Actions

Work Header

Through the Glass

Chapter Text


 

 

 

Clint Barton is twenty-two when he plants an arrow through the leader of an Ethiopian child smuggling ring. It pins him to the wall like a bug. The three men hired to protect him never gain the second they need to scramble from their seats to help him, or help themselves. They're dead between one breath and the next.

He doesn't make it quick for their boss. At all.

Instead he watches as the man wraps his hands around the thick arrow shaft sticking out of his chest; he can't do anything more than squirm and gasp. He's still aware enough to recognize Clint when he slides in through the open window though, and his eyes go wide as he stares. Clint moves until he's standing only a few feet away, fingers flexing on his bow, and stares right back.

"I- I-" the man gasps, blood frothing into little bubbles around his lips, drowning him from the inside. "You-" he gurgles fearfully, choking, desperate for help.

"Yes," Clint agrees softly, unconcerned, "me. You hired me to take out your competition." He blinks slowly; eyes cool as he watches his target struggle for every breath. "Objective accomplished and payment received in full. Thanks for that." His victim gasps, head drooping lower, body shuddering a final time until his hands flop down to his side, stained red and still. Clint watches him for a long moment, blankly, until he was sure it was over. He always made sure. "Consider this a bonus." His words were for the dead.

Looking over he spies the door he was here for. The one that led to a room without windows, and that currently housed at least six children that he was sure of. He doesn't let his gaze linger long, swinging silently back out the window and climbing nimbly to the ground. In five minutes the local law will be riding in to the rescue and while Clint has little confidence that the children will leave there to enjoy lives of contentment and splendour, at least they weren't going to become someone's property. They weren't going to be brutally used and discarded.

He may have damaged his street credibility with this job (potential clients tended to become uneasy when their assassins turn around to bite the hand that feeds them) but he didn't regret it. Would never regret it. What he didn't realize, as he swiftly moved to his pre-arranged extraction, was that this job would be the one that would ultimately catch the attention of an American government organization. It would change his life in ways he couldn't imagine.

If he had known this would be the fallout prior to killing the two child-enslaving men, along with the majority of their 'employees,' well, he would have still killed them.

Some people just needed to die.


 

When this secret organization caught up to him the first time they attempted to corner him, trying to hide their approach. He'd reacted as any decent criminal would: he wiped the floor with them and disappeared. Clearly they hadn't been expecting close combat skills, nor his willingness to use them before they'd even announced their presence.

The next time they got close he got a warning from a local contact that owed him, and slipped away.

The third time he stopped running just long enough to let them announce what they wanted. They gave him the options of a job offer or jail. He laughed. He wasn't interested in being wooed, nor was he interested in brushing up on his 'don't drop the soap' jokes. They had a sniper in place for this 'meeting,' clearly one that was not used to concealment within an urban setting, and they made the mistake of trying to take him down with a tranq dart. They failed. He did not appreciate their recruitment techniques.

Months passed before he saw them again. He'd begun to believe they'd lost interest. He should have known better.

He was in a pub in Wales, his first trip to the UK and it was actually his first ever, honest to god, attempt at vacationing. He didn't have much of a choice, recognizing that his near overwhelming exhaustion and small injuries that never got the chance to properly heal were slowing him down. He couldn't afford to be worn down, he had no one to watch his back anymore; it could get him killed.

Spying the man in the suit the moment he stepped into the dimly lit room was too easy. Clint stayed where he was though, and watched as the suit gazed placidly around before his eyes landed on Clint's little table, tucked away in the back corner. His gaze was piercing and he made no attempt to hide it before he ordered two ales from the bar before sitting down across from Clint, as though he'd been expected, as though meeting with an acquaintance. He pushed the one beer pointedly to Clint and took a deep drink from his own before clunking it on the table. Clint leaned forward slowly (he was still recovering physically from his last job) and took the one the agent had drank from for himself. The man's lips twitched in what Clint thought was amusement but he made no protest. Clint did his best to not show his apprehension. He hadn't been expecting this, not here, not now. Stupid, amateur mistake. He might only be twenty-two, but he'd been in the business long enough that this shouldn't happen. He'd dropped the ball big time here.

"Mr. Barton," the man leaned back in his chair, unconcerned as Clint stared at him silently. "Having a nice break from your life of crime?" Clint wrapped his hand around the pint glass and wondered if the guy had realized what an effective weapon he had handed him. When he failed to respond to the jibe the agent's eyes darkened a little in irritation. "Intelligence doesn't have you pegged as the silent type," he intoned blandly and reached for the second beer. Clint tensed, prepared to react in case the man attacked, and didn't bother relaxing after nothing happened. He had six possible exits, three of which would require breaking glass and one that would probably end up with some roof jumping. All of them would be relatively simple, theoretically, so long as this agent had arrived alone. Chances of that were pretty slim, but Clint knew for a fact that he was the only suit in the pub's main room.

The agent settled back in his seat after another drink, his hands clasped loosely on the table. He watched Clint steadily.

"It's been reported that you're possibly the best marksman up for sale at the moment," there was a superior cut in his tone that rankled Clint, unease and dislike climbing up his spine in a way that none of the previous agents had instilled. Clint grinned back sharply, knowing there was nothing even remotely friendly in his flash of teeth.

"Best marksman, yes," he agreed. "For sale, occasionally, but for you? Not at all."

"You haven't even let me present your options yet," the guy responded coolly, eye twitching, and Clint had had enough. It was time to leave. He moved to stand, and made it as far as releasing the glass his hand had been curled around before slumping back on the chair at an angle that did nothing for his sore ribs. He might have even grimaced in pain if he wasn't suddenly gripped with panic at the fact that his body wasn't listening to him. He jerked a hand towards his belt, intent on whipping out the small knife and embedding it deeply in the agent's shoulder (he tended to try to avoid killing government lackeys, it was just a bad idea). He got as far as managing to twitch his fingers and clench an ass cheek before it became clear that his body was no longer co-operating with his brain.

He panicked. Internally.

Across from him the agent smiled dryly and took another pull from his glass.

"Topical neuromuscular-blocking agent," he explained, rubbing his fingers across the palm of one hand to demonstrate how Clint had been hit with the drug. "Fast acting. It's so effective that, as you've probably realized by now, the individual dosed with it tends to not notice until it's too late. Fortunately one can protect themselves from this particular formula with a simple inoculation."

Clint didn't know enough about chemistry or biology to know if 'fast-acting' also meant it was quick to metabolize, but he would bide his time, and then-

"I'd appreciate it if you refrained from thinking violent thoughts in my direction, Mr. Barton, it's not going to do you any good."

"What do you want?" he asked, or tried to. His tongue was too thick and not cooperating, his jaw barely shifted from the effort, and his vocals were fucked as he barely cracked out a frustrated whine. He felt lethargy slowly creeping in, the edges of the room starting to grow dimmer.

The agent watched him struggle, waving off the barmaid as she approached with menus, and then leaned forward over the worn wooden table.

"You've impressed a lot of people, Barton, people with connections, and I'm not going to sugar coat it: our agency wants you working with us. Badly. But you've been rather difficult to track down, which makes the higher-ups want you even more despite your keen disinterest."

Clint struggled against the drug. He knew a lost cause when he felt one, and he knew he wasn't getting out of this easily. He tried to keep the agent in his sights as his eyes drifted closed, tried to ignore the flood of fear burning in his chest. He was alone, and completely vulnerable, and any moment he could end up dead. Any moment could be his last, and he wasn't ready for that. He wasn't ready-

"Now, Mr. Barton, perhaps you'll listen to your options."

Except that he wouldn't, because Clint had already slipped into oblivion.

When he woke up, his mind cloudy and vision blacked out by a cloth over his eyes, he learned that he really had only one option.

He fought.

He didn't get far, wrists and legs secured on a soft surface, straps over his shoulders, torso, and thighs.

"My name is Marcus Warner," the name burned into his brain, bright and all consuming and he fought harder as something hard and cold was pressed into his temple. There was a soft click, felt through his skin, felt like it was burrowing into his bone, and then the same spiking pain on the other side. The unison crushing, compressing, making him wish his ears would begin to bleed to relieve the pressure.

He choked. He tried to scream. Words filtered through the haze, mingling with the cool, bitter tasting water that occasionally found its way into his mouth, down his throat.

-Warner. I am an agent of SHIELD and your superior. You report to me first and foremost-

He could see colours behind his eyes, tiny lights that blurred and danced and distracted him from the tingling of his flesh, the thousands of tiny hairs being plucked from his skin. The knife in his brain.

-loyalty to SHIELD – hierarchy – follow orders-

Eventually even the agonizing pain clouded, became fuzzy, became an afterthought.

-will not harm me – will never run-

Until something shifted, something deep, something crucial. A slick slide/rip/grind settled where it shouldn't. Where he didn't want it.

-secret – never reveal – mislead – misdirect-

When he woke up, a lifetime later, naked and curled on his side in a puddle of his own sick and filth, his head begging to fall off, he wondered if he hadn't died after all.

He remembered running out of air to scream.

He dragged his head off the floor, coordination shaky, his whole fucking body shaky, and immediately focused on Warner. Warner. The man was sitting casual in dress pants and a button down, eating the remains of a salad from a takeout container. The room smelled of chicken. Clint's stomach rebelled and churned at the scent. He flexed his fingers in the short carpet beneath him, pictured exactly where he was going to attack, which limbs he would break before he crushed Warner's throat. He pushed to his knees with feet pressed into the wall, ready to lunge.

He did nothing.

On the bedside table by his side there was a knife. He grabbed it and threw, picturing it lodging in Warner's temple, right where the agony would crush him like it had crushed Clint.

He missed by three feet.

He missed.

His rage stuttered in his chest as fear began to rise. Warner finally glanced up from his meal, looked at where the sharp blade was imbedded in the drywall up to its hilt, and looked back at Clint, unfazed.

"Shower and get dressed, Barton," Warner ordered. "We've got a rendezvous in two hours."

Clint moved to his feet, balance unsteady and body screaming at him, sore and aching, like a three-day training bender that he hadn't been on, still healing injuries burning deep. His vision swam and he braced himself on the wall. His still healing ribs did not thank him.

"What the fuck-" He croaked, barely getting the words out through his dry, burning throat. All his instincts were screaming at him to attack Warner, to take him out of the picture and regain control. Clint glanced at the knife he had tried to do just that with resting harmlessly in the wall. Change of plans: he needed to get out of the room. Now. He managed to straighten from the wall and take one step towards the door before he changed direction and moved towards the bathroom. He froze after two steps, struggling to turn around. Half a room away was the unlocked door to the outside world, to his escape, and he couldn't- he couldn't go to it. His body wouldn't comply. "What did you do to me?"

"You're not as bright as I'd been led to believe, are you," Warner sighed, eyes narrowing as he met Clint's. He hadn't noticed what a pale shade of brown they were earlier. He wanted to make them red. He was shaking with the need. Run you idiot! He didn't move. "You belong to me now Barton, and more abstractly, you belong to SHIELD. Congratulations. Now go shower, you stink."

"I don't belong to anyone," he growled through clenched teeth. Warner looked unimpressed, and then turned to flip open his laptop, ignoring him.

Clint went to the washroom and slammed the door shut hard enough to shake the walls. He turned just in time to dry heave into the pale pink sink, his fingers wrapped around the cold porcelain edge. He braced himself until the dribbles of acid stopped and he took a steadying breath.

There was no mirror, he wasn't sure he wanted to see what he looked like anyway.

He showered, as ordered. He dressed in the clothes Warner pointed at when he re-entered the room. He finally walked out the door with the intention to fight off any attempt at restraint.

"We leave in half an hour Barton, be here." Warner's deep voice followed him out the room. Clint walked into bright sunlight, quickly slipping into the shadow of a wisteria laden stone wall. Still in Wales. He rounded the corner and picked up speed, slipping down one alley after another. He had nothing but jeans, a hoody, and sneakers to his name. He lifted some cash and a butter knife from a café. Same country, different town. He'd be three towns away in half an hour and had a contact in Blackpool he could use for quality fake papers.

Twenty-nine minutes later he met Warner by his car. He hadn't been able to walk away. It had been physically impossible. He didn't understand how the man had gotten such a hold on him. He did understand one thing though.

"I'm going to kill you," he promised, voice thick with rage, fist wrapped around the pilfered knife that he was unable to use. He was trembling he was so furious, feeling weakened and vulnerable. It was unacceptable.

"No," Warner smiled and knocked his sunglasses over his eyes, "you won't. Get in the car Barton, it's time to put your game face on."

Clint got in the car.

Chapter Text

They made no secret of their entrance into the government building and nobody stopped them at the front doors, not even to check Barton for weapons. People bustled about their business, intent on their destinations, caught up in conversations, taking breaks to sit on the benches tucked against the wall and sip at coffee from the street vendor outside. It was nothing but a normal office setting, much like a high-end law firm.

If Barton noted the way some conversations dimmed, how several postures changed to a subtle state of alertness, how a few eyes twitched without ever glancing in his direction, he never hinted at it. If he spotted the multiple hidden security cameras and scanners along with the obvious ones, or the weapons secured discreetly beneath suit jackets or in ankle holsters, nobody was the wiser. His posture was stiffly straight, his stare cold, and beyond a brief glance around the large open foyer he showed no interest in his surroundings. Aggressive would be a descriptive in several first impression reports from the agents flooding the building. Aloof and stupidly confident would be in others.

He studied the retinal scanner inside the elevator with a dismissive glance and didn't say a single word as he walked beside Agent Warner through the nondescript halls of the buildings seventh floor. He maintained his silence as Warner indicated that he enter a large, plain office with a generic black and white print of the Hoover dam on the wall. In front of the painting was an old mahogany desk, scratched and worn looking and with the most personality the building had shown so far.

"Have a seat, Barton," Warner ordered, no doubt meaning one of the two that were set before the desk, clearly meant for guests. Barton acknowledged the order by grabbing one of the chairs, dragging it to the back corner of the room and sitting with crossed arms. This put him out of sight from the window, from the door when it was first opened and, perhaps most importantly, out of sight from the two-way mirror that was now on his right as opposed to at his back. Warner twitched, eyes narrowing slightly, but said nothing as he took his own seat before the desk to wait.

They didn't wait long.

"Agent Warner," Director Fury blew into the room with the force of attitude that followed him everywhere he went and Warner was on his feet instantly, his attention riveted on his superior. Even a probationary agent would have spotted the near devotion he wasn't fast enough to hide on his face, but Fury was already moving to the other side of the desk, attention on the file he had flipped open in his large hands.

"Sir," Warner greeted, and quickly took his seat again as Fury took his own and then looked at him speculatively through his one good eye. He shifted his gaze to stare at Barton in the corner, who stared back, looking bored and not at all interested in being there.

It wasn't a long meeting. Warner hadn't been lying when he'd stated that SHIELD coveted Barton's skills, which meant that they had a file on him that contained more information about his past than even Barton was aware of. To be fair, at this point in his life Barton couldn't give two shits about the fact that he had two aunts and an uncle, all of whom were still alive, or that his kindergarten teacher was the first to officially report concerns about his home life before his parents died. Apparently that was stuff SHIELD found interesting. Point being that Fury already knew most of what he wanted, and it became clear almost instantly that Warner had been keeping him 'updated' on his progress with Barton since he'd contacted him from Cardiff four days before.

It became clear to Barton that Warner's idea of information sharing left a few of the more important facts out. Facts like Clint's sudden and undesired attachment to SHIELD.

Once Warner had been dismissed from the room Fury did not demand that Barton remove himself from the corner. Instead he watched him sharply as 'terms of contract' were discussed. He did not disguise his suspicion over Barton's sudden decision to accept their offer of employment, though he laughed outright at the exorbitant fee Barton expected for his services. Barton didn't crack a smile, Fury was unfazed as he informed him he'd get half of his expected pay and be happy they didn't just throw him in jail for the rather thick pile of crimes he was wanted for.

"We both know prison wouldn't be able to hold me for long," Barton shrugged.

"Not a state run one, no," Fury agreed and Barton glared dangerously. It was impressive that he could do so without giving away a hint of emotion. "Tell me," Fury rested his elbows on the desk, unconcerned for the blatant hostility, "why are you here?"

Barton slouched lower in his seat, practically oozing disrespect.

"I hear you have a decent benefits package. Dental's included right?"

"You've managed to evade apprehension from three separate SHIELD recovery units, and managed to drop off the radar before two more could even approach. You easily incapacitated seven of our best trained agents without actually killing them, and have forcefully refused to even entertain the option of joining us peaceably." Fury states these facts like he's reading his grocery list and Barton looks equally uninspired, if his expectant curl of the lips was anything to judge by. "After all this you expect me to believe that Agent Warner just waltzed into the pub, offered you the job, and you accepted it?"

"What can I say, he had a way with words," Barton's lips curled up in a humourless smile. When he said nothing further Fury frowned.

"And you're certain it's Agent Warner you want to be placed with?" He steepled his fingers and never took his eye off Barton. "I have several other agents I feel would be more suited to your particular skills and training. People with more field experience and, frankly, who are better agents all around."

"I work primarily with Warner," Barton insisted, voice tight and one hand flexing in a tell that Fury didn't understand yet, "or I don't work with SHIELD at all. That's my condition."

Fury sat back in his chair, pursed his lips, and nodded. A moment later the door opened and Agent Warner stepped back into the room, along with another man who swiftly moved to the wall and stood silently.

"Congratulations Agent Warner," Fury flipped the file closed on his desk as he addressed him, "you're being promoted to the status of field handler with the understanding that Barton will pass training and still wishes to be assigned to you. Make sure you see human resources for the appropriate paperwork. I want a full medical and psych evaluation on Barton completed and submitted by the end of the afternoon. Barton," he barked his name sharply, not giving Warner a chance to acknowledge his change in field status, and Barton raised a lazy brow in question. "You will report to training first thing in the morning to join the current recruitment class. They are already a month in so you'll have some catching up to do. Can you handle that?" His tone implied that Barton had better be able to handle it considering what he was about to be paid to be here. The average person would think Fury was actually irritated at having the marksman join their agency.

"Yes sir," Barton smirked, gave a two-fingered salute, and stood swiftly from his seat.

"Good," Fury decided dismissively and Barton apparently didn't need further orders to leave the room, his hand already on the doorknob while Warner was still turning away from the desk. "And Barton," the archer's body tensed and he turned his head to look inquiringly at Fury. "If I find out your sudden interest in joining my agency is purely an attempt at forwarding some kind of personal agenda, than I will have your fingers in a jar on my bedroom shelf, right next to my eyeball. Do we have an understanding?"

For the first time since entering the building Barton's eyes flashed with real emotion, but it was brief and fractured and slipped away before a stranger could possibly hope to understand it. At this point they were all strangers. In the end, the slight twitch at the corner of his mouth could possibly be interpreted as amusement.

"Yes sir. Toe the line, fight the good fight, don't fuck SHIELD over unless I want my digits to be the pickled delicacy at the company Christmas bash. Understood."

He left then, clearly not caring two wits about an affirming 'welcome aboard' from Fury. Warner nodded stiffly before chasing after his newest charge. Fury watched the door close behind them silently and looked to the other man that had been all but forgotten along the side of the small space.

"Thoughts, Coulson?" he asked, finger tapping idly at Barton's thick file on the table. Coulson, in turn, watched the chair Barton had been seated in for the duration of the introduction, before letting out a thoughtful breath.

"He's dangerous." Which was an understatement if the reports on some of the 'jobs' he was suspected to have pulled were accurate. Perhaps what was even more dangerous was how young he was, younger than they had originally believed, that was for sure. It had taken some serious digging to suss out his true alias amongst all the monikers he favoured, and with that his true age. He was barely a man yet. "He has trust issues that we may not be able to breach, he will not like working with others, he will lie to us about his motivations every chance he gets and, most likely, be successful every time." Coulson's gaze drifted back to the chair, sitting apart from the rest of the room, boxed in yet protected on as many sides as possible.

Fury waited patiently, eye steady on his right hand man.

"It won't be easy, but if we can win his loyalty he has the potential to be the asset we're looking for."

"Even under Warner's handling?"

Here Coulson shook his head, like he couldn't quite understand how it had been agent Warner, of all people, to convince Barton to give them a second glance, let alone demand to work exclusively with him. Fury had to agree. He hadn't even known who Warner was until four days ago when he contacted his direct superior and reported that he was bringing Clint Barton in. Coulson was still investigating how that had happened, how Warner even learned that Barton was on the same continent as him, let alone the town. Clearly Warner was a better agent than he'd been given credit for. Sometimes people slipped through the cracks. Regardless, Fury wasn't sure about this agent.

"I have doubts about Barton living up to his full potential under agent Warner's inexperience in the field."

"Do you think Barton can be convinced to accept a different handler once it becomes clear that there are better options?"

"I can only hope, sir," Coulson almost sounded pained to admit this. He had never been one for disparaging fellow agents skills, but he was a realist that needed to see the bigger picture.

"Okay," Fury pushed up from the desk and handed the file to Coulson as he passed him. "Keep a close eye on our newest recruit, more than the usual security detail, until we can confirm his motivations for joining us," he stopped just short of opening the door. "And find out what the hell it is that Warner said that convinced a self-made, internationally renowned, child-assassin to enlist in our cause under the sole condition that Warner is his handler."

"Yes sir."

It never occurred to either of them at the time that Warner would stoutly refuse to break the 'confidences' he promised Barton when he recruited him. He told them everything that happened, from his discovery of Barton's location, to his decision to drive four hours from his solo (time-wasting) post to talk to the man himself, to his success. But he did not budge on telling them what he said to the assassin. It wasn't so surprising that Barton never breathed a word of his own reasons to anyone. Eventually, when it became clear Barton was truly there as a loyal agent, it was determined that the method wasn't as important as the result, and as he got spectacular results they were willing to eventually drop interest in his reason for being there.

At least as much as SHIELD dropped anything.

Warner didn't make any grand effort to speak to Clint beyond explaining how things worked at SHIELD, and what he expected of him. He walked with what he thought was a confident swagger, held his head up high, and damn near preened in self-satisfaction when he introduced Clint to people as his asset. Barton seethed on the inside, and didn't correct him.

The psych evaluations were a joke, in the sense that he bowled through them like a rock through wet tissue paper. He tried hinting at the fact that he wasn't here willingly, and found that he literally couldn't get the words out. If SHIELD had maybe had a telepath on staff that would have been useful, but he hadn't been here long enough to determine if that would ultimately change his current situation. Even if SHIELD knew he wasn't here of his own free will, they could very well decide to keep him under hand anyway.

The medical was tougher.

He wasn't shy with nudity, he had lost that kind of modesty in his youth at the group showers in the orphanage.

He didn't care about the way the young doctor's eyes lingered on scars, on the deep, still-healing contusions wrapped around his left side, or on the mess on his shoulder that had once been a tattoo and was now a rough ridge of puckered skin streaked with faded blue ink. It would forever look like a fractured, healing bruise. He didn't answer when she asked about it; it was none of her, or anyone else's, business.

He wasn't bothered by her seeing it.

He just had a difficult time sitting still while people he didn't know got into his personal space. His instinct was generally to hit first and, if his victim was still conscious, ask questions or apologize later. That instinct was heightened when he was injured and feeling threatened.

Fortunately this particular doctor was smart enough to recognize his unease. She moved to the opposite end of the room occasionally to write in her files, returning once he became a little less tense. He was pretty sure his medical exam took twice as long as it should have. He wondered what would go into his file about it.

With that finally out of the way he was back to following his handler once again. Warner acted like a tour guide, pointing out this room and that, where he would be reporting in the morning for class for fucks sake. Like he was doing Clint a favour. Like Clint gave two shits about anything he had to say. He'd familiarize himself with the facility in his own time. It's not like this was even their main headquarters; he could recognize it for the training facility it was and nothing more. You don't bring agent trainees and unfamiliar assassins to the castle before their mettle is tested at the guard house. That would be stupid.

Despite this Clint nodded dutifully, even if he failed at being friendly about it.

The first thing he'd learned after waking up in the rundown apartment in Wales: He was incapable of harming Warner. The second thing was that he followed Warner's orders. Always. Warner had told him to stick to the story he outlined for Clint's recruitment, to play the part, and Clint had smoothly done so while seething on the inside. He retaliated by being as emotionally hostile as he could, because Warner hadn't said Clint needed to pretend to enjoy being there.

Apparently Clint's lack of affability didn't bother his jailor in the least.

"These are your temporary quarters," Warner finally stopped and gestured at a door that's only distinguishing mark in the long corridor of doors, was the number.

"I want my weapons," Clint demanded flatly, twisting the handle and stepping into the small, spartan space. It had a clean single bed with a pile of fresh sheets and a still packaged pillow resting on it. A desk sat beside it with a simple lamp and hard-backed chair. There was a large pile of books and several binders stacked neatly in its center. Clint moved directly to the window, relieved that there was one as he quickly lowered the blinds: the glass was thick, possibly bullet resistant. He knew how to deal with that if he needed a quick exit.

"Agents in training are not allowed to carry firearms," Warner made to move into the small space uninvited and Clint tensed. Warner noticed and stayed by the door.

"My bow?" It was a newer one, he had no real attachment to it yet, but that didn't mean he felt comfortable without it close at hand. It had been custom made in Florence. It hadn't been cheap.

"It's at the armoury under lock and key until an appropriate range is set up. I have the rest of your tools in safe keeping until you are authorized to carry them."

Clint wondered if Warner knew he had a steak knife secured in his boot and had lifted two agents service weapons earlier in the afternoon. He'd only kept one.

"How about my clothes, are you at least gonna let me have them back," he snarled and Warner's gaze shifted to the closet pointedly.

"All personal items from your safe house are here, along with the mandatory training uniform," Clint snorted at the idea of a uniform, which Warner ignored in favour of nodding to the books on the table. "Reading material for your courses," his tone implied that Clint should read it, but he didn't make it an order.

Clint said nothing for a long moment, staring hard, imagining all the routes he'd already plotted for a fast retreat from this place. If Warner was disturbed by the scrutiny he didn't show it, which was even more infuriating.

"How long are you planning on keeping me?" Fuck, he hadn't meant for the uncertainty to leak into his voice, and he sure as hell didn't believe the brief glimpse of pity that flashed across Warner's face.

"That depends on how long I need you for," he replied. I not we. Clint had already figured out that he was a tool to further Warner's status, though he didn't trust SHIELD to have his best interests at heart any more than Warner did. It wasn't enough of an answer though, there was an 'and' tagged onto the end of the statement and Clint narrowed his eyes expectantly. Warner straightened to his full height, an impressive six foot two, and narrowed his eyes speculatively. "And whether you'll kill me or not once I release you from your service."

"So this is pretty much til death do us part then," Clint growled out and Warner tipped his head in acknowledgement.

"It won't be so bad. SHIELD will give you a purpose, your skills will be used for the greater good, and you will be compensated."

"It's not going to work. Your bosses will figure this out."

"They might," Warner agreed, "but that doesn't mean they'll let you just walk out of here if it comes to that. You're wanted for murder, espionage, armed robbery, and kidnapping. Do you really think you're going to head anywhere but a jail cell if you leave?"

"At least it will be my choice."

"Haven't you figured it out yet, Barton? You made your choices when you decided to be a criminal, an assassin for gods sake. But I caught you, and you no longer get to choose."

"Yeah? If I'm such a terrible person, then what does this make you? Better watch out, Warner, your slate isn't looking as squeaky clean as you want it to, and it's only going to get dirtier the longer this goes on."

"Somehow I think I'll be able to live with that." Clint turned away at that, not caring that he was exposing his back to this man. It didn't matter, the guy wasn't about to damage his newest possession. Taking a breath, trying to control the minute trembling in his fingers, he listened as his captor turned to leave. Warner paused at the door, the soft shift-slide of his clothing telling Clint he was looking over his shoulder at him. "I'm not trying to turn you into somebody you're not, that would be extremely counter productive considering what I need you to be. But you will go to your classes starting tomorrow, and you will pass. Live up to your potential, Barton, it'll make this entire experience worth your while."

"It won't be worth my while," he muttered darkly, too quiet to hear though it didn't matter; Warner had already left, the door closing solidly behind him. In one swift move Clint slid the steak knife from its place in his boot and, twisting, let it fly across the small space. It imbedded deeply into the dry wall, right where Warner's left eye had been. It did nothing to satisfy Clint. He was caged, trapped, and he needed to get out but he didn't want to deal with the rest of this agency right now. He couldn't deal with them. He could feel the panic flare in his chest and he refused to let it get the better of him. This was nothing like the few times he'd been captured before, when he'd been tied up, drugged, beaten, drowned. When enemies were making an example of him. When friends were making an example of him. This was more than that, there was no immediate escape from this, not until he could figure out what had been done in the first place, and it made him feel more out of control. He could walk free, talk free, and mostly act free, but he was stuck.

He did the only thing he could think of to calm himself down without his bow and a target to aim at. He dropped to the floor and began to do push-ups. He did them until his arms were barely moving him two inches up or down, until the light outside was shifting into mid-evening, until he was dripping sweat and the ache in his head that refused to leave was making his vision blur. Then he flipped onto his back and began to do sit-ups.

He didn't sleep that first night, not even after exhausting himself into a numb haze and, after dragging his bed to block the door he collapsed in a corner and stared at the shadows until the rising sun peaked around the blinds.

He went to class as ordered. He was two hours late and he wore his rattiest jeans and a loose zip-up hoodie that hid the gun at the small of his back. It didn't come to the classes attention that he'd joined them until five minutes later when the instructor paused mid-sentence and narrowed his eyes. He didn't say anything though, no doubt embarrassed that he hadn't noticed the moment Clint had arrived.

Clint winked and settled back in his seat, letting the day roll on.

Chapter Text

 

Clint managed to not speak in class for the first three weeks. Not a single word. He made a game of it; of out-glaring his instructors; of ignoring the agent wannabes when they tried to interact with him, and then later when they tried to get a rise out of him. Seeing their frustration at him made him feel, not better, but perhaps slightly mollified. It was petty, and he was aware of the psychological passive aggressiveness of his actions, but he didn't really give a shit.

He did not appreciate the written tests, he did not like spending his evenings reading things he didn't select for himself. He learned it though, and he passed the tests by the skin of his teeth (though he was pretty sure that while a pass for him was a whopping fifty-four percent, the expected grade of the rest of the trainees was in the ninety-fifth percentile or higher.

One of the probationary agents, a gangly woman only a few years older than him with shockingly salt-and-pepper hair, didn't seem bothered by his attitude either way. She began to make a point of sitting next to him three days in, ignoring his irritated looks with an easy going smile as she laid her notebook and pens out evenly. At the end of the first week she began bringing extra pens that somehow kept ending up in front of Clint, who never brought his own. He didn't use them, he remembered things better by listening to what was being said, not writing it down, but he stopped glaring at her after that.

Her name was Ria.

"Why are you here, Barton?" She asked quietly, the first time she spoke to him directly in their three weeks there, and he spared her a brief glance. He didn't like her. But of everyone he was forced to spend his days with she was the most tolerable. He went back to counting the holes in the ceiling tile in the far corner of the room.

"To do as I'm told," his lips twitched in a humourless smile when her eyes widened, surprised that he'd answered. That display of emotion could get her killed in the outside world. Clint had seen it happen.

Then she laughed, a soft brief puff of air, and shook her head at him with something that looked like fondness. He didn't get it, or her, and didn't say another word for the rest of the day. It didn't change the fact that his silence had been broken, and he couldn't say he minded too much.

"You're kidding, right?" Barton frowned at the series of guns laid out on the table before them, gleaming in the sunlight. "Where's my bow?"

It had been a fucking month since he'd felt the string digging into his fingertips, heard the near silent twang as the arrow was loosed. He hadn't gone this long without holding his bow since his sudden and unexpected retirement from the circus.

Behind him he heard a couple of soft, incredulous chuckles, and a quietly mocking "who the hell uses a bow? We're not here to hunt rabbits." It was nothing he hadn't heard before in his life, and it had never been something that bothered him in the first place. The 'weapons master' in charge of their training, whom had dragged them on this fieldtrip to his preferred outdoor range (secret range, as everything was in this agency), was not amused by Clint's demand. Most likely because it had been a demand not a question. He wanted his weapon.

"We brought your toy, Barton," Krochak was unable to keep the hint of snide from his tone, which did nothing for Clint's peace of mind. Krochak was clearly ex-military from the way he handled the weapons in demonstration earlier, and he was good. Very, very good. Clint was better. "You'll get it after you've competently demonstrated that you know how to handle weapons that are actually useful in the field."

Useful in the field.

Clint's eyes narrowed reproachfully. Had this guy not read his docket? He looked from him to the stuffy suit standing a few meters off too the side, observing silently. Coulson (Clint had made a point to learn who he was after seeing him his first day with Fury, and then periodically after that as he had clearly been assigned to make sure Barton wasn't going to kill them all) calmly met his glare, looking almost curious as he waited silently for Clint's response.

"Come on, Robin Hood, let's see if you're as good with a gun as you are with people," Rochester goaded from the group behind. Clint's fingers twitched, more interested in demonstrating his hand-to-hand combat skills. Coulson's calm interest didn't change. Clint took a breath and looked back to Krochak, then glanced at the eight paper targets at the far end of the field, ninety meters away (a joke for him, but basically the maximum distance for a regular range), and took in the table of guns before them. Ignoring the selection entirely he reached behind him and whipped out the glock he had been carrying since his first day. He kept it pointed to the ground as he swept it in the direction he wanted and pulled it up in both hands, not needing a moment to check his stance or sights. He rapidly fired eight shots and then turned to face Krochak, leaving just his left arm extended towards the targets. He met his hard gaze levelly as he let off four more rounds.

Then, because he could, he shifted the weapon to the sky without breaking his staring contest with the man, and squeezed the trigger two more times. He had one bullet left. He dropped his arm.

Forty meters away two lifeless birds fell to the grass.

"Rochester!" Krochak barked into the sudden silence, "get me those targets!"

It was a tense few minutes before the papers were handed to the instructor, a hole torn dead center in every bullseye. One target had four more holes riding the edge of the bullseye, forming a tidy square. Krochak looked at the targets in silence a long moment, then to the birds that had been dropped on the ground near his feet and weren't much more than blood and a pile of feathers. Then he looked to Coulson. The suit didn't seem surprised by the display, but he did look pointedly at his weapon of choice. Clint realized that the man must have known he had acquired the gun from the very beginning; it would explain the lack of investigation into the original owners missing firearm. Letting his lips curl into a self-impressed smirk Clint flipped the weapon in his hand, the barrel already cooling, and passed it to the agent. He'd get another one later easily enough. Coulson took the gun, nodded, and moved off towards the group of Senior Agents that had come along to watch the show. Assessing their future charges. Warner, being Clint's handler, was among them, and he was looking obnoxiously smug.

Clint tried not to care. A minute later he had his bow and, from that day on, nobody questioned why he was there anymore, despite his bad attitude.

Nobody except him.

Clint was pulled out of 'special agent 101' two weeks later. His first mission had him climbing to the tenth floor of a building under construction. Warner ordered him to take the rifle in place of his bow, and while Clint calmly pointed out that he was better with his bow he still didn't get to take it.

In the dim pre-dawn light he watched silently as a money drop was made in exchange for the daughter of some Senator. Warner's breath was heavy in his ear the whole time, and though he wasn't in charge of this op it didn't stop him from talking to Clint like he was.

Clint watched silently as the thirteen-year old girl was shoved roughly, ordered to cross the open expanse to the agent in charge of securing her safety. Of course something went wrong. A hidden operative stirred, creating movement where there should be none; a shift slight enough it shouldn't have been seen. Clint saw it amongst the shadows from on high, and so did the girls abductor. The masked man was in the process of straightening his arm, his gun leveled at the kids back, when Clint shot him between the eyes. He also took out the driver through the tinted windows before he had the chance to throw the car into gear.

He didn't go back to class after that, but it was still six more missions and their subsequent, in-depth, debriefs and psych evals before he was officially brought over to the main headquarters in New York.

It did not take long for Clint to learn that Warner hadn't been a field agent very long. He'd started out in research and development. Apparently he had been one of their better reconstructive engineers, but after a few years he had wanted more from his career, he wanted to advance. There wasn't a great deal of opportunity for that in his department, not with so many ridiculously smart people all vying for the same positions. Becoming a field agent was logical, despite advice against it. At the very least field experience would give him leadership qualities that he could use towards advancement if he went back to R&D.

He wasn't disliked by the general population of SHIELD, but nobody had had any great ideals earmarked for him. He had an advantage for being able to understand the technology they stumbled across, but there were other field agents who knew enough to contain it until it was transported safely to R&D for investigation. This is what happened most of the time.

Clint had been his game changer. While nobody doubted Warner's loyalty to both SHIELD and Fury, it was generally understood that if Clint decided to change handlers Warner would definitely lose status in the field.

Clint started being approached three months into his New York post by agents who had more field experience, more smarts, and, frankly, more sanity than Clint thought Warner had. It would have been safer to partner with them. Clint said no every time, until they finally stopped asking.

It doesn't take Clint long to realize that, locked into this new life as he is, not everything is as set in stone as Warner would have him believe. Of course Clint was going to find out that whatever mind-fuckery-brain-leash Warner had put on him, it wasn't perfect. Clint may have failed himself, allowed himself to be taken in a time of weakness (maybe he deserved this, maybe Warner was right and he really didn't deserve a choice seeing as he was stupid enough to get caught). He may have woken up naked and confused at Warner's feet that first morning, and he learned that he was trapped, even after he had walked, unobstructed, away from Warner. Clint may be 'his' at the moment, but that didn't mean he was going to just bend over without struggling, without testing the boundaries.

Testing boundaries taught him pretty quickly that he had wriggle room. He learned that he had to obey Warner, no matter what. Warner only had to say "keep quiet about your circumstances" once and Clint hadn't been able to utter, write, or even hint at the fact that he was there unwillingly. Clint actively worked to conceal it, as ordered. Warner told him to pass his agent tests, so Clint passed (just not very well). Warner told him that Clint was loyal to SHIELD, only secondary to Warner himself, so Clint was loyal to SHIELD. Here is where things became better for Clint, because apparently being loyal to SHIELD could be interpreted in many different ways. Clint was very good at interpreting things.

For instance, being loyal to SHIELD did not mean he had to be nice to SHIELD. He protected its people, but did not have to follow directions if given by an agent of a lower rank. It also meant that if someone he did have to listen to made the mistake of asking him to do something as opposed to telling him to do it, he could tell them exactly where to stick it; so long as it wouldn't be detrimental to SHIELD or its goals.

He began to believe (hope) he could make this work for himself until he figured out how to get Warner to let him go. He began to convince himself, while ensuring that no one wanted to work with him unless they had no other choice, that he had at least a little control.

Six months in he realized exactly how such self-deception could hurt.

It was early evening. He'd been watching Yorkavich for two days. Waiting. Seeing things that people missed. Things so many people always missed. Simple things, like how the mark held the door open for others before stepping through himself; gave up his seat on the bus for a young guy with a broken leg; left a tip for an exhausted waitress that was beyond generous and disappeared before she could thank him. Silly, innocuous little things. Things he liked to believe he could relate to. Things he noticed because no one else ever would.

