DISCLAIMER: The Avengers is the property of Walt Disney Studios, Paramount Studios, and Marvel Studios. This work was created purely for enjoyment. No money was made, and no infringement was intended.
RATING: T (for language, violence)
THE RIGHT CALL
The steady thud thud of his crutches against the deck plating of the helicarrier was very loud as Clint made his way across the bridge toward the private offices. A few agents and technicians glanced his way, but he really didn't pay them any mind. He knew what scuttlebutt had been about these last three days since the fiasco at Vargas' auction. He'd been generally well regarded before, maybe even revered, but people genuinely didn't know what to think now. He'd made a tremendous mistake, disobeyed direct orders, ignored mission objectives, endangered his teammate, and compromised himself, both physically and professionally.
But he'd also saved Captain America.
That meant a lot, especially around here.
The last thing he'd said before losing consciousness aboard the quinjet was now the target of conjecture, of rumor, of judgment and some understanding. Only some. People had their questions, questions about what would happen now. So did he.
He reached his destination and pressed his thumb to the ringer aside from Fury's office. The door buzzed and slid open, and he limped inside, the hollow, heavy sound of the crutches following him wherever he went. Fury looked up from his desk. He was surrounded by a series of monitors, the sleek glass surfaces filled with reports. There were also a few tablets spread around him, one of which the SHIELD Director set down at his entrance. A quick glance revealed the man was dealing with the fallout from the mission to rescue Steve. All in all, it had been a significant success. SHIELD had managed to capture a few of the buyers; unfortunately, they were mostly lieutenants and henchmen for the masterminds who remained at large. Even still, the detention center was loaded with prisoners, and some were interested in cooperation to save their own skins. They'd also effectively destroyed many enemy aircraft, which might have been a small matter, but that meant fewer resources for the evil of the world to continue their plots. Most importantly, however, they had completely destroyed Vargas' criminal empire of drug and arms trafficking. Most of his men were dead, and those that weren't were in custody. His network northward from Colombia into Mexico and the United States was being dismantled as its operatives were rounded up and arrested. They had eliminated a significant threat to world peace.
They hadn't found Egghead's body, though. It didn't seem likely that they would, given the large expanse of inhospitable terrain they needed to search. It seemed equally impossible that Starr could have survived that fall from the helicopter. But there was no certainty, no closure. Just thinking about it made Clint extremely uneasy.
Still, they had accomplished all of their mission objectives and then some and not a single member of SHIELD had been killed.
A significant success. He should have been happier about it.
"Agent Barton," Fury said in greeting. His face was impassive, as it always was. Not for the first time, Clint wished he could just see what the other man was thinking. But Fury was a master at hiding it all, at keeping himself under control, at following through regardless of the implications. Once, a few days ago even, Clint had idolized that. He didn't think he did anymore. "I've heard a rather interesting rumor about you."
Clint stood a little taller, as tall as he could given his complete reliance on the crutches to stay upright. He couldn't put any weight at all on his right leg. His efforts at the estate and during the chase afterward had strained the injury enough to cause further damage. He knew he looked as pale and weak and exhausted as he felt. But he also knew he looked far more broken than he actually was. "I've just come to make it official, sir."
Something flashed in Fury's eye. Disappointment. Fear. Regret. Clint didn't know what. "Care to sit?" the spy asked, gesturing to the empty chair on the other side of the silver desk. Clint nodded, shuffling over to it and lowering himself gingerly. Fury sighed, like he was considering how to begin, before pushing the computer displays aside to see Clint more clearly. He leaned back in his chair. "I hoped it was just a rumor."
"No, sir." Clint drew a deep breath and met Fury's gaze. "I want out."
Fury didn't immediately say anything to that, and a tense quiet passed. "Can I ask why?"
Clint had been asking himself that ever since he'd awoken in the infirmary two days ago. He didn't doubt that his choice was the right one, the best one, but he was having the damnedest time trying to understand it. This was all he'd known for years, being an agent for SHIELD. Being a spy and a sniper. He knew he was good at it, among the best in the world in fact, and he didn't know if he knew how to be anything else. But he also knew he had to be. Inexplicably, after everything that had happened, he just couldn't go back. He couldn't keep it inside now, his objections and doubts and own morals. Like Pandora's Box, these things were out there, and they couldn't be ignored. Shouldn't be ignored. "I can't do what you need me to do anymore."
