grabbed the remaining cupcakes to take to the fridge. Kate had a way of going quiet and shuttered when you hit on a topic she didn’t like, and he was pretty sure they’d just gotten close.

“That’s where you’re from, isn’t it?” he said carefully, a measured test of ground as they headed into the kitchen.

“Yeah,” she replied shortly. “Small world huh?”

“Ain’t that the truth,” he muttered. “Still, it’d be kinda nice, you know? Having somebody around. You’re not the worst person in the world.”

“Gee, thanks jerk. But it’s not like I’m your only friend you know. I mean, you obviously still care about them a little bit if you’re willing to spend time with them. Even if you will be in disguise.”

“Just because I’m pissed and upset doesn’t mean I want them dead,” he huffed. “Those dorks are hopeless without Hawkeye. I mean, who’s gonna watch their backs as good as I can, huh?”

“Ronin apparently,” she replied, tossing him a grin over her shoulder as she rinsed the wine glasses he’d left on the edge of the counter. “And he’ll do just as good a job as you.”

“Hah hah. You’re a real comedian kid.”

“Thanks, I’ll be here all week. Now come on loser, we’re going shooting.”

Chapter Text

One week later, Clint had slipped back into New York and was doing some covert apartment hunting around Bed Stuy. It wasn't a great neighborhood – there was definitely a shady Russian element hanging around – but he'd found a place that he and Kate could afford and where Tony would never think to look. There didn't seem to be a superintendent or anything around, but a girl carrying a delivery bag and hauling a bike behind her let him in and took him up a narrow stairwell to the top floor, showed him to an unlocked apartment and demanded he close the door behind him when he left.

It was a work in progress, but he'd seen worse. Hell he'd lived in worse. Two bed, two bath, good sized living room, and there were no signs of mold, pests, or failing structural integrity. The building might not look great, but it wouldn't be coming down around their ears. Best of all, there was a rusty fire escape outside the windows that led up to the roof, a perfect place to set up a decent archery range.

Not that the walls inside were so nice they wouldn't take a couple holes, but that wasn't the point.

Point was, the place was kind of perfect, even if it was a shitty sort of run-down rat trap.

Snapping some pictures and making sure he got one of the walk-in closet in the second bedroom, he sent them winging off to Kate, who had threatened him thoroughly before he left about the minimum requirements needed for cohabitation. He found himself grinning as he stared around the apartment but not entirely sure why. He felt... good about this place, and judging from the message that flashed in almost immediately with a musical chime, so did she.

Dibs on the closet.

Laughing, Clint closed the door behind him and went in search of the girl with the bike. He never found her, but he did find a young woman named Simone and her two little boys, both of whom recognized him immediately as Hawkeye. A moment of panic came and went as their mother took one look at Clint's face, shushed her boys with an adage about secrets being best kept with ice cream, and brought Clint inside for coffee. She was sweet and understanding, called him by his given name instead of his pubic Avengers' one, and promised to have the super of the building contact him within two days. She actually got him to laugh, sitting there at her dining table, at least until his phone beeped again.

It wasn't Kate this time.

Whhhhyyyyyy?

He'd texted Stark that morning. Probably shouldn't have, not on his personal cell anyway. Was a pretty obvious clue that Ronin knew his number, and Tony was smart. He'd make the leap that Clint had been the one to 'share' it.

But Clint was smart too.

He wasn't so cocky to think that he could take JARVIS head on, but if there was one thing he'd been practicing since he was a kid it was disappearing, making himself invisible. A couple of burner phones purchased from Korea, renumbered, rerouted, used and then ditched kept his Canadian cabin off the proverbial map and he didn't really care if they traced him to New York. He was supposed to be there after all. A cheap scrambler would distract from Bed Stuy long enough for him to memorize the address he'd been sent and get down to the bus stop, as long as he got moving.

Saying goodbye to Simone and her boys after quickly scribbling down her number on a scrap of paper, he ducked out of the apartment, pulled up the hood of his sweatshirt, and took off at a jog down the sidewalk. He made it across town to a GreyHound station just in time for a departure, slipping his phone into a stranger's pocket and wishing it well on its way to Nebraska before melting away again.

And back across town again.

Ugh.

He should have planned this better.

At least it was cool in New York, the early October breeze infinitely preferable to the scorching desert heat of his last visit. Made his jogging back and forth suck a lot less, especially since he was trying to keep a low profile with the hoodie.

Still, it felt good to slip into his Ronin gear when he made it back to his stash house. He loved the fitted, armored jacket, the bracers and greaves that hugged his shins and forearms. The belt felt good too - balanced, solid, his katana clipped securely to his side - a lot like his quiver if he were honest. He was going to need to augment the mask somehow; for the moment he wore a cowl around his neck that he could pull up to cover his face from his cheekbones down, but if he was going to be fighting with the Avengers he'd need to stay hydrated. He didn't doubt for a moment that Nat, Phil, hell any of them would recognize the lower half of his face if he tugged the damn thing down for a drink.

Have to think on that.

For now he strapped on his weapons and chugged half a bottle of water, checking his reflection in a bit of broken glass to make sure none of his blonde hair was sticking out, and hit the rooftops.

Funny thing about New York - no one ever seemed to look up. They were so worried about their streets and subways, the back alley deals and the bad neighborhoods, but Clint had spent half his lifetime up high. Roofs, trees, fire escapes and skyscrapers - anyone would be shocked at the kind of shit you could get away with up there.

Take him for example, dressed up like a ninja and skulking around armed to the teeth, making his way into a fairly affluent part of town, visible from freaking Avengers Tower, to the top floor of a middle class apartment complex Clint knew for a god damned fact had had nothing to do with the Avengers or SHIELD before yesterday. As soon as Stark had texted him the address he'd been hit by a criss-cross of emotions - relief that he wasn't being asked to the tower to face his old home or get scanned by JARVIS and stupid, stupid bitterness that he wasn't being trusted enough to be brought there.

Nat should've known better than to pick an apartment with windows. Probably did. Definitely did. Somebody must have fought her on that point, argued for multiple exits, or maybe just a breeze. Maybe that was the point. Don't block him in, don't trap him, leave him plenty of exits...

Still, if they thought he was coming in through the front door they had a thing or two to learn about Ronin yet.

Wishing covetously for his grappling arrow, he grit his teeth and did his best Spiderman impression – stupid kid – slipping down between one building and the next until he was able to grab on to the edge of the sill, jimmy the cheap lock with a flick of his wrist, and lever himself inside. His boots landed silently on the carpet but he could feel eyes on his back immediately as everyone alerted to his entrance but he didn't turn, instead stuck his head back out the window to make sure he wasn't followed or spotted by some nosy, well-meaning neighbor with the local beat cops on speed dial.

Nothing.

Lowering the sash, he flicked the lock back into place and lifted his hands to shoulder height, steeled himself and turned slowly on his heel.

"Gentlemen," he greeted cockily, then he smirked, turning slightly to the left to stare down the barrel of the gun held mere inches from the side of his head. "Widow."

Natasha scowled, only an arm's length away, and Clint actually had to bite down on a happy little chuckle. If this were any other time, any other place he would have smiled, grabbed her up in a hug and spun her around even as she protested and slapped at his shoulders. It might seem that she'd gotten the jump on him, but they both knew it was the other way around.

Ronin – 2, Widow – 0.

Between she and Clint it would have been a moment for a laugh and quiet praise in a foreign language, for pride and a kiss on the cheek, a good joke all the way around. Between she and Ronin it was a reason for caution, a reason for her to start hating him.

Worse still, a reason for her to start watching him.

Clint didn't waver in the face of the gun, just glared still and silent at his friend until Coulson said her name quietly and she holstered it, shrugging her shoulders and stalking away toward the rest of the group, and that was familiar too. Coulson had played referee to more than one little tiff between them over the years, keeping Strike Team Delta on point, but this wouldn't end with hands ruffling his hair or squeezing his shoulder, easy acceptance and unnecessary apology.

Scowling beneath his mask, Clint folded his arms across his chest, rocked on his heels, waiting. There was gentle music playing somewhere, old blues, and the air in the apartment was thick with the spicy scent of Bruce's incredible yellow curry, making his mouth water, but he ignored all the external stimuli, the distractions, focusing instead of Steve.

If he couldn't bring himself to turn all his attention on Coulson, the real head of the Avengers team, second best would have to do.

"Captain," he rumbled, sending Steve the barest nod.

"Ronin," he greeted in return. "Or do you prefer..."

"Not really on a first name basis yet are we?" Unfolding his arms, he dropped his hands down casually to rest on the pommel of his katana, oddly pleased when everyone but Bruce tensed up even if he wasn't a hundred percent sure what point he was proving.

Steve swallowed, cleared his throat, looking slightly embarrassed.

"Right. Ronin then. We were just about to eat; would you like to join us?"

"Rather get down to business, if it's all the same to you."

It didn't take much to drop his voice, to hold on to Ronin's low, rough growl. His inner child was pitching an epic tantrum, drumming his feet in Clint's belly and making it rumble, demanding heaping bowls of curry smothered rice. Hell yes he'd like to join them, but he wasn't dropping his mask for all the curry. Now if he could figure a way to smuggle some out with him when he left, well that was a different story. Tony, who's been busy rolling his eyes and scooping himself his own bowlful paused with a spoon halfway to his mouth, frowning but Clint waved him off.

"Don't let me stop you Stark," he scoffed.

Taking the initiative, because apparently no one else was going to, Clint slipped past Steve and Bruce, resisted the urge to shoulder check Coulson, and sat down at the head of a long, narrow dining table. He was careful not to shove his chair back, not to slouch and cross his arms over his chest and throw his feet up on the table, because that was classic Clint and would surely throw up some red flags, if only for Natasha. Instead he kept his feet planted solidly on the floor, kept his hands folded in his lap, watching silently from beneath the edge of his hood as the Avengers moved slowly between the kitchenette and the dining area, fetching curry and buttermilk and forks, all of them but Thor who was MIA, while the two remaining members of Strike Team Delta went without, choosing instead to take their seats and look Clint over carefully.

Look Ronin over carefully, because he was Ronin sitting there; upright, alert, attentive... waiting.

And Phil was staring at him.

Fuck that hurt, that silent, assessing gaze.

A part of Clint would've loved to meet his eyes, to force the man to face the hurt and the pain and the anger and the betrayal he knew showed in his own, but he couldn't take the chance that they would recognize him, the lines of his jaw or the color of his eyes thin, pale scar at the edge of his hairline where a knife fight had gotten a little too close.

He wasn't ready for that.

Wasn't ready for this, no matter what Katie said.

Every time, every time it started out ok, but then he sat with it, sat with them and all the old hurt came bubbling up, the pain so sharp and hot it took everything he had not to flinch, not to tremble or curl up in a ball of aching heart and regret, and it wasn't fair, because Bruce and Steve, Nat and Tony, they hadn't done anything wrong. This was between him and his handler, and he couldn't even claim innocence in the whole thing because he was the one hurting the rest of them by being petty and selfish and holding a grudge.

But he'd never called himself a good man, and he wasn't ready to let go.

He could forgive the man for dying – not even senior SHIELD agent Phillip J Coulson could really control that – but leaving him...

He wasn't sure that would ever stop cutting him up.

"Given that you consented to joining us today I assume that you're willing to work with us," Coulson began, firing the opening shot from the other end of the table.

"Let's not get ahead of ourselves, secret agent man," Clint growled, catching Tony's poorly hidden smirk in his peripheral vision. "We've got ourselves a few conditions to sort before I make you any promises."

It said a lot that Phil's frown, a minute quirk of his mouth, nearly unnoticeable made Clint feel a little bit better, a little bit proud.

Messed up, but it was what it was.

He needed to keep himself separate in this, to be Ronin, cold and uncaring of people he didn't know, people who didn't matter, not Clint, who'd rather be joking with Tony and teasing Steve, praising Bruce's culinary skills.

He needed to focus.

"Of course, we're open to negotiations," Steve said, always the peacemaker. "There's a place for you at Avengers tower, and Stark mostly foots the bill for room and board..."

"Not interested," he snapped, ignoring a twinge of guilt when Steve flinched, his face shuttering. "This is exactly what I was talking about." Turning on Coulson he narrowed his eyes, glared even though the man couldn't see it. "You said this was temporary, probationary."

"It is," he nodded.

"Then that's what it's gonna be. You need my help you give me a call, otherwise we don't see each other. I'm not living with you, not joining any softball teams... we’re not friends."

"You won't be going out in the field with us if you don't train with us before hand Mr. Ronin," Phil said flatly, and Clint had to hold back a snort.

Tony obviously felt no such compunction.

"Except we're the ones asking you for help," he countered in a strained tone, one eye twitching as he stared Phil down. "Which means we're happy to compromise to get that."

Relaxing his shoulders, he sat back and huffed a strange little laugh, his eyes a million miles away for just a moment before he turned back to Clint.

"Don't let him get to you," he said. "We're still teaching him normal people skills. He's been hunkered down in his spy cave for way too long."

Clint let his head bob in silent laughter, because wasn't that the goddamn truth. Lying, breaking promises, pretending you were dead for a freakin year while the people who cared about you were halfway to passive suicidal...

"Look, I've got my own shit," he declared, setting the fingertips of one gloved hand on the table. "You want to train, set a fucking time. I'll meet you at the gym."

Phil scowled, opened his mouth but Tony jumped in first.

"That's fine," he insisted, whipping out his Stark Phone. "Next Saturday, ten am?"

"Whatever."

"You're a real peach Ronin, anyone ever tell you that?"

"Fuck off Stark. You want a peach or an assassin?"

Tony froze, looked up from his phone and blinked, and shit, that was too close, too much like banter to be safe.

"I want a lot of things," he muttered, then jerked and turned in his seat to glare at Natasha, who had evidently kicked him under the table.

"Um, what else would you like to discuss?" Steve asked, clearing his throat.

Straightening up, Clint leaned forward, elbows on the table, because this part was important.

"You people save the world, that's what you do? Fine. But I'm not doing the public personality thing. The whole damn world knows who you are – I take this mask off I'm a dead man. That's not happening. Non-negotiable."

"We're not interested in your personality Ronin," Phil said saccharinely, and woah, what the hell? Where was this attitude coming from? Clint had seen Phil be more courteous to men who were torturing him. "If you want to hide behind a mask, then by all means, please do."

For one terrible moment his heart jumped and he felt like the world's greatest idiot, certain that Phil had seen right through him, but then Natasha was hissing at their former handler in Russian and he relaxed, let it go. Frustration was fine, good, let the jerk be frustrated, but he wasn't going to take it out on Clint, or Ronin.

"As needed basis," he growled, suddenly pissed and ready to leave. "No names, no faces, no public outreach. I come in, do whatever job you need done, and go home. I don't need SHIELD investigating me or tracking me or asking for a fucking full-body scan..."

"Understood," Tony nodded, and Clint knew the man meant it even if Ronin shouldn't.

Tony didn't like SHIELD or the way they worked, the way Phil had dogged him for months trying to bring him in. He got it, and thank god he was taking point here because otherwise this whole thing would be a damned mess, what with Steve nervous, Bruce and Natasha silent, and Coulson with his panties in a bunch.

Dick.

Nodding, Clint got to his feet and was surprised when Tony got up to, stepped forward with his hand half out like he meant to shake but wasn't sure, and Clint had never seen the man so hesitant before. Opening and closing his mouth a few times, the genius scowled and shoved his hands into his pockets, raised his head in an attempt to meet Clint's eyes.

"Look, I know I'm ass," he began and Clint suddenly felt himself go cold. "So if it was anything I said, if any part of it's on me..."

Stunned, for a moment Clint could only stand there, heart thundering in his chest and mouth hanging open under his cowl until he managed to pull it shut, lick his lips nervously.

When the words finally came they weren't planned.

"I'll make sure he gets the message."

And then he was gone, crossing into the living room and ducking back out the window without a backward glance.

Chapter Text

"What the hell Agent?!" Tony demanded, tossing his empty bowl violently into the sink, making Bruce flinch, shudder. "You're the one that wanted this guy on the team – what's got your tie in a twist all of a sudden?"

Unphased by the outburst, caught up in his own musings, Phil tapped his fingers against the edge of the dining table, staring at the wall as he tried to sort his oddly unfocused thoughts before he blinked and offered the man an answer.

"I don't like him. There's something... off about him. Something wrong."

Stark scoffed, scowled and folded his arms as he leaned back against the countertop, fiddling with his bracelets.

"You mean other than the fact that he's a shady mercenary-turned-ninja who's helping us for unknown reasons?"

Across the table, the edges of Natasha's mouth quirked.

"There is that," she said, and Phil could hear the gentle chastisement in her voice, the question.

"He's smart," Tony began to argue before he could respond. "He's good. And if we have to have somebody, isn't better to keep our enemies close?"

"Now he's an enemy?" Steve questioned, face full of innocent confusion at the back and forth between the two of them, and Phil almost rolled his eyes, Captain America or not.

"Just keep an eye on him," he warned, not only Stark but the entire group. "Ronin is no boy scout, Stark has that much right. We don't know what his motivations are for doing this, so until we figure that out, let's stay vigilant."

"Fine," Tony sneered, his teeth clenched, "But how about we keep our attitudes in check huh? You looked ready to draw down on that guy, and you were the one pushing this. Maybe it's not a new team member we need. Maybe we just need our handler to get his shit together."

A sudden burst of hot, indignant anger bloomed in Phil's chest, and the next thing he knew he was on his feet, leaning forward with his hands flat on the table, staring down Tony Stark the way he had stared down mafia bosses. Deep in the pit of his stomach he knew that Stark's criticisms were fair, that he deserved the censure, but another part of him hated the man just a little because he had had the balls to stand up and send Clint an apology through the mercenary where he himself had not.

Now the billionaire genius did little to mask the contempt on his face, the accusation in his words, and it was easy enough to guess that the man had come to blame Phil for Clint's absence, but he supposed that was fair too. It was his fault that Clint had run, and was likely largely his fault that the archer stayed away, but Stark didn't know him the way Phil did. Clint would accept an apology like that from Tony, would punch the man on the shoulder and then the two of them would laugh it off and go on about their business, back to being friends again like nothing had ever happened.

With Phil it was different.

For one thing he and Clint were closer than that, and in a way, that made any easy reconciliation impossible. What had happened between them meant more, the hurts ran deeper, had many more far-reaching effects and implications than any insult even the acerbic Tony Stark could manage.

No, if Phil were going to fix things it would take a lot more than a few words peddled off for second-hand delivery.

Besides, they had agreed as a team not to mention Clint, both to make sure that they didn't spook the archer and to make sure they didn't piss off Ronin.

It didn't matter.

Phil knew from the way he had reacted, all emotion and anger and indignation, that Stark's barb had found its mark, his implications working their way beneath his skin like fiery needles. If it were any less important, if he felt any less responsible or guilty they would have rolled off his back like water, gone in one ear and out the other like all the rest of the things that came out of Stark's mouth, but they didn't, because this time the man had really hit the nail on the head.

Still, it was practically a matter of principle to scowl and then dismiss him, give the man the cold shoulder as he refocused on Natasha, on letting go of the intense, flaring emotions in his belly.

After all, a guilty conscience needed no accuser.

"Keep an eye on him," he directed Natasha, likely unnecessarily. "I don't like the fact that we don't know who this guy is."

The Widow nodded, and she was the Black Widow in that moment, not Nat or Tasha or even Agent Romanov. It was her showing him that she understood, that she agreed, that she too felt the need to be on her guard around this unknown variable, even if she had her own reservations, her own opinions about Phil and about Clint and about the two of them together.

"I think he has a right to the things he's asked for," Bruce chimed in, the first time he'd really spoken since they'd entered the safe house that morning. He'd been quiet, subdued as he moved slowly through the empty rooms of the apartment, unable to sit still and wait as the others had. The curry had been more of a distraction than anything, a reason for him to focus and keep his hands and his mind occupied rather than any great desire to be fed by any of the rest of them.

Well, whatever kept the man calm.

"I agree," Steve nodded, and Phil sighed, pinched the bridge of his nose. "Not everyone enjoys the limelight like Tony does, and I think for someone like Ronin, keeping his identity a secret is more of a survival strategy than him just not wanting to be seen with us in public."

Here he looked at Natasha with raised brows, a questioning glance, and that made sense because for a long time both Clint and Natasha had held on to their role within SHEILD, kept their civilian identities quiet for undercover work and completely out of the papers as far as the Avengers were concerned. It couldn't last of course – eventually it came out that Hawkeye was really Clint Barton and The Black Widow was really Natasha Romanov, but they had tried.

"This is different," Phil argued. "This isn't about keeping his name out of the press, this is about hiding his face from his teammates."

"One of whom is Tony Stark," Bruce countered. "Who the press tend to follow, even when he's not being flanked by Captain America and the Hulk."

"I'm not asking him to stand up and do a press conference!" Phil snapped, reining his temper back in when he saw emerald flicker in the doctor's eyes. "I don't give a damn what he does in his off time; the only thing I care about is that he can work with the rest of you as a team."

"So what, we should invite him out to brunch?" Tony asked snippily, shoving his hands into his pockets. "Ask him to – how did he put it – join the company softball league? Cause that's exactly what he said he wasn't going to do. And no offense Agent, but I think you made it pretty clear to the guy that he wasn't welcome anyway. At least you two seem to agree on that front."

"We are not looking for a new friend Stark," Natasha cut in, her voice thick with Russian as she attempted to stop another pissing match between them before it started.

"No, we're not," Phil agreed firmly.

There, let Stark put that in his pipe and smoke it for a bit. If he was going to keep accusing Phil of trying to replace Clint, he was going to give the man a lesson in reality that he wouldn't be able to forget anytime soon.

"But he has to work with us," he reiterated, pressing the point home. "As a a team. As a part of a cohesive whole. I don't think I need to remind anyone of the those first few simulations you all ran together?"

Running an eye around the group he was pleased to see several of them shudder. What little practice they had managed to work in as a team before the Battle of New York had been a sheer disaster.

"Good," he nodded with satisfaction. "Then you all understand the importance of Ronin's ability to assimilate. One person out of place can throw off your rhythm, and when you're out of rhythm accidents happen."

Reaching a hand up subconsciously, Phil rubbed at the scar beneath his shirt.

"That's how people get killed."

AVAVA

So Clint was pissed.

And hurt.

And confused.

And... well he was a lot of things ok?

Seeing Phil wasn't getting any easier, though he hadn't expected anything to be magically fixed. Hoped maybe, but he didn't really think it could actually happen that way, despite the existence of gods and aliens and every other thing you could imagine.

He'd hoped...

He didn't know what he'd hoped.

Maybe that Phil would've stood up next to Stark and apologized too, made some kind of gesture, given any hint that he was sorry for his part in the whole mess.

Then again, he didn't know if that would have made the whole thing easier or harder.

As much as Phil had always stressed the importance of communication and talking, Clint was pretty sure words wouldn't be enough this time, and he definitely hadn't been ready for the words he had gotten thrown in his face. He'd never seen Phil so openly agitated, so blatantly irritated and not even attempting to hide it. He really did not like Ronin, and that was...

That was weird.

But whatever.

He'd gotten what he wanted out of their little powwow – a place on the team under his conditions – and he guessed that would have to be enough. Now he had a whole week to get his head screwed on right, to decide just how he wanted to play this before he had to come back and actually train with the Avengers as Ronin – and man, wasn't that trippy? He'd never thought he would bring Ronin to the table, not for SHEILD or the Avengers or anyone.

But he could do it.

He and Kate were already set to move – girly girl actually seemed pretty excited to be coming back to New York. She'd already gotten her college classes sorted and last he'd seen her living room was stacked high with labeled moving boxes. As long as Simone texted him back there shouldn't be any reason that they couldn't be settled in Bed Stuy in time for Clint's 10AM meeting at the gym.

As he rapidly cleared the downtown rooftops, he felt a feral grin spread across his face.

Yeah, he was looking forward to that.

As a rule Agent Barton tended to hold back a bit in training. He had people to come home to, shit to live for, and hand-to-hand had never been his passion. He analyzed, took the quickest and easiest and most pain-free route to getting the job done, and Hawkeye? Well Hawkeye worked from a distance. Unseen, unheard, in and out and never even get close.

Ronin was different.

Ronin threw himself into a fight with everything he had because he didn't have anything to lose. Not even life and death mattered to the rogue assassin, and that freed you up for all kinds of wicked tricks. He was a master of the katana and Japanese throwing stars, but what he lived for, what he loved was a close, tight, down-and-dirty fist fight, and this time he'd also have the distinct advantage of knowing his sparring partners inside and out, back to front.

The Avengers wouldn't know what hit them.

It wasn't like he was going to try to hurt them on purpose, put them out of commission or anything, but it would be nice to knock Stark down a peg, see the innocent sort of dumbfounded look on Steve's face.

And if he got the chance to spar with Coulson, well...

Might feel good to work out some of his frustration toward the man.

Shaking his head to rid it of ridiculous thoughts, Clint decided he was in need of a distraction and determined that he might as well get a little work done at the same time. Two birds with one stone and all that jazz. Redirecting his course, he skimmed a few fire escapes and took a few detours until he hit Queens, found a familiar, run-down apartment and dropped through an open window, landing in the bedroom of one Peter Parker.

"Jeee...bus!" the kid yelped, leaping up from his desk so fast he knocked his knee against the side and nearly went to the ground, gasping in pain. "What the hell?"

"Relax kid," Clint rumbled, leaning back against the wall and crossing his arms. "Just me."

Parker didn't look reassured.

Unfair really, because Clint had had to pull the kid out of a pretty sticky situation a few weeks ago. You'd think saving his life would've earned him at least a few brownie points.

"Right," he mumbled, just a little shaky as he scrubbed his hands through his hair and righted whatever it was he'd dropped when Clint had come in. "Ronin. Hey."

"Hay is for horses," he said casually, relaxing his posture and letting his voice slide from Ronin's rough growl to Hawkeye's higher, more playful tone. "Was wondering if you could do me a favor."

Now the kid perked up and his face brightened as he nodded vehemently, eager to repay the debt the insisted he owed the assassin.

"Yeah of course, whatever you need," he agreed, and Clint almost scolded him for making that kind of a statement but he bit it back.

Unconcerned that Parker would recognize the lower half of his face, he reached up and tugged down his cowl, unclipped his hearing aids. He'd worn the little flesh colored ones that went inside his ears for this, not the larger, more distinctive over-the-ear pieces that had been custom ordered in bright purple.

"Need a little work done on these," he explained, reaching out and dropping them into the young man's upturned palm. "Wanted to know if you could fix them so I can patch them in to a radio frequency, sync them up with some government communicators."

"Which ones?" Parker asked, a little more loudly than before in thoughtful deference to the hearing aids in his hand as he carried them to his desk and set them up under a magnifying glass on a swinging arm.

Clint scowled, didn't answer, and without looking the kid seemed to realize he'd crossed a line, but instead of flinching like Clint expected him to, he just shrugged.

"I can do that, no problem," he said, sure of himself but not cocky like someone else Clint could name. "I can set them up so you can just program them in to whatever frequency you're using, like those old walkie-talkies."

"Works for me," Clint consented. "If you could sketch me up some costume designs too I'd appreciate it."

"Parameters?" Parker asked, turning to look back over his shoulder and run an eye over Clint from head to toe.

"Same concept," he said, "Same colors. But I need the hood and cowl worked over. Want to be able to eat and hydrate if I need to without taking the mask off."

"Yeah I've got the same problem," the kid commiserated. "Hard to maintain the secret identity when you've gotta flash your face."

"Right," Clint said, glancing around the shabby little bedroom. "Let me know what you come up with - I'll pay you for the designs. Fabrication too if you can pull it off."

Then, nodding toward the hearing aids...

"Think you can have those done by Friday?"

"Sure."

"Then I'll be here Friday."

Turning back to the window, Clint grabbed the sill, ready to heave himself out of it, but Parker called him back.

"So listen..." he began, turning Clint's hearing aids between his fingers. "My b... um, my buddy, Wade..."

Clint cocked an unimpressed eyebrow.

"Wade Wilson," he clarified. "Deadpool."

To his surprise - and yeah, it was a little bit hilarious - the kid went shock white and wide-eyed.

"Wait, how..."

Clint snorted.

"We've known each other for a while." He paused, hesitated because it was out of character for Ronin, but then decided he'd already invested something in keeping this kid alive – might as well go the full ride. "Wilson's a good guy. Completely fucking nuts, but hey, whatever gets your rocks off kid."

Parker blushed, ducked his head.

"Right. Anyway. I feel like you should know... SHIELD's been following us. Spiderman and Deadpool I mean. Wade says they're looking for you too."

This time Clint laughed.

"Relax kid," he reassured, stepping forward to clap him on the shoulder. "It's just a recruitment tactic – they're not looking to waste you. SHIELD... SHIELD are the good guys, as much as anyone can be these days."

"If they're the good guys, why does it sound like you're warning me away from them?"

Clint stilled, cocked his head.

Maybe not so stupid after all.

"SHIELD works for some people," he finally said. "You and Wade... you're not in that group."

Staring at him with eyes that were too old and too weary for his face, the kid seemed to judge his words, his sincerity, then shrugged his narrow shoulders.

"Well, whatever. Wade wants to hold out for the Avengers anyway. I keep telling him not to get his hopes up, but..." Looking off toward the window, the kid smirked, offered a self-deprecating little laugh. "Be pretty cool to meet Iron Man though. Tony Stark's brilliant – I'd love a chance to work in his labs."

"You're not exactly an idiot yourself kid," Clint offered, again more characteristic of Hawkeye than Ronin, and he wondered what it was about himself that he seemed to collect strays wherever he went.

"Tell you what," he said, making a gesture toward the hearing aids, the hood that still covered his eyes. "You keep this between you and me and I'll get you that meeting with Iron Man. He's always looking for interns, new brains to pick. I'd say you fit that bill."

"Wait, seriously?" Parker stammered, eyes huge and hopeful in his face as excitement washed over him in a visible wave. "I thought you said to stay away from all that?"