It made him start thinking that they were approaching this mission the wrong way. This kid who couldn't be older than twenty-five (everyone under thirty was a child to Clint, who hadn't been one himself since he'd run away to join the circus), was some kind of computer genius that was involved in some hefty weapons programming. He wasn't a bad guy, he was just lost. He just needed a bit of guidance. Barton could see this, could feel it. Was self aware enough to understand.

The kid just needed a little positive direction, he was ripe for SHIELD's pickings, all they had to do was convince him. He'd told them so that morning, before leaving for his perch. Warner and the agent he was with told him to leave recruitment to them and stick to what he was good at. Clint felt like he had swallowed stones.

"Sir," he spoke softly now, keeping his sights on the kid, watching him wipe sweaty hands against his jeans for the fourth time.

"Do you have the shot?" Warner's familiar cool voice asked and Clint didn't move, his rifle tucked comfortably into his shoulder. He didn't need the scope for this shot, being far too close, but he used it because Warner told him to.

"Affirmative sir, I have the solution."

"You have a green light."

Clint's finger caressed the trigger. He took a steadying breath. There was no hurry here, not yet. He had eight minutes before the terrorists they were really after arrived.

"Sir," he said again, taking extra care to not be confrontational, to not be bossy, to be the most reasonable agent he had ever tried to be. "We don't have to do this sir. There are better options available. The meet has already been set up, we can bring him in."

Trust me he silently asked, knowing that Warner understood. There was a long pause.

"He knows too much, agent," Warner sounded just as cool as before. "You have a green light. Make the shot, and make it now."

He made the shot.

He made sure it was instant, the kid didn't know what hit him, but he aimed through his heart. He wanted the face to be untouched, so that they had to face him when they went to take care of his body.

It was the first time he'd purposefully killed someone that he considered innocent.

The only reason he didn't throw up immediately afterward is because he had trained that response out of himself after his first kill. Leave no evidence.

He turned his back on the scene as soon as he pulled the trigger, not needing to see the result of his work, and made his way down to the back alley rendezvous.

Warner was there, alone, leaning against the large black SUV with his sunglasses tipped over his eyes and not a wrinkle in his suit.

"His blood is on your hands," Clint hissed, and shoved the rifle into his handlers chest, though not hard enough to hurt, never hard enough to hurt him. Warner caught it and favoured him with the same, vaguely unimpressed look he always gave him.

"No, Barton, it's really not."

"So that's how this is going to work?" Clint couldn't describe the exhaustion he suddenly felt. This was real, this was his life. Six months of denial and the last, lingering hope that he still had some control was ripped away. Because he could piss off the people he worked with, and he manipulated and worked around as many orders as he could, but not when it actually meant something. When it meant something he was nothing but a very sharp tool. It cut deep, he bled dark, and he wasn't sure if the wound would ever stop dripping if this was the result. "You have no real accountability because you're not the one looking down the scope?"

"You didn't seem to have a problem on our previous missions," Warner moved to the back of the SUV and slid the weapon into the safety box.

"You know what the problem is." Clint was able to control the anger in his voice now, but he clenched his fist because his fingers were beginning to tremble. "Is this how it's going to be? I get no input whatsoever on the lives I take?"

"You are a weapon, Barton. You're here to do your job, as you're told, and nothing more," Warner still sounded untouched, unconcerned, and Clint wished he had sunglasses of his own to hide his eyes.

"Nothing more?" Clint said evenly. "Are you sure? You mean you're not gonna have me drop to my knees for you when we get back, maybe suck your dick? You don't want me to bend over a table for a good victory fuck?" a little snarl curled into his words. The relief he felt, when Warner's cool attitude was replaced by genuine revulsion before firming, was brief.

"That's not how I roll. I told you from the beginning that that's not what this is about, Barton. I will never take advantage of you that way," he hissed, and Clint was laughing on the inside, really, but he made sure his face was as indifferent as he could make it.

"That's where you're wrong, sir, because you already have." He moved into the SUV then, rolling right over the middle seat so he could sprawl in the very back. Warner stood there for a moment, watching him from behind his glasses as Clint made a concentrated effort to look like he didn't have care in the world.

Warner took a little more care with his orders after that, he didn't throw them out quite so easily, so carelessly, as he had before. But it didn't matter, and they both knew it. The damage was done, it had been done the moment he'd drugged Clint in a pub in Wales, and became beyond irreparable when he gave the kill order after Clint had quietly begged him not to.

Of all the looks he received after that mission; the calculating but satisfied eye from the Director, the relaxing of Agent Hill's shoulders, the agreeability of the senior Agents involved in the Op- of all those looks, the one that stuck with him was from Agent Coulson, who stood quietly at the back of the room and listened to the entire debrief without interruption. He watched Clint closely and didn't give away a single impression. When Clint was dismissed from the room to go shower and spend more hours than was reasonable at the range, he couldn't help the nagging feeling that Coulson was disappointed in him.

It didn't matter, none of their opinions mattered to him, but of them all his was the one that stuck with him the most, and they had never even exchanged words.

Nick watched the debrief with partial attention from a monitor on his office wall, the volume muted but the image crisp. His conference call with the President of the UN's Security Council wasn't enough of a distraction to keep him from noting three prudent things.

First, Agent's Warner, Huyke, and Sattler seemed satisfied with the success of the mission. Considering that they completed their mission and apprehended three bio-terrorists Nick expected that response.

Second, Barton looked even more closed off than usual from where he sat nearest the conference room door, keeping everyone within sight. The rumour mill had it that Barton was more difficult to get along with than Nick himself. Personally Nick didn't give a good damn whether people got along with him or not, so long as they did what he said. But apparently there was 'not getting along' and then, at times, there was Barton. Fury was fine with Barton.

Thirdly, Phil wasn't participating in the debrief and was standing stiffer than normal. Translation: Phil wasn't happy with something, which in turn meant Fury wasn't happy and Nick did not like being unhappy. Therefore, when the debrief wrapped up and Phil came to his office Nick promptly ended his call with the President and waited expectantly. Phil glanced at the wall monitor that still had the meeting room on display, unsurprised, before taking the seat before Nick's desk.

"The mission was a success," he announces, as if Nick wasn't completely aware.

"What's the problem then?"

"Barton's the problem," Phil declared, and now Nick was slightly more concerned than he had been before. He didn't need to ask for an explanation, because Phil was always one step ahead of him, even when he didn't want him to be. "This morning he informed Agents Warner and Sattler that he didn't believe our mark was as serious a threat as assessed. He formally requested that the hit be reconsidered a second time just before he terminated the mark."

"So what's the problem? Do you think he was right to second guess the approach to cleaning up that mess?"

"We'll never know sir," Phil dismissed that concern politely, because at this point it was too late to worry about making the wrong call, which meant that Phil was worried about future calls.

"You know, you're probably the only person in the entire organization who knows about Barton and is concerned that he is following orders."

"When you put it like that sir," Phil grins a little and shrugs, something that might look sheepish to anyone who wasn't, well, Nick. Nick wasn't going to be side tracked by the misleading air, and he leveled a look at Phil that ordered him to do what he was paid for and tell Nick his worry.

"I was under the impression that Agent Barton was against this mission. What we know of his recent working history paints a pretty detailed picture on the type of people he was willing to assassinate, and that he would agree to kill if paid enough." Nick was well aware of the fact that while Barton was definitely a killer for hire, his targets generally revolved around being the scum of the earth. It didn't make it right, but it had been one of the selling points Phil had pointed out when first bringing him to Nick's attention. "If he doesn't believe in the call," Phil continued, "he doesn't take the shot. Or he shouldn't. It concerns me that he followed the orders despite his obvious reluctance."

"Is he losing touch with reality?"

"No sir," Phil replied, quick and without doubt.

"Is he a liability in the field?"

"Not for following orders sir," Phil squinted briefly.

"Than what do you propose we do about his apparent agreement to follow our orders, because from where I'm sitting his willingness to do so, even when he's clearly not happy with it, makes him too valuable to bench."

"Benching him would be a mistake," Phil easily agreed and not for the first time Nick wished it had actually been Phil who'd brought Barton in. Like Phil had planned from the beginning. "He's not a problem sir, it's just a feeling I had."

"You know I never discount your feelings," Nick dismissed and Phil stood to leave, knowing that this conversation would have to be put on hold until there was a solid reason to be concerned. "The mission was a success, and I am enjoying this stretch of positive tidings we've been gifted with since his recruitment. Having said that, find out more about why he didn't want to terminate the terrorist today. Let's see if it was a mistake to dismiss him."

"It was a mistake sir, whether he was correct or not. At this point I'm surprised he's still with us considering how angry he is right now. We should have taken his suggestions more seriously," Phil said we but what he meant was that Warner and Sattler should have not dismissed his opinion so easily. Perhaps Nick would have Phil monitor the pair's missions a little more closely from now on. Warner might be the one that Barton demanded to work with, but he was still under their command.

Yet despite Phil's misgivings and Nick's continued interest, Barton didn't leave. It surprised a lot of people, but it also made them realize that the young assassin was really trying to make something positive out of his life. To turn over a new leaf, so to speak. Nick wasn't sure he believed that, but until he had evidence otherwise he was willing to give the benefit of the doubt. Barton was turning into exactly the valued asset he was hoped to be, and frankly having him here, even under an unskilled handler, was better than not having him at all.

Clint figured the slump he fell into after that mission was understandable. If it could rightfully be called a slump. He maintained his skills, his field expertise and sharpness, and his separatist attitude (it always came down to base survival). He just didn't go out of his way to develop his skills further. Maybe he was rebelling, but Warner didn't seem to notice. The Handler was happy with the success rate of his missions and that seemed to be enough for him. Whatever it was, Clint just didn't care.

The only good that came out of that mission, was that Fury and the other senior agents he had to deal with stopped looking at him so hard for signs of betrayal. It became pretty clear pretty fast that Clint had not wanted to make that shot, but he had, because he was loyal to SHIELD. He would follow orders like a good little soldier.

He was their little sniper that could.

Clint got the message at ten forty-two on a Thursday night. Phil Coulson delivered it to him personally, his face solemn as he approached Clint, his shoulders as square as Clint had ever witnessed. A man he had barely had more than a handful of confrontations with in the last two years, and Clint didn't need him to say a word to understand what had happened. The ice that locked his chest solid as he watched the agent approach made it difficult to breathe. He ignored this, standing instead to meet Coulson with a hard stare. He didn't give the agent a chance to open the conversation.

"How?" Clint asked, abruptly, sharply, and if Coulson was taken aback by the coldness in Clint's tone he didn't show it.

"It was a car accident," the agent spoke softly, his words carrying in the empty gym. Coulson stopped five feet from him, giving him space, but Clint didn't notice as his mind raced with the implications. "He hit a patch of black ice, failed to regain control," Clint swallowed thickly at the wording, knowing it wasn't intentional, hating it all the same. "The paramedics called it on scene an hour ago."

Clint nodded.

"We're sure it's Warner? No body double? Clones? Faked ID's?" It was a ridiculous question, Warner wasn't important enough to ever warrant that kind of deceit, despite having Clint at his beck and call and his wishes for grandeur. He just wasn't that good. Still Clint had to ask, he had to be sure. He almost wanted to laugh at the brief look of sympathy on Coulson's face, nothing more than an eye twitch but there all the same. Clint doubted the guy was aware of his tell. Most people would probably miss it.

"We're sure. His body is already here, and has already been scanned. There is no doubt that it's him." He paused for a moment, looking like he wanted to say something more, perhaps give condolences but somehow understanding that Clint didn't want them. Five debriefs and three barely-enough-words-to-be-a-conversation with this guy and he already seemed to understand Clint's needs more than Warner ever had.

This, sadly, did not shock Clint. It also didn't change the fact that Clint needed to get out of the gym, he needed time to think and to absorb this.

Warner was dead.

He was fucking dead from a fucking car accident. This had never been an endgame Clint had entertained, and he had entertained a disturbing amount of deaths for the man.

"What happens now?" He asked just as Coulson looked like he was getting ready to give his condolences anyway, wanting to break the uneasy silence that had fallen between them. Maybe he just wanted to finish delivering the bad news already so he could get back to work. Whatever he was doing at headquarters so late Clint had no idea, nor did he give a shit.

"A memorial will be held in two days, and then his ashes will be released to his family for a private funeral."

That wasn't what Clint meant, but he nodded like it was, and decided he needed to be done with this conversation five minutes ago. He moved swiftly to the bench sitting beside the nearest wall, flicking the balled up jump-rope he'd been using across the room without looking, hearing it land solidly in the box it came from. He grabbed the towel and water bottle he had brought with him, subtly keeping the agent in his sights at all times and, without another word, left the gym.

He ran into two people on his way to his 'cell.' One of them completely ignored him, the other watched him sympathetically as he passed.

Clint started shaking the moment he was in his assigned quarters. He didn't bother with the lights, leaving the space in solid darkness and moving straight into his tiny bathroom and shower stall. He cranked the water on hot, stripped, and stepped blindly under its spray. He sank to the floor after only seconds and letting the near scalding water cascade down on him.

Fuck fuck fuck.

Warner was dead. The only person who knew what he had done to Clint, the only one who could say anything about it. The only one…

Shit. He was so fucking screwed.

Clint went to the memorial because it was expected. He communicated in grunts and nods that generally chased most of the well-meaning, if misguided, people away. After five minutes he parked himself in the corner, leaned against the wall with crossed arms, and put on his fiercest 'don't you even think about coming near me' glare on his face. Nobody bothered him after that.

It didn't stop him from overhearing hushed conversations throughout the room though.

-He only came onboard because of Warner-

-were partners for almost two and a half years -

-tough to lose someone you care about, even if you're Barton-

-refused to work with another handler when Warner was available-

After fifteen minutes he silently slipped out of the hall where agency members dutifully mingled to show their respect for a man whom some of them had genuinely liked. Clint had adapted a natural aversion to being around when people were singing Warner's praise. He'd done his duty, people would simply think he was grieving and couldn't stand to be there once they noticed he was gone. They'd be partially right.

When they mounted the small replica of SHIELD's emblem on the memorial wall with Warner's name neatly stamped across the eagles chest, Clint was nowhere to be found. Warner wasn't killed in the line of duty, but he was an active agent whom had dedicated years of his life to the service and, like all active agents to pass before him, he got a spot on The Wall.

It was on the far right side, about six feet off the floor. There were four more spaces past it before it hit the edge of the allocated area and a new line of shiny black emblems with gold printed names would begin below.

That night Clint spent three hours leaning against the far wall, nearly unblinking as he stared at Warner's name across the room. The security guards that passed through every ten minutes never said a word about it, just gave him brief glances and nods of support that he ignored.

What happens now? He wondered, and tried not to let the uncertainty, the aggravation of being tethered without anyone knowing, drive him up the wall. He had always been patient though, and rolling with life's unexpected complications had been a skill he'd adapted as a child in order to survive. He could wait as long as he needed to learn his fate.

Five days after the memorial he was called to Fury's office. He went, of course he did, and wasn't all that surprised to find Coulson standing off to the side of the massive desk. It was solid, probably oak, and effectively hid the three guns Fury had strategically placed in the cavity where his legs sat from casual view. Clint wasn't supposed to know about the guns. Or the knock-out gas.

"Sir," he drawled, borderline respectful and Fury sat back in his chair and quirked his lips.

"Agent Barton," the director didn't offer him a seat, most definitely because he only had one spare chair in his office and that was tucked against the wall behind him, holding his jacket. Clearly he didn't like people to think they were welcome to stay long. Clint could get behind that one hundred percent. "Seems we find ourselves at a bit of a crossroad," he cut right to the chase, not bothering to waste time on asking how he was doing. Clint had a psyche evaluation in the disguise of mandatory 'grief counseling' session that he'd been successfully avoiding for the last three days, he was sure Fury would learn all he wanted about his mental health in the eventual report. Regardless Clint didn't respond with anything more than an acknowledging blink. Fury waited a long dramatic moment, dark eye staring hard and Clint very carefully adjusted his stance to appear a tad more relaxed without being obvious about it. It was a skill he'd mastered as a teenager.

"You remember the options provided to you the last time we had a meeting about your future with us?"

"I do," Clint answered blandly. Options were for other people, Fury just didn't realize it.

"Due to your, as yet unfailing, loyal service to our organization it is my privilege to inform you that all prior criminal charges and terrorist allegations against you have been dropped," Fury announced with little inflection and quickly followed that statement with: "I'd like to assign you a new handler."

It's not like Clint didn't know that was coming, not like he hadn't been waiting for it considering a few higher ranking agents had begun approaching him again only two days after Warner bit the dust.

A new handler.

Clint was not onboard with that idea, not at all. He opened his mouth to protest.

"Okay," he settled on instead, and felt the familiar crushing press of anger in his chest. First and foremost he was loyal to SHIELD. Warner had ensured that. His refusal was nothing but a pipe dream.

The moment of silence that followed his easy agreement was sign enough that they were waiting for more, that they expected him to be a little more resistant after the last few years of insisting on working mainly with Warner. Of course Fury was never one to be caught off guard for long, and when Clint failed to make any further demands he nodded sharply.

"You'll be assigned to Agent Coulson," he didn't bother to indicate Coulson as he remained unmoving beside his desk. His sharp steel-blue eyes were trained steadily on Clint, as they had been the entire meeting. Clint pressed his lips together in a tight grin.

"I'm thrilled for the opportunity sir." Apparently his sarcasm was easy to perceive this time.

"It might not be something you want to hear, Agent Barton, but this is a step up for your career with us. I expect good things," better things, Fury implored and Clint, never failing to be riled up by that expectant tone, straightened his back.

"Of course, sir," he did not let up on the sarcasm, but as he was agreeing Fury didn't seem to care.

"Dismissed," the man barked and Clint quickly left the room. It did not escape his notice that Coulson followed him, his footsteps deliberately louder than when he walked naturally. He didn't want to startle his new assassin. Clint made a note of the action and kept moving. When they entered the elevator and the doors slid shut Clint stabbed the number to the buildings second sublevel and waited for Coulson to select a destination of his own.

Coulson just stood there patiently, his hands folded lightly in front of him, never far from his weapon (that was one of the more important things Clint noted about this man the first time he saw him). Barton watched his reflection in the elevators mirrored walls until the door pinged open again and three people he didn't know joined them. When he stepped off the elevator on his floor he wasn't surprised when Coulson stepped out as well, moving to walk beside him as they trudged down the brightly lit corridor. When he stopped at his door, the number the only thing marking it unique from any other door in an otherwise mind-numbingly boring hallway, Coulson stopped as well.

"I'm not the type to put out on a first date," Clint drawled and leaned one shoulder casually against the doorframe, facing his handler and loosely crossing his arms, "and you're not the type I make an exception for."

"I don't subscribe to extracurricular activities while at work, Agent Barton," Coulson stood lightly on the other side of the door, "it's unprofessional."

"Is there something I can do for you, sir? Or do you make a habit of not-so-secretly stalking your specialists," Clint made no move to open his door. Coulson made no move in any direction.

"I'm here to help you relocate to your new quarters, Agent," Coulson tilted his head fractionally to the side, still watching Clint closely. Assessing. And Clint couldn't help stiffening up defensively, both at the cool look and at his words.

"I wasn't aware the Helicarrier was operational yet sir. Will we be moving there permanently?" Coulson narrowed his eyes then, suddenly not so tranquil.

"The Helicarrier is not completed yet, nor is its existence something you're supposed to be aware of," he stated dryly.

"I know things," Clint informed his new handler dismissively and, at Coulson's querying eyebrow, he flashed his teeth in a quick smile. Coulson didn't appear dazzled. He didn't look much of anything really as he steadily met Clint's gaze. "I'm confused sir, is there something wrong with these quarters?" The answer to which was yes, at least to Clint, but this unexpected shift was making him uneasy.

"I expect my specialists to be closer to main operations for expediencies sake. Unless, of course, you'd rather remain down here. I'm sure it's very nice." Clint glared at him, pressed his thumb to the key scanner on the door and with a quick twist of the knob he slipped into his domain. The door gently clicked shut behind him.

Packing took all of five minutes, and when he exited his 'cell' Coulson was still standing where Clint had left him, talking softly into his phone. He held out an expectant hand to Clint, not breaking his conversation, and Clint glanced at it in confusion. Then he realized the man was asking to be handed his bag. To help carry his things. It threw Clint, nobody had ever offered to carry shit for him before, but he covered by settling his one large duffle on his shoulder and shaking his head. Coulson dropped his arm with a frown, though whether it was at Clint's meagre belongings or something said over the phone Clint had no idea.

He followed Coulson obediently back to the elevator, and forced himself to not fidget when they stopped on the fourteenth floor. It was far from the top (there were thirty-one official floors) but it was also far from the black hole of a room he'd had on the floor with the newest live-in agents. Coulson had disconnected by this point, but he seemed keen on remaining quiet as he led Clint down the hallway. Clint followed obediently, familiar with the layout (he knew the building inside-out). He was glad Coulson's back was to him when he led him into his new quarters, so he had a brief moment to school his features into general indifference.

It wasn't a large space. He could care less about the amount of space. The late afternoon sun pouring through the window that was pretty much the far wall though? That got his attention embarrassingly quickly. There was a blue couch and cheap looking TV on a cheap looking stand facing off against each other from opposite sides of the window. On his immediate left there was a counter with a sink, three cupboards and a drawer, and one more set of cupboards on the wall above. A kettle, toaster, small microwave and official SHIELD mug sat on its surface. A mini fridge was tucked between it and the wall, a small rectangular table with two chairs were pressed against the wall just beside it, the back of one chair nearly bumping into the TV stand.

"The glass is bullet-resistant," Coulson informed him after Clint apparently stared at the window a little too hard. Clint nodded sharply, as if that had been his concern (He'd been in this building for two years, he was well aware that the glass was bullet resistant and designed so that could not be seen. Even at night with the lights on Clint would be invisible to the outside world). "Your bedroom is through there, and the other door is your bathroom," the agent nodded at the doors sitting opposite the kitchenette. Clint pushed the bedroom door open, intent on tossing his bag somewhere inside, and missed the targeted bed as he saw the giant window pouring light into that room as well. He pretended the floor was exactly where he wanted his bag to land. "Questions?"

Clint turned with a frown and looked at his new handler.

"You didn't move me here to be closer to operations," he pointed out curtly. The problem was he couldn't figure out why he was here now. What were his new handlers motives? What was Clint going to have to do to keep these quarters?

Coulson's face did a little scrunched look of displeasure before the familiar calmness returned and his eyes flashed briefly to the window, before he turned his back on Clint and headed to the door.

"Hawks aren't meant to be locked away in the basement Agent Barton. Start reading the manual on the table" Clint didn't take his eyes off his handler as he opened the door, but he could see the thick book in his peripheral, "and report to training at oh-eight-hundred." He didn't wait for a sign of agreement, already pulling his phone out once again.

Clint moved to the table and grabbed the manual. It had a red CLASSIFIED stamped across its cover (Clint was fairly positive that not a single hard copy of anything was printed within SHIELD without being shoved in a Classified folder), and was a basic introduction to aviation and, in particular, of ship schematics to something that looked like a miniature, weaponized cargo plane.

He tossed it on the couch and then dragged the entire piece of furniture to face the window, not leaving room for his legs. Below him he could see people bustling about their day at different paces. Two cabbies were arguing over a fare, a woman was scolding her child for nearly running into traffic, a pickpocket lifted a wallet and no less than three of SHIELD's plainclothes guards and two more in full black suits shifted amongst the crowd. For the first time since being indoctrinated into service with SHIELD Clint didn't feel the need to be anywhere but his assigned quarters.

He cracked open the manual and began to read, keeping half an eye on the streets below and the buildings and sky above. He didn't know why Coulson had given him this, but he wasn't going to risk being shoved back into the windowless pit in the basement because he didn't want to do as asked.

Besides, being trained to fly something? He imagined he would be able to see the whole world from on high.

When the flight training started he surprised even himself at how easily he picked it up.

Chapter Text

 

It took approximately one week after being assigned to Agent Coulson for Clint to fully wrap his head around the major differences between his new handler and Warner. The main one being that, even though Clint had not gone on a mission with him yet, Coulson was fucking competent. And he was potentially the only person in the world who could change Director Fury's mind about something with a subtle clearing of his throat. Clint wasn't relieved exactly, because competence meant he had even less chance to drop his guard, but he understood almost immediately that his chances of surviving any given Op just increased tenfold on account of direct association.

Exactly eight days into his new 'partnership' he had met up with Coulson three times for training exercises, twice to re-debrief about three different past missions that Coulson was apparently looking through with a fine-tooth comb (Clint wasn't sure what he was looking for with his almost random questions, but he was careful with his answers regardless), and Coulson had joined him once on the firing range. At Four-thirty in the morning.

It was far more hands-on that Warner had ever been, and Clint wasn't sure how he felt about it, aside from the whole 'why the fuck am I even here' he felt every morning upon waking.

He couldn't deny that having someone pay that much attention to him in that short of a time period was both unnerving and…interesting. He may have put a little more effort into making a few more fancy shots on the firing range than usual. Coulson hadn't said anything about it.

Eight days after Clint had been unceremoniously moved into his new quarters Coulson called him to his office, passed him a file, and pointed at his over-stuffed beige couch along the sidewall.

"It doesn't leave this room," Coulson ordered, and Clint was on the verge of feeling his usual instinctive bitterness at being ordered to do anything, before he noticed exactly what the file was. He didn't move to the couch.

"Why?" he asked instead.

"Because it's classified," Coulson responded dryly as he typed into his computer. It took Barton a moment to realize the agent was fucking with him, and narrowed his eyes.

"Why?" He asked again, Coulson stopped what he was doing and looked up to meet his gaze, steady and commanding and with just a hint of a smile lurking beneath.

"It's only fair. I'm sure you understand why it's not complete." Clint watched him for a long moment, trying to figure this out, before breaking eye contact and turning towards the couch.

He perched on the top of the piece of furniture, his back pressed to the empty white wall and his boots firmly on the cushions meant for his ass. Coulson went back to his typing without a word of reprimand. Barton would have wondered about it, but he suspected this was the first time anyone had even touched the generic chesterfield and Coulson generally worried more about things that actually mattered.

He flipped open the file, glancing briefly at Coulson's profile picture staring out at him before moving directly to his personal information and birthdate.

The agents file was very, very incomplete, but it was still thick enough to keep him reading the entire afternoon.

Five days later they shipped out on their first mission together. If Clint put a little more effort into it than he ever had for Warner, well, he wouldn't base it on anything like trust. But maybe there was a little respect there. Or maybe it was because Coulson had enough faith in him to divulge that his first gunshot wound had been a personal grudge from a teammate disguised as a training accident. He had been twenty-four years old.

The next time Clint was in Coulson's office, he successfully spilt an entire cup of hot chocolate all over the pale couch cushions. Clint didn't like hot chocolate. He bet himself an extra hour on the range that Coulson was aware of this personal fact.

It was a good day.

With Coulson being Clint's handler, suddenly he didn't feel so stuck, so limited. He might have still been trapped, but it was slightly less overwhelming on a day-to-day basis than it had ever been with Warner. Maybe the difference was that it was easier to forgive people for abusing their authority around Clint when they had no idea they were doing so.

Either way, within two months Clint's clearance was raised to level three, which put him a large step ahead of many agents around him. He wasn't grateful, and he wasn't relieved, but he was one step less a target for obedience, and that was something at least.

The first time Clint laughed in public, it wasn't just a short bark of amusement. It was like a dam had broken, if only for a moment, and he was nearly hunched over in his chair in the cafeteria with one hand slapping on the table. His eyes crinkled and the top row of teeth flashed as his lips pulled back in an honest to god smile. The entire cafeteria went silent at the near alien, and definitely unexpected sound. But only for a moment, as they were too well trained to be caught staring just because someone laughed.

Still.

It was too unexpected for anyone to get an image for proof, and they'd have to access internal surveillance to prove it to people who weren't there to experience the phenomenon. But Clint Barton, the man who only ever smiled to throw people off or because he was undercover and it was expected, laughed. Warmly and without compunction and, for the first time since he'd joined SHIELD people were slapped in the face with the fact that he wasn't just a stone cold assassin robot with a side of serious assholery.

Across the table from him Phil Coulson read from Time Magazine. With one hand wrapped around a chipped coffee mug, he looked completely immersed in his article. He looked like he always did. But to agents who knew him well, who had worked with him in some of the most trying cases of their careers, they could see the satisfaction rolling off him. He was pleased.

Phil Coulson, the calmest, strictest, most boring badass most of the agency had ever known, was the one who got Clint Barton to laugh.

He'd only been Clint's handler for three months.

Clint wasn't a monk, but for the first three years at SHIELD he kept any kind of sexual encounters strictly outside SHIELD walls, which made them very few and far between. He was pretty sure that SHIELD knew about most, if not all of them regardless. This had him keeping to himself more often than he would generally prefer, but it wasn't particularly difficult to live that way. Once he'd left the circus, survival had included keeping a low profile, sort of; what it amounted to was him having serious control over his libido.

When he fell into bed with Karen he hadn't been thinking clearly.

They were enjoying the high of a very successful Op, a rare night out with live music and decent dartboards, and Clint was feeling loose and relaxed. Karen approached him, and he had been more than happy to follow Coulson's second in command back to her room after all the other agents had disappeared for the night.

It had been good, great even. She was hot and ready and wanting him and who was he to say no to such an energetic, willing person?

In the heat of the moment he forgot that she outranked him, right up until she settled him on his back and ordered him to put his hands above his head and keep them there.

He curled his fingers around the top of the mattress and kept them there. When she was finished, laughing, pleased and both of them breathing hard, she swatted him on the chest and told him to stop playing around, he could bring his arms back down already.

He exited as smoothly as he could manage, her drowsy, satisfied gaze following him as he played at being charming and retreated to the safety of his own room. Once there he proceeded to climb out the window to the roof and spent the rest of the night staring at Belgium's familiar constellations while thinking about as little as possible.

He was pretty sure that that night started his 'love em and leave em' reputation within the company walls, but it was a long time before he 'went home' with someone again. When he did he made sure to stick to the junior agents or civilian staff: people that held no official power over him.

It did not escape his notice that he was never assigned a mission with Karen again, or that she had been moved to Sitwell's team shortly thereafter. He didn't question it beyond being a 'fraternization rule' and was very careful to avoid her subtle advances until she took the hint and left him alone completely.

The exact date Ria had been assigned to the New York headquarters Clint did not know. He sure as hell didn't have time to keep tabs on people he unwillingly met in training and had no intentions of keeping in contact with. He never forgot a face though, and while he hadn't known she was in New York, he wasn't surprised when she dropped into the chair across from him in the main cafeteria. She arrived with an easy grin and an extra pudding cup that she flicked in his direction. Chocolate.

"They were out of butterscotch," she shrugged, biting into her apple and Clint frowned, because he didn't like being predictable and it had been over three years since he'd last seen her. He didn't thank her, made no attempt at friendliness, and, just as he remembered, she didn't seem to care. Her thick salt and pepper hair was longer, pulled back into a braid that touched below her shoulder blades. She looked older, they were both older, and she was still gangly and moved in a way that belied her combat skills.

He didn't eat the pudding then, but he did take it with him to his afternoon meeting.

He rarely saw her, barely spoke more than a few words whenever she joined him (uninvited) at his table, and annihilated an armoured tank while it was trying to set its sights on her during their first joint mission instead of just disabling it. He didn't think anyone would have noticed the quickness of his reactions that mission.

A package of butterscotch pudding cups appeared outside his quarters the next day. He threw it out, not trusting something that could have been tampered with by any passing agent, but he appreciated the thought all the same.

Early on, when Clint was still Warner's asset, he had begun infiltrating the Research and Development department.

His first step had been to watch from the air ducts, which had just enough space for him to slide through quietly. He lay there for hours, peering out of the ventilation slats and paying attention to names, faces, specialties and ongoing projects. The best time was at night, as the techs and scientists who were the infamous night owls were either too tired to spot his presence, or too absorbed in their work to pay attention. It worked well for Clint as he was 'technically' in his bunk, sleeping.

Clint was rarely one for sleeping long stretches at a time (too many years running it solo). The nightly reconnaissance missions kept him from going stir crazy, though that was a bonus, not the reason.

After nearly a year of this silent stalking he began to approach them in person. He went prepared, carefully creating mock quiver design suggestions, asking for advice on maybe creating more than just explosive tip arrows, wondering over the armour in his field suit and if it could be improved. Warner never ordered Clint to stop, but Clint wasn't sure if that was because he didn't know what Clint was doing, or he just knew Clint wouldn't find what he was looking for.

He began taking little gifts, a box of donuts here, Star Wars PEZ dispensers there. He slowly built a strategic 'rapport' with the nerdiest of SHIELD nerds and occasionally provided pizza in the early AM as they excitedly explained their work, or what they could explain, because they were serious about confidential projects and Clint respected that. He had the air vents when he wanted to learn more.

They never turned him away, even if Andre was a grouchier motherfucker than even Clint. Hell, Shanti kept shoving books at him, anything from her version of theoretical physics for dummies to biochemistry, like he could actually be smart enough to understand what any of it meant. He glanced at some (all of them) and found a couple interesting if only for how they applied to his own field of expertise, and slowly became less lost as he sat in the corner of their lab and listened to them shout ideas and findings at each other.

When he slipped the subject of cognitive hypnotherapy into conversation, nobody thought anything of it. When he casually asked if SHIELD had ever created tech to assist in brainwashing they shook their heads and he had no reason not to believe them. He was careful, he took his time spacing the questions he really wanted answers to, and kept watch from the vents in case that tech was classified.

If Shanti, Andre and Ozzie ever thought it strange that one of the most solitary and secretive field agents in SHIELD occasionally joined them in the dead of night, they never said. He was pretty sure they weren't aware that Clint basically didn't associate with anyone outside his handler. They were the more eccentric of SHIELD, after all, and that was saying something. He was fairly sure they forgot he was even there three quarters of the time.

After a while, Clint occasionally dropped in for more than covert information gathering, but it was a long time before he admitted that to himself.

Coulson recommended a candy store that sold Classic Star Trek PEZ and told him the Star Wars diehards would love it.

Coulson was an asshole.

Clint had had a bad week. A bad few weeks actually. This meant he was more unsociable than usual, which generally meant that people pretty much lost their cool around him before he even had to speak. The tension he fostered never stopped him from saying anything. Usually encouraged him actually.

He should be smarter than this. By now he should be a goddamned mastermind at knowing when to hole up, when to stay away from people, but some lessons were hard to abide by.

The order came from aggravation. There was more to it, because Sattler had held a grudge ever since Clint had turned him down as a handler over Warner, but right now: aggravation.

"Go jump off the edge Barton! Do us all a favour," Sattler snarled.

Clint froze, his entire body a sudden knot, muscles bunching and his spine pulling too straight. His heart was hammering in his chest. His mouth was sour.

"You don't mean that sir," he managed, somehow sounding almost normal. His throat was closing up from the sudden strain. Sattler glared at him, eyes flashing angrily, and turned back to the group of men he was trying to train. Clearly he meant it.

Clint managed to resist for another five seconds or so before the compulsion took over. Efficiently he turned, trying so hard to stop himself that he was barely able to breathe. They were only about thirty feet from the tip of the Helicarrier's nose. He was at the edge before anyone even realized what he was doing. The safety rigging that hugged the ship stuck out twelve feet, and Clint had to call on his acrobatic skills to clear it. He managed his dive with only his toe clipping the thick metal frame as he curled into a flip.

He had extensive training in leaping from ridiculous heights. He'd never had the rush of wind steal the breath right out of his lungs before.

The air pushed into his eyes, making it hard to see, but he forced them open. The sky was so damn blue today it hurt. He focused on the horizon and spread his body to catch the wind; if this would be the last thing to hold him, he'd take it with no complaint. He couldn't think of many kinder things to have had wrapped around him in his life.

He wasn't expecting the mid air tackle.

It took his breath away more than the leap itself, but strong arms grabbed on and refused to let go, pushing and tugging until Clint was holding on for all his worth and nodding sharply into his rescuer's chest. When the parachute deployed the sharp jolt barely shifted his grip.

The sudden quiet was more shocking than the roaring that had been his companion on the way down.

Clint laughed. He couldn't help it. He didn't mean it. He could barely hear the sound through the strange silent-ringing in his head.

"You okay?" Sitwell. Agent fucking Sitwell. The guy Coulson had lunch with at least three times a week. The guy Coulson willingly sat next to in the cafeteria. The guy who joked about carrying a mini-tin of Noxzema in his suit pocket for an emergency scalp shine.

"Fantastic." Clint sounded breathless. He felt breathless. His instinct for 'damage control' kicked in. "Better than a triple shot of espresso," he tried a chuckle, loosening his locked leg death-grip around the guy's waist.

"Jesus, Barton," Sitwell didn't sound freaked out. He sounded nothing but calm really, but pressed this close to him Clint could feel the tension that wasn't simply from guiding the chute. Clint loosened his legs more, gripped the harness a little tighter, and quickly maneuvered so he was clinging to Sitwell's back like a damn koala, instead of his front. "Do me a favour," the man grunted as soon as Clint settled around the strings, watching as the ground drew closer, "and give me advanced warning next time so I can have someone recording Sattler's face when you follow his orders."

Sitwell was rumoured to have offered his Noxzema to Fury during his first week as a probationary agent.

"I wouldn't want to be predictable," Clint grunted, and then let go. He tumbled easily when he hit the ground, up on his feet and jogging (forcing his legs to work until they stopped feeling a little too much like jelly) to catch up to Sitwell and started gathering his chute.

Another fifty seconds of freefall and chute or no Clint wouldn't have been coming back.

They hiked to the edge of the field and waited in the shade of a poplar in silence until the unmarked SHIELD vehicle appeared in the distance. Clint slouched against the fence post, unconcerned, but he looked to Sitwell, wondering how to thank him for the save without making it sound too grateful. Without making it sound like he hadn't expected it.

"You can thank me by not doing that again," the man cut him off before he got a chance. He sounded unconcerned, sounded bored, and climbed into the back of the car without a glance at Clint.

Clint nodded. There was a reason Coulson was keeping Sitwell close. Decent protégés were hard to come by.

The jump damaged Clint's credibility, but it helped secure his reputation as a crazy asshole and keep a metaphorical distance from the people around him.

"Why'd you do it?" Psych asked while Coulson and Fury and who knew else camped behind the two-way mirror, watching. Clint wasn't supposed to know they were there. They were well aware that he was on to them.

"I was just following orders, Ma'am," he drawled, and smirked.

"It was clear to everyone around that Agent Sattler had no real expectation for you to follow that order."

"Then he shouldn't have made it in the first place," Clint barked, and the Doctor blinked and waited for Clint to elaborate. He didn't.

"It was fortunate that Agent Sitwell was assisting in that morning's parajumping course, and that he had the foresight to gear up early."

"You trying to ask me if I knew that he was ready to leap after me?" he let a slight mocking tone slip in, quirking his lips. "Trying to figure out if this was some kind of suicide attempt? A grab for attention?"

"We both know that attention was one of your goals," she allowed blandly. Clint eyed her with irritation, and let the feeling build until it would be the only emotion visible.

"I do like the spotlight," he agreed easily but with a snap, before he sighed and rolled his eyes. "But to answer your not-question: Yes, I was aware Sitwell was there. I trusted that if anyone could get to me it would be him. I'm not trying to clock out of SHIELD early- it would be rude to waste all the coin that went into my training."

