They picked up a car from the first safe house and headed north, to where Belarus shared a border with Latvia and Russia.
"I think we should make some changes to op procedure," said Barton.
Coulson jiggled the air vents back and forth before concluding that they weren't working at all. "Since when do you care about op procedure?"
"I think instead of killing the mark, we should not kill the mark."
Coulson rolled his eyes. "I wouldn't have expected you to be swayed by a pretty face, at least not one with ovaries." Barton had never particularly bothered to hide his sexual orientation, though for reasons Coulson had never understood, he strongly preferred to call himself a fag, rather than gay.
"Okay, first of all," said Barton, "I don't think anybody would like to see a face with ovaries attached. Aren't they all squishy and gooey? And second of all, it's not about that. We can't kill her. It's not right."
"Not right? This is one of the easiest calls we've made in a long time. She's killed a lot of people, many of them perfectly innocent, not to mention the four SHIELD agents who were sent after her and came back in body bags."
"But she's…I mean, it's not like she really chose this life, is it?"
"It would be wonderful if SHIELD could be an international force for second chances, but there were no second chances for the forty-seven patients who died in the hospital fire she deliberately set, not to mention that no SHIELD agent has ever gotten within two hundred meters of her without dying. That's why we've brought you in to take her out at a distance. Kind of hard to offer her a second chance under those circumstances."
Clint shifted in his seat and muttered in response.
"What was that?"
"I said it's not a second chance, Coulson. Come on, you read the file. They took her when she was five, told her that her family was dead, indoctrinated her into all this shit. She never had a first chance. Somebody who grows up like that, do that really have a choice?"
Coulson sighed. "She's not you, Barton. You wouldn't have taken the jobs she's done."
"I wasn't thinking that…look, I want to try to bring her in alive."
"No. We have our orders and for damn good reason."
"I wasn't asking. I was telling you as a courtesy."
"Suicidality was never one of your more attractive qualities."
"Fuck off, sir," said Clint as he curled on his side in the passengers seat to sleep.
Barton woke an hour or so later and rubbed at the back of his neck. "How old were you," he asked sleepily, "your first time?"
"Do you really think that's an appropriate question?"
"I think the next time you see me, you're going to have to kill or capture me, because I'll be a rogue asset, so I don't really give a damn about appropriate and inappropriate."
"You never gave a damn about appropriate and inappropriate, so don't pretend that's just starting up now. And if you try to negotiate with the Black Widow, you're just going to end up dead, so I'm not particularly concerned with your future status with SHIELD."
"I've always thought you had a nice ass." Barton rubbed his eyes, still half-awake.
Coulson sighed. "How old were you?"
"I was twenty."
"I grew up in a small town. I only knew one other gay boy and we didn't happen to like each other much. Then I was in college and ROTC somewhat limited my options."
"Why does a gay Quaker join the military?"
"I thought it was the right thing to do."
"You think killing the Black Widow is the right thing to do?"
No good was going to come from restarting that conversation, so Coulson ignored Barton's question. "So, fifteen? Somebody you knew in the circus?"
"He's in your records. Buck Chisholm, Trickshot."
"He was a good two decades older than you."
"Yeah, I know that," said Barton, a little too quickly.
"He was abusive?" guessed Coulson. It wasn't a shot in the dark, it was a reasoned hypothesis based on what he knew about Chisholm specifically and the general character of middle-aged men who had sex with teenagers.
"No," Barton shook his head, "he didn't beat me or anything like that."
Coulson waited. He had conducted enough interrogations to be familiar with the pattern. 'No, it wasn't as bad as X, it was just X-1.'
"Would you believe he had me convinced I didn't like fucking? I mean, hand jobs and blow jobs, yeah, but I really thought that I just wasn't cut out for fucking."
"How'd he convince you of that?"
"You know I'd never answer any of this shit if I thought I was ever going to see you again," said Barton, still apparently planning his suicide mission to convert the Black Widow. He paused. "He never forced me or anything like that. I was just too chickenshit to say 'no' or 'slow down' or 'isn't this what lube is for'?"
Coulson couldn't imagine that most parentless, lonely fifteen-year-old boys would have it in themselves to challenge their father-figure-boyfriend-mentors on matters of sex, but he knew that Barton wouldn't appreciate the sympathy, so he remained silent.
