A/N 1: Because I had so much fun with Oxycodone Days, I decided to continue it. It isn't essential that you read it first, but some of the characterizations and motifs will make more sense if you do. This story was heavily influenced by the "Hurt Locker," because I really liked Jeremy Renner in it
A/N 2: Well, it's finally finished after nearly a year. I want to thank everyone for their support and kind words. I worried that I might take Hawkeye and Black Widow to too dark of a place and that people wouldn't appreciate it but I'm glad that everyone hung in there with me. The overarching theme in this story was the Hawkeye and Black Widow learning to accept help outside of each other and for the other Avengers to learn to accept the ugliness of the two assassins. I also hope I redeemed Steve and Tony. They were hard to write because conceptually, they would probably have a huge problem with the way things went down but in the end they needed to accept it to complete the story arc. Their scenes, especially Tony's, were very difficult to balance natural growth and acceptance while keeping them in character.
Into the Fire 8: – Reconstruction:
Monday August 21st 7:15pm - Harriman State Park, NY USA
She leaned back, removing her sunglasses so she could enjoy the fading sunset. Clint kept his on; his eyes always more light sensitive than hers. She stretched and cracked her back, glad the temperature was dropping. Before this whole thing, she would have found this heat unbearable now it was a nuisance and she didn't like it but she didn't feel like a wilted flower. Normally she would rather be indoors but figured Clint would prefer this natural setting. He liked to lose himself in trees and the sounds of babbling brooks. She suspected he was glad for it anyway. He had been stuck in the City for the last 5 days and apparently had decided to stay on base after he tackled some poor legal secretary because someone had thrown a Redbull can out of a passing car. He was still a bit high strung to say the least.
She couldn't miss his jitters, from craving nicotine. Served him right for smoking again. She also noticed that he had barely picked at the sandwiches she had brought for him, just another thing that was worrying her. On some level she really hated that he could make her worry. But then again, if his hand still hurt enough to still be taking pain meds that would explain it. Pain meds always made him fall somewhere along the spectrum of loopy, queasy, to vomiting like a Tuscan fountain. Or, it could just be that she had picked out a sandwich with chewy bread and his nose still hurt.
"I'm not suicidal, if that's what you're worried about," he started, not looking at her.
"Then what are you?" she asked, glad and surprised he saved her the trouble of starting this conversation.
"I'm not anything," he answered and crossed his legs, lotus style. He was the only man she knew that regularly sat like that. "I know I should be upset, shit, I should be devastated. I killed 6 kids. One of my oldest friends betrayed me and I spilled his guts on his shoes and slit his throat, then lied about it to my Goddaughter. I sacrificed 15 soldiers and a bomb dog to save Stark a few million bucks. I shot a pregnant woman in the face and executed an entire arms ring. I should feel something but I don't," he looked down at his hands, the brace on his right one still needed. "I just feel tired, numb, and dead."
"I see," she calmly said not wanting to give away how much it was bothering her to see him like this. To see that yawning emptiness in his eyes and not be able to make it go away. She felt inadequate. He would know what to do to make her feel better; at least he always seemed to. Normally she would know how to help him, she had always been able to before but then again, she had always had Phil's help before too.
"That is why you brought me up here, right, to talk?" he asked and he wasn't wrong. "Because if you wanted a nap or sex, I'll shut up now." She smiled at him. His joke was half hearted but reminded her that Clint was in there somewhere. He would get through this, she would get him through this no matter what. That was what partners were for.
"No, I wanted to get you away from SHIELD and away from the Avengers so we could talk in private. I think we both need it," she admitted. This had been the first time she had seen true combat, in the sense that soldiers talk about it. She hadn't much cared for it. She preferred her fights one on one if she had them at all or a single battle than home. She was a spy first and any good spy could talk their way out of 90% of their fights. She didn't like living with that constant day after day grind of uncertainty and fear. It was exhausting.
He took a deep breath and continued, "when I killed Gator, I looked down at him, his intestines sticking out and his throat opened to his spine and I felt nothing. I wasn't mad or upset or even happy. I literally didn't feel anything. That scares the shit out of me," he admitted. She understood what his contradiction meant. He didn't mean that he didn't have any feelings at all, he meant he didn't have any feelings in connection with the events. He had compartmentalized to such a degree he couldn't tie his emotions with his actions. It was an unconscious, psychological defense mechanism but at this point it was a symptom of a larger problem.