Clint hadn't known Sitwell was there; he'd been too focused on everyone else and Sitwell had an uncanny ability to disappear in a crowd. But implying that he trusted Sitwell to save him? That would probably make them happy enough. They'd call it progress, and then caution him on when it was more appropriate test this new trust in those around him.

Clint was cleared for missions the next morning.

If Clint kept a closer, more direct eye on Sitwell in the future, well, no one had to know the true extent of how fucking grateful he was that the guy existed. It just became more apparent around base that people simply did not mess with Sitwell, just like they didn't mess with Ria. Or Coulson.

He was okay with that.

One and a half years into his partnership with Barton, Phil lost him.

They had been on an op in Yokohama, there at the request of Naichō. When the Japanese equivalent of the CIA had asked for a favour SHIELD took it for the opportunity it was, always ready for allies (or chances to learn secrets about potential future threats). The agents they were working alongside were unfailingly polite (even by Phil's standards), but the agent in charge of this particular group hadn't wanted SHIELD's help, and he was a master of passive aggressiveness to such a level that Phil could not actually call him on it. Phil responded by being doubly polite and letting it roll off his back. Barton had responded by deciding that he was going to learn Japanese via anime, and then repeat what he learned over the comms every chance he got.

Which was why, after seven minutes of comm silence, Phil began to get worried. Apparently he wasn't the only one, as two of the Naichō techs in charge of the monitors kept checking that the radio links were not, in fact, damaged.

After ten minutes (hardly a timeframe that he should be even remotely concerned about as Barton was supposed to be maintaining silence) he reached out to him.

Barton didn't answer.

"Hawkeye, do you copy?" He tried again, just to be safe, and was met with silence. The techs were already picking up their pace, locking onto Barton's homing beacon before Phil needed to ask.

Two minutes later he was stepping out into Yokohama's busy late night streets, not bothering to wait for his Japanese counterpart's approval or direction. He'd spent the evening before shipping out here with Barton going over maps and surveillance, he knew this area as well as he needed to.

When he reached Barton's nest, his bow was lying untouched on the ground, his quiver and arrows tossed to the side, his cellphone and mike crushed into the roofs floor, and a tiny dart with its tip stained red lay ominously on the ground.

He took in the scene, pulled out his cellphone, and contacted SHIELD.

"Barton's been compromised," he stated plainly as soon as Hill answered, and silently thanked Fury for finding such a capable agent when she didn't immediately interrupt him. "He was taken from his perch, no sign of struggle, most likely he was subdued chemically. Last confirmed contact was sixteen minutes ago."

"There's only a handful of people who knew where he was," Hill pointed out, her tone sharp and he pulled a handkerchief from his inner pocket and carefully wrapped the dart in it, tucking it safely away.

"Yes," Phil agreed, making sure all the arrows were in the quiver and looping his arm through the bow so it rested across his back. She knew as well as he did that it must have been an inside source that leaked his marksman's position; that had Barton snatched out right from under his watch. He was already moving back to the tall buildings stairwell when one of the Japanese techs slipped out the door to join him.

He didn't pull his weapon, not yet, but the man seemed to take everything in at a glance and his face fell. He seemed honestly upset, but Phil couldn't believe in the man's innocence yet so he moved past him to the stairs without a word.

"Do you have anyone specific in mind?" Hill asked into his ear, and he schooled his tone as blank as his face to answer.

"I have a suspicion. Keep a direct line open, I'll keep you informed." He knew she would be scrambling a task force to join him. They'd be there in one hour if he asked.

Nobody knew where Clint had been taken. Phil matched the dart to a highly secretive extremist group that had nothing to do with his and Barton's presence in Japan. As the thing was handmade and the sedative used was not available through any market, this took some time.

Two and a half days to find Barton was too much time as far as Phil was concerned.

In those two days Phil exposed three corrupt government officials, two of Naichō's higher ranking authorities, and several lower ranking agents, all of whom were getting rich by selling their governments secrets to both rival agencies and gangs.

He contained his fury at the stonewalling, and using Hill's distant resources he systematically stripped them bare and ripped them apart. They didn't know where Clint had been taken, or Phil was sure he would have found his man after the first day. When the connections finally slotted together it was a scramble for SHIELD's task forced to keep up with him as he headed to the target site.

There were no guards outside the warehouse. A mini EMP took care of all electronic surveillance and defense systems around the block. Phil was in his field suit, and he went in first, because he'd be damned if he left this task to someone else.

Reports speculated that Barton would have given up the information the terrorists wanted after the first day of torture. He should already be dead. Phil would be the first to determine the level of his failure to keep Barton safe, not a strike team leader who had been a continent away at the time of his abduction.

It turned out there was very little to do as point man anyway. Only two heavily armed men got between him and his target and a simple, quiet, bullet to the brainpan took care of them. They hadn't looked like they'd been expecting trouble.

When he found Barton, words failed to describe what he and his team walked in on.

Phil's first warning that he was in the right place was the top of a man's head poking through the only open door. Phil noted the dark hair and the top of the forehead, and then the thick pool of blood that spread on the floor around him. It was glistening, but no longer growing, which meant it had happened fairly recently, but not within the last ten minutes.

He stopped the strike team from bypassing him into the room with a raised hand, and they waited as he flipped open his tactical search mirror and carefully angled it around the doors edge. There was no sound from within the room, but there was another body on the floor, beside a table that held a person. There were no other beings within the room. He folded the mirror away, looked down at the very dead man on the floor, and took a breath.

"Hawkeye, this is Agent Coulson. You can stand down," he announced their presence and waited. He waited a full twenty seconds, the five men behind him shifting silently, prepared to move.

"No." Phil did not let even a hint of the effect hearing that stubborn response triggered within him. Barton sounded like it had taken him the twenty seconds to be able to form the word, let alone spit it out.

"Barton," Phil swiftly changed tactics. "It's a nice day for a walk in the park," it sounded ridiculous, but it served its purpose when Barton, after another painfully long pause, responded.

"Only- only if you like the rain." Barton had not been impressed when Phil had taught him the code, but it was worth every sarcastic moment and Phil didn't hesitate another second. He was in the room as soon as his archer finished speaking, knowing he was in the clear. He stepped over both bodies, uncaring of the bloody footprints he left behind, and moved right into Barton's line of sight.

Jesus.

Jesus, there was so much…of everything. He kept his face clear of emotions through sheer force of will as he took in his man, naked on a table, bruised and filthy and cut. Blood was smeared over his chest, pooling in the hollow of his throat , where even his neck had been pinned down by the wire that was holding his entire body immobile. The bruises were thick, the swelling clear, it was a wonder Clint got words out at all. He had dried blood streaking down from his lips, and his eyes were at half-mast but still focused unerringly on Phil as soon as he was in sight.

"Quit laying around on the job, Barton," he spoke softly, ignoring the sharp intake of breath from one of the soldiers entering the room.

"Scene's clear" another reported and he acknowledged it with a brief nod. They would split up now to hold their position, two in the hallway, one at the door and two more still in the room, covering them from potential threat. Phil trusted them enough to not worry about covering his back, he had more important things to attend to.

"Didn't-" Barton's throat worked, his adam's apple bobbing and he rolled his head back and forth a moment. Phil had noticed the track marks on his mostly undamaged arms; he had no idea what drugs Barton was on right now. "Didn't think you'd come- not 'nother 'lucination." Phil wished he hadn't killed the guards outside so smoothly. He needed something to expend his white hot rage on.

"If I'm not dead or compromised I will always come, Barton," he reassured, no room for doubt in his voice. "Wire cutters," he demanded sharply and wasn't disappointed when, a moment later, they were slapped into his waiting palm. "I'm going to cut you loose now, try to stay still for a little bit longer." He wasn't expecting the huff of laughter at that, or the archer closing his eyes in pain and turning his head away.

He thought he heard the man mutter something along the lines of 'Sure you are,' but when he asked what he meant Barton started coughing, hacking to clear his throat of the blood that had no doubt congealed from the molars that had been ripped out.

He was expecting Clint to move as soon as the restraints were all cut away, he just wasn't expecting him to be so fast. Lurching off the table Clint grunted as he fell to his hands and knees. Phil reached out to help him but Clint was on his feet, shoving violently at Phil until his back slammed into the nearby wall. An arm snaking across his throat. Clint was too weak to even hold Phil in place at that point, but he tried, blood on his teeth as he snarled. Phil immediately held a hand out in warning at the two soldiers that were approaching to help. They stopped their advance, looking wary. He ignored them in favour of holding all his attention on the wild man before him. He noted his heaving chest; the rattle to each breath; the blood shot eyes and pupils that were blown wide.

"It's okay, Barton, you're not on that table anymore. I'm here to take you home."

Barton choked, his shaking becoming more prominent.

"I didn't tell them shit, Coulson. Not a damn thing," he hissed, and Phil caught him as his legs gave out, sinking to the ground with him and controlling the fall. Barton twisted as they moved, but didn't pull away, and ended up curling in on himself, braced on Phil's chest. Phil held on, not too tightly for fear of injuring him further, and noted the paleness of his skin beneath the blood and bruises and grime.

"I know," he answered, because, for the first time in his memory, it felt like Clint was looking for confirmation that he'd done well. Jesus. "I've got you, just try to stay awake for the medics Barton, please."

"Think you- can call me Clint, seeing as I'm- naked and-" he inhaled shakily, "sitting in your lap."

"Worst lap dance ever," Phil decided and Clint snorted a laugh, sounding slightly hysterical and making no move to pull away.

"Fuck me," one of the soldiers suddenly grunted softly, clearly not intending to be overheard. Phil looked up sharply to see the man staring at Clint, his expression unclear. When he caught Phil's glare he explained, nodding down to the body he was examining. "Best I can tell the guy died from a severed jugular bleed," he pointed at the neck, where it was clear the massive blood loss had come from, one hand still resting limply where it had clutched, desperate to stop the bleeding. "It looks like a fingernail imbedded in there."

"Well," Phil glanced down at Clint's right hand where it was splayed, and sure enough three of the nails on his hand were missing. Clint had torn out his fingernails and turned them into projectile weapons. "That's a new one for the books."

"Had it coming," Clint snarled, and then broke off into a rasping, weak cough that shook his entire frame. Phil wanted to give him his jacket, but moving at this point would probably cause more harm than good.

Clint didn't fight the medics when they came. He let them wrap the worst of the bleeds, bundled him in several blankets and sat him partially upright. He passed out halfway through the transfer.

The soldiers were quiet as he was wheeled out, a helicopter sitting outside just waiting to take him to the Helicarrier. Phil took one last moment to look at the table where SHIELD's investigators were moving in with cameras, to the bodies on the floor, to the bloody handprints pressed into the linoleum tile, a matching one on his own shirt.

He felt ill.

He maintained his calm, followed Clint to the helicopter and sat next to him the entire trip, making sure the man knew he was there every time he drifted into consciousness.

Clint wasn't released from the medical wing for eight days, and after that it was two weeks bed rest until he was cleared for paperwork.

Phil got rid of the abysmal beige (chocolate stained) couch in his office, replacing it with the most comfortable and durable dark suede monstrosity he could find. Its seat cushions were wide, its back cushions were soft, and it was long enough for a tall man to stretch out on. It was completely impractical and took up far too much space. He was expecting the summons to Fury's office the day it had arrived, and Phil stood with loose shoulders and defaulted to his moderately pleasant façade with little effort.

"Agent Coulson," Fury didn't exactly look mad, but that could always change. Phil wasn't worried. "Would you care to explain why, exactly, the delivery of a couch to the Helicarrier was classified as a top priority? It's not every day we get a chesterfield shipped alongside our Semtex and C4."

"You already know why, sir." Phil wasn't really in the mood to play today, he still had a filing cabinet to reorganize in order to fit the couch into his limited office space. Fury narrowed his eye at him, stared a moment, and then lifted his brow in demand of further explanation. Phil managed not to sigh.

"Sir, Barton is not going to rest in his assigned quarters. As his handler it's my duty to make sure he recovers to full physical capability."

"On a couch, in your office," Fury was skeptical.

"Sir. He was interrogated by hostile forces for over two days. He killed two men while he was strapped to a table by turning his fingernails, which he'd ripped out of his own hand, into projectile weapons. He didn't think we were going to come for him." Phil didn't think it was necessary to point out that Barton had killed his captors believing that he'd never get off that table. "Yes, he will be recuperating on a couch in my office, where I can keep an eye on him and he can relax enough to actually get some rest." He tilted his head questioningly to the side. "Unless you'd rather I requested leave to assist with his recovery on my own time, sir."

"Shut up Coulson, you're not going on leave for this," Fury smirked and leaned back in his chair. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but you've never nursed other assets back to health like this."

Phil didn't correct him, he remained silent and watched Fury blandly. Fury pursed his lips.

"Try not to get too attached, Phil," he warned in dismissal, and that was Nick speaking, not the Director. Phil nodded silently because there wasn't really anything to say to that. He was already attached, and they both knew it. Thing was, he was pretty sure Nick was also warming to Clint more and more everyday. Lord help them both if the archer ever figured this out.

There were a lot of blank places in Clint's file. It was difficult to get a complete and competent history of an orphaned boy who went off the grid when he was eleven years old. There were hospital records that were suspected of belonging to him, some of the signs of healed injury on his body matching the descriptions despite the name on the records being falsified. It was no surprise to Clint that, despite the sheer thoroughness of SHIELD that there were a lot of things they couldn't dig up about him. It was hard to trace the history of someone who had decided to become a ghost.

Therefore it didn't surprise him to learn that they had no idea about his connection to Natalia Romanova, known to them as Natasha Romanov. Maybe it should have surprised him. Maybe he should be concerned with their weak Intel, but he was more versed than most in the fact that SHIELD wasn't perfect, and just then he couldn't bring himself to care. Not when he was staring down the barrel of his sniper scope, easily picking her out of the crowd despite her distinctive red hair being covered by a scarf. She looked like any other local in the area. Like she belonged exactly where she was. She had always been good at being exactly what she needed to be, to get what she wanted.

He swallowed thickly and watched her easy movements through the crowd. She had no idea he was there. Somehow he had imagined that if he ever came upon her in the flesh again, she would somehow know he was there.

They had needed to move fast. Coulson had him strapped into the plane and they were taking off only minutes after he'd been told they had an urgent mission. When Coulson had handed him her file on their flight over, he hadn't said a word as he'd opened it up to a grainy yet recognizable photo of her. He didn't even let his eye twitch at the shock, not giving a single hint away that he knew Natalia. They were being sent to kill her on sketchy Intel that Coulson had chosen to investigate on the offhand chance that they might create the opportunity to find her.

Clint didn't think they actually had a chance in hell of finding her once they landed. She was too good, too careful, too conniving. She would never be caught.

Looking at her through the scope, he saw her. He saw her. For a moment he couldn't breathe, couldn't think beyond the rush of pain-humiliation-triumph-relief-betrayal-regret. He got his breath back when Coulson's familiar voice cut through the near overwhelming emotions, asking for his attention.

"Sir," he responded, not letting even a glimmer of his near shattering unease into his voice. Through his scope she sat at a table in an open-air café. Exposed, sloppy. Unconcerned.

"Do you have the shot?" Coulson asked, though it was clear in his tone that he already expected Clint did. Clint's chest felt like it had been frozen solid, his limbs felt hot. He couldn't take his eyes off Natalia; he felt like his world was imploding around him, because he knew what was coming. He knew what they were here for, and she was just sitting there, waiting.

"Affirmative sir, I have the solution," his voice did not betray him, his finger caressed the trigger. He was perched on the steeple of a church, and he wondered, distantly, if maybe it would be better if he just slipped. If he fell then none of this would be happening anymore. It was only a distant thought, barely registered, but the fact that it had even cropped up shook him to the core, because that wasn't him. But he had Natalia in his crosshairs this time, and maybe he had wondered what this would be like a few times in the past, but he had never actually wanted it. Not really. That had just been the hurt getting the better of his emotions. He'd been young.

"You have a green light, make the shot."

Clint's finger caressed the trigger. He took a steadying breath, it tasted like blood. There was no hurry here, not yet. She was in no hurry to move, and Coulson's words had been soft enough to not require immediate compliance.

"Sir," he hesitated. "We don't have to do this." The words felt like ground glass, because he knew how this was going to end, but he still had to try. He wasn't ready for this order. This was one order he would never be ready for. There was a pointed pause on the other end of his radio; no doubt Coulson's lightening fast mind was re-evaluating, trying to form reasons for Clint's formal protest. It had been years since Clint had formally protested a hit. He'd never seen the point after the first time, and with Coulson he'd never needed to.

"Explain, Hawkeye," Coulson, as usual, didn't let even a fraction of what he was thinking through in his voice, but he was sharper than usual.

"Sir, I do not believe termination of the target to be the best course of action at this time," he watched as she took a drink of coffee. It would be black, and strong, because he had never seen her drink it any other way.

"I need elaboration, Hawkeye," Coulson ordered, and for a moment Clint didn't actually register the words, his finger curling slightly on the trigger, anticipating the final order. He would watch this one, he owed her that much. When he realized that Coulson was actually giving him a chance to explain, he blanked. Despite everything they'd been through over the last two years, he hadn't truly expected his handler to listen.

He knew why they wanted her dead.

Now that he was faced with the option, he didn't know what to say. There was no way to explain what she meant to him, what he knew of her. How she'd found him after his second, sloppy (oh god he'd been so sloppy then) assassination and charmed him into becoming her 'protégé.' She'd shown him the ropes, and then shown him the world. She'd honed his skills, taught him how to learn to be more, be better, be the best. She'd made him fall in love with her, and shattered his heart into a million pieces. She had been his salvation after Barney, and had betrayed him almost as ruthlessly, leaving him for dead. Leaving him.

It had taken years to come to understand that it wasn't personal, that it was just who she was, who she had been made into. She was just as broken as him, and he had been so young, and angry, but he knew he would always love her on some level. She was just as broken, and now she was sitting alone at a glass patio table, drinking coffee, completely exposed.

"We have history, sir." It was a joke- history didn't even begin to cover it, but there was no humour in his tone. "Let me talk to her. I can bring her in." Trust me he silently asked, knowing instinctively that Coulson understood, just like Warner had all those years ago, right before he'd ordered Clint to make the kill. It wasn't the same though, because Coulson didn't know that Clint would pull the trigger if ordered, even if it just might be the thing that finally broke him.

"Okay," Coulson agreed after another moment of silence. Clint didn't even twitch, his rifle still trained on Natalia, she wasn't close to finishing her coffee. "Permission to approach the target is granted, Hawkeye." If Coulson was concerned at all about the level of trust he was putting in Clint right then, he wasn't showing it. It still took long seconds before Clint carefully lowered his weapon, trying to adjust to this sudden alteration in his life. Coulson had listened to him. He had decided to grant Clint's request instead of taking out one of the world's most deadly assassins. He was putting his entire career in jeopardy over this, and more importantly he was putting lives in jeopardy, because Clint had asked him.

Bringing Natasha (not Natalia, not anymore) into SHIELD changed things, drastically. It wasn't easy, it couldn't be, not for them or between them, but it was worth it. Worth it all. He would feel guilty about pulling her into an organization that he was not a part of by choice, but she wasn't dead, and that was a huge step in the right direction as far as he was concerned. Natasha changed things, but more than that, Phil had changed things, because Clint had asked and he had listened. This was more than coming to rescue him when he'd been compromised. Trust was a two way street, and for the first time since he'd stepped into SHIELD, he allowed himself to believe that maybe he wasn't as alone as he thought. Not anymore.

At least not until the inevitable betrayal. It always came from those closest to him. Until then, Clint was relieved to finally, finally, trust in return.

Chapter Text

 

Ozzie had a stroke in the cafeteria on a Saturday morning while Clint was away on mission. He missed the funeral. By the time he made it back to New York Andre had retired and moved back to the Netherlands and Shanti had joined a specialized project and shipped off site.

Ozzie had been cremated, his sister taking his ashes to spread in a meadow by the family farm. Clint had never felt the need to visit a grave before and he wasn't particularly sure he would have now; having no burial site to visit removed the option of finding out. Instead he slipped into the long familiar ventilation shafts and left a ninja turtle PEZ at the grate he had spent so many hours spying through.

He told himself firmly that he wouldn't miss it, wouldn't miss them, and moved on.

"You know," Clint started tiredly, words slightly slurred though whether from the split lip or the light dose of painkillers he had finally agreed to (after Natasha had offered a sleeper hold to put him out of his misery), was anyone's guess. Phil glanced up briefly to see that the archer's eyes were closed and his head was tilted back, before deftly gripping another cactus spine with his tweezers and plucking it from the mans arm.

Clint had stopped complaining about the pain a while ago, though Phil was eighty-five percent sure he had only been whining in the first place to get a rise out of him. He waited a moment, and Clint didn't continue his train of thought. Phil frowned, because apparently Natasha had given Clint stronger painkillers than the man had asked for. Dropping a few more of the thin, white needles into the bowl, Phil could honestly say that he had no problems sitting here for the last hour, diligently pulling every tiny needle out of Clint's body. It was one hell of a better alternative than scraping him off the bottom of the cliff Phil had thought the man had fallen off earlier in the evening. It had been a very difficult eight seconds.

Phil set aside the tweezers and picked up the cloth he had soaking in water beside him, carefully pressing it to red speckled skin and gently wiping away the small trickles and dots of blood. He sensed, more than saw, Clint's awareness jerk back to him and he dropped the cloth back in the water and resumed working with the tweezers.

"You know," Clint began again, just as slurred, no longer bothering to try and hide how tired he was considering he'd already clocked out for a few moments. "If it had been you in Wales, instead of Warner," he paused his throat working a moment, and Phil very carefully didn't pause in his actions, lest he distract Clint. "If it had been you," Clint started again, "I think I would have agreed to join SHIELD, I would have said yes." This is not what Phil would have thought Clint would confess to him while stoned, but he wasn't an idiot, and he understood that Clint telling him this was a big deal. A very big deal. It was kind of a punch to the gut, and it made Phil feel lighter. He had never wanted verbal confirmation that Clint was glad to work alongside him, never really needed it, but it was important, and the fact that Clint wasn't all here right now didn't diminish that one bit.

"Thank you," he said softly, and plucked another spine from Clint's arm. Clint didn't respond, but he didn't drift away again, and fifteen minutes later Phil was wiping away the last of the blood and pouring the needles into a bag (somebody was going to have to count how many there were for the medical report, but it sure as hell wasn't going to be him). He steadied Clint as he stood, gently eased him to the motel room bed and watched fondly as the man was asleep in seconds.

Phil quietly moved outside, leaned against the door and pretended to smoke a cigarette while gazing out at the cars in the lot. Nothing suspicious there. He didn't hear Natasha approach, fairly certain she just appeared from thin air, and he carefully didn't look at her as she pulled the cigarette from his fingers and took a puff herself. He didn't know if she inhaled.

"You overdid it on the pain meds," he said, softly enough that no potential eavesdroppers could hear.

"No," she denied just as softly, "he hurt his side when he crashed into the cliff face, he needed to rest." It had been a difficult mission, none of them had slept, but Clint least of all as they'd needed his eyes. Phil wanted to tell her it was a breach of trust to give Clint more than he asked. He wanted to tell her not to do it again. He didn't say these things though, because Clint had taken the pills willingly enough (the doctors at HQ would never believe it), which meant he had most likely known what she was doing.

She looked at him speculatively, bathed in pale lamplight from the parking lot, still wearing her field uniform but with a jean jacket pulled overtop to disguise it. He wondered if she could read his mind sometimes, the way her lips quirked knowingly as she handed the cigarette back, keeping a friendly space between them.

"You know we only do this when you're here," she broke the easy silence, and he couldn't help that his right eye twitched in response, because no, he hadn't known that. She rolled her eyes at him, amused, and maybe slightly disbelieving. "He trusts you," she stated simply, and he heard the underlying truth in it. If it were just Natasha and Clint in the field and one were injured they wouldn't risk medication that could hinder their movements, not when they needed to protect each other. Having Phil with them meant there were still two fully functioning fighters covering their back. He wondered how he'd never picked up on it before, because lord knows Sitwell had complained to him often enough that they never relaxed around him during missions. They just pretended to.

He also heard her underlying message: if Barton trusts you, then I trust you.

It only took three years to get to this point. That was faster than he had hoped. Phil smiled and nodded, passed her the smoldering cigarette and went back inside their rented room. Clint was still completely out, sprawled and dead to the world in a way that Phil realized he only ever witnessed in moments like this, where they were away from SHIELD and the three of them were together. No doubt the medication helped.

Grabbing a bottle of water to try and remove the thick, smoky taste from his mouth, Phil quietly dragged the single chair in the room to sit by the bed. He carefully laid one of his guns on the bedside table, within easy reach, and sat down to wait for dawn.

The amount of security was not overkill, and not a single being in the room protested it, not even Thor. Perhaps especially not Thor, whose face was as impassive as they had ever seen and his eyes were glacier cold as he silently watched his brother through a pane of five-inch thick super-glass. Apparently when SHIELD builds containment units for Hulk, they also build spares. Tony had snorted at this, because clearly if the Hulk managed to break out of the first one than the second one wasn't likely to work much better. Phil had made the same point when they had been in the building stage, but making the point hadn't meant he didn't want the back up cage. One never knew what they might need it for.

Case in point, he thought, as he carefully walked down the ramp towards Loki. He stopped at the control panel, the guard who was stationed to monitor it constantly moved to the side so Phil could see it easier, and he nodded in satisfaction as all readings told him containment was still secure. He made a point to completely ignore Loki as he moved closer to the circular prison, but he could feel the gods gaze on him the entire way.

"Thor," he greeted softly and the cold blue eyes softened slightly as they turned to take Phil in.

"Son of Coul," he dipped his head in greeting but made no more comment as he turned back to stare coolly at Loki once more. If Loki was bothered by his brother's anger he showed no sign of it from where he sat cross-legged on the floor with his arms resting lightly on his knees, still watching Phil. Phil looked to where Captain Rogers and Stark leaned against the railings, Rogers with his arms crossed, Tony tapping away on his tablet. Phil couldn't deny the giddy little flutter in his admittedly damaged chest when the Captain nodded respectfully at him, his keen eyes giving Phil a once over as though double-checking that he was alright. Phil knew for a fact that the supersoldier was well aware of his physical condition, he'd spent his fair share of time this last five days at his hospital bedside.

Stark ignored him completely. This was appreciated.

Banner lounged by the doorway, having stopped there after escorting Phil to that point. Natasha would be there in a moment, and Clint…Clint was tucked in the rooms crossbeams above them all, where he'd pretty much been perched every moment that he wasn't being evaluated by medical or acting as Phil's secret second shadow.

"Are we ready to get the ball rolling here or what? I've got things to do that don't involve escorting a psychotic Norse legend to his Daddy for a good spanking." Of course it was Stark that broke the stillness of the room, tapping away at his screen and apparently at complete ease with the world. Phil could see the tension in his faintly jerky movement and wondered if the others had learned that tell yet.

"We're just about ready Mr. Stark," Phil agreed fluidly and, finally, looked forward to acknowledge their prisoner. His prisoner. The man who had broken his heart: literally. It had only been days since it happened, and it was both a miracle and the life saving abilities of a healing mutant that had brought him back. He should be dead. He kept wanting to check over his shoulder for a threat, he was well aware that he was existing in a current state of functioning shock and disassociation. He would deal with it when he had the time. "Once Agent Romanov arrives Thor can escort his brother home, hopefully," he pulled his lips tight in a facsimile of a smile, "for good."

"You wound me, Phil," Loki practically purred from his position on the floor, eyes flashing brightly as he smiled. "I had hoped we were beginning to get along, seeing as I know so much about you. Tell me, how is your sister? I understand the Hawaiian climate is doing wonders for her health."

"She's doing well, thank you," Phil answered politely, even as he heard the nearly silent thump of Clint landing not far behind him. He resisted flinching away, he knew the only reason he didn't was because it was Clint. He flicked his fingers, silently ordering the archer not to say or do anything, though he could practically feel the rage coming off of him in waves. Loki's eyes lit in satisfaction as he looked over Phil's shoulder.

"I see the bird has finally come down from his perch," he sneered, "perhaps to sing a few more songs. He has so many interesting stories to tell."

"Cease your foul words, Loki, lest we be forced to muzzle you for the duration of your stay on Midgard, as short as it is." Thor thundered, loud enough to startle one of the guards standing along the back of the room.

"Oh, but I'm sure I have things of interest to impart, dear brother. What do you say, Phil? Care for one last debrief before you see me off?"

"That won't be necessary, I have all the information I need."

"Do you?" Loki snorted derisively and tilted his head slightly. "Ohhhh, I highly doubt that. The things I know," he mock shivered, taking a deep breath and exhaling on a predatory grin. "The secrets I've been privy to," he shook his head, and snapped his whole body straighter, eyes narrowing at Phil contemplatively. "I'm not so different from yourselves, you know. I hardly think it's fair that you judge me for my methods when this place is ripe with similar followings. Similar failings, as you would no doubt believe." Phil tensed at the comparison, an uneasy tingling starting at the base of his neck at the words. Of course Loki noticed, his smile turning sharper, his pleasure clear. "The unquestioning obedience of those around us, is it not a comfort, is it not a right to be given such loyalty?" His gaze flickered briefly over Phil's shoulder, to Clint.

Phil kept his face bland with difficulty, the hot rage at the smugness in the gods eyes as he reminded them all that it wasn't so long ago he had commanded Barton, Clint, to his every whim. That it could have been any of them. That it hadn't been.

"Loyalty is earned," Rogers spoke, conviction clear in his words and Loki's gaze shifted to the Captain briefly before once again resting on Phil.

"Oh, I'm sure it can be," he dismissed, his eyes burned with superiority even as he sat on the floor of a cell he could not break free of without aid. "Though one can never trust devotion that is simply earned can they? Even the ones charged with loving you most turn on you every day."

"Enough with your spiteful words, brother," Thor warned again, unable to hide the grief in his powerful order. "Say what you mean to plainly, for we grow short of time and patience."

"Oh, you would like that wouldn't you?" Loki sneered, keeping his eyes on Phil, amusement mingling with satisfaction on his face. It only fell away when Natasha chose that moment to enter the room, indicating that it was time to take Loki back to Asgard.

Loki did not say anything after that, his eyes dancing angrily as Thor snapped the threatened muzzle into place for transport.

His words lingered though, staying with Phil like a bad taste on the back of his tongue as he silently watched their departure. He retreated back to medical to rest, because surviving and healing quickly did not mean he was technically allowed out of the hospital yet. Or that he was fully healed. His entire body was shaking with weakness and fatigue by the time he slipped back into his assigned room and all but collapsed on his bed.

He was missing something here, he was sure, because Loki loved getting his digs in, but it was clear he only ever said things with some form of underlying message. It was in his nature to lord his superiority.

You would like that wouldn't you. Who was Loki addressing? Or were his words simply a blanket statement meant to aggravate all?

Oh, you would like that wouldn't you.

Phil would never admit that the words stuck like thorn in his paw. Like an insult; like bragging and warning in one. He would figure it out eventually, until then he would pick away at it when he could. There wasn't anything else he could do.

SHIELD protocol doesn't give them an option when it comes to seeing psychiatrists once the world has been saved. Theoretically. After the debriefs have taken place and medical has looked them over and sleep has either happened or been attempted, they are all ordered to speak to the shrinks.

Clint wasn't surprised when Tony had outright laughed at being ordered to talk to a SHIELD psychiatrist about his feelings. Clint sat at the conference table and watched the billionaire wave a hand loosely as he walked away, still chuckling at the very thought. Once Tony had successfully said no, Banner and Rogers had no problems following suit and Thor, well, the offer hadn't really been intended for him anyway. Plus, Thor apparently didn't have too much of an issue sharing how he felt, so long as you asked him at the right moment and were one of the few people he trusted. Which was apparently anyone on 'the team.'

This left Clint and Natasha, who were SHIELD agents and followed orders. Of course he followed SHIELD's orders.

Clint hadn't been able to stifle his snort of laughter when the well-meaning doctor conferred with him that it could be daunting to have the power of choice so ruthlessly taken away. That it wasn't his fault. That the death of hundreds, maybe thousands, of people and the sheer magnitude of destruction wasn't his fault.

"Yeah Doc," he let his bitterness show, briefly, before tucking it back behind the need to hide, mislead, misdirect. "I'm well aware that being mind-raped and fucked over by Loki wasn't my fault." If the Doc was startled by his frankness he didn't show it. The general deduction from that first visit was that Clint was dealing with the repercussions of his trauma ruthlessly well. They expected this response to a certain extent as Clint was well known for adapting, for rolling with the punches, but he was also aware that they knew he didn't always roll as well as he wished. By the third meeting it was clear that he was done pretending to discuss his issues with them and he smiled sharply as they cleared him for a full return to field duty. He was a professional and they expected him to know his limitations. At least they did when they needed him back in the field.

He snuck a look at his file weeks later, ignoring Phil's resigned sigh when the man walked into his office to spot Clint blatantly reading it on his couch. The docs had a long list of things they thought Clint was lying and/or avoiding talking about, including his apparent ease at accepting that he wasn't to blame for actions taken when he'd turned darkside. They were right about a number of things, but that number was rather low compared to the list of things that they were off base with.

Clint hadn't lied about understanding that it wasn't his fault though. He'd had years to come to grips with that concept after all, nearly a lifetime. If he took blame for things that were out of his control he would have turned into a basket case a long time ago. He simply couldn't afford the guilt if he wanted to survive, and he was a survivor. That didn't mean he couldn't blame himself for being caught in the first place. He should have been faster, smarter, should have been able to avoid Loki's five-foot spear. If he'd been better, been stronger, than he wouldn't need to ignore the guilt he should probably feel for all the death and destruction.

If he'd been better he wouldn't have lost himself. Again. You'd think with all his experience he would have more control over himself by now.

He watched Phil take his seat behind his desk, his movements still jerky from healing, just a little bit stiff from the lingering stages of recovery, and couldn't help the raging bitterness that sometimes felt like it was trying to choke him. He left the office without a word, feeling Phil's gaze on his back. He knew Loki hadn't been his fault, but sometimes he wished it had been. At least then it would be his.

That was what the shrinks, and the agents, and the people he wanted to believe he cared about couldn't know. That is what he was incapable of telling them, and now he had Loki's mocking words ringing in his ears. You would like that wouldn't you.

There were a lot of things Clint would like. Such was life.

Clint had an assigned personal room on the Helicarrier. He wasn't a stranger to it, and the single bed had a pretty spectacular mattress that called to him whenever he needed to crash.

He didn't sleep there anymore. Not because he'd somehow managed to damage it during his unwilling assault on the carrier, but because it was no longer safe. Before Loki (because his life was fucked up enough that it was now divided into several major timelines: Before Barney, Before Warner, Before Loki) he wouldn't have been concerned about where he slept. As far as he knew nobody in SHIELD had been actively out to get him. He had felt secure.

Now, though, he was in a flying ship that was copper scented with the blood of his victims, and people might know it was against his will, but the ones they should blame were out of reach. Loss and death and fear and rage had a way of clouding people's vision at times, and while Clint had not yet experienced any retribution whatsoever from the people of SHIELD, that didn't mean it might not happen.

He wasn't sure if it was the muted anger, or the muted looks of understanding and pity that made him feel more insecure as he walked the halls.

Needless to say he didn't sleep in his assigned room anymore. It was too stationary, too easy to find him, too easy to box him in, and he'd always been one to come up swinging when startled. When trapped. He didn't need to send any more people to medical, whether he might want to or not.

So, while he stayed on the Helicarrier after the battle, with Natasha sticking close by (whether she had been assigned to guard him until he'd been cleared, or she had made her own decision to stay, he never asked), he tucked himself into crawl spaces designed for the maintenance crews and engineers (and the very few agents who would rather crawl through tight gaps between walls and floors). He went to his room to change, he showered at one of the lesser used gym's, and he kept on the move in a place that was essentially a flying tin can filled with people he now had to keep his guard up around.

When Phil- when Coulson healed up enough to be fully released back to desk duty with the promise to return to the field once he was back in shape, he decided to relocate to the New York headquarters. Clint, of course, followed, because he may have not suffered the grief of losing Phil (he'd been informed of his 'death' when Fury had announced that he was actually still alive. He still wasn't sure if he was blindingly furious with Natasha for not telling him sooner, or grateful), but he sure as hell wasn't about to leave him 'unprotected' in a city still recovering from Alien invasion.

In New York…Clint didn't feel a whole lot more secure. But at least he didn't have to see the damage he caused personally every waking moment.

If he spent more time silently tracking Phil than usual, well, it was only because Clint was very aware of how his quality of life would have tanked if the agent wasn't around anymore. He was pretty much the only person Clint never had issues taking orders from.

"-and that is why you're here" Fury concluded, his ever present stern glare met by two carefully blank faces.

Phil watched them carefully from his seat along the side of the room, very much aware of the fact that, at least in Barton's case, he held more of their attention despite Fury holding the floor. You couldn't tell this by looking at either assassin, their gazes as sharp as always as they watched the Director but Phil knew who they were really focused on, and that meant that Fury probably did as well. Either way it wasn't a concern; not much escaped Natasha or Clint's eyes and ears, they were master multi-taskers. They were the best. Which is why they were here right now.

After a few moments it was Natasha, not Clint, who broke the thoughtful silence that had encompassed Fury's New York office.

"It was never intended for us to be a part of the Avengers sir," she pointed out, because this was true.

"Not directly," Fury agreed easily, because sometimes you could lie to your specialists, and sometimes that was just stupid, and Fury usually knew the difference. She still hadn't forgiven him for lying to her about Phil's death, and while it wasn't obvious Fury was well aware of this fact. He was trying to not fracture their working relationship further. They all knew he wouldn't hesitate to lie again if he needed to. "But you were always involved in its implementation."

"Who's idea was this?" She asked, and here Fury looked a little pained, though he hid it well.

"Stark and Captain Rogers made the request personally."

And by making 'the request' what Fury meant was that Stark had flown up to the Helicarrier with Steve Rogers, marched into the middle of a senior staff meeting (with Steve Rogers) and announced in no uncertain terms that he was inviting Clint and Natasha to join the Avengers whether SHIELD liked it or not. He then proceeded to point out all the reasons SHIELD had no control over Clint and Natasha's choice to do so. Of course it wasn't actually that easy, but Fury was well aware that with Tony Stark deciding that it was meant that the billionaire probably already had all the legal loopholes covered should anyone make a fuss. He would have Pepper to thank for that. It didn't matter that Fury had already been planning on assigning both his assassin's to the Avengers anyway.

"Despite Stark being involved, I am confident with this course of action," Fury followed up, and while he was as stern as ever, it was also not difficult to read the fact that he was pleased as well.

"You want us to spy on the Avengers, sir," Natasha stated more than asked, and Fury looked at her steadily.

"I want you to be a part of the initiative, directly, but I expect you to report issues you think need to be brought to our attention." Which was a yes. Phil kept his face carefully blank. "As members of this new operative team we will still be assigning you to missions not related to the initiative. You're not going to need to save the world every day, but you may be needed to save some small countries now and again," which was as close to admitting that while he was okay with them joining the Avengers, they were still SHIELD operatives and he wasn't going to lose their skills in the field altogether. Natasha was silent a moment, watching the Director carefully, before she gave a sharp nod. She was in.