"He had other ideas," said Barton, "stuff with his friends sometimes when we were in a town where he knew people. Put on a show, or maybe there would be pictures. You remember the first assignment I had, to look at all that kiddie porn to find that missing boy? I was so fucking terrified there would be a picture of me in there."
Coulson turned on the headlights. The street was getting foggy. "SHIELD is contracted to run those searches from time to time. If I ever find a picture of you, I'll ensure all copies are destroyed."
Barton nodded. He picked a coin up from the change tray and began rolling it over his knuckles. "Thanks," he said after a moment.
They both fell silent. Barton made another half-hearted scan through the radio stations, but all he could find was foreign-language talk radio and what might have been polka underneath a thick veil of static.
After a few minutes, Barton straightened in his seat. "I'm still not going to kill her."
Coulson's eyes twitched slightly to the right. "Barton, I'm aware you'd rather I didn't know anything about your life prior to SHIELD. And the reality is that in a sense I know very little: all of the dates, none of the details."
Clint tensed. One of the reasons he didn't like people knowing about his life was that they tended to use it against him in arguments ('You only think that because of what happened to you.') but Coulson had managed to avoid being a complete asshat for three years, so Clint held his tongue. For the moment.
"I've certainly gotten the picture, however," continued Coulson, "that most of the people in your life who normally would have been giving you guidance over the years either weren't doing it or weren't doing a very good job. That probably wasn't terribly pleasant to live through, but it's occurred to me more than once if it has something to do with…" He trailed off, unsure exactly how to explain. "You're very independent-minded. I've never known another SHIELD agent who would just decide he was going to reform the Black Widow instead of assassinating her." He shook his head. "It's a stupid idea. You're going to die. But I can't help thinking it's a little honorable and a little brave."
Clint glanced over at Coulson. He couldn't think of anything to say, so he said nothing.
"We're about forty minutes from the safehouse at the Russian border. When we get there, I'll send our confirmation codes to SHIELD, and then I'm going to sleep. I should be able to give you at least a five hour headstart."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"Go. Find her. Offer her a second chance and die in the attempt."
"You'll be reprimanded."
"It had to happen sometime."
"You're really going to…"
"Barton, I think this is a terrible idea. I think you're going to die without having accomplished the mission or any variation thereof and I'm going to have to break in a new sniper, likely one without your sparkling wit. But I'm not going to stand in your way."
"Ha, I knew you loved me."
"What I love most is your humility."
"And my biceps."
"And your biceps," acknowledged Coulson. It was just a joke, but he normally wouldn't say something like that about a co-worker. It didn't really matter so much now.
The safehouse was not really deserving of the name 'house'. It could conceivably be called a safeshack, if in fact it were safe. Looking at the foundation, Phil had his doubts about safety, but they had stayed in worse.
Phil lingered over the trunk of the car, separating equipment. "They'll change the passwords on the supply lockers as soon as it's known you're rogue, so you should take most of the supplies and cash. You should take the car, too."
"I don't want to leave you stranded in Eastern Europe," said Barton. "At this point, I figure you don't know how to manage without me."
"I'll be fine," said Coulson with a thin smirk. "I can call in resources, you can't. So take what you need."
Barton hesitated a moment longer before holding out his hand for the car keys. "I'll see you in a few weeks," he said.
Coulson shook his hand. "It's been an honor serving with you, Clint."
Maybe it was the combination of the affection and the respect and the formality and his first name, but Barton suddenly doubted his decision. Maybe he really just wanted to stay on with SHIELD and work with Phil Coulson and maybe he could just break his wrist so they'd have to call off the op.
But then the Black Widow would kill more innocents and SHIELD would send more and more agents after her. This had to end one way or the other.
"It's been a blast," Barton grinned, "Phil."
Clint stakes out a space that he can secure – a windowless room in the ruins of an abandoned Hydra base. He stocks it with everything he needs to keep two people alive – food, water, booze, medicine, and a couple of decks of cards.
Nobody knows how he captures the Black Widow. Entangling arrows from SHIELD's R&D department certainly play a role, but Clint himself is sentimental and he thinks that maybe she lets herself be captured because she wants to change her ways.
She's bound to steel beams with steel cuffs. Hands, feet, and neck. He knows how to secure wily prisoners and he takes no chances. He offers her water and says he'll put scraps of cloth between the cuffs and her skin as soon as he's satisfied that he can come near without getting killed.