"I did," Clint nodded, "And I meant it. But the superhero world is a lot smaller than you think kid; you can be friends with Iron Man and still stay clear of the mayhem. You're still young, you've done a lot of great things, but you've still got a long ways to go. A lot of great things still to do. You can't do any of them if you're dead."

Turning around, Clint crossed the bedroom floor, climbed out the window onto the fire escape but stopped halfway through it.

"Stick with Wade," he advised. "He'll have your back. He's a better guy when you're around anyway, even if the heart eyes are a little much. Remind him about Taco Tuesday too - there's someone I want him to meet and it won't kill him to be on time for once. You like Mexican food?"

Now it was Parker's turn to pull an unimpressed bitch face.

"Could I be dating Wade Wilson and not like Mexican food?"

"Touche smart ass," Clint chuckled. "You be careful out there, you hear me? The last thing New York needs is Deadpool on the rampage."

Work commissioned and moral duty dislodged, Clint dropped onto the fire escape and started hoofing it back to Bed Stuy.

Chapter Text

"This. Is. Awesome!" Kate squealed, executing a jump and a twirl in the middle of their new living room.

Clint chuckled, shook his head at her antics and dropped the three boxes he'd carried up by the door. He'd come down two days before she had to get the furniture delivered to their newly acquired Bed Stuy apartment, getting the beds set up and situated and the purple sofa shoved into position along the wall. Nearly everything else had come down in Corey Bouchard's pick-up, the combined contents of both his and Kate's small cabins. All that had been left were the few things that hadn't fit, that had made the trip earlier that morning crammed into the back of Kate's little Volkswagen.

Now the small space was stacked and cluttered with boxes – so many that you nearly couldn't see the floor – but the large windows at the end of the room were open, letting in the sunshine and a pleasant fall breeze. Objectively the place wasn't great, not a candle to what she must have had growing up, but he could see the potential in it just like she could, and besides, if there was anything the last few years with the Avengers had taught him, it was that there was more to a home than just a house.

The dog bed tucked into the corner in a splash of warm sunlight.

The targets and the make-shift range he'd set up on the roof.

The girl, who came bouncing back to his side with a grin on her face and wrapped an arm around him, pulled him in for a one-armed hug.

Those were the things that mattered, that made you want to come back to a place at the end of the day, the things that kept you from just walking off the edge of a roof instead of taking the stairs because what the hell did it matter anymore?

Dark?

Yes.

Passively suicidal?

Check.

But he'd made it through because of the people, the family he'd found and the safety net he'd built.

Nat and Tony and Steve and then again, after, Kate.

He'd been a little stronger that second time around, his anger and yeah, ok, maybe a little bit of hate propelling him through the initial phase of painful rejection and self-deprecation that threatened to drag him down again.

It had been Kate though who made it all more than only just bearable, forced him to do more than just survive.

The girl made him laugh, made him smile, made it easier for him to get up in the morning without hating himself. Sure the fangirling was nice, the professional respect, but it was more than that. Kate was a force of nature in and of herself, bright and cheerful, snappy with the comebacks and willing to buckle down and get her hands dirty when she needed to. That she could be so purely happy (even with a questionably shady past of her own) was a source of both amazement and hope for Clint.

"I love it!" the girl herself declared, swatting at him and dodging away when he ruffled her hair.

Clint laughed.

"Let's see if you love it so much half way through unpacking all this crap."

"Aw, we'll get it done," she shrugged, still looking around like a kid on Christmas.

He'd already given her the tour and she'd officially claimed the smaller of the two bedrooms, the one with the walk-in closet. She was cool with sharing the bathroom that connected them on the upper floor, leaving a bathroom, living room, kitchen, and small, attached dining area on the first to be filled and organized. He'd had a round table and chairs delivered, three barstools for the countertop peninsula, and had a flat screen and DVD player installed against the brick wall. The place had come with a stove, fridge, and freezer and there was laundry in the basement, so the only other necessities they'd have to go out for were a new coffee pot and a microwave.

"...long before you have to go?" Kate asked suddenly, effectively killing his buzz as she dragged his attention back to her.

"Couple days," he replied, because he knew exactly what she meant and couldn't pretend otherwise. "I don't have to meet them till Saturday morning."

"Alright then. Let's get started!"

The rest of the day was spent in a blaze of energy and movement as they sorted boxes and began unpacking room by room, so hectic and intense that he didn't even have a chance to think about the Avengers. They left the door open for the cross-draft, plugged Kate's iPod into the TV for a poppy mix of boy-bands that felt way too young for Clint but that he danced to anyway, and didn't break until around three in the afternoon when Simone stopped by with homemade lemonade and cookies, her little boys in tow. They spent a good half hour getting to know their new neighbor while Lucky and her sons romped joyfully among the empty boxes, and Clint and Kate were happy to let the canine accompany his fast new friends back down the hallway for the afternoon. Having finished putting away their clothes and sorting their respective bedrooms before the interruption, they attacked the downstairs with new fervor – books and DVD's on the shelves, dishes in the cabinets, everything neatly in its place.

It was midnight by the time they both collapsed on the living room floor, sweaty and smiling and surrounded by piles of bent and battered cardboard, the only thing left of the boxes that has stood six deep that morning. Panting, muscles sore, they turned to look at each other silently for a moment before both of them burst into laughter.

"Holy crap!" Kate huffed, flopping over onto her back to stare at the ceiling. "We're sleeping in tomorrow yeah?"

"Got that right girly-girl," Clint agreed vehemently, fishing his cell phone out of his pocket. "Till noon at the very least. Leaves us plenty of time to get food and some stuff for Luck."

"And the coffee pot!"

"And the coffee pot. Even though there's a Starbucks we can walk to if there's ever an emergency."

"Cool. My library's not too far either; I can catch a bus on the corner that goes right past."

"Thought you were taking online courses?" he asked.

"I am, but I like being able to use the actual library too, so it's nice that it's so close. You done good Hawkeye," she declared, poking him in the leg with her toes.

Clint huffed a laugh, finished tapping on his phone and tossed it onto the coffee table.

"Speaking of, there's pizza on the way. You've got time to shower if you want."

"Oh god, yes please!" she groaned, rolling onto her knees. "You too though – you reek."

Narrowing his eyes, Clint waited till she was halfway to her feet and wasn't looking before he pounced, setting her to shrieking as he scooped her up over his shoulder and carried her off to deposit her in the bathtub, laughing and complaining about sweaty-bits and man-stink all the way.

AVAVA

Two days later, with Avengers Tower looming over him like some kind of beacon of doom, all the excitement and light-hearted gaiety of playing house with Kate had fled, leaving him cold and hollow and grim.

Fitting, suited to Ronin, but not really any fun.

He felt like an idiot - he'd told them he didn't want to live with them in the Tower, to share quarters, but he hadn't said anything which gym he was willing to practice in. He'd been a little preoccupied at the time, a little pissed, and he hadn't even thought about it before he'd dropped back out the window of their little safe house and taken off for Queens.

Now here he was, unable to decide which was the greater risk – raising suspicions by refusing to enter the Tower at all, or taking his chances that Jarvis would be cool and not rat him out to the rest of the Avengers.

Stupid, stupid - he'd known this would be an issue, knew Tony had to have his computer butler extraordinaire looking for him, and he wasn't narcissistic enough to think that it was anything more than luck thus far that had kept him off the genius's radar. Sure, he could change his name and use false identification, dye his hair and make sure that he didn't leave any stray arrows lying around, but he was smart enough to know that it couldn't last forever.

He'd never planned for it to go on forever.

He just... wasn't ready to call game over yet.

Well, maybe the AI wouldn't recognize him.

He was wearing his black and gold after all, the new hearing aids and the improved mask he'd picked up from Parker. Kid had done a damn good job too, kept the Japanese ninja warrior thing going and designed something that looked like paneled armor, that he could shift and slide and move to give himself room to eat and drink and breath without exposing more than one small part of his face at a time. Take that into account, plus that fact that he didn't look like him, that in the last two years his body, his weight, his silhouette had changed, and he might be ok.

As long as he wasn't asked for blood, spit, or fingerprints he might be ok...

Ok, so he was stalling, what of it?

He still wasn't really comfortable with this, wasn't sure why he was here of what his end game was.

The unease, the uncertainty was more than enough to overpower the desire he'd had the week before to wipe the floor with his teammates, prove to them that he was more than just an archer, prove that he was worth more than something you just threw away...

And ok, yeah, so maybe he really needed to just prove that to himself, because it wasn't like he planned to take his mask off afterward – surprise, you suck!

Though that might have its advantages too.

Clint snorted, scoffed at himself.

Yeah right, like he had the balls for that.

No, he just ran away from his problems, always had, likely always would.

That needle pricking at his pride was enough to get him moving, enough to get him through the doors and into a quiet hallway away from the lobby and the desks and the executive assistants who didn't even blink an eye anymore at someone coming in dressed like a villain or a superhero. Just act like you belonged there, like you were allowed and no one questioned which doors you walked through.

It was a risk using the vents. Travel by air duct was classic Clint, but something in him bristled at the thought of waiting in the lobby to be collected by Stark, guided down the Avengers' private gym like new staff on tour. It was duplicating a trick to just appear where he was supposed to be, to be found waiting when there was no way he should've been able to slip past them, but it was better than the alternative and he figured that if anyone questioned it, even Jarvis, he could play it off as advice from Clint as to the best mode of transportation around the Tower. They knew that Hawkeye and Ronin 'knew each other,' should be an easy enough lie to pull off.

He didn't quite manage the thing with as much finesse as he had the first time.

Popping out of a vent located in the hallway just outside the gym, he carefully replaced the cover and rolled his shoulders, shaking out his jacket before strolling in with all the ease and nonchalance of a man who knew he was the biggest and baddest in the room but didn't feel the need to prove it. Unfortunately he found the room already occupied, each of the Avengers sitting cross-legged in a circle inside Tony's boxing ring, their handler leaning against the ropes. They were all wearing gym gear but for Phil in his ever-present suit, listening intently as he spoke in the low, calm, smooth voice that haunted Clint night and day, but the slam of the door behind him was a fairly loud announcement of his entry.

"What, no invite?" he asked as they startled and turned to stare at him, careful to keep his irrational hurt out of his voice and replacing it with Ronin's icy, deadly-sweet growl instead.

"Mr. Ronin, you're early," Phil deadpanned, ignoring the jab.

"Better than late," he argued.

It was an old point of contention between them - Clint's habit of dragging his feet to meetings and skipping them all together when he could one of Coulson's biggest pet peeves.

The man's mouth tightened at the corners, a nearly invisible tell and Clint grinned, showed his teeth beneath his mask and hood.

Yeah that's right, it was a jab, because two fucking years too late wasn't even close to fair was it?

So Clint would play dirty if he damn well pleased.

Flexing his shoulders, he dropped his hands to the pommel of his katana, forced himself to relax and let go of the sudden surge of anger, irritation. They were good emotions for Ronin, fit him just as well as the tailed, tailored jacket, but only if he kept them under control, only if he used them. No point if he let himself drown in them, fell back into the murky headspace he'd lived in those first few months after Coulson came back, all pity and misery and self-flagellation.

"You know I don't often say this," Tony piped up, shooting Phil a narrow-eyed glare as he blatantly changed the subject, "But I suddenly feel under-dressed."

Unseen, Clint rolled his eyes.

"Like even your sweats don't cost more than my entire year's wardrobe," he scoffed, immediately grateful that he'd said it more to himself, that his words hadn't carried loudly enough across the room to be heard.

That was too close to Clint, too close to teasing banter for safety.

Hell what he wouldn't give for this to be a little bit easier, for it to hurt less every time he saw them, for him to want less, for it to be easier to step into Ronin's dark shadow and just forget his other name.

How could he stop them, how could they not recognize him as a part of their team, as a part of the whole as they moved into battle? Already he could feel himself slipping, falling into old habits, into his old place. It would be so easy, so easy to slip, to trip, a word or a gesture and it would be over. He knew them all so well – could it be possible that they would not know him?

Could he really pull that off?

Did he want to?

"What's the point of training without your gear?" his mouth asked, making up for his preoccupied brain.

"Mostly to make sure you don't kill your teammates by accident," Tony explained drolly, and ok, sensible, but really? Cocky much Stark?

"You couldn't kill me if you tried Stark," Clint countered, and yeah, that was more like it, Ronin's own brand of confidence; slick and sharp and icy, like good vodka, but then Stark was perking up like a bird dog, his attention caught like Clint had thrown out some shiny new bit of metal for him to play with.

"Wanna make it a bet?" he asked, and then Steve and Bruce and (mostly) Phil were all jumping in, all protesting, but Clint just grinned beneath his hood.

Ronin or Hawkeye, he'd missed that, that aggressive kind of teasing, testing.

"All right Stark, you're on," he agreed, to Coulson's irritation and Steve's evident dismay. "I'll even let you wear the suit."

"Should probably let me name my terms before you say yes," Tony warned, getting to his feet and out his shoulders as the others, Nat and Bruce and Steve and Coulson all cleared out of the ring, sticking close to the ropes where they could watch.

Clint waved him off casually – he knew exactly what terms Tony would try to win on, but on Ronin that knowledge just looked over-confidence, which was fine with him.

"If I win," the man said, suddenly hesitant, wary, calculating as he fidgeted with the bracelets around his wrists, the ones that called the suit, "If I win... you'll tell us about Clint?"

"Can't tell you what you want to know Stark," he growled, fingers tight around the narrow pommel of his sword as he fought not to fist his hands, ready and yet not ready at all for the demand. "Not my place. But... sure, what the hell. You win, I'll tell you what I can."

It was cruel perhaps, unfair.

Especially to Tony.

Hell, to all of them really.

Using them to get back at Coulson, to make him hurt, but it would be worth it, worth it to see that little bit of pain on his face, remorse if he could wring it out of the man.

But that was Ronin talking, the cool anger, the detached sort of mild hatred.

Good.

"Not sure it's fair to humor you," Tony said off-handedly, tapping at his wrists and then stepping back as pieces of his armor suddenly seemed to manifest around him, conforming to his body. "But you seem pretty confident Man-in-Black. So. If you win?"

"If I win you owe me a favor," Clint growled, talking before he even knew what he meant to ask for. "A personal favor. Not for me you understand, for a friend."

Between the metal panels of the mask that began to encase his neck and jawline, Tony frowned.

"A friend," he said uncertainly. "No offense, but you don't seem the type for friends."

"I'm not. But maybe I know a guy who knows a guy. Might be that guy's a kid genius with a science crush on the one and only Tony Stark."

"So what, you want an autograph?"

"Try an afternoon. Kid's going places, but where he ends up is gonna depend entirely on the types of friends he makes along the way." Shrugging, Clint looked away, then covered by slipping neatly between the ropes into the ring. "Never know when one person will be the difference between a new superhero or a new supervillain."

Shit.

It took everything he had not to look at Phil in that moment, to look at Coulson. The man might not know exactly what he'd done the day he brought Clint in to SHIELD, how he'd saved him from a life as Ronin, dark, angry, villain-in-the-making Ronin and Hawkeye, superhero and Avenger, but Clint knew.

And really, that was all that mattered.

So could they just fight now?

Stretching out his arms a bit, Clint bounced a few times on his feet, then went still, bent forward slightly at the waist, hands ready at his sides as he studied his opponent.

"Last chance," Tony warned, the mask coming down over his face and the suit lighting up at the ready.

Mouth twisting in a feral grin, Clint forced himself to stare into the eyes of the mask, mildly blue glow still too blue for comfort. Ice cold, deadly control, forced accuracy – it was all he needed to drop entirely into Ronin's darkness, to let it fill up his chest with inky black. Relishing the rush of power, he reached for his belt at the small of his back, brought out a pair of well-used nun-chucks. For the most part that suit wasn't all that different from a human body – it was weakest at the joints and couldn't take much of a beating there without serious consequence.

"Seriously?" Tony scoffed, his voice tinny and electronic as he stepped forward toward the fight."Nun-chucks? I was totally gonna go easy on you, but you just changed my mind."

Chapter Text

He wiped the floor with them.

All of them.

Holy hell, the things that did to a man's ego.

To be fair, Tony would have beaten him eventually.

Clint wouldn't have been able to hold up against the suit forever - he was only human after all - but lucky for him, he knew the weaknesses of the man as well as the metal.

In a blur of speed he launched a concentrated attack, keeping Tony grounded and executing a violent assault on the inner elbows of the armor, at the connection points where the suit was weakest. Iron Man wasn't ready for Ronin's agility or the vicious way he dove into the fight, knocked off his balance and likely rattled like a marble in a tin can from the initial blow to the side of the head he'd received.

Wham! Bam! Smash! - Eight hits with the bars of the nunchucks he wielded with deadly precision and he'd crushed the mechanism of the joint so badly that he rendered Tony's left arm effectively useless. Counting on his cockyness, his know-it-all attitude to be his downfall, Clint wasn't disappointed.

The man was so surprised by the success of Clint's blitz attack that he tapped out then and there, apparently forgetting the fact that he was currently engaged in a sparring match at all. Frozen in stunned silence, he looked back and forth between Clint and his immobilized limb almost comically before stalking away, forcing the suit between the ropes so roughly that they nearly snapped. Collapsing the armor and dropping onto a ringside bench, he started cursing like a one-eyed director when his arm got stuck in the warped gauntlet and he couldn't get it off, diving into a conveniently kept toolbox for a screwdriver.

Clint cocked an unimpressed eyebrow, allowed himself a little tickle of pride that – for his purposes – he'd just defeated Iron Man.

The genius was hissing and muttering under his breath, attacking the metal with various wrenches and bits and pieces, sending little glares Clint's way that would've likely melted him where he stood if Tony hadn't put away the mask beforehand, but he couldn't blame the guy. He'd just taken out his greatest creation in less than six minutes and hadn't even worked up a sweat.

Flooded with Ronin's own brand of smooth, smug self-confidence, he turned to the rest of the Avengers, who were staring with shock and begrudging concession by turns, tucked the nunchucks back into his belt, and resisted the urge to spread his arms.

"Who's next?"

Turned out he was too fast for Steve. Too vicious for Bruce to even step into the ring. Too unknown for Natasha, changing his style too quickly and too often for her to get a grip on him. It was easy in a way, taking advantage of his friends' weaknesses with Ronin's cold, calculating mind; extorting Steve's reluctance to use his full strength against an ally, Bruce's hesitation to engage with someone as dark and angry as he was, Tasha's reliance on what she knew, what she expected.

She should have been the one to take him too, the Black Widow, but Ronin had a reputation just as deadly as hers and she'd never felt the need to hold back. Clint always had. He'd always given SHIELD a hundred and ten percent, of course, or at least he had once he'd been assigned to Coulson, but when you were used to giving a hundred and thirty just to keep yourself alive, the extra twenty percent was the difference between getting up and walking away or going down with a sinking ship.

So yeah, Clint had always held back a little, never told anyone he was fluent in most middle eastern dialects or that he was a black belt in an obscure style of Thai fighting, or that he was just as good with a katana and throwing stars as he was with his bow. Altogether as a whole, Clint Barton knew more ways to fight and more ways to fight dirty than Natasha Romanov did, and he'd never, ever told her.

Of course it didn't hurt that he knew all her tricks, so when she moved in and tried to get her thighs around his neck he ducked, went to his knees and took her with him, slamming her down flat on her back hard enough to knock the air from her lungs. Wouldn't have kept her down long, but he had a boot on her wrist where she typically wore her Widows' Bites and the flat of a small Japanese kunai to her throat before she recovered, staring down at her as she lay motionless for all of a still, silent minute.

She didn't recognize him, he didn't worry about that. There was a small spark of hatred in her gaze which reassured him, along with all the suspicion and hesitant respect that had been there before. He knew that look, realized that he'd just made himself a potential target of the Widow in the future.

She didn't like competition she wasn't certain she could beat.

Letting her up when she slapped the flat of her palm against the mats, Clint looked around at his little row of conquests – all frowning and glaring and melancholy, Tony still trying valiantly to free himself from the arm of his suit. Thor was absent, no doubt called back to Asgard, and that meant the only one left to prove himself to was Coulson.

Beneath his hood Clint scowled.

A part of him knew that he didn't have to prove himself, to anyone least of all his old handler, but he wasn't stupid enough to think that that wasn't exactly what he was doing.

More than coming back to keep them safe in the fight against Hydra and AIM, he was doing it to prove to himself and to them that he was worth more than the asset that Phil Coulson had so coldly and carelessly thrown away.

"You're up, secret agent man," he growled, assessing Phil where he stood, arms crossed, observing the fights. "Not worried you'll tear your fancy suit?"

"Not at all," Coulson replied casually, letting his arms drop and shrugging out of his jacket to reveal the shoulder holster he wore underneath. "Unlike your other opponents, I always dress for a fight."

There was a threat there, made subtle by Coulson's tone and his easy movement as he folded his jacket over the back of the bench, removed his handgun and unloaded it before handing it to Natasha for safekeeping. The others didn't react, too distracted to notice maybe but Clint did, and he had to bite his tongue to stop a boy scout joke that threatened to slip.

Too light, too playful for Ronin, who was busy working his way through every member of the Avengers Initiative with remarkable success.

Actually, it was probably a good thing Thor wasn't here to ruin his average - he wasn't sure how he'd win that one. Maybe dangle a riddle and a pack of wild berry poptarts in front of him...

Climbing back into the ring Clint stuck with that thought, determined to distract himself from the very major panic threatening to rush in on him.

Damn it, Ronin didn't panic - Hawkeye panicked!

Ronin didn't care what Phil Coulson thought or did or said because Ronin wasn't the one who'd been dropped like a hot potato.

Violently shrugging off his leaping emotions, Clint unbuckled his belt, carefully set aside his katana and most of his other weapons. Courtesy or mockery, he wasn't sure which he meant the gesture to be, but Coulson didn't react either way, just dropped into a ready stance and waited for Ronin to make the first move.

That was fine by Clint.

It was easy to forget sometimes, that Coulson was more than just a suit, what with the way he dressed, the way he walked and talked, all smooth confidence and quiet containment. His was a buttoned-up sort of power that only some people could sense, people like Clint who saw things a little better than other people. Everyone else just saw a balding, middle-aged man in nice clothes, if they saw him at all. If the senior agent had a superpower it was blending in with the wallpaper, at least until he had you by the throat, and it was Ronin's throat that he went for.

They both got in a few good hits. It was a close fight, down and dirty, nothing structured about it. It was the kind of fight that Ronin loved, knees and fists and elbows, violent pummeling and going for the soft, vulnerable bits of your opponent, the groin and the belly and the throat. It was taking shots to the ribs, twisting and shoving, no style to it at all as they grappled and wrestled with each other on the floor. If Coulson went at it with all he had so did Clint, all his anger and bitterness and pain flooding through his veins like electric heat and in those moments maybe he did want to hurt the man...

Just a little bit.

Breath coming in snarling pants, Ronin went at Phil Coulson like he really was trying to kill him, and Phil Coulson came right back.

It was hard to say who would have won it – seemed like they were both trying to exercise some demons in that sparring ring – but then, in a move Hawkeye never would have tolerated, Clint allowed Phil to grab his wrist and wrench his arm up behind his back, strain his shoulder, let the man bend him forward and then used the momentum to throw him like he'd done with Nat.

Coulson didn't end up on his back though, and he didn't end up on the floor.

Instead he ended up on his knees, crouched over Clint's thighs, practically sitting in his lap. A flip of the wrist had reversed their grips, landing Clint with one arm locked around the man's throat and the other holding his hand up between his shoulder blades, controlling his weight as he tried automatically to buck up off of him, regain the upper hand. He was heavy and warm and close pressed against Clint's chest and suddenly it was so familiar, memories of old sparring sessions all rushing in on him at once that he had to fight an abrupt rush of arousal, bite back a pained, cracked laugh that threatened to escape from his throat.

Was messed up – his old shrink would probably have a field day with this shit – but damn it, it was still Coulson. The guy would always have an effect on him, no matter how mad he was, and ok, yeah, he liked a good bit of rough and tumble. So what? It was fun, got his heart pumping, his blood up, adrenaline running hot, and now here he was with his lap full of squirming, struggling, pissed-off Phil Coulson, all hard, straining muscle and that signature cologne that Clint hadn't smelled since before the man died and all of a sudden it was way too much.

Forget popping an awkward woody – this was too close to something he actually wanted not to hurt.

Planting his palms flat on the small of Coulson's back, Clint shoved the older man hard enough to catapult him to his feet, then rose smoothly to his own.

"I win," he growled between clenched teeth, calling an end to the match.

Damn if he didn't feel like he'd lost.

"That was... quite impressive," Steve offered awkwardly, ignoring a nasty, childish comment from the genius rolling around on the floor at his feet and eyeing Phil like he expected the man to go for his gun at any moment. "Your hand-to-hand is good to say the least. How are you at a distance?"

Clint allowed himself a scoff.

Taking a throwing star from the inside of his jacket, he held it up for a brief look, then turned on his heel and sent it flying, across the gym and into the throat of the human dummy standing sentry against the wall.

Objectively he missed.

Technically he hadn't.

He hit what he was aiming for, just a quarter inch down and to the left of what he would consider a bullseye.

Couldn't be too perfect.

Still, for Ronin, for anyone but Hawkeye himself it was a damned good shot, and it distracted from the humming tension that still crackled and stung between him and the man standing quietly off to the sidelines.

"I'm accurate up to twenty yards with the shuriken," he said smugly. "Maybe thirty with knives. Anything more than that it gets a little... dicey."

"Hydra likes a close fight," Bruce considered aloud, rubbing his chin and looking thoughtful. "AIM though..."

"Isn't that where you come in?" Clint asked, for the first time feeling a little bad about something he said. "I'm no science geek. What the hell is Hydra doing teaming up with a group like AIM anyway?"

From his spot on the floor Tony made a derogatory sound in his throat.

"Funding," he spat vehemently. "AIM makes a convenient distraction from Hydra when they're making a nuisance of themselves. But this time they've got MODOK, and with a Hydra-sized bank account..."

"No telling what he's got the cash to come up with," Clint concluded. "Shit."

"Indeed," Coulson cut in. "We have evidence that MODOK is currently working on an advanced method of mind-control, small devices which, when implanted, cause the victim's mind to be absorbed into a sort of collective consciousness."

"That possible?" he asked skeptically, turning to Tony, who had given up on fixing the joint of his suit and was busy dismantling the gauntlet one small piece at a time.

"Metaphysically?" he posed without even looking up. "Yeah. Unfortunately we think that he can do it, we just don't know what he plans to use it for. What kind of new world or new world order he plans to bring about using the collective brain power of his idiot minions."

"So it's more than mind control?"

"Of course it's more than mind control," Tony sneered. "Call that moron a genius... wasting his time with those AIM idiots..."

Right.

Because breaking the science genius bro-ship was the worst of MODOK's crimes.

"We have a dossier compiled," Phil continued, and Clint frowned, still off his balance with the man. "Why don't we step upstairs to a briefing room?"

"Oh right," Tony grumbled, eyeing Clint as he tossed his screwdriver back into the tool box with a clank and shoved to his feet. "Jarvis, code Ronin access to the Tower. I don't know how you managed to get in earlier..."

Shit!

"I told you I don't wanna be scanned by your freaky computers Stark," Clint snarled, injecting all the rough, growling anger into his voice that he could as his chest went tight. "Not gonna be..."

"Body scan complete," Jarvis' voice reported calmly, cool and automated as he interrupted Clint's tirade. "Welcome, Ronin."

Ronin.

Oh thank god.

For a second Clint was sure his heart had stopped in his chest, sure the AI had been about to out him to the whole team, and if it weren't for the slightly snide tone Jarvis had taken on, he might be tempted to think that the computer was willing to keep Clint's secret for him. He and Clint had a pretty good relationship after all, but it looked like he and Ronin wouldn't.

Which was fine.

He could... deal with that.

Was only fair that he got snubbed if he was going be a dick to the AI.

He knew that a general body scan wouldn't be enough to give him away – a year of playing Ronin had been softened his archery calluses, changed the shape of his silhouette, made him lighter, leaner, faster than the profile he had logged with Jarvis.

It was a retinal scan, a blood sample, a fingerprint that would catch him out, the friendly banter he kept with the computer butler that few of the other Avengers indulged in.

So he would be an ass, growl and scoff and sneer, and hope it would be enough.

"Fine," he barked. "Whatever. But I've got some good news to deliver to our friendly neighborhood spider-boy and a date with a hot piece, so what say we wrap this up."

That earned him a few nasty looks, from Nat and Coulson in particular, and he almost laughed at the way they were glaring at him but he let it go. Picking up his belt from the bench, he re-tied it around his waist as the rest of the Avengers got to their feet, a strange disappointment falling over the group.

Futz.

Maybe he should give them something, send a letter to Nat maybe. At least let them know that he was still alive...

"I would've met with him anyway," Tony muttered as they all piled into the elevator that led to the upper floors, wedging himself in next to Clint while the others pressed their bodies back against the walls. "The kid. Ought to pick him up before somebody like MODOK does."

"Smart man," Clint acknowledged, not sure he was ready to give in just yet despite his misgivings.

Tony frowned, glared at him from the corner of his eye.

"Don't be a shit," he growled.

It was enough to startle a bark of laughter out of Clint, and ok, yeah, point.

"Known your boy a long time," he said slowly, soberly, and suddenly the elevator was dead silent. "We ran in a lot of the same circles."

"I find that hard to believe," Steve blurted out, then blushed and dropped his eyes when Clint turned, stared. "No offense."

"You'd be surprised," he hissed, because of course perfect boy-scout Steve Rogers, Captain America had no idea the kind of life Clint had led, the kind of shit he'd been through. "We're not that different, me and Hawkeye."

Here he paused, laughed coldly, because it was so fucking true whether you understood the double meaning or not.

"I'm who he could'a been," he said dully. "Who he would'a been."

"So what changed?"