"You look like you haven't slept in a week," she threw at him. She knew, knew this was going to happen. That was why she hadn't wanted to take this mission in the first place. They had barely recovered from Loki and now this. How much did SHIELD think they could take before something gave? There was a part of her that was still incredibly pissed at Steve and Tony for not backing them, when they said they didn't want the mission. All SHIELD or those two thought about was protecting Stark. None of them thought about what it would do to Clint, because he, especially him, didn't matter, he was an agent, an operative, a soldier, and his comfort was as unimportant to them as his life was expendable. She expected that from Hill but not from Steve or Tony.
"It hasn't quite been a week, only 4 days or so," he ran his good hand over his face, doing nothing to lessen the exhausted look. She took his hand, holding it as she curled around him. She never realized until meeting him, just how comforting a simple human touch could be. His hands were bonier than usual but he had lost quite a bit of weight the last five months. His nails were also chewed down to the quick, a sure sign he had been stressed.
"What have you told the psych team?"
"I told them about some of it, not all but some," he rubbed his thumb over her knuckles.
"What did they say?"
"They offered me anti depressants, anti anxiety drugs, and gave me a prescription for sleeping pills, same as usual. I swear if I took them as often as they prescribe them, I'd be an addict," he joked.
"What about the rest, did you tell them about feeling so disconnected?" she was torn what she was hoping he would say. On one hand, they may be able to help him. On the other, they may kick him out of SHIELD.
"No, I can't tell them that. That would be a one way ticket back to Delta Force and a month later Gunnarson's bullet in the back of head," he sighed. He would know. He had neutralized enough ex SHIELD members that knew too much. She did doubt that Gunnarson would be able to get the drop on him, though. That guy was a buffoon. "I don't know, maybe it would be easier that way. At least it would be over and God knows I deserve it."
"If you do, I do too," she countered. They both frequently joked about suicide, for them it was just a way of life; gallows' humor. They were both bad people, horrid people actually. Loki had been right about that, neither was even remotely virtuous and they did have their own code of ethics that few others could understand. He had also been right that she might have sold out SHIELD to save him. She would have done it in a heartbeat, if she had thought Loki was even remotely trustworthy. She wondered sometimes if he would betray his country again for her. He had done it once, to save her but would he do it again?
"I guess you're right, so what should I do?" he asked, not looking at her but looking at their joined hands. He had finally taken his sunglasses off, now that the sun was almost gone. His eyes were bruised and red rimmed from lack of sleep and his broken nose. That combined with the stubble, overly long hair, and general lack of care in his appearance made him look like the hobo clown he had once played. It was odd to see him so unkempt, he was normally so precise with his grooming when not stranded in the field. Seeing him like this caused a physical hurt in her chest. A fleeting thought entered her mind that maybe Tony was right and this was love but she squashed. She was too smart to believe in fairytale romances and happily ever after. This was concern for her partner, nothing more and certainly nothing less.
"Bruce has a friend named Dr. Samson, he said you could talk to him, that he could help. That way it wouldn't be someone in SHIELD, you wouldn't need to censor what you said," she tried. Banner had been very open about hoping Clint would get help after he heard what happened.
He huffed softly, "Sampson's SHIELDed up and has been for a while," she was surprised. "Don't look at me like that. I was Banner's shadow same as you were for Stark. I know all his friends and I know who has and has not talked to SHIELD." He had a point, a very disappointing point.
"Ok, then first things first, you are going to stop avoiding other SHIELD agents and stop hiding from the Avengers," she scolded. He looked chastised because he had been hiding from them. Bruce was worried to death about him and Cap was beside himself thinking Clint was mad at him. "Second, you are going to come over to the tower tomorrow and we are going to spar and then spend the rest of the day stuffing our faces and watching TV and you are staying the night. Finally, you are going to make me Varenyky with that cheese, potato, and bacon filling I like along with some traditional meat ones with sour cream and shallot sauce. I also want sausages and beer. And that chocolate version of the coconut cake you made for Bruce, what was it called?"
"A German's Chocolate Cake?" he answered.
"Yeah and one of those," she smiled. One day she was going to have to tell him how badly Tony freaked out trying to find a coconut cake that tasted like the one Clint made. What Stark never realized was that Clint had never even tasted a real coconut cake before, even if he had been stationed in the Carolinas. So he just made a German's Chocolate Cake with yellow cake and no chocolate. Another one wouldn't taste the same because Barton didn't actually make it right. A very little known fact, Clint didn't really like sweets, so unless it came in a Dunkin Hines box and he ate it as a kid or it was one of the numerous pies Phil made him eat before he manned up and told Squawks that he didn't like them, he probably didn't know what it was supposed to taste like.