Phil turned his full attention to Clint, who hadn't yet said a word beyond an acknowledging 'sirs' when he entered the office. His face was as schooled as it ever was, but Phil could see the tiredness sitting beneath his eyes, in the drawn lines of his face that he couldn't hide under the harsh office lights. Phil couldn't help but tense slightly as he waited to see what his archer would decide. When it became very clear that no one was going to say anything more until Clint did, his eyes narrowed, almost unnoticeably, and his demeanour shifted into something less confrontational than normal. Everyone noticed, familiar with the fact that Clint was most unpredictable when he looked the most unassuming.

"Are you ordering me to join the Avengers sir?" his tone was easy, curious, with a hint of sternness. Phil made sure not to tense further in his seat. Clint was testing them, he was always testing them (it did not surprise Phil that it was Clint and not Natasha that was more resistant), but this time it felt different. This time it was different. Loki hadn't even been two months before. Clint might hide his scars from that attack unreasonably well, but everyone in this room was very, very aware that they were there. Even if they pretended otherwise.

"No, Agent Barton, I am not ordering you to join the Avengers." Fury leaned forward over his desk, not breaking eye contact with Clint. "I am saying that you have been invited to become one of their very specialized team members. Whether or not you choose to join them, is up to you."

Clint didn't smile, or frown, or even twitch a cheek as he kept his gaze steadily on Fury. But then he swallowed, slowly, and sat straighter in what was most likely an attempt to hide the action. Phil knew Clint was agreeing before he gave his consenting nod.

"I'm in. Somebody's gotta keep Agent Romanov from permanently maiming Stark."

"SHIELD thanks you for your sacrifice," Fury replied dryly, and then looked to Phil, who had no problem letting a pleased little smile cross his lips.

"Pack your belongings, you'll be transferred to Stark tower at your earliest convenience," he informed them, and pushed to his feet, Natasha and Clint following suit, neither looked surprised by the order.

They left the room before him, and Phil paused to meet Fury's gaze. The Director nodded, understanding that Phil wanted them away from HQ sooner rather then later. It was clear that Clint wasn't overly comfortable on SHIELD ground anymore; he was on edge and almost as untrusting as his first few years with them, which was a setback neither Fury or Phil wanted. There was also the problem with the Council, and Phil suspected Natasha was aware of this, which was why she had agreed so readily to join the Avengers. They were snuffling around Clint, trying to get Fury to hand him over for more interrogations about his time with Loki, more tests and, potentially, with the intention of locking him away to pay for crimes he didn't purposely commit. Having him officially join the Avengers would make throwing him under the bus nearly impossible.

Phil wondered if Stark was also aware of this, which was why he'd been so abruptly forceful in his recruitment of their assassins. The billionaire barely knew Natasha and he didn't know Clint aside from him being a man who had nearly destroyed the Helicarrier single handed (and who could have completed that task if one of his objectives hadn't been to facilitate Loki's escape (that is what had the World Council most concerned)) and then been a man who had his back during the biggest fight of his life. Stark had no responsibility to Clint, or to Natasha, anymore than he did to the rest of the burgeoning team, but it was clear that he had decided that he'd seen enough to want them around. Phil would say he was surprised about Stark's apparent eagerness to be apart of the team, but he really wasn't.

At the very least it meant that, maybe, Clint would take the opportunity to sleep. He needed more than stolen catnaps in crawlspaces, hidden away where he was supposed to feel safe. Getting him away from the head office and Helicarrier could only be a good thing. For that Phil was willing to put up with regular contact with Tony Stark.

CcCcCcC

Moving into the tower took very little fanfare. Natasha drove them in Coulson's car, and parked underground in a spot marked with a larger than necessary nameplate that spelled "AGENT" in bold black. Coulson didn't even seem to notice this, though Clint suspected it had more to do with familiarity than keeping a cool countenance. As far as Clint knew Coulson had been to the tower a total of four times since his return landside. From what little Clint knew of Stark personally, this was screaming serious favouritism. He doubted the sign had been there before Loki's attack.

"It is a pleasure to see you looking so well, Agent Coulson, Agent Romanov," a disembodied voice greeted from nowhere as Clint shouldered his single duffle bag carelessly and then grabbed the overly long case carrying his three personal bows. Jarvis. Clint had never heard him speak before, but he had been briefed that the AI ran through the entire tower on the drive over. That was the only reason he didn't have his ever-present gun in hand. "I am delighted, of course, to welcome Agent Barton to Stark Tower and to make your acquaintance."

"Pleasure's mine," Clint drawled back politely, not seeing any reason to be rude despite the lack of, well, humanity.

"I have taken the liberty to announce your arrival. Should you need anything please do not hesitate to ask, no matter the time." He wasn't sure he imagined that the voice sounded pleased.

"Right," the elevator slowed to a stop, so smooth Clint had barely noticed it moving in the first place, "thanks."

"Of course, Agent Barton."

"Clint," he corrected without much thought, ignoring Natasha's lips quirking in amusement.

"Of course, Clint," Jarvis corrected himself, sounding even more pleased. Clint was saved from wondering if he needed to say more to stretch the conversation along, by the doors opening. He was bad enough at interpersonal relations with people, knowing when he could stop talking at an AI without any body language to read was going to be difficult.

"Finally! What, did you decide to stop for taco's on the way over? I was expecting you last week," Tony Stark, all five-foot-eight of him stood, practically vibrating, before them. An amused Captain America stood just behind him, looking startlingly normal in jeans and an awful plaid shirt. Clint knew without looking that Phil- that Coulson's attention had immediately, if very subtly, diverted to his childhood hero. It was brief, but it was enough to make Clint feel uneasy and he wasn't entirely sure why.

"We can't all run on your timetable Stark," Natasha nearly rolled her eyes at him, which was more emotion than she generally showed around anyone. Clint was aware of her history with Stark, he just hadn't really been prepared for that apparent level of familiarity. One that Phil clearly also shared as he was moving into the large living room without hesitation. It was the same room that they had finally apprehended Loki in. There was not a single sign of damage left, it was all open space, massive windows in the place of walls, large modern couches and a ridiculously sized bar.

"Sadly," Stark agreed easily, thrumming with energy as he turned to Clint expectantly.

"Stark, Captain," Clint greeted before Stark could say whatever he had been planning. Clint might not know him all that well, but he could recognize the mischievous look in his eyes.

"Tony" "Steve" they simultaneously responded (they'd told him before, during meetings, to use their first names, he just didn't feel familiar enough for that yet). Tony snorted at their response and Clint nodded, not really knowing how else to reply. Stark seemed to have it in hand though, dragging him on a tour while the rest, already familiar with the space, remained in that common room. Clint didn't have much to say while he was led down to the kitchen, and then the communal gym, and then his room, but Stark seemed capable of holding a conversation for hours without anyone else's input so long as Clint nodded and grunted in acknowledgement a few times.

His room was more of an apartment. He stood in the entrance way and blinked a moment in surprise, which Stark apparently noticed and misinterpreted right away.

"I know it's a little on the small side, but the remodeling for the lower levels hasn't happened yet so we're pressed for space. Natasha's sharing the other half of this floor, but we can move you to your own floor in a few months." He sounded uncertain now, like Clint might up and leave because Stark wasn't more accommodating.

"It's fine," he moved into the large open space, a full kitchen with an island off to his left, massive floor to ceiling windows taking up the far wall with two couches, glass coffee table, and a flatscreen tv literally taking up the other wall. It was easily five times the size of his entire quarters at SHIELD, and he hadn't even seen the bedroom yet.

"Master bedroom's through there," Stark pointed at a door that looked like it slid aside to open. "There's a full bath attached to it, and a smaller bathroom for guests just off the living room. And of course three other rooms just down the hallway," he gestured to the wide hallway to his right, the artistically (unnecessary) arched ceilings "that you can do whatever you want with. Feel free to decorate anyway you please," Stark bounced on his toes and Clint moved to the large kitchen island and dumped his duffle on the floor before placing his bow bag more carefully. He'd already spotted eight locations he'd be stashing weapons later.

"It's great, thanks," he turned and gave Stark what he hoped was a sincere smile, because the man was being far too generous and Clint didn't really know what to do with all this. It was too much space, more than he'd ever thought he'd have to himself.

"Sure," Stark waved the thanks away like it was nothing, despite his earlier show of nerves. Clint got the impression that he was uncomfortable with people expressing gratitude, or maybe it was that he was more unfamiliar with it. He was most likely used to either being scoffed at or people expecting more if his offer of an entire floor was to be interpreted correctly. Clint would let him know, subtly and approvingly later, that he was fine with this apartment for as long as he was in the tower. For now he let Stark lead the way out of Clint's new room and they headed towards the elevator to go up to meet with everyone else again.

"Now you just need the rest of your stuff," Stark declared and eyed Clint speculatively, "are you in a rush for it? Because Happy's picking up Natasha's things this afternoon and he would be, well, happy to grab your things too."

"I'm good, got everything already." His lips quirked at the look of disbelief on Stark's face.

"You barely had two bags," the elevator door opened and they stepped in, "and I'm pretty sure one of those was purely weapons." Well, yeah, but he didn't want to bring all his weapons over in one trip, and he wasn't trusting their delivery to anyone but himself, Natasha or Coulson. He'd left his old training and work clothes in his old quarters as well, he supposed he could bring those over if it would make Stark feel a little more comfortable about his lack of owning things.

"I'll get the rest later," he placated, and stepped into the main room where Thor (who had barely spent four days in Asgard after taking Loki back) and Banner had joined them. He let their greetings cut off any response from Tony, and after a few minutes of forced socialization he slipped to the back of the room to watch. He was better from a distance. Not long after that he silently retreated altogether. Everyone looked cozy enough with each other, what with their previous bonding time and no doubt the extra unity they'd built while he'd been compromised and causing 'problems.' He didn't know what to say to them, didn't really know how to contribute to conversations that weren't focused around work.

He didn't like how Natasha seemed so comfortable, even around Banner, or that Rogers and Coulson apparently got on so swell. It was fine that they were all so comfortable with each other, at least at the moment, he just needed time to figure out the new dynamics and learn how to blend. He wondered if it would be easier than it had been with SHIELD, now that it had been his choice (theoretically) to join the initiative. His choice to move here and become 'part of a team.'

He wondered if he was uncomfortable because, for the first time in over ten years, he'd made a game changing decision that personally affected him on his own merit.

He was afraid that he wasn't as comfortable with the freedom of choice as he should be.

He feared what that meant.

Chapter Text

 

"You know," Phil's voice was calm, damn near contemplative, as he casually entered the room and moved directly to the coffee table. He slowly picked up the glossy eight-by-ten picture of a sixteen year old Clint Barton and examined it slowly. Clint was decked out in his bold purple uniform, complete with a facemask and decorative breechcloth hanging from his waist. "Barton stopped wearing this uniform just after he turned seventeen."

He looked around the clustered Avengers, who were valiantly trying to school the amusement from their faces. Leaning against the balcony door behind them, Natasha was taking in the entire scene silently.

Phil understood why they thought this was hilarious. It was a pretty… fantastic costume. And honestly, after all the needling Clint gave Rogers about his own uniform, it was most definitely justified. If they presented this picture to Clint, teased him light heartedly about it, he would grin and take it with the good humour that was intended. He could take it as well as he could dish it after all, and he wouldn't have it any other way.

The thing was, Clint had actually liked this flashy costume. He liked what it represented, and that when he had put it on people noticed him. He was proud of the uniform- it was clear in every line of his teenage body, in the set of his shoulders and the glint in his eye, and Phil was by proxy proud of it as well. Clint would completely understand the ribbing his teammates were planning, and he would never let even the tinniest hint of hurt show through.

Phil, however, was not okay with that.

"For four and a half years after he put it away he ceased to exist, and nobody noticed." He tucked the glossy image into the top file of the stack he was carrying and noted that the smiles had turned into serious, attentive gazes. If only he could hold their attention like this in briefings. "Until security footage revealed the shadow of a man with a bow and arrow perched on top of the Four Seasons Hotel George V in Paris, with an unobstructed view into the heart of the courtyard." Tony sat up abruptly, eyes narrowing.

"I was there once-"

"Yes, for your twenty-seventh birthday extravaganza. I know. So did all of Paris, and, apparently, Barton. Some very angry people offered to pay him a great deal of money to kill you, Mr. Stark. Clearly when he had you in his sights, he decided not to, which is what initially put him on SHIELD's radar- two days after he decided not to complete his contract." After an anonymous tip had pointed out that somebody wanted Anthony Stark dead and his already ridiculous amount of security was doubled. After that a contract was put out for Clint's head for not completing his job. Of course, once he killed the third assassin sent his way and then planted a warning arrow right between the kingpin's legs, a centimeter from his manhood, the bounty on his head was called off.

"Why didn't he-"

"Never asked." Phil cut him off and idly tapped a finger on the folder that now hid Barton's photo. "I don't think he's even aware that we know about it. It still took us eleven months to figure out exactly who he was and another five to track him down successfully enough to make contact. He didn't start wearing a uniform again until he decided to work with SHIELD."

Phil saw the beginning of understanding dawning amongst the group, even if Stark was looking just a bit more freaked out that usual. It wasn't Phil's intention to scare him, but sometimes things needed to be said. Especially where Clint was concerned, as he was still making a concentrated effort to keep himself partially segregated from these people, even having been an official member of the initiative for five months now.

Coincidentally the assassin in question chose that moment to walk silently into the large, open concept room. His aim was clearly the kitchen, even as his eyes quickly scanned and catalogued everything around him. His step faltered fractionally as he realized that the collective gazes of Tony, Steve, Bruce, Thor (who had been declaring his appreciation for the suit as Phil had entered the room) and Phil were on him. Natasha had disappeared, though whether or not she was gone was a different scenario. Clint recovered without any indication of being startled. He paused at the fridge and opened the door, retrieving a bottle of water and downing half of it in a few gulps as he pretended not to watch them from the reflection off the toaster.

Fresh from a workout, sweat still lingered around his hairline and a towel hung loosely over his neck. He turned and narrowed his gaze at them collectively, assessing. Behind him Phil could hear Thor shift, no doubt preparing to say something about Clint being a noble warrior, but Clint sharply held up his hand, waving at them in an effort to stall communication.

"Whatever this is," he capped the lid on his water, "I don't want to know." He didn't sound upset, concerned, or even curious. Phil relaxed as Clint left the room just as silently as he'd entered, keeping them in his peripheral the entire time.

"Jarvis, damage all video surveillance on this floor from the last six hours and link it to something that I could have done wrong in the labs earlier."

"Of course, sir. Perhaps I shall erase surveillance for the upper grid, so as to make your actions less suspicious," Jarvis answered instantly, sounding disapproving.

"Just as long as we don't lose anything important." Stark flapped a hand at the air, but he was looking at Phil again, and when Phil met his gaze, the man nodded. Message received: don't make fun of one of the few things Barton might actually be proud of from his childhood.

Phil was satisfied.

He was even more satisfied three days later when Clint came wandering into his office in New York and, instead of his traditional black ensemble, he was sporting his black cargos, gun in place on his left thigh, and a bold, deep purple t-shirt. Phil couldn't help but stare, and Clint paused after he collapsed on the couch in a loose sprawl and looked down at himself in confusion. He cottoned on after a moment and plucked (he would have come across as embarrassed if he was physically capable of showing that emotion) at the shirt.

"Stark apparently went on an online shopping spree and bought everyone shirts. I got back to the tower this morning to find six of these parked outside my door. Didn't want to hurt his feelings so I threw it on," he shrugged, like it was no big deal. Like he hadn't thought anyone would actually notice. Phil went back to his paperwork.

"It's a good colour, you should see if he'll get you a tie in the same shade."

"God no," Clint barked out a short, horrified laugh. "He'd probably use that as an excuse to buy me an entire suit. I wouldn't be caught dead in that much purple."

Phil looked up and raised a pointed eyebrow. Clint understood the look immediately, but his amusement didn't fade.

"Again," he amended, "I wouldn't be caught in that much purple again," and then promptly changed the subject by launching into his mission debrief.

A week later the shirt made another appearance.

"I don't get Barton," Rogers decided quietly, watching as the man's feet disappeared to the balcony above outside, and Tony looked fairly nauseous and unimpressed as he also stared after him, before shaking his head and rolling his eyes in an effort to misdirect his actual interest. Steve saw right through it.

"What's not to get? He seems pretty straight forward to me. Daddy issues, abandonment issues, trust issues, sense of humour issues, lack of self-preservation issues-"

"So, basically you, but orphaned younger," Bruce said mildly from across the kitchen's island, shrouded in his usual air of calm 'pay no attention to me, I'm not here listening to everything you say.'

"It has been pointed out more than once that I grew up in a circus," Tony pondered dramatically, and that was just a whole other set of issues right there, for both Tony and Clint, that Steve didn't want to think about right now. Steve turned back to frown at his sketch book as he turned the thoughts over in his head.

After a moment of silence Tony waved an arm in feigned exasperation, getting Steve's attention again. "Okay, I'll bite! What don't you get?"

Steve couldn't help frowning, wondering if he really wanted to continue this train of thought, but seeing as he'd been the one to start it, "It's just, I've never met a person so intent on working alone while being a part of a team."

"Uh, you have met Bruce and I, right? And Romanov… she's not exactly known for her group work prior to the Avengers," Tony pointed out in what he probably imagined was a reasonable tone but just came across as condescending. Fortunately Steve knew better than to be offended by it at this point.

"It's different," he sighed, not knowing how to find the words to explain this instinct that had been nagging him pretty much since they'd all moved into the tower. "You guys were solo, by choice and circumstance, but you're here, you want to be here and you accept that, for now at least, that we're a team, more than that at times. But Barton…" he floundered a moment, well aware that both men were very much listening to his every word. "I feel like Barton wants to be here, and doesn't want to be here."

"You don't think he has our backs?" Tony asked, his voice calm and dark and tinged with warning that was fairly rare for him. What it said is that Steve had better not be disrespecting or doubting Clint or Tony was going to make it his business. It warmed Steve in ways few things did even as he leveled a look at the billionaire that he hoped conveyed the ridiculousness of the question.

"I've never doubted for a moment that he has our backs. I trust him as much as I trust everyone else on this team. I just…I don't know him, and sometimes I don't think he knows why he's here, or whether he even wants to be here." That had both Tony and Bruce frowning.

"You think SHIELD is ordering him to be a part of the initiative?"

"No," Steve sighed, and then shrugged. "Maybe? It's possible Fury ordered him to accept your offer to be apart of the team, but I can't really see Barton doing something he doesn't actually want to do."

"You're kidding right? If Fury or Coulson say jump, he asks how high," Tony scoffed, because his lack-of-love for SHIELD has never been in question, despite leaping right on to drive the Phil Coulson bandwagon.

"So you think Clint's only fighting with us because he's being ordered to?" Bruce asks softly, clearly unhappy with this idea, which Steve can understand, because if he believed that he would be bothered as well.

"No, I think he's here because he wants to be, he just…maybe he's just not used to working with a team yet." Maybe it was a bad idea to voice his uncertainties until he had more of a grasp on the niggling worry that pinged his radar the more he was around Barton. The more he didn't get to know him.

"Sniper's aren't really group huggers, or so I've been told," Tony agreed, but there was a furrow in his brow now, and Steve was suddenly worried that he'd maybe just created unintentional grief for Barton.

"Barton's not really a group hugger," Bruce agreed, looking contemplative. "But I've never gotten the impression he doesn't want to be here, he just… keeps to himself."

"Romanov keeps to herself," Steve pointed out, "but when she's around she's here, you know?"

"No, I don't. I think you're crazy and taking your den-mother duties too seriously. That's Coulson's job." Tony stabbed at a chunk of melon on his plate.

"What's my job?" Phil asked smoothly as he walked into the kitchen and Steve carefully hid his smile at Tony's look of surprise, his eyes rounding comically for a brief moment before he had himself back under control and turned to glare at Phil.

"Being a colossal ninja mother-hen. Seriously, do you have carpet taped to the bottom of your shoes? I designed that entranceway to echo." Tony glared and nobody missed the brief look of pleasure that crossed their SHIELD liaison's face as he moved to the coffee machine. Steve didn't miss how his eyes briefly flitted over each of them, making sure that they were actually okay after the battle they'd gotten home from not even an hour ago. That might have chafed him in the past, but he couldn't deny that it was nice to have someone genuinely care about him now. He could understand why Barton and Natasha would never hear a bad word said about the man, unless they were saying it.

"You designed this building to do a lot of things Mr. Stark, including keeping me locked out," Phil plastered a polite smile on his face and Tony glared.

"That was only before this whole Avengers thing-" Tony waved a hand dismissively.

"That was this morning," Phil rebutted with amusement, which was wiped off his face a moment later as his gaze narrowed onto the counter by Bruce's elbow. "Who's injured?" he asked mildly, his eyes once again raking over the three of them, though with much sharper intensity and Steve glanced over, spotting the smear of blood on the black marble counter.

"What? Is that blood?" Tony leaned across Bruce to peer at the little smudge with a frown on his face. "How did you even see that? Are you part vampire or something?"

"Agent Barton was standing there a moment ago," Steve dutifully reported, chastising himself for missing the blood. It wasn't much, but one of the few things he had learned about their marksman was that hiding things was second nature to him. Phil frowned, even as he whipped out his cellphone and pressed it to his ear.

"Tattletale," Tony mocked, and jerked back out of Bruce's way when the man jabbed him in the ribs.

"Barton, report to the medical room," Phil ordered, turning around to pick up his coffee with practiced grace. His eyes pinched slightly as he turned away from them and began leaving the kitchen. "A scratch," he blandly repeated what must have been Barton's explanation, "Need I remind you of Natasha's scratch at Stonehenge?" He was gone a moment later and Steve turned to see that Tony had moved to the balcony and was eyeing the place Barton had used to climb with a tight little frown before marching back to his plate of fruit.

"That's the only spot," he nodded at the napkin Bruce was throwing away, the small smear of red hidden in its folds. "He's fine." His assessment wasn't quite as dismissive as it normally might be though, and the furrow was still between his eyes.

Fine. Sure.

None of them had known Barton very long. It had only been six months since the initiative became official and they'd all moved into the tower, but there was one thing that Steve had assumed every single one of them understood: that Clint Barton was not fine.

He was coping.

Maybe that was what bothered Steve the most. Because coping and Clint Barton generally meant that he was no closer to getting to know the man now than he had been after three weeks of living and working with him. Of all of them, all of their issues and insecurities that they kept bottled away and hidden, he couldn't shake the feeling that, for Barton, it was something that was just a little more.

Maybe, what it really meant, was that Steve was just sad that he couldn't find the way to turn the man from being a trusted ally, into an actual friend.

"So it was Barton that recruited you?" Bruce raised an eyebrow in contemplation and Natasha, ignoring Stark's smirk, nodded.

"It was," she agreed. This she could admit to openly; it was far from a secret. The circumstances around Clint recruiting her might be classified, but the fact that he brought her in wasn't.

"Okay," he nodded and picked up his coffee, clearly deciding that it was all he needed to know.

"And Coulson recruited Clint," Stark decided, only half interested as his attention was focused on flipping a holographic replica of a sonic grenade around on the kitchen table.

"No, he didn't," she responded, because that also wasn't a secret, and while Clint never talked about it, he'd never asked her not to. Stark stopped twisting the electric blue projection around and looked over at her with a tilt to his head.

"This is damaging my world view. Coulson was his handler, right?"

"He's both our handlers," she agreed and picked a tiny spec of dirt out from under a nail.

"He was also the agent who initially scouted and petitioned to have Barton recruited," Stark pointed out, which she had not known, but took care from letting her teammates become aware of that. "And he was the one slotted to do the actual recruiting, once all the preliminary field investigations and introductions were out of the way." He looked at Banner when the scientist raised a questioning eyebrow. "Don't give me that look, you were there when I hacked into SHIELD's systems the second time." Natasha narrowed her eyes at this, because the only hack SHIELD was aware of was during the Loki onslaught.

"You know all that but you don't know who recruited him?" Bruce commented mildly.

"It seemed obvious, and really, I only skimmed your personal files. Clearly I was wrong. So tell, who recruited our industrious arrow-slinger?" He looked at Natasha expectantly, and she affected an air of boredom as she picked up her unsweetened iced tea.

"You'll have to ask him," she informed him, pleased by the frown of displeasure that crossed his face. She left the room silently to avoid further conversation. It wasn't that she couldn't answer him, for Warner was also not a secret among SHIELD. It was that Stark would probably want to know how Warner had convinced Clint to give up his solo assassin lifestyle and that, despite her past with Clint, despite everything they knew about each other, that was something she did not know.

She didn't begrudge Clint this. Their lives were filled with secrets that were theirs to keep, but it was something of a raw nerve. After all, Clint had brought her in- it was only fair that she knew why he'd decided to join as well.

Steve watched him silently from the doorway to the media room a long moment before stepping inside. Phil glanced up, gave him a tired but welcoming smile, and turned back to the video he was watching.

"I didn't think you were still here," he said for the sake of breaking the rather heavy silence, and Phil leaned back in his chair and stretched, his back popping loud enough to be heard over the low volume of the feed.

"I wanted to review some things before heading home," he explained, like it was no big deal to be alone in the towers media room at one in the morning. Steve eyed the image of Loki on screen, easily recognizing it as the footage from the holding tank, before Thor had taken Loki back to Asgard. He frowned at it, and then nodded at the chair beside Phil.

"Mind if I join you?" he asked and took the agent's affirming nod as enough of an invitation. He watched the screen with Phil for a minute, listening to the nearly inaudible discussion from a not so pleasant shared past. "What are we looking for?" he asked, because Phil wasn't the kind of man to gnaw at a bone without reason, especially on nights where he was restless and his two prized assassins were away on assignment without him.

"I don't know," he sighed, the frustration leaking through. Steve frowned back at the screen, eyes focusing on Phil's form, noting the pale skin and the way he hunched over slightly despite trying to hide his still healing injury. Behind him Clint was staring over his shoulder at Loki in what could only be described as murderous. "Something Loki said isn't sitting right, but I can't figure out why, and more specifically, who he was trying to rattle."

"Maybe he was targeting everyone," Steve suggested, because he remembered that conversation verbatim, and nothing about it had been pleasant. Phil gave a little nod that admitted it was a possibility, but he didn't seem convinced. "Well, maybe a second set of eyes could come in handy," Steve settled back in the chair and, after a moment's hesitation, Phil began the feed from the beginning.

It probably wasn't healthy, what they were doing, but Steve had watched these videos alone in the past, much like he'd caught Phil doing. Searching for answers to a question that he couldn't figure out. Maybe, if they did this together, it wouldn't be quite so bad.

If he joined Phil again, several weeks later, this time bringing cups of Bruce's favourite oolong tea, well, it helped settle something in Steve. He liked to think Phil's easing posture was a good thing too, but mostly it was just nice to not be alone with the silence of the early morning.

"Holy shit!" Clint tried very, very hard not to tense up the moment Stark's voice cut through the small room, and he managed mainly because he had expected something like this. It wasn't an uncommon reaction, though he only needed one hand to count the number of times someone reacted so vocally. Clint unceremoniously tossed his tee-shirt across the small, tiled room, knowing without looking that it landed on the pile of contaminated clothing the rest of his teammates were helping build. He casually glanced over his shoulder at the exclamation and, sure enough, Stark was staring right at him. Or more specifically: at his suddenly exposed skin.

Clint wasn't shy about the scars that littered his body, a physical map of his life history that, sadly, said far too much and not nearly enough about him. That didn't mean he went out of his way to show them to the world. Right now they probably looked even worse considering the still healing bruise on his lower back from a solo mission two weeks before. That bruise was where Rogers' eyes seemed to be focused, his lips in a frown Clint didn't understand and didn't really care to.

"Are you kidding me with this? Tell me I'm not the only one seeing this!" Tony continued, still loud, still shocked and apparently still not ready to let it go. Clint had seen where his eyes had trained, on the back of his shoulder, right where his scarred tattoo sat, mutilated and indecipherable from its original image. Clint very carefully moved his hands to his belt, deliberate and not at all hesitant as he unsnapped it and went to remove his pants, not revealing his sudden anger.

His disappointment.

Fuck hazardous contamination anyway. What kind of idiot thought it was okay to bombard them with unknown powder bombs while they were just walking down the street?

Stepping out of jeans he would probably never see again he tossed them across the room as well, before turning to face Stark with a raised eyebrow and a schooled look of boredom on his face. He knew his chest was almost as bad as his back, and Tony's eyes were just as incredulous as he unabashedly stared at Clint, horror on his face. He waited for the questions that he always got, the pity or intrigue or blatant disbelief. Without fail, the scar that got the most attention was the tattoo, and Clint was more than practiced at telling people to mind their own business when they asked about it.

"That," Stark waved at him and Steve, who had gone back to shucking the rest of his contaminated civvies, looked at him piercingly, "has got to be the most hideous farmers tan I have ever laid eyes on. I can not even!" he flailed, looking personally affronted and, truly startled, Clint looked down at himself. Yeah, okay, his arms and face were far more tanned than the rest of his body, he just tended to not spend a great deal of time focusing on his 'skin tone' when he bathed or dressed. He blinked, because this conversation had taken an about turn he had not been expecting after Tony had opened his mouth.

"I've seen worse," Banner shrugged, already working the first of a bucket load of decon soap over his body (he was obviously the quickest to change considering he only had one article of clothing to remove after hulking out).

"That is a bold faced lie," Tony whirled on the doctor and jabbed a finger in his direction. "Clearly I can no longer trust any of the words that come out of your mouth."

"It's really not that bad," Steve tried to help, though his lips were pressed a little tighter than usual, which was a look Clint did recognize. Steve was trying not to smile. Tony pretended he didn't hear him, looking back at Clint, who had used Banner's distraction to move to him and grab one of the bottles of bright orange soap.

"Seriously though, I have a tanning bed. Hell, I installed a pool on the balcony during renovations! It has ergonomic, gravity-defying beach chairs! You should think about lying on one in the sun for a few hundred hours. I'm sure Pepper has some tanning oil that could be smeared all over to try and even out a little- where are you going?"

"As much as I love hearing you discuss smearing oil onto my body, I'd rather be having the lunch that we missed earlier," he winked at Tony, just because he could, and followed Bruce into the next room. It was already raining with icy cold water for the first stage of cleaning.

"You know you'd love it," Tony grumbled as Clint turned his back on them. He knew their eyes were tracing his scars, not his admittedly pretty terrible farmers tan, as he moved away. He didn't need to make an effort not to tense this time, feeling relaxed and comfortable in his skin again, despite the threat of whatever they had been attacked with potentially still covering him.

Still, he couldn't hold back a small grin when Bruce rolled his eyes, or a chuckle when Steve shoved Tony into the cold shower after he got tired of the billionaire's stalling.

The Reveal could have gone worse. With it out of the way, he might finally decide to use the pool when other people were around. Maybe.

Chapter Text

AIM wasn't always the most organized or well planned extreme terrorist group that the Avengers had had to face, but they got major points for sheer creativity. Clint stood from his perch, notched an explosive arrow, and sent it straight into the back of the giant robot centipede's head. Its eruption was mostly internal, a small burst of flame quickly smothered by dark smoke before the head crumbled off, burnt wiring and mechanical fluid going everywhere.

"That's five," he announced, already searching for his next target, nocking an arrow and letting it fly. "Six," he added, feeling satisfaction as the bizarre robot tumbled down from the side of the building it had been climbing.

"I have crushed eight of the metallic beasts," Thor announced over the comms, "it would appear you have some catching up to do, Hawkeye." Challenge accepted. Clint couldn't help but grin, looking down (so very far down) and letting off two more arrows in quick succession. The bugbot that Thor faced shuddered and collapsed right before the man could crush it with his hammer, an arrow piercing where Tony said its mother board was. The robot that had been approaching Thor from behind followed suit.

"Eight," Clint announced blandly, well aware that Thor was grinning widely even though he had turned his attention to the buildings across the way, where the robots were climbing to the hole they had made on the eleventh floor. He knocked two arrows, lined up the shot, and took out the two that were closest to the breach before Stark came zooming around the corner and began systematically picking off the mass one by one with the guns mounted on his shoulder.

"Seeing as I'm already in double digits, I don't even know why you two are bothering with keeping score," he announced and Clint snuck an arrow just beneath his iron clad armpit, hard enough that it pierced a climbing robots thin neck and pinned it to the brick wall.

"Nine," he counted, voice as bored as he could make it, though he couldn't help grinning when Stark gave him the finger. Of course that was when a fresh swarm of the attacking, weird as anything, robots punched a fresh hole out of the sewer they had been climbing from and began to crawl with alarming speed towards Thor.

"Thor, incoming, looks like more than fifteen heading right at you."

"Understood Hawkeye," Clint heard him answer even as he turned, twirling his hammer almost casually in the air as he prepared for the onslaught.

"I've got sixteen arrows left," he informed them even as he let three fly, two to help Thor, and one that slammed into a larger than man sized robot that had launched itself off the wall at Stark. It exploded mid air with a metallic shriek. "And they can jump, at least twenty foot clearance."

"Understood Hawkeye, an ammunition drop is enRoute." Coulson's ever calm and steadying voice came over the comms for the first time since the fighting started. Clint felt himself relax a little, like he always did once receiving proof that the man was still safe despite the battle taking place not far from where he set up command.

"Roger that, Coulson," he replied, carefully picking his targets now, making sure that the target was one that Thor or Stark needed a hand with. He spotted another one about to take a leap at Tony from above while the man had his back turned, and he made the shot.

A second after he released the arrow he felt a stunningly sharp pain pierce through him, right below where his quiver rested tight against his back. His entire body convulsed, his hand clenching tight around his bow and his legs began to give out. He had a brief moments panic about pitching face first off the twenty story building, unable to move to even attempt to use his grappling arrow, when he was grabbed and hauled ruthlessly away from the buildings edge.

The world blurred dizzily, the movement so fast and unexpected. He managed to suck in a deep breath, his lungs burning, before his back was slammed hard into an unyielding surface, his quiver digging painfully up his spine and he lost his breath again. Three unrelenting bands pinned his shoulders, waist and thighs in place, forcing his upper body into an awkward twist because of his quiver.

By the time he managed to suck another breath into his lungs and clear some of the oxygen deprivation dizziness, it was too late for him to do much other than realize how screwed he was.

He hadn't even heard the centipede-bot come up behind him, too focused on his teammates to cover his own ass (stupid, so fucking stupid). He realized it must have hit him with some kind of electrical stunner, which became even more apparent when he realized that the silence in his ear didn't even have the dead-air quality of a still functioning but quiet radio. It had fried him and his comm. He couldn't help gasping in a shocked breath as the robot that had him literally pinned to its underside, held tight by several of its multiple legs, was suddenly crawling right over the edge of the building. It was a head first view he never wanted to witness, his still numb body jerked instinctively to try and reach out, to find an anchor point that wouldn't leave him as nothing more than a smear on the pavement below.

It didn't fall. Fortunately. But what followed was a ride down to the ground and into the subway that he never, ever wanted to experience again. What probably only amounted to ten minutes of travel passed before he was emerging into the midmorning sunlight once again, and was carried straight into an abandoned…train house? He couldn't really tell from his angle facing the ground and the swift, metallic legs that caged him in on both sides obstructed his view.

When he was dropped to the unforgivingly hard ground, his entire body protesting after being forced to bend and move with the flexible robot, he kicked out swiftly at the legs standing closest to him. He was more than satisfied at the startled cry and crash as the man hit the ground, and was bracing his feet to launch into full attack when the robot was back. It wrapped him up once more, crushing him to its chest and pinning his arms, and then it straightened vertically until Clint's knees and feet were the only thing in contact with the floor.

"That's quite enough of that," a man announced and Clint, realizing that his vision was still blurry because of a cut that had bled into his left eye, finally got a look around the relatively small room. Five men gathered in front of him, four of whom were heavily armed. Clint focused on the man who spoke, his mind instantly sizing him up: Asian descent, tall, muscular and obviously trained in some form of combat. Potentially ex-military. He was definitely the leader of this particular group of AIM, though he wasn't someone Clint recognized, so he was either not high enough in the ranks to be noteworthy to SHIELD yet, or he was very well hidden within the ranks. Judging by the way he held himself, and the way he was watching Clint, he thought it was most likely the first of those options.

The room fell into silence when it was clear that they had obviously expected Clint to say something by now. Clint just watched the leader steadily, blinking blood out of his eye and still feeling motion sickness from his bugbot ride.

"I have to admit, I wasn't expecting an Avenger to be so easy to capture, but seeing as our sources told us you'd be the weakest link I'm not so sure why I was surprised," the leader announced, frowning down at Clint, assessing and apparently not all that impressed. Clint's response was to blink. He'd stopped giving a shit about what people thought of him (people he didn't give two shits about at least) when he was a teenager. SHIELD's Special Ops training and Warner had mostly taken care of the rest.

"Nothing to say?" the guy asked, looking annoyed now, and Clint blinked again, willing his nausea back under control. "Well, it looks like that part of our intel was wrong. We were led to believe that you had difficulty shutting up in the field. No matter," he looked over his shoulder at one of the heavily armed men behind him. The guy moved forward, holding up a silver case that looked shiny and ominous and, while it was ridiculous, it had Clint instantly concerned. He had no doubt that either Coulson or Tony were tracking him down right now, but between now and the next few minutes anything could happen and Clint was helpless, pinned tight and with no options until he got at least a little wriggling room. "We came prepared," the guy announced, clearly enjoying the sound of his own voice as he snapped the silver case open and gingerly plucked out something that looked suspiciously like a collar.

Clint kept his breathing steady and watched as the collar, a mostly flat thing about an inch in width, was turned and snapped open, before the man looked down at Clint once more.

"I hope you're ready to answer some questions, Hawkeye, because we have some very important ones we would like to ask you."

"Not much of a conversationalist," Clint grunted, voice a little raspy, "unless it's pillow talk with your mom." He grinned, his plan now to distract and delay the attachment of that collar, because whenever an enemy pulled something like that out of his bag of tricks (not that Clint had seen this particular device before) it never boded well.

"I never knew my mother." The man pushed a button and some dim green light started flickering on one spot of the collar. "Hold him," he ordered another guard and the big, gun-toting man stepped forward without hesitation. He wrapped his fingers into Clint's hair, which was apparently just long enough to allow a decent grip, and yanked his head up and forward. There wasn't much time to do more than grunt in protest when the cold metal pressed up against his throat, wrapped tightly around and snapped into place. He heard a tiny beep, and then a white hot pinch cut into his neck, right at the base of his skull, and he couldn't help grunting at the unexpected pain before it dissipated altogether.

The heat that seemed to infuse his spine and head was noticeable, but not unpleasant, an insistent thrumming that set his nerves tingling and fingers twitching but, he noted with relief, did nothing to hinder his desire to escape. The leader took a step back and the guards released his grip on his hair and Clint kept his breathing steady and face as blank as possible. The leader grabbed a plastic chair and sat only a few feet from him.

"What is your name?" the man asked, dark brown eyes watching him intently and Clint opened his mouth to answer without thinking, catching himself at the very last second and, feeling an inescapable press to answer responded with:

"Designation Hawkeye," he tried to not even say that. It didn't work. A light throbbing began at the base of his skull.