Clint looked at Tony, the honest curiosity on his face, then turned his head a fraction to the left to stare at Senior Agent Phillip J Coulson, who in turn stared resolutely at the doors of the elevator, unaffected.

"Nothing."

Chapter Text

"Walk me through it one more time."

Clint frowned, nibbled his lower lip before shuffling the papers in his hands.

He was sitting cross-legged on the living room floor in front of the coffee table with SHIELD's field report spread out in front of him, Lucky flopped out against his side. Kate was standing a few paces away, firing arrows over his head at the target tacked against the far wall, leaving him all kinds of impressed that she could follow his babble and still hit the bullseye every time.

He wasn't trying too hard to dumb it down for her. Really he was just using her as a sounding board, talking out loud so he could understand what he was saying better than if he just ran through it in his head. Things got tangled up in there, and he couldn't deny that he was distracted.

It had been three days since his takedown of the Avengers and the euphoria of it was wearing off. The pride had lasted longer than the adrenaline, lingered in his system for a while, but he couldn't sustain it forever and once it faded it was hard not to sink into a little bit of a depression. One part of it was not going back, not seeing them after he'd gotten a taste – he missed them damn it! The other part of it was worse.

The other part of it was standing there in that elevator and... defending himself where he shouldn't have to, where he wasn't the one who'd done anything wrong and seeing Coulson just... not react at all. Stand there all unflappable-agent-man and leave Clint to realize that maybe Ronin had been right when he'd said nothing changed.

The only thing that had pulled Clint off the path to becoming a heartless, stone-cold assassin had been Phil Coulson, who'd made him all kinds of promises, made him trust, made him believe, and then...

Nothing.

Just like he'd told Stark.

All that talk that Clint was actually worth something, that he would always come for him, and it had all been lies.

"Ok," he said, clearing his throat, which had gone tight and achy as he lost himself in the pain of it all. "Ok. You know Hydra right?"

Above him Kate nodded, drew back her bow.

"And you know AIM."

"Yes."

"All right. So AIM is basically a joke most of the time – easy to take down, stupid plans that always go wrong, not a lot of funding... Problem we've got now is that Hydra is sending money down the pipeline to help them up their game. Hydra gets a convenient distraction enabling them to do who-knows-what while the Avengers run around fighting someone else."

"Bigger problem is MODOK," he continued, sorting through his scattered paperwork for a full color picture of the mechanized super-dork. Grabbing it out of the pile, he held it up for her to see, brought it back down when another arrow fired overhead signaling the completion of her perusal. "Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing."

"Clever."

Clint snorted.

"The guy's an idiot - the dangerous kind of nuts. The kind where if he gets lucky he might actually blow up the world, even if he doesn't really mean to."

"Oh good. That's comforting."

"Exactly. Apparently AIM has recruited the guy, which means not only do they have the funds, they've also got a giant-headed brain directing the flow of said funds."'

"And where exactly are those funds headed?"

Clint frowned, scrambled among his papers. This is where it got confusing, where he started having trouble. Normally this was the part where he'd sit down with Nat and Phil and Strike Team Delta would sort their shit, make sure everyone knew where they stood, what was going on with the plan. This time he didn't have that, so instead he sat down with Kate and Lucky and an anxious tickle of uncertainty in the pit of his belly and worked it out for himself.

He was smart, he could do this...

Right?

Where was that...

"Ok, so it's something called Tlon," he said, the word too round and foreign on his tongue as he scrabbled through the stack of pages Tony had printed out for him. It tasted like rubber, heavy in his mouth, but at least it hadn't been Phil's notes he was handed. He wasn't sure he could've handled sitting here reading over his thorough, detailed sketches, his neat script so familiar, so well studied that Clint could've forged it from memory without a thought.

"Tlon," he tried again, refining his accent around the letters and the frown that tugged at his mouth.

"Sounds like Korean food," Kate said, lowering her bow and coming over to his side, dropping onto the couch behind him and leaning forward to prop her elbow on his shoulder. "Tlon..."

"It's some sort of fifth dimension. Or fortieth, who knows. Best as SHIELD can tell, MODOK wants to use all the baddies that live there to destroy life as we know it."

"So where does Ronin come in?" she asked. "They want you to..."

Clint went a little bit cold as she trailed off, pulled back from him. They hadn't really had this talk; he knew that she knew what he did – a bow was a weapon after all – but it was something else to say it out loud. As Ronin it had never mattered – he'd done what he did without a qualm – but after becoming Hawkeye, becoming a superhero, someone other people looked up to and relied on...

It was harder.

"I'm not sure what they want me to do yet," he said carefully. "But... maybe, yeah."

Turning away he shoved roughly to his feet, began to stalk toward the kitchen.

"Hard fact of life Katie-cat," he growled. "Sometimes even the good guys have to do bad things."

It was stupid.

He shouldn't care what some little rich college-girl thought of him.

She didn't know, would never understand, and it shouldn’t matter anyway.

Phil had taught him that, and even if everything else he'd said had been a lie, that one thing still stuck to Clint like static.

What he thought of himself would kill him faster and more painfully than what anyone else did.

Probably said something, what with the way he suddenly felt like absolute shit, the way it suddenly seemed that Katie finding out Ronin, Hawkeye, Clint had killed, would kill again was the absolute worst thing in the world. Utter betrayal, crushing disappointment, suffocating hurt, like, like finding out that Captain America was undercover Hydra or that SHIELD Agent Phil Coulson didn't really...

Hoo boy, ok, breathe Barton.

Come on idiot, in and out, not like it's hard...

Squeezing the edge of the counter so hard his knuckles turned white and his fingers ached, Clint dropped his head, leaned his weight forward and swallowed hard.

Hell, who was he kidding, of course he cared what Kate thought of him.

Jesus, she was like, his only person right now – and she idolized Hawkeye.

He knew what it was like to have your role model be exposed as a traitorous piece of shit, to find out that your mentor wasn't half the man you thought he was. He knew the cutting edge of pain you felt when you realized the people you looked up to, honored, cared about left you broken and bleeding out in the rain.

He remembered the way he'd looked at Barney, at Trickshot, at Phil, and he didn't think he could take seeing that same look in Kate's eyes when she turned her gaze on him.

He pretty much figured that given all that, it was understandable that he nearly jumped out of his skin when two slender arms wrapped around his waist, when Kate pulled herself close and pressed her cheek against his shoulder blades. The heat of her, the full-body contact was reassuring in a way that it really shouldn't be and he felt himself sag forward, his arms catching his weight against the counter.

"I'm not stupid," she murmured quietly, tightening her grip on him. "Not a kid. Even if I didn't watch the news, I'm not naive enough to think that peace exists without war. But I know you Clint. Probably better than you know me even – let's not forget what a fangirl I am. If you've... if you've killed people, or hurt people, I know it was only to protect someone else. I believe that, because I believe in you. Even if maybe sometimes you don't believe in yourself."

"You can't know I'm good," he choked, surprised by the hoarseness of his own voice. "You don't..."

Gritting his teeth, Clint took her wrists gently but firmly in his hands and stepped out of the circle of her embrace so that he could turn around to face her. He didn't want to, couldn't bring his gaze up to meet hers, but it felt important somehow, in that moment.

"Ronin was never a good guy Kate," he tried again. "The way I was going, I could'a been him. I could'a ended up that guy, who killed for money, who stopped caring who their mark was, who... I tried to be better, you know? Tried to be Hawkeye until I couldn't anymore, and now I'm trying to do the same thing with Ronin, make him better, be better but it's hard and this time I don't even have..."

"This time you don't even have help."

She knew what he meant, he was sure of it, and he thanked all his gods that she didn't say it out loud.

This time he didn't have Phil Coulson on his side.

Clint didn't realize he was shaking until suddenly Kate was hugging him again, her hands fisted in his t-shirt at the small of his back and her forehead resting on his chest, refusing to let him go.

This time he let himself hug her back.

Maybe he didn't deserve it, but damn if he didn't need it more than anything.

"Let me help?" she asked quietly, pulling back and staring at him with an intensity that could put the Black Widow herself to shame. "You're not lost Clint. If you need somebody to hold on to, somebody to... anchor Ronin... I can do it. I can do it Clint."

"Think you're ready to be a superhero, huh Hawkeye?" he chuckled, a little brokenly, still hurting but not quite so much.

 

Cupping his cheek in her hand, she swiped away the dampness under his eye, grinned when he slapped her away.

"Only one way to find out."

AVAVA

Well, they found out.

When she'd proposed a little teamwork Clint never could have imagined what would come of it. Over the next two weeks he'd cherry-picked a few novice jobs for her, walked her through them step by step. He'd started her out with a simple mugging, handed off when Peter Parker's camera traps had caught a few too many bad guys at once. Despite her nerves she had done well, and he could see the exact moment when it hit her – the realization that she had done something, had made a difference in her small little corner of the world. After that it was a gas station hold up they were lucky enough to stumble across, and from there he bumped her up to a shoddy bank heist he caught wind of on the supervillain interweb.

In the end it was good for both of them; Kate had her steady hand guided by Hawkeye himself, getting introduced to the world of vigilantism and building her skills in the process, while Clint got the opportunity to shape both her work and his own alibi. He'd warned the Avengers that Ronin would be staying in Bed Stuy and wouldn't tolerate being spied on, so for the most part he felt safe enough to shoot on the roof and walk Lucky and run down to the corner market, but he didn't doubt for a moment that they were still looking for him. Venturing into the outer boroughs he was vulnerable to being caught on whatever cameras Tony Stark could hack (see: all of them), but together he and Kate had decided that the wisest course of action would be to take control of the tip line themselves.

When whispers of a lady archer began to hit the news, good but not quite as good as the mysteriously absent Hawkeye, he felt a sense of relief that was likely greater than it should be.

Still, he got a kick out of it, knowing that Rogers would be reading the headlines in his stupidly old-fashioned newspaper, that Jarvis would catch it in his cross-references of keywords like 'arrows' and 'purple,' that Phillip J Coulson would know when Fury called him in to ream his ass over his missing agent, the young civilian upstart who had the presumption to aspire to what only Clinton Francis Barton could do.

And hell if it wasn't fun.

"Feel like a little vigilantism?" he asked as Kate came slamming into the apartment, book bag hanging heavy on her shoulder as she returned from a trip to the library.

"Oh god yes," she groaned, slinging the bag to the floor and giving Lucky a scratch on the head as she passed. "You didn't tell me before we started that this stuff was so addictive."

"Like crack cocaine," he agreed grimly. "And just as dangerous."

"Ugh, that part we did go over," she complained, and they had, at length.

Didn't matter – he still felt a little guilty about it, bringing her into this world, where it was so easy to be badly hurt, to be killed. To earn a name for yourself, a reputation that got you hunted.

"I know the risks," she reminded him, running her fingers through his hair just as she had done the dog's. "I'm still here. What's the gig?"

"Remember these?" he asked, spreading out a stack of photos on the coffee table like a deck of cards. No pictures of MODOK this time, no SHIELD print-outs; just amateur snapshots of apparently random tagging, black spray paint dripping down the sides of buildings and back alleyways.

"Hobo graffiti," Kate answered with a nod, "Vagabond writing, I think you said?"

"Yup. They're in town, a three-night performance."

"The same one you were in, Carson's?"

"No!" Clint exclaimed, barking a laugh. "No, they shut down years ago." Pulling out the flyer he'd found, he tapped at the illustration, the familiar face. "But the shady people are warning folks to get out of town if they don't like heat. Cirque du Nuit..."

"They're doing the inauguration of the new hotel?" Kate asked in surprise, her hand tightening on his shoulder as she scanned the flyer and the newspapers scattered across the table. "Clint I know people who are gonna be at this thing. They're not gonna..."

"It's a pick-pocket gig," he reassured her, "Easy enough to pull off. In the dark like that, rich crowd... they'll make good money."

She must've caught on to his tone, a little impressed, a little considering, maybe even a little longing, and it made her cock an eyebrow at him, cross her arms and snort.

"You like the ones where the money floats, huh?"

"Force of habit, girlie-girl," he laughed. "Grow up like I did, you learn to appreciate work like this."

"Hmm."

"Aw come on," he cajoled, bumping her side with his shoulder. "We're gonna stop the bad guys, protect all your friends..."

"Uh-huh, and exactly how do you plan on getting in?" she asked, clearly unimpressed. "No offense, but that's the world's first six-star hotel. You won't get past the front door."

Futz.

"Um..."

"Oh relax," she grumbled, flopping onto the couch beside him and pulling out her phone. "Spoiled little rich girl here, remember? I know the guy who owns the place."

"What?!" he yelped. "Kate, this Gunn guy's so shady he don't need sunscreen!"

"Please," she scoffed. "Bernie Gunn is an old family friend. He bought me a pony for my eighth birthday."

Tossing her phone onto the couch cushions she rose and dusted off her hands.

"There. Two tickets, easy in."

"Wait, seriously?"

"Seriously. Now get up, because whatever plan you've got cooked up in the head of yours, I think you're missing one huge, glaring problem."

"What?" he asked, slightly offended since, hey, he was good at plans.

Quirking her lips, Kate looked him up and down and shook her head.

"You need a suit."

Chapter Text

In the end they both got new suits.

Kate's was better - purple and armored and fabricated by Peter Parker himself - a suit fit for a Lady Hawkeye, while Clint's was black and tailored and too tight across the shoulders, but he supposed he cleaned up nice enough because nobody questioned starlet Kate Bishop's choice in arm candy as she waltzed them down the gauntlet of shouting reporters.

Despite the cameras he felt fairly safe. He did his best to stay out of the pictures, kept his head down, and he'd gotten a slick, expensive new haircut just for the occasion. All in all he probably looked cleaner and sharper and better than he ever had before but he couldn't hold a candle to Kate, spectacular in a delicate dress and an elegant up-do. She was beautiful, and she'd been out of the public eye for quite a while so it made sense that the paparazzi only had eyes for her.

Worked for him – he was here to do a job, and to do it as subtly as possible.

Subtle.

Yeah...

Not exactly Clint Barton's strong point.

Futz.

Should've been an easy job, would've been an easy if Clint hadn't recognized the guy on stage. Couldn't remember his name – wasn't important – but he even from the fancy upper balcony where he and Kate had been seated he recognized the man's work, his style, even under the phony French accent. He'd been taught by the Swordsman just like Clint had, trained to lie, to steal, to be a weapon, and as he sat in the quiet dark and watched the hypnosis being spun, he was thrown hurtling backward into a past of abusive mentors and circus tricks, finding passion between punishments.

To complicate things even further Tony Stark was there, wearing a six-figure suit of his own and leading a stunning Pepper Potts on his arm.

A part of Clint wasn't worried about that – he'd never cleaned up so well before in his life and he didn't think Tony would recognize him right off even if he walked straight up and shook the man's hand. The genius seemed pretty absorbed in the show anyway, just like the rest of the crowd, though there was the smallest turn at the corner of his mouth suggesting a frown, the slightest sign of restlessness in the way he tapped his fingers against his knee.

The other part of Clint saw that distraction and damn well near panicked.

He knew that look, that nervous tic, recognized the hidden reprimand in Pepper's fingers as she set them on Tony's jacketed forearm and squeezed.

What he didn't know was the reason behind it all.

Watching from above, their seats remarkably better than even billionaire Tony Stark's, Clint eased himself back in his chair, sank into the shadows.

Theater this size, the number of people, the whole point of the show to hypnotize, to misdirect, it shouldn't be hard to go unnoticed, but he still curled in on himself, ducked his head and slumped his shoulders. Beside him Kate didn't miss his reaction, leaned forward slightly and followed his gaze down toward the lower boxes.

"Time to go," she murmured, touching his sleeve, and then they were both up and out of their seats and slipping away into the dark.

Has he mentioned that he loves Kate Bishop?

It bared repeating – he loved Kate Bishop.

She was incredible, and she'd learned to play off him as competently and confidently as any of the other instruments she knew. She teased him as they crept through the back hallways and stairwells, scolded him, got him back into the mindset he needed to be in, and then, when he got himself into trouble, there she was.

Strong.

Magnificent.

Perfect.

They ended up in a pool and then on a boat (he was great at boats!) and then later curled together tightly on their couch, scraped and bruised and a little scared as they came down off the adrenaline. Of all their escapades this was the first time she'd actually shot someone, and even if it was in self defense, in his defense, it was a hard thing to come to terms with. Clint still remembered the first time he'd...

It didn't matter.

Kate hadn't actually killed anyone and he thanked all the gods he knew that he could hold her close and remind her of that, as many times as she needed him to until she was all out of tears and could breathe again.

Clint had never thought himself a very good caretaker, as much as he tried to be. He didn't exactly have a lot of role models or experience to draw on. Hell, for the longest time he hadn't even really known how to take care of himself, at least not effectively, but then Nat had come into his life, and Phil, and even if it hurt now, remembering all those times, he was glad he had those lessons to draw on.

A hot shower, hot chocolate, cozy pajamas – Clint made sure that her cuts and bruises were cleaned and covered before wrapping her up in his arms beneath a patchwork quilt in front of a light episode of Dog Cops, Lucky sleeping quietly at their feet.

"All right Hawkeye?" he asked some time later, surprised by how hoarse his own voice was.

"I will be," she said quietly, her face pressed against his chest where she was tucked in against his side. "Thanks Hawkeye."

"Christ, don't thank me Kate."

It felt like a sob rising up out of his chest yet he'd barely managed a whisper, and he had to clear his throat before he said it again.

"Don't thank me. I didn't know, when I asked, I didn't...."

"Woah, hey," she said sharply, planting a hand firmly on his shoulder and pushing herself back, staring at him with a fiery insistence that would have been intimidating if it weren't so reassuring. "Clint. I know you didn't know."

"I just... I feel like a jerk."

"You are a jerk. But it's never bothered you before, or me. So what's really wrong?"

"Just doesn't feel right, bringing you into this," he mumbled, his cheeks burning with sudden shame. "Knew it in the beginning, but I did it anyway."

"Why?"

"Why what?" he asked, pulling away and crossing his arms, abruptly petulant and defensive. "Why did I do it anyway? Apparently because I'm a selfish ass. Because you're good, because you're smart, because you're rich. Because I don't want to sleep with you."

Kate made a face.

"Yeah, ok, good. You're old enough to know how creepy that would be. But that still doesn't tell me why."

Clint sighed, sat up and leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees.

"Katie," he began, "I... I look at you and I think you're a lot like me. There are – I have these things I have to do. Yeah? Not want but have, you know? I can do them alone but I bet whatever it is that's in me is maybe in you and... I don't want you to get hurt."

Minutes passed, ages before she spoke.

"I'm a big girl Clint," she said carefully. "You didn't drag me into this kicking and screaming like a five year old. You warned me, you told me how dangerous it could be. You gave me a choice."

"Kate..."

"No, my turn," she insisted, taking a deep, shaky breath. "It was hard. It was scary. It's still scary. I wasn't... I wasn't ready to actually be running for my life, you know? Or... maybe taking someone else's. I'm not naïve, I knew it could happen, I just... it's different when it actually does you know?"

Settling back into the couch, she grabbed his arm and pulled him back with her, waited until the tension went out of him before cuddling up again.

"I'm a mess right now, I know that," she said, and Clint made a sound of discomfort, squeezed her tight. "But I'm gonna be ok. Might take a while, but I'll be fine."

"You are fine," he promised. "You're ok. You were... you were perfect Kate, really. It shakes you up because it matters. When it stops... when you don't feel it anymore... that's when you know there's something really wrong."

"Which is why I know you're fine too," she murmured. "If it didn't bother you, if you didn't feel it, we wouldn't be talking about this. You wouldn't be so worried about me. But I'm in Clint. Ok? Whatever this is, whatever you need to do... I'm in."

Searching her face, Clint found nothing there but determination.

"Ok."

"Good," she nodded, slapping him on the chest and bouncing up off the couch. "Now get up - Lucky needs a walk and I feel like I'm gonna shake apart if I don't move."

"All right, fine," he groaned, dragging himself to his feet.

Honestly he was exhausted, half from all the running and fighting and half from the emotion that followed, but he knew the jittery feeling Kate was talking about, understood the need to work through the drop. He'd likely follow her to the ends of the earth now anyhow – one of his many fatal flaws.

Grabbing his leather jacket from the chair it had been tossed over, he shrugged it on and clipped Lucky's leash to his collar while Kate stole one of his hoodies, stuffed her bare feet into her sneakers.

"Come on Hawkeye," he said, looping an arm around her shoulders. "The Mystery Machine is parked over on tenth; I'll buy you a Scooby Snack."

AVAVA

Tony Stark was on a rampage.

Accustomed to his tantrums by now, Phil was nonetheless shocked by the violence of this particular fit, the vehemence. He was throwing things, slamming doors, shouting at Jarvis, and all of it because of a rumor.

Apparently there was a new Hawkeye in town.

To be fair, Phil was upset by the news as well. Not only did it bring up painful emotions, highlight Clint's absence in their lives, in his life, but he also had to look at it as Agent Coulson, as a member of SHIELD and the Avengers official liaison. Had this archer fashioned themselves a hero or a villain, friend or enemy?

No, a new vigilante in town was not a good thing.

One who was attempting to take Clint's name, his reputation...

Well, Phil took personal issue with that.

But so, apparently, did Tony Stark.

"Are you sure it wasn't Clint?" Natasha asked, too calmly and too flatly and too coldly to be what she really felt.

"Of course I'm sure," Tony snarled, his fingers flying over a holographic keyboard that followed him up and down the length of the kitchen as he paced. "Barton's not a chick!"

"A lady Hawkeye," Steve mused, and across the island Natasha sent him a scathing look.

As well as the Captain had acclimated to this century he still sometimes showed surprise at the prevalence of his female counter-parts, the commonality of heroes and villains of the woman variety in the modern world. Certainly in his time women like Peggy Carter had been rare, but he worked with the Black Widow on a day to day basis now. He was learning of course, coming to accept the new gender status-quo, but his shock still showed in his voice.

In the man's defense, Phil was nearly half as surprised, twice as unsettled.

He hadn't been expecting this, wasn't prepared for it...

Combing through Jarvis II's archives, Tony threw up floating screens left and right until he was nearly surrounded by a haze of pixelated blue. Phil still wasn't sure exactly what had happened at the grand hotel opening that the billionaire had attended two nights ago, but as he started scanning the media notes hovering around the kitchen it began to come together. Police had come on the scene to find that Cirque du Nuit really had put on quite the show that evening. Nearly half its members were arrested on sight, caught red-handed in the middle of a sophisticated, large-scale theft, and an all-points bulletin put out for the others.

But a handful, a select few...

They'd been found scattered throughout the hotel, concentrated around the deck of the massive underground pool, glass and blood and chlorinated water everywhere.

Glass and blood and water... and arrows.

Phil's hand crept subconsciously to his chest, massaged the scar beneath his shirt as his lungs seized, breath catching in his throat as he scanned the images Jarvis II had pulled from the hotel's top-end security cameras.

A swirl of purple.

The flash of an arrow zipping past.

A slender figure, far too small and slight to be Clint, sprinting through the shadows.

It wasn't him, but in some ways it was so damn close he wanted to scream.

Tony actually did.

A growl, a frustrated shout, a slashing motion that scattered the screens and had half of them flickering out into thin air. Striding over to the cabinets he took down a glass and a bottle of scotch, moved to the fridge door for ice, and something tightened in Phil's gut. It had been a long time since Stark relied on alcohol the way he once had, but since Clint had disappeared he seemed to be falling back on the habit more and more.

Never one to shy from danger, Natasha stood and took the glass from him before he could bring it to his lips.

"You are taking this too personally," she said, Russian accent thick in her mouth as she set it aside. "This is not your fault."

"I know that!" he snapped, and it was telling that instead of glaring at him coldly the way she had with Steve, Natasha curled her hand around his shoulder, guided him into a seat at the island and squeezed.

Christ.

From the outside it must look quite the picture, mustn't it?

Him, standing here, entirely responsible for Clint's absence and apparently not doing a thing to find him or bring him back, the only man the archer had ever really trusted who had still betrayed him so badly, so blatantly contrasted by Tony Stark, a man previously known for his conceit and self-absorption, who seemingly knew so little about the kind of intimacy that Clint, Phil, and Natasha had had as a part of Strike Team Delta, falling apart because he had taken it upon himself to fix this and was failing.

What a mess they all were.

"Why are you so sure this is important?" he asked, before he had the chance to think better of the question. "We don't have any proof that this girl is connected to anything, let alone..."

"Let alone Clint?" Tony growled, and it was only years of practice that kept Phil from flinching in the face of the anger that simmered beneath that accusation, and that's what it was.

Accusation.

That Phil couldn't even bring himself to say the man's name.

"Are you fucking kidding right now?" Tony hissed. "Are you seriously going to stand there and say that this girl isn’t connected to him? How many vigilante archers do you think there are in the world Coulson? How many that dress in purple and can shoot like he shot?"

Jerking away from Natasha's restricting hand, still tight on his shoulder, Tony got to his feet, fists balled at his sides.

"And you know what, tell me this! Why the hell don't you care? Jesus Agent, I don't even know what there was between you and birdie, but even I can tell this is your fault and you haven't done a damn thing about it!"

"Tony!"

The reprimand came from all three of them – Steve, Bruce, and Natasha – all horrified by the man's outburst, but Phil just stood and took it.

Hell, he was right; there wasn't much he could say in the face of that.

"What was between Clint and I is exactly that," he said flatly when he finally realized Tony wasn't going to back down or let it go, despite the scolding looks of the other Avengers. "Between us. I'm not looking for him or demanding that he come back because he deserves that distance from me. He deserves the right to make that decision. I've chased him before Stark – if I went running after him now, he'd only run faster."

For a few tense seconds, Tony sneered at him fiercely, jaw ticking as he ground his teeth, and Phil thought for sure the man was about to hit him. He almost welcomed that idea – he and Tony Stark still weren't the best of friends but they were better, and he was certain a black eye would cut less than having gone from 'Phil' or even 'Coulson' back to 'Agent.'

A part of him knew he deserved far worse.

Either way, he didn't get slugged.

Demonstrating a remarkable amount of self-restraint, far more than he'd ever had, Tony scoffed, shoved past Natasha who'd followed closely and cautiously at his side, and stalked off. Phil didn't bother to watch him go, to listen to the awkward, uncomfortable excuses Steve and Bruce made before slinking sheepishly out of the kitchen. Wandering around the counter, he flicked idly through the lingering holograms to an image of a man lying on his stomach near the edge of a pool, an arrow lodged neatly in his spine. Natasha's silence hung heavy in his ears, her gaze hot between his shoulders until she stepped up beside him and forced him to turn to face her.

Taking his face in her hands, she pursed her lips, shook her head.

"Oh you poor, poor idiot."

Chapter Text

They cooled off after that, cut way back on their... extracurricular activities. Kate went back to school, worked on her midterms, and Clint went about his own business, setting up a meeting between Tony Stark and Peter Parker and attending weekly training sessions with the Avengers.

Well, three of them anyway.

Didn't want to be too accomodating.

In certain ways it got easier, which in the end only made things more complicated, and it was frustrating in every way that he could think of, but he's always been a glutton for punishment so he keeps on going back. It's crazy how little it takes for him to start slipping back into the place he always occupied, coming up back to back with Natasha or expecting Stark to grab him by the collar at any moment and take him for a ride. Then Nat goes springing away from him with a sneer on her face, or he takes a ten foot drop because Iron Man's not there to catch him, and he remembers.

He's not Hawkeye here, not Clint.

He's Ronin, and that means something entirely different.

"Move!" he snarls, executing a neat somersault on the fly to duck Steve's shield as they blaze their way through one of Tony's simulators.

For a guy who was in the Army, who's seen war, Steve actually has a pretty tough time adapting to other people's fighting styles, to Ronin's more unpredictable, spontaneous, reactionary methods. Clint's already been clipped three times today and damn if that shit doesn't leave a mark, but he's catching on more quickly than the Captain and has managed to avoid the last three swings coming at his head.

Doesn't mean it doesn't piss him off.

Cursing under his breath, he dodges a holographic AIM goon and makes a break for the glittery, pixelated MODOK standing at the top of a small staircase. SHIELD sources as well Bruce and Tony's genius have determined that MODOK is the key to this, that he's got his 'mind control devices' set up to project his version of reality into Tlon so that he can bring about hell on earth. Last resort, last chance is to take out the gemstone that powers the little dweeb, but so far every scenario that Jarvis' processors have thrown at them have the floating little fucker heavily guarded, and no one's even been able to get close.

Powering forward, he sees the Widow moving parallel to him on the opposite side of the field but she's uncertain - he can see it in her gait. Where she'd know what Clint would do in this situation she wasn't inside Ronin's head, and that mattered when he was this deep in his other headspace. He wasn't moving or acting or thinking like Clint, wasn't planning like Hawkeye, so she couldn't follow his lead on this one – none of the Avengers could.

He might be working with a team, but he was entirely on his own.

Grabbing the edge of an obstacle Clint used his momentum to sling himself around behind it, just in time for a miniature bomb to go off, blowing simulated pixels bits to high heaven. Two seconds and a real battle later and he'd be crispy bits, but as it was he managed to make cover behind a... what was this thing anyway? A boat? An overturned, computerized boat.

Obviously they were fighting on the docks today.

"Damn it Ronin, get the hell out of there," Phil barked in his ears, the anger in his tone clipped and clear through the hearing aids Parker had built him.

Clint almost fired back, a snarky retort sitting snappy on the tip of his tongue but he swallowed it down, ignored the order in a way that Hawkeye never would. Instead he pokes his head up over the side of the boat, gets a good look around, and bolts.

By all rights he should have been free and clear. He'd looked, seen a clear path to his objective, and he was still Hawkeye after all. There hadn't been anything in his way, no recalcitrant bombs, no chanting numbskulls with guns in suits of yellow rubber paying him any attention. In real life, he suspects he would have been fine, made it up the steps unscathed and put his katana or his sticks or his fists through Modok's forehead.

Apparently landmines are a thing though.