"So you want a giant Eastern European carb-fest?" she shook her head 'yes.' "Ok," he agreed but she could see he didn't seem happy about it. The prospect of cooking usually cheered him up, especially German food, which he had a bizarre cultural fondness for. She had to admit it was sort of fun but not something she wanted to do as often as he did. Then again her food never tasted as good. They sat in silence both lost in their thoughts and the sound of the crickets, when he broke the calm. "Do you think they'll ever forgive me?" he asked in a solemn voice and she felt her stomach flutter in empathy. How many times had she wondered that about different groups of people? But another part of her was thrilled that he actually cared what the other Avengers thought. It meant he finally saw them as something other than work acquaintances and he might finally want to remain for reasons other than that she wished it or he was ordered.
Natasha hated to admit it, but she wanted to stay with the Avengers. She loved the luxury of the tower, the privacy of Clint's quarters, and the emptiness of the gym. But she also longed for the camaraderie of her fellow Avengers. She enjoyed Steve's earnestness and honesty, Bruce's shyness and compassion, and sadly, she also missed Tony's jokes backhanded kindness. She liked the fact that what she did with them was black and white. There was none of the moral ambiguity that surrounded the rest of her life. She never had to worry if she was making the right decision, when she listened to Cap because she knew he would never make a decision that wasn't for the greater good. She couldn't even say that about Coulson. With the Avengers they had the chance to win rather than just the chance of averting the worst case scenario. It felt nice to be accounted one of the good guys for once. She never realized how much it meant to her that she and Clint could openly be affectionate with each other, rather than hiding their relationship like they had to around other SHIELD agents. The security of the Avengers often made her dream about things she never had been able to before, like a ring on her finger and a little boy with her hair and Clint's eyes.
She knew Clint had a valid concern, though. Bruce was the type of guy that took spiders outside rather than killing them. He couldn't understand that part of Natasha and Clint that could just turn off and take life like it was nothing. Bruce couldn't understand but he could accept it. Rogers understood a little better, he had been a soldier but at the same time, he wouldn't have ever followed an order to execute civilians. He wouldn't have pulled the trigger and put those kids down so they didn't suffer. He would have sacrificed himself trying to save them. He would have chosen morals over mission and that wasn't how either her or Clint were wired. Steve would understand but not agree. And Tony, Tony was taking it the worst. Stark was openly resentful and sneering, whenever Barton's name was brought up. Tony wouldn't understand why Clint had made the decisions he had because to Tony battle was a game and if it was a game there was a way to think or cheat and win, without spilling blood. The problem was that real war wasn't like that and Clint fought real wars, while Tony fought theoretical ones. Tony would refuse to understand and he would never accept it, because deep down he knew the whole thing was his fault. He would most likely tear Clint apart with scathing words and accusations and Clint would do nothing to stop him but she would.
She wanted to hold him and kiss away that uncertainty. She wanted to make him understand he wasn't a horrible person and that she would have done the same thing; made the same calls every single time. She wanted to tell him everything would be ok and not to worry his little head about it, but she didn't. None of that was what he needed. He needed honesty and understanding, not platitudes and pity. "I don't know. I suspect they will eventually," she gave in and kissed the back of his hand. "And if they don't, then fuck 'em," she continued. "We'll leave and go back to SHIELD full time and they can find other agents to help them," she sat up and pulled his forehead over to touch hers, her hand on the back of his neck. "It's going to be ok, Clint, because in the end, it's just you and me, my Cossack, just you and me." And she would walk away, if they didn't accept him back because she and Clint were a package deal.
"Thank you, Natashen'ka," he whispered and they didn't talk again till she was driving them home and he started, "the last day I was in Damascus, and that bomb went off in front of the Four Seasons, there was this little boy," he told her about the child, about how he had seen his mother die and his increasing anxiety at her lack of response. She gave up fighting the tears that filled her eyes half way through the story. She didn't cry for the child, instead she cried for Clint, for the fact he had to see that and look the other way. Because she knew he didn't know how to cry for himself, not anymore, if he ever had. She finally dropped him off at the SHIELD base in of New York City, with the promise to see him at 8 sharp the next morning.