"That's a choice," Fury reminded gently. There wasn't any heat in his voice. "Not an absolute."
"It is," Clint argued. "It has to be."
"Why? You know better than anyone that sometimes we have to ignore evil, even partake in evil, to do a greater good. The world isn't black and white."
It was to Steve. You have to do the right thing at all times and at any cost to yourself. Clint had known that, but he'd made himself forget it because it was a truth that didn't suit the life he had always led. Fury wasn't wrong. That sort of mindset, the sort that kept the world in those damn absolutes, was ridiculously naïve. That sort of mindset was used and abused by those who cared nothing for good and integrity and valor. It wasn't going to be easy to stay out of the shadows, but he wanted to try. And he couldn't do that as a spy.
"You're right. The world is filled with gray," Clint said. "But it shouldn't have to be. I don't want it to be. I don't want to look the other way anymore. I've done it my whole life. To protect myself, to protect the mission… There can't be any greater good in the face of countless lesser evils."
"You think Rogers isn't a killer?" Fury asked, and Clint narrowed his eyes, struck by the blunt question. "He's a soldier. He's killed men because someone ordered him to do it hundreds of times."
"Killed, not murdered." Steve killed in the defense of innocents. He killed in combat, face to face with bad and sadistic men, with no lies or cover stories or manipulation. A battle field, not a dark corner and an unsuspecting target. Steve killed with courage and strength and good intentions. If there could be such a thing as purity in taking a life, that was as close as it came. "There's a difference. I'm starting to realize it." Clint shook his head, feeling a little ashamed. Not for resigning, but for taking so long to do it. The Chitauri invasion in Manhattan, what Loki had done to him, had opened the door. Those long bleak hours in the Amazon would make him walk through it. "I don't want to be a murderer anymore. I'm sorry."
"So you want to be a hero?" Clint's eyes grew distant as he recalled Tony asking him something similar. "You think there's nothing heroic or self-sacrificial about bearing the darkness, about dousing your hands in blood, so that people like Rogers don't have to? Isn't there some good in that?"
Fury had a point. It was what he'd thought, he'd made himself believe, ever since he'd joined SHIELD. That the ends justified the means. That what he did, and what Romanoff did, was all necessary, and it was. Assassination ensured the death of dangerous individuals who had and would continue to do great evil. It made for justice where there could otherwise be none. A necessary evil. "There is," Clint conceded. He took a deep breath and looked Fury straight in the eye. "But I want to be better."
It was silent before Fury smiled. It was a small grin, rueful but not angry or upset. Accepting. "Alright, Barton. You're out." He leaned forward, leather creaking, as he folded his hands together on his desk. "Truth is, I didn't know what the hell I was going to tell the Council this time anyway. I appreciate you letting me off the hook."
Clint grinned too, a bit sadly but not regretfully. Fury, in his own way, was easing his own guilty conscience. "Thank you, sir."
"What are you going to do now?" Fury asked.
Clint grimaced, grabbing his crutches again and struggling to his feet. "If I can get my leg back," he ground out as he finally coordinated keeping all the pressure on his good leg and stood, "and if the others will have me, I'll stay on as Avenger."
Fury seemed pleased with that. "I'm sure they will. You're an asset to any team, one of the best there is. I'd hate to lose that forever."
"You won't. When you call for the Avengers to assemble, I'll be there," Clint swore.
They didn't say anything more. It took a little bit of maneuvering to get himself away from the chair and back to the other end of the room. He stepped outside, and the door swished shut behind him. Then he stood still, leaning heavily on his crutches, and closed his eyes. A long breath fled his chest, and for a moment, he didn't think anything or feel anything other than relief.
"Did he let you go?"
Natasha's soft question drew him from his malaise. He opened his eyes to find her waiting for him in the corridor. She stood against the opposite wall, looking cool and unbothered, her arms folded over her chest. But he could see the worry in her eyes. She wasn't doing anything to hide it.
Clint stood a little straighter. "Yeah, he did," he said.