She curses at him in Russian for the first hour, then falls silent for the next. In the third, she questions him in broken English with a thick accent, "Who are you? Why you take me? What you wanting?"
"I want to make you good," he says.
She laughs. She doesn't believe him. She leans forward so her cleavage is showing and speaks in a low, sultry register.
"I guess I really am the man for the job," he says, "because that shit don't work on me."
She rolls her eyes. "Works on every man."
"Not me, dollface. You know the word 'fag'?"
"Is for smoking."
"Naw, other meaning. Men who like men."
"Oh, in Russian is goluboi."
"Sure, whatever floats your boat." He shrugs. "But I promise, you're not here for sex."
The next few days are all the same. He gives her food and water and unlocks her legs so she can piss without help. She is mostly stubbornly silent, but he chats with her when she wants to talk. He spends most of his time singing and throwing playing cards at targets across the room.
"Three green and speckled frogs / sitting on some speckled logs / eating the most delicious bugs." He pauses and points to her.
"I am not saying it."
"Don't say it, sing it."
She glares, but after a moment, she mutters, "Yum, yum," with a look of abject disdain on her face.
"One jumped in to the pool / where it was nice and cool / then there were two speckled frogs."
He sings the entirety of Daft Punk's Around the World despite the fact that this is simply the phrase 'around the world' repeated 144 times. He counts on his fingers and says, "I guess it's better with the techno backup. When we get out of here, I'll take you to a club."
"What is…'when we get out of here'? You can let me out right now."
"Nope," he says, "I really can't. I can't let you go back and hurt people."
"Then kill me," she says.
"Naw, that was the first plan. I got a new plan."
"You want to making me good," she says, her overwhelming skepticism evident.
"Yep." He pulls out a pack of cards, obviously planning to practice throwing them again. "See, I know somebody like you. He got treated bad by everybody and the one nice thing, the one truly selfless thing he did…" He trails off for a moment, flexing his fingers. "He tried to protect a little kid and got himself hurt in the process. And the little kid wasn't even grateful. He ended up…his life just ended up all wrong. And I can't fix him, but I'm going to fix you."
"Maybe I am not wanting fix."
"Yeah, he'd say the same thing. Well, not exactly the same because he can speak English right, but the same idea." He smiles thinly and shrugs. "Look, it's like this. The reason you're like this is the same reason you don't get to choose, because you really can't choose, not yet. They took you when you were just a little kid, and they told you your family was dead and they trained you in that place like you were just a weapon and not a person, so how could you possibly know whether you want it or not?"
She just stares back at him, lips slightly open, as if half-ready to speak. After a moment, she straightens. "You say you can't fix him. Who is him?"
"My br-." He cuts himself off before he realizes that he has to make a different choice if he wants to make progress. She wants to hear this story and maybe she needs to hear it, so he does something he has never done before and he tells her about the trailer and the violence and the funeral and foster care and the circus and crime and most of all about Barney.
When he is done, she is quiet.
"I'm in debt to him. And I can't pay it back because whatever he would want would just make everything worse."
"What is 'debt'?" She mouths the word a few times.
"Like 'owe', like somebody's got one up on you. Like red in the ledger."
She is silent again.
It is two days later when she asks, "Are you… you are remembering your parents?"
He nods. "Yeah. Not a ton of memories, but I definitely remember them."
She says, "I remember nothing."
It's many more days before she says, "They tell me I like my first kill, but I do not think so," and more days after that before she says, "I am twelve years old and I am living with only men. And I," she pauses. "Blood," she says, "for women just. I am not knowing the word."
"You mean 'period'?" he asks hesitantly, firmly of the belief that one of the few inherent benefits to being a gay man is the inalienable right to avoid all talk of menstruation.
"Yes," she says, "period. I am not knowing what it is and I am with only men, so I am never seen it before." She very slowly closes and opens her eyes. "I think I am having a tumor, a cancer. I think I am dying. And I am being not sad, not scared, because death cannot be different from…what else can death be?"
Three months had passed since Phil Coulson bade farewell to Clint Barton in Belarus. In the eyes of SHIELD he had lost an asset and failed in an op, but he had years of impeccable service to fall back on, and the rebuke from his superiors was mild. They had mostly displayed an 'I-knew-it-all-along' attitude, claiming that Barton was a loose cannon and it had only been a matter of time.