"Not your designation, Hawkeye, what is your real name," he asked again and Clint, fuck, he tried not to answer, but after only a few seconds he couldn't stop himself.

"Clint Barton," he growled out, voice nearly hoarse with attempted resistance and the man sitting across from him smiled.

"Clint Barton. How surprisingly normal. You understand the purpose of the collar now Clint?" he asked and Clint swallowed, seeing no reason to waste his energy on trying to not answer this question.

"Yes."

"Great, I think we're going to get along just fine. Now, there are some things I would like to ask you about SHIELD while we wait for transport, and I'm sure you won't have any problems discussing the answers with me. You can begin by telling me the locations of all of SHIELD's bases throughout the world, starting with its headquarters."

Fuck. Fuckity fuck. Not again.

He couldn't help but cry out at the sharp pain that sliced into the back of his neck, noting distantly that the leader was frowning at him. Maybe it wasn't supposed to hurt, not like this, but all Clint knew was that his programmed instinct to not do anything to cause SHIELD harm was clashing with whatever the hell the collar was doing to try and force him to answer. It was not pleasant, it made his brain burn, his eyes dry, and his throat felt constricted as he fought to both answer the question and not answer the question.

"Why aren't you answering? You shouldn't be able to resist like this," the leader snarled, losing his patience with the grace of a minion that would never make it to a rank higher in the organization than he was right now.

That was the moment that Thor smashed down the buildings entire back wall.

The noise was deafening, but not surprising as Clint had been desperately waiting for his team to track his gps implant and come get him (he had refused to even contemplate that it might not work after being shocked earlier). Clint looked up to watch the show despite the pain in his head. With Thor leading the charge it would have been intimidating enough, but with Tony and Phil coming in right behind him? The enemy was down before the wall had even finished collapsing. Tony clotheslined the two closest guards that had been raising their weapons, Thor sent his hammer flying into the other three, and Phil had sent a bullet right into the heart of the centipede robot's computer brain, a foot above Clint's head. Fortunately, Stark landed right beside him as the robot began to crumple forward, and easily stopped it from crushing Clint when it fell.

Clint wrenched free of the now useless metal legs, scrambling out from under it and looked up just as Phil came to a stop before him.

"Situation under control, we have Hawkeye," he announced into his radio even as he dropped to his own knees before Clint and put a hand out to his shoulder to steady him. Clint had never flinched from Phil before, and he didn't now, but his head was screaming and he had to speak and he was so fucking desperate to answer and not answer that it felt like it was tearing him apart.

"Get everyone out of hearing distance," he ordered/begged Phil, his words pressed through clenched teeth and Phil froze, looked at Clint, and the collar, a frown between his brows, and then he straightened his shoulders.

"I need everyone to fall back thirty feet, now!" he ordered, and the agents that had come in right after Clint's team and Phil, scrambled back at Coulson's words. Tony and Thor didn't listen. That was okay, it was enough. He reached out and grabbed at Phil's neck, dragging him close so Clint could rest his head against the side of his, and answered the AIM leader's question. He hissed the address of every SHIELD base that he knew existed, starting with New York's headquarters. It was thirteen more bases than he was cleared to know about, and he was beyond grateful that Phil held still through the entire rendering. Distantly Clint noted Phil's familiar, comforting smell, and ignored the way his own hands trembled as his fingers clutched the back of Phil's sweaty neck, the fabric of his shirt soft and stiff beneath his pinky finger. As soon as the last known address had left his mouth, the pressure in his brain let up, from both sides. Phil was safe, Phil was SHIELD. Thank fuck Phil had decided to join Tony and Thor on this particular rescue mission. Clint had the impression that going against Warner's programming via the collar would have been unpleasant.

"Okay now?" Phil asked and Clint nodded, releasing him and leaning back, recovering his personal space and finally wiping at the blood on his forehead. Phil looked back to the collar, a question clear on his face.

"Truth collar," Clint supplied, and accepted Thor's outstretched hand, ignoring how it practically swamped his own, and allowed himself to be hauled to his feet with more care than usual. He must look pretty shaken up.

"The readings Jarvis is getting off that thing are all over the place," Tony announced, stepping up beside Phil who was now standing, "but yeah, it looks like it could be linked into his neural responses. I'll need to examine it more closely before I even consider removing it. Can we recall Bruce? I wouldn't mind an extra set of eyes on it." Clint reached up and scratched where the collar, just loose enough not to choke him, rested at his skin. Nothing happened, but he dropped his hand at Phil and Tony's warning looks.

"The rest of your team are already returning, they should be back in two hours," Phil announced and looked at Clint again, no doubt seeing more than Clint wanted him to. "Report to medical, Barton, I want that cut and all other injuries seen to before we transport you back to SHIELD," he ordered and then marched off to take control of the rest of the mission, no doubt wanting to ensure that at least the leader of this little group was going to remain unharmed enough to answer any and all questions Phil no doubt had for him.

"Come on, birdbrain, let's get you checked out," Tony gestured towards the open door Clint had made his entrance through, and Clint sighed, already feeling his muscles stiffening and not at all looking forward to the next few hours of figuring out how to how to get the collar off. He couldn't even begin to admit how vulnerable it made him feel, but he was pretty sure that Thor and Tony must have understood, because they stuck close to his side.

"Agent just issued a blanket order that no one is allowed to talk to you that is not cleared by him personally," Tony suddenly announced, and gave Clint a little smirk. "I bet he's been looking for an excuse to give that order for years."

"Something tells me he didn't clear you, Stark," Clint rasped out, unable to help grinning back, even if it was mild and Tony's face fell a little upon hearing his rough voice.

"Just to be clear, I've never really listened to Agent's orders anyway," Tony shrugged, hand hovering protectively around Clint's elbow area in case he needed to steady him. It wasn't necessary; Clint was fine, but he didn't snap at him to back off. Not yet at least. On his other side Thor remained silent, but definitely aware as Clint spied him keeping a sharp eye on every agent that looked like they might be thinking about approaching them. Fortunately, SHIELD had confiscated a clinic just across the road and it wasn't long before Clint was sequestered in a back room with Thor and Tony (both of whom drastically shrank the amount of available space) and had one of SHIELD's field medics examining the cut on his face.

Thor had to step forward and help remove Clint's damaged quiver, but Clint refused to let anyone help him remove his uniform shirt for the examination after he had a bandage slapped on his forehead. He was so caught up in the increasing ache in his shoulders after getting the shirt off that he didn't notice the way the medic was taking in all his scars, even as he examined bruising that was probably already colouring on his back.

Thor and Tony were having a not so soft argument off by the door about the merits of a giant pet robot centipede (of which they both appeared to be in favour of so… actually, he didn't have the energy to explain that one), when Clint felt the examining fingers drift away from his spine and press into his shoulder. Right on the edge of the Scar. He froze, even as the medics soft, curious words carried through the room.

"What happened here?" the man wondered, clearly more to himself than to Clint, but Clint could already feel the warmth from the collar throbbing into his brain, the needy impulse to answer building within. It didn't hurt this time, because Warner had never left orders saying Clint couldn't talk about himself, but…fuck. Really? This was seriously happening?

"Get out," Tony's voice was a low growl, dangerous in ways that it so rarely was around anyone and Clint nearly startled, so caught up in holding off his answer that he hadn't noticed the sudden hostility in the room. He looked over in time to see the medic realize what he had done, his eyes widening in sudden apology that he was at least smart enough not to voice as he beat a hasty retreat.

"Agent Coulson, it would be best if you joined us at the clinic. Right now," Thor spoke softly but imploringly into the comm, clearly not a man used to even considering that his requests would be denied, and Clint ran a suddenly shaking hand over his hair.

"Shit, Clint," Tony's anger was still palpable, but now that the medic was gone he was looking almost panicked, and Clint might have thought it was funny, except words were trying to escape. "We'll wait outside until Phil gets here, okay? Can you- if I ask you to not answer the question will that help?"

"No," Clint sighed, obviously truthful, and he dropped his hand to his lap and tried to sit up straighter to relieve the ache in his back. "No, it's fine. Stay." It was hard to get the words out, hard to let them out, but it was also true. Fine, it was fine. He remembered that day in the decontamination showers, and how Tony had gone to such lengths to make a huge deal about his farmer's tan. He remembered Tony's own scars, easily recognizable as shrapnel spread, faint now but still there, and his biggest of all glowing in the center of his chest for everyone to see. He remembered long nights perched silently in the air ducts of the tower, not wanting to move in case he disturbed Thor, staring sightlessly out the window for hours on end, no doubt thinking about his brother. Regretting so much.

Clint huffed a small, amused laugh that was maybe a bit more raw than he had been planning.

"Stay," he muttered again, before either man could protest, not sure why it suddenly felt okay that they were here for this, that it was maybe even important, because he was having difficulty just trying to figure out where to start, the burning need/rush/ache to answer the question pushed forward unforgivingly.

"I was thirteen," he started, and rubbed a finger at the edge of the collar, wishing he could loosen it. "My brother, Barney," he could see both men widen their eyes at this, because Clint had never mentioned having a brother before, never mentioned family at all, "and I had been at the circus for almost a year."

He paused, straining for a way to say this without saying too much, to explain without explaining how proud they were to have escaped, to have found the circus and 'freedom.' So stupid and young and still better off than they had been for a very long time. He rubbed at his hair again, feeling the sweat building at the edges. "He had this idea that we should get tattoos, to commemorate it, like a symbol or some shit."

Clint had been all for it- he'd pretty much done anything his big brother asked back then. He looked up to see both men watching him, intense. It didn't make him as uncomfortable as he'd always imagined telling this story, to anyone, might.

"So we got one of the guys who had a kit ink some Irish knots onto our shoulders." The brother knot. They'd thought it was poetic, bonding. They'd felt like men, like they could take on the world.

The memory ached.

It hadn't been too long after that that Clint was taken on to apprentice under the Swordsman, and Barney became mostly ignored. He never took well to being ignored, and Clint could be a little shit about all the sudden attention. He hadn't known what to do with it. He could have handled it better.

He didn't want to explain everything it cost him to be the protégé, their star pupil. He kept a tight lid on those words, searching for the next part of the story.

"When I got older-" Barney had started training with Buck, he stopped himself from saying. They'd gotten close, and Barney hadn't wanted much to do with Clint by that point. Clint struggled to bypass telling them specifics on these 'things.' "I had a disagreement with our mentors. Barney took exception to my point of view," and had stood by and watched as Jacques broke his legs and nearly put him in the ground permanently. Barney was in deep with Jacques and Buck at that point, eager to prove his loyalty. Clint sometimes caught himself wondering if Barney ever caught the irony of that.

"It ended with him deciding I wasn't worthy of being his brother anymore," Clint rubbed at his shoulder, fingers brushing the edge of the scar before pulling away quickly, like he always did. "So he carved the tattoo out and left me in the dirt to die," he finished, feeling as empty as he always did when he remembered that day; remembered all the days leading up to it and afterwards. He'd stopped trying to think about what he could have done differently to not drive Barney away years ago, and he looked up at Thor now. Thor would eventually figure out that second guessing how he had been with his brother wouldn't help change things, it never had for him, but Clint was well aware that it never really made the pain go away.

Thor was watching him with steady understanding though, a new warmth in his eyes that Clint realized had never really been directed at him before. He hadn't set out to tell Thor that he wasn't alone in the fucked-up brothers department, and that Clint understood a little of what he was going through (which was also hard, because the anger Clint had towards Thor's brother had definitely been a minor strain in their since the team formed), that he wasn't entirely alone on that front.

"Jesus. You two make me glad I was an only child," Stark muttered, breaking the silence and, now that the pressure to reveal some of his darkest secrets had released, Clint relaxed slightly.

Later, after the truth collar had been safely removed in SHIELD's labs, after Clint had been cleared to return to the tower and had, self-admittedly, hidden from everyone in the building for two days straight, he shared a silent drink with Tony and Thor, understanding settling between them and for once no one feeling the need to try and hide it by being loud, or brash, or breaking things.

And if he shared another drink with Phil later that same evening, silently acknowledging that yes, he was aware Phil had stood outside the clinic room and heard every word Clint said.

Phil crashed in Clint's spare bedroom (because Clint actually had one, so he figures it might as well get used), and refused to speak to anyone the next morning until he had at least two cups of coffee.

All in all, as far as truth collar abductions went, it could have gone a lot worse.

In the late, dark hours where he silently watched Tony work in the labs while he remained hidden in the shadows, he acknowledged that maybe there was a kind of freedom in the whole experience. Being forced to give up something of himself that he'd never spoken out loud before, he had thought it would be worse, would hurt more. Instead people he knew and respected knew a little more about him, and the world hadn't ended. It was fine. For once, it was fine.

The movie had been released to theaters for three weeks already. Clint knew this because he had been planning on going during the opening weekend, but had ended up flying the quinjet to a monastery in Tibet to stand guard over a 'secret' monk peace meeting. It was a solo mission, no handler required, and he spent the time invisible, perched on temple ledges or pressed into the overhanging mountain wall as he kept a close eye on the elder.

The elder wasn't supposed to know Clint was there, nobody was as nobody had asked for aid. Phil had just been concerned and Clint had volunteered, off the clock, to keep an eye out. He was well aware of this particular monastery having sheltered an injured Phil fourteen years prior, the least he could do was look out for the people who had kept his handler safe.

When Clint returned from that mission he had training, a fight with the Avengers in Kentucky, and then mission debriefs and more training and by the time he finally had a free night and the energy, it was three weeks past the movie's opening night. It had been years since Clint had gone to a theater, not since he'd been a kid actually, trailing after Barney as they snuck away from the circus and into a show. Before Clint had been mentored to the Swordsman. Before things started changing between them. He remembered Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom the best, and he remembered badgering Horos into teaching him how to wield a whip, in return for cleaning the man's laundry for a month.

It had been worth every dirty pair of underwear.

Clint thought he might have trouble with the crowds though, with being in an unfamiliar place surrounded by seats and people and distracting lights where anything could happen. On ground level.

He would have liked to ask Tony to get the movie for the personal theater at his tower, but Clint had needed to talk to his SHIELD allocated therapist about something to keep her off his back so he'd mentioned the movies from when he was a kid. It was one of his better memories that he refused to forget. Her solution had been for him to go to an actual theater. She'd toldhim to go try it out, and let her know how it went. She was trying to help him, he knew that, so he pushed the resentment away because now he had no choice. He had to follow her order, as she was equal clearance level as him (she had to be if she was supposed to listen to them weep over classified issues), but had the extra authority of being his assigned doctor.

He'd thought about asking Phil to come with him, an extra set of eyes to watch his back, but Phil was off on an assignment for Fury and nobody knew when he'd be back. He would have asked Natasha, but she was with Phil (Clint kept his distaste of being kept out of the loop to himself with years of practice).

That left Thor, Bruce, Steve and Tony.

Clint had started to ask if they'd be interested in the movie a few times, and was either unintentionally interrupted or aborted before getting the question out. He'd been living and fighting with them for almost a year and a half now; he was more than familiar with how in-each-others-faces they were despite having private apartments in the building. He figured the last thing they wanted to do was spend more time together, not like this. He was self aware enough to understand that he was still uncomfortable asking for help, and more so thinking that people would want to help without expecting something in return.

Better to try this first movie run solo- a trial to see how well he could deal with it.

He asked Jarvis to find a theater that was playing the film, emphasizing that the less chance of the theater actually having a lot of patrons the better. When he left for the late night showing he did so discreetly. He took twice as long to get there as he should, making sure he wasn't being followed, and was happy that the theater, despite its decent entrance lighting, was a little more rundown looking, with a single, bored attendant who barely glanced up as he paid for his ticket.

He paused on his way in, eyeing the concessions counter and the popcorn. It was still popping, fresh and fragrant and looking good (he knew his popcorn, it was one of the joys his experiences growing up hadn't sullied). He considered it, but he was concerned that in the process of eating it the sound of his chewing might mask the moment a secret enemy approached. He'd be jumpy enough with the surround sound.

He went into the theater empty handed, looked down at the mostly vacant seats spread out before him, and eased himself into the center of the empty back row. He could see the entire theater from here, wasn't locked into a corner, and would notice every individual who entered and left the place.

The giant screen was flashing trivia and names he didn't recognize, there was a group of college kids five rows down who were obviously a little buzzed, but clearly not intending to be a problem. A few other groups were spread out and a couple were practically in each others laps in the far corner on his right. He doubted they were here for the movie. When the light dimmed he tensed and did another scan of the theater. No threats, he was good. This was fine.

The first commercial wasn't even halfway through (commercials? At the movies? Really?) when the door on the left pushed open and a single person stepped through. Clint tensed in recognition. He didn't call out though, and he was certain that there wasn't an emergency or his emergency card would have activated. It was only a few moments before Bruce's searching eyes scanned over the theater and landed on him, and then the man blinked, waved, and brought his phone up to his ear.

"Theater five," he spoke quietly into it before slipping it into his pocket and moving along the isle to flop, uninvited, into the seat next to Clint.

"Hey," Bruce greeted with a slight smile, and Clint carefully did not let his confusion at the sudden appearance show.

"Fancy meeting you here," he drawled in response, to which Bruce shrugged and looked around, noting that the closest people were still five rows away.

"Slow night," he managed to say with a completely casual air, just as the doors swung open again, this time Thor stepped through, wearing jeans and an honest to god button up, with three extra-large bags of popcorn held carefully before him. He spotted them unerringly quickly, and even in the theater that was lit only by the screen Clint could see the joyful gleam in his eyes.

"Mighty Hawk!" He announced, loudly, and beamed at him. Clint sat a little straighter, feeling slightly blindsided as Tony appeared beside Thor with a tray of nachos and cheese and two excessively large beverages balanced neatly in hand.

"Remember the talk about using your indoor voice when in public?" Tony asked, more distracted than anything as he nudged the god forward into the row so he could follow.

"Verily," Thor agreed, still beaming as he allowed himself to be herded. Bruce reached up to help with the popcorn.

"Not to be an ass or anything, but what the hell are you guys doing here?" Clint asked, careful to keep his voice down.

"Jane has introduced me to the public theater houses, I find the experience most enjoyable!" Thor declared, his attempt to be quiet coming out as more of a hiss-whisper that sounded out of place on the big man. Clint had no choice but to grab the massive bag of popcorn promptly dumped in his lap by Bruce, and looked sharply to his right when that door opened and Steve came through, carrying his own massive bag of popcorn and drinks. He took the seat on Clint's other side and promptly passed over two bottles of water.

"I haven't been to the movies since the big guy and I became acquainted," Bruce cracked open his water like it was no big deal and took a drink, deflecting.

"I've always liked the big screen," Steve shrugged, his elbow knocking against Clint's.

"I've never been," Tony explained, unconcerned, like it was no big deal that even Clint, who had been dirt poor as a kid, had been to the movies and he hadn't. That a god from another realm had been to a place like this before he had. For some reason Clint had just assumed Tony had been to more than a few premiers, with prime seats and flutes of Champagne and potentially the lead actress by his side.

"Are we really expected to sit in these seats the entire time? I feel my spine already misaligning." He shifted in exaggerated discomfort to make his point, but he was a little distracted as he was no doubt taking in the speakers, the screen, and the massive strips of sound muffling material on the wall. Now Clint suspected Tony's lack of visitation to a public theater had more to do with a secluded childhood and lack of friends than the expectations of such extreme wealth.

The previews were starting. Clint wasn't ready to let this go yet. He didn't like being ambushed, and this was unexpected enough that he was honestly a little rattled.

"So what, you guys are stalking me now?" He didn't know if he should be offended yet, he was trying not to be.

"Don't be ridiculous. Jarvis is stalking you, he just let us know that you were sneaking away and told us where he thought you were going." Tony dug a nacho into the warm processed cheese and shoved it in his mouth. "It's a public place, so we figured we'd join you," he said with a full mouth, leaning around the breadth that was Thor to smirk briefly at Clint. As if Clint wasn't fully aware that Jarvis only said anything because Tony told him to.

Clint sat back in his seat, the preview switched to something about a natural disaster involving a volcano.

"Steve got the impression that you were trying to ask us if we'd be interested in going at lunch," Bruce explained quietly, "after Jarvis told us you'd left. If you really wanted to be here alone, we can go. No harm."

Clint was startled, sure, but he'd like to think that he wasn't actually the asshat that a lot of SHIELD often described him as. At least not all the time.

"Nah, it's cool," he shrugged, and looked at the massive pile of popcorn in his hands, noted the way Steve was leaning slightly forward in his seat, a mixture of anticipation for the movie, and preparation to leave if he wasn't wanted. "But if you guys don't like the movie, that's not my problem." Steve relaxed.

"That looks to be a mighty battle!" Thor declared exuberantly at the screen, making the drunk college group laugh. Clint didn't think anyone in the theater was aware of exactly who had joined them for this evening's film. He was glad for it.

He figured he should feel uncomfortable, being boxed in on either side by his teammates, not used to being so close to them outside of sparring and actual fights. The discomfort never came.

Halfway through the movie he even relaxed enough to have some of the popcorn.

Chapter Text

When it came down to it, "deciding" to join the avengers was exactly what Clint had needed. It helped him in ways that his teammates and SHIELD couldn't understand. Or, to be fair, they probably would understand- they were just ignorant of certain facts and he couldn't enlighten them. It was against his programming. Whatever. The point was he liked being a part of this crazy ass team of not so sane and seriously messed-up people. He trusted them, mostly, and that was something profound as far as he was concerned. He trusted them to have his back, do the right thing, and not screw him over unless it was absolutely necessary.

He also didn't mind the living arrangement, which was an experience that he could confidently say would never, ever be replicated anywhere else. This was maybe what surprised him the most out of everything.

Of course that didn't mean that he spent all that much time with them, at least not visibly. He did the mandatory team-building exercises that Fury oh so thoughtfully suggested to Rogers. He joined them for every third or so team dinner. He trained with them when necessary, fought with them, and more recently, occasionally, went out to a movie with one or more of them. Natasha hadn't commented on the three group theater outings that had taken place yet, aside from pointing out that Phil enjoyed romcoms with realistically happy endings. Clint knew she had come along to the second two, but seeing as she generally disliked anything to do with stories not based in fact, she had stayed hidden and had their backs. The rest of the time he kept to himself, aside from the long hours keeping surveillance on them just outside their range of awareness.

It worried him how easy it was to follow them around the city on their days off. Except Bruce, who was well known for turning into a chameleon and disappearing into most crowds. Clint's response to this lack of self-preservation was to quietly give Jarvis instructions on a bi-monthly basis to improve aspects of the towers security. This carried over to the Malibu mansion, the palace in France, and then any other abode Tony visited without the Avengers in tow.

Clint also, occasionally (very rarely), put aside his general avoidance of the kitchen to cook a massive breakfast for everyone, silently marking anniversaries nobody was aware of but himself. He watched the group enjoy it from the veiled privacy of an unnecessarily large air vent. He was pretty sure at least Nat and Steve knew he was there though they never made a move to draw attention to his no doubt creepy lurking. If Phil was there, the man always saved a plate for Clint. Clint never knew how the man was aware that he'd neglected to eat any of the food himself, but he was always glad for the plate later on.

Things were good.

Things had been good.

It was pretty much inevitable that it wouldn't stay that way.

Clint stood just off to the side of their towers communications room, still within sight of the camera, but removed enough to give room to teammates who tended to swing their arms wider than necessary in times of agitation. Maria Hill calmly watched them from the massive vidscreen in the room's wall. Her features were schooled and professional, her eyes routinely straying to take in each Avenger that had gathered for this meeting. Which was all of them. Clint could read the stress beneath her façade, see the circles under her eyes that she hadn't bothered to cover with make-up, see the frustration that had settled just beneath her skin. He had thought of her as an enemy not so long ago but he had learned how to read her with Natasha, and while he was still wary of her, he at least knew she was capable of doing her job. That didn't mean it was always in his best interest. Rarely so, actually.

"So to clarify, because I'm concerned that my fantastic taste in heavy metal has damaged my hearing, but I thought I just heard you confirm that you're not mounting a rescue." Hands crossed over his chest, one loosing enough to jab sharply in the air, and it was impossible to not notice the furious indignation Stark was carrying.

"That is correct. It has been determined that, at this time, SHIELD cannot expend the resources or endanger our personnel any further with a rescue effort," she confirmed coolly. Her eyes flashed angrily, briefly, giving too much away. She had so much to learn still; Fury would never have let the sign of displeasure show through unintentionally.

"With all due respect, Ma'am," Steve started, and Clint tensed, because this conversation had been taking place for the last ten minutes, and while Clint had been expecting it to go this route (had hoped for it actually) he hadn't planned on being anywhere nearby during this confrontation. Preferably out of hearing range. "I can not, in good conscience, leave those agents to suffer in the hands of the Enclave," he proclaimed, as sure as ever.

Clint had in fact done everything he could to get out of this meeting after bringing the situation to his teammates attention. He'd even 'forgotten' his SHIELD issued phone in his room so he could avoid any future calls from his superiors. Steve had insisted Clint be there though, and with Thor's firm agreement Clint hadn't been able to slip away as the team had gathered.

"That decision is not up to you, Captain," she said firmly, expectantly. Clint remained still in the back corner, unable to sneak out, well aware that she had spotted him and that Bruce was, unintentionally, leaning beside the door. Clint's retreat would be far too obvious, he would be called on it before he got half-way to the door.

"I don't think it's up to you, either," Steve shot back, bringing forward the fact that it was the Council calling SHIELD's shots on this one, not Hill. She didn't even twitch in acknowledgement.

"The decision has been made. The agents involved understood the mission when it was assigned. A rescue is too risky."

"For you, perhaps," Thor's deep voice declared. "I do not believe that we will have any difficulties infiltrating this nemesis' island fortress to retrieve our shield-brethren."

"This is not your call to make," she said firmly, all professional, her eyes skimming over everyone in the room, resting a moment longer on Nat and then Clint before focusing on Steve once more. "I am ordering you to not mount a rescue mission-"

"Yeah, we hear you loud and clear," Tony cut her off, too damn late, and closed communications with a dramatic slap on the control board. "So," he turned back to the group with a sort of grim glee, "anyone up for a trip to a super secret island run by scientists who have probably booby-trapped it beyond even my wildest dreams?" Clint very carefully kept his expression bland while everyone else agreed.

It was odd to feel relief at the action being taken, and at the same time a near out of control anger and shame. He kept it under wraps during their quick, preliminary planning, giving more advice than he generally would in a pre-plan, which had Natasha giving him a sharp inquisitive look that he ignored.

He hung back as they sped off to get into their battle gear. He gave himself an extra minute while they dressed to get his game face in place, because he knew, he knew without a doubt, that this was going to fuck up his deal with the Avengers. Maybe even Natasha, and probably Phil (though he doubted the man would ever let a hint of disappointment show), and SHIELD in general.

When the team, his entire team, were geared up and boarding the jet he couldn't put it off any longer. He strolled into the Tower's hangar, still in his regular daily uniform of black cargo's and black shirt (he was stupidly glad he hadn't worn one of the ones Tony had given him today), gun on his thigh, other weapons hidden from plain sight. The building's hangar bay was four stories tall, thirty-three stories above ground, and the massive door that generally acted as a wall had already dropped out of place, letting the sharp autumn air cut through the space. Clint felt very small.

He made sure to walk like he was a fucking giant.

Natasha noticed his approach first. She barely took him in before her face went tight, disbelieving, and she made him walk all the way to her instead of meeting him half way. By the time he stopped at the aircraft's mouth, the rest of the team had realized that something wasn't quite right. The sudden stillness about the place felt hollow.

He didn't know how he should act here, but he knew how they would react and he was so very, very rarely wrong.

"You're not coming," Natasha stated bluntly, explaining for everyone and not taking her gaze from his face. He let a little regret shine through, a hint of remorse, and a firm determination that he'd made his decision. She wouldn't believe him if he kept emotions out of it, but he wasn't sure if she'd believe what he showed her in place of a stone wall.

"Following orders," he shrugged, as if his shoulders weren't weighted under iron chains. The silent what can you do was implied.

"You're kidding, right?" Stark huffed in semi-amusement as he watched from the top of the short ramp. He was looking a little rough today. His beard needed a touch-up trim. He'd been in the labs all night. Clint knew because he'd spent three hours watching him work from the tiny, high, corner platform Tony had installed eight months ago; when he got tired of Jarvis interrupting his work to inform him that Clint was spying on him again. Clint met his eyes briefly and Tony's- he should probably start calling him Stark again in his head now- face clouded over. It was the stern, untrusting gaze he got sometimes when he wasn't sure what was going on, and didn't like it. "You're not kidding. You do realize that we're going on this mission in the first place because you brought the missing agents to our attention. You insisted they needed to be helped."

"Yeah," Clint nodded and turned back to Natasha, "and you all agreed with me."

"I'm not arguing that," Clint got the impression Stark wanted to cross his arms, which wasn't practical in his metal suit. "What I don't get is your sudden decision to not have our backs." The words felt like a knife, the blame heavy, his anger potent, and Clint hadn't felt this level of resentment about his situation for a very, very long time. He wasn't actually sure he'd ever felt this angry about it before. Maybe the difference was that he hadn't had so much to lose in the past.

Tony was completely in the right.

"You'll be fine," was all he could think to say, sharper than he intended.

"It's Ria, Clint," Natasha pointed out, as if that would somehow change his mind. As if he didn't know. As if that wasn't the reason he had been keeping an eye on this fucked-up op in the first place. They had all met Ria, once or twice, during a lunch break where she had shown her casual disregard for invitation and found a place to eat her sandwich with Clint. Nobody really knew her, Clint didn't even really know her, but most of SHIELD had learned over a few ops that, for whatever reason, you don't fuck with her on Clint's watch. She was the first person that he hadn't actively felt indifferent to within SHIELD. Maybe even before it. Fuck if it wasn't pathetic that that fact alone instilled a sense of loyalty to her that he had never been able to shake.

"Yeah," he agreed, easily, his voice far too collected for the emotions inside, "I know. See you when you're back," he didn't bother with good luck, or with a request to bring Ria and her team back safely. Useless words had no place here, he trusted his team to do their job and make it home.

He turned his back on them and moved swiftly to the elevators, not keen on being in the way when the jet took off.

He could feel their stares, burning into him, but he didn't want to see their faces. That would tell him too much about what they were thinking. Hearing Steve- hearing Rogers' clipped, cool voice order them to get ready for take off was telling enough. He didn't watch them leave.

He bypassed the archery range for the tumbling course, and spent the two hours his team was in transit pulling off the most complicated tricks he knew, putting all he had into it, because he couldn't risk the punching bag like this (he couldn't afford to damage his hands, and he would, because he would let the anger take over and he would welcome the pain as distraction and then be a liability on his next mission), and he wasn't ready to run just yet.

He didn't bother changing out of his sweaty clothes before going back to the 'situation room,' standing in front of the planning table and barely able to keep from shaking he was so tense.

"Jarvis, patch me into their audio feed please."

"I'm sorry, Agent Barton, but Mr. Stark has requested that you be barred from communications on this mission." Jarvis sounded as polite as ever, but the use of Clint's title and last name said more than enough, because Jarvis hadn't used that form of address since Clint's first day in the tower.

"Understood," Clint kept his gameface on, because Jarvis was the one he had to watch out for the most in this house; the AI had eyes literally everywhere. That didn't mean Clint was above playing dirty though. "It is also understood that I am the only back-up support they currently have. SHIELD will not be assisting in any way on this mission, so if things go south fast then I need to know."

"It is my understanding that, with your refusal to partake in this rescue mission, that you are unable to help from this isolated location." Yeah, sounds about right.

"You and I both know I have connections, and a few favours I can call in if I need to," he mostly kept the angry growl from infiltrating his voice, "so patch me into the damn comm system or their safety will be on your virtual hands just as much as mine, understood?" He ordered more than asked, and Jarvis was silent a moment, whether it was from thinking it over (unlikely, Jarvis didn't require time to 'think') or consulting with Tony himself Clint was uncertain. Jarvis could be playing stubborn, it was a learned trait he was not above using. When Jarvis plugged him into his team's comms moments later he forgot about the hesitance all together. "Thank you," he said softly, and sat down, flipping his phone over again and again in his hands, waiting.

It was rough, and they didn't make it out unscathed. Natasha managed a minor head wound, Tony strained his shoulder from one of his hydraulic arm being damaged and him forcing it to work with his own strength. Clint had to force himself to not visibly react when both injuries were reported.

Ria and her teammates were alive, only one suffering moderate damages during their initial capture. Apparently they'd been rescued a scant few hours before the scientists had planned to use them as experimental test dummies. Rogers took them directly to the Helicarrier. By the time everyone made it back to the Avengers Tower Clint had taken flight to the cities rooftops, running, leaping, climbing and falling. For hours. More hours than was safe for him to do considering the danger of truly falling. He kept at it, because the idea of giving in to his limits, the ones he could control, made falling seem like the better option.

When he made his way back to the tower he'd almost expected Tony to have locked him out, like he occasionally did to Phil, but he had no problem getting back inside. Jarvis politely informed him that there would be a team debriefing that he was expected to attend at ten that morning. That gave Clint five hours to rest. He went to the pool and did laps for another hour, and when he didn't drown he retreated to his room to sleep, shaky and exhausted. It hadn't felt so large and empty and cold since his first few months here, when he had still been uncertain of everything. When he'd been waiting for SHIELD to tell him the choice wasn't his after all.

He took his pillow and blanket to the spare room that Phil sometimes used and lay down in the corner, the door hidden from view by the bed. It wasn't much better than his own room, but he was able to relax enough to get two hours of exhausted sleep. It would have to do.

Unsurprisingly the debrief did not go well.

They were angry with him, understandably. Confusion and hurt sat heavy in the room though everyone took care to try and hide this. Clint understood. He got it. There wasn't anything he could do about it. He hadn't had their backs. He had stayed home and sat around with his thumb up his ass while they had risked their lives at his request. They could have used him. He'd picked out five times where his presence would have made an easier time of the entire mission; maybe stopped Natasha and Stark from getting injured; could have maybe sped up the entire operation.

Steve asked him, quiet but firm, why Clint had made the decision to not go with them.

Orders, Clint said, because what else was there? It wouldn't fly, because Nat had gone, despite being "just as bound" by SHIELD rules as he was. She had followed her team. It didn't fly as an excuse, but he stuck to it. He wasn't going to make up apologies beyond that, there was no point and nothing he could really say that would fix this.

He expected to be asked to pack up his belongings and head back to SHIELD HQ. He expected to be thanked for his past contributions and efforts even while they explained that if they couldn't expect him to put the Team before SHIELD than he couldn't be trusted. He had his sack packed, the stiff material rough in places and it was almost bursting. For the first time that he could remember he couldn't fit all his things into it. He had a fucking painting on the wall that Banner and Rogers had randomly given him on a Tuesday morning five months before. It was an original, thick, bold oils and sweeping brushstrokes that were soothing and shapeless and he still lost hours at a time just staring at it when he was taking time to himself. He wasn't sure what the etiquette was here: could he take it with him? He knew how gifts worked, knew that it was his, but maybe they wouldn't appreciate him keeping it anymore? Maybe he didn't want it as a reminder of what he'd had to give up.

He'd lost half an hour before the debrief staring at it with indecision, before pulling out his phone and snapping a picture of it. The picture would be good enough, something he could pull out to torture himself with when he was feeling particularly pathetic in his more acceptably sized apartment at SHIELD.

They didn't ask him to leave.

He hid his surprise but suspected that Natasha, silent through the entire meeting, had noticed.

Fury interrupted Tony trying to dig a clearer explanation out of Clint for the third (fourth? Fifth?) time. He officially frowned in disapproval as he updated them on the rescued agents status. Then, once Stark confirmed that their connection was completely secured from outside sources, thanked them for their efforts. He never once looked disapprovingly at Clint, but Clint imagined he could see it all the same. He retreated from the debrief after that, stating that as he hadn't been a part of the fight (because yes, he would bring that fact boldly to the table, no reason to pretend otherwise and embracing things blatantly was a form of misdirection that he had always been good at) his presence really wasn't necessary.

He went back to the New York offices, he didn't have a room there anymore, but Phil had an uncommonly comfortable couch that Clint had become quite fond of over the years. It felt like second nature to camp there for the next two days, or at least for the few hours he needed to sleep over the next two days. Waking up to find Phil sitting behind his desk, watching Clint with a pensive frown that disappeared as soon as Clint opened his eyes, was almost a relief. Phil wouldn't let him keep hiding out.

"It's been a while since you've utilized the retreat tactic," Phil observed, and gestured at the second cup of coffee sitting on his desk. Clint swung up to his feet, carefully not showing how much his body ached from days of self-enforced training, and grabbed the drink. It was lukewarm. Phil had been there for a while. Clint would be uncomfortable about that, except that he'd decided years ago that Phil was not his enemy and his senses no longer saw him as a threat, even in sleep. It was not uncommon to wake up from an afternoon nap on this couch to find his handler working away behind his desk after having fallen asleep alone.

Come to think of it, the wall behind Phil's desk was the perfect space for Clint's painting. Maybe he should bring it here for Phil, before he lost it when he inevitably left the team…although that was perhaps childishly passive aggressive and while Clint wasn't above that, he wasn't quite ready to get rid of the art just yet.

"I like to think I've survived this long by utilizing my best options," he answered only after he'd thrown back the entire cup of coffee. It sloshed warmly into his otherwise empty stomach.

"Natasha has asked me to inform you that if you are not back at the tower by tomorrow evening she will come and get you herself," was Phil's response. The corner of his mouth twitched, though in mirth, concern, or because he had an itch he was refusing to scratch Clint had no idea.

They sat in silence for a stretch, Phil waiting as patiently as ever, his gaze blatantly assessing Clint and Clint, feeling exhausted and so resentful his bones ached with it, rubbed a sheepish hand through his hair. He could only imagine what Phil, the first person Clint had trusted in SHIELD, or long before SHIELD, thought of him now.

"You have a nice time in Argentina?" Clint finally asked to break the silence, and maybe as a weak attempt to shift his thoughts.

"I've never been to Argentina," Phil didn't stop assessing and Clint smirked, hating that he was forcing light-heartedness. He wasn't accustomed to working for it in this room.

"You bring me a souvenir?" He smirked at Phil's blatant lie.

"I couldn't seem to find a pair of espadrilles in your colour."

"Can't have a pair that'll clash with the uniform," Clint agreed, knowing he was a tad too slow, his ease just a bit too forced, and he considered retreating. He'd even use the door. He must have glanced up at the ceiling tile he generally used to make entrance into the office, because Phil moved, reaching into his desk drawer and pulling out a black file folder with a giant silver Avengers 'A' stamped prominently, on its face. Stark had found the novelty office supplies online, thought it was hilarious, and ordered in bulk.

"Captain Rogers stopped by this morning to drop off the Avengers report on the rescue," Phil cut right to the chase, no doubt feeling that beating around the bush was not only an insult to Clint, but that it gave Clint too much time to find an excuse to flee. "Your signature is absent," he dropped it on his desk, closer to Clint's position, and leaned back in his chair. He was moving a bit stiffly, his elbow seemed to be bothering him. Clint made a mental note to check out the specifics of the Argentinian mission he'd just returned from later.

