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To Being an Us (For Once)

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December 1, 1983

Ten years old was old enough to put up Christmas lights. Clint remembers wrapping the wires around circus signposts, neither too tight nor too loose, careful not to break the small glass bulbs. When he'd finished, and they set up shop for the first performance after Thanksgiving, he'd laughed aloud. The glittering lights seemed countless; it felt hard to believe that he'd placed every single one.

He stood in the brisk chill of late autumn, admiring his work, when he felt a rough hand touseling his hair. "Looks good, kid," Barney said, his voice impressed.

Ten years old, without parents or a bed to his name, Clint Barton glowed.




December 1, 2012

Haha, check it out, Tony's e-mail says, and there's a YouTube link attached. Clint clicks it cautiously; half the time, Tony's links are hilarious, and the other half, they make him want to scrub out his brain with a steel mesh. The video's of a man in religious robes, standing in a carved wooden podium; the description says he's a bishop at the nearest Catholic cathedral.

"But we need not look to distant stories for the sign of this light," the man says, cued up to several minutes into the video. "Here in Manhattan, in our darkest hour, threatened by enemies from another world, a few individuals stood up and shone forth in our defense. The Avengers proved to us that when we hold fast to our moral core in the face of evil, each one of us has the power to be that guiding light in the darkness. So this Advent, as our days grow short and our world grows desperate for illumination, may we take the Avengers as inspiration. May we --"

Clint shuts his laptop with more force than necessary.

He has another e-mail sitting in his inbox, one he's read and reread enough times to have it half memorized, even if it's just a stupid list of facts from a website he follows. He'd wanted to delete it, but Tony's video is making him reconsider. If he does this, then there'd sure as fuck be fewer priests trying to make him an example of morality.

Clint glances at the time. He's got a check-up scheduled with his specialist, and the subway's a bitch at this hour. It's excuse enough to put off responding to the e-mail until later.




December 3, 1990

His fingers felt numb where they dug into the cement, but from his perch, he had the best view of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in the city.

Down below, speakers drawled about holiday spirit and goodwill. Clint tried not to snort hard enough to lose his balance. He'd been in New York City for eight months, picked mostly because it seemed like the safest place to hide from his ghosts back in the Midwest.

"Safe," he'd learned, was relative. New York didn't have much need for the World's Greatest Marksman -- or for jacks-of-all-trades who could shovel manure and stitch wounds, but had no idea how to write a resume. Skinny seventeen-year-olds with flexibility to spare, though? Yeah, it could always use more of those. All he needed was some eyeliner and a street corner to defend.

None of that mattered now. The guy in a fancy suit had finished talking, and the soft murmur of the crowd told Clint that it was about to happen. Then the electricity flickered, and a galaxy of multicolored stars burst to life, illuminating the huge tree from base to crown.

Clint smiled, even though the movement hurt his wind-chapped lips. They sure hadn't had anything like this back in Iowa.




December 3, 2012

All Clint wants is a fucking Dr Pepper. But he just got out of a community center where he guest-taught an archery class, and the guy at the hot dog cart tried to give him a Pibb Xtra, which, no. So he's walking through the CVS near the subway entrance, on a beeline to the cold drinks, when he sees the most godawful thing he has ever witnessed.

Perched among shelves full of holiday decorations is an Avengers-themed Christmas crèche set. The stable looks like a distorted Avengers Tower. Mary is a costumed Natasha, complete with beatific smile; Joseph, of course, is Steve, looking blandly Aryan and watchful. Tony, Thor, and Clint round out the three Magi, while Hulk perches atop the tower, Christmas star clutched in his hand.

It's horrific. Clearly, he has to take a picture with his cell phone.

He sends a copy to Tony with the note, "plz tell me this isnt officially licensed." His phone beeps with Tony's response before he reaches the Dr Pepper: "obviously not. otherwise i'd be jesus."

To Coulson, he writes, "u want this for ur cap collection? ;)" (Coulson hates it when he uses emoticons. Naturally, Clint uses them as often as possible.)

It takes a few more minutes for Coulson to respond. "Try again. It's neither rare nor vintage, not to mention lacking any artistic merit."

"ur mancrush on my teammate is bc of artistic merit????" Clint types out, hitting Send before he can stop himself.