His boot lands on the sixth step down from his prize and suddenly a concussive boom sends him hurtling ass over teakettle back down the stairs again, edges hard and sharp against his ribs as he tucks and rolls as best he can.

God damn it Jarvis!

You make one dismissive comment and suddenly the computer's got it out for you.

An early nineties Nintendo theme trickles down from the speakers as the simulation fades out around them, leaving a half-destroyed training gym behind. It's GAME OVER when any one of the Avengers is killed or even badly injured, though Clint's pretty sure none of them are going to be heartbroken if Ronin gets taken out. He takes a minute to catch his breath, lying flat out on his back, but then Coulson comes stalking down from the platform he's been standing on and Clint rolls to his feet. The man's face is blank but he can see the thunderclouds rolling behind the mask, knows him better than anyone, so it's easy to recognize the dressing down he's about to get.

Doesn't matter, he's in it now, frustrated and irritable and annoyed, and where Clint would normally cringe and hate himself for disappointing his handler, Ronin didn't give a good god damn.

"I told you to get out of there," Phil growls, as close to shouting as he ever really gets. "If you can't..."

"Oh fuck you!" Clint snarls right back, and it comes out more venomous and vehement than he'd planned it to.

Phil goes silent and nearly startled and Clint realizes that he's taken a step toward him, hands fisted at his sides. From the way Steve and Natasha step up, the way Stark shifts nervously, Clint can understand how it must look – like he's about to knock the older man to the ground and pummel him instead of grab him by his stupid, smooth lapels and jerk him in for a violent kiss the way he really wants to. Hell, that's half the reason he's so pissed right there – as shitty as all this is, as much as he still hurts and as much as he still hates Phil for what he's done, he still wants him.

He loved the son of a bitch, ok?

He can't just turn it off.

Being here, being around him, just letting time pass, it dulls the sting of betrayal, and maybe that's normal because any wound will heal given enough time, but damn it, Clint's not done being angry yet.

Not until he's apologized for the shit he's pulled.

"How about next time you tell Stars and Stripes to watch what the fuck he's doing!" he demands, and from the corner of his eye he sees Steve flinch, but he's focused on Coulson now, who, judging by the dark flicker in his eyes, knows exactly what Clint's talking about. "Or maybe don't cancel the ride I'm trying to hitch with the Tin Man when I'm free falling two stories. You wanna get rid of me there's easier ways to do it!"

"And you," he snarls, turning around and glaring at the ceiling, jabbing an angry finger in the direction of one of Jarvis' speakers. "The day I find a minefield on the docks is the day I..."

He doesn't get to finish the threat.

N'SYNC's Tearing Up My Heart starts to bubble from the inside of his jacket and thank god he's wearing a mask of his own because he doesn't think he's ever blushed so hard in his life. For a second everyone goes dead still, actually starts looking around for the source of the music, then Clint wrenches the cell phone from his pocket and punches the answer button, turning away so he doesn't have to see Stark's look of utter glee as the Iron Man helmet retracts.

"What?" he snaps, even though he suspects he know's who's behind the call, and the unexpected change in ringtone.

There's no answer, just choking laughter on the other end.

"Oh come on!" Kate snickers when she finally pulls herself together. "It's totally hilarious. Are they laughing? They've gotta be laughing – I mean, for Ronin to..."

"'What do you want?" he grumbles, softer now but still keeping up the stone-cold assassin tone, lest his reputation be blown entirely to pieces.

"Come home," she whines, suddenly wheedling and pouty, and Clint can imagine the huge, bright puppy-eyes she's giving him from the other end of the phone. "That Wade guy keeps texting your H... um, your home phone."

Oh.

Well that's not good.

"Just ignore him," he suggests, well aware of the kinds of things Deadpool likes to text Hawkeye. The guy's got a weird infatuation with him, despite the fact he's dating Parker. He only hoped there weren't pictures this time – Kate might not be a kid, but nobody should be subjected to that shit without prior warning. Seriously, dick picks were the least of his worries – Clint once got a picture of the guy holding his own head up like a prized pumpkin on display.

"Come on, he wants to take us out for Mexican," Kate cajoled. "He's pissed you keep canceling on him. Oh, now he's threatening to... wait, what is he threatening to do? Tell them who you really are. Who's them? Oh my god, Deadpool knows?!"

Clint heaves a sigh, pinches the bridge of his nose.

"I'll be there in twenty," he huffs, because it's the easiest thing he can think to say.

Yeah, Deadpool knows he's both Ronin and Hawkeye - kind of anyway. Sometimes he does, sometimes it seems like maybe he doesn't, or he forgets, but the guy also believes they all live in a comic book and talks to the people he thinks are reading it so...

Honestly, Clint's not really sure.

Anyway, the guy keeps his mouth shut about it so it's not really an issue. Parker probably knows by now, since he invited the kid to join them under his Ronin persona, but unlike Wade, who was too weird to be believed if he spilled the beans, Spider Man was too smart to do it in the first place.

"All right, chimichangas and churros!" Kate cheers. "Besides, it's my turn to train with you - I need the practice."

"You're doing just fine," he argues, and now his voice is far too soft, too fond, so he clears his throat. "Twenty minutes."

"See ya."

Clint doesn't respond, just ends the call and taps at his phone to lock it again, glad that he hasn't given Deadpool his Ronin number. Not that he gave the number to his Hawkeye cell - cracked and purple and covered in little target-shaped stickers – the guy must've stolen it that time he groped Clint's ass in Brooklyn. Well, whatever, he needs a break from this shit anyway. He can feel the assassin's douchebag attitude starting to settle under his skin – not that Clint's never an asshole himself – but it's weighing on him today. He wants to laugh and joke and shoot his bow and just...

Fuck, he want's to be happy.

Sorry sap, he could be if he'd just suck it up and compromise a little, but he doesn't want to bend.

Just this one time he doesn't want to cave, doesn't want to step back quietly and take the hurts, let the offenses go.

He's only here to help out with MODOK, and a damn fine job he was doing with that so far. Not even he or the Black Widow could get close to their software version of the idiot evil genius. They needed someone long-range, someone who didn't need to get in close. They needed...

Aw, hell.

Duh.

"You need a sniper," he says, stupid and dumbfounded and awed and feeling like a total jackass.

"Thanks Captain Obvious," Tony snarls between clenched teeth, anger springing up hot and emphatic and for a minute Clint thinks the guy's actually going to deck him. "So why don't you just call him up on your little cell phone there and tell him to get his pouty ass back here!"

Clint stares.

The rest of them go still, silent, waiting, and it's the strange, eager anticipation from Cap and Tony and even Bruce who don't really know him all that much, contrasted with the cool, uninterested patience coming from Coulson that makes him laugh.

It's cruel, he knows that, but he can't help himself.

"You really think it's that easy?" he asked flatly. "That dragging him back here kicking and screaming, or guilt-tripping him into it will make him want to stay?"

Now he turns, stares at Coulson dead on and almost wishes the man could see his eyes, the hurt, angry set of his mouth.

"From what I hear the guy deserves a hell of a lot more of an apology than that."

Coulson's lips go thin and flat and pale and Clint knows that tell, oh does he know that tell. He's seen it a thousand times, when mid level agents – ones with a place and a little bit of authority but who will never make the grade Phil himself has made – when ones like that fuck up, either through ignorance or hubris.

He's pissed – truth must sting a little huh?

Clint just shrugs.

"But hell, that's between you," he says, tucking his phone back into his pocket. "Me, I might know someone else."

"Nobody's as good as Hawkeye."

Well futz.

That was... actually really nice to hear, even if he did say it angry. It shouldn't be - he's heard it from Coulson a hundred times, part of his not-so-secret positive reinforcement program for a world-weary young Clint Barton, but hearing it now, one more time, when he thought the man had given him up...

It chokes him up a little, puts a sick spark of hope in the pit of his belly and part of him hates it.

"No shit," he growls, forcing himself to collect the few bits of equipment and weaponry he'd set aside at the beginning of the simulation, anything to make himself move, anything not to stand there like a thunderstruck, lovelorn idiot. "I've seen him shoot; I know what he can do. This girl though – she's good, trained under your boy for a while. 'Bout as damn close as you can get."

"Wait, you know her?" Tony yelps, astounded. "Seriously? The vigilante chick from the hotel? Lady Hawkeye?"

"She hates that name," Clint warns. "I'll give her a call, see if she's... interested. Anyway, don't wait up."

"You're leaving?"

"Late for practice," he barks over his shoulder, heading toward the doors.

"Oh what, ninja practice?"

"Nah," he snorts, throwing up a hand. "Cello practice."

Chapter Text

"And the bartender," Deadpool crows, waving a chimichanga around dangerously, "The bartender looks up and says 'Is this a joke?'"

Clint snorts and beside him, Kate and Parker snicker.

They're all down at Abuelita's, the little Mexican place that Wade's got a standing table at, stuffing their faces with as many tacos, burritos, and enchiladas as they can hold, everybody in civilian clothes except for Wilson. He's wearing his traditional red-and-black leather get-up, his mask rolled up over his mouth, both so that he can eat and Clint can see his lips better. The guy's weirdly considerate like that, even though Clint's wearing his boxy, purple hearing aids from the days before Phil's resurrection.

Ugh, Phil.

He doesn't know what the hell he's gonna do about that.

This afternoon had been a shit-hand of mixed cards – Aces high that the guy still has some respect for Clint's skill and is willing to go to bat for him, deuces low because he still hasn't made any kind of damned apology.

After their training session he hadn't been able to bring himself to talk to Kate the way he'd promised. Instead he'd called up Wilson and his boyfriend, decided that Taco Tuesday could become Taco Saturday just this once. Changing into jeans and a black t-shirt he'd dragged Kate out of the apartment and halfway across the neighborhood, happy that Deadpool's favorite lunch joint was well within the boundaries he'd declared Ronin's to the Avengers. He'd made it pretty fucking clear where he was staying and that he wouldn't tolerate being spied on. Meant he could go out wearing his normal face and feel relatively sure that he wouldn't be recognized by Jarvis' cameras.

Besides, after their little bickering match today Clint wasn't sure Tony was evening trying that hard to find him anymore.

The genius knew when boundaries were meant to be left alone.

Anyway, turned out lunch with a few friends did great things for him; once Wade had explained the awkward double-identity thing in that weird, omnipotent, third-person way he had he actually enjoyed himself for the duration of the two hours they'd been there. Peter Parker, aka Spiderman was a pretty smart kid, but a lot more chill and down to earth than Tony. He and Kate were pretty much the same age and were getting along like two baby superhero peas in a pod, and Clint had always liked Deadpool.

Guy was nuts, but it was the fun, kooky kind, not the shit-this-guy-will-knife-me-in-my-sleep kind.

Made for a fun afternoon.

Of course, it didn't hurt that he was in awe of Ronin, or that he had the hots for Hawkeye.

"You know it's kind of weird that he flirts with you like Hawkeye and Ronin are actually two different people," Kate stage-whispered across the table.

Clint had to agree – sometimes he honestly didn't know if Deadpool realized all three of his identities were the same human body underneath or not.

"Yeah, or when his boyfriend's sitting right here," Peter chuckled.

"Aw, now don't be like that honey pie!" Deadpool pouted, leaning over to wrap his arms around Peter's waist and pull him in for a smooshing hug. "You said if Hawkeye was down you'd totally be up for sharing!"

Clint blinks and Kate laughs, Peter blushes and Wade smirks seductively.

"What'a ya' say Hot Guy?" he purrs, tossing Clint a wink, but he thinks his brain has pretty much gone offline.

"Uhhh..."

"I think you just got invited into a threesome," Kate grins, elbowing him in the ribs.

Clint scowls at her, rubs his side, but at least it unsticks him.

"I'm flattered, really," he says holding up his hands in classic surrender, or in this case classic 'woah there, down boy.' "But I think I'll have to pass. I mean, you're both great, but, my heart wouldn't be in it ya know?"

He means it as a joke, grins through it, but it comes out a little to raw too pass.

"Ah yes, pining for love lost," Deadpool says sagely, or at least as best he can around a mouthful of Parker's last burrito. "The old 'we could never work' conundrum."

Clint frowns, feels something in his chest tighten. Beside him Kate reaches over under the table and squeezes his hand, and a thump from the other side says Peter has given his boyfriend a good kick. The younger man flicks a glance back and forth between the two of them, opens and closes his mouth before apparently making up his mind.

"When me and Wade met we didn't think it would work either," he says carefully, a little more hesitant addressing Clint directly than he is with Kate. He's still more Ronin to the kid than anything, even if Deadpool talks to him like Hawkeye.

"Superhero and a bad guy," Wade explains with a shrug. "Eh, doesn't really work. Thought he was gonna arrest me the first time he caught me in one of his webs."

"I was," Parker insists, scowling playfully. "What can I say, you're persuasive."

"Well they don't call me the merc with a mouth for nothing."

"Gross, get a room," Kate jeered playfully, flicking a nacho chip across the table at the two resident lovebirds.

Clint laughs, leans back in his chair and pats his belly, nearly full to bursting.

"Well at least I know it's not my looks right?" he asks, and once again it's a little too true to make a good joke.

Stupid, since he knows he's hot and he knows he's caught Phil staring at his ass and his arms before all this happened.

No, it wasn't the way he looked.

It was something else, and he'd almost rather it be something as simple as Phil preferring brunettes to blondes and not knowing how to let him down easy than to wonder if maybe he just wasn't good enough.

"Not a chance dollface," Deadpool hums. "You're perfection in a hot bod. You ever get over Mr. Stuffy Suit, me and Petey'll be happy to make room for ya."

Clint tries to laugh, manages it a little as Deadpool flags down a waiter and has the table cleared to make room for churros, fried ice cream, and thick, spicy cups of Mexican hot chocolate. He's used to the weird, sometimes-uncomfortable flirting from the guy but this time it's... kinda sweetly caring.

Which makes it more weird.

Anyway.

They all manage to find room for excessive dessert and enjoy the rest of their lunch, telling jokes and comparing exploits and just generally being loud and boisterous. Clint actually enjoys it, doesn't sit there pouting or sulking like he normally would. It's hard to be glum when Wade is around, and his Spider Boy isn't so bad either once he loosens up a little. Eventually they wind down and Parker has to get back to his day job, Kate to her studying, so they all manage to roll themselves upright and waddle towards the doors.

It's Wade's turn to treat and he does so with his usual aplomb, pulling out a fat roll of bills thick as a baseball and peeling off hundreds like some kind of comedian-cum-rockstar. It'd be a dick move if he didn't tip so well, and really, the staff at Abuelita's deserved it for putting up with him several times a month.

"Speaking of tips," the man says, grinning beneath his mask and slinging an arm around Clint's shoulders to haul him toward the exit where Kate and Peter are waiting. "Here's one free."

Pausing he turns and faces Clint, takes his face between glove hands.

"It might not seem like it can work," he says soberly, "But if it's important enough it will. Look at me and Peter. Hell Barton, you think somebody like me deserves somebody like him?"

Sighing, Wade lets him go and turns to watch his boyfriend, who's laughing at something Kate's just said.

"I know I'm not good enough for him," he mumbles. "But I try, because he matters. I know it's not the same, with you and your suit. But maybe you're just not trying hard enough."

Clint immediately balks, resists, his spine going ramrod straight because fuck that. Deadpool feels it, grins and slaps him on the ass before strolling casually toward the doors, and Clint glares after the guy, but apparently it's the end of their outing and all the words of wisdom he's going to share. Grabbing Parker around the waist, Wade smacks a kiss to his cheek and tosses Kate a farewell salute before stepping out into the sunshine and wandering away up the sidewalk.

"You ok?" Kate asks as he approaches and Clint heaves a sigh.

"What do you think the world's coming to when that guy is the voice of reason?" he counters, gesturing up the street as the red-leather clad vigilante escorts his young lover across an intersection.

For a minute, Kate's face blanks.

"Wow," she gulps, "Um... yeah, that..."

"Never mind," he mutters, shaking his head. "Come on, let's go home. Got somethin' I want to talk to you about."

AVAVA

"I feel sick," Tony complains with a sigh, tossing his feet up on the coffee table and tipping his head back over the edge of the couch.

Across from him Phil rolls his eyes before going back to his paperwork.

The man's been a real bastard about this whole thing, not just his obnoxiously arrogant self. Instead of just rattling Phil's cage bars, he's been jabbing at him with a sharp stick, and while logically he can understand that, even appreciate it, in the moment he just wishes the guy would fuck off, maybe disappear into his lab for a week or two.

He wonders if he can convince Jarvis to lock him in there, just for a few days.

It would be in Tony's best interest of course, since Phil's about two stinging comments and a forlorn huff away from strangling him.

"What's wrong?" Steve asks, looking up from his sketchbook. "Should I call Bruce?"

Tony blinks, stares like he can't believe the naivete of this man, and it's saying something that Phil kind of feels the same way. He's still a Captain America fanboy – he always will be – but the reality of helping a man adjust to a new century is a bigger task than he'd anticipated. It doesn't help that he's operating in a state of near constant irritability, or that his patience is practically shot.

He'd been hoping like hell that Ronin would take a swing at him today.

"Not that kind of doctor Cap," Tony reminds him. "Not that kind of sick either."

"What then?"

Tony narrows his eyes, makes a face Coulson's never seen him wear before.

"You do realize we're missing a team mate right?" he demands, making Steve frown and hunch his shoulders a little. "That Clint still hasn't come back?"

"It's his choice Tony," the man says quietly, defensively.

"Is it though? I mean, none of us were exactly embracing the guy with open arms after Loki."

"That wasn't his fault."

"No shit Sherlock. Doesn't mean he wasn't still getting the cold shoulder. Hell, SHIELD treated him like a ticking time-bomb – there wasn't a damned agent out there that didn't flinch every time he stood..."

"Stark, for the love of god, shut the fuck up!"

Steve and Tony both jumped, surprised by his sudden entrance into the conversation and shocked by the vehemence of his cursing. Phil's surprised by it himself. Vaguely, he wonders if this is it, the end of his rope. He's on his feet, his pen and paperwork shoved back from the edge of the table, his hands fisted at his sides, and Tony is quick to follow, his dark, quick eyes analyzing Phil's stance as well as the best of SHIELD agents.

Or course, Phil is projecting.

Just a little.

He's looking for a fight, and Natasha's not here.

"Come on then," Tony riles, lifting his palms out to his sides. "I'll even give you the first one free."

Phil scoffs, sneers.

"Oh please, don't give me that look Mr. High-and-Mighty. You're gagging for it, and you've wanted to take a swing at me since we met. Come on."

"And what exactly will that solve for me Mr. Stark?" he hissed, leaning forward on the balls of his feet. "You're insufferable enough as it is."

"Fellas..." Steve warns, unnerved by the exceptional heat between the two, but he shuts up when they both turn to snarl at him.

"Back off Steve," Tony growls. "If Agent here needs a punching bag, then so be it. Hell it'd be worth it just to see him lose his cool."

Turning back to face him, Tony looks him up and down, sniffs a bitter laugh, then smiles.

"And anyway, the make-up sex would be pretty damn great."

A beat of silence passes, then two before Phil barks a hysterical laugh.

"Thanks for the offer, but I think I'll pass," he mutters, sitting back down and straightening the papers he's scattered. "I'm sure it would be lovely, but my heart just wouldn't be in it."

"Mine either," Tony shrugs, and Phil bites the inside of his lip to keep from laughing, keeps his eyes away from the arc reactor glowing through Tony's shirt. "Seriously though Agent, if I can help..."

"While I appreciate the sentiment Stark, I made this mess," he replies, somber and melancholy. "I need to be the one to fix it. It's the least Clint deserves, and... maybe more than I do."

"So what are you going to do about it?"

"Nothing if we can't find him. For all that I don't care for the man, Ronin was right. This isn't as simple as a phone call, an apology or a request."

Sighing, he rests his elbows on the table and scrubs his hands through his hair, rubs his eyes.

"But we haven't, so..."

"Except we have."

All three men snap to attention as Natasha steps into the room, closely followed by Bruce, who's tapping away at a tablet, hurrying to Tony's side he hands it over, stares over his shoulder as the man's fingers flit across the interface of his AI clone.

"Karaoke bar in Queens," he declares, and then all there is is a rush of hurried movement as the Avengers assemble and scramble after their archer.

Chapter Text

They're drunk.

Like, pretty solidly buzzing.

After he'd taken Katie home things had gotten real heavy real fast. He'd told her about the Avengers, how they needed a sniper, long-distance work, and then left it there, unable to find his tongue with the rest.

She'd called him on it – of course she had – all his anxiety and anger and insecurity. Told him that he was being an incredible asshat; bringing her in because he wouldn't nut up and confront his old handler, because he was avoiding, and at the same time pussying out because he didn't want her to get hurt, that maybe he didn't think she was ready or capable of hacking it with the superheroes.

Yeah, Kate Bishop doesn't pull her punches.

Course it was all true, so he couldn't exactly defend himself. He just sat back and took it, let the criticism and annoyance and accusations fall on him until she'd grumbled herself out, sighed with exasperated fondness and cuddled him into a hug in the corner of the couch.

He's not sure how it progressed from there, but Kate was good at changing the subject, and with Wade's well-intentioned advice still burning his ass, he'd allowed her to talk him into this ridiculous plan.

They'd pregamed with something strong and a little sweet – pretty sure it was rum. They both knew that once they stepped outside of Bed Stuy all bets were off, that they'd only have so much time before Clint's face was caught on a camera somewhere and pinged Stark's computers. Time for maybe one drink, and one song apiece before they'd have to do what Hawkeyes do and disappear, head for high ground.

It was part defiance, part desperate need for fun, and standing in the middle of a packed bar getting ready to step up onto the stage, he thinks maybe part of it is some kind of goodbye. Tomorrow Ronin will bring Kate to the Avengers, present them with a new Hawkeye and confront their accusations that Clint had been spotted. Kate's planned for that too, told him not to worry about it, that it'll all be ok, and he'd had enough rum by then that he'd believed her.

A quick cab ride dropped them off in Queens and it took less than ten minutes for the two of them to have the place on its feet. They decided against a slow, sipping sort of drink and opt in shots, each of them downing a double of Jamieson at the bar and squeezing onto the dancefloor. The young girl on stage had been rocking Katy Perry's Firework and he and Kate had grabbed on to each other and started dancing with all the energy and flare a debutante and an ex-carny could muster. They dragged the crowd into it one by one until the whole bar was crowded around the mic and Kate was chanted up the steps, taking her place and belting out the most incredible rendition of I Need a Hero since Bonnie Tyler.

She was amazing. Bright, vibrant, joyful, and it took his breath away. She was everything he wished he could have been when he was her age, a lot of the things he was; strong, smart, and unafraid. She was going to change the world and he was proud of her.

Throughout the song she would catch his gaze, smile at him, throw her hand out at him dramatically and if he was her hero, well, tonight he might accept that. It had been one hell of a day and by the time he grabs her hand and lets her drag him up onto the stage for his turn he's looser and easier than he's felt in a long time.

He hadn't planned what he was going to sing, but as he clicked through the selections one caught his eye.

He doesn't think about the words, doesn't think about the low, pained rock beat behind them, just grabs the mic and pours his fucking heart out.

By the time he's finished he's hoarse and he can't breathe but the crowd is screaming for him and rushing the stage and Clint actually sees Kate swinging her elbows to make her way to his side.

"My Spidey-senses are tingling!" she shouts in his ear and Clint nods in total agreement.

Ducking away, easily covered by the noise and the commotion of the crowd, Kate pulls a thin hoodie from her bag and hands it over, a quick, cheap, and ultimately unneccessary disguise. They're out the back door and up a neighboring fire escape moments ahead of the Avengers, watching from a distance as one of Stark's shiny SUV's comes blazing up and figure after figure goes piling out and dashing inside.

Clint snickers when a screech explodes from inside the bar and the noise level goes from eight to eleven.

"Rookie mistake Stark," he chuckles, shaking his head as he watches through the binoculars he's been forcing Kate to lug around all night. "Five Avengers and an Agent walk into a bar..."

"That sounds like the start of the worst joke in history," Kate snorts, her back to the bar as she leans against the low wall circling the roof, her knee next to Clint's cheek where he's lying prone on the tar paper. "Come on, I'm freezing."

"Whimp."

"Ugh! Why are you doing this?" she asks, sighing exagerratedly.

"Doing what?"

"Teasing them. I get why you maybe wanna hurt Agent Asshat, but you're hurting you too Clint. You know that, don't you?"

Clint's cheeks get hot in the brisk night air and he scowls, his heart pounding against the walls of his chest as he watches the door of the bar, waits.

"Wade was right you know."

"Bull shit!" Clint hisses vehemently, dropping the binoculars to the floor so he can glare at her unhindered. "What the hell Kate? Not trying hard enough – none of this is my fault! Why should I be the one to apologize?"

"That's not what he meant and you know it!" she scolds. "And not what I meant either. But damn it, you're not half as big an idiot as you play at – if you want an apology you kinda gotta be around to hear it."

Clint huffs, sneers and goes back to his spying.

He knows she's right, know that's what Wade had been trying to tell him in his own weird way, and he knows it makes perfectly good sense. That's what he wants – an explanation that makes good sense – an apology that's real.

But there's gotta be contact before there's communication, and therein lies the problem.

Kate might be underestimating his stupidity.

"You're pissed, I get that," she says finally, just as the Avengers come tumbling back out of the bar, Stark leading the way as they gently fight off their drunken admirers. "That's fair, you deserve that. But Clint, you're pissed that he disappeared out of your life without a word and now you're doing the same damn thing."

"Well when you say it like that it sounds stupid," he grumbles.

Not like it's the first time the hipocracy of it all has occurred to him.

"Seems like maybe you're punishing yourself more than you're punishing him."

"Well what do you suggest then?" he demands, heat flooding the pit of his belly as Phil steps out of the bar and into the street. He's shaking out his suit, flicking his cuffs, a look of disappointment on his face so deep Clint's actually surprised.

"Go back!" Kate says sharply, surprising him with her vehemence. "Waltz in like the badass with a hot bod that you are and demand some fucking respect! Make him apologize every day for as many days as he was gone, make him grovel and bring you presents and buy your favors and your time."

Clint pulls back, sits up as Kate shoves angrily to her feet, her eyes flashing in the dark.

"If you still love him, decide if you can forgive him," she says, and Clint feels the words against his skin like rain. "If you can then for god's sake tell him. If you can't..."

Pausing, Kate squeezed her eyes shut and pulled in a shaky breath, and it was easy to see that they weren't only talking about him anymore.

"If you can't then find a way to move on."

She leaves him there, on the rooftop.

Clint watches her go, knows instinctively that she needs a few minutes.

He’ll catch up with her in five, take the back alleys that will keep him out of the cameras until he gets back to Bed Stuy.

He wants to watch the Avengers leave first.

Maybe Kate's right.

Maybe he is punishing himself for being stupid.

He's taken the easy way out, he knows that, no matter how hard this is, but he's not ready for the other either. If he goes back, confronts Coulson, well then it all could end couldn't it? It's a gamble, it's risking everything, and Clint's never claimed to be brave, not when it comes to something like this.

So instead he focuses on his friends, the man who had been his handler as their shoulders drop and they move dejectedly back to the car. Cap leads the way, touching Coulson on the shoulder commiseratingly before shepherding Tony inside. He's followed by Bruce and Thor who's reappeared from wherever he's been, and then...

Wait.

Where's Natasha?

Whipping around, Clint rolls onto his back and flattens himself against the roof, waiting until his heart stops pounding and he catches his breath before carefully peering up and over the side. The streetlamps are dull here but across the street they're bright and catch in a flash of red three roofs down, his first choice for a nest. The roof he's on now is his third, not nearly as good a vantage point but chosen for this exact reason. She knows him well enough that she'll make it here eventually, but he knows her well enough to have anticipated that.

He's got the time, if he wants to, to disappear.

Problem is he doesn't know what he wants anymore.

AVAVA

"Damn it!" Tony snarls, punching the dashboard hard enough that Phil's surprised the airbag doesn't deploy.

He's sitting in the passenger seat while they wait for Natasha. Phil's not sure exactly where she's gone but he can't help but feel he should be with her. He knew they wouldn't catch Clint in the bar – not if he didn't want to be caught – but there were plenty of rooftops and fire ladders around that would make perfect perches and even better escape routes. No doubt Natasha is checking each and every one as quickly as she possibly can, but Phil's got a sneaking suspicion Clint's anticipated that.

But if he didn't want to be caught, why was he doing this?

To punish him?

It's working.

Tony's brought up the bar's security tapes on his tablet, hissing violent, creative curses under his breath as the girl they've identified as the new Hawkeye gets down and dirty on the dance floor with their favorite archer and he's not jealous, he's not. It's... it's anger, it's annoyance, it's wonder why the hell this girl gets what he wants so badly when she can't have known Clint for what? A year? It took Phil three to be able to touch Clint without the man flinching, to get him to string more than six bitter words together at a time.

It's not fair.

Except perhaps it is.

Who knows what she's done for him, what she's been to him this past year when he's been all alone, without his friends and without his handler, all because of Phil's stupid, stupid actions.

Eventually the girl hauls Clint up onto the stage after a well-performed power-ballad and the car falls silent as Clint's throaty growl fills the silence in between them, every word a thin knife against Phil's skin.

A note by the door
Simply explains
It's all that remains
It's no wonder why
I have not slept in days
The dust on the floor
Piled up from the years
All those scars and souvenirs
Now that you're gone
It's easy to see
But so hard to believe

By the way
You left without saying
Goodbye to me
Now that you're gone away
All I can think about is
You and me
You and me

It's not like before
You've left nothing here
It's all disappeared
It hurts me to see
That we've been a lie
Would it have hurt you to try?

By the way
You left without saying
Goodbye to me
Now that you're gone away
All I can think about is
You and me
You and me

The song comes to an end and the bar revelers whoop and cheer, but Phil's pretty sure he's hyperventilating. He thinks maybe this is what a panic attack feels like, his sins sitting on his shoulders like dead weight trying to drag him down. His only lifeline, the only thing that's keeping him from drowning is his white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel and the dim spark of hope in his chest acting as a life-preserver, that perhaps he can find some kind of encouragement in the lyrics.