"Didn't think it would be necessary," Clint made no move to grab the file, or the pen that was already sitting suspiciously close to Clint's side of the desk. "As I'm sure all of SHIELD is aware by now, I did not partake in that op."

"According to the report you were not only the mission instigator, but your participation in the missions pre-planning aided the Avengers during the actual infiltration." Phil watched him expectantly as he explained this, and Clint couldn't help the tiny huff of disbelief as he pushed to his feet. It wouldn't be the first time he'd filed false paperwork.

"Well, if the report says so sir, who am I disagree?" He flipped the file open to the last page and scratched his name at the bottom, beneath the rest, with a flourish. "Is there anything else?" he asked plainly, choosing to ignore the fact that he was here in the first place because he had broken in for a nap on Phil's couch. He searched his face for signs of disappointment. He couldn't find any, but that didn't mean anything; Phil was a master at misdirection.

"The agents have been released from the infirmary. There are no signs indicating that they have been compromised and they've submitted a formal letter of thanks for the Avengers' hand in their rescue," which had probably already been shredded and incinerated by SHIELD, but the gesture was nice. "Though I suspect you already knew all of that."

Clint shrugged. He hadn't known about the letter. Phil let another pause stretch between them, waiting to see if Clint had anything he wanted to add, any further explanation aside from cowardice from his refusal to partake in the mission. Clint used the silence to leave the office, the weight of Phil's stare (not accusing, because Phil was too good for that) heavy between his shoulders.

When he returned to the Avengers tower (he took the elevator, but rode up on top of the car, hand wrapped lightly around the heavy metal cable, shifting on its surface with precision timing to avoid the security sensors he had had Jarvis install his first two weeks in the tower) he bypassed all communal areas and, after making sure there were no angry redheads lying in wait for him, slipped into his rooms via the air vent. The first thing he did was grab a pen off his dining room table (he had a large variety of writing utensils to choose from, as he collected them to practice his throws), pull the painting off his bedroom wall, and flip it over. As clearly as he could manage he wrote into the back of the canvases frame:

-If I'm dead, permanently compromised, or not around anymore: give this painting to Phil Coulson. If he's dead, or doesn't want it, give it to the team.-

He figured the team would be able to decide what to do with it if it ever came to that.

Retrieving his blanket and pillow from Coulson's- the spare bedroom's floor, he moved back to his overly large living room. A quick flick of the wrist and the pen was across the room, imbedded in the dry wall alongside the hundred or so already there. He doesn't bother checking where it hit, he knows exactly where it landed, and drags the couch to press flush against the massive window. It's a better place than most to get some rest, and if it's comforting to be able to open his eyes and assess the status of the city at a glance, well, that's just a long-standing habit that helps him sleep.

"Phil says you're not working a covert mission," Natasha informed Clint quietly. Clint hadn't known she was in the room. He twitched, the only indication that he had nearly gone for his weapon. Natasha would have noticed, but she would never call him on it. Some habits were too ingrained.

"I'm not working a covert mission," he agreed. He wasn't surprised Natasha would think Clint had stayed behind because he had another mission to complete. Then again, her asking about it directly meant she didn't really believe in the potential excuse.

"Not that he knows of," she agreed.

"Not that anyone knows of," he shrugged, eyes on his computer.

He hadn't noticed Natasha's entrance into the room, but he noticed her exit.

He wasn't presumptuous enough to try and figure out what she thought she had just learned. He was aware enough to know the sudden chill in the room was most likely all in his head.

It hadn't been the first time an order from SHIELD had affected how he worked with the Avengers, but it was the first time he was unable to hide it. Before, damage control had been fairly simple, he had been able to work the SHIELD order into his team's mission, or he had been able to bluff around it without anyone noticing. Now he bluffed about how he felt about abandoning his team, brushing off their calculating stares with a smart remark or pretending he didn't notice, training longer hours without them, missing the mid-week team dinner. This wasn't actually a surprise to anyone as he didn't always participate in the group meals on good days. Eight days after 'the incident' as he'd taken to calling it in his head, Stark barged into the kitchen to interrupt the midmorning coffee break. Clint, feeling on edge and tired, had nearly skewered him with the sugar spoon. Fortunately Thor and Steve hadn't noticed his aborted flinch, their attention immediately drawn to Stark.

"We've got some giant lizards crawling out of central park. We've been asked to protect the civvies from becoming their happy meals," Thor and Steve had already pushed to their feet before he'd finished announcing this (maybe a bit too gleeful considering the circumstances).

Stark wasn't done though, because he had never been one to let things lie. "Let's go," the billionaire ordered, his tone shifting to a more cutting pitch, "unless anyone feels like sitting this one out? Anyone? Barton?" He looked at Clint brazenly, and Clint wished he hadn't already put the sugar spoon down because impaling Stark just then might have actually made him feel better.

"Tony," Rogers warned softly, and it suddenly became crystal clear to Clint that the 'team' had discussed, as a group, how they were going to react to Clint in light of his abandonment. Apparently snide remarks didn't follow the agreed upon game plan.

Clint wordlessly left the room ahead of them, ignoring Stark's plaintive 'what?' that followed him down the corridor. He had the quinjet ready for takeoff by the time Banner (last to arrive) practically jumped up the ramp, and he was launching out of Stark tower before the guy had properly taken his seat.

When it was over Clint was responsible for eliminating nearly half of the lizards himself. He spent the two hours before the subsequent debrief trying to burn off the excess adrenalin by flipping and swinging through the bastardized gymnastics obstacle course in Starks very impressive gym.

When the meeting wrapped up he retreated from the conference room quietly and quickly as his team began making plans for the practically traditional victory dinner. He made himself scarce. Nobody texted him any details about a meal. The next morning he quietly asked Hill if there were any ops that needed a sniper, and she wasted no time sending him to Hong Kong to catch up with a team that had been deployed the week before.

He departed within the hour with the understanding that he would be recalled if the Avengers needed him. It would do.

Chapter Text

"What am I missing?" Steve asked quietly after he joined Phil in the media room, his eyes drifting to the screen, assessing which part of the recording Phil had reached even as he pulled out 'his' chair and sat down. Phil didn't look away from the images playing out before them, but the corners of his eyes scrunched briefly at his question.

"In what context?" he asked, though Steve knew the agent probably had a good idea of what, or rather whom, he was referring to. There wasn't a lot that got by Phil Coulson, and the current tension amongst the team wasn't exactly subtle at the moment.

"He's pulling away. It's as bad as it was in the team's first six months together." He didn't need to expand on Clint's anti-social, untrusting, self-flagellating, painfully segregated recovery from Loki, and adaptation to being on the team. Phil knew. Probably better than all of them.

"Might even be worse," Phil agreed, sounding disinterested though Steve knew he was anything but. The situation with Clint, ever since the mission he refused to join them on, had everyone baffled. That confusion tended to make them all defensive and frustrated. Add in the fact that over the last two weeks Clint had been at the tower for a whopping total of five nights had Steve practically squirming with unease. Heck, Clint had disappeared to Hong Kong for four days and nobody on the team had even known for the first twenty-four hours! This, naturally, hadn't helped relieve the tension. Hearing Phil agree with Steve's general assessment on Clint's current behaviour did nothing to settle his disquiet.

On the screen Loki was smiling, sitting comfortably on the floor of his cell. His lips were moving, but the sound in the room was off. Phil and Steve had gone through this video so many times they knew it verbatim. Phil was trying to figure out who Loki's sharp address had been targeting. Steve had initially been trying to learn more about his teammates. Neither of them had found what they were looking for yet.

"Clint was the one who insisted on the entire operation from the beginning, and as far as I could tell he was more than ready to follow through, I'm sure of it. Heck, he didn't even want to come to confront Agent Hill about it, he just wanted to get the jet fired up and ready to go. I'm not going to lie," Steve couldn't help but shake his head in disappointment, damn his dramatic tendencies, "but having him pull out like that, because Hill ordered it? It's damaged team dynamics."

He couldn't quite admit that it had actually hurt, once the shock of understanding that Clint wasn't going with them wore off. Nobody on their team dealt well with being hurt, too much experience with it all around. "But it doesn't sit right," Steve concluded, with conviction, and if he felt a little bit like he was using Phil as an excuse to sort his thoughts out aloud, well, it wouldn't be the first time. "And his reaction, this pulling away thing he's started, it's worrying."

"It is," Phil agreed, without a hint of concern in his tone, but Steve liked to think that after all this time he had a pretty decent read on his teammate, and Phil was anything but pleased at the moment. He was actually very far from it. "Director Fury and I have discussed the situation. At this time we can find no fault in Barton's willingness to trust in his superiors orders."

That was all good and great, but Steve could read between the lines, and the fact that Phil was admitting that he and the Director had actually discussed this said enough about their concerns. Pretty much everyone in SHIELD knew you didn't mess with Ria, not on Clint's watch, despite the fact that nobody had ever mistaken the two for being friends. It was one of the most misunderstood relationships within the organization. That wasn't the problem though. The problem was that he hadn't supported his team. He had never done that before, there had never been a question that it was even an option before now.

"So what, we just let this go?" Yeah, Steve doubted that would go over well with the team. They weren't people who let things lie unanswered.

"Yes," Phil concluded, and quirked an eyebrow briefly at the look Steve gave him, and his posture straightened even further. Steve straightened accordingly, because this was the posture that said Phil was done with this conversation, even if he wasn't happy about it. "Agent Barton is not a child, Captain, he is fully capable of making his own decisions and following through with them; his being on this team is a case in point. Until such a time where we have proof otherwise we will operate under these parameters. Understood?"

"Yes sir," Steve agreed, meeting Phil's steel-grey eyes, letting him know that his message had been received: keep an eye on Clint, until they figured out exactly what the heck was going on. No problem, Tony had already hacked Jarvis into the SHIELD security system so they could track Clint whenever he wasn't at the tower, which was a disheartening amount of time these days.

Steve leaned back in his seat, pretending not to see Coulson's shoulders relax minutely, and focused on the screen.

"Oh, you would like that wouldn't you."

Steve would like, for once, for things to just be clear.

It's quiet in the tower, the heavy storm outside an ironic metaphor for the general feelings of confused hurt that slithered about them. The rain pelted against the glass, but it was barely audible even to Steve's enhanced hearing, and the occasional flash of lightning lit up the buildings around them. Generally Steve loved storms, loved the energy and the thundering and even enjoyed the way it always put Thor in a good mood. Even now the god was smiling gently between mouthfuls of his dinner, unaware of the apparently instinctive curl of his lips. Usually this made Steve happy, because he'd always been empathic enough to share in other people's joy (he'd take it where he could), but today it did nothing for the hollow worry in his chest as his gaze drifted to the, once again, empty seat at the table.

It had only been a quick flick of his eyes, but evidently everyone had just been waiting for a chance to broach the subject that was clearly on all their minds.

"It's the eighth meal he's missed," Bruce unnecessarily informed them, because Steve was pretty sure everyone had been keeping count. Clint used to miss team meals all the time, back in the beginning, but the last half-year or so he'd begun showing up for at least one in three.

Lightning flashed outside but Thor was no longer smiling.

"He's not off on one of his secretive extra-curricular missions," Tony stated, mashed potatoes barely clung to his fork as he waved it around to make his point. "At least not one that's been officially sanctioned," he dropped the fork back to his plate and jabbed at his ever-present computer thing.

"Natasha? Any idea where he is right now?" Steve turned to her, because of any of them she would know, and since Phil wasn't joining them tonight it was always possible Clint was with him. Not likely these days as Clint had taken to avoiding pretty much all of them outside missions, but possible.

"He was in a meeting with Sattler and Hill this afternoon. He went off base after." She twirled her dinner knife between her fingers thoughtlessly, the way she always did once she had finished eating but still needed to do something with her hands.

"I could tap into city security, get a line on him," Stark suggested and Steve instantly shook his head.

"No. Let him have his privacy. If he doesn't want to be here right now we shouldn't force it."

"Kind of like we couldn't force him to go on a mission that was his idea in the first place?" Tony snapped, shoving his still half-full plate aside in favour of looking through the city footage anyway.

"He had his reasons," Natasha defended, quiet and firm, as always. Her gaze lingered on her twirling cutlery though, betraying her unease in a way that was uncharacteristic. Steve hated the fact that he was unsure if this was a real emotion, or a subtle ploy to…do something. He hadn't learned to read her yet when she didn't want him too, not the way Phil and Clint did. He was concerned that he might never figure it out after all this time.

"Yeah, I'm still not buying his whole 'just following orders' schtick, and I'm not buying your accepting 'he has a plan' story you're trying to convince yourself exists," Tony rebutted, which had Natasha's eyes flaring in irritation. One thing Steve did know was that her reactions were always more instinctive when responding to Tony. It was one of the reasons Tony intentionally set out to aggravate her so much.

"You don't know him," she implied softly, her eyes hard as adamantium as she watched Tony and Tony, never one to back down no matter how dangerous his target, snorted dismissively.

"Are you sure you do?" His words were supposed to cut, seemingly unconcerned and aggravating but familiar enough that everyone knew by now it was mostly defensive. It was his natural reaction when he honestly didn't understand the situation and while it wasn't an excuse for his behaviour it was an explanation that they had accepted a long time ago. What nobody was expecting was the sudden, blatant, brief, shift of something that Steve would later think of as heartbreak, that flashed across Natasha's face. It was enough to shut Tony up before he continued with his barbed attack and she smiled, this time slightly bitter.

"Not as well as he lets me believe."

There was an uncomfortable silence around the table, broken by the rumble of thunder, and Tony slumped back in his seat.

It was impossible not to acknowledge that that, in a nutshell, was the problem, and right now Steve had no idea how to fix it.

Four days later, it became clear that things had gone too far.

Tony watched. With all of his tech and his, self-admitted, desire to stick his nose everywhere it wasn't wanted, this wasn't really surprising.

Having Jarvis help him out just made it easier to avoid all the time wasting crap and get to the good stuff. The good stuff, today, was watching Clint through the Helicarrier's internal cameras. The bad stuff was having his AI point out that his recent obsession with keeping tabs on the archer was almost concerning. And creepy.

Seeing as Clint had made a living out of stalking (and shooting) people from afar, Tony had no problem telling Jarvis exactly where he could shove his data fusion because Tony wasn't in the mood.

The point was that Tony watched. He could watch as well as he could talk if he had the right motivation, and frankly, maybe embarrassingly, he was motivated when it came to people he felt connected to. He felt connected to Barton, in a round about 'we live together and frequently save the world together so we should be bros' sort of way. Steve would spout some bull about them being like a family, and maybe he was on to something there when it came to Tony and Clint; because Clint certainly understood how family could turn on you. How family could wreck you.

Point was: Tony had never expected Clint to be the one to leave them high and dry.

It just did not compute.

Hell, honestly he expected Steve to turn on the team first. No doubt it would be something noble and self-sacrificing and world-saving, but Tony had never pictured Clint not having their back in a fight. Especially not one he'd dragged them into.

This was not Tony feeling any kind of special loyalty to Clint after learning (so long ago now) that Clint had turned against a massively well established, shady, European conglomerate instead of assassinating Tony.

Tony got over all feelings of shock and gratitude for that, like, sometime ago. Really.

Then again, maybe learning about that gem should have been a clue.

But Tony couldn't equate the man he had decided Clint was, to the man that had backed out of a fight because of orders.

Obviously nobody else on the team believed it either.

But Clint wasn't changing his tune, and he was keeping his cards tucked so close to his chest they were slotted between his ribs.

Tony had figured, and he had past experience to back this idea up, that aggravating Clint at every possible turn would get the guy to eventually snap and let his real reasons for jumping ship come to the forefront. Clint wasn't really known for locking away his opinions on things. Except that, after a few years together, Tony had kind of forgotten that while Clint was an insanely gifted archer, he was also someone who dealt with potential world annihilating secrets on a regular basis. Tony blamed his temporary lapse of judgment on the fact that since the Avengers had formed Tony had been privy to pretty much everything Clint had, which meant there wasn't a lot of secret keeping.

Except that there was, and Clint was kind of scarily adept at making people think he wasn't a threat when he didn't have his field gear on. Basically, Tony's hot-tipped digs and insults to get Clint to 'reveal his secrets' had ended with Clint being surprisingly non-confrontational and, disturbingly, more absent than they were used to.

This bothered Tony.

More so it bothered Phil, who was walking around like the world was filled with sunshine and approved acquisition forms in an attempt to hide how intently he was watching Clint. This bothered Tony more. Because it was a rule (an actual rule, as in literally in SHIELD's procedures and guidelines (though Tony might have had something to do with its inclusion)) that if you wanted to know what was up with Barton, you went to Coulson. If Phil didn't know…it was just unacceptable. Phil always knew.

But right now Phil didn't know. Nobody knew, and Barton was taking bullshit assignments and pulling away from the team like nobody's business.

Tony watched. Jarvis had told him that Clint had been practically living out of his bag these last few weeks, not bothering to unpack his clothes. Ready for a quick retreat. Tony had honestly considered telling Jarvis to not allow Clint to leave the building for anything less than Avengers business, but then he remembered the way Clint didn't hesitate to free-climb the balconies and sheer glass windows of the tower for kicks. He did not want to imagine what the man-monkey would do if pushed into a corner.

Also, Tony could be an asshole, but he wasn't cruel. Not deliberately at least. Well, outside of words. He wouldn't lock Clint down without solid concern for his safety.

Regardless Tony watched. He watched video surveillance of Clint training, his concern only increasing when Bruce joined him and started biting at his nails as Clint worked himself into exhaustion.

Tony watched how Clint successfully acted as though nothing were wrong as he went about his daily business.

Tony watched, damn it! So it was understandable that he was mildly disgruntled when it was Natasha who called the team to an emergency meeting. Or more literally called the meeting to him, seeing as Tony had been with Phil and Fury in Fury's favoured conference room at the time, having one of their 'stop hacking classified SHIELD systems, Stark' meetings with the man (though Phil really didn't do much more than grace him with a brief glare and then ask him to hack into homeland security instead) meetings. Tony felt a certain level of glee knowing that Fury needed him for information, mainly because he knew how much Fury hated it.

Phil didn't look surprised at all when everyone poured unannounced into the room, in various states of dress as Steve and Thor had apparently been sparring. Tony vaguely wondered if snapping a picture of the two muscled, sweaty men and sending it to Pepper would be appreciated or frowned upon. He was side tracked, however, when Bruce hustled in and then looked around.

"No Clint?" he asked Phil, who cocked an eyebrow inquisitively at Natasha. Naturally Tony took Natasha's imploring glare as the answer it was meant to be, and it wasn't his imagination that Phil's posture had suddenly grown stiffer.

"Agent Barton is on a reconnaissance mission," he informed the room at large. "I was under the impression that you were made aware of this development." It was a statement, not a question, and it was backed up by the fact that Fury didn't look the least bit put out that Clint's whereabouts had been revealed. It became pretty apparent that no, they had not been made aware of Clint going off on another mission without telling them.

"Agent Barton landed a short while ago. He and Agent Sattler are currently having their post-mission medical." Fury added, and Tony cut him a quick look. Divulging information without provocation. He must be trying to get on their good side again or something. Tony narrowed his eyes suspiciously.

"This was more than just a reconnaissance mission," Natasha informed them, her voice as steady as ever, but the anger was simmering just beneath the surface, visible. Too visible, which showed just how upset she was. "This is a problem that needs to be fixed." A place mat slid across the table and bumped into his hands, though he hadn't seen her move. Freaking ninja. He was immediately distracted, however, as he recognized the "place mat" was his. Or more specifically it was of his design. It was experimental to the point that he hadn't bothered handing it to the companies engineers yet. It wouldn't be on the market for years, and that was if he decided to share.

"You bugged him?" he was kind of impressed as he twirled the mat before him, noting the glimmering surface catching and mutely refracting the light in the room.

He considered making an issue of Romanov blatantly stealing his tech (not spying, because he may have mentioned this project to anyone who was within ear shot a few…dozen times) but decided it wasn't worth the waste of energy.

"It was necessary," she confirmed, staring at Fury and daring him to disagree. He didn't, but Tony got the impression it was because a) the mission hadn't been that big a deal and b) he probably wanted to know what had one of the most deadly people in SHIELD (in Stark's opinion) in a tizzy. Yeah, he'd been spending a little too much time around Steve. No wonder Pep was rolling her eyes at him all the time lately.

"The mission took place deep in Brazil. Communication with the team was disrupted, as expected, once they were one site," Phil explained flatly but seemed to be preparing for news he was not going to like. The Black Widow's hostility was a fair indication that he was right to brace himself.

"You couldn't patch through with a satellite?" Tony asked and Phil shook his head.

"No. We can't get any reading on the area, there's some kind of interference that we suspect is manmade but have not been able to confirm.

"Which is why we sent a team in to investigate," Fury sounded like the entire situation pissed him off, though to be fair Tony had long ago learned that that was his default tone. "The mission was reported a success," he looked steadily at Natasha. "No reported injuries."

"Well, seeing as our featherless bird was unknowingly tagged we can find out for sure," Tony cut in, not caring for the mission details, as sparse and unhelpful as they were. He slid the Highly Advanced Refractive Synergizing Host (aka the place mat. The name was a work in progress) closer to the center of the table.

"Jarvis, access the HARSH, cue to the part that has Natasha sharpening her knives," he ordered, and startled as the surround sound speakers blasted into life around them. He had expected the holographic projection to appear first.

"Jesus Christ I'm not fucking Spiderman!" Clint's voice hissed, unmistakable. The sound quality was excellent, and turned up to this level each breath was clearly audible. It helped paint the picture of the situation, whatever it was. Tony pulled the HARSH closer to him and tapped at it lightly, hoping to trigger the image. Clint was tense. Not only tense, but livid and not trying to hide it. That fact alone was enough to have called this meeting, but it was far from the main concern.

"It looks like today you're going to have to pretend to be," Sattler, Barton's handler on the mission, was cold. The vehemence was unmistakable in his tone. "You're good at that aren't you? Pretending."

Phil clenched a fist below the conference table where nobody was supposed to see his reaction. Tony saw (because he watched damn it), and across the large table Natasha's arresting green eyes stared at him, unblinking. The breathing over the audio feed was almost striking in the otherwise silent room and Tony forced himself to unclench his fist and he started breathing in sync with the recording of Clint's.

"It's a specialty," Clint's response lacked inflection now, the anger gone, demonstrating his ability to hide. Sattler hadn't been impressed if his derisive exhale was anything to judge by. Oh, but they were judging. Hard. One look at Phil told Tony that this Sattler guy…he wasn't going to know what hit him when Phil was through. So were the rest of the Avengers were forming their own opinions if their complete silence was anything to go by. "That doesn't mean this isn't a bad idea. Sir," he tagged the title on belatedly, deliberately antagonizing. Fury's eye twitched, more than familiar with the tactic and far more practiced at ignoring it than Sattler. "Mission parameters are to observe."

"I'm not interested in your opinion." Tony worked restlessly, gently probing the mats delicate surface, head cocked to the side while he listened. He was waiting for Clint to just knock this guy on his ass and be done with it.

"And clearly you're not concerned about my welfare either. Look, we can back off and regroup, get better intel. Get intel that actually tells us that a fucking monstersaur is our target! We need to figure out how it got here, not attack it," Clint tried, but it was clear that Clint was aware that Sattler wasn't going to change his orders. "This is a suicide run."

"I know what it is," Sattler affirmed, his tone as unflappable as always over the comm. "You've probably got one shot to make this work before it takes you down, and your window is narrowing. Take it out Barton, maybe try earning that superhero status instead of hiding behind your teammates," was Sattler's icy response.

"Is this for real? He's serious about this?" Tony sputtered, unable to hold his silence any longer, shoulders tense and fingers tapping sharply, and finally the holographic display popped up.

It was experimental tech that hadn't been field tested yet, but even then it was pretty fantastic. Until he remembered that, because it relied on sonic vibrations and not an actual visual recording, it had a limited situational display. Of about three hundred square-feet, give or take depending on the surfaces sound would bounce off.

In this case Clint and Sattler, sweaty from the jungles humidity, popped up in full 3D over top of the HARSH. They stood facing off against each other with a solid jungle to one side, solid ground beneath their feet, and pretty much nothing on their other side.

"The lack of image beside them indicates a vast amount of open space," he explained, frowning both at how the vegetation was semi-transparent but still obstructing the view of Clint from where Steve and Thor stood. Noting the outright hostility in Clint's glare had his frown deepening.

"There is a ravine in the area they were scouting," Phil explained, leaning forward slightly to analyze everything he was seeing. "It's about thirty meters wide at its most narrow, and has a high point of thirty-seven meters."

Tony wasn't going to ask why Phil knew that; everyone on the team tended to keep an eye out for the tall perches Clint favoured.

Clint didn't bother responding to Sattler, twisting away from him to unclip and then yank his quiver off his back. He crouched down, pulled an arrow and fiddled for a moment. Tony recognized what the archer was doing when he stood and, in one smooth move, drew back to his bows maximum pull, and let the grappling arrow fly. He twisted a moment later and quickly jogged around the trunk of a thick tree near him, wrapping the cord that was attached to the arrow around it and pulling as tight as he could.

"This doesn't look promising," Bruce muttered, arms crossed over his chest as he stared at Clint's quick, efficient movements as he secured a knot. Sattler was watching Clint off to the sides, eyes narrowed as their archer swept up his quiver, pulled two more arrows before tossing it aside, and grabbed his bow. He turned to Sattler, hands closed tight around his tools.

"Last chance to take it back, Sattler," Clint's voice was rough with strain, his entire body one taut line, and Sattler glared at him darkly. A roar sounded in the background. It was very close.

"Tick Tock, Agent Barton" Sattler snarled, and Clint turned to face the massive emptiness before him that must have been over looking the cliff.

"How is this my life," Clint muttered darkly, the words nearly incomprehensible he spoke so low. He sucked in a deep breath, shoved the arrow shafts between his lips, ducked his head in concentration, and ran full throttle towards the edge of the cliff. Behind him, before Clint got too far away for the sophisticated tracker to read, Sattler's eyes widened in the classic 'oh shit' look of surprise before he disappeared from the hologram altogether.

Clint swung his recurve up, at the apparent last moment, so that it sat atop the rope and he wrapped his hands around the limbs on each side of the line.

Steve exhaled harshly as Clint's body flowed forward, the bow catching on his improvised zip line and bouncing as it held his weight and he sped forward.

It was disconcerting to see him travelling at an alarming speed down the rope but not move even an inch forward across the conference room's table. The line he was travelling was crisp to their viewing pleasure as he sped along it, his face was as stony and determined as it was when he was putting all his concentration to accomplishing his task.

Suicide run, he had called this order. Tony swallowed, realizing that this was the face of Clint doing his best not to die.

A roar that rivaled the Hulk's trembled through the room and Clint, his eyes focused on something that none of them could see, let go of one side of his bow.

He let go.

He was falling. Tony couldn't see how high he was, couldn't see anything but the table top and conference room and his team around the holographic image, but he could definitely see Clint fall.

Nobody was there to catch him.

"Oh shit," Tony couldn't help exclaiming, jerking towards the image as if he could catch the tiny falling Clint and stop this from happening.

Clint was already twisting mid air, his body angling towards the sky, half curled, his feet pointed below him. His arrows were both nocked and his string drawn back with his elbow sticking up at that angle that archers mocked until they learned that he never missed, and he held.

One second.

Two seconds. It felt like an hour.

Three seconds-

A massive, brown scaled head flashed into the hologram, a thick winged appendage cut in joining it, a long beak with giant fucking teeth opened wide.

Clint released his arrows. A guttural screech pierced the room. Clint started to straighten out, but with a piercing burst of static his holographic image disappeared and the room fell completely silent. He must have hit water. He must have-

"I would like to remind everybody that at this precise moment Barton is in Medical and there have been no reports of injuries," Fury was a voice of reason in what Tony would admit was an adrenalin spiked silence verging on chaotic outcry. The reminder was needed, and appreciated, but it did nothing to stop the rush of fear/disbelief/outrage that boiled up inside Tony. Judging by the controlled looks on Fury and Phil's faces, this bit of action had been left out of Sattler's initial report.

"I do not understand," Thor was still staring where Clint's recorded image had been falling seconds before. "Why would he risk himself with such a perilous deed after so vehemently protesting?" He was honestly flummoxed. "Surely he turns down such suggestions of madness!"

"It wasn't a suggestion," Tony snapped, unfairly, but Thor didn't seem affronted by his tone. "It was an order."

"So what?" Steve looked like he was ready to pull out his hair, but his hands stayed steady by his side as he frowned, severely unhappy. "Clint's known for bucking the system whenever he can. He doesn't- he isn't trying to hurt himself, he wouldn't- he wouldn't risk himself like this because of orders." Tony shoved away from the table at this, pushing to his feet and pacing because seriously? Could nobody see this?

"Of course he did what he's told! He always does what he's told," Tony snapped, frustrated, his arms crossed over his chest and eyes narrowed darkly. "SHIELD says jump and he throws himself off a twenty story building without a grappling arrow!" Everyone knows this about the guy- it was a running 'joke' for Christ's sake.

Phil had already been fairly still, containing his emotions like he always did, with the stress and worry buried deep under the surface, but at Tony's words, he became absolutely motionless.

Everyone picked up on the change immediately.

Phil didn't seem to notice.

Tony snapped his mouth shut on another comment and Fury leveled an intense glare at his right-hand man. Phil stared hard, his eyes focused on the star on Steve's chest, but he was clearly not seeing anything. It was a long moment, before Fury grew impatient.

"Coulson?" he damn near growled, breaking the sudden uneasy quiet that shrouded the room, and Phil sharply came back. He stood quickly, his movements economical, and the general veneer of harmlessness that he carried around as a shield disappeared. He silently moved to the computer panel on the wall. A moment later the recording of Loki's last day on earth appeared. Nobody interrupted as he took a moment to find what he wanted, and then he hit play.

"-not so different from yourselves, you know." Loki's familiar smugness filled the room, his recorded image on the screen just as arrogant as it was every time Tony had watched this file. "I hardly think it's fair that you judge me for my methods when this place is ripe with similar followings. Similar failings, as you would no doubt believe." Natasha slipped up to stand silently beside Phil, her face revealing nothing. "The unquestioning obedience of those around us; is it not a comfort, is it not a right to be given such loyalty?"

"Loyalty is earned," Rogers rebutted on screen, conviction clear, and he stood straighter in the room now, gaze focused on Phil and not the recording.

"Oh, I'm sure it can be," Loki dismissed, "though one can never trust devotion that is simply earned can they? Even the ones charged with loving you most turn on you every day."

"Enough with your spiteful words brother," Thor's voice boomed, louder than life even in video. "Say what you mean to plainly, for we grow short of time and patience."

"Oh, you would like that wouldn't you?" Loki sneered, and Phil slapped at the touchscreen under his hand, stopping the video. He stared at it, and then looked straight at Fury.

"Loki was talking to Barton," he determined, "taunting him." He left no room for argument, not even from the Director of SHIELD.

"How can you be sure of this?" Thor asked, his tone defensive and regretful, the way it always was when Loki was involved. Phil didn't answer him, focused on Fury. Fury inhaled deeply, once, and Hill stepped away from the wall, making her presence known. Tony had completely forgotten she had been there in the first place. He would be bothered by that later.

"Sir, Barton's been released from medical," she informed them, face as serious as ever. "He's on his way here."

"Determine exactly how compromised he is," Fury ordered, looking hard at Phil. Phil nodded sharply, and turned to face the rest of the Avengers, who were in various states of confusion.

"Compromised?" Tony was still worked-up, glaring warily between Fury and Coulson. "When the hell did Barton following your orders turn him into public enemy number one?!" You know, aside from the fact that he apparently had no self-preservation instinct.

"Being compromised doesn't mean he's the enemy," Phil stated flatly, emotionless as a robot, and then he focused his attention on Steve, who was still watching the senior agent carefully. "I'm going to need your assistance," he requested, aiming at everyone but focused mainly on Steve. Steve smiled dryly, because this was Phil Coulson. If there was anyone in SHIELD the Avengers trusted as a whole, it was him.

"So long as it doesn't hurt," he replied, clearly prepared to back Phil up, and Phil smiled grimly. It wasn't comforting.

"I am apologizing now with the hopes that this will not damage our future working relationship," which was enough to promise that someone was about to get hurt, and he expected it to be Steve.

"Whatever you need to figure this out," Captain America agreed, voice firm as he stood straighter, "and then you will tell us exactly what is going on."

Phil nodded sharply, his entire posture hardening into battle ready, which had everyone else in the room tensing as well.

"I, for one, would rather know what is going on now," Tony demanded just as Clint marched into the room. He picked up on the unexpected tension two steps in and stopped a discreet distance from the rest of the group. He didn't look injured, but he also didn't look like he had nearly died only five hours ago by a dinosaur-cliff combo attack. He did not look at ease with the entire room suddenly focusing on him either. Tony almost felt bad, but at this point he was angry enough to just want answers.

"Agent Barton," Phil spoke before anyone else had the chance to say something, and Clint looked to him expectantly. "I would like you to shoot Captain Rogers."

Chapter Text

Clint's immediate response was a sharp bark of laughter, clearly startled, as Bruce and Tony began to protest. Natasha shut Tony up with a glare, and Thor placed a massive, comforting hand on Bruce's shoulder. Bruce didn't appear comforted as he took deep, steadying breaths.

Steve reacted by shifting his composed gaze to Clint.

Clint hesitated, just for a moment, before he relaxed his posture and pulled a mildly amused smile to his lips. He was aiming for disarming. He was usually a crack shot, but this time they were looking for it.

"Sorry, sir, but that's not on my agenda for the day," he shrugged, taking a casual step backwards, as though shifting to a more comfortable position. He was one step closer to the exit.

"Agent Barton," Phil repeated, tone bland, "I would like you to shoot Captain Rogers."

"This stopped being funny before it even began," Clint rolled his eyes dramatically and took another casual step backwards.

"Remain where you are, Agent Barton," Fury ordered severely, arms crossed over his broad chest as he leaned his hip, not very Director-like, against the large table.

Clint's slow but steady retreat halted instantly. He relaxed his posture even more, raising his eyebrows cockily, as though he were granting a favour instead of following an order. He made the move seem natural, entirely at ease. From the opposite side of the room Natasha's blank mask twisted darkly. Clint must have seen it, as well as the narrowing of Hill's suspicious gaze, but he didn't react to them.

"Look, does someone want to clue me in to what's going on here? Because last I checked shooting Captain America was not sanctioned. I'd go so far as to say it's considered an act of treason. Shooting Stark on the other hand-" he looked to Tony with a wicked grin, clearly expecting him to rise to the bait, to start an argument, to distract. It was a familiar tactic that suddenly wasn't as friendly, as innocent, as it had been before.

How many times before?

Tony didn't say a thing, looking unimpressed and…and worried.

"What is going on, Agent Barton, is that I would like you to shoot Captain Rogers," Phil repeated, firmly. Clint dropped his casual act, all traces of friendliness disappearing.

"I'd rather not, Sir, if it's all the same to you. And I'd like to pose a question, just to quell my own curiosity, but has everyone gone insane? Whatever this is? It's not acceptable."

"No," Phil agreed, staring hard at Clint, "this is not acceptable. I want you to shoot Captain Rogers," his voice was hard, and Clint snapped to attention, back straight and hands stiff down at his sides. His sharp eyes focused somewhere beyond the group of people watching him so intently.

"With all due respect Sir," he said tonelessly, "I will not be shooting Captain Rogers today," he tersely refused. Nobody relaxed, not even a fraction.

"Agent Barton," Phil's tone remained as firm as it was before, "I am ordering you to shoot Captain Rogers."

The change in Clint was minute, but it was unmistakable, and it was all in his eyes, because nothing about his posture shifted. Nothing altered to indicate duress. Not at first, at least.

"Director Fury," Clint addressed, "Rescind the order, sir."

Fury didn't respond, pointedly deferring to Phil, his gaze unyielding.

"Shoot Captain Rogers, Agent Barton," Phil ordered again, and Clint began to tremble, his body slowly shaking enough that it became visible to the team. In a matter of seconds a few beads of sweat began to gather at his hairline. Steve just watched Clint, waiting with the expectation that it would never happen, that Clint would never just shoot him without reason. Clint wasn't like that, and they all knew it.

Then Clint abruptly relaxed, and between one blink and the next he'd pulled his gun and fired. The shot was deafening in the enclosed space, but nobody flinched, except Steve. He jerked, body dipping to the right, but he straightened up just as quickly, his left hand clasped over his bicep with blood seeping through his fingers.

Clint was back to acting at ease, eyebrows high and expectant again, mocking, all trace of strain gone.

"Sorry, Cap, but orders are orders," he explained, cavalier, as he slipped the weapon back into his thigh holster. The look Steve was giving him wasn't angry; it was incredulous. Then it was darkly concerned. Clint's gaze shifted to stare over Coulson's shoulder once more. "Anything else you need today, sir? Maybe there are some kittens I could go drown for SHIELD."

"That won't be necessary, Agent Barton. Please remove all your weapons and place them on the table," Coulson ordered instead and Clint's eyes narrowed, unhappy, but he moved forward and began the process of laying every single weapon on the table without question. Tony made an incredulous sound at the action, but that could have been because he hadn't been expecting the garroting wire. When he indicated that he was done Coulson moved to the door, sharing an indecipherable look with Fury, who nodded in return. "Come with me, Barton," he ordered and Clint followed, clearly unhappy.

"You can't punish me for following your orders, sir," he pointed out, ignoring the way his entire team trailed after them, and ignoring the looks Steve was getting from the crew for the blood that was coating his arm. Coulson hadn't ordered a kill shot. The bullet had gone right through, not hitting anything vital. It was already healing.

"When have I ever punished you for following orders?" Phil asked blandly. Clint didn't respond. He followed Coulson into the interrogation room, all attempts at pretending to be at ease had evaporated long before they reached the room. Nobody else followed them in and the door clicked shut. Clint winked at the light grey wall opposite the table, the one that looked like a wall but acted as a viewing window from the other side. "Sit down," Phil ordered. Clint sat, ramrod straight and right at the edge of the metal seat, but without any resistance.

Phil shoved the table out of the way, its loud scraping cried into the room like a wounded animal, before he grabbed the only other chair and sat across from Clint, staring at him imploringly.

"I want you to explain what just happened, Clint," he asked, and Clint blinked at him as if he were being purposefully obtuse.

"I followed your orders, sir."

"You shot Steve Rogers."

"If you didn't want me to put a bullet in your hero you shouldn't have told me to, sir." He glared in irritation and Coulson's expression didn't change.

"He's your friend," Coulson reminded Clint, who didn't look impressed.

"He's my teammate, and we both know I've done a lot worse to the people I care about."

"Tell me why you shot him," Coulson ordered, and Clint's face did a funny little twist before smoothing out.

"I was following your orders, sir," he answered dutifully, no longer looking at Phil.

"Yes," Phil agreed coolly, "you were following orders. Like you always follow orders," he pointed out and Clint didn't react: in any way. "Are you incapable of not following orders, Agent Barton?" he asked, soft but firm. Clint didn't shift his gaze from the back wall.

"I'm loyal to SHIELD sir," Clint responded automatically.

"That's not what I asked," Phil retorted.

"I'm confused as to why it's suddenly a problem," Clint shrugged, indifferent, trying to turn the conversation elsewhere.