"That sounded like an request for a lecture on the influence of Captain America iconography on Modernist art. I've got the PowerPoint ready."

Clint laughs aloud, startling the cashier taking his money, but he just gives her a big wink, grabs his receipt, and types in, "its a date. u bring the big words, ill bring the cap doll for you to cuddle."

He steps out into the chilly sunshine, drinks a swig of soda, and grins. Before Coulson died everything happened, he would never have pushed his luck that far. But since he came out of the top-secret branch of SHIELD medical and became the liaison to the Avengers, Coulson's been more relaxed. Flirtatious, even, in his own deadpan way. Clint likes it.

If he tells anyone at SHIELD about himself, Coulson will be the first; that much, he knows. Despite the man's near omniscience, he's pretty certain that Coulson doesn't know already. If he did, he wouldn't be letting Clint so far under his guard.




December 9, 1996

Clint had blood on his hands. Not literally -- not as far as he could see, anyway, after scrubbing his hands repeatedly in the fluorescent light of his motel room -- but he never felt clean those days.

Clint had blood on his hands and the taste of gunpowder in his mouth, and he had a free evening that he didn't want to kill in his hotel room alone. So he stepped outside and wandered the streets; it wasn't that late, but winter had the sun already casting a reddish haze over the chill air.

Red wasn't a color he wanted to think about right then. He ducked into the entrance of an aging deli and found a small table near the back, wobbly despite the wadded paper under one leg. As Clint scanned down the menu, not particularly hungry but in need of something to distract himself, he heard the sound of singing.

Clint set down the menu and followed the sound to the entrance to the kitchen. He could never say what had drawn him there -- his normal instincts all said to keep his head down, avoid attention -- save something in the chorus of voices that felt like warmth. He found the entire restaurant staff gathered around a Hanukkah menorah, in the process of lighting four candles with a fifth burning one, while they chanted something in Hebrew (or maybe Yiddish -- Clint could never keep them straight).

One by one, the wicks caught flame, the ritual pure in its simplicity. Clint couldn't look away, not until one of the waitresses turned around and caught him watching. "Can I help you with anything?" she asked, her voice gentle. He wasn't sure he wanted to know what she saw in his face.

Clint wanted to say "no," but instead, he found himself asking, "What does the song mean?"

"It's a blessing over the candles," she explained. "'Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who made miracles for our forefathers in those days at this time.'"

"It's really pretty," Clint said quietly.

He didn't believe in miracles any more. Miracles were something kids hoped for. But maybe, he thought, watching the flames dance in the resuming bustle of cooking and serving, the beauty of the lights themselves could be miracle enough.




December 9, 2012

Clint wants to go the fuck to sleep. It's only 9:30, but he got dragged out of bed before dawn to respond to an emergency call, and with Natasha abroad and Tony and Steve flying back from a publicity event on the West Coast, he's been fighting brushfires all day. Now he's finally back in the Tower, with a box of half-eaten fried rice at his side and sleep lapping at his consciousness. He'd just go to bed early, but he's not supposed to take his meds until 10, and he's only allowed to move the time around if it's a matter of the world ending. (That happens often enough since joining the Avengers that he figures he'd better keep to the schedule otherwise.)

So he's slouched on a couch in the rec room, watching CSI:Wherever-the-Fuck and trying to keep his eyes open, while Tony sits on the other side of the room, playing with some kind of model engine that's hovering holographically in the air. The show goes to an ad break, which is approximately 0% more boring than the show itself, so Clint just stays where he is and hopes he won't get any creepy talking babies.

"In times of need," a voiceover narrator begins, while the camera sweeps over shots of a devastated New York, "we all need someone to count on." In slow motion, Cap throws his shield at an attacking alien. "Someone who'll watch our backs." Iron Man swoops through the frame, and Clint resists a lewd comment about exactly what part of the anatomy Tony usually watches. "Someone who won't ever let us down." The camera cuts to a panoramic shot of the top of Stark Tower, with its now-iconic dangling A.

Clint still isn't sure where the ad's going, but he's pretty sure he won't like it. "Tony, where's the remote," he says flatly.

Tony smirks, but he doesn't move an inch. "What, and miss watching this Hindenburg of flaming shit go down? Not a chance."