"Who sings it?"

Phil doesn't jump when Natasha appears silently beside his open window, isn't surprised that she directed the question at Stark, who's wearing an rock-n-roll t-shirt beneath a four-figure suit jacket. The man opens his mouth, closes it again, looks at Phil with something too close to sympathy for his tastes, so he nods firmly and positively does not bark in half-hysterical laughter when the genius says it's a song by the Canadian rock group Theory of a Deadman.

Chapter Text

Clint actually feels pretty good the next day.

Hungover, but almost... light.

Like he'd said goodbye to something.

Not the Avengers, not his friends, but maybe some of the anger.

He's not guilty over it, doesn't think it's not justified, but he's not sure he can carry it around with him anymore. It's heavy and sharp, cuts at him where the edges press against his skin, and if he can set some of it down why shouldn't he?

Last night had been... fun, and it felt like ages since he'd had any.

He wakes up in the armchair instead of in his bed, remembered coming home the night before after ducking Nat to find Kate crashed out on the couch, Lucky curled up around her feet. He'd left her a glass of water and an aspirin on the coffee table before covering her with a purple fleece, zonking out beside he because he didn't want to leave her alone.

He knows last night wasn't all about him, knows he needs to be a better friend.

He's just not sure how.

He thinks maybe breakfast might be a start.

He decides to let her sleep a little longer before waking her up, to take the time to shower and get himself together first. He still can't help running his hand over her head first, light enough that she doesn't stir, and then Lucky because he's pouting and jealous. After that he heads upstairs – scrubs off, brushes his teeth twice, shaves and changes. By the time he heads back down stairs he's feeling mostly human again and being greeted by the scent of coffee tells him he's not entirely in the doghouse.

Maybe halfway.

"Thanks," he mumbles when she passes a mug across the counter, looking pale and a little bruised around the eyes, and they both know it's for more than the coffee.

She eyes him a moment, looks him up and down, seems to decide that he's looking contrite enough because she nods before dropping her head. For a while they're both silent, rubbing their thumbs along the rim of their mugs in rare tells before Clint can find the courage, the steadiness to speak again.

"Why don't you take a shower," he suggests gently, hopefully. "Let me buy you breakfast?"

Kate frowns, tilts her head, and once again offers him a silent nod. He figures he'll take what he can get and doesn't realize how much it hurts until she pauses beside him, hesitates, then presses a quick, fleeting kiss to his cheek before darting up the stairs. His shoulders slump and he heaves a relieved sigh, spends a few minutes sipping his coffee and letting two more aspirin settle in his stomach before getting to his feet and heading for his junk drawer. There's a pad of paper in there, a scattering of purple ink pens, and (importantly) a safety pin.

He doesn't...

It's just he's not sure...

Fuck it.

As he sits down the with the notebook and starts scribbling out a few thoughts, he very determinedly doesn't think about what he's doing, what he's done. After last night, after a few hours laughing and dancing and having some fun, having a bit of lashback at Coulson watching him scramble, he's kind of realized that running away may have been a little bit of a mistake. Not at first – he'd needed it at first – to get away, to get himself together, but maybe dragging it on...

It's been too long since he's been happy, just purely, simply happy.

He's given up his home, his job, his friends, everything, and Kate had had a pretty damn good point when she'd said that this wasn't his fault. He wasn't the one who'd died and then decided to effectively stay dead to abandon...

Clint squeezes his eyes shut, grips his pen so tight he feels the plastic creak.

Blowing out a long breath, he lets the anger fade, forces it to fade, decides it's a damn good job he's got Katie around to look after him because he's not doing too good a job looking after himself.

Maybe about time he started.

Again though - he's not entirely sure how.

Maybe he wants Nat back and maybe he wants his heroing back and maybe he wants... well, all of it back, but Phil...

Yeah, he wants Phil back.

That's all he's ever wanted, the whole reason this damned mess got rolling.

But he's not ready, hasn't made his peace yet, and he knows it.

So he'll wait, bide his time, figure out exactly what he wants and when and where and how he wants it.

Fuck this shit, it's about him from now on, even if he's gotta take it for his own.

By the time Katie gets back downstairs, bright and fresh and chipper, he's got his little note drafted and folded and shoved into the pocket of his jeans. He doesn't bother gathering up his Ronin shit – they'll eat in Bed Stuy and come back before they head to Avengers Tower – but for whatever reason he can't seem to set that scrap of paper down. He needs to keep it close, and it's silly and it's sentimental but he's always had a soft heart underneath it all. By the time he slides into his heavy linen jacket it's back in his hand and he's tucking it into his inside pocket just over his heart.

The brisk air and sunshine outside does a surprising wonder for his mood and for Kate's. By the time they reach the diner things seem almost normal between them – not like they're pretending last night didn't happen, but like they've accepted it and moved on. It's easy, and Clint only wishes everything were so simple, that he could be himself again entirely and not have to hurt so much first.

A part of him thinks maybe he deserves it.

He's been a little immature, a little vindictive, even if he kind of deserves to be.

Funny that he sees it now, that he's accepting it, owning up to it, and yet he's not ready to stop.

Maybe that makes him an idiot, maybe that makes him childish, but he's never claimed to be anything better.

He puts it aside. He's got other things to worry about right now, other things to focus on, because he thinks that Kate's chipper demeanor is hiding something darker, something small and tender and painful. He holds the door for her, ushers her into a bright, cheery little diner and over to a clean, comfy booth next to the windows where the sunshine is pouring in. The waitress is polite and doesn't seem to recognize them, just pours two mugs of coffee and hands over the menus before leaving them to make their choices.

It feels heavier than just deciding between waffles or pancakes.

He opts for a Cattleman's Skillet; home fries, sausage, and peppers served sizzling in a cast iron pan topped with runny, yolky eggs, plenty of grease to settle his wobbly stomach alongside dry wheat toast and a bowl of mixed fruit. Kate gets a shortstack of pancakes topped with blackberry crumble, and it's a while before either of them talk again, waiting until they've gotten a good head start and the waitress has wandered off again after refilling their coffee mugs. Eventually he realizes she's waiting for him to start and makes a simple straightforward go of it.

"Thank you," he says earnestly, meeting her eyes when she drops her fork and looks up at him abruptly. "For last night."

"Jesus Clint," she breathes, and it's nearly a sob, and shit he hadn't realized... "For what?"

"For being there for me."

Reaching across the table he touches her wrist, wishes he could just get up and hug her.

"I needed somebody. You stuck by me, even though you knew I was being stupid."

"You were being stupid," she sniffs, blinking and looking out the window, but she doesn't pull away from him.

"Yeah, and I need to thank you for that too. 'M Hawkeye – I see better from a distance. Think maybe I'm a little too close to this to know..."

Clint sighs, shrugs, takes his hand back.

"Doesn't matter. Lotta' times I need somebody to kick me in the butt, knock me upside the head."

"I yelled at you," she mumbles miserably, and he knows where the guilt's really coming from but he needs to settle this bit first.

"I needed it," he says. "You did me a favor. I'm not... I'm not ready to go back yet, but... I think my head's in a better place. I miss Nat, and the Avengers, and yeah I miss him too, but I shouldn't... I shouldn't be letting him control this thing. I shouldn't be letting him keep me away from everything I love."

"So what are you gonna do?"

"I'm gonna make a plan," he says decisively. "I'm gonna start actually working on this instead of avoiding it. Figure out what I want and how I want to get it. When I've got everything straight I'll figure out how to... break the news."

"Scared?" she asks quietly, and Clint barks a laugh.

"Fucking terrified," he admits with a bit of a hysterical chuckle. "It's not as bad – I mean they know I'm alive – but I basically did the same thing I'm so pissed at Coulson for doing. What kind of a shit does that make me?"

Kate wisely doesn't reply and Clint shakes his head, sighs.

"Nat's gonna give me the disappointed silent treatment," he mumbles, pushing his plate back from the table. "Tony'll just be pissed, and booby-trap all my arrows."

"They'll understand," Kate murmurs. "It's fair. It makes sense."

"Yeah. But I think maybe I owe you an apology."

"No you don't. I mean yeah, you've been a little bit of a pain in the ass lately, but I get it. Really."

"That's why I owe you an apology."

It's Kate's turn to blink, to stare a bit quizzically, but he can see the hesitance, the nervousness behind that mask. He's prodding close to the hurt now, circling near the thing they never talk about, and she looks like she's about to bolt but he thinks maybe he owes her this, at the very least.

"I know it's not... totally the same," he begins hesitantly, and she's watching him like a rabbit, wary. "But I know it's close enough that it's been hard. That I've... been kind of a shit to you too."

"That's not your fault," she whispers, and her voice is hoarse and there are tears in her eyes. "You don't know Clint, you... you just guess. Screw you for being right but it's not your fault."

"Doesn't mean I haven't made it worse."

He shuts up then, gives her a few minutes to get herself together. She's staring out the window, a tear rolling slowly down her cheek and he knows what it's like to have shit for parents. Maybe hers are different, neglectful instead of abusive, but he thinks maybe that's just as bad. He doesn't blame her for running, for trying to get away from her father after all he's done, certainly doesn't blame her for hurting over the fact that the man never did come after her, never did anything but cut her off from her money and her family and her friends.

They're more alike than anyone might guess, a pair of Hawkeyes to the end.

She's his now, the way he made Nat his, and as he finds himself touching his fingertips to the folded sheet of paper in his pocket reverently he knows that there's no going back for the two of them. They're stuck here like this now.

"I'll go with you, if you want," he says carefully when he's sure that the words won't shatter her, when she's sniffed and scrubbed the tears away with a harsh swipe of her hand. "To see him."

"No," she declines with a hysterical little chuckle of her own. "No. I don't... I don't think I want to see him Clint. But... thanks. For the offer. Means a lot."

"No deadline either. You change your mind, you let me know, ok?"

"Yeah. Yeah I will."

"You want a hug? Cause I kinda want a hug."

This time when Kate giggles it's stronger and lighter and doesn't sound half so cracked, and they both get up from opposite sides of the booth to meet in the middle so he can scoop her up in a hug, wrap her in his arms and lend her just a little strength if he can. It lasts too long for a public display of affection but neither of them seems to give a damn, holding on until a rattle of glass startles them apart. Clint drops a couple bills onto the table, offers her his arm, and leads her toward the door.

"Come on," he says, handing her down onto the sidewalk. "You and me got places to be. You ready to meet the Avengers Hawkeye?"

"Ready Hawkeye."

AVAVA

She's smaller than Natasha expects, which is saying something.

Not because she's too small (Natasha certainly knows that big things can come in small packages) or because she's surprised that Clint's managed to pick up on another stray along the way. She knows her friend, inside out, sideways, and kitty-wampus, intimately and entirely. She sees the appeal, the haunted look hiding in Kate Bishop's eyes, and she understands why Clint collected her, chose her.

She just wasn't quite prepared for the young woman.

It's not often she comes across someone smaller than she is with an even bigger attitude.

The Avengers are assembled in the gym trying not to shout or pace in frustration when Ronin comes waltzing in with the young Lady Hawkeye at his side. Despite the mercenary's warning Tony has kept up the nickname, even though a few screen shots from the bar the night before had provided them with her real name – Katherine Bishop. They know she's young, comes from money, but that's not what Natasha sees when she comes to a stop in front of them, faces down the tension of a roomful of superheroes who could quite literally tear her to pieces.

No, what she sees is a young woman biting her lip to keep up her courage, intelligence sparking in her eyes underneath the wariness. She's wearing a leather tac suit that Clint would be proud of; sleeveless and in a shade of purple that would make the archer green with envy. Practical boots instead of the flashy heels so many female superheroes favored, a gorgeous bow, and a stiffness in her spine that suggests she won't be getting what she want's all that easily.

Or perhaps she's wrong.

There's a note safety-pinned to her jacket, like a child come to school for the first time.

"Miss Romanov?" she asks, one hip shot and her bow planted on the mats.

Nat nods and the girl looks at her, just for a moment, long enough to make Nat want to shake her before she nods and snaps the folded notepaper free, holds it out between two fingers.

Natasha's stuck to the floor.

Tony's spluttering, Steve's trying to gently ask a coherent question, Coulson looks ready to pounce, and that stupid, black-clad assassin is standing on the balls of his feet with one hand on the pommel of his katana like he's ready to leap to the girl's defense at any moment, like any of them would risk the one link they had to their friend.

The diminutive Lady Hawkeye just stares back at her.

Her hesitation likely only lasts a moment, not even long enough for some people to notice, but to her it feels like an unbearable eternity, an unconscionable tell. A lifetime of training spurs her onward, forces her to take two steps across the gym floor and accept the scrap of paper, keeps her hands from shaking as she unfolds it and is met by the painfully familiar writing of her best friend scratched out in dark purple ink.

Hey Nat.
This is Kate Bishop. She is without a doubt the finest and most gifted bowman I've ever met, but she's like, nine years old and spoiled rotten.
Take care of her ok? She's all I can give you right now.
I'm alright, I'm better, but... I'm not there yet. I will be one day, soon, I promise, but not yet.
I miss you.
Clint.

That bit, those last two lines before his signature are written in Russian and she's glad of it, because Stark snatches the note away from her before she can even catch her breath. For the first time in a long time she feels like she might cry as the loss of her dearest comes tumbling down on her.

Oh that silly fool.

She doesn't blame him, she doesn't.

Knowing him as she does, she knows exactly how he's read Coulson's behavior, his undisclosed resurrection.

He deserves the chance to get away, to get his head together, needs it even, but if he'd only stayed perhaps this mess would have been straightened out by now.

Soon, he said.

It's been more than a year, nearly more than two.

When he finally does come home she's going to tie those two idiots to a chair, sit them down a foot apart, and leave them there until one of them cracks.

Looking over at Coulson, at the utter despair blatant on his face, the hate lingering underneath as he scowls at Ronin and even at the girl, she is certain he'll be the first to break.

"Well little bird," Tony says, suddenly magnanimous as he gently hands the note back to her, his eyes – strangely enough – on the ninja... "Clint wants us to look after you then that's what we'll do. Welcome to the Avengers."

Chapter Text

So they train.

They train and the Avengers are skeptical, but Kate is...

Kate is magnificent.

Everything that Clint had been and more; sassy and spunky and smart, and as good a shot as he's ever seen. Oh, she's a little nervous sure, not nearly as cocky or confident as he had been, but hey, she'll grow into it. Tony takes to her like a duck to water and even Nat seems to like her in her own silent way, and it's good, it's better than good.

And Clint...

Clint maybe hates it.

He's happy for her, don't get him wrong, glad he's been able to bring her in and give her a team the way Phil had done for him so long ago. She would've found her way to trouble soon enough – it was in her blood, in the fire in her belly – but now, with the Avengers, she's safe.

The rest of them, well, they have eyes up high again, somebody watching their backs better than he can as Ronin.

And really, this is what he'd wanted... right?

So why is he so miserable?

He tells himself it's because he never wanted Kate to see him like this, to see his darker side. Well, he'd never wanted anyone he cares about to see him like this, but Katie knows. She's knows who he is, has known him as Clint, the easy-going goofball who drinks coffee straight from the pot and has a stinky, messed-up dog and would live on pizza and cartoons and one pair of pajamas all weekend if he could. She knows who he really is, who he wants to be, and for her to see him like this...

It's different.

He'd warned her, of course he had. Tried to make her understand that Ronin wasn't the man she knew, wasn't the role model she respected and believed in. He'd told her would be gruffer, colder, that he wouldn't laugh or joke or tease, that he wouldn't sling his arm around her shoulders or praise her for a shot, but the very first time she looks to him with a grin on her face and the Avengers clapping behind her he turns away, and she very nearly crumbles in on herself. It's obvious she hadn't believed him, or maybe just hadn't understood quite how it would be, but that night she cuddles up to him on the couch and falls asleep leaning against his shoulder, all forgiven.

So he knows it's not that.

Or... not only that.

It's getting harder and harder to keep himself in check.

Makes sense right? He was an Avenger, has spent months and months living with them and fighting with them and saving the world with them. Stuff like that, it doesn't just go away. He knows them, as well as he knows himself, how they think and how they move and how they fit, and as much as he tries not to he still fits with them. He may call Kate Hawkeye, Tony may call her Lady Bird, but there is still very much a Hawkeye shaped hole between them that the young woman doesn't quite fill.

It's hard for Clint not to slip into that space.

He finds himself wanting to fall back into old patterns – to prank Stark and punch Steve's shoulder chummily, to hug Nat and sit quietly with Bruce.

And Phil, oh Phil, Clint still wants to kiss that bastard senseless, wants to smack him.

He thinks maybe that's the only reason he hasn't – the stupid, senseless dichotomy of it. The anger and the fondness, the hurt and the regret, the fear and the want. How do you even start sorting something like that out? On top of all of that, even if he could get his own feelings sorted, it's still a risk. Phil, this new Phil, he's so different from how Clint remembers him; it's impossible to predict the man anymore. There's a horrifying array of different ways his old handler might react to the revelation of who he is, let alone how he feels.

He hates Ronin.

Clint can see it, can feel it, senses the older man watching him and reading him and calculating every word, and it seems like so much more than just jealousy, than just a simple anger born from his unwillingness to speak about Hawkeye no matter how many times the Avengers ask. He doesn't understand it because Phil has always been magnanimous, has always given a person the benefit of the doubt – hell, had given him the benefit of the doubt. He hadn't been the best person back then, still wasn't the best person now, and it's stupid but it still hurts.

Ronin is a part of him, as much as he hates to admit it sometimes, as much as he wishes he wasn't, but it's nothing he can change now.

Very suddenly he dreads the day that Phil finds out.

As badly as the man has hurt him, as betrayed as Clint feels, he still fears Phil Coulson's disapproval more than most other things in the world.

So they train.

They train, and they practice, and they plan for MODOK, and Clint tries not to be himself, not to let this hurt. He watched Kate grow and improve, watches her flourish and he's happy, and then in the quiet hours he lets it all fall on him, lets himself experience the regret of what he's done. He'd needed it at first, yes, needed the space, needed to make the statement, but now it feels like hypocrisy. It's not – he has to believe that just to say sane – because he isn't letting think he's dead, has checked in, is watching their backs, but...

But now he's stuck.

Trapped inside Ronin's black and gold armor, safe but isolated, and he wants out.

He wants out, wants to be up high in the sun with his bow in his hand during their first minor skirmish together as a team, wants to be up high with Kate at his side and his eyes on everything while they an easy battle against some tiny tentacled thing that doesn't put up that much of a fight, something that had just wandered into their world by accident.

He wants, and he forgets how much that original hurt had cut but who could blame him? All this time, being a part of things again, it makes sense that he could slip, that things might start to heal.

At least until the bandage gets ripped off with all the care and finesse of battle triage.

"All right, that was awesome!" Tony cheers, landing heavily on the pavement where the rest of the Avengers have gathered. "Nice shot Lady Bird!"

Kate just grins, panting from her run up a fire escape, but it's big and bright and honest and Clint's... Clint's fucking proud of her.

"You're a real Avenger now," Steve says kindly, smiling at the young woman and squeezing her shoulder like a proud father – just like he so badly wants to. "Well done."

"Better than well done," Tony crows, his suit folding away to reveal the well-dressed man beneath. "As far as first times go that was damn near perfect."

Kate laughs, used to Stark's innuendos by now, and Clint can't help but grin beneath his mask, even as Phil appears silently by his side, having finished his coordination of SHIELD cleanup much more quickly than normal.

"Yes, well done Miss Bishop," he says stiffly, straightening his tie and sounding like it takes far too much effort to force the words. "An excellent shot."

"Thank you Agent Coulson," she nods, suddenly far colder. "You're certainly a man of discerning opinions – I'll take the compliment."

Clint can't help it – he barks a harsh, short laugh.

Oh the girl is glorious – the perfect debutante ice-queen. She could give Pepper Potts a run for her money if she were more inclined to board rooms, and Clint might love her more in that moment than he ever has. She's beautiful in her defense of him, and he's helpless to do anything but appreciate it with all his heart, even if he has been cast as the damsel in distress to her white knight, Phil the fire-breathing dragon.

"Right, well," Stark interrupts, clapping his hands together. "Victor battle means victory shawarma. What do you say kid?"

"Aye Lady Hawk!" Thor booms cheerfully, even as Clint's heart stops in his chest. "Do join us in this traditional victory feast! Tis marvelous fare, and we shall rejoice in our feats of valor as warriors must! Friend Ronin, you too must join us for this our customary celebration."

For a long minute Clint can't move.

Can't breathe.

Hell, can't even think.

He's caught, trapped in a memory, the taste of lamb and tabbouleh in his mouth so thick he's choking on it. His heart pounds against his chest, all the old agony suddenly rushing in on him like a wave, the pain of learning that he's lost his handler, his best friend, the love of his life as sharp and as deep as if it happened yesterday.

The Avengers are staring, waiting, and he can feel Kate's sympathy, her lightning-quick assessment of what's just happened and the sympathy she has for him but he can't let that show. Natasha, she's good, should pick it up, and Stark, he's smart, should know., but they're just watching, waiting, like he's not nearly as naked and exposed as he feels so he swallows down the abrupt and violent urge to vomit and straightens his shoulders.

"I don't eat shawarma," he growls, and he sees Kate droop just a little, isn't sure why, but he doesn't want to take this away from her.

Stalking over to her side, he pulls her in by the nape of the neck, presses his forehead to hers.

"Go," he murmurs in her ear, Hawkeye's voice, not Ronin's. "Have fun. You earned it Katie-Cat. I'm proud of you."

And then he's gone, running away again, just like he did the first time.

AVAVA

"So," Stark says mischievously around a huge mouthful of hummus and pickled turnip. "How did you hook up with a guy like Ronin?"

"I didn't," Kate argues, taking a sip of lemonade, perfectly calm. "I hooked up with Hawkeye."

Across the table Steve chokes on a bite of pita bread and Phil Coulson goes steely-eyed at her choice of words but she doesn't flinch, serene. She tells herself she's prepared for this, has been waiting for the first degree, and she's not surprised that it's finally come, now that they've finally managed to separate her from her ninja-protector.

"I saw his show, at Carson's when I was little," she explains, pushing her plate away and getting comfortable in her seat. "Started shooting the next day. The Amazing Hawkeye... He always did live up to his name. Always did amaze me."

The group falls a tiny bit silent then, all of them suddenly incredibly interested in the tabletop, the dishes and their hands and their silverware. Only Phil Coulson doesn't drop his eyes, only he continues watching her like he can read all her secrets on her face.

"The rest was just coincidence," she shrugs, nonchalant but cautious. "We happened to run into each other, he took me on, made me better. He makes you love him, you know?"

This time, the older agent does drop his eyes, and it's that moment, that delicate shade of pink that just touches the tops of his ears that tells Kate for certain – this thing between him and Clint isn't over, isn't one-sided.

"Anyway," she says softly, twirling a butter knife between her fingers. "Ronin... he knows Clint. Like, really well. So when you guys needed an archer he got in touch."

"So Clint and Ronin are friends," Steve says wonderingly, but Stark is suddenly watching her with sharp, shrewd eyes and Kate hesitates.

"You could say that," she allows, her fingers suddenly itching for her bow. "They... they have a lot in common, believe it or not."

Coulson scoffs quietly, pushes back from the table just a tiny bit, earning himself a look from Natasha.

"They're nothing alike," he declares coldly, and Kate can feel his hatred from across the table. "Just because Clint was angry when he left, just because he hated me doesn't make him anything like Ronin."

"Coulson," Natasha murmurs, and it's a warning and a threat and consolation all in one, but screw that, the man absolutely deserves to be angry with himself for what he did to Clint, what he had a hand in...

"Woah, wait a minute, rewind," she yelps, suddenly absolutely stunned. "You think Clint left because he hates you?!"

Now it's her that's getting the warning look from Natasha, the inscrutable, curious look from Stark but really she just cannot even.

This guy was supposed to be smart, was supposed to know what was going on, was supposed to be competent and calm and know his assets, how could he possibly not...

"Clint didn't leave because he hates you," she says vehemently, even as Natasha makes a slashing movement across her throat. "He left because he's in love with you, you idiot!"

Chapter Text

Phil Coulson has never had a panic attack before.

He's seen other people have them – men, women, agents, civilians – and he thinks maybe he's come close, but he's never experienced anything like this.

Kate's words echo in his ears as all other noise fades into the background, the shawarma shop surrounding him going fuzzy and wobbly around the edges. His body goes cold and empty for all of three seconds, just dead nothingness before what she said really sinks in, and then suddenly his heart is pounding and he's sweating through his suit jacket and he can't feel anything but the edge of the table biting into his fingers where his knuckles have gone white around it.

Somewhere, somehow, he knows Natasha is saying his name though he can't really hear her. His mind is spinning a hundred miles a minute and he can't grab on to a single thread of thought, nothing but guilt and horror and shock and the sickening, sickening feeling in the pit of his stomach that he knew, he knew.

Natasha's hand on the back of his neck is small yet unforgiving as she grips him tight by the nape, her fingernails cutting into his skin, small, painful points of clarity. She forces his head down between his knees and it's only then that he realizes he's hyperventilating, his breathing fast and labored, whistling in and out of his throat as he rubs at his own chest, his shoulder, the thick, gnarled scar beneath his shirt.

"Get me out of here Romanov," he chokes, because he can't bear to be here in this public place, his sins written all over him for everyone to see, and because he trusts her to do just that.

She nods once, trusts his assessment that he needs to be removed from the situation he's in, grabs him under the arm and hauls him out of his chair and toward the doors. He's stumbling, can't feel his legs, but she drags him along like she does Clint when he's drunk, and oh god Clint...

What has he done?

"Natasha?" he whimpers, not meaning to and nearly not realizing that he does. "Natasha..."

"Breathe Coulson," she growls, opening the door of SUV that's waiting on the curb and shoving him inside. Her voice is flat, disinterested, bored if anything, and it's all the comfort and reassurance and normality that he needs right now.

Once inside the back of the car, she knocks on the window separating the front from the back to signal Happy to take them to the Tower and shoves his head back between his knees.

"Five counts in, seven counts out," she instructs brusquely, and that's familiar too because he's led countless juniors through their breathing after their first kill, their first FUBAR mission. "Relax Coulson. You're better than this; handle your shit."

"Fuck you," he huffs, his eyes squeezed shut, still counting, but the tightness in his chest loosens, the unexplainable fear receding.

"Better."

Swallowing down the sour taste in the back of his mouth, he sits up, feeling messy and shaky, his hands trembling. He fights his tie off, stuffs it into his pocket, drops his elbows onto his knees and his face into his hands.

"Well that was quite a display."

Phil lifts his head long enough to scowl at her – her bedside manner certainly leaves something to be desired, and between anyone but the two of them her approach would no doubt be more harmful than helpful, but they know each other terribly well and a bit of disapproval or a prick at his pride is a far more effective tool than any coddling would be. Natasha knows this, and he doesn't truly begrudge her her methods.

Doesn't mean it's any easier to take.

"What just happened?" he breathes, and this time he feels Natasha's fingers in his hair, a single stroke in a rare show of gentleness.

"You had several years of pent up lust and pining hit you all at once," she explains, like it's that easy, that obvious.

"I don't..."

"Yes you do. Hell Coulson, I think everybody knew except you. And him, of course. Not the whole of it perhaps – I know you love him – but even Steve's put the pieces together and he hasn't watched you circle each other for years the way I have."

"I didn't know he..."

"But you thought it," she says, and her tone is reprimanding. "Be honest now Phil. You had an idea, at least since he left."

Phil licks his lips, looks Natasha in the eye, still shivering and afraid.

"He really loved me?"

"He really did," she replies, touching his cheek. "Still does, if I had to guess. And you love him."

"Of course."

He answers her before he even knows what his answer is, but it feels so natural and right and true he can't take it back. Kate's outed him now, he's outed himself, and after the fit he'd just thrown in front of god and Tony Stark and everybody there's really no point in denying it anymore is there?

"Of course I love him," he says again, and there's a remarkable sense of peace that comes over him as the words leave his mouth. "Of course I... but I never thought..."

"Of course you didn't," Natasha scoffs. "Neither did he. You were both too busy hiding what you felt to even consider each other's feelings, too busy being stoic and silent..."

"Did he..."

"Don't you dare!" she snaps, and very suddenly it's the Black Widow sitting across from him, the deadly, ice cold assassin with who owes no allegiance to anyone but herself and the errant archer that had somehow won himself a place in her heart of stone. "I would no sooner betray his confidences to me than I would yours Phillip Coulson."

Her accent goes thick and heavy when she's like this. Her spine goes stiff and she withdraws, and god but he loves her too, loves her defense of the man who isn't here to defend himself. He shouldn't touch her - he knows she'd rather he didn't when she's like this – but he can't help himself. He's still unsettled, still stunned by the revelation made by a young girl who doesn't like him, who doesn't owe him anything, and he needs this.

"Thank you," he whispers against Natasha's ear, his arms thrown around her shoulders holding her tight, his face buried in her hair. "God without you, I don't know if I..."

"You're both useless without me," she says stiltedly, still miffed, and he can practically feel her roll her eyes. "Men."

"I mean it," he insists, pulling back and letting her retreat across the seat.

"Then prove it. What are you going to do now?"

Phil chuckles half-hysterically, flops back and runs a hand over his face.

"Hell if I know," he mumbles staring out the window as they pull into the parking garage beneath the Tower. "Rent a skywriter, PC hearts CB."

"Maybe, if we knew where he was."

"But we don't," he huffs. Then, slowly sitting up. "But we know someone who does."

AVAVA

"Oh my god, I've broken Phil Coulson."

Not good, not good, what has she done?

Ok.

Ok, this looks bad...

"Clint is gonna kill me."

"Is he?"

She doesn't jump.

God damn it, Tony Stark does not make her jump!