"Are you incapable of not following orders, Agent Barton?" Phil repeated, resolutely, and Clint swallowed noticeably once, before he was back to being coolly unaffected.

"I don't know what you're talking about, sir. I'm loyal to SHIELD."

The door to the room clicked open and Maria Hill smoothly stepped in. Clint cut a look to her, his eyes quickly tracking to what she was carrying, and he was abruptly standing. He put Hill and Coulson before him, clearly in his sights as he rapidly backed towards the nearest corner. A mild thump came from the direction of the viewing room.

"You understand why we need to do this Clint?" Phil asked, softly but firmly. His distaste with the situation was clear, but so was his determination. He wanted answers, and he was getting them.

"It's unnecessary, sir," Clint snapped, glaring down at the familiar metal collar in Hill's hand, "and I would rather we didn't do this. The first time was more than enough," he pleaded indirectly, softening his stance to wariness that had both Hill and Coulson narrowing their eyes in suspicion. Neither of them could recall the last time Clint pulled the 'feel sorry for me' card. If ever.

"We need answers, Clint," Coulson stared at him hard, "and right now I can't trust yours."

"I'm loyal to SHIELD," Clint snapped, and tensed to retreat.

"Sit down, Agent Barton," Hill ordered sharply, "and let me put the collar on."

Clint glared coldly, eyes narrowed and body tense, before he dragged the seat back in place and sat, silent. He didn't meet either of their gazes as she stepped forward and gently snapped the collar around his throat. There was no whine as it activated, but Clint's right eye twitched as it pinched into the back of his neck. It's his only reaction. Hill gently checked around the collar, asked a few base questions that Clint answered without hesitation, and then moved to the back corner of the room, crossing her arms and staring with an intensity that almost rivaled Fury's.

Coulson watched Clint silently, and when Clint briefly made eye contact, he didn't know how to interpret the look. It was angry, upset, betrayed. Relieved? It was more of a feeling than anything else, but Phil trusted his instincts. For a long moment he watched his agent, and then took a deep breath.

"Agent Barton," Phil asked, his voice firm, demanding. His eyes pleading and honest to fucking god scared. Clint looked at him, the collar brushing his skin uncomfortably, the heavy, warm ache wrapped around his entire skull squeezing. Clint had never wanted to make Phil's eyes look like that. He could only imagine the regret he was feeling for locking the collar on him. Clint wasn't regretful, he was desperate, and he couldn't express it.

"Are you physically," Phil paused, eyes hardening, "incapable of disregarding a direct order from a higher ranking member of SHIELD?" Pain lanced through his brain, through his eyeballs, in his damn teeth that were clenched so tight he could be cracking molars. He forced his mouth to open, and then closed it, and struggled to answer. The effects of the truth collar clashed violently with the effects of his conditioning and please fuck just get the word out! It was one fucking word!

He struggled to answer and to not answer for long moments, and he felt the unmistakable warmth of blood trickle from his nose, spread over his tightly pressed lips. In front of him Phil sat, still as a statue, staring, already knowing what the answer would be. It was not difficult for Clint to see the hope, the near desperate hope, that Phil was wrong in his eyes.

"Answer the question, Agent Barton," Phil ordered, using his sternest voice. The Voice that was never to be unheeded. The Voice he'd used to order Clint to shoot Steve. Clint loved and hated that voice. But fuck it right now if it didn't sound like salvation, even if his hearing seemed muffled, muted, and distant.

"Yes," he slurred the answer, forcing it out with more effort than ripping barbed arrows from his own flesh took. If he was expecting relief at being able to give the answer, he didn't feel it. Phil's face didn't change at the admittance, but his eyes, they fucking crumbled with despair before the emotion was locked away. Clint flinched, unable to help it, and swept the back of his hand over the blood on his lip, trying to wipe it away.

"Why?" Phil asked, and the spike of heated pain lanced through Clint as he again, instinctively fought to respond. He curled forward slightly, hunching over, resisting grabbing at his head, tearing at the collar. He needed to keep it on, he needed it. He needed it. He couldn't get the words out this time, he couldn't- "Was Agent Warner responsible for this?" Clint brought a hand up, knuckling at his forehead, feeling more blood trickle from his nose and he'd be concerned, maybe, if it wasn't taking everything he had to just stay in his seat and struggle against conflicting needs.

He managed to nod his head, once, sharply. There was a long moment of silence in which Clint breathed raggedly, unable to help it. So fucking useless. He felt Phil's eyes on him, imagined the thousand and one questions he wanted to ask, imagined his razor sharp mind filtering through to find the ones most needed to be asked, to cause Clint the least amount of pain. Clint didn't blame Phil for this, he never could, but he didn't need to look at him to know he was blaming himself. He wouldn't see it on the surface anyway.

"Did he order you to actively conceal your inability to not follow orders?"

Fuck. Phil. Clint keened, doubling over in his seat, barely feeling Phil's hands wrap around his shoulders to support him as his entire skull felt like it was going to implode. His ears might be bleeding- they felt like they should be gushing, colours spotted his vision, the pain blinding enough that he nearly started gagging. He'd felt this before, this specific, overwhelming tearing inside that fought between free will and the forced instinct to hide hide hide.

Breathe he thought he heard Phil coaching, his words soft and insistent and the sharp bang of the door slamming open and familiar footsteps storming the room. He struggled to answer, he fought to conceal.

"We're taking that thing off him, right now," Stark's sharp declaration cut through the ringing in his ear, and he cracked open his eyes just in time to see Phil nod tightly in agreement. No. No! He launched himself away from them, stumbling to the nearest wall and slamming his back into it violently. His entire body protested the retreat, protested his instinct to let them remove it, his muscles cramped. He knew Phil followed him, he was right there on the floor with him, and Clint held out a shaking, clawed hand to stop Tony from getting close, the other held in front of him, fisted tight. He couldn't spread his fingers. He looked at Phil.

"Yesss-" he choked a little, sucking in a breath, scrambling for any control after answering, unable to keep up the eye contact. He felt bile rise in the back of his throat.

"Agent Barton," Phil's hands wrapped firmly around his shoulders again and Clint very nearly broke one of them in surprise. "As a higher ranking agent than Warner ever was I am ordering you to disregard any instruction ever given to you to conceal your inability to disregard orders." Clint stilled, the words penetrating. It took a long moment for their meaning to sink in, and then he laughed, ragged, because it couldn't be that easy. It couldn't be.

The agony in his head, neck, and shoulders began to release almost instantly. The pain clung to the inside of his skull, stubborn, scratching, and then it was gone as well. Just gone.

He didn't trust it.

It didn't stop him from immediately struggling to regain control, forcing his breathing to appear calm and at ease until his body had no choice but to match his will. He lowered his defensive stance, flexed his sore hands quickly, and Phil carefully released his shoulders, his hands lingering longer than Clint would have expected. Phil backed away and Maria slipped out of the room, having to push through his team crowded just inside the door, staring, different levels of horror on their faces.

Steve wasn't giving anything away, but his hand was tracing the bandage that had been hastily slapped over his bullet wound, blood crusting down his arm. It should be halfway healed by now. Stark looked like his brain was going to combust, his face was so outraged. Bruce was breathing calmly. Always calm. His eyes looked greener than normal. Thor looked heartbroken, and didn't that just make Clint all kinds of uncomfortable. He looked back to Phil, who was righting the two chairs that had fallen over, no doubt dramatically. Phil looked at Clint and then eyed the chair in question. Clint forced his body to move, tried to hide the lingering pain that protested in what must be every damn cell, and slid onto the chair. His body had already been aching from his mission, he was going to need some serious muscle relaxants for the next day.

He looked at his handler. Phil was a blank slate. Shut down. He wasn't letting anyone have a glimpse into the inner workings of his mind right now. Clint swallowed but didn't try to mimic him, he didn't have the energy to hide now that it was 'apparently' no longer an instinctive drive. He was too tired to appreciate how it felt.

"Do you need medical?" Phil asked softly, at odds with his stance.

"No sir. I'm okay."

"Is this your version of okay, or our version of okay, because truth collar or not I'm not sure I believe you," Tony interrupted, and crossed his arms over his chest, clamping his hands in his armpits to keep from waving them about. Clint couldn't quite meet his teammates, or Phil, in the eyes just yet, so he pretended to by glancing at their foreheads briefly.

"Does it matter? My version is always the right one anyway," Clint smirked, and it felt thin, stretched. Nobody was impressed with his answer. Phil took a moment too long to ask his next question, and Natasha finally slipped into the room, wordlessly dropping a handful of paper towels in Clint's lap before taking up residence right behind Phil. Her eyes were cold and hard and Clint did not take it personally. He never did.

"Are you able to answer questions without the aid of the collar now?" Phil asked and Clint nodded without thought, agreeing with ease, nothing but a warm pressing tingle in the back of his mind to ensure truth. Bruce and Tony were at his side before he could follow with a verbal response, hands familiar and almost embarrassingly gentle as they opened the collar and gently removed it. They knew how the thing worked now, after the first time. The pinch as it slid out of his neck was nothing compared to what he'd just been through. He couldn't find the energy to even twitch at the brief burn.

"Did you agree to work for SHIELD of your own accord?" Phil began as Bruce was slapping a bandage over the cut in his neck, and that he nearly flinched at.

"You don't waste any time do you?" Clint grunted, automatically. "You know you're supposed to check that the water's clear before you dive right into the deep end right?" he deflected, rubbing at the tacky blood on his face with the towels and belatedly reaching up to make sure his ears hadn't actually bled. They hadn't. He suspected if they had then he would already be having his brain scanned in medical with Bruce hovering anxiously over his stretcher as opposed to over his seated shoulder.

Bruce wasn't a medical doctor by trade; Clint had no idea how the man kept getting roped into acting as one.

"Answer the question, Clint," Natasha broke the strained silence that followed, gentle, and he inhaled sharply, realizing that he could. He didn't have to lie, to redirect, or hide. Apparently the magical words of Phil Coulson solved that. No big, it had only been repressing him for about ten years now. He had always imagined he'd be singing to the rooftops about Warner the moment he got the chance. It was surprisingly difficult to find the words now. Something flared up in Phil's otherwise cool eyes, but only briefly, and Clint found himself grateful that Phil wasn't leaking his thoughts everywhere. It was a relief.

"I wasn't very impressed with SHIELD's recruitment tactics at the time." It was indirect, but it was enough of an answer, for now.

"How did this Warner guy even get close enough to get your attention?" Tony asked, moving to hop up on the table just beside them, legs dangling, distracting. Clint followed his movement out of the corner of his eye but kept his attention on Phil and Natasha. Right now, they were the ones that needed answers most.

"I was injured, taking a break." His medical files would show the assortment of injuries he'd been recovering from at the time. It was no excuse. It never had been. "He got the jump on me, some kind of paralytic, took me back to his room and had his wicked way with me," he leered, like it was no big deal. Deflect. Steve's frown deepened. "I woke up and I couldn't kill him, couldn't walk away. Had to follow his orders, had to follow SHIELD's orders. I'm loyal to SHIELD." He didn't pay attention to his last words, they were so long ingrained, had run through his thoughts so often that he rarely noticed them anymore. He didn't see how his team, his friends, reacted. He was too focused on Phil and Tasha, who didn't react at all.

"Did he use any tech?" Tony asked, sounding strangled and Clint shrugged.

"I remember some metallic disks on my forehead, there were some drugs too, lots of words and some flashing lights. I could never figure it out." He didn't mention the restraints, the agony, the fear, the confusion- they didn't need to know. Bruce wordlessly walked out of the room, and Thor, after a moment of hard staring, followed him. No doubt to make sure he was okay. Clint wasn't worried about the Hulk making an appearance, not over this. Hulk typically waited for the really important issues to join the party.

"So what you're saying is that Warner has somehow brainwashed you to instinctively, and unquestioningly, follow SHIELD directives. He imprisoned you into servitude." Steve declared more than asked, his tone severe.

"You say that like it's a bad thing," Clint grinned, "but it's not like I didn't have the ability to think for myself, to act freely. It was nothing like Loki," he pointed out, deflecting again unintentionally, trying to steer the conversation away. They weren't accepting it this time, and his new topic left a lot to be desired.

"When we deployed on the mission to rescue the SHIELD agents, to rescue Ria, you tried to get out of the meeting with Deputy Director Hill," Steve frowned. "You knew she'd order us not to go."

"If I don't hear the order, I don't have to follow the order," he tipped his head in a classic 'what can you do?' gesture.

"I've ordered you to do lots of things in the field that you've disregarded," Steve pointed out and Clint smirked, relaxing his body, trying to appear at ease without realizing it.

"You're not SHIELD," Natasha responded for Clint, clearly not needing the clarification the rest wanted. "Not really."

"So if any random, higher ranking SHIELD employee ordered you to go, say," Tony waved his hand around, "jump off the carrier, you'd do it?"

"I would, and I have," Clint agreed, grinning like it was no big deal. "Just another day at the office for the Wildman Barton." He had no idea they knew the specifics of his last mission.

Phil stood abruptly from his seat and Clint straightened to attention sharply, sensing that he had somehow gone too far.

"Agent Barton, I want you to report directly to the medical bay for examination. You will comply with any tests deemed necessary."

"Yes sir," he agree instantly. If it was possible, Phil seemed to harden even more after the easy obedience, but didn't change the order to a suggestion.

"Mr. Stark, I trust that you and Dr. Banner will aid in the discovery of a solution to deprogram Agent Barton." It wasn't a request, but it also wasn't an order. It was an expectation that brooked no room for failure. Clint paled, the shock of the request not something he'd been expecting. Phil stared at him blankly for a moment, and then left the room so swiftly he might have teleported.

Clint let out a suddenly shaky breath, and had no idea what to do about it. He wanted to go after Phil. He dutifully stood and followed his remaining team members to the medical wing.

Nobody said a single word to Phil as he moved briskly through the hallways. They just moved out of his way. The security guard lounging in the giant entryway that divided the second floor front room (the real entrance hall to SHIELD and not the dummy corporation on the ground floor) from the memorial room tensed when Phil entered.

Phil stopped ten feet from the wall, his eyes tracking the shiny eagle emblems, flitting over the names until he found the one he was looking for. He put six bullets through it, the thick, polished granite behind the shaped piece of metal chipping and puffing dust. It clattered to the ground after the sixth bullet. Phil would have put his entire clip into it otherwise.

He stood there for a long moment, staring at the crumpled piece of metal, the look on his face so foreign that the few agents and guards that had scrambled into the room, weapons drawn, didn't know how to interpret it. They didn't relax even when Phil holstered his weapon. He picked up the destroyed eagle, Marcus Warner's name no longer distinguishable due to the holes in its place.

"Do not repair that," he ordered the room at large, making his wishes very clear as he pointed once at the marred granite, bullets lodged inside its cracks. When he marched out of the room, as swiftly as he arrived nobody stood in his way. They also made no attempt to fish the ruined emblem from the trashcan he tossed it in on his way out.

That night the cleaning staff didn't think twice about dumping it in with the rest of the daily garbage, and nobody was called to try and fix the holes in the wall.

Clint sat through the tests because they were necessary. He sat through the second round because Phil had told him to, and because they were apparently still necessary.

At least two teammates were within shouting distance the entire time.

Of all the ways Clint had thought this would go, had imagined how his 'great reveal' and bid for freedom would progress, he had never really pictured the…awkwardness. He hadn't even contemplated that the people he worked with day in and out, the people he lived with, wouldn't know how to react. He'dimagined the part where they'd be angry on his behalf, probably, and that they'd work tirelessly to help solve his little problem now that they were aware of it, because that is the type of people they are.

He hadn't expected Steve to fall to some kind of macho, stoic silence as he stood guard at every door Clint was carted through, actually glaring at the doctors that were walking around. Like maybe he blamed them for not having noticed Clint's 'condition' over the years. Then he'd get this twisted little guilty look on his face because Clint knew the person he was actually blaming, was himself. Captain America, ladies and gentlemen: willing to take the blame for global warming and kicked puppies worldwide. Clint would tell him to knock it off, but he was keeping his distance and this wasn't something that needed to be shouted to the room.

"Clint," Bruce sighed softly, legs dangling off the gurney Clint was assigned to but refused to use. He wasn't a fucking invalid. Not this time. He looked up from his hard plastic chair into familiar, compassionate brown eyes, and quirked an eyebrow in question. "It would really help us figure this out if you'd tell me everything you remember about the- the procedure," he ended, slightly awkward, because they hadn't figured out what to call Clint's first mind-fucking without sounding insensitive.

"Already told you, Doc," Clint shrugged and looked back down to the tablet he was using, a game of plain, boring Solitaire spread across the screen. Bruce was quiet for a pointed moment and Clint imagined he was resisting a frustrated sigh.

"I'm familiar with research and experiments performed for deeply integrated indoctrination, Clint, I know that you're not telling us everything-"

"You've got everything you need to know," Clint cut him off, focusing intently on his electronic card game. "I'm under orders to comply with medically relevant questions, remember?"

"Clint-"

"No, Doc. Just, no. Some things aren't meant to be shared."

Clint didn't want them to know. Didn't want them to understand that he'd screamed, and begged and cried. That he'd lost control of his body before he'd lost control of his mind, and that he'd woken up like a caged animal, covered in his own filth and tethered to strangers he didn't trust.

He didn't want them to know.

He didn't want Phil to know.

"If you ever decide that you need to share-" Bruce started and Clint couldn't help the coldness that snuck into his sharp bark of laughter. He shook his head and refused to look up at his teammate.

"I appreciate the solidarity, Banner, but don't worry about it, okay? It's done- nothing to do but move forward."

Bruce was smart enough to drop it, at least for the moment. He didn't look happy. Clint didn't have the energy to care.

"What I don't get," Tony groused, finger trailing along the book spines on the shelves in Phil's office in an attempt to appear apathetic, "is why a psychic never picked up on it. SHIELD has telepaths. You've worked with them directly on two different occasions," he tossed in Clint's direction. Clint blinked slowly from his end of the couch. He wanted to lie down, rest for a moment, but not with Tony in the room. He didn't trust him not to try and draw a dick on his face or something, in an attempt to try and prove to Clint that he wasn't going to treat him any differently now that his real 'status' within SHIELD had been revealed.

Clint really didn't want to have to explain why Stark had a Sharpie impaled through his forearm before dawn had even broken.

"I don't know," he answered. "When I knew I was around them I think I was incapable of even thinking about it, in case they picked up on it."

"Seriously?" Tony stopped pretending to be interested in the books and turned to glare at Clint. Like this was all his fault. Clint very carefully hid his unease at the knowledge that it was his fault. He'd gotten caught in the first place. "When you were around someone who could see into your mind you couldn't even think about it? Why not just make you forget about it all together? Why so specific?" His questions were more heated towards the end, demanding, like maybe the answer would be the missing piece to the puzzle. Like it would miraculously make sense and bring reason.

"Fuck if I know Stark, it's just how it is," Clint refused to close his eyes. He hadn't gotten any sleep in the last forty-two hours and it had begun tugging at his already weary bones ages ago. He ached.

"It makes no sense," the genius insisted and Clint glared at the back of Phil's desktop, hoping Tony would take the hint and shut-up about it already. Clint had spent a lifetime thinking pretty much the same thing; he didn't need the extra weighted words. "What about when you were around someone you didn't know was a psychic?"

"If that ever happened," which Clint was pretty sure it hadn't, "then it's pretty obvious they didn't feel the need to speak up," he carefully kept the urge to snarl from his voice. It would just make Tony louder in defense, and Tony was only trying to understand. To help.

"What kind of asshole wouldn't say anything?" Tony wondered, mostly to himself as he started rifling through Phil's desk drawers. Clint would tell him to stop, but the guy had watched him do the same thing half an hour before so it would appear hypocritical.

"Loki didn't seem to have an issue with keeping it to himself," Clint pointed out dryly, looking at the tiny cactus in the window. He wondered if it was time to water it yet. Tony went back to perusing the book shelf, eyes not seeing what they were looking at. A few minutes later his frustration reached the verbal point once more. "What kind of tech can even do that?" He muttered out loud, just as the door opened and Phil eased into the room. His gaze was on Clint before he'd even finished stepping inside, taking him in with a familiar, practiced glance that instantly put Clint at ease. Then Phil looked at Tony.

"Out," he ordered and Stark raised an inelegant eyebrow, clearly unimpressed.

"You have a fascinating collection," he started. "Have your personality Doctors seen this yet? I'm thinking it could give them a much better understanding of what makes you, you." Clearly Tony intended to ignore the order as he gestured at the bookshelf in general, and Phil narrowed his eyes.

"Mr. Stark," he began, his voice cool and smooth and Tony dropped his arm. He recognized the tone, all the Avengers had learned it within the first few weeks of working in the field with Phil in their ears.

"Keep your tie on, Agent, I'm going" he smirked, waving jauntily at Clint on his way out, casual and easy. Like Clint couldn't see the lines of strain at the corner of his eyes or in the press of his lips. The door slid shut and the room dropped into a heavy silence that felt unnatural. He tracked Phil as the man moved to the other side of his desk, before looking over at Clint expectantly.

Clint grinned and pulled the small black binder from where he'd had it stashed in the couch cushions, hidden from Tony. There was a reason he'd gone through Phil's desk after all. He tossed it to Phil, satisfied with his easy movements as he plucked it from the air.

"Wouldn't do to have Tony know you've got a couple special edition Iron Man cards. He's got enough fodder with your Captain America fixation as it is," he grumbled and relaxed when Phil let a soft smile of thanks appear. It was only brief, but it was enough.

"My sanity thanks you," Phil sat in his seat and put his card collection back in its drawer. Then he went to work, like usual, booting up his computer and thumbing through his inbox. Clint sat and waited, patiently, for about thirty seconds.

"Time to debrief, sir?" he asked, because he was well aware that the brief questions in the interrogation room earlier hadn't come close to what Phil needed. After Phil had walked out he wasn't sure what the man needed. Phil looked over at him, seemed to pause and breathe for a long moment. Clint had seen him do this when Stark was being particularly annoying, which, what the hell? Clint hadn't done anything to warrant that.

"Get some rest," Phil suggested, his intonation very clearly not making it an order and the outburst that Clint had been gearing up to evaporated.

"Sir? Standard procedure dictates that a full debrief is necessary-"

"There is nothing standard about this, Barton," Phil cut him off sharply and Clint very carefully kept his face clear of his surprise. Phil never bucked procedure. He must have seen some of Clint's uncertainty anyway, because he sighed and rubbed his forehead. "We do need to debrief," he agreed, all bite gone from his tone, "but you need to sleep more. This has waited ten years, it can wait another few hours."

Clint wasn't sure if Phil was putting this off for him, or because he needed a few more hours to get his own head around the idea that Clint literally belonged to SHIELD. To him. Clint had been trying to see it from other people's perspective for the last few hours, but frankly he was having difficulty focusing at the moment. He was pretty certain that Phil had put everything into perspective back in the interrogation room, when he'd walked out, so right now this suggestion to rest was purely for Clint's benefit. Clint had made a career out of grabbing opportunities with both hands when they came his way, because it was never a certainty that they'd come again.

He stretched out on the couch, bruises and aching muscles from the battle burning in protest but he ignored them with practiced ease. He loved this couch.

He felt Phil's eyes on him for a long time after he shut his own, but in the end it just helped ease him into sleep. He could take this time now, because he knew Phil had his back, like always.

When Clint woke up, alert and warm, pressed into the ridiculously comfortable cushions of Phil's couch, Phil was still behind his desk, working steadily. The corner of his eyes were pinched, no doubt from a headache, and he looked drawn. Weary. Clint scanned the room again, just to be sure he hadn't missed some sign of danger at first glance (he hadn't), and then sat up.

"You're on stand down until this can be resolved."

"Stand down?" Clint blinked, confused at the words, not the lack of a softer greeting. "I can do my job, Coulson."

"Until it can be verified that you are no longer a risk to yourself or others in the field-"

"A risk?" Anger bubbled up from what felt like nowhere and Clint pushed to his feet, moving sharply in agitation and he couldn't help clenching his fists as he glared. "I've been stepping out those doors for the last ten years under SHIELD's orders, sir, and I haven't managed to kill myself yet!"

Phil froze, eyes flashing with a new kind of fear that Clint didn't understand right away but knew enough to be wary of. He kept a keen eye on his handler as Phil deliberately stood and moved out from behind the desk.

"Is that something you've actively tried to accomplish, Clint?" he asked, voice forcibly calm, like he was at the apex of a world saving mission and had no room for error. Clint stopped, because…what?

"What? Kill myself?" His laugh was more shattered than he intended. "No, sir. Suicide has never been on the agenda. I might have deserved the servitude shtick, but we both know I'd rather run from my problems than end them permanently."

"You did not deserve this, Clint!" Coulson was suddenly in his face, spitting like an angry lion, eyes smoldering with pent up rage as he planted a hand on Clint's chest and shoved him back until the wall caught him. Clint didn't resist, because it was Phil, but his chest suddenly felt tight. He kept his arms loose by his sides, not needing to twitch for a hidden weapon, not caring about the flaring of the ever-present ache of healing injuries. He took a deep breath, feeling the hand rise and fall with him, and waited.

Phil…Phil looked furious. His face was flushed, his eyes unmoving as he stared darkly at Clint, his body was a tense coil waiting to do anything but strike, because if there was one thing Clint knew it was that Phil wouldn't hurt him. It took nearly a full minute and slow, deep inhalations before the rage tempered in Phil and he willfully pulled his cool agent demeanour back in place.

When he stepped away Clint missed the heat of his hand, the strength in him, but was relieved to have his space.

Phil retreated a few more steps, keeping his gaze steadily on Clint, before breaking the uncommonly tense silence between them.

"You did not deserve this, Clint," he spoke softly and with conviction. Clint heard his words, but hearing and ten years of believing were two different monsters.

"Sure," he agreed smoothly, and quirked his lips in what he hoped alluded to amusement. "Who would? Do you mind if I grab a coffee before the debrief?"

"No coffee," Phil refused, not looking appeased in the slightest. "Medical wants to run a few more tests. You can have it after."

"Yes sir," Clint fell back to formality and stepped away from the door he had been pushed against, opening it in the same move. He didn't bother waiting for a formal dismissal, it wasn't how he did things with Phil; one of the little things that his handler had never insisted on that gave Clint the illusion of control. Feeling Phil's eyes on him now, assessing his every move, he wondered if the man had figured that out as well.

He hoped not. He wanted the right to keep some things to himself.

Chapter Text

It wasn't his imagination, as he walked down the halls, that not a single SHIELD agent of higher rank than him so much as glanced in his direction. Not even to gift him with a nod of acknowledgment. Though to be realistic, that particular gesture of camaraderie had reduced drastically after he had become Loki's puppet and still hadn't recovered fully.

It didn't take a genius to figure out that they were under some sort of blanket order to not engage him. He decided to pretend he didn't notice.

Natasha was already at the medical wing, though whether she was there under orders to keep an eye on him or because she wanted to be was the question. He raised a curious, almost mocking (antagonizing a reaction out of her generally gave him an idea of how to proceed), eyebrow at her and she stared back blandly. She wasn't giving anything away just then, and she did not join him in the room with the specialists. Bruce bustled in a minute later, frowning and tense and trying to hide it as he supervised the next set of scans and set the electrodes on Clint's forehead himself.

Clint sighed when the leads were attached and lay back on the exam table.

"Wake me when it's done," he quipped and closed his eyes.

He didn't sleep and Bruce didn't call him on it. When they were done Steve met him at the medical bays door and walked with him all the way to Fury's office. Clint wasn't surprised when Steve stopped him just before he pushed the door open.

"I've asked to sit in on this meeting," he announced, his eyes uncertain in a way that warred with his confident tone. "If you're uncomfortable with me being here, because I know it's not going to be easy, then say the word and I'll stay out." The 'for now' was implied. Clint snorted and pushed the door open, gesturing with his head that Steve was welcome.

"If the bigwigs say it's fine who am I to disagree?" Clint quirked his lips with amusement and missed the deeply unhappy look that flashed through his team leaders eyes as he turned to face a steely looking Director. Its not like Steve wouldn't be fully debriefed anyway, and that was possibly after Stark somehow got a digital copy of this meeting for a play-by-play. He'd probably hidden a bug on Steve somewhere to listen in now.

"Sir," Clint stood at attention before Fury's desk and the Director nodded to the massive table off to the side of the room.

"Have a seat, Agent Barton," he ordered casually and Clint turned to the table, before he spotted the one against the wall set with a fresh pot of coffee and sandwiches. There was no immediacy to the order, it was more a heavily implied request than demand, so Clint efficiently bypassed the table to get the coffee Coulson had promised a few hours before. He felt the speculative eyes of both Steve and Fury on him, but he was used to being stared at and dismissed it as he sat, gingerly, in a chair. He made sure he was close to the coffee pot, for refills and because it made a good weapon. "We'll begin once Agent Coulson arrives." Clint nodded, silently, and eyed Steve speculatively as the man grabbed a plate and piled the sandwiches on. He wasn't expecting the Captain to sit right next to him and set the plate between them before pointedly taking a sandwich for himself.

Clint slouched slightly lower in his seat, resisting the urge to wrap both hands around his coffee.

"It sure was nice of Phil to make sure we had food, seeing as we missed lunch," Steve declared casually at Fury a minute later, breaking the heavy silence. Fury nodded in disinterested agreement, not bothering to glance up from a report he was reading. Clint very carefully did not roll his eyes at Steve and his lack complete lack of subtlety. He was effective though, and Clint bit through the crust with more force than necessary. He only gave into the manipulation because he could imagine the carefully hidden unhappy look Phil would give him if he didn't eat.

At least Steve looked a bit more relaxed as Clint washed the food down and then refilled his coffee mug without getting up from his chair.

Phil quietly stepped into the room once Clint finished the small meal. The timing was suspicious, as was the brief look of surprise his handler gave the food table before moving to take his own seat, across the space from Clint.

They didn't waste anymore time getting down to business, but Fury didn't move from his desk to join them. Clint was okay with that.

"We're going to start from the beginning," Phil set a device Stark had given him as a 'yay you're not dead' present years ago in the center of the table. It would record and transcribe everything that was said, which let Phil devote every bit of attention to Clint. He did this without hesitation, his storm-grey eyes focusing like lasers. Clint leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms.

"Yes sir." He agreed.

Phil started by asking him about his 'job' just before Marcus Warner found him in Wales, asking about injuries and the plans he had been making for after he healed. He moved on to Warner brainwashing him. He had him describe, with detail, his first impressions of SHIELD; he wanted his opinions on the SHIELD agents he met, the procedures he had to follow, his deductions on the security when he first entered the Massachusetts training building, the training itself, the rooms, the food, his freedom of movement within the facility. When Clint started to get frustrated Phil asked how Warner's brainwashing influenced his actions within everything they just discussed.

Clint stopped, looked between him and the carefully schooled calm Steve was putting forth, and pushed the bubbling irritation down.

"It was a long time ago," he was tired already and it had only been half an hour. Phil gave him a dry half-smile that didn't reach his eyes.

"You have an eidetic memory," he rebutted.

"I've heard that's pretty hard to diagnose accurately," he pushed to his feet, poured himself another coffee, and sat back in his chair with no intention of drinking it. It went cold while he went through everything again.

When that was done Phil apparently decided the next step was past missions. Clint wasn't surprised that Phil decided to start with the crucial ones, but he was slightly thrown that Phil had chosen the missions that were most crucial to Clint, and not SHIELD.

"Lucas Yorkavich," he named, going for the kill right off the bat and a heavy heat flooded through Clint that was long familiar and achingly hollow. He pulled away from the mug he'd been fiddling with and crossed his arms over his chest. It was a rookie move, too revealing, but now that he didn't have some hidden internal directive to automatically deflect from everything that could be considered suspicious behaviour, he could allow it.

Lucas Yorkavich. The kid with perpetual curly-haired bedhead, who had held doors open for perfectly mobile people and gave up his seat on the bus for the injured. The kid who had been lost and alone and too smart for his own good. He hadn't been innocent, but he had been far from surpassing redemption. "You protested his termination."

"That wasn't a secret," Clint pointed out, because his formal protest had been noticed at the time and his follow through with the kill had earned him SHIELDs trust. He distinctly remembered Phil being the only one not happy with the outcome of that mission, but he'd never learned why.

"Would you have followed through with the order if you had the choice?"

"No." From Phil's complete non-reaction Clint figured he had already known that answer.

"Madeline French," he asked instead. Clint remembered her as well, but differently.

"The timing was wrong. It threatened the ground crew's safe extraction unnecessarily. Things worked out in the end." Because Clint had been there, and had been able to take out the two plain-clothes guards nobody had known about before they set the bomb off. Clint had been ordered to alter his reports by Warner, who had been the only other agent actively aware how close they had nearly failed, and how many people had almost died. He would make a point of editing that file later, now that he could.

"Natasha Romanov." Steve openly reacted for the first time in what felt like hours, turning a hard gaze to Phil as understanding dawned. The Avengers were not aware of the circumstances around her recruitment. Only a handful of people were. In Clint's peripheral Fury stilled, giving them his full regard. Phil kept his unwavering scrutiny on Clint. "You would have killed her on my word."

"I would have," Clint agreed, "but I asked you to reconsider and you did." He put his entire focus on Phil, leaving no room for misinterpretation, because he knew him; he knew he was re-writing every step of their history together, and he was trying to find every order he ever gave that put Clint in danger, or took away his choice, or potentially demoralized him as a human being or some bullshit like that. He would find it and blame himself. Clint couldn't let him start doing that, because then Clint might start doing that despite knowing better. He was well versed in how emotions could be clouded and twisted. "You listened to me, Phil, and Nat's here now."

Safe, alive, and as close to happy as she might ever allow herself to be. Phil did that, for Clint, and Clint had trusted him as unflinchingly as he'd ever trusted anyone since then. He tried to imply this with his gaze, but Phil turned away, retreating to glance at his tablet. Clint remembered the anger that had been in Phil when he'd woken up earlier, and knew that one declaration of trust from Clint wasn't going to fix things anytime soon.

Clint didn't push, because he wasn't ready to deal with this yet, now with an audience of who knew how many. Even if he had decided to launch into some monologue about feelings and where fault lay, which was frankly a waste of time here, the moment was taken away as Phil moved on. Mission reports were spread out, facts were clarified, a pile was started for Clint to go through and rewrite as necessary. This was going to take weeks. Fuck he hated paper work.

He wanted to go to the range and just lose himself for a few hours. He wanted his normal.

He felt nauseous as soon as that thought crept up.

He was distracted pretty quickly by Coulson's next question, delivered so plainly that it cut into Clint's drifting attention without immediate alarm.

"When we deprogram you from Warner's influence, will you continue to work as an agent with SHIELD?"

Clint says "yes," without hesitation, and when the question actually penetrated his distracted thoughts it took real concentration to hide the anxiety that flushed his body. If he had been thinking he would have taken a moment to pretend to consider his answer before, apparently far too quickly, blurting it out. Steve and Phil narrowed their eyes at him simultaneously. If displeasure had a name it would probably be some bastardized collaboration of theirs. Like Pheve.

Clint tensed under the combined looks and prepared to- to what? To flee? To attack? Obviously his answer was wrong, but he wasn't sure why, especially as it should have been the answer Phil wanted. Shouldn't he be happy that his top sniper wasn't going to up and leave? Then again, there were lots of snipers, really excellent snipers, in the world. Clint was under no real delusions that he was irreplaceable and he never had been. SHIELD could drop him anytime they decided he was obsolete, but he would always be at their door, begging for more. The knowledge that he could be unwanted but couldn't walk away kept him on the range hours after he should have quit.

Steve inhaled sharply and by the flex in his shoulders he was clenching his fists beneath the table but Clint ignored him with ease. Phil apparently needed a moment to stare at his tablet, which was less easy to ignore. Fury didn't seem to have a problem filling the thick silence that had smothered the room.

"Barton," he leaned forward, palms flat and visible on his desk, the look on his face near sinister. Clint turned to acknowledge fully because one did not ignore that tone from The Director and come out unscathed. "Your answer will not affect our intent to learn exactly what Warner did to you, and reverse it." Clint wasn't sure he trusted what Fury was saying, but he nodded in affirmation because it was the smart thing to do.

"Yes sir." Apparently he wasn't very convincing because Fury kept staring at him like he had stolen the ammunition from his favourite Glock and let Tony carve his initials into every bullet.

"I do not like repeating myself, Barton," the man damn near growled and Clint kept his face impassive under the heated scrutiny of all three men. It wasn't a difficult feat; he'd had a lifetime of practice. "We will free you from this mind-fuck whether you want to keep working with us or not. So please do not say what you think we want to hear because aside from pissing me off and wasting our time it's insulting."

"I think that's the first time I've ever heard you say please, sir," Clint had the distant thought that the world should be ending.

Maybe his was.

"Try answering the question again," Fury retorted, and Clint took a sip of his stone cold coffee to ease his suddenly dry throat. He silently acknowledged the effort Fury was making to not order him to answer. He stared at the table a minute, jaw clenched tight.

He wanted to say yes again. He needed to not just hand SHIELD a reason to deny his freedom. He didn't know if he could believe that Fury would keep his word, because he respected and mostly liked the man, but he'd never been able to fully trust him. He'd always had too much power and too much ease lying to get what he wanted. He looked up to see Phil waiting patiently for an answer, and looked away.

"I don't know," he finally decided, louder than he'd intended but at least it wasn't the whimper he'd felt like answering with. His entire body was rigid with tension now, his muscles aching in a way that only stress ever wrought. "I don't know if I'll stay with SHIELD," he repeated, more evenly, "but if I do it won't be the same. I'm not sure you'd want me anymore, not sure what kind of agent I'll be."

It wasn't a comforting thought.

It was fucking terrifying.

"Thank you for your cooperation, Agent Barton," Phil was as professional as ever as he apparently decided that it was enough. Clint felt like they'd barely scratched the surface, and he was wrung out and raw. "We're done for the day. If you have nothing else to add than you're dismissed."

Clint was out of the room without even looking for agreement from Fury. Ten minutes later he was at the range, not caring that the senior agents that had been there when he stormed in silently slipped away without saying a single word to him.

The junior agents looked between those retreating and Clint, clearly confused. After a moment it was collectively decided that if their superiors felt the need to drop what they were doing and retreat from the presence of Hawkeye, then they sure as hell should as well.

The last time he'd had the range to himself had been after Loki.

He didn't acknowledge Steve when he quietly joined him ten minutes later, but he didn't send him away either. It was all he had to give the guy right now. It would have to be enough.

He had another Doctor's appointment later that afternoon. Thor had to be asked to leave the examination room when subtle hints that the Doctor would like to speak to Clint in private were completely ignored.

Clint watched the entire scene with an amused grin, because Thor could be a real dick and nobody seemed to ever realize when he was playing with them. His nobleness always won out overall anyway so Clint figured it balanced out in the end.

Clint lost his humour when the Doctor adopted his 'gentle but serious' face and asked him if Marcus Warner had ever sexually assaulted him in any way while he was under his control. He hadn't. He hadn't needed to touch Clint at all; his dominance had been secured from the beginning.

"No," Clint answered bluntly, because he was supposed to cooperate, "he never touched me inappropriately. The only time we had physical contact was when it couldn't be avoided during a mission or training." He left the room before the doctor could ask anything more, deciding for himself that he was done for the day.