Sighing, Clint flops back into the couch. He's just too tired to get up and leave the room in protest. "-- the ones you love this holiday season, with TruGuard home security!" Now the camera's on a shot of Steve, but this time it's from one of their publicity tours; the camera zooms in on him giving a salute, then pans up to a waving American flag. "Give the gift of protection. Go TruGuard." Finally, thankfully, the screen fades black.

"Please tell me that this is some kind of nightmare," Clint groans, as a sleek car skids through professional-driver-only stunts. "Tell me that our team did not just get used to hawk some shitty burglar alarms."

"On the bright side, they never actually said that the Avengers endorsed their product," Tony says with bright sarcasm. "On the other hand, that makes it a lot harder to sue them."

"I just don't like it," Clint says finally. "It's got to be even worse for you and Steve, since you get all the face time. It's like people want to make us into something unreal, something fake, just so they can grab on to our boots and go along for the ride."

Tony shrugs, setting down his tablet to look up at Clint. "Don't complain to me about it. I've been in the public eye since I was a kid, and it's a hell of a lot easier to be an 'icon of bravery' than a 'symbol of perversion.' Celebrity happens. All you can do is choose how you want to use it."

"Yeah, I guess. It's just that I look at this 'icon of bravery' crap, and I know that's not me."

Tony snorts, but he keeps his mouth shut.

"What?" Clint turns and glares.

"Oh, nothing," Tony shrugs. "Just agreeing with you. Any self-respecting icon of bravery would've stopped pussy-footing around and asked Agent out months ago."

"Shut the fuck up, Stark," Clint growls. "You don't know everything about the situation."

Tony just smirks again. "Maybe not, but I'm guessing he does, since he's pretty obsessive about knowing everything where you're concerned. And his smitten staring thing isn't saying no."

"You don't know," Clint repeats, feeling irrationally irritated. Tony doesn't know, so it's not fair to expect him to understand. He glances at his phone. 9:42. Fifteen more minutes, plus three to get to his room, and then he can take his meds and get some sleep.




December 14, 1997

The front desk at SHIELD Medical had a miniature, fake Christmas tree on it, the kind that came pre-wired with a rainbow of tiny lights. Clint would remember the tree, because he had to wait unexpectedly in the waiting room for almost an hour -- incoming trauma patients of some kind, something that took priority over a kid getting his mandatory physical for incoming assets -- and he had nothing else to look at. He hated glossy magazines and the fantasy worlds that filled them.

By the time that he followed a nurse to the back, his doctor had weary lines around her eyes, but she treated him professionally enough -- not that he had much comparison. His job had always been to send other people to the doctor, or the morgue, but he'd known that he was S.O.L. if he ever needed one himself. She took several blood samples and sent them to the on-site lab for testing, then began to poke and prod and measure every possible orifice, quizzing him about his medical history as she went. (She gave him an encouraging smile when he said he hadn't used in years, but it still wasn't easy to lay out all his bad decisions in stark yes-or-no questions.)

At the end, the doctor stepped out of the room while Clint tugged his clothes back on. When she reentered a few minutes later, her eyes had a few extra lines around them. Clint noticed these things.

She sat down across from him. "I have some bad news for you," she said quietly, and Clint wanted to shout just tell me already, damn it. "We had a result flagged in your blood tests, so we ran a second test to confirm it, and you appear to be testing positive for the HIV virus. Were you aware of having been exposed to it in the past?"

The room felt as if it had filled with a hazy gas; the doctor's soothing voice sounded distant, surreal. "No," Clint said blankly. He closed his eyes and visualized the afterimage of those Christmas lights as she started talking to him, explaining what it meant, promising confidentiality, reassuring him that there were some very good medications to hold off the onset of AIDS. Clint's hands squeezed tighter and tighter against each other until they felt numb, cold as the fake snow on the fake Christmas tree.

They ended up keeping him for an extra couple of hours, to confirm test results and fill prescriptions and talk about coping strategies. Everyone was so very, very sympathetic, and Clint just wanted to scramble up into the drop ceiling and hide until the kind-eyed Suit who'd recruited him could come back and say "sorry, we were kidding, this is all a SHIELD hazing ritual." But the Suit never came, and Clint clutched his arms to himself and tried to keep all their advice straight. "Remember, you're not in this alone," the doctor said, but he was alone. He couldn't possibly tell his new employers that they'd bought defective goods, and he didn't have anyone else to tell.