Coulson didn't set them straight. He knew the truth and that was sufficient.
He had tried not to wonder what became of Barton, not to scan intel reports for signs his body had been recovered, and for the most part, he was successful. Coulson had always been skilled at compartmentalizing.
His phone buzzed. A text from an unknown number.
ge brain what do you want to do toniht? the same thing we do evry night pinky meet parking lot behind rizzos at 11pm come alone
The number was unknown, but the Pinky and the Brain reference was only known within SHIELD, and the spelling was pure Barton.
Coulson looked at the clock. 10:37. He stood and grabbed his jacket.
Rizzo's parking lot was poorly lit. It would have been nearly impossible to secure if that had been Coulson's goal, but it wasn't. He hadn't brought backup. He hadn't even worn a vest. Maybe's Barton's recklessness was posthumously rubbing off on him.
A motorcycle with two riders pulled in and stopped by the dumpster. The smaller rider in the back got off and immediately put her hands above her head.
"Go on," the larger rider nudged her.
She walked forward slowly. She had deeply red hair that was vibrant despite being filthy and unwashed. She was wearing motorcycle leathers that didn't fit particularly well, but her figure was still obvious beneath. She passed through a think slat of light from the road and her face was illuminated.
The Black Widow knelt on the ground about ten feet away from Phil Coulson and said. "I surrender myself to SHIELD."
Behind her, Clint Barton leaned on the motorcycle. He was his own man, through and through, or he never would have tried this stunt in the first place. And he was a good man, or he would have tried to join her or kill her for a bounty instead. And he was still Clint-motherfucking-Barton, so he shimmied his hips and made a lewd gesture before winking at Coulson and saying, "I hope nobody touched my stuff while I was gone."
How much of this is canon?
Well, for starters, Phil Coulson was never in the comics and Clint Barton was never a SHIELD employee in the comics. Clint's backstory in this fic is pretty closely modeled on his backstory in the comics. In the comics, as in this fic, Clint's father is drunk and physically abusive. In the comics, as in the fic, his parents die when he's young, in a car crash caused by his father's drunk driving. In the comics, he goes with Barney to live in an orphanage before running away to join the circus. The stories of the Swordsman and Trickshot are roughly correct with some variation. By the end of the Trickshot story in the comics, Barney is an undercover FBI agent, which is more than a little ridiculous, so I changed that. In the comics, Barney betrays and uses Clint over and over throughout his life; I just compacted that element of the story a little. In the comics, Clint gets involved with low-level crime and eventually stages some weird stunt with Jarvis to join the Avengers.
Clint in the comics is not illiterate, but he is definitely uneducated and very low-brow.
Clint's sexual orientation in the comics is clear: he's heterosexual. He doesn't even have a deep and profound enduring emotional bond with another man, like Tony & Steve or Charles & Erik. (Yes, he's got a thing with Steve, but it's much more that he views Steve as a father figure.) That said, in the comics, he really doesn't have a romantic relationship with Natasha Romanov either; they dated briefly and broke up amicably. Since then, Clint dated other women and got married. Whenever Clint & Natasha talk about their past relationship, they always agree that it was a mistake and they're now platonic friends. In comics canon, the OTP is Hawkeye/Mockingbird – it's a good story and very Clint.
I like Clint / Coulson, and I'm the goddamn author, so that's what I wrote.
The bit about Clint being baptized as a Lutheran wasn't made up out of thin air. There are a lot of Lutherans in Waverly, Iowa.
"John Henry was a Steel Driving Man" is a real and frankly pointless American folk song.
Caligula & Incitatus – Incitatus was Caligula's horse. The mad emperor Caligula wanted to appoint his horse to political office.
While writing this, I was thinking very much about contrasting the relationship between Clint & Buck (in which Buck isn't abusive or cruel, but is definitely just out for himself) and the relationship I wrote between a teenage Tony and a middle-aged Steve (in which Steve was very concerned about Tony's well-being) in Masters of the Universe.
In case you were wondering why the photographs of Clint and Barney's injuries were Polaroid pictures instead of regular ones, that was standard practice until a few years ago. If a school nurse or doctor saw suspicious injuries, he or she was supposed to photograph them, but for privacy reasons, the pictures couldn't be processed through a local pharmacy. Thus, Polaroids were the method of choice. Nowadays, digital cameras are used.
It's been fun, thanks to all who have read and reviewed.