Something flickered across her face, that same sort of fear he'd momentarily noticed in Fury. But hers was deeper, more primal. More intimate. He'd brought her into this life, after all, and now he was leaving it. He could imagine the insecurity she was feeling.
Every now and then, she surprised him with her openness. "I don't know if I can let you go," she softly admitted.
He smiled comfortingly and reached out to take her hand. "You never have to."
After his meeting with Fury, he went back to his quarters aboard the helicarrier. It took him a while to shuffle and limp there, and when he opened the door to the small, drab room, the persistent sadness building in his chest became so tight and strong that it was nearly painful. He drew a shaky breath and made his way inside and sat tiredly on his bed. And then he looked around, feeling a little numb, a little uncertain. Not so much of what he had done but what he needed to do. He realized then, staring at the gray walls and simple, mundane accommodations, that he really didn't have much. No pictures because he had no family. No possessions because he spent his life traveling the world and killing. Was he anything if he wasn't an agent for SHIELD? He hoped so.
He sighed, resting there for a long time before summoning the energy and courage to move. He stood and limped clumsily to the closet where he found a black duffle bag. He pulled it out, dusted it off, and proceeded to empty the closet and the dresser of the few sets of clothes he kept aboard. He stuffed them inside the bag and (with no small amount of pain and effort) lowered himself to the floor beside his bed. He pulled out a case from underneath that contained his bow. There was also another case with a sword, one he'd had since running from the circus all those years ago. Then a third container, filled with a few handguns and a combat knife. He grunted as he looked at it all. His life. Clothes and weapons and no place to go.
There was a knock. "Come in," he called.
The door swished open, and Steve stood there. At the sight of Clint on the floor, surrounded by open cases and guns and swords and bows, his face fractured in concern and confusion. "You alright?" he asked, stepping inside the small room. The door closed behind him.
Clint chuckled a little. "Yeah. Just getting my stuff."
Steve winced. It was the first time they'd seen each other since they'd nearly crashed in Egghead's helicopter. Rogers looked almost completely healed from the ordeal, only the faintest hints of cuts remaining on his face. It was almost as if it had never happened. If only. That little prick of spite lashed at Clint again, and the pain from his leg grew just a bit harsher. If only the rest of us were so endowed. But it felt wrong to think such a thing, because his situation wasn't hopeless, and Steve had certainly suffered through some horrible things on his behalf. Everything about the soldier felt a little raw, a little battered and uncertain. Changed, perhaps, by dark hours that would stay with him long after the final vestiges of his wounds disappeared. If only he could forget. If only I could.
In time, at least, maybe he would forgive himself.
It had become awkwardly silent during Clint's dark thoughts. Rogers' soft voice drew his attention. "I heard you quit SHIELD." It wasn't hard to tell what he thought of that. His face was filled with guilt and worry and dismay. Like it was his fault. It was, in a sense, but not in the way Steve thought. Captain America brought out the best in people. That much good didn't mix well with so much bad. "I'm sorry."
"I'm not," Clint said simply. He closed the cases with all his weapons and then braced his elbow on the bed and pushed himself up. His chest and arms were sore (both from the injuries he'd sustained and the continual use of them for movement and stability), but he managed to get himself up. Steve's desire to help him was so strong and noticeable it was almost a physical force, but the soldier remained still, standing near the door. Clint got himself back on the bed, breathing a little more heavily than he would have liked, propping his crutches beside him against the mattress. He gingerly stretched his right leg out, setting a tentative hand to the torn and bruised and battered hole in his thigh where muscles and skin once had been. He swallowed thickly and wiped the sweat from his face with his other hand. "It's time to move on."
Steve chewed the inside of his cheek, again uncomfortably silent, before tipping his head toward Clint's injury. "Is that why?"
If that proclamation made Steve feel better, it wasn't obvious. "Will it ever heal?"
Clint offered a little smile once he caught his wind. "Not completely. But Banner wants to try some sort of procedure that he thinks will stimulate some of my muscles to regrow. Optimistically, I could get eighty percent of strength and functionality back."
Steve shrugged a little, but he didn't do a good job masking his newfound relief as he stepped closer and sat beside Clint on the bed. Suddenly, with that simple, casual act, things didn't seem so strained. "Knowing Doctor Banner, he'll find a way to fix it all."