By the time he left the clinic, the Christmas tree was as dark and dead as the rest of the waiting room. Merry fucking Christmas to me.




December 14, 2012

Clint's pretty sure that he's the only Avenger who actually likes children's hospitals. Natasha and Steve stiffen up around kids, Tony makes awkward jokes that go over their heads, and Bruce and Thor seem intimidated by how frail the kids are, how easy to hurt without even intending it. But Clint likes kids (mostly because you're one yourself, Coulson's voice says in his head); he likes playing make-believe, or dazzling them with juggling tricks, or just sitting by their bed when they want someone there to make them feel safe. So the team's learned to send Clint when PR tells them to visit a hospital, and he's done it enough that he knows the people there -- at least, the nurses and the kids who keep coming back.

He knows how it feels to be a kid dealt a hand of shit cards by life, and he knows how it feels to have sickness looming like a monster in the dark. He also knows how it feels to look all that in the eye, shrug, and keep on living as fiercely as he can. So maybe that makes him qualified.

Midway through December, he gets an e-mail from St. Jude. The headline speaker for their Winter Gala cancelled at the last minute, and the event's only six days away. They know that it's a long shot, but since he's spent so much time with the kids, and the event's one of the hospital's biggest single fundraisers, would he consider attending and speaking? He can talk about anything he wanted, though speakers usually use the opportunity to discuss their personal healthcare-related causes.

Clint thinks about his "personal healthcare cause." He thinks about the e-mail he received two weeks prior, commemorating World AIDS Day -- the two-year-old kid who'd been banned from a swimming pool because he had HIV, the 50% of Americans who say they'd be uncomfortable having someone with HIV prepare their food, the federal policies that would've kicked him out automatically if he'd tried to enlist in the military instead of joining SHIELD. He thinks about all those things, and then he thinks about being a 17-year-old street kid and needing to know, just for a few moments, that the world still had something in it of hope.

He hits "reply" and says yes.

Then he goes to find Coulson.




December 20, 2008

"I really don't think that the song is meant to be taken literally," Coulson sighed for about the sixth time. Clint just ignored him, same as he had the first five times. The glossy brown nuts had caught his eye while he and Natasha had been strolling through the Roman market, dressed as American tourists to do quiet surveillance. The moment that she'd explained to him what they were, Clint had known that he absolutely needed to buy a bag.

"It can't be that hard," he said, blowing gently into the fireplace to fan the flames. "They're chestnuts. This is an open fire. We roast them over it. The guy did say that they were edible, right?"

"Right," Natasha said, with the bemused exasperation of one who knows that a plan is going to fail, but still intends to enjoy the view. (She seemed to get bemusedly exasperated around Clint a lot.)

Clint grinned, savoring the sight and scent of burning wood as the larger logs finally caught flame. "Well, there you go. We're trained professionals; I think we can handle a few chestnuts."

"We're trained professionals who are supposed to be reviewing tomorrow's op," Coulson said wearily, but Clint knew that Coulson knew that they were prepared. To be honest, he suspected that this whole thing was a milk run, engineered by Fury to give Coulson a Christmas away from SHIELD with his favorite (even if he'd deny it) agents. Clint wasn't about to complain, though. Anything that got Coulson on something resembling a vacation was good in his book.

Their safe house had been well-stocked, and it didn't take long for Clint to rummage through the kitchen and emerge with a tin baking pan. He emptied the bag of chestnuts into it, balanced it precariously over the fire, and settled back on the wool rug to soak in the pleasant heat. When he let his eyes sink shut, he could feel the warmth of the flames like an afterimage on his eyelids.

A pop from the burning wood startled him out of his half-asleep meditation, and Clint blinked open his eyes and looked up. Natasha had disappeared to another room, but Coulson was watching him from the nearby couch, his eyes carefully casual.

Clint had known Coulson too long to let that stop him, though. His open posture, the soft twitch in his fingertips, the way his eyes didn't look away when Clint gazed back -- everything said, I want this, if you want it too.

