i. because you are weak and hollow and it doesn’t matter anymore
The second Clint saw the cars and vans, he knew they were close. The area wasn’t exactly a hotspot for the sort of people who had the money to splash out on decent cars, let alone the sleek black ones. No one around here even owned a van, he only ever saw the patchy delivery vans that came once a week to the grocery store down the block.
Hunger gnawed at his stomach, but that could wait. It could always wait.
The important thing was to find somewhere to lie low for a while, and maybe some credit cards or bank accounts that hadn’t been frozen or cancelled by the guys who were following him. And somewhere with running water, because the water in the last place had been turned off less than an hour before ten men with guns had smashed through the doors and windows—Clint knew; he’d watched from a few buildings away. He needed a shower, water and money. A new bow would be nice as well. He’d had to leave his behind when he’d realised that they were closing in on him.
A dead man didn’t have much use for it.
He walked behind a row of battered old cars, his hood pulled up and his head down, until he could duck into a dark alley. It smelled like rotting food and vomit, but it was better than walking down the street, where he would be seen in a second. Clint climbed up onto one of the dumpsters and scrambled over the chain link fence, hoping that whatever sticky thing he put his hand in wasn’t going to poison him.
It took nearly an hour to run out of easily accessible alleys, even ones blocked by fences or walls at one end, and Clint was honestly surprised it had taken as long as it had.
His stomach rumbled again, but he gagged at the smell of the dumpster at his back, and swallowed hard. If he threw up, it wouldn’t help matters.
There was only one way out and, honestly, Clint didn’t like his chances. With his bow, he’d have had a chance, but he knew that there were at least ten agents nearby and all of them were armed. Even if two or three were driving wouldn’t be able to shoot him (he’d seen them work before, though, and he wasn’t about to underestimate them, he was still outnumbered: one against seven wasn’t a fair fight, even if he’d his bow.
Oh, yeah, his odds sucked and, if he was lucky, they’d kill him quick.
Clint took a deep breath, waited until one of the vans had turned the corner further down the street, and ran into the road.
The sudden, searing pain in his thigh didn’t surprise him, but he was surprised that it happened so fast and was in his leg, instead of in his back.
He stumbled, throwing one arm out as he tried and failed to catch himself before he hit the ground. It wasn't enough to stop him biting his tongue and Clint tasted blood.
It wasn’t a question, which was nice, he decided. At least they didn’t go around shooting people unless they knew who they were. The man leaning over him didn’t look too threatening—in fact, Clint’s stomach jolted when he got a good look at the other man’s face. He’d seen this guy before, sitting in the hotel lobby when he was making his escape. He thought he was another businessman, killing time before a meeting or whatever businessmen did when they weren't in offices. Guys in suits all looked the same to him.
Maybe that jolt wasn’t shock, Clint thought (because he was pretty sure that he had looked at Random Businessman No. 1 for a few seconds too long the other day) and spat a mouthful of blood at the man’s feet. The agent grimaced, but knelt down beside him and used his tie as a makeshift bandage, so hopefully they didn’t plan on killing him anytime soon.
“You shot me,” he groaned, chancing a look at his leg and—yep, that was a lot of blood. “You fucking shot me!”
It didn’t feel like it was that bad, but it was principle of the thing. He’d been shot.
“I’m Agent Coulson and I work for the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division,” the man said, like he hadn’t just shot Clint, and stabbed him in the thigh with a syringe full of something that made him feel warm and fuzzy almost as soon as he depressed the plunger. “We have a proposition for you.”
Okay, a proposition was either very good or very bad. It would be good if he accepted it, but bad if he didn’t. Or bad if he accepted it, like working with Natasha, which was how he’d ended up in this mess to begin with. Clint covered his eyes with one hand.
This was turning into the year from hell, and it wasn’t even June. God, he hated his life.
Looking between his fingers, Clint asked, “Couldn’t you have just asked me instead of shooting me?”
“You kept running.” Coulson checked his watch—something he was waiting for, or a deadline for Clint’s decision? “I have a file three inches thick that contains everything there is to know about you, from your birth, to the hotel you ran from three days ago—I don’t care about the criminal record or the thefts,” he added when Clint flexed his leg to see if it would hold his weight if he tried to make a run for it. No chance. It felt like someone was trying to rip the muscle out with a hot screwdriver when he moved it. “Those flyers at the circus weren’t full of lies; we’ve never seen anyone whose aim is as accurate as yours.”