Thor didn't say anything about the short visit, but stuck a little closer than normal for the next few hours until Clint got fed up and challenged him to some friendly hand-to–hand. The bruises Thor left hurt, but Clint felt better than he had in days.

That night he wasn't surprised to find Natasha in his living room, silent and still and bathed in the distant glow of city lights as shadows lurked around her. She was looking at Clint's painting, the one from Steve and Bruce, but he didn't know what she was seeing. The colours were masked in the dark.

He quietly sat beside her, ignoring the strain of sore muscles and minor injuries from the mission with Sattler and playtime with Thor. His knee brushed hers and he waited. He never waited long with Natasha.

She raised a hand and he let her gently cup his neck. "Perhaps our histories are more similar than I thought," her words were whisper quiet and strong enough to make his ears ache.

"No," he denied, a feeling of ill and cold and heat and confusion churned in his chest. "No, Nat, this is nothing like what you went through, don't even-"

"Do not try to make this something lighter than it is," she cut him off, eyes suddenly hard and angry and regretful. The faintest lilt of her expertly buried Russian accent coloured her words. "Do not trivialize this. Do not insult us by trying to give scale to our trials. There is nothing to compare to, there is nothing that makes what happened to you less than anyone else. This is not okay."

He closed his eyes and rubbed angrily at them before dropping his hand to cover hers over his neck. It took a minute to get his breathing back under control, but he nodded and eventually she pulled her hand back and he let her go. There was more she could say, more that he knew she wanted to say, but she had been around the block a few times (more than most people would ever know) and she knew that for now he wouldn't accept anything more.

He leaned back into the couch, flopping as boneless as his body ever allowed, and she followed suit. Her arm and thigh pressed to his, a silent promise with no definition and he closed his eyes.

When he woke up a few hours later she was gone, but the warmth lingered and he knew that he was forgiven for pulling her into a world he'd not entered freely. Whatever else happened he could be content with that.

The next day the Avengers were assembled. Clint was in uniform with guns strapped to his thighs, his bow clipped to his quiver and heavy on his back in record time.

He never made it onto the quinjet.

Steve gave him a look of such dejected despair Clint nearly punched him just to wipe it from his face.

"Sorry, Hawkeye. You're not cleared for missions yet."

"This is bullshit." He growled, but Steve didn't nod in agreement, which just made him angrier.

Clint stepped to the edge of the carrier and watched as the team took off without him. He turned away when the second jet carrying the first wave of support staff and Phil launched right after. He knew that if he didn't step away from the edge of the ship than he would probably end up hurling his bow over the side he was so furious. He didn't need 'temper tantrums' to become the topic of his next mandatory psych session.

Then, because the universe just seemed to love him, the sky chose that moment to let loose the rain that had been threatening all morning. He was soaked within seconds, the heavy drops almost hard enough to sting his exposed skin. Pressing his lips together he moved away from the upper landing strips parked jets and towards the tower that housed traffic control and the secondary bridge. He took a deep breath to calm his roiling emotions as the few deck crew on this level scrambled to finish their work.

The quinjets carrying his team and Phil wouldn't even be out of his sight yet.

Clint had some choice words to share with them all when they got back.

Stepping under the overhang of the secondary bridge the near punishing rain was blocked, leaving his exposed skin tingling. He swiped his waterlogged bangs off his forehead, taking a quick peek over the edge of this level to make sure things were running smoothly on the carriers main deck below. It was barely a two-story drop. He contemplated slipping over the edge, utilizing the ships uneven hull to get to the main deck and maybe launch into a free run to burn off his excess adrenaline and anger (the downpour would be good for training), when he heard the sound of approaching footsteps over the heavily beating rain. He glanced over his shoulder to check who it was, and instinctively dropped to his less obvious battle-ready stance.

"Agent Barton," Sattler greeted, his voice laced with distaste as he looked Clint over with a keen eye. Beside him an obviously green recruits eyes briefly widened at Clint's identity but otherwise he obediently followed his superior's lead, stopping five-feet away. Clint hadn't seen or heard anything of Sattler since their epic fuckfest of a mission four days before. Where he'd tried to feed Clint to AIM's giant pet flying monstersaur. He still wasn't sure how he came out of that water landing with no crushed organs or broken bones and his buried resentment regained a foothold. Clint glared at him warningly, noting the lack of other personnel in the immediate area.

"I see they wised up and left you behind this time," Sattler nodded his head to indicate the path Clint's people had flown. Without him. He clenched his fist, glad for once that his bow was still tucked at his back leaving his hands free, and turned to slip over the decks edge. He didn't have the patience for Sattler's brand of bullshit right now and he was never above a quick retreat when it suited him.

He managed to drop over the side and get a few feet down before Sattler's sharp "You were not dismissed, Agent Barton, get back up here," reached his ears. Clint stilled against the wall, chest pressed to the metal, hands and feet easily gripping all of the little inch wide ledges. Not letting loose the frustrated snarl that was clogging his throat he slowly (as slowly as he could manage) climbed back up.

He should have just jumped to the next deck. He was more than trained enough to handle the long landing, and on the chance that he managed to injure himself it wouldn't have mattered; he was effectively grounded already.

He smoothly pulled himself to his feet, muscles bunching as he made an extra effort to make it look easy and stared hard at Sattler, ignoring the agent beside him for now. He wasn't the threat.

Sattler's jaw worked as he stared right back, some dark understanding lighting his eyes that made Clint uneasy as hell.

"This better be good, Sattler, I've got things to do," Clint growled, rolling his shoulders.

"I'm sure you do," he returned, a hint of derision in his otherwise cool tone that had Clint squaring his shoulders reactively. "Clap your hands above your head. Twice." He ordered decisively and Clint bit the inside of his cheek, hard, to stop himself from saying something stupid now that would give the game away. Though, judging by the expectant gleam in the senior agents eyes the jig was already up. Beyond Sattler and the wide-eyed junior, was his escape inside. Behind him a nice twenty-eight foot drop to freedom, and around him a muffling wall of rain.

Clint clapped over his head twice, and then gave Sattler his most unimpressed look of disinterest.

"I hope that was better for you than it was for me," he mocked, hoping to convince the guy he was just humouring him. He wanted to push past the agents and head to the door, but he wasn't dismissed and it was made clear that he wasn't allowed to depart until that happened.

"It was pretty enlightening actually," Sattler agreed, a self-impressed smiled teased at his lips. Clint thought about punching it off his face, but the whole 'do no harm to your superiors' rule didn't even allow for the possibility. "Do a backflip."

Clint locked his legs in an effort to not comply and glared as cuttingly as he could at Sattler.

"Are you even cleared to talk to me right now?" Because Clint wasn't entirely sure there was a blanket order for all agents of higher rank to not speak to him, but all evidence up to now pointed heavily in that direction. Cruel amusement (Clint had a lifetime of recognizing it) flashed across Sattler's face and Clint looked at the junior agent to see if he'd do something about this. He clearly had no clue what was going on if the confused, narrow-eyed look he was passing between them was any indication.

"I'm waiting, Agent Barton. Entertain us."

Clint executed a back flip, losing exactly zero arrows from his quiver though it was a near thing. He landed with his feet at the ledge, one heel slightly over it. If he was told to do another, he might be able to flip right off of it, but it would have to be an actual accident to make it work. He was far too aware of his surroundings for something like that to ever happen. His blood felt so hot with rage he might explode before he got the chance to try.

"You're risking an awful lot here," Clint snarled, because it was clear the game was up.

"You're risking an awful lot, Sir," Sattler corrected darkly, and Clint pressed his lips together to keep from baring his teeth like an animal. "And I'm risking nothing. I am curious though, about who exactly it was that managed to get the infamous Hawkeye under the proverbial lock-and-key. Was it Coulson? He is known for having a mean streak and no patience for criminals. We always thought he'd gone soft wanting to pull a boy like you into SHIELD. Looks like he was bringing you to prison after all."

The junior agent found his voice then, and it was firmer than Clint would have expected. "We should go, this isn't right." It also looked like he'd figured out at least part of Clint's problem if the slightly disturbed look on his face was anything to go by. Clint wondered how long it would take for the rest of the junior agents to get wind of what was really going on now. He refused to be humiliated by the thought of everyone figuring it out. He wasn't sure how successful he'd be, but he was a big advocate of denial when it suited him.

"Kiss my boots," Sattler ordered, and beside him the junior agent went as still as Clint. Sattler stared hard at Clint, expectant.

Clint felt murderous, his chest felt scraped out and his arms shook with helpless fury. Kiss his fucking boots.

"You might want to rethink that order," he warned softly, "because I'm not going to have to follow them forever, and when I don't the first person I'm going to come after is you."

"You don't have to do anything, Agent Barton," the junior stated with conviction, and he looked like he would have pulled his gun on Sattler, if he'd had one, to try and make him take the order back. His dark brown eyes filled with loathing. It was enough to put him forever in Clint's good grace.

"Maybe you didn't hear me correctly with all this rain, Barton," Sattler completely disregarded the junior, his voice turned cold. Malicious. How the hell had this man ever made it to a higher rank than Clint? Clint swallowed thickly and kept his face stony. The junior agent floundered, clearly not knowing how he could stop this. A physical confrontation might have given Clint the ability to step in and protect (rules rules rules) but the guy no doubt knew Sattler would wipe the floor with him. Instead he glanced towards the door hopefully.

Clint took two steps forward and slowly dropped to his knees.

The door banged open and Sitwell came strolling through, like his appearance at the opposite end of the ship from where he normally worked was completely commonplace and absolutely expected. He looked at Clint, on his knees, and then to Sattler, whose stance had swiftly shifted from confident assholery to squinty and still. Caught out. Clint was still moving though, the interruption not enough to impede his compliance. This shouldn't feel so dire, shouldn't feel so wrenching and disgusting. He was only going to kiss a pair of boots; he'd done far, far worse for reasons lesser than an order. Something inside was squirming with revulsion and he knew he was doing a piss-poor job of keeping it off his face.

"Stop whatever it is you're doing, Agent Barton," Sitwell ordered, his normally friendly eyes a harsh, nearly black well of wrath. Clint's forward momentum halted half a foot from his target and he leaned back, careful to not show his relief as he looked to Sitwell for further instruction. Sitwell, of higher rank than Sattler, was leveling a glare worthy of Phil on Clint's apparent in-house nemesis. "I'm curious as to what, exactly, it is that you think you're doing out here, Mr. Sattler," he said, pointedly.

Clint breathed deep, his gaze sharpening on Sitwell, making sure that he'd heard him right. Sitwell nodded (so very slightly), confirming that Clint wasn't misinterpreting the situation. He had not addressed Sattler by rank. That meant that Sattler had no rank at the moment. He had no authority.

Surging to his feet Clint struck with precision at nerve clusters on both of Sattler's legs, feeling a deep satisfaction as the man, not expecting the attack, stumbled from the sudden numbing. The junior agent jumped back in shock, raising hands to defend (or attack) and clearly uncertain what to do as Clint wrapped his left hand firmly around Sattler's throat and swung him about. Sattler had no choice but to reach up with his hands and wrap them around Clint's wrist to support himself. Clint didn't have an ounce of hesitation in him as he leaned the bastard out over the edge of the two-story drop. Gasping and wide-eyed Sattler clung, his nails digging into Clint's exposed forearms, unable to talk.

Clint heard a startled shout sound out below them.

"Stand down, Falana," Sitwell ordered the junior that was preparing to help Sattler. Clint let all his rage leech into his eyes, thrusting Sattler just a little further out, feeling cold satisfaction as his toes desperately stretched to keep contact with the metal floor. Clint was more than strong enough to hold him suspended like this and they both knew it- the real fear was from not knowing if he would let go or not. And if Clint did let him drop would he angle for a kill fall, or a serious injury landing?

"You think it's funny?" he asked darkly, finding it difficult to get his words out around his rage. Years and years of rage. "You think playing with a person like that, taking away their choices, is a game? Think it makes you a big man?"

Sattler choked, his normally pale complexion cherry red and cheeks puffed from trying to inhale a full breath. He was shaking all over, but so was Clint. On that, at least, they were equal.

Clint imagined, staring into panicked and hateful blue eyes, that Sattler would have responded with –you're not much use if you can't be controlled like a puppet- or –you should be used to it by now, isn't this what you were born to? - or - it's only what you deserve.- Then again Clint had a lot of issues to work through; he could be projecting. Sattler's wide-eyed gasping could simply be an immoral asshole begging for his life.

Clint imagined the understanding on Phil's face if he let him fall, imagined the resigned sadness and beneath, not completely hidden, he could see his disappointment. Clint wondered if Phil realized that he was the white suited angel that perched in Clint's ear, sighing in resignation whenever Clint was given the choice to do the violence that was taught to him in his youth.

With water still dripping from his hair down the side of his face, down the back of his neck, he exhaled roughly and dragged Sattler back onto firm ground. He wasn't gentle when he lifted Sattler inches off the ground, dangling him from his neck, before he just dropped him.

Clint straightened up and turned to Sitwell, who was waiting patiently where he had stopped earlier.

"Agent Barton," he announced politely, as though he had just stumbled upon him in the corridor. Sattler was coughing up a lung a few feet away, the numbness in his legs wouldn't dissipate for another half hour or so. "Director Fury has requested your presence in his office, unless there's something else you have to take care of at the moment."

It was very carefully not an order. Clint relaxed his stance forcefully.

"Sure," he agreed, forging easiness, and without waiting for dismissal moved towards the door. Sitwell gave a sharp order to Agent Falana to escort Sattler to holding for further investigation and fell into step beside Clint as he finally moved inside. Clint tried to not read too much into it as they walked, near silent, through the halls. He missed the muffling effect of the rain.

"So, you jumping off the carrier wasn't just to piss me off," Sitwell broke their quiet as they were on the final approach to Fury's office, and Clint laughed sharply at the unexpected segue into conversation. He wasn't surprised that Sitwell had been read into the situation.

"Not that time," he allowed and the man snorted, understanding the message that Clint had no intention of being more predictable now that his secret was out.

"If it happens again, you can count on me letting you drop. I don't have the time for your bullshit, Barton," he announced, seriously, and Clint snorted at the blatant lie.

"If it happens again I'll hopefully have someone prettier around to catch me."

"Don't let Stark hear you talking like that or he'll think he's the first in line," he decided with a smirk, and he kept walking as Clint stopped before the door to Fury's office. Apparently that was as far as his escort went.

Clint didn't bother knocking.

He wasn't expecting Fury to look at him from behind his desk and promptly hang up his phone. He was expecting the cool, assessing eye taking in his still dripping form. He wasn't expecting him to clasp his hands together, lay his forearms on his desk, and lean forward with more deliberation than Clint had encountered since his first meeting with the man.

"Agent Barton," he announced, tone severe and Clint stood to attention, clasping his damp hands behind his back. "You're fired."

For a long moment Clint just watched him, comprehending the words slowly and not breaking the staring contest Fury had engaged. He pulled years of intelligence gathering tactics to the forefront and prepared to unleash them on the Director to get to the bottom of this.

"What?" Eloquently tripped off his tongue. Not his finest moment; also not something he cared about just then.

"You are fired," Fury repeated, enunciating each word as though he were talking to a moron, but his gaze was as piercing as ever. Unwavering. Clint blinked. "Your position with SHIELD has been terminated. As of this moment you are no longer associated with my organization." Something twisted deep in the pit of his gut, sharp and queasy and hot. It couldn't be this easy. "Any loyalty or obligation you have to serve our organization or follow the directives of anyone within, including my own, cease now. Permanently."

Fuck.

"Fuck" he muttered, more of a hissed garble then anything. The world tilted and he stumbled, his entire being felt like it was twisting inside out. He went to one knee, unable to keep his feet, and was distantly aware of Fury dumping his trench coat off the one spare chair behind his desk and whipping the thing out beside Clint.

He hauled Clint under his armpits to sit him on the uncomfortable thing.

Clint let him.

"Medical?" He asked sharply, his voice like a gun going off so close and Clint shook his head rapidly. It did nothing to dispel the dizziness.

"No, no," he sucked in a few shallow breaths and attempted to calm his breathing. He was only moderately successful. "Just need a minute."

Fury must have believed him, because a moment later he pulled his hand away from where he'd been stabilizing Clint and moved swiftly back behind his desk.

"Let me know when your inner drama queen has finished monopolizing the floor," he rumbled. Clint would laugh, but he was too busy being overwhelmed by the onslaught battering his fucking soul.

Shift, slide, click.

Something inside tore. Again. Something deep and not at all physical and distantly familiar.

He took a shuddering breath that was more sob, unaware of Fury's keen eye on him, of the medical team and Sitwell parked right outside the door in case Fury called them in, of Phil listening silently from a hidden communication device; his hands clenched tightly around the quinjet's bench seat and the other agents with him keeping carefully silent despite not being privy to what put that look on his face.

It took a while for Clint to stop clutching spastically at his chest, to stop hugging his head as he bent forward over his knees, nearly tipping from his chair more than once.

It took an hour. Maybe two.

Closer to three.

He slowly straightened in his seat, still slightly queasy. He had a headache that wasn't any worse than after an average day spent trying to understand science talk with Bruce and Tony (he comprehended more than they thought). He scrubbed at his eyes, not bothering to hide the tear tracks that had mostly dried at that point. Fury generally didn't give a crap about those things one way or another and Clint didn't care.

Looking up at the man he confirmed it, watching as he tapped away at his computer and only acknowledged that Clint was ready after he'd finished his task.

Clint cleared his throat. Fury didn't offer the bottle of water sitting beside his monitor.

Clint felt okay.

"It can't be that easy," he croaked out the first few words but managed to stabilize his tone quickly. Fury was back to assessing him with his full attention now. Clint was as unbothered by the hard look as he ever was.

"Preliminary tests during your first interview with Agent Coulson would suggest otherwise," he pointed out. Clint thought back to that interview, unable to resist rubbing at his neck where the truth-collar had sat snug, damning and freeing.

"Which basically means R and D have come up with jack-shit about how to fix me and you figured you'd give this a try," he snorted, amused in a way that was probably unhealthy and potentially said a lot about his damaged psyche.

Whatever.

"I was going to wait for Agent Coulson's return from this mission, but recent incidents suggested that continuing delay was not in your best interest," he allowed, and then unceremoniously tossed the bottle of water at Clint's head. Clint snatched it out of the air without glancing at it. "Drink that," Fury ordered. Clint's stomach became slightly queasy at the idea and he dropped it to his lap, hand curled around the thin plastic.

"Thank you, sir," he agreed, and left it where it was. He resisted rubbing at his eyes. He was exhausted. Taking a steadying breath he glanced in irritation at Fury, who was still staring at him imploringly. The man's gaze deviated to the water bottle and back up to Clint's face once he'd regained his full attention, and raised expectant eyebrows. His eye patch shifted slightly with the movement.

Clint looked at the bottle.

Realization was a little slow, but he had ten supposed years or so of unintentional mismanagement to get over, so fuck-you-all-very-much.

Fury had ordered him to drink and he hadn't felt any compulsion to comply. At all.

Normally he would have finished half the bottle by now.

He slowly put it on Fury's desk and stood up.

It was messed up if it was really this easy. It shouldn't be this easy.

"Barton, sit down, we're not done here yet," Fury ordered strictly, sharp eye narrowing.

Clint didn't feel any drive to do as he said. None at all. It was odd how the building relief made his head ache more.

"With all do respect sir, I don't think I will."

"It wasn't a request, Barton," Fury stood himself, broad shoulders squared to full authority. "Sit down."

They both waited a long, silent moment.

Nope: nothing. Clint let his lips twitch into a smile, just a brief one to show his gratitude, before wiping the sentiment off his face.

"Have a good day, sir," he resisted flipping Fury off, because it was over the top and a little too ungrateful. He changed his mind as he opened the office door and came upon the medical team sitting on the corridor floor surrounded by their gear, and Sitwell lying on the stretcher playing on his smartphone. He flipped the bird to the Director just as the door swung closed and, after giving Sitwell a respectful nod, he walked up to the airdeck and confiscated the remaining quinjet.

He didn't even bat an eye at Hill's barked orders to park it; the jet wasn't his, as they filtered through the comm.

They'd get it back.

He did a couple fancy rolls as he pulled away, letting the elation carry him.

Back in Fury's office, once Maria reported that Barton had successfully disregarded all orders to return to the carrier, Nick leaned back in his chair and sighed.

"It's done," he announced to the air, refusing to feel tired and worn down and stressed about losing one of the finest assets they'd ever acquired.

"Understood," Phil's brusque acknowledgment filled the room, and Nick also refused to let his concern for his friend join the mess of issues he had to deal with.

"Will he come back?" he asked instead, because Phil was en route to a mission and surrounded by fellow agents in a flying tin can. It was not the time for a proper heart to heart.

"I don't know. Ten years is a long time." A long time to foster grudges or attachments. Nick carefully didn't sigh as he grabbed the bottle of water Barton had left behind and cracked the lid.

"Complete your mission, Agent. We'll discuss this further upon your return."

"Understood, sir" Phil agreed and cut communications.

It was as easy as that.

In the beginning Clint had allowed himself to think about what he'd do if he ever broke his programming. He had generally focused on killing Warner and disappearing until he was nothing more than a memory to even the most vengeful. He would become a ghost once more. The difference would be that he wouldn't let anybody get close enough to catch him again.

After Coulson became his handler his fantasized escape morphed into something that lacked violence, but that was the only definitive part of the plan he'd ever really made.

He'd never thought about how having his free will back would feel like just as much of a cage. Ten years was a long time. He wasn't the same man anymore, but at least he'd known who he was after Warner. He'd had parameters to guide him and lacked the choice to move beyond them.

Parking the jet on the Tower's helipad he walked on soft feet into the near sterile greeting lounge. This wasn't the room any of the team spent a great deal of time in, preferring the large open warmth of the kitchen, living and dining room combo spread three floors below.

It was still a punch in the gut walking in now, being greeted by Jarvis, noting familiar smells and sights. Assessing by habit all his usual places to perch in case of intruders or other unwanted company.

He realized with halting surety that he didn't know how to be Clint Barton anymore. He wasn't sure who he should be. Wasn't sure how he fit into this space.

The elation of his freedom fled with the swiftness of his arrival here.

The team would just be reaching Australia, readying to help the local supers battle the pack of vicious fire-starters.

When he left the Avengers tower he slipped out with nothing but civilian clothes on his back, his favourite knives and hand gun tucked away, and the heavy feeling that they probably wouldn't notice his absence after the first week or two. He wasn't who they had known anymore, he wasn't who they had invited into their home.

He became a ghost again, but the relief he expected never came.

After seven months he decided that he wasn't any happier being away. Away, apart, not of. He grew a little impatient with it actually; the few smaller fights he stuck his nose into weren't enough for his usual level of opponent expectation. They were for good causes and distracting enough, but they were personally lacking. They also proved to him that he wasn't overly interested in getting back to the criminal side of things, but that had always been the result of upbringing, opportunity, and survival. He was never going back to that. He was worth far more than squandering in the hate and dishonour it brought. That he knew without a doubt.

Considering that he'd been back in the New York area for the better part of two months already, puttering around practicing his covert reconnaissance skills, he'd figured that rolling into the next Avenger scuffle that took place in the Big Apple wouldn't be too terrible.

Free climbing the Brooklyn Bridges east tower was as easy as he remembered.

He made his way up mostly by feel, finding tiny hand and footholds in the mortar gaps between bricks, and kept his gaze sharp on his surroundings. No one noticed his ascent and he was perched low over the towers edge in moments, his quiver shifting on his back, loaded with the sharpest broadhead arrows he could get his hands on.

He was a little late to the party, but peering down to take in the situation summed it up pretty quickly. Bathed in the bridge's lights, his old teammates struggled against a not-so-small gang of what looked like cyborgs. A select few of which had mutant abilities. The bridges pedestrian boardwalk hampered his view of what was happening on the road beneath it, but he caught site of Natasha easily flipping out of the way with a handspring and nailing a metal-armed bruiser with her Widow's Bite. She was slipping back into the shadows before he hit the ground, his circuitry smoking. She was fine.

Steve was bashing his way through a group not too far from the towers base. They weren't going down easy, but Clint had seen him handle worse with a dislocated shoulder. Tony and Thor, however, were having a bit more trouble almost halfway across the bridge.

He watched as a metal-patched mutant rolled her shoulders, and a massive water-tentacle rose from the river and smacked Tony like an errant fly, sending him tumbling head over heel through the air. He caught himself and with a sharp burst of speed and just managed to avoid being dragged under the rivers surface. Thor wasn't so lucky. Another heavy arm of water wrapped around him just as he was about to hurl Mjölinr at their opponent, swirling him around and around to keep him in its grasp. Clint imagined Thor couldn't get his bearings as it yanked him, spinning, over the bridge's edge and sucked him into the water far below.

Tony cut back in close, firing his repulsor blasts at the woman and she shivered like it was a pleasant tickle, her gleeful laugh drifting through the air.

A thin string of water whipped over the edge and deflected the mini-missile launched from Tony's forearm before it had a chance to get close, swallowing its explosion with a muffled flash. He shot back to a tentatively safe distance and looked down at the waters churning surface. He changed his angle down, preparing to risk charging the water just as Thor burst from the frothing surface with a firm grip on his hammer. Thunder cracked in the cloudless sky.

He was caught and dragged back down just as he reached the bridges edge. Tony arched away from her, firing some projectiles on his way passed, and swooped down below bridge level to fly through the arm. He severed the funnel in half, but it wasn't enough. She clapped her hands gleefully and three more water tentacles rose up to swarm them, dancing in the bridges lights. Tony managed to slip out of reach but Thor was rolled into the watery arm once more and went under.

He stayed beneath the surface longer this time, but Clint had learned enough.

She was deflecting everything she knew was coming her way.

He stood from his low crouch, arrow nocked as he moved.

She wouldn't see him coming.

Nobody would.

Thor burst from the water, glistening black arms chasing him closely to drag him back down. Tony swept down, shooting flares in the cyborgs face as a distraction while he tried to help drag Thor to a safe height.

The Cyborg's laugh was a creepy electronic cackle. It reached Clint's ears a moment after his arrow pierced through her unblinking yellow eye. The arrows that pierced between the cervical bones in her neck, through where her heart should be, and through the pulsating black to dark grey patch on her stomach (could be an energy source, he figured he might as well hit it) might have been overkill. He watched Thor land on the bridge not far from her, dripping wet and coughing.

It wasn't overkill. Overkill would have been using explosive arrows- which he would have done if he'd had any.

She stayed down.

Steve, who had been sprinting along the bridge to help take her on, skidded to a halt and twisted around. He was already looking up, and he focused right on Clint, standing on the furthest corner he could. Clint lowered his bow to his side and bounced on the balls of his feet. Halfway between Steve and Thor, Natasha slipped over the bridge's railing and gave Clint a casual nod of approval. He snorted to himself. There was no way she'd known he was there. He wasn't buying it.

Clint waved.

Steve grinned wide and Thor let out a surprisingly encouraging laugh considering he was still hacking up water.

Clint slipped his recurve across his back, the string digging into his shoulder, and swung himself down the outside of the covered ladder by his feet. The metal was cold under his hands and he let go of it pretty quickly, his feet easily finding the thick suspension cable five feet below. He turned and moved down the long, curving metal. He didn't make it far before Tony hovered down beside him, propulsion units flashing.

"You know the drill," he warned and plucked Clint off the tower like his favourite doll. He grabbed him beneath the arms at least, conscious of the fact that Clint's tight long-sleeve had no ribbing system built in.

He deposited him, gently, beside the other three and Clint was dragged into a wet, cold, full-bodied hug by Thor before both feet settled on the ground.

It took a look from Natasha out of the corner of his eye to lift his arms in return, but Thor apparently didn't notice his brief hesitance. He ignored the creaking of the equipment on his back.

"Warrior Hawk! Your fortuitous arrival has saved my bacon!" Clint blinked at the god as he was released with gusto, and caught Steve's lips twitching where he stood beside Nat.

"Yeah yeah. We do all the work and he sweeps in at the last moment to take all the glory. Typical," Tony snorted, his faceplate pulled back as he looked Clint over with a keen eye. Clint began to relax, the familiar actions easing his admittedly tense nerves, until he noticed the headlights headed their way. Considering nobody around him was concerned about the vehicles approach it would probably be SHIELD.

"Bruce?" he asked and looked to Nat, who was regarding him carefully, not letting her opinions on his 'condition' leak onto her face.

"He had concerns about destroying a national monument and becoming public enemy number one. Again." Stark shrugged. Natasha nodded beside him and Clint turned to see Bruce ambling towards them, the SHIELD agents that had climbed from the same SUV stopped at the female's body and began removal procedures. One of them touched a fletching with a small grin.

"Bruce," Clint greeted and Bruce nodded back.

"Clint." His lips curved in a small, pleased way and Clint relaxed further.

"Declare your intentions to remain amongst your warrior brethren and we shall truly feast this morn!" Thor demanded, his large hand landing heavily on Clint's shoulder and giving him a gentle shake. It was warm through the thin material, and Clint didn't recoil. It had been a while since he'd let anyone touch him so casually.

"You sure that's what you want?" he warned, looking quickly between them all. "I might not be so easy to get along with now."

"Clint," Steve's pleased look fell from his face and he bowed his head, like it would help convey the depth and sincerity of his message, "you were never easy to get along with."

There was a moment of silence, and then Clint laughed.

"Like there was ever even a question that you wouldn't come back to us," Tony added and Clint tried not to let his skepticism show but clearly failed. "Seriously," Tony narrowed a warning look at him that was lacking in his usual carefree mirth. "Butterfinger's been cleaning your apartment obsessively in anticipation of your return, and I didn't say a thing to him. Face it, Barton, if the robots pine after you then there's not a chance you aren't returning to us."

"That's a bit fatalistic," Clint pointed out dryly, but apparently it was enough of an answer to have his team relaxing.

"It is settled then! A feast we shall have!" Thor decided, his hand gently squeezing Clint's shoulder in that way he usually meant to convey quiet comfort.

"After we debrief," Steve reminded them, and with a resentful grumble Tony flew off with no warning aside from a dramatic burst of light. So aside from Thor's adaptation to catchphrases not much had changed. He followed the rest of them obediently to the quinjet parked near the entrance to the bridge. It was a bit of a walk. He almost wished they could jog it to help ease his energy and anxiety.

"It's good to have you back, Clint," Steve said on his way to the cockpit, the warm sincerity that laced his words overrode any lingering hesitation Clint might have had upon entering the jet. Thor moved to the back of the space and began stripping, uncaring as he dumped his wet clothing all over the floor. Clint took the moment to press his shoulder into Natasha's.

"Phil?" he asked softly, and her lips twitched in brief annoyance.

"Your being back will improve things."

"He can't be blaming himself for this," he felt the need to point out, because yeah, Clint may have, once or five times, silently blamed him (a little bit) but he'd never truly meant it. Natasha leveled a look on him that clearly stated he was being an idiot.

"Kind of like you're not blaming yourself for Loki," she raised an eyebrow. It was a low, cold blow, but it got the point across. He hadn't expected her to be angry with his disappearing act. She knew the game. Apparently he still had a few things to learn. He exhaled slowly.

"I'm going to have to talk about this with people." The mere thought of it made him want to clam up. It was against his nature.

But was it?

Maybe this was just one more thing on the pile of shit he had to relearn about himself. One thing was certain: seven months alone hadn't really helped. At all.

"Yes," she agreed, "but I doubt Tony will sit still long enough to listen so at the least your inner workings will be safe from him."

"Not fair, Tasha."

"Life rarely is," she agreed without remorse.

They both knew he wasn't going to say much anyway.

Phil waited until the debrief was complete. He ignored the calculating looks Maria threw his way when he bowed out of the meeting with his team in favour of letting his second handle it. He glared at Sitwell when he looked like he was going to say something that would probably amount to calling him stupid and stealing his juice box as punishment. He completed his paperwork efficiently, drank twice as much coffee as usual, watched the sunrise from the command center and damn well didn't let his nerves get the best of him.

Because Clint was on the Helicarrier after seven months of complete, off the grid, silence.

Phil waited patiently for the Avengers debrief to end and ensured operations were running at peak efficiency. He then politely informed Maria that if anyone interrupted him for the next hour for any reason less than a Hulk sized disaster he would eviscerate them with his tie clip and assign their corpses to the bio research labs. He didn't use those exact words- actually he didn't say anything at all aside from nodding at Maria, but his point was made.

He'd been keeping track of Clint's every step since his arrival, but despite this he would have known where to find him. They were keeping a fairly low orbit just off the coast of New York, so deck crews could perform maintenance without breathers. What this meant was that Clint, having no other obligations at the moment, would be taking in the view.

Phil took care to keep his pace even as he walked to the tip of the carrier's nose, stopping only when his toes were even with its lip. As expected Clint was lying in the safety net rigged below, face down as he watched ships on the upper bay slowly move towards their port. The carrier was concealed right now. Phil made a note to prepare the public relations division for reported sightings of men hovering over Brooklyn. It would be easy enough to explain away as birds.

Phil stepped off the edge of the ship and landed on the metal mesh, his weight jarring it and Clint bounced a little from the force. He sat up, looked at where Phil was arranging himself beside him, and nodded.

Phil supposed a nod was better than a fist to the eye.

"Coulson," Clint greeted, like it was any other day at the office. Easy. Phil wouldn't let himself be fooled by that again. He looked him over closely. He looked the same. Maybe slightly more tan, but nothing that could give away where he'd been or what he'd been doing.

"Barton," he returned, and they fell into silence. It was a long ten minutes where Phil had to call upon all his patience to not fiddle anxiously. He didn't do anxious. He didn't.

"I meant what I said, years ago," Clint finally glanced at him, his irises a wash of blues and green and the corner of his eyes crinkled from trying not to squint. "If it had been you that asked me to join SHIELD, I would have said yes."

Phil looked back out at the horizon, the cold steel of the net pressing into his backside, thighs and calves.

"You can't know that," the unspoken and you don't need to lie to me, and the deeper, more weighted I'm sorry; for all of it was implied. Clint would hear it, because despite everything he was still Clint, no matter how he thought his freedom changed him, and Clint had always known how to hear Phil's silence.

"No, not for sure," he agreed, his words swept away by a sharp gust of wind, and Phil could feel his gaze on him, heavy and assessing and lacking in the anger and blame that Phil would expect from anyone who had gone through what Clint had. "Maybe you should ask me now, so we can figure it out on our terms."

Phil took a deep breath, pressing his lips together. He wasn't sure he wanted to play this game, but he owed Clint that at least, and trusting him had never been an issue on Phil's end. He tilted his head to look at Clint who was watching him expectantly, as serious as he ever was despite his almost glib suggestion.

"Clint Barton, SHIELD would like to offer you the position of a class-five asset and field agent."

"Only class-five?" Clint quirked an eyebrow.

"We can renegotiate once the probationary period is complete." Clint's lips twitched, pulling up on the left side in amusement (the first smile Phil had seen from him in too long). The smile faded away almost as quickly as it appeared and he shook his head.

"No," he turned down the offer with finality. Phil looked away a moment, took a breath, and nodded. Message received; Clint wouldn't hand over that much of himself to SHIELD again. Phil had expected that, but Clint had wanted him to ask for a reason.

"I won't work for SHIELD as an agent" he shifted and stood, lithely stepping across the netting until his booted feet centered on the outer metal frame. There was nothing between him and the wide-open sky but Phil didn't worry; he trusted him not to fall. Clint twisted on the ball on one foot and looked down at him. "I'll sign on as a consultant."

Phil relaxed, minutely, and quirked his head to the side.

"A consultant," he repeated, and Clint's eyes flashed with satisfaction, because he recognized agreement when he heard it. There was no way Phil wasn't going to agree. Fury and SHIELD would fall in line if they had a problem with Phil's decision, or they'd lose him too.

But apparently Clint already understood that.

"With stipulations," Clint nodded, and it was Phil's turn to raise his eyebrows expectantly, the tightness in his chest slightly abating.

"We're not going to give you a quinjet."

"Stark already offered to make me a flying motorcycle. I'll make do with that," he shrugged, letting Phil see his uncensored pleasure. It took a lot of effort to not smile back. "The only handlers I'll accept will be Sitwell, Hill, and you. Try to put me with anyone else and I walk."

"Done."

"All missions have to be vetted and approved by my SHIELD liaison and external affairs handler before I'll accept."

"That depends on who this person is," Phil frowned, firmly crushing any deep-seated ire at the idea of Clint trusting someone he didn't know with these decisions. "They'll need to have the appropriate security clearance."

"It's a good thing you're a level seven then, isn't it," Clint confirmed with a pointed nod that clearly stated that Phil was an idiot. Phil paused, wind whipping his jacket flaps about him, a cold draft making it under his shirt and tickling his spine. Clint adjusted his stance into the gust without thought. Everything about him spoke of surety, in this decision at least, and he wasn't giving Phil a chance to misread his intentions. Maybe Phil was a bit of an idiot after all. He'd learn how to adapt.

"I suppose it is," he agreed, tone dry, and pushed to his own feet. He was careful not to step through the holes in the net, and looked at where Clint was smiling at him. "I should point out that I have stipulations of my own."

"I'm the only one who gets a flying motorcycle," Clint rolled his shoulders and tipped his head, a familiar, cocky gleam in his eyes. "But if you play it right I might just take you for a ride."

Phil let his amusement show, and Clint grinned with quiet victory over his horrific rejoinder. Phil wasn't surprised when his amusement suddenly slipped into the quiet, serious place he only went when he wanted to be heard. Phil met his eyes calmly.

"I meant what I said Phil. I would have said yes."

Phil wished he could believe it. Knocking Clint's brainwashing out of his head might have been condemningly simple, but nothing else about this was. It would take time to fix, and the issues didn't start or end with Warner or Loki no matter what Clint would eventually insist.

"I know," he agreed, because at least it was a start. Clint clearly didn't believe him, but after leveling an imploring glare for longer than strictly necessary he decided to shrug it off. For now. It wouldn't be fair to say Clint was the only one with issues to work though.

One thing he did know for certain now was that Clint still trusted him. That was more than good enough to get things started. He would take that and run with it for as long as he could.

"Thor's throwing me a welcome home feast tonight," Clint's grin was back, chasing away the flash of darkness that he'd let shine through, and flipped his purple-reflective sunglasses over his eyes. "You better be there, Coulson, or I'll tell Steve about your life-size, authentic, Captain America blow up doll."

"There's no such thing," Phil pointed out dryly, both because it was true and because it was expected.

"What matters is that he'll believe me until he figures that out for himself."

Clint smirked, and without waiting for a riposte he gracefully executed a back dive off the ledge. Phil waited patiently until Clint popped back up over the ledge, firmly secured to Iron Man's back with a grin that was nothing but elation. Phil took what felt like his first deep breath in months.

"Seventeen hundred hours, Agent," Stark pointed a glowing gauntlet at him, but there was no mistaking his warning tinged glee. "If you're late I'll make a prototype and frame you with it just for fun."

Phil looked directly at Clint.

"I have very big stipulations," he warned, and Clint laughed, whooping loudly as Tony turned and flew them both towards the tower.

Phil grinned widely and watched them until they were too far out to see.

Together they would make this work.

Of that, at least, he had no doubt.

End.

In case anyone's interested, I have story notes etc at aerlatro