Kate casts him a glare but he doesn't see it – he's too busy staring out the window of the shawarma shop where Natasha is stuffing the agent in question into the back of Happy's SUV.

"Don't worry about it kid," he says, strangely quiet and calm. "Someone needed to say it. Hell, even Capsicle's figured it out by now – I think Coulson was the only one who didn't really get it."

"You know things you shouldn't," she mumbles, a shiver prickling at the back of her neck.

"I'm a genius, duh. Besides, so do you."

Turning, he looks at her full-on, searches her.

"What all do you know Lady Bird?" he muses.

Kate stares back with her chin held high, determined not to give any more away today. There's already a sick feeling bubbling around in the pit of her stomach, like she's just changed the rules of a game she doesn't quite have all the pieces for.

"Anyway, I don't know everything," he continues with an overly-casual shrug, taking out his phone and tapping away at the screen, no doubt ordering them a second car as the one carrying Coulson and the Black Widow pulls away. "Not for sure."

Putting his phone back into his pocket, he hops up onto the edge of the table, and for the first time Kate realizes that the rest of the Avengers have made themselves scarce; Thor and Rogers settling the tab at the counter and Banner making his way slowly back from the restrooms. Stark is still watching her but there's something distant in his gaze and she can't get a read on him, doesn't know what he knows or what he realizes he knows, and doesn't know what she should tell him.

"You probably know him better than I do by now anyway," he says suddenly, jumping up again and clapping his hands together. "Me, I think we should shove 'em both into a closet and lock the door until they sort the whole damn thing out, but I figure Birdie's earned the right to be a little pissed. If this is how he wants to deal, well... I guess for now I can respect that."

Kate watches him go, watches him leave her to walk across the shawarma shop and hand off a roll of paper money that more than tips all of the staff. She doesn't understand Tony Stark, who can be so loud and obnoxious and self-centered and still be so kind, so caring, so generous. Perhaps sometimes he doesn't quite show his good side in the best of ways, but he always tries, and she thinks that maybe he's a bit like Clint in that respect.

Clint...

Crap.

She can't tell if Stark knows who Ronin really is or just suspects, can't tell if he has any clue at all or if he's bought their ruse that Clint and Ronin are old friends.

She can't tell if it matters either way.

Picking up her bow and quiver, she slings it over her shoulder and puts her pinky fingers in her mouth, whistles shrilly to catch the remaining Avengers' attention. They look, Banner startles a bit, and that's as good an excuse as any to toss them a wave and book it.

She needs to get back to Bed Stuy.

She's half way up the stairs to the apartment when her cell phone buzzes.

Miss Bishop, I'd like to speak with you in the near future if you're amenable. I'd like to apologize for my behavior, as well as to make amends where at all possible.
- PC

Great.

Turning the phone back to silent, she tucks it into her uniform pocket and shoulders her way into the apartment, bracing her knees for Lucky's assault. The scruffy mutt is damp and smells vaguely of strawberries – Clint's used her shampoo on him again. He must've gotten bored, or else Lucky must've gotten into a dumpster again, but the way Clint's tucked up in the corner of the couch staring blankly at an episode of Top Shot, silent and sullen, she's guessing it's either the first or both.

He's never quiet during Top Shot.

"Did you eat?" she asks, slipping up behind the couch and leaning over to prop her chin up on the top of his head, to wrap her arms around his shoulders.

She knows he didn't, knows he has a hard time taking care of himself on a good day, let alone a day like this one, when the phantom taste of shawarma is probably still thick in his mouth like sawdust, but his answer at least will give her some idea of where his head is at.

"Coffee," he mutters, and that's probably true, so at least he's not lying to her.

"Come on. Let me fix you something."

She's bad at mothering him, not only because he's older than her but because she never really had a mother of her own to learn that sort of thing from. She grew up in a world where money stood in for parents, where nannies and butlers and strangers were your best bet for guidance and companionship, and it was never really the same.

Still, she knows she loves him and knows he's hurting, so she pushes him onto a barstool and rubs her cheek against the top of his head before she starts building grilled cheese sandwiches. It's Wonderbread and American processed cheesefood stuffs, tomato soup from a can, but she thinks this must be comfort food for him. The way he eats out the centers of the sandwich triangles and cuddles the warm bowl to his chest makes her think she's right.

She waits until he'd done to tell him.

He wouldn't finish if she didn't.

He's too thin beneath his t-shirt, ribs just starting to stand out, dark circles under his eyes.

She doesn't want to tell him.

"I think Stark might be on to you."

"Figures," Clint huffs, leaning his elbow on the table and his face on his fist. "Surprised it's taken him this long."

"Stark though?" Kate wonders, "Not Natasha?"

"Nah," Clint sighs, pushing himself to his feet and wandering into the living room, rolling his eyes when she follows and flops onto the couch beside him.

"Nat... she knows me," he explains. "Like, really knows me, better than I know me, or... or maybe better than she knows her. She knows every little part of Hawkeye; how I talk, how I move, how I think... You tell me Katie-Cat. If you didn't know would you know?"

"No."

She says it and her voice wobbles, her eyes sting.

He'd warned her when this started that she wouldn't recognize him as Ronin, wouldn't see anything of Hawkeye in him, and she hadn't really understood until that very first time they'd stood in front of the Avengers and he'd put his hand on his sword when they'd taken a step toward her. His voice, his stance, the way he moves and carries himself and reacts to the world around him – none of that is Clint Barton and if she didn't know who it was underneath the black and gold she would absolutely believe that he could be a bad guy, do bad things.

Clint Barton is the soft and squishy center, the vulnerable marshmallow to Ronin's poisonous candy shell, and that shell is a damn solid one.

The way he explains it, the look on his face when he talks about Natasha – she understands how it might be possible.

"Besides," he says gruffly, shrugging his shoulders. "She's got her hands full with the rest of them. And why would I have gone back? None of them expect me there - they won't see what they aren't looking for."

"They are looking for you," she scolds, reaching over to smack him on the leg. "They are Clint. You... you gotta be fair."

"Fair," he breathes miserably, and they don't talk for a while after that, both lost in their own heads.

"Anyway," Kate huffs, "I don't think he's gonna tell. I mean, the way he talked he's not sure, but he said he figured you should get to decide how to play this."

"How very uncharacteristically considerate of him," Clint snorts.

"Yeah," she says slowly, dragging the word out. "About that..."

Clint narrows his eyes, turns to look her up and down, and damn they don't call him Hawkeye for nothing.

'What did you do?"

"I um..." she mumbles, unsure how to break it to him and deciding to go with the 'rip it off' approach. "I maybe kinda told Coulson you were in love with him?"

Clint stares at her, blinks, then groans and throws his arm over his face, sliding off the couch onto the floor with a thump.

"Aw Katie, no."

Chapter Text

"Am I a bad person?"

"Ugh, god, I am not having this conversation before coffee Clint," Kate groans, dragging herself up to the kitchen island where there's already a mug poured and waiting for her.

She actually blinks at the thing, like it's an illusion or a hallucination that might disappear, but it's still there, sweet and just a little bit milky, exactly as she likes it. Wrapping her fingers around it, she savors the heat, takes a long, slow sip that immediately clears the cobwebs and alerts her to just how unusual this change in their morning routine is. Last night had been fine, no big deal, they'd... they'd wrapped things up and settled things.

She'd thought they were ok, thought Clint was ok after finding out what she'd done, but maybe...

"What's wrong Hawkeye," she asks, concern hitting her hard and low like a sucker punch. "What's going on?"

"I just..."

But he stalls out there.

Alarmed, Kate sets her mug down, looks at her friend, really looks at him. He looks pale, still looks thin in the warmer, more forgiving light of day – too much so. She's learned the differences by now, the differences between Hawkeye in his prime and the slimmer, sleeker, sharper Ronin, but this is not that. There is a bright wariness in his eyes and a dull weariness in his voice, the slope of his shoulders that she doesn't like. His hair is clean and no messier than usual, but it's a little too long and starting to edge on unkempt, the quiet hurt in him starting to edge beyond just what had happened.

Now, now it's the pain of being isolated, of seeing his friends every day and holding himself apart. She's seen that in him too – she is a Hawkeye after all – but mostly it's just too big a thing to miss. It taxes him not to tease and joke and spar, to mouth off and to touch. In the months she's spent with Clint Barton she's learned quite a few things about him, not least of all that he's an incredibly tactile person, much more vulnerable than he appears from the outside, with a constant craving for praise, for acknowledgement.

Coming around the counter, she pushes under his arm and wraps her own around his waist, snuggles against his chest and hugs him as she presses her cheek against his chest, listens to his heart beat.

"You're not a bad person," she promises, but above her Clint makes a wounded, disbelieving sound.

"I'm doing the same thing I'm mad at him for doing," he chokes, his hands still clutching the edge of the counter behind her, refusing to hug her back because of course that's exactly what he wants to do the most, the big dummy.

"It's not the same," she argues. "You're not making them think you're dead, you're not leaving them hurting. They know you're alive, they know you're ok. You sent them a note. It's not the same Clint."

Letting go, she leans back a little so she can see his face, his worried expression as he stares at the wall above her head.

"Besides, he kinda deserved it," she decides, even though it makes him scowl. "You didn't."

"I don't know anymore."

"You want to know what I think?" she asks as he pushes back, rounds the counter away from her. "I think you've had your fun."

"Fun," he snorts derisively, shot-gunning the last of his coffee and refilling his mug. "None of this has been fun."

"It was at first, don't even front. You liked sticking it to him, and you'll love sticking it to all of them when you finally take that stupid ninja mask off."

Clint shoots her a sharp look but she just crosses her arms and stares right back at him, jaw set.

"You're closing in on this thing awfully fast Hawkeye," she says, gentle but firm. "You miss them. They miss you. And now you're freaking out. Don't you think it's time to come clean?"

Clint's eyes dart around the room before dropping to his hands, thumbs playing around the rim and the handle of his coffee cup, nervous.

"I don't know how."

"But you want to."

She can't help the relief in her voice. Didn't even realize how tense, how uncomfortable this whole thing has made her. She likes the Avengers, loves Clint, the way you love a friend who's actually family, and it hurts something deep inside her to see him hurting this way. He ducks his head like she's accused him of something embarrassing, his cheeks pink, and when he nods it's almost shy.

"Can I help?"

"How."

It's so flat, it's hardly a question. He sounds so forlorn, so... lost, like he doesn't think there's anything that anyone can do, and it just...

"Don't sound so scared Hawkeye," she scolds gently, coming over to tap her fist against his jaw. "They're your friends. Worst case scenario, they're what? Cranky at you for a week? Wouldn't it be worth it?"

"I... yeah."

The affirmative comes out low and small and hoarse, and she can't help but hug him again, happy that this time he at least hugs her back.

"Don't worry," she insists, letting him go as her mind goes spinning off into plans and ideas. "They know I know you and Coulson wants a meeting; I'll feel him out, plan your coming-out party."

"Can't I just come back," he whines, pouting and sounding a lot more like himself. "They don't have to know."

"You really want to do it that way?"

Clint sighs, scowls crankily.

"No."

"Good. Stay here, give Lucky a bath," she commands, heading for the living room to grab here gear. "I'll be back."

AVAVA

She makes it to Avengers Tower without much trouble, though the hair on the back of her neck stands up the entire way there. It's the possibility, the potential of what's about to happen, though in her heart she truly does believe that everyone, most particularly Phil Coulson, will be nothing but overjoyed to have Clint back. It won't matter that he's Ronin, won't matter that he's secretly been here this whole time, no, it will only matter that he's come home.

Home.

It's something she's always struggled with, home. And family. She thinks she's found it with Clint, or at least something like it, and a part of her, a dark, terrible part, is afraid that she'll lose it when everything finally comes to light. He'll go back to Coulson, even if he fights it at first, back to Natasha and the Avengers and SHIELD, and they'll all have the real Hawkeye back, so where will that leave her? Alone again, completely on her own, and she...

She doesn't want that.

As she comes to the doors of the tower she actually hesitates on the sidewalk, has to force herself to go in. Stupid to be this scared – Clint would never ditch her like that, she knows it – and what kind of person would she be if she screwed this up for him, just to keep him?

Well, a really, really shitty one, to be honest.

She doesn't think she could be friends with him, look at him every day, if she did that.

"Good morning Miss Bishop," Jarvis' voice says calmly from the ceiling as she steps up to security, lights turning green and gate opening before she can even be scanned or wanded. "May I direct you to the elevator on your left?"

"Thank you, Jarvis," she replies. "Could you take me to Agent Coulson please?"

"Of course," the disembodied voice answers, and there's silence for a moment as the elevator sweeps neatly and smoothly upward. There are buttons on the wall – must be a public car – but they aren't lighting up so she figures she must be going beyond the public floors, up to the Avengers' private suites.

"Take the hallway all the way to the end," the AI suggests as the car comes to a stop and the doors slide open. "Make a left and you'll find Agent Coulson's office is the second door down."

"Wish me luck?" she asks nervously, not because she's afraid but because she doesn't yet know what she's going to say.

"Good luck Miss."

Stepping out, she squares her shoulders and strides off strongly down the hall, because if she doesn't she won't, which doesn't really make sense but makes perfect sense too. She's not afraid of Phil Coulson, not really, mostly because she's got Clint's protection in her back pocket, but she is scared of messing this up for him, scared of getting it wrong. Scared of getting it right too, but she's pushed that part of it away, determined not to let it touch her.

She can do that, she can do this.

It boosts her confidence that when she knocks and is granted entry to the office, Coulson actually looks surprised to see her.

"Is this a bad time?" she asks, gaze tracing pointedly across his desk, the untouched stacks of paperwork and the sleeping computer. "You said you wanted to speak with me?"

"Not at all, please, come in," he stumbles, standing and smoothing his tie down his chest as he makes a sort of aborted gesture to the chairs across from his desk.

Those strike her somehow, jolt her. They're nice chairs, smooth leather and comfortable seats, but she's heard so many stories about the scruffy couch in his old SHIELD office that the thing had practically become a part of him, a part of the legend of Agent Coulson. As she takes her seat across from him, runs her eyes over the man himself, she realizes that perhaps that's appropriate, because she doesn't think it's Agent Coulson sitting in front of her.

No, not the cool, competent Agent Coulson she's heard about – this is Phil sitting across from her; a man just as fallible as anyone else.

"I... I appreciate your willingness to meet with me Miss Bishop," he falters, horribly awkward as his fingers twitch and fidget with a pen. "I feel that I owe you... some significant apologies after my behavior these past..."

"Oh god, just stop," she blurts suddenly, her face twisting in a pained grimace.

He blinks at her, looks startled, opens his mouth once or twice but can't get any words out, which is probably just as well because she needs to jump back in here before he does.

"No, stop," she insists, even as he puts on his stuffy-suit face like he's going to argue with her. "Seriously. Listen, Phil – I'm gonna call you Phil by the way - I'm not mad at you ok? I mean I am, but not because you've been bitchy to me."

Now he's glaring, offended, but she interrupts again just in time, even if it sounds like manic rambling.

"No, you were, don't even deny it. That's not the point anyway - I don't care about that. All I care about is Clint."

"That's all I care about."

And well.

There's that.

He blurts it out so quickly, with so much surprise that it's painfully, painfully clear how sincere he is about it, and she can't help but relax in her seat, all that sour, angry tension in her belly bleeding away. Yes, he did a horrible, shitty thing, but she thinks that for the most part he is a good man, and it's obvious that he's paying for his crimes. Hell, he looks worse than Clint, all wane and drawn, like his hands might shake if he doesn't remember to consciously hold them still, and personally, she thinks he's been punished enough, has shown the proper remorse.

"I believe you," she says, and damn if he doesn't look like those three little words could make him cry.

"I..."

"I believe you," she says again, because he needs to hear it and because she really, really does.

The things he's said, the things he's done...

She believes him.

"So," she says, feeling remarkably shaky, threading her fingers together in her lap and taking a deep breath. "How are we going to get him back here?"

Phil Coulson freezes.

Stares at her like a stunned fish.

"You..."

"Oh come on," she groans, this time tossing her hands up. "Seriously? You want him happy, I want him happy. You know what would make him happy Coulson?"

"I used to," he murmurs, looking down, and Kate's heart hurts.

"You would," she says, her throat tight. "You, apologizing, telling him that you love him, and telling him that it's ok to come home. That you w..."

Kate clears her throat, squeezes her eyes shut against the sudden hot sting.

"That you want him to come home."

"A... Are you alright?"

"Fine!" she squeaks, sniffing hard and swiping at her cheeks, even though they're dry. Sitting up straighter, she offers him a sharp, plastic smile that he clearly sees right through. "I'm fine! So, how do you wanna do this Coulson?"

"How do I... Any way he wants."

Kate manages a bit of a watery smile and whips out her phone, even though she feels like her heart is cracking open. Jesus, what even is her life? It's ridiculous the kind of parallels she's living, even if the kind of reconciliation she's looking for from her father isn't quite the same as what Clint's looking for from Coulson.

"What are you..."

"Just tell him," she murmurs, camera already rolling.

Coulson visibly blushes, eyes darting back and forth as he licks his lips, and Kate gets the distinct impression that he's allowing these tells, purposely letting them show.

"Clint I..." he stumbles, swallowing hard and running his hand down his tie. "If you're watching this, just... we miss you. I miss you. I always missed you. There are... things I want to tell you, important things. Things you... things you deserve to hear in person."

Taking a deep breath, he lifts his head and looks directly into the camera, steels himself even as his expression softens.

"Come home," he says quietly. "Please."

Tapping the screen to end the recording, Kate sniffs again and tries to sort herself, tucking her phone back into her pocket and getting to her feet.

"It's a good start," she says, clearing her throat. "I'll make sure he gets it. Make sure he..."

Sighing, she drags a hand through her hair, squares his shoulders.

"I'll try to get him back here," she declares, her voice stronger than she expects it to be. "He needs it, as much as you do."

"I don't want to force him..."

"Oh, shut up!" she grumbles, shooting Coulson a glare over her shoulder. "You know him, better than that. He wants to come home, he wants you, don't... don't doubt that."

Coulson huffs a pained little laugh, looks miserable.

"That's how this whole thing started," he says sadly, like he's giving a confession. "I never thought..."

"You both deserve each other," Kate groans, rolling her eyes. Nailing him with a piercing look, a Hawkeye look, she puts her hand on the door, ready to get the hell out of this whole hot mess, and offers him a warning. "I'll get him to come back. You'd better be ready to get him to stay."

"Miss Bishop!" Coulson calls as she turns away, "Kate!"

Raising an eyebrow, she waits him out, the two long seconds it takes for him to find his words.

"Thank you."

Swallowing, Kate manages a single nod and walks away.

Chapter Text

Clint’s slouched down into the couch cushions, his ass hanging off the edge when Kate steps into the apartment and closes the door quietly behind her. He doesn’t even glance in her direction; he’s too busy staring at the image frozen on his phone. She’d sent the video almost half an hour ago, plenty of time to watch it over and over and over again and have a little mini freak-out before she got back. He probably owes her for that – ice cream or movie tickets or something, but he’ll think about it later. Right now, he...

God, he what?

“You ok Hawkeye,” Kate asks, coming around to lean against the back of the couch and ruffle the hair on the top of his head.

“I’m ok,” he confirms, because he is really.

Just...

Clint knows what it’s like to be left behind ok? To be forgotten, to be cast aside. He’s got textbook abandonment issues but he’d gotten past all that with Coulson. The trust he had built in the man had taken a hard hit, may have even broken entirely, but now, after all this time and everything that’s happened, Clint thinks it’s not a hopelessly lost cause. He’s wounded yes, hesitant to believe someone who’d lied to him so grievously, even though he desperately wants to, and to top it all off, deep down he thinks maybe he’s scared to let somebody love him like he wants to be loved by Coulson.

He’s got Natasha.

He’s got Kate.

He loves them both in their own ways, wouldn’t trade them for anything, but what he wants with Phil...

It’s just more ok?

“He was telling the truth,” Kate murmurs, fingers still playing with his hair, probably so she can yank on it if he says something stupid or self-slagging. “I could see it.”

“So can I,” he says, brushing his thumb across the screen, rewinding the video to the beginning. “He never lets his nerves show.”

“Believe me Clint, he was nervous.”

He hums, nods his head but chews at his lower lip, achingly unsure.

“He wants you to come back.”

“So he said.”

“But?”

“But,” Clint says shakily, turning the phone over so he can’t see the screen then stuffing it into the pocket of his hoodie. “What if he doesn’t... what if he doesn’t want what I want? What if he doesn’t want to... fix this?”

“Then nothing changes from the exactly the way it is right now, dummy,” she says teasingly, knocking her forehead against his. “Except you’ll know for sure, and you won’t be able to torture yourself, sitting around wondering.”

“Stupid, huh?”

“You’re scared. You want him to want you, and I get that Clint, believe me. But you’ll literally never get what you want if you don’t give him another chance.”

Vaulting lightly over the back of the couch, she flops onto the cushions beside him, slumping against his shoulder.

“I’ll go with you if you want,” she says carefully, picking at the hem of her cut-off shorts. “You won’t need me, but I’ll go. They’ll... they’re gonna be so happy to see you Clint.”

Clint grabs her hand, squeezes hard, knows without looking that there are tears on her cheeks.

“Always gonna need you,” he promises, bringing her hand up and pressing her knuckles to his cheek. “That won’t change Katie-Cat, no matter what happens. Maybe... maybe you’ll never see your dad again, but you’ve got me, ok? And the Avengers are already halfway to adopting you, so... you don’t have to worry.”

“Not worried,” she mumbles with a pout, pushing him off and sniffing hard. “I don’t wanna talk about my dad ok? Quit deflecting. This is about you and Agent Heartsore.”

“Shut up,” Clint mutters, blushing. “He is not.”

“Totally is,” Kate argues, batting her eyelashes ridiculously. “Pining away, wishing you’d come home. He’s probably writing letters and putting them in bottles, throwing them...”

“Off the Brooklyn Bridge?” Clint snorts. “You watch too many Hallmark movies.”

“You’re the one who turned it on,” she scoffs. “Now come on, go get dressed.”

“Why?”

“Because we’re going back to the Tower so you can tell Coulson you love him, even though you’re still pissed at him.”

“We are?” he asks, even as he pushes himself to his feet.

“Go!” she growls. “Put on something nice. You only get to start over once. Well, hopefully.”

“Real convincing Kate,” he grumps, but he lets her shoo him upstairs to his room.

His hands shake as he pulls open his dresser drawers and searches for something that isn’t a wrinkled t-shirt. He’s a little ashamed of that. His heart feels like it’s sitting in his throat and his fingertips are tingling, but he’s actually pretty... pretty ok with this.

That’s a good sign, he thinks, as he tugs his sweatshirt up over his head and drops it onto the floor. Has to be a good sign. He’s... calm, mostly, and the amount of anxiety zipping through his system isn’t overwhelming, is actually pretty understandable. Maybe he is ready to do this, maybe after all this time being angry he finally knows what he wants and is willing to work hard to get it, even if it hurts a little along the...

“Um, Clint?”

“What?” he hollers, “It’s only been like, two minutes!”

“No, idiot, get down here!”

There’s a note of fear in Kate’s tone that has the hair on the back of his neck standing straight up, and he grabs one of his katana swords as he darts out of the room. He wishes it was his bow, but that’s still carefully stored away, and any weapon is better than no weapon at all. Landing hard at the bottom of the steps, he comes skidding into the living room ready to fight, only to find Kate alone and the front door still shut and locked.

“What...”

She doesn’t look back at him from where she stands at the window, just waves him over and that’s probably not good.

‘Definitely not good,’ he amends as he reaches her side, peers over her shoulder out the window. The sky over Manhattan’s gone a strange pink color, swirling with green and orange clouds that look anything but natural. Thunder rumbles and a breeze picks up, trash scratching gently against metal as it’s blown across the fire escape.

“This looks bad,” Kate sing-songs quietly beneath her breath, eyes wide and face pale.

A sharp beep sounds behind them, startling them both as Clint’s Avengers’ Card lights up and starts buzzing around the bottom of the junk bowl he’d thrown it into, housed on the middle of his coffee table.

Aw bad guys, no.

“Saved by the bell?” he says sheepishly, half relieved and half disappointed that he’s been given a chance to chicken out.

Kate scowls, opens her mouth to unleash what would no doubt be a scathing assessment of his manhood, but her phone starts ringing and cuts her off. Somewhere upstairs Clint can hear his ringing too – but his aids aren’t quite good enough to tell if it’s his Hawkeye phone or his Ronin phone.

“Bishop,” she answers sharply, and Clint strains to hear. “Yeah, we see it. No, he’s here with me now. Right, we’re on our way.”

Jabbing her phone to disconnect the call, Kate looks at him grimly.

“MODOK’s stepped up his schedule,” she says. “Stark says his minions are assembling downtown.”

“You got your stuff?” he asks, and Kate nods. “Alright, suit up. I’ll meet you back here in three.”

Bounding back up the stairs, he slams his bedroom door and strips off in two seconds flat. It’s far easier this time to know what to put on – he doesn’t even think about reaching for his Hawkeye leathers. He’d only been about ninety-four percent sure about coming out to the team, and knows from painful experience that you need to be a hundred-and-ten percent sure in any battle if you wanna win. Sign or no sign, it’s not the time to go making stupid declarations anymore.

He’s locked into his Ronin gear in less than a minute, hands familiar with the buckles and braces after these past few months. His swords go on his hips, throwing stars and knives tucked every-which-where, and he’s even got a few tiny explosive surprises he’d built after riffling through a few of Stark’s unfinished designs. He swaps out his hearing aids for the one Parker had built into his suit and grabs his cell – the Hawkeye cell, cause he doesn’t know where the other one is – out of the hoodie he’d left crumpled on the floor.

Thinking about Parker made him think of Wade, and what they hell, they can use all the help they can get. Shooting off a text to The Adorable Spider-Boy and Your Gorgeous Assassin SoulMate - and damn it, when had Wade gotten ahold of his phone again?! - he stuffs it into an inside pocket and heads back down the stairs.

“Clint,” Kate says as he comes into view, all warning and disappointment, but he shakes his head.

“Not now Katie-Cat,” he says, just as much a warning right back. “Later, ok? Focus girlie.”

Frowning, she nods at him anyway, and Clint feels his shoulders relax.

Stupid – she's going to destroy him later – but at least he knows she‘s got her head in the game.

It takes nine minutes for him to get them to Stark Tower on his motorcycle. He has to jump a few curbs, ride a few sidewalks to do it, but New Yorkers aren’t as stupid as they look on TV. They’ve seen the sky, the sick, swirling colors, and most of them are live-streaming from the relative safety of stalled, locked cabs or barricaded buildings. They learn at least, he’ll give them that, and the few people that are still out and about get out of his way. They even fly by a cop who does nothing more than wave them on, but then, with his gold-and-black and Kate’s bright purple, he figures they probably look like they’ve got somewhere to be.

Clint screeches to a halt in Stark’s private parking bay courtesy of Jarvis and grabs Kate’s wrist as soon as they‘re off the bike, dragging her inside and down, further into the lower levels. She’s texting furiously at her phone, looking back the other way, but she still follows, doesn’t ask questions. He hesitates at the door to Sub Level Three but rips his glove off anyway, slaps his palm to the scanning pad and breathes a sigh of relief when his fingerprints light up the access codes with a bright green light. The door opens with the hiss of a cracked seal and then he’s dragging Kate inside, into the armory Stark had set aside just for him.

“Agent Barton,” Jarvis says, and if Clint doesn’t believe for a minute that the dude’s just a computer because he sounds stunned and horrified and delighted all at once. “You...”

“Not now buddy,” Clint says, desperation leaking through Ronin’s deep, gritty tone. “Avengers Assemble, yeah? After ok? Please?”

“Of course,” the AI acquiesces, and Clint lets out a shivery breath. “And may I be the first to say Welcome Home sir.”

“I... yeah,” Clint stammers, his hands stilling on the handles of a long, shallow drawer. “Thanks. And I’m... I’m sorry, about before.”

“As you say, later, Agent Barton,” the voice says, and it’s... it’s stupid warm and caring and Clint maybe hates him a teeny tiny bit for that. “Be careful sir.”

“Where’s the fun in that?” Clint rumbles, and Jarvis has the good sense not to reply.

Hauling open the drawer, Clint takes out a gorgeous compound bow, one of the last ones Tony made him, all bells and whistles and gleaming, purple-black finish. Turning around, he opens another cabinet, pulls out a quiver, checks that it’s still stocked with arrow heads and starts to fill it with cases of lightweight, graphite shafts. Kate hovers near his side, watching in awe and maybe even with a little jealousy, but when he turns to her and holds out both the bow and the quiver, her face does something weird that makes him feel like he’s slapped her across the face.

“What are you doing,” she whispers, barely a sound. “Clint. What are you...”

“You’re gonna need these,” he says, taking her bow and quiver from her, sick to his stomach because her hands hang lifeless at her sides and don’t fight him.

She lets him loop his own quiver over her shoulder, almost lets him push the bow into her hands before she shoves him hard in the chest, slaps at him.

“What the hell is wrong with you!” she yelps, just a little hysterical, but he gets it – this he understands.

“Kate, look at me,” he demands, shoving the bow at her knowing she’ll catch it and ripping his hood off so he can look her in the eye. “Look at me!”

Kate wriggles, stares at him all pale and scared, and Clint remembers the very first mission he went on for SHIELD all those years ago, how terrified he’d been.

“Now listen to me girlie-girl,” he says gently, “MODOK’s out there, him and all his goons. Those are real bad guys, not one of Stark’s cool simulations. They’re gonna be trying to kill you, and I know that’s scary as hell, but you need to be ready so you can protect yourself.”

Reaching out, he tightens the strap of the quiver around Kate’s shoulders and gives them a squeeze.

“You’re Hawkeye now,” he says seriously, remembering the speech a certain SHIELD Agent had given him before they’d headed out together on that first mission. “You have to put the scared little girl away. You’re the best of the best, and your team needs you to be their eyes up high.”