Well, Coulson was right about the aim at least. There was no way he could know about everything, though, which was a relief. There was more than one thing in his past that Clint wasn’t proud of or didn’t want anyone to know about.
Coulson was still talking, still checking his watch every ten seconds or so, which meant that it was definitely a countdown.
“What happens if I say yes?” Not that there was any other answer he could give. He’d been called reckless, stupid and a hundred other things since he was a kid. He’d been stabbed and shot at (and now he’d finally been shot, so that was off his bucket list) but Clint didn’t want to die and he didn’t want to go to prison.
The whole thing reeked of a last chance, one final stop before he reached the end of the line.
“We’ll take you to our medical facility and have you checked over, then you’ll be taken to another of our facilities to have your abilities evaluated. If you pass the tests, you’ll be on probation for at least a year before you become an asset. If you prove to be particularly useful, you can even become an agent, provided your handler approves of the decision.”
“What does the Strategic Homeland... whatever it’s called do?”
Coulson just looked at him for a minute, and Clint couldn’t decide if he’d just slapped a target on his face until he spoke again.
“What do you want to do?” Coulson sounded like he really wanted to know, not like when most people had asked him. They’d really been waiting for him to give them their answer and not his own. Clint had the fleeting, ridiculous thought that this complete stranger, this man who shot him, might be one of the most honest people he’d ever met.
It was stupid, pathetic (it was every single thing that Barney said all those years ago) but whatever Coulson injected him with must have been the good stuff, because Clint looked at the blood on the ground, on his hands, soaking through the leg of his jeans, and said, “I want to help people.”
Agent Coulson, who looked so damn normal that it was almost funny, who worked for something that had a name that was too long for Clint’s frazzled brain to remember, didn’t laugh at him.
That’s nice, Clint thought just before he passed out.
He came-to in what he was sure was a van, surveillance equipment lining the walls, with Agent Coulson tightening the tie around his leg—oh, no, wait; it wasn’t a tie, it was a real bandage now. The tie had probably been tossed in the trash. The leg of his jeans had been cut open right down the middle, they hadn’t even taken the time to cut down the seams. There went his last pair of jeans then.
There was a drip in the back of his hand and his leg felt like it was on fire, but there wasn’t any blood pooling under it, so he took that as a good sign.
Coulson had warm, gentle hands. Clint pretended that he didn’t notice, averting his eyes until Coulson rocked back on his heels and picked up a file. Clint chanced a look at him, but Coulson didn’t even glance at him, apparently engrossed in the file.
“A man walks into a bar,” Clint began. Coulson ignored him, so he tried again. “A man walks into a bar.”
“I’ve heard it.”
“No you haven’t.” He didn’t remember which ending that one had, because Barney had been going to tell him before he got called away, and the next time had Clint seen him, he hadn’t had a chance to ask before Barney had punched him in the face. Coulson’s expression changed just enough for him to realise that he’d said that out loud.
It was definitely the painkillers.
“You’re not going to send me to therapist and ask me to talk about my feelings, are you?”
“We have a department for that,” Coulson said absently, merely turning the page of the file.
“Is there anything you don’t have a department for?”
“Alcohol. It’s brought up at least every six months, though.” He picked up a second, slimmer file, and dropped the first one in Clint’s lap. “These are the conditions of your employment, if you accept our offer.”
At least he had a sense of humour—at least that’s what Clint thought it was. He flipped open the file and scanned the front page. There wasn’t much there, just his name, his date of birth and that he would be employed as an “asset.” It sounded more like they were trying to buy him like they’d buy a gun. Then again, he’d been a weapon to most people.
He kept his eyes on the paperwork as much as possible, sneaking glances at the cuffs and the low doorway. Clint tested the handcuff around his wrist. It felt different to the ones he’d been cuffed with before, but he hadn’t been cuffed for a long time. They didn’t look quite right, either, too dull and the colour was different as well. Fuck. If they weren’t standard issue, it would take him longer to get out of them.