I can't, Clint thought, and he looked back at the fireplace. He felt a strange resentment for a moment -- everything had been perfect, and he'd actually had a real family for the holidays, for once, and Coulson had to ruin it with his wanting. Never mind that Clint wanted to reciprocate, wanted it with an intensity that twisted his gut. What they had now was good.

Then Natasha wandered back into the room with mugs of brandy-spiked hot chocolate, and the chestnuts began to explode into burning splatters of creamy nutmeat, and the moment never quite returned.




December 20, 2012:

As he looks out across the ballroom, Clint reflects that he will never, ever feel comfortable in a tux. He thought he'd come to terms with that, learned to accept them as a necessary component of fancy evenings out, but all of his old itchiness is flooding back through him while he waits at the edge of the stage, clutching his handwritten notes in one sweaty palm.

Distantly, he knows that someone's listing his accomplishments -- a board member, maybe? But Clint's too busy keeping his words in the right order to notice much about the introduction. Then someone's nudging him toward the center, and everyone's watching him expectantly. He steps up, sets his notes on the podium, and looks out at the crowd.

"Hi, everyone," he says. A cluster of bulbs flash in response. "I'm not as smart as some of the other folks on my team, but I've always thought it's interesting that so many different people celebrate their festivals of lights this time of the year, right as the world's getting dark. Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Diwali, probably a few more that I don't know about." Clint takes a deep breath. "It's as if somebody knew that when it's hardest to see the road home, what we need most isn't a flashlight. It's a pathway of lights. It's seeing the candle in the window of each of our neighbors' houses, and knowing that whichever path we take, we're surrounded by friends."

He looks down, bites his lip, then looks up. Go slow, Phil had said. Take all the time you need. "I had a pretty rough life as a kid. It left me thinking that if I ever wanted to do some good in the world, I'd have to do it myself, because there sure wasn't anybody else I could trust to help. But that gets lonely, after a while, carrying that load all on your own shoulders. And the best thing that's ever happened to me was when somebody looked at me and said that I didn't have to be alone. I could go out there with men and women who would risk their lives every day to help the people around them, and I could know that they'd always have my back. That path led to the Avengers, and I've never regretted a minute of it, and I've never stopped being grateful for every person who lit my way."

"That's why I have an announcement to make," he says, and oh yeah, that's enough to get the flashbulbs going like crazy. "I was diagnosed positive for HIV fifteen years ago. It's a part of my life, and it's not something I'm ashamed of. I told myself for a long time that it was nobody else's business, and maybe it isn't, any more than it's the media's business who Tony Stark is dating this week." He gets a few nervous, thin laughs for that. "But there are over a million of us in the United States alone, and one in five don't even know it. And I figured that maybe if I talked about this, then there might be a kid who won't be so scared to go get tested, and there might be a couple who'll talk about it with each other tonight."

Clint exhales slowly, then inhales. He wishes that he could see some faces he knew in the crowd; he's never been good at public speaking. "I know that some people might think that this is heavy news for the holiday season, or that I'm trying to push some kind of agenda. But the only thing that I want is for people like me to know that they're not alone, and they shouldn't have to hide, just because they have this disease. It's the season of lights, you know? And I'm tired of keeping things in the dark. I get the best job in the world, working with real heroes. But sometimes, the hardest part of heroism is just being unashamed of who you are." With that, he nods his head and tries to make his hands stop trembling. "Thanks, everyone."

The crowd is probably applauding as Clint walks off, and people are probably shouting questions at him, but he can't hear any of it above the roaring in his ears.

This is it. This is all his bridges burning behind him.

Maybe he'll never be able to have another relationship (not that he has been), or get another job (not that he would), but it's all out there now. He feels light-headed and strangely free.

As Clint ducks into the backstage area, his phone starts buzzing with texts, one after the other, bzzz bzzz bzzz bzzz. He ignores them. Then he's in the staging area, and Coulson's walking toward him, and his face looks -- Jesus, has Phil been crying?

"Just so you know," Phil says, a soft tremor in his voice, "I have never been more honored to work with you. And unless you stop me in the next five seconds, I'm going to kiss you right now."

Clint doesn't stop him.

It's even better than he ever imagined.


(the end.)


(Written for December 1, World AIDS Day, 2012.)