Swallowing hard, he chucks her under the chin, forces away his own fears, for her and for everything else.

“You’ve got this.”

Turning away before he can say anything else, before he can do something stupid like lock her in the armory where she’ll be safe, he trots up the stairs to the open hallway where he can access the elevators, tugging his mask back into place as he goes. He hears her shout behind him, hears her thundering up the stairs, and he thinks he’d leave her behind in that moment except he rounds the corner and stumbles to a stop, shocked to see Nick Fury and Maria Hill standing at the of the hall waiting for a ride themselves.

“Don’t you dare walk away from me Clint Barton!”

Shit.

Very, very suddenly, Clint’s pissed and tired, and just over all of this bullshit. He’s mad at Phil, mad at himself, mad at Kate and Fury and the whole god damn world, and he’s over it.

“You know what?” he snarls, ripping the mask and hood back off again because fuck it. “You wanna go, then let’s go. What the hell is your problem Kate? This is what you wanted!”

“What is my problem?!” she shrieks, storming up the hall toward him. “What is your problem?! I know you have issues Clint but this? This thing you do, this running away thing? It’s everything about you that sucks!”

Standing in front of him, she slams the bow against his chest and plants her hands on her hips, fuming.

“I thought you were going to fix this,” she snarls between gritted teeth. “And instead you give me your... That was never what I wanted.”

“You said...” he growls, still boiling mad, even though he knows it’s not really at her, that it’s fear, not real anger.

“Once Clint,” she hisses, holding up a sharp finger. “One time, I wanted to shoot Hawkeye’s bow, just to say I did. I told you at the start I was a fan, but I never... I mean, did you really think this is what I was after? To be you, to take your place? That’s never what I wanted. If I’d known that’s what you’d think, I never would have...

All of a sudden it’s like all the steam’s gone out of her, her shoulders sagging and her chin dipping forward.

“I’m not you, Clint,” she says, soft and hurt. “You’re Hawkeye, not...”

“I told you I was no role model Kate,” he says, cautious now, embarrassed and ashamed, and still horribly, painfully afraid that he could lose her, in more ways than one.

“Oh, shut up,” she squeaks, scrubbing at her cheeks. “I know you’re a jerk who’s not half as funny as he thinks he is, and I know you leave your dirty clothes all over the floor and you contaminate the coffee pot instead of using a mug like normal people but you… you’re a good guy. Even when you try not to be. You came back here just to keep your friends safe even though you…”

“Hey,” he murmurs, stepping close and tucking his fingers under her chin, lifting her face. “All this? This isn’t your fault. None of my shit’s on you, you know that.”

“I know, but... they’re your family Clint. They miss you. They’re still looking for you, even after... No one ever looked for me.”

Sighing, Clint wraps his arms around Kate and pulls her in tight, lays his cheek on the top of her head. He’s been so caught up in his own mess he hadn’t realized just how hurt Kate was by the way her father had treated her, by the messed-up parallels she was drawing between their stories. In his arms she feels tiny and fragile, more so than she actually is, and he’s reminded of the fact that she’s really just a kid no matter how stong and sassy and incredible she can be.

“You’re the only family I’ve got,” she sniffles, face pressed against his chest. “You can’t...”

“Hey,” he murmurs, rubbing her back. “It’s gonna be ok. You’re alright, we’re... we’re gonna be ok.”

“You can’t leave,” she insists, pulling back to look him in the face, hands fisted in the fabric of his jacket.

“Well not if you won’t let go...”

Frowning, Kate punches him in the chest, but hugs him quick right after.

“Not half as funny,” she mumbles.

“Sorry. You ok Hawkeye?”

“I’ll live Hawkeye,” she replies, straightening up and squaring her shoulders. “You try to run away again though and I’ll shoot you in your perfect ass.”

“Got it boss,” he chuckles, grinning. “No more running.”

“You promise?”

“I promise,” he says, soft and serious because her voice warbles when she asks.

“Excuse the interruption,” Jarvis says gently overhead, “But the Quinjet is about to depart from Dock Three.”

“You ready?” Clint asks, straightening his jacket and belt where she’s pulled it off balance, lifting the hood back up over his head.

Kate’s eyes narrow, and he shakes his head.

“No running,” he repeats, “But it’s gotta wait Katie-Cat. We can’t afford any distractions out there.”

“As soon as it’s over,” she replies, heavy and hard, and Clint smiles behind his mask.

“As soon as it’s over,” he agrees.

Kate nods, and together they turn and continue down the hallway, walking right past Nick Fury and Maria Hill into the waiting elevator.

“Director,” Clint says gravelly as they step inside. “Deputy Director.”

“Agent,” Maria replies with a curt nod, and Clint’s delighted to find that one Nicholas Fury has been stunned speechless.

The doors roll slowly closed on him, his mouth hanging open, and a burst of happy, half-hysterical energy zings across Clint’s nerves.

“Um, what just happened?” Kate asks weakly as the elevator quickly ascends to the top of the tower where the jets are docked.

“Pre-battle jitters,” Clint answers. “Everybody gets ‘em. Some guys cry, some guys tell non-stop stupid jokes... Sitwell used to bite his fingernails bloody before a big op.”

“What did you do?”

“I used to sing,” Clint hums, warm nostalgia soothing the need to fidget. “You’ll find something. Selfies, or Candy Crush probably.”

“Jerk,” Kate mutters, but she still whips out her phone and leans in close.

He gets two fingers up behind her head like bunny ears just quick enough to snap the picture before the elevator doors open again and they’re let out into the hanger-bay, a Quinjet powered and waiting for them.

AVAVA

Downstairs, Nicholas Fury grumbles all the way out of Stark Tower and onto the street.

God damn that Barton, but he was a nuisance!

Stepping into Tony Stark’s glass-and-chrome architectural ode to male inadequacy gives him hives, but with Barton in the wind and Coulson driven to distraction by it he was down to only Romanov to trust with the mess. He’d had to drive his ass all the way over from headquarters just to reassure himself that the Avengers had been successfully deployed and had all the pertinent information necessary to coordinate with SHIELD against MODOK. Suffered through twenty minutes of snide commentary for his troubles – they still haven’t forgiven him that one little lie, no matter how fine it had turned out – and then who do you think comes strolling up the hall but Barton himself.

Son of a bitch, always where you need him, when you need him, in the most inconvenient way possible.

And Ronin...

“Sir?”

Fury grunts, already knows what Hill is going to ask.

“Should we tell them?”

“They need to focus,” he growls, hiking his duster up around his shoulders. “And besides, I’ve interfered enough already. Let the idiots figure it out themselves. If death won’t convince one of them to man up and say something, nothing will. Now get back to HQ and get me everything we have on Ronin.”

“Yes Sir.”

Chapter Text

As he and Kate scramble on board the Quinjet and get themselves strapped down to the bench seats, Clint can feel several pairs of eyes boring into them, crawling all over his bow and quiver where they’re being held tight between Kate’s knees. The familiar urge to just blurt it all out is one he’s used to by now, but it’s stronger than it’s ever been before. He wants to say it, to rip off his mask and show them, and then disappear into the cockpit to take the controls because he hates not piloting, but instinct and experience keep him quiet, no matter how hard it is.

Doesn’t matter if Coulson is sitting across from them, staring with a broken look on his face, because Clint knows what it’s like to go in to a battle off your game.

That’s how you lose people, and there’s not a person on board he’s willing to take that chance with, not even Stark.

“Wait, how did you get those?”

Well, maybe Stark.

“Clint said I should use them,” Kate replies with a shrug, all teenage casual carelessness to cover up the way her knee tries to mimic a piston as the jet slowly rises off the helipad and sets out. “If I ever got called out.”

“Fine, whatever, but they were in my armory,” Stark argues, frowning. “Who let you...”

“Jarvis,” Kate says simply, but Clint tenses, because Tony’s eyes had narrowed, gone calculating the way they do when he’s working on a math problem.

“You put too much logic in that creepy computer, genius,” he growls. “All she had to do was point out that it was Hawkeye’s room, Hawkeye’s stuff. She’s Hawkeye.”

Across from them Phil makes a face like he’s swallowed something bitter, and Tony grumps.

“Apparently I need to do some recoding,” he huffs, and Clint lets out an imperceptible breath.

“Aw, I like Jarvis,” Kate says with a pout, distracted by her own nervousness but still distracting Stark, for him.

God, the things he owes this girl...

“Don’t worry Lady Bird,” Tony consoles, “I just like to threaten him every once in a while. Keeps him from getting uppity, ya’ know? Can’t have him going all Robocop on us, deciding the only way to save humanity is to end it.”

“I don’t think I’ve seen that movie yet,” Steve says warily, and Clint chokes out a snort.

Captain America scowls at him – and yeah, it’s definitely Captain America now as the jet banks hard to the left, bringing them around into Manhattan beneath the bank of sickly, swirling storm clouds.

“Ok, we’ve got reports of an army coming North from Midtown,” he says, putting on his Man-in-Charge voice. “Regimented lines, marching in step.”

“So from what we know about AIM, we’re guessing they’re already hooked in to the collective mind device they’ve got going on,” Tony butts in.

“Local law enforcement are clearing the streets as quickly as they can,” Steve continues. “Our primary objective is to get to MODOK and shut this thing down before he can open Tlon, but to do that, we have to make sure he doesn’t add to his collective.”

“Jarvis pulled these off some street cameras,” Tony says, flicking some images up into the air. “The quality is crappy and those stupid yellow hoods get in the way, but you can see...”

“Are those thumbtacks?” Kate asks, leaning forward and cocking her head.

“I mean, if you want to take all the science out of it, then yeah,” Tony says with a disgruntled shrug.

Bruce gives him the quiet side-eye and he clears his throat.

“It is basically that though,” he tries again. “Punch it into your neck and you’re tied in to the collective. The more minds he has grouped in, the stronger the force becomes and the less likely we are to shut this thing down, so try not to get stuck with anything sharp.”

Clint rolls his eyes, and feels his heart thump extra hard when he catches Phil doing the same thing.

“We’re on limited backup,” he says, unclipping his harness and getting to his feet as the jet banks again and starts to descend slowly, the overhead lights flicking on to signal the end of the ride. “SHIELD will have three factions deployed on ground support, but they’re holding back on a Code Orange in case Hydra does try to make a move while we’re distracted.”

That explains why he’s in the jet with them and not already on scene in a van.

Fuck.

As attractive as he is in his field gear, the black tac suit and the Aviators, Clint hates seeing him in it.

“Thor,” Coulson barks as the ramp slowly begins to lower, because now it’s his turn to put on the mask, to step up and become the boss, “See what you can do about this storm.”

“Aye Son of Coul!” the Thunder God booms, and then he’s out the tail of the plane and away, his cape wiping in the hot, sulfurous gales that are rocking the jet.

“Stark! Get Hawkeye to a vantage point.”

Tony stands, faceplate dropping, and years, years of trusting Phil Coulson and going where he’s sent him have Clint getting on his feet too, right beside Kate who looks at him with freaked-out googly eyes and a pale face. He thinks he covers well enough, pulling her into a hug and squeezing her tight, but he isn’t sure.

He doesn’t have time to worry about it.

“Be careful,” he breathes in her ear before letting her go, and she offers him a shaky grin and a fist bump.

“The two of you start looking for MODOK,” Coulson says, and Clint aches when he uses the same strong, sharp, commanding tone as before.

If it were him, he would’ve been softer, gentler, but that’s why he’s not the handler in the relationship. Phil knows better than to coddle junior agents, who only want to be believed in and who don’t need to think that they’re walking into something they’re not ready for.

Kate nods, Stark nods, and then the next thing Clint knows he’s grabbed her up by the back of her suit and they’re out of the jet too, gone, but not before he has a chance to hate himself a little for getting her into this.

“Well Agent?” he growls, because Coulson’s waiting, but apparently only for Natasha who comes strolling out of the cockpit with a hungry smirk on her face. She’s set the Quinjet to autopilot – with Jarvis at the controls she’s free to join in the fun.

“The four of us will be on the ground,” Phil instructs, nodding at Nat and Steve, a clear break between Clint and the three of them. “Control the troops as best you can, but try not to engage if you don’t have to. We don’t know what will happen if we start disconnecting them from the collective group-think, but Banner will be running the numbers. Once we locate MODOK, your primary objective remains the same. Get the device away from him.”

“Copy,” Clint snarls, because Coulson’s looking at him expectantly.

He only just manages to bite off the Boss that wants to follow.

Phil glares, and yup, that’s Phil, but then his Agent mask is back on and they’re all piling out of the jet and onto the pavement, immediately buffeted by the hot, stinking winds whipping between the buildings.

Old habits die hard, and as they run up the street toward the New York Stock Exchange, following the direction of the humming, marching masses, Clint scans his surroundings, takes it all in. Thor and Iron Man circle above him, doing laps around downtown as the storm builds. Thor looks like he’s lassoing clouds, swinging Mjolnir in circles before yanking and pulling hard, and he must be doing some good because the winds shift in time. He isn’t sure what Stark is doing, but it looks like he’s maybe trying to blast some abandoned cars into a pile, block off one of the side streets from the advancing onslaught.

“Ok people, it’s basically Night of the Living Dead out here,” Tony calls, circling back toward them. “These guys are having a hard time doing anything other than marching and chanting.”

“Seriously?” Kate chirps, “That’s the most relevant example you could come up with?”

Clint grins behind his mask.

God, she makes a great Hawkeye - she's got the sass and the comm chatter down perfectly.

“I mean, if you had to go with a zombie reference, at least pick something from the last twenty years,” she continues, as Clint finally catches sight of her perched on the roof of a building not too far away. “Not all of us are closing in on our golden years yet.”

“Ouch,” Tony grumbles, but Clint can hear the smile in his voice. “You gonna let that fly Cap?”

“I’m with the kid on this one,” Steve says, slowing to a walk as he turns circles left and right, watching hundreds of AIM goons march around him. “It’s like the hoards on The Walking Dead. They don’t even know we’re here.”

“Shameful,” Tony mutters before dropping down to land at Clint’s side, the hum of his repulsors fading away. “You getting this Brucie Bear?”

Clint hears a vague affirmative, but a shiver is tickling down his spine. It’s normal, weird as hell in fact to be dropped down into the middle of a battle field only to find... well, no battle. He, Steve, Nat, Phil, and Tony all just stand there, staring around at the rubber-suited soldiers walking in step, flowing around them like water around a rock, and it’s as if in that moment none of them really exist at all.

“This is part of the mindscape,” Clint mutters, “This...”

“What, you think we’re a part of the collective?” Tony asks. “None of us have been...”

He makes a stabbing gesture at his own neck, where the plates of the armor come together.

Clint shakes his head.

“What if Tlon doesn’t tear reality,” he says, throwing out his arm to encompass... everything, the whirling storm overhead. “What if it just... fades in.”

“A process instead of an event,” Tony says slowly, then suddenly he explodes up off the concrete, back into the air. “Shit! Thor, Lady Hawk, anybody got a visual on the MODOK yet?”

“Nay Iron Man,” Thor pants, sounding out of breath, “But these storms are not ones of Midgard.”

Now it’s Clint’s turn to curse.

He was right.

“Start getting the tacks out of these assholes!” he barks, lunging for the nearest AIM goon and grabbing him by the collar, jerking his helmet away from his neck.

“We don’t know what that will do!” Bruce argues across the comms, and Clint snarls.

“You got any better ideas? All these guys put together have apparently got enough brains to start altering reality – I vote we take away some of that brain power!”

He doesn’t wait for an answer – there won’t be a better one coming. Getting his gloved fingers underneath the little T-shaped tack punched into the very human-looking neck beneath the weirdo rubber suit, he pries it out and tosses the goon to the ground, lunging for the next one. Natasha hisses in his ear but leaps into action alongside him, Rogers waffling for all of a minute before he whines about changing plans and starts helping. Coulson barks an order across the comms, gets their limited SHIELD reserves looped in to the new directive, and then it’s just busy work.

Right.

All fun and games until somebody gets punched in the back of the head.

Snarling, blinking away the stars in his eyes and the ringing in his ears, Clint turns on the AIM goon who’s attacked him and starts swinging, biting out a warning just in time to save Nat a nasty kick to the kidneys.

“They’re waking up!”

Yup.

No more undead zombie hoard here.

Apparently once the tacks were out and they were released from the mindscape, the yellow idiots were able to focus enough to recognize that there were Avengers in their midst, and now the fight is really on.

It’s really the crappiest kind of catch-22.

They have to keep yanking out little Tlon tacks, have to keep unplugging these guys to keep the portal or whatever from washing over their world, but as they do they’re literally creating more bad guys. It would have been fine if they’d known to start with – easy enough to incapacitate the ones marching along without a clue before cutting their connection to the collective network, but they’re about twenty guys behind apiece now, and some of them are even smart enough to start untacking their buddies for backup.

It makes Clint’s head hurt just to think about it - seriously, which came first, the bad guy or the bad guy?

See what he means?

It’s easier to just do what Ronin does best, to start kicking ass and taking names as everything falls into chaos. There even seem to have been leaders in each little regiment that weren’t zombie-fied, who are now breaking cover to free their buddies from their mind-control fog, and the next thing anybody knows they’re all doing battle like they should’ve been in the first place.

It’s kinda messed up that Clint prefers that to the other – an actual fight is something he’s definitely more used to. This weird mental stuff isn’t his forte, and it’s easier to just ignore it than try to figure it out. Still, he’s not the only one. Nat seems to be enjoying herself now that things have started heating up, and he catches a glimpse of Spiderman swinging down between a couple of skyscrapers across the way. He’s pretty sure he heard Wade’s yippee-kiyay coming from somewhere, now that there’s actual blood being spilled.

Wholesome fun for the whole family.

Ducking a roundhouse swing, he knees one guy in the nuts and slips out from between two more, letting them knock each other out cold. He just about takes a wild kick himself except the guy is falling with an arrow in his thigh before it can connect, and Clint throws a salute in Kate’s direction, glancing up at the roof where she’s still perched, firing off arrows like a machine.

Gorgeous.

“MODOK!” she shouts suddenly into the comms, “Hey guys, there he is!”

“Little busy!” Steve yelps, as the shield goes whistling over Clint’s head.

“All agents converge!” Phil barks, the electric report of his taser sounding right behind. “Forces headed for Times Square; target located!”

Yup, sure enough, there he is, the giant-headed dweeb.

God, Clint hates him.

It’s just that he’s such a pain in the ass, you know?

He’s hard to take seriously, what with the crush on Maria Hill and the crappy plans that never work, and the fact that he’s basically a giant floating head with tiny little t-rex arms sticking out – it's not really fair that all of a sudden he’s a real threat with actual money and an actual plan.

What is he...

“It’s the headband!” Kate hollers, arrows still flying, just as those exact words come bubbling up out of Clint’s chest, heavy on the tip of his tongue. “The jewel thing; that’s it!”

She’s right, of course she’s right.

She’s Hawkeye – she can see it.

He can too, he just... shouldn’t be able to from here, but it’s fine, it’s ok.

Kate’s got their backs.

“Ronin, Widow!” Coulson barks, and really, that’s all that needs to be said.

Extricating themselves from their individual fights as best they can, they make a break for Times Square and the cackling moron bobbing around in the middle of stalled out traffic. Not as easy as it looks – it's chaos all around them now as his AIM goons break rank and join in the fight. Good, obviously, cause it’s definitely slowing down whatever Tlon’s doing – Thor's got hold of the storm now and is slowly fighting back the sickly green and pink and orange clouds swirling overhead while MODOK hisses threats at his swarms – but bad cause now they’ve really got a fight on their hands and there’s no way Clint and Nat are gonna be able to get there.

“Hawkeye!” he snarls, because even from here, even as Ronin he can see that it’s the only way. “Take the shot!”

“Yeah, um, just... gimme a minute!” Kate squeaks, and Clint’s heart leaps into his chest.

Throwing off his attacker, he spins on his heel and scans the skyline, finds AIM idiots swarming Kate’s perch. She’s holding her own just fine against the three that have gained the roof, but there are about twelve more cascading up the fire escape, leaving her with no way down.

“Iron Man, get her out of there!” he shouts, but Tony’s just as busy as everybody else, tearing a swarm of guys off Nat’s back from the air. “Shit!”

Putting his time on the run to good use, Clint ducks and dodges and slips his way through the ridiculous crowd of yellow rubber, some of them fighting each other now, until he reaches the base of the bank she’s perched on. It’s a heart-pounding race up the rickety steel fire-ladder but he makes it in record time, throwing a couple of AIM’s finest over the edge on his way. The relief he feels when he finds Kate still fighting at the top tastes like metal at the back of his mouth, but he doesn’t have time to enjoy it – there are plenty of bad guys enough for the both of them to share.

Between throwing punches and just plain old throwing bodies, Clint makes his way to Kate’s side, tries not to get distracted watching her work.

“Alright Hawkeye?” he calls, watching his bow sing in her hands as she swings it like a baseball bat, walloping one guy over the head and dropping him cold.

“I’m good!” she hollers back, and Clint grins, yanks an arrow from her quiver – grappling arrow – and punches it into another dude’s face. “Is it always like this?”

Clint just laughs, shakes his head as he flips one of the last two over his shoulder onto the tar paper, watches her catch the other’s ankle and use her bowstring to choke him into unconsciousness. She gets back to her feet, panting, and Clint jerks her into a hug.

“Sure you’re ok?” he asks, and she smiles at him, a little shaky, but steady enough on her feet.

“I’m good,” she says again. “But the jewel...”

“A little help down here!”

Clint’s heart skips a beat.

From above it’s easy to see the Avengers losing ground, easy to see them slowly being overrun by the sheer numbers AIM have turned out. It dawns on him that maybe Hydra isn’t planning another attack – maybe they just wanted SHEILD’s forces split, maybe they just wanted to sit back and watch while someone else took all the risks trying to knock out some of the competition. Nat’s ok, Steve and Tony are tag-teaming a bunch by bouncing a reactor beam off the shield, but Coulson’s being swarmed and there’s no back-up coming...

Without thought, as natural as breathing, Clint takes the bow from Kate’s yielding hands and knocks his arrow, sends it sailing down into the concrete. The grappling hooks sink in deep and he quickly loops the line off on a pipe near the edge of the building, grabs Kate around the waist and drags her in close.

“Hold on!” he commands, slinging his bow over the line, and then he’s pushing off and Kate’s wrapping her arms around his neck tight enough to choke, shrieking in his ear all the way.

“Oh my god, don’t drop meeeeeeee!!!!”

He sticks the landing – it was hardly the worst ride he’s ever taken, even with the extra body – but Kate stumbles when her feet touch the concrete. Clint grabs her wrist, pulls her back up, then pushes his bow into her hands.

“He’s channeling Tlon through that jewel, like a power cell,” he says, even as his heart pounds in his chest, his eyes searching for Phil, battling his way out of a knot of bad guys. “Bright red circle, just aim for the center.”

“I can’t hit it from here!” Kate squeaks, her face going pale and scared.

“Yes you can,” he says heavily, taking precious, precious seconds to turn and grip her shoulders, to look her in the eye. “You’ve got this Hawkeye. Make the shot!”

Ten. Nine. Eight...

The wire tenses.

He can hear a countdown clock in his head as he turns to run, hammering against the inside of his chest. The copper tang of blood and fear is thick at the back of his throat as he moves, pushing himself harder than he’s ever pushed in his damn life. Phil’s fighting for his life now, throwing punches left and right, and Clint can see the AIM idiot whose tack has just been knocked loose, who’s sitting up and shaking his head to clear it. He’s been faking for so long now, but he’d never stopped being Hawkeye, not matter how much he’d tried, and he can see, can still see the rubber-suited moron catching sight of a lost pistol lying on the ground and picking it up.

Seven. Six. Five...

Back muscles tighten and lock.

He raises it, lifts the gun and brings the muzzle to bear as the clock runs down, and Clint isn’t sure what it’s even counting now, the culmination of a thousand thoughts opening up another world or the bullet aimed at Phil Coulson’s head.

Idiot.

What had he been thinking, running away?

He’d been given a second chance and he’d thrown it in the trash, stomped it like he hadn’t been given the one thing he wanted more than anything else in the world, and now he was about to watch Phil Coulson die a second time without ever having told the man he loved him.

He wasn’t going to be fast enough.

Four. Three. Two...

Slow your breathing.

Putting everything he has into one last burst of speed, Clint plows into Phil like a linebacker, plants both hands on his chest and shoves with all his momentum, sending him sprawling back and out of the way as a sound like a gunshot explodes in his ears, pain a mirrored sunburst of agony exploding in his chest as the air is driven from his lungs.

Times up.

Exhale.

Unable to catch his breath, his balance, the last thing Clint sees before his skull connects with the pavement is the pale, guilt-ridden, confused face of Phil Coulson, staring at him like he’d never seen him before as he reaches out a hand too late to catch him.

As he falls, he thinks he hears someone scream his name.

Relax your hand.

Chapter Text

“CLINT!”

Kate doesn’t notice the silence that follows the concussive boom of MODOK’s power cell exploding, the plaintive stillness that settles as Tlon fades away like it never was. Her arrow had flown true, hit its mark dead center, and as the jewel that channeled alternate dimensions cracks down the center, AIM minions drop like puppets without strings.

She trips, stumbles, picks herself back up again and runs, leaping over bodies to get to Clint’s side, Clint, not Ronin, who’s fallen in a crumpled heap at Phil Coulson’s feet to the sound of a gunshot that still echoes in her ears.

Perhaps it’s only her own heartbeat.

“No, no, no!” she cries, tears already streaming down her face as she skids to a stop at Clint’s side, drops to her knees and rolls him over onto his back, terrifyingly limp. “Clint, get up, don’t you do this to me! You promised, you promised no more running!”

He’s not breathing, his chest still, and her hands shake as she reaches for the hood that covers his eyes, but she can’t figure it out, can’t work the complicated mechanisms that keep the mask over his face...

“Clint, wake up!”

Thick arms catch her around the waist and lift her up, drag her back, and she fights and claws but she doesn’t think Deadpool can even feel it. He mutters bullshit in her ears, promising her it will be ok as Peter Parker drops to his knees in her place and reaches down, does something slick and small that has the mask unlocking and opening up, and there’s Clint’s face, pale and still and unconscious and she can’t breathe...

She’s not the only one.

All around her there are sharp, harsh gasps, small, wounded sounds of recognition, and Clint will probably be pissed that she didn’t at least get a picture of Coulson’s face for him but he has to wake up first, he has to wake up...

Peter strips back his own mask, pulls it up over his nose and leans down, pressing his mouth to Clint’s and breathing hard, once, twice, then he’s lacing his fingers together over his chest and Kate knows what CPR is, but oh god, please...

Thirteen compressions in, suddenly Clint’s back bows and he arcs up hard off the ground, hissing before rolling over onto his side and choking like he’s trying to cough up his lungs. Deadpool finally drops her and she scrambles to his side, her hands on his shoulders and his face as she tries to pull him up, to help, to do anything. Her fingers come away from the back of his head red and sticky, and he’s got an arm wrapped around his ribs like they’re broken, but she can feel the Kevlar plates in his armored jacket and suddenly she’s laugh-crying so hard she can barely see.

“That was kinda hot,” Deadpool says, none-too-quietly as he reels Peter in against his side, and just like that a painful tension snaps as all around them the Avengers drop their shoulders, drop their guards.

Kate giggles half-hysterically, steadying herself when Clint grips her forearm hard and drags himself upright, looks around with bleary eyes.

“Hey,” he wheezes, scanning the streets, covered in heaped up piles of yellow-rubber suits, MODOK flailing helplessly on his back several yards away. “Nice shot Hawkeye.”

Kate lunges, throws herself into his arms despite his groan and hugs him hard.

“Learned it from the best Hawkeye,” she sniffles, grinning brightly through her tears.

“Easy on the broken ribs,” Clint coughs, wobbling on his feet, and actually, he sounds kind of raspy... “Kate?”

Between one second and the next Clint’s face goes from pale to green to a sickly, grey color, and the next thing she knows he’s hunched over and puking all over her boots, gasping for breath and choking up little spots of blood.

“I need medical now!” Coulson barks, and then he’s standing right beside her, catching Clint under the arms as his knees give out and his eyes roll back in his head. “Gunshot wound to the vest, probable broken ribs, possible punctured lung. Suspected concussion with a laceration to the back of the head, so get some O negative on the pole!”

She helps Coulson carry him toward a side-street where SHIELD clean-up crews are already swarming in, police vans and plenty of agents to help fill them. An ambulance comes whistling up, trundling along slowly as it weaves through a mess of bodies, and then suddenly there’s EMT’s everywhere, hoisting Clint up onto a stretcher and pressing gauze to the back of his head, starting an IV line even as they wheel him back toward the ambulance.

Kate actually jogs after them a few steps, her hand out, but they slam the doors on her and speed off before she even gets close, and she’s left standing there without a clue of what to do next. It occurs to her in a vague, distant way that their secret is finally out, that Clint won’t have the chance to worry over it anymore, and she’s afraid to turn around again because she can feel Coulson standing a few paces behind her, can feel the rest of the Avengers staring, and she...

A hand slips into each of hers, Deadpool and Spiderman coming to her side, and maybe it’s wrong but she’s glad she has someone, glad Clint has someone who isn’t an Avenger right now...

She’s pretty sure that they at least don’t want anything of her.

“I need to get to the hospital,” she says, and her words come out hoarse and raspy, nearly as bad as Clint’s. “I need... he doesn’t like to wake up alone.”

“We’ll all go,” someone pipes up, and it’s Steve, it’s Captain America pushing forward to rest his hand on her shoulder. “You’re right, we should be there for him when he wakes up.”

She isn’t sure who commandeers the van. Best guess is Natasha, since she’s the one who ends up driving, but she doesn’t dare ask questions right now. Everyone is sitting in a stony silence and it hangs heavy and accusing on her shoulders - she can’t even really manage to lift her head, her cheeks are burning so hot. Peter and Wade bracket her on either side, press in close, and she’s glad, she’s glad, because she may not need Ronin standing between her and the Avengers with his hand on his sword, but it’s comforting to know there’s someone standing between them.