“Why does it say I’ll still work for SHIELD after my death?”
“Ask me that after you wake up in a morgue for the first time.”
He waited until Coulson left, one finger pressed to an earpiece Clint hadn’t noticed before, locking the door behind him, before he tried to get out of the cuffs. They were freezing cold and definitely not the kind he was used to, fitting together almost seamlessly. They didn’t feel like anything he’d ever touched before. Hell, even looking at them made him think that there was something wrong with them. Strategic Homeland whatever had some creepy tech with them, that was for sure.
Agent Morse was sitting in the second surveillance van, chin propped up on her hands as she watched Barton through half-closed eyes.
“He’s twitchy,” she said, pushing her hair back from her face and settling down again. There was a plastic cup of tarry looking coffee at her elbow and a pile of gas station sandwiches sitting on top of a cooler full of bottled water. “Not very dangerous, but twitchy.”
“He thought we were going to kill him.” Phil searched through the sandwiches. Cheese and tomato, chicken tikka, ham salad, egg mayonnaise, tuna... whoever had been on the sandwich run liked their meat and dairy. He pulled out a pack of chicken sandwiches. They’d rarely ended up with any footage of Barton eating, but one of the few videos showed him buying chicken, so it was likely he’d either eat the sandwiches or pick the chicken off.
“We were. Fury’s called three times to make sure he hasn’t killed someone.” She handed him a bottle of water. “Are you bribing him?”
“I’m feeding him. We’ve been following across the city and he hasn’t eaten since before we raided his hotel room. He didn’t have any money or receipts on him, so he hasn’t been buying anything.”
Morse smiled. “You’re a bleeding heart, sir.”
“Get back to work.”
“Yes, sir.” It came with a sarcastic salute and a smirk. Phil had never felt so sure about her choice of codename before.
Coulson walked in and threw the key to him. Clint knew that there was no way he could have seen him trying to get the cuff open in the amount of time it took for him to walk in—for one thing, he was staring straight ahead, at the monitor, and Clint’s cuffed arm was hidden by his body and the blanket.
He looked up, searching the room the way he should have when he’d first woken up, and saw the tell-tale little glint in the corner. A camera. Of course they were watching him. They were probably still expecting him to try to kill them, or preparing to kill him if they had to.
“You could have just asked,” he said mildly as Clint uncuffed himself and crammed the cuffs between the bed and the wall, where they wouldn’t be used to cuff him again. Coulson set down a package on the table beside him and--oh, fuck.
He’d learned a long time ago not to take food from strangers; it had even been a bad idea to take food from people he’d known for a long time. Food was the sort of thing people usually wanted something in exchange for--and they usually only told him after he’d eaten. Or they gave it to him so that they could take it away later on. His stomach rumbled again, and Clint tucked his hands under the blanket, clenching them into fists.
“There are no strings attached,” Coulson said, pushing the sandwiches closer. Clint’s fingers twitched, but he didn’t reach for them. “I swear.”
With a final glance at Coulson, whose hands were now pushed deep into his pockets as some sort of reassurance that he wasn’t going to do anything, Clint reached for the sandwiches.
Watching Barton eat was an uncomfortable exercise in seeing how all the pieces Phil had gathered together had shaped the man in front of him. He ate quickly at first, one arm carefully placed so that he could make a grab for the sandwiches if anyone tried to take them, his eyes either on the table or on the food. It wasn’t until he started on the second half that Barton slowed down, still flicking the occasional suspicious glance towards Phil, then to the security camera that he’d finally noticed after Phil had returned. He didn’t say anything.
It all spoke of someone who’d spent most of their life having to either fight for the basics, or who was too used to having them taken away if someone decided that they didn’t like what they saw.
“Thanks,” Barton muttered, folding the wrapper up as tightly as he could.
Phil resisted the urge to get more food, trying to rationalise it as common sense. Barton would need more food, especially after losing blood. More food would make him ill after so long with so little; the last thing they needed was him spending the rest of the day throwing up.He settled for giving Barton his own unopened bottle of water. It wasn't food, but it was better than giving him nothing else.
Morse was right; recruiting someone he’d been watching for months had turned Phil into a bleeding heart, and he had no one but himself to blame.