Clint kept smiling, rubbing the coarse bandages wrapped tightly around his thigh through his pants. He had faith. "Yeah, knowing him."
"But that should still be enough to fight with us. The Avengers, I mean," Steve quickly added. "Vargas wasn't the only monster out there. There will be others, each probably worse than the last. We'll need your eye protecting us and calling out the shots."
Knowingly or not, Steve had just told Clint exactly what he needed to hear, just as Clint had done for Steve. And now Clint could be sure that what he'd told Fury hadn't been a pack of self-delusional lies. He could find his way to where he was needed. He could be better. "Sure thing, Cap. It'd be an honor."
"And if you need a place to stay, I'm sure Tony will set you up," Steve said, glancing at him. "If you can tolerate it. And him." Clint winced. The thought of staying in that overblown, overly extravagant monstrosity known as Stark Tower literally turned his stomach. His hesitation spurned Steve to continue. "Or you can come stay with me for as long as you need. My apartment… Well, SHIELD arranged it, so maybe it's not really the distance you were looking for. But you're welcome to it."
It was a kind offer. "Thanks," Clint said, meeting Rogers' steady and open gaze. "But I think I'll go it on my own for a while."
Steve wasn't hurt. He just nodded. "Wanna stretch out your wings, right?"
"Something like that."
They sat silently for a while. Of course it was all still there. The hell of the crash, the desperate struggle to stay alive against injury and bleak odds. The sacrifices they'd made for each other. Those stood out the most, but they didn't require announcement or shallow words of thanks that did so very little to express the depths of the gratitude they felt for each other and the connection they now shared. They'd left for this mission, each wary and with egos that were a little bruised because they'd been forced together, and emerged on the other side closer. Tighter. Friends. They'd gone in knowing nothing about each other, and they'd come out knowing everything that mattered.
Steve sighed softly. "You know, I was thinking about what you said back in the village. When you asked me what I would have done." Clint nodded, the hazy words flitting across his thoughts as the scene (or what he could clearly recall of it) replayed in his mind. "If it had been me there in the base and you out in the jungle covering my back. If it had been my decision." Steve's eyes grew distant as he thought about it. "If I would have done it differently."
Clint watched him expectantly. "What do you think?"
"I think you made the right call," he said, and there was absolutely no doubt in his voice.
Clint couldn't help but smile at that. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah, I think I did."
Maybe it wasn't complete understanding. After all, they were, and always would be, made of different stuff. But it was acceptance. Forgiveness. Apology. Everything they needed from each other.
Steve chuckled. "Gave them hell, didn't we?"
Clint couldn't agree more. "Sure did."
Then the awkward quiet threatened again, so Steve stood and walked to the door. "Well, you know where to find me. Let me know how it goes with Banner and if there's anything I can do. I'm sure everything will work out."
"Thanks, Cap. I'm sure it will, too. Until next time, huh?"
"Yeah." Steve smiled at him brightly, absolving Clint of his failings. Absolving himself of his own. "See you around, Clint." And then he left.
For a long time, Clint sat, listening to the comforting and familiar hum of helicarrier beneath him. He ran his hand over his thigh again. That smile of Steve's burned into his memory, made his heart swell in a way it hadn't in years. Not since he was a kid and the world had seemed vast but his brother was there to guide him. He thought all about Natasha and Barney and the kid with the red shoes. And he thought about spreading his wings, as Steve had put it, about flying his own way, about being better than he ever had been. About being a hero.
He flopped down on his bed, looking up at the ceiling and smiling. "I did it, Barney," he said. "I hope you're proud."
Of course Barney would never answer him, but that was okay. Clint didn't need him to.
And so end the trials and tribulations of the Disaster Duo. I just want to thank everyone who read, alerted, favorited, and reviewed this story! Your comments are truly appreciated. Extra special thanks to E, who not only beta-read this but help conceive it and plot it and turn it from a romp in the jungle to a story that I think actually had some substance. And bad-assery. :-)
If you are still hungry for Avengers, check out my other stories. They all focus on whumping poor Steve (and usually Clint comes along for the ride) and bromantic, hurt/comfort-ey goodness. Thanks again for reading!
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