They’re the good guys, she knows that, but they’re all staring at her like they want to see inside her head, like they want to turn her upside down and shake her till the words fall out of her pockets like lunch money, and her heart is still pounding so hard she can barely breathe.

“Good job out there today,” Wade says suddenly, bright and loud like he’s just remembered, like there’s nothing serious or somber going on. “Barton said you were almost as good as he was.”

“Should be,” she manages to say, her voice still croaky as she swipes at her cheeks. “Haven’t been copying him for years for nothing.”

“You saved the world Katie!” Peter says with a grin, bumping her with his shoulder. “Nobody else could’a made that shot!”

“Except Hawk-ass,” Wade observes, and Kate scowls at him. “What? He’ll be fine. What’s a punctured lung among friends?”

“Not everyone possesses the gift of accelerated healing, Mr. Wilson,” Coulson says flatly, and Kate swallows hard because it’s the first thing he’s really said and oh god, he doesn’t sound good, flat and cold and empty.

Wade flaps a hand, waves him off.

“If he needs it, he can have one of mine,” he says flippantly. “I’ll just regrow it. It won’t be the first time we’ve...”

“Wade,” Peter murmurs, and then suddenly they’re both leaning heavily on her from either side, wrapping their arms around her waist, weighing her down when she feels like she could float off toward the ceiling.

“It’s the adrenaline crash,” Peter says quietly, and Kate breathes out a shaky sigh. “Was this your first big fight?”

“Kinda,” she says, running up and down her arms to fight a sudden chill. “Not really? But it was like this last time too.”

“Pizza,” Deadpool says knowingly from behind his mask, “And some sugar. Oh, and cuddles too, those help.”

A broken little laugh bubbles up out of her chest, because yeah, that’s basically what Clint had prescribed too, and oh god, Clint, she can’t lose him too...

They pull up in front of a local hospital and pile out of the SUV like clowns from a mini-car, and it must be some kind of SHIELD clinic because there’s an agent there to take the keys and another inside the door to wand them all in. They’re brought up to a neat little waiting room, all homey with pale green walls and fluffy furniture, and Peter and Wade sandwich her into the couch before the rest of the Avengers can even trickle into the room. They look awkward and uncomfortable as they slowly fan out, picking seats around the edges while pretending not to look at her, and she grabs on for dear life when Peter hands her a throw pillow to clutch.

“It was a well fought battle Lady Hawk,” Thor says regally from where he’s wedged himself into an armchair. “You have proven yourself worthy of your namesake. But why did you not tell us that Ronin was our friend Clint Barton? Surely you must have known...”

“Thor,” Coulson says quietly, and it’s gentle scolding and miserable self-doubt and Kate hates it.

“He asked me not to,” she says quietly, and she’s talking to Thor but she’s staring at Phil. “It was his call to make. But you’re right, I did know. I could see it.”

They lapse into silence after that, a doctor sweeping in and out of the room just long enough to tell them that Clint was in surgery. Banner and Stark sit with their heads together over a tablet, muttering about Jarvis and about brain scans and blood, while Thor and Steve look broody. Natasha watches her with a cool, deadly look, and Phil, well, Phil just sits in a crumpled heap in his arm chair, looking terrified. In the middle of it all Deadpool has pizza delivered, and coaxes her to down a couple of slices along with a bottle of orange juice, him and Peter giving her space but never straying too far from her side.

Eventually she starts to level out, her breath coming easier and her hands no longer feeling like they want to shake so much.

“I just can’t believe he got this by us,” Tony growls, and Kate eyes him warily, turns her empty bottle in her hands in case she’s overcome by the sudden urge to throw it at his head. “Spy Games is his best friend, Jarvis didn’t even know – how did we not know?!”

“I thought you did know,” she frowns.

“I thought it was his brother,” he yelps with exasperation, dragging his hands through his hair, “Or maybe an old boyfriend or something. I didn’t... I mean, I never thought he’d...”

“I don’t think the how matters so much as the why,” Bruce says quietly, and across from him Coulson pales, slouches lower in his seat. “If he didn’t want to be with us, why come back at all?”

“Because he didn’t want any of you to get hurt,” she hears herself say, before she can think the better of it because maybe they’re really Clint’s secrets to tell. “He knew you didn’t have any eyes up high, he didn’t want...”

She sighs, knuckles at her eyes.

“He did want to be with you,” she says quietly, unable to look at any of them now. “He wanted to come home. He was gonna tell you, after the fight. He promised...”

Sucking back a sob, she claps her hand over her mouth, breathes hard through her nose as she tries to get herself back under control. Peter rubs her back and she closes her eyes, unable to look at them anymore, all these people who were hurting just as hard as Clint was in their own way, and god it was all so stupid when they actually wanted him...

“Are you all here for Agent Barton?”

Kate jumps, her stomach lurching, but the doctor who’s stepped into the room looks calm and at ease and she’s cleaned up from the last time she came in, wearing a white lab coat instead of surgery scrubs.

“Is he alright Dr. Cho?” Steve asks, and she grinds her teeth because it’s fine, it’s ok.

They all have their own claims on Clint.

“He came through the surgery well,” the doctor replies, and yes, now she sees the little Stark label sewn onto her jacket, Dr. Helen Cho, Chief Medical Surgeon. “His Kevlar stopped the bullet, but being at such close range it still managed to break three of his ribs. The lung wasn’t punctured but it was lacerated and badly bruised – we went in and cleaned up but it will be a while before he’s back to fighting weight.”

“Is he awake?” Kate asks, because somehow that means more, more than the science and more than the medicine and more than all the doctor’s promises. “Did he...”

“We have him lightly sedated for now,” Helen replies, checking her watch. “We had to sew up the back of his head, and he does have a mild concussion – I don’t want him attempting any daring feats of escape just yet.”

Across from her, Phil Coulson goes an ugly shade of sick-white.

“We’ll be slowly titrating him back from it though,” the doctor continues. “I’m well acquainted with Hawkeye’s intolerance for pain medications. If one of you would like to sit with him you’re welcome to as long as you keep him quiet. Agent Coulson? Agent Romanov?”

Neither of them moves.

The doctor seems surprised, and Kate guesses that makes sense since she clearly knows Clint from before, knows how he is, or at least how he was, but Coulson and the Black Widow...

For the first time since she’s met them they both look absolutely terrified.

“I’ll go,” she says, getting to her feet, and Peter and Wade follow her up.

“If you’re ok we’re gonna take off,” Peter murmurs as they each give her a light hug. “Call us, alright?”

“Anything you need Hawk-Girl,” Wade agrees. “You or Barton.”

“Thanks guys.”

To her surprise, when Wade lets go and steps back Natasha is there waiting, and she wraps her arms around Kate’s shoulders before she has the chance to flinch. Pulling her in hard, she presses her forehead against Kate’s temple and speaks quietly in her ear.

“Thank you for taking care of him.”

Kate jerks back, stunned, and stares for all of a minute before she can’t hold the Black Widow’s gaze any more. Licking her lips, she nods in acknowledgement and follows the doctor out of the room.

AVAVA

Tony heaves a huge sigh, collapsing back on the loveseat he’s sharing with Bruce, exhausted.

“Well,” he says slowly, “Now that the baby bird’s out of the room... what the hell?!”

It’s a testament to the insanity of the situation that no one answers him immediately.

“He was faking this whole time?” Steve mutters, almost to himself. “Why?”

“No,” Natasha argues, cold and distant. “Not faking. Lying.”

“Natasha,” Phil murmurs, and at the sound of his voice the steel goes out of her shoulders.

She’s angry, yes, at Clint and at herself, because why wouldn’t he have told her, how could she have not seen? She’d sat across from Ronin, listened to him speak, watched him move, she had fought him in hand-to-hand combat, the closest intimacy she knows, and yet she hadn’t...

“He’s changed,” Tony says, tapping at his tablet. “Jarvis’ profile pegs him about thirty pounds lighter, not nearly so top-heavy... he moves differently.”

Phil chokes a laugh, his chest on fire as his heart beats at what feels like a hundred miles a minute.

“But he hasn’t changed at all has he?” he says, hoarse and heated. “He didn’t just pick up Ronin’s cowl, he was always Ronin. He...”

“Clint’s always done what he had to to keep himself safe,” Natasha replies, her turn to remind him about their friend, about all the things they know and thought they knew.

“This was safe?” he chokes, and across from them Bruce hums in consideration.

“Oh god,” Tony croaks, looking over at Steve in horror. “The things we said. Not about Clint, but about Ronin. Who... is Clint...”

“It’s certainly a clever way to get an unbiased opinion,” Bruce allows, and Phil casts him a glare.

“And I didn't believe that Ronin and Hawkeye ran in the same social circles,” Steve huffs. “They’re the same man! How can one man be so...”

“Clint wasn’t the same man when SHIELD picked him up,” Phil manages to say, his voice distant to his own ears. “He was angry, volatile... He was doing what he had to to survive.”

“So what he said about the difference between making a hero and a villain...” Tony says slowly, and damn the man for pointing out the obvious, “He knew what he was talking about.”

“Let’s not lose sight of what’s important,” Bruce counsels quietly. “Perhaps Clint did take up his Ronin mask again, but he put it to good use, even before we contacted him. He wasn’t stealing, wasn’t hurting anyone – he was doing good work before we contacted him.”

“And he came back when we called,” Tony says slowly, looking at Phil with a softness around his eyes that makes him incredibly uncomfortable. “In secret maybe, but he came back.”

“He was there for us,” Steve agreed, nodding. “Miss Bishop said he was worried, that he still wanted us to have eyes up high... he cares.”

They look at Phil and Natasha, Bruce and Steve and Tony, two-thirds of the Strike Team that had been so close before Loki and the Battle of New York had torn them all apart. They’re each stewing their own hurt, their own fears - pain and astonishment and mistrust - and yet above it all, an overwhelming sense of relief at finally having their friend close and safe again.

Natasha will be alright, she knows this. Clint hadn’t left her high and dry, had sent the note and the assurance and she understands him in a way that he may not even understand himself. She knows his need to get some distance, to evaluate and analyze from safety, and she doesn’t blame him for it. She’s hurt that he didn’t share with her, yes, that he managed to keep it from her, but if she is truly honest she’s more upset with herself, with her own apparent inability to recognize the man beneath the mask.

She’s ashamed.

Grateful though, so grateful that Clint is here, home again, alive and safe if not entirely unharmed.

Of course the idiot would step in front of a bullet for Coulson, even if he was playing the world’s most intense game of avoidance.

Stepping in front of the despondent agent, she crouches down and puts her hands on his knees, waits until he looks at her.

“He still loves you,” she says, barely loud enough to hear. “That hasn’t changed. He wouldn’t be here if he didn’t Phil, don’t... don’t think that.”

“I don’t know what I think anymore,” he replies flatly, and a part of Natasha wants to slap him.

“Fuck you Phil Coulson,” she growls with very little heat. “The two of you are the stupidest pair of idiots I’ve ever met. You both messed up but you both still love each other, so for god’s sake, one of you say it before it’s too late.”

Getting back to her feet, she stares down at the man in front of her, speaks the harsh truth they’re both afraid of.

“We almost lost him today,” she says. “That will always be the risk in what we do. How many more chances do you think the two of you will get before one of you doesn’t come back?”

“Love is meant to be shared,” Thor says in his deep, rumbling voice. “To be celebrated. The union of two shield brothers could be nothing but a glorious affair.”

Phil barks a laugh, broken and small.

“It won’t be,” he argues, shaking his head. “What I did, he won’t... I mean, he obviously doesn’t. And he shouldn’t; I don’t deserve...”

“That’s exactly what’s kept you apart this long!” Natasha snaps. “He didn’t think he deserved you, you thought he could never want you... Jesus Phil, what more do you need?”

“I’ll tell him,” he promises her, because he will and he’d planned to all along. “You’re right. I can’t... I don’t want to count on any more second chances.”

Getting to his feet, his squares his shoulders, feels like he’s headed for a firing squad.

“I’ll tell him,” he says again, “And I’ll apologize and I’ll... I’ll tell him everything. But the rest, that’s got to be his decision. I don’t... I won’t expect anything.”

Natasha sighs, frowns and shakes her head, but watches him leave with a heartfelt prayer that the morons will finally work something out between them.

If they don’t she’ll have to step in, perhaps enlist Kate Bishop to help.

She won’t let Clint run from them again.

He’s had enough time be angry, had enough time to grieve.

Now it’s time to either move forward, or move on.

Chapter Text

Clint wakes up slow and foggy, the way he does when he’s been drugged, and knows immediately that something’s wrong.

Something, you know, worse than the incredible pain in his chest, the way it hurts just to lie there, just to breathe.

He blinks slowly, a familiar foamboard ceiling coming in to focus, and as he tests each of his limbs, counts his fingers one at a time to make sure they’re all still attached, the realization that he’s in a hospital trickles through the cotton stuffing up his head. A safe hospital, must be, because he’s not cuffed to the bedrails, and he’s not all giggly and stupid the way he gets sometimes when he’s on the really hard stuff, so that’s not so bad, but what...

MODOK.

Fighting with the Avengers.

A gun being lifted, being pointed at...

Clint tries to sit up, gasps and chokes as pain lances through him, and then there are small hands pushing him back down, pushing the button that floods him with a loose, warm, floaty feeling, pushing through his hair...

“Katie!”

“Relax you idiot,” she growls at him, as fiercely as she can with tear tracks dried all down her cheeks. “You’ll tear your stitches.”

“Stitches?”

“You took a bullet for your boyfriend,” she says scoldingly, even as her hands continue to pet through his hair. “He’s fine Clint.”

Collapsing back against the pillows, Clint coughs and tries to catch his breath, tries to let that filter through, to feel it so he can calm his racing heart.

“He’s ok,” Kate promises, and he pants, lets the reassurance sink in down to his very bones. “We all are. We... we did it.”

“You did it,” he says stupidly, because yeah, he’s floating now, but that much he remembers. “You did it.”

“Yeah,” she grins shakily, “I kinda did. But the point is everybody’s ok, so don’t go jumping up or anything.”

Clint grumbles, shifts uncomfortably in the bed, because his chest aches and he feels dried out and scraped raw all the way down his throat into his lungs.

“What...”

“You broke three ribs,” Kate says, her fingers trembly on his forehead. “The pieces scratched up your lung pretty bad, bruised it. Cracked your thick skull open too, so you’ve definitely got a concussion. You owe me a new pair of boots by the way.”

“Aw concussion, no,” Clint moans, rolling his head on his neck, the low-level nausea he’d been pointedly ignoring rolling up his spine like a wave.

“Stark’s doctor fixed you up pretty good though,” Kate says, her voice tight, and Clint swallows thickly before reaching out to cover her hand with his own, careless of the IV taped to the back of it when she laces their fingers together. “You’ve got seven stitches in the back of your head and sixteen more in your chest – they had to get some bone shards out. But they said you’ll be ok as long as you rest.”

“I’ll be ok,” he parrots, because he may be a little stupid at the best of times, let alone when he’s doped, but he can see it written all over her face that she needs to hear it. “Katie. I’ll be ok. I’ve had a lot worse, trust me.”

“Not helping jerk,” she grumbles, swiping at her cheeks with her free hand. “Don’t do that again.”

“No promises,” Clint murmurs, and she flicks him a glare, even as she pulls the requisite hospital chair up beside the bed. “Except the one about the running, not... not that one.”

Kate’s face goes a little young and worried and she chews her lip, and Clint leans back into his pillows and sighs.

“They figured it out huh?” he mumbles, eyes casting slowly around the edges of the room, the other empty chairs waiting against the wall.

The disappointment must show on his face because Kate touches his hand again, brushes her thumb over his knuckles.

“Don’t look like that,” she murmurs, and Clint turns his face sharply away to stare at the wall. “Clint.”

Swallowing hard, he bites back the fear, shoves it down, and slowly brings his gaze back up to hers.

“They’re out in the lobby,” she says, watching his face, too closely for comfort. “All of them. They’re not gonna leave – I think Stark would probably order up some beds so they can stay overnight – they just...”

It’s her turn to look down, to look away, and he wonders if it’s his fault, if he’s made her embarrassed or scared or...

“I yelled your name,” she finally admits, “And Peter pulled your mask off to give you CPR. They think you don’t want to see them Clint. They’re trying to respect that.”

The monitors hooked up to Clint’s chest and fingers and forehead all start to beep, building from a quiet, steady rhythm to a sharp, rapid staccato and he swallows hard, takes several deep breaths to calm his heart, swallow it back down where it belongs beneath his ribs. The beeping slows after a few minutes, and Clint waves sheepishly when Helen Cho pops her head through the door and shoots him a stern look. He sighs, pushes the button to raise the back of the bed and groans while Kate helps fluff the pillows behind him.

“Futz, I hate bustin’ up my ribs,” he complains, as Kate fusses and tucks his blankets in around him. “Makes everything hurt. Chest aches...”

“Yeah, but I think that’s maybe partly something else,” she says in a gently scolding tone, leaning over to press her lips to his forehead.

“Yeah,” he mumbles, cheeks warm. “Maybe. Hey Kate? Do you think you could maybe ask Natasha if she would...”

“Oh.”

Clint’s head snaps up and he immediately gasps, his hand going to the back of his neck as his face crunches up and nausea sweeps through him.

Right.

Cracked head.

Oops.

“Should I...” Phil mumbles, half turned through the doorway with only one foot in the room, staring at his shoes and looking more prepared to run than Clint has ever seen him.

“No!” Kate yelps, too loudly even though Clint doesn’t have either of his aids in. “No, you... you um, keep an eye on Clint. I’ll get Natasha!”

“It’s no trouble,” Phil says, quiet and awkward and half-hearted, but Kate’s already shepherding him in a careful little do-si-do until she’s backed him into Clint’s room and is stepping out of it herself.

“Nope, no trouble at all!” she says brightly, manically, winking and giving Clint double thumbs-up as she skips out, gestures which Phil can’t possibly miss. “I got this, no worries! You two just...”

And then she’s gone, disappearing down the hall and babbling as she goes.

Clint doesn’t know if he loves her or hates her for leaving him alone.

Well, he says alone...

When he finally looks up he’s surprised to find Phil staring at him. He doesn’t know why that’s a shock – you know, beyond the seriously intense blue eyes he loves so much – because Phil’s never been afraid of anything. There’s no reason Clint should expect him to be staring at his shoes, to be shuffling awkwardly, but the way he’s standing there, the look on his face...

“What?” he mumbles, half defensive and half nervous, one hundred percent terrified.

“I... sorry,” Phil blurts, clearly startled from whatever thoughts he’s thinking, and Clint finds himself woozily fascinated by the pink blush that spreads across his cheeks. “I just... it’s you.”

Clint frowns, squirms, because that sounds kinda like it’s maybe a scolding, and he doesn’t...

“Clint, I didn’t mean it that way.”

“What way?” he grumbles, petulant now because it’s not fair that Phil can still read his mind, not when it’s been years...

“I just meant that you’re really here,” Phil says quietly, and Clint lifts his head again because yup, he’s definitely moved closer to the bed. “That you’re... you’re really you.”

“Yeah, well,” he mutters and it’s his turn to blush, because suddenly he feels stupid and silly and childish. “You know how it goes. Had a big reveal planned, dance number and everything, but Kate kinda ruined the...

He trails off because while he’s been looking at his lap Coulson’s been practicing his ninja skills and now suddenly there’s a warm, rough hand covering his and it takes everything he has not to burst into tears.

“Clint, I am so sorry.”

He remembers to snap his head up a little slower this time but it still hurts, still sets off the pounding and the nausea that make him wanna hurl. Of all the things he’d thought Phil would say to him, of all the first things, he’d never really thought an apology would be one of them. He can’t doubt the man’s sincerity – the pain in his voice and the look on his face make that pretty clear – but he’s still stunned, and the anger and the readiness to fight, to defend himself all bleed away with that one, simple sentence.

“You asshole,” he grumbles, because that’s not fair either, he wants to fight, but Phil just nods, his mouth curving down sadly at the corners.

“Yes,” he agrees, carefully taking his hand back, though he looks like he isn’t sure what to do with it once he has. “I... I think I had good reasons once, for doing what I did. Can’t even really remember what they were now, besides stupid.”

Clint just scowls, wary, his heart pounding inside his aching chest.

Phil lifts his head, squares his shoulders the way he does when he’s taking responsibility in front of Fury for something Strike Team Delta did that had resulted in blood and loud explosions.

“I was wrong,” he says, and his voice is calm, steady. “I was afraid that if I had come back it would have been because I was seeing what I wanted to see and using that as an excuse to... to do the selfish thing. To put what I wanted before world security and before.... before you.”

Clint can hear the stupid beeping of the heart monitor somewhere far away, picking up, speeding up as everything in him tries to panic and freak out. Ripping the little clamp off his finger and possibly giving his favorite doctor Helen Cho prematurely grey hair seems a small price to pay for a little sanity.

He can’t...

“But by doing that,” Phil continues slowly, like Clint wasn’t having a little mini-meltdown right in front of him, wasn’t halfway to scrambling out of the bed and into the ceiling, “I did end up hurting you. I went so far in the other direction that I somehow convinced myself that there was nothing there, that what you and I and Natasha shared was nothing more than any other Strike Team. That wasn’t right.”

Hell no that wasn’t right! Delta had never been like other Strike Teams. What him and Phil and Nat had shared was so much more than a battle-bond, so much more than being friends, but he’d been so scared of exposing his poorly-hidden crush (so much more than a crush) that he’d...

Had he done the same thing?

Had he gone so far the other way that Phil had thought they weren’t even...

“Clint stop, please.”

Clint blinks, surprised by Phil’s pleading tone, and his stomach tightens a little when Phil touches the back of his hand again, there and gone.

“Please,” he says again, “I can see you trying to find a way to make this your fault and it’s not.”

“I ran away,” he says, before he has any idea he’s going to say it and before he can shut himself up.

Phil just shakes his head.

“Which you had every right to do,” he says. “There’s no law, no rule that says you can’t walk away from things that... things that hurt you. It’s not like you faked your death or anything...”

It’s a poor attempt at humor and it falls flat, even if Clint wants to be able to chuckle. He barely manages to lift the corners of his mouth in a sad attempt at a smile, and it ends up feeling more like a wobbly grimace, tears and heartache just waiting beneath his skin.

“I don’t blame you for that,” Phil says softly. “I don’t blame you for any of that. I know you Hawkeye, or at least I did once. I know you see better from a distance.”

Clint swallows hard, sniffles as his throat tries to close up.

“There’s no excuse,” Phil sighs, running a trembly hand through his hair before he takes two steps away and sits down in the chair that Kate had vacated. “Nothing I can say or do that will ever change how I hurt you, that can ever make up for it.”

Lifting his head, he looks Clint in the eye and speaks softly.

“I want you to know that I understand that,” he says. “That I don’t expect anything. God, how could I after everything I’ve put you through? It was a terrible thing to do to anyone, let alone a friend, let alone someone you...”

He shrugs, looks down at his shoes.

“Anyway. I just want you to know I don’t expect anything. You obviously have a new life, new people – and no, that’s not a swipe at you for having another identity. Just... I don’t expect things to go back to the way they were. I don’t expect you to forgive me and pick up where we left off, as if none of this ever happened. Though if I could, I...”

“You’d what?” Clint warbles, because very, very suddenly he’s exhausted and doesn’t know what to do anymore, doesn’t know what to think.

He’d never really thought beyond Ronin’s unmasking to be honest, never really thought about what a long road it would be to coming home.

If... wait.

If it is home anymore.

If that was what he wanted.

He...

“I’d do everything differently,” Phil whispers, choked, bringing his gaze up to meet Clint’s. “I’d have told you how I felt when I first realized it for myself. I’d have kissed you when you climbed back through the window of that safehouse with the Black Widow behind you, and I’d have asked you to dinner that night in the rain in New Mexico. I’d have told you as many times and as many ways as I could manage how incredible you are, and how much I loved you.”

Clint stares, horrified, as his heart tries to break out through his chest, the shattered pieces of his ribs cutting him to pieces, but Phil, who’s always been brave even when he thinks he’s not, doesn’t waver.

“I know that’s not worth a lot right now,” he says, lowering his eyes as resigned despair creeps into his voice. “Not after what I did. Hell, I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t trust a word out of my mouth anymore but you deserve to know. I need you to know. I don’t expect anything – God knows I have no right to ask anything of you – but Clint, it’s there. I was miserable without you, before and after, and I know I deserved every minute of it, but there it is.”

He looks at Clint one more time and somehow this feels like the turning point, the end of something, a goodbye that doesn’t want to be spoken or heard.

“You’re important,” Phil says. “You matter. To me and to all the other people sitting out there. We all love you in our own way, but Clint, I...”

He doesn’t finish.

Can’t, it seems, like he’s run out of words or energy or both.

He stands there trembling like a man awaiting judgement, but Clint can’t seem to process everything that’s just come tumbling out of the cool, competent SHIELD agent who’d bared his heart in an uncharacteristic display of vulnerability.

He loves him?

How could he...

“I’ll go get Natasha,” Phil murmurs, his shoulders dropping minutely, and Clint realizes that his silence has drawn out just a little too long.

“Coulson!” he barks, when Phil is halfway to the door, and it comes out too loud and too sharp and too harsh but he can’t bring himself to say Phil, to say his name because if he does he’ll shatter where he lies, he just knows it.

“Yes Clint?” he responds, half turning back to him and refusing to meet his eyes, calm and collected and god damn it why can’t he just snap, why can’t he just yell or curse or throw up his hands the way he did after Clint pulled that stunt in Budapest, why can’t he...

“Don’t walk out that door,” he chokes.

This time it’s too soft, too wobbly, too vulnerable, not the threat he wants it to be, and he can feel the tears finally leaking out of the corners of his eyes, but when Phil turns around and squares up again suddenly the anger comes back, smooth and hot and rolling.

“You’re a real asshole, you know that?” he growls, and Phil nods miserably. “No, don’t agree with me, damn it! I have every right to be pissed at you and then you come in here and tell me you...”

His words trail off, his voice too broken there at the end, but he manages to swallow down most of the sob the crawls up out of his chest and scrub the tracks off his cheeks.

“That’s not fair!” he insists. “I wanted to yell and be mad and Kate said I should make you grovel and do the whole nine yards and then you come in here and tell me that everything I wanted, the only thing I wanted... well then what was it all for? God, you... you fuckin’ died Phil. You were gone and I’d never told you how I really felt and you weren’t there when we... when I needed you.”

He sniffles, looks away, swipes at more stupid tears.

“I could’ve forgiven you for that,” he mumbles. “It was the hardest thing I ever did and I wasn’t even doing it that great, just getting by without you being there, but I could’ve forgiven you eventually. ‘Course you went up against a god with a prototype weapon, you’re Phil Coulson! I knew that wasn’t really your fault.”

“But then I came back.”

“Then you came back,” Clint huffs. “And that was... that was maybe the best thing that ever...”

“Except I lied to you,” Phil points out softly. “I broke your trust and I stayed away and I left you.”

“Yeah,” Clint mutters. “Pretty much.”

The silence stretches again, quiet and painful, and Clint can’t stop the crying, can’t stop the last of the words inside him that press up against his breastbone and fight their way out of his mouth.

“I still love you,” he sighs, and oh god it hurts so good, to finally say it out loud, to admit it, to not have them cutting up his soft insides anymore. “Can’t help it, I just do. Don’t think I’ll ever be able to turn it off.”

Lifting his head, he looks straight at Phil all grim and serious and hurting, and says something that’s maybe even more important.

“But I gotta tell ya... I don’t like you very much right now.”

Phil’s expression cracks and a helpless, half-hysterical little giggle burbles up out of him, broken and pained.

“Yeah,” he says, nodding along, “Yeah, I don’t like me very much right now either. I... god Clint, the one thing I never wanted to do was hurt you, to be unworthy of your trust. I fucked that up, I know, but... but you’re right. I still love you.”

Clint stares at him, his whole chest on fire, and he can hardly breathe with everything that’s running through his head, but his heart, oh, his heart. He hadn’t lied – the love he feels for the man standing in front of him is something that’s been a long time in the making, something that was built up one small piece at a time, like a house of cards. That house had taken a blow, been knocked down, scattered, and trampled on, but all the pieces are still there.

He’s battered and bruised, in more ways than one, but Kate had been right.

It was time to decide if he could forgive Phil and start working toward something better, or if it was time to call it an end and move on.

“Come here,” he rasps, all hoarse and hurting, and Phil looks startled when he holds out his hand, but comes forward slowly and takes it into his own.

“Don’t kiss me,” Clint warns. “I’m not... we’re not...”

“I won’t,” Phil promises, squeezing his fingers, and Clint believes him.

“Then can you just...”

It takes some doing, some adjustment and a little hurt, but eventually Clint gets his arms around Phil’s shoulders and his face buried in the crook of his neck. That part does seem fair – if they’re going to do this, try again, then it is going to take some pain and some compromise. This though, finally having Phil back in his life, in his grasp; that seems worth it. It’s been years, years of heartache and wanting, and while Clint isn’t ready to forget and pretend that everything’s fine, he is ready to stop running, ready to start fixing what was broken between them.

He wants his friends back, his life and his name and his job as an Avenger. He wants to be able to spar with Natasha and cook with Bruce and hang out with Steve and Tony, and yeah, one day maybe he hopes he can kiss Phil.

Not yet, they’re not even close to being there yet, but that’s ok.

Right now they’re here, they’re together, and they’re being honest for maybe the first time.

Phil had gotten a second chance, and whether by fate or by Fury Clint’s got him back again.

He’ll do things different the second time around.

He’ll talk, and he’ll say what he feels and he won’t hide, or run.

For now though, for now he’s just going to hang on tight, and finally, finally allow himself to believe that what he thought he’d lost, one way or another, isn’t so lost anymore.