Tuesday August 22nd 9:13 am – Stark Tower New York City, USA
Natasha was waiting for Clint as he snuck into the tower. She wasn't surprised that the first place he went was to the kitchen. She knew he would never admit it, but he loved that kitchen. She leaned against the door way as she watched him stow groceries for the meals he planned to cook. She felt a small weight lift off her shoulders at seeing him there, standing in the middle of the ultra modern space, not yet looking completely at home but soon he would. Soon they could forget all this had ever happened and go back to being how they were.
"I see we have an intruder," she smiled at him from the entry way, speaking in Russian since no one else was around. At least he was neatly shaven but still needed a haircut.
"Don't call the police on me, I might not be able to talk my way out of this one," he returned the smile but it didn't reach his eyes, not yet. She suppressed the sigh that wanted out and led him down the gym for a good old fashion beat down.
The other Avengers, even Steve, never understood why they spent so much time sparing with each other. And she could see why it confused them. They both knew the other's moves backwards and forwards. Neither of them was ever able to get the upper hand for long. As soon as it looked like her speed would pay off, his strength would even the match. No one ever won or lost their bouts, so yeah, she could see why they all thought it was pointless. But when they sparred it wasn't about winning or losing, it was about bonding. She could choke a man out in less than 7 seconds with her thighs and he could snap a neck with his roundhouse kick. He had seen her kick hard enough to drive rib fragments into someone's lungs and she had seen him punch hard enough to herniate someone's brain. Knowing all of those things, yet still letting him throw that punch towards her face and for her to latch her legs around his neck was the ultimate form of trust. They trusted each other to pull pack the lethality at the last instant and for the other to be good enough to only need that instant.
Underneath all of the different layers of their relationship, the one unshakable component of it was trust. That trust was what allowed her to lie about everything and seduce other men but come back to his bed. He trusted her to always come home to him. And it was what allowed her to watch him ruthlessly kill people but just smile and hand her his jacket. She trusted his hands to always be gentle with her. These sparring sessions would allow her to say, "yeah this mission sucked but you are still Hawkeye and I still trust you more than I trust myself." They would also let him say without a word, "I've been without you for months but I still need you and trust you to always have my back." They needed this non verbal assurance that even though the mission has been long and had been total shit, they were still Hawkeye and Black Widow, still Agent Romanov and Agent Barton, but most importantly still Clint and Tasha.
They started out with warm ups and stretches. She made sure to face away from him, giving him a clear view of her backside. Tony went for long legs, but Clint was a tits and ass man, pure and simple. But he got her back by propping his calf on a weight bench and doing split past 180 degrees, stretching his foot into the perfect ballet dancer's arch. For some reason she always found that sexy.
After they respective weak spots were taped and braced, they stepped onto the mats and bowed. It felt good, to fight without holding back, and as they went, she could see his stance and movements relax now that he didn't have to hide his level of skill to fit in with regular GIs. They barely spoke, other than the occasional taunt or giggle when he goosed her. Things were winding down and they were both enjoying themselves when she sent a flying wheel kick to his head and he on reflex flipped back onto his hands to avoid her, landing on his badly broken right one. He didn't miss a beat though and it made her smile.
She took it a few more moves, so he could prove he could ignore the pain, but soon chose to end it and they bowed to each other again. She didn't miss the way he shook his hand, clearly having hurt it. She tossed a towel at him and ignored it. It wasn't her style to mother hen him. If he wanted her help, he would ask. "Shower than breakfast," she shoved him towards the elevator and snapped him in the ass with her towel. Upstairs, she helped him change the bandages over his now oozing wounds on his hand, then saran wrap a rubber glove over it so he could take a shower. Of course he had to stop by his jar of teeth and put Gator's in. As close as they were, his habit of taking trophies still creeped her out.
She left him alone for a few minutes, to lay out some clothes for him and hide his shoes. She wasn't about to let him leave today, that was for sure. She selected a comfy Henley and a pair of pajama pants with Simpson's donuts on them that she had bought him, while out with Pepper. She smiled then slipped into the bathroom and dropped her clothes on the floor.
Like most parts of their relationship, she completely ignored his personal space, even in the shower. If he wanted to join her, he always knocked on the door and asked politely if she wanted company. She on the other hand, just walked right in. Today was no different; as she pulled open the door and waltzed in like she owned the place. All he did was quirk his lip up slightly.
"I'm going to have a hard time washing your hair for you," he raised his gloved hand. She grinned at him in return. She LOVED it when he washed her hair for her. She had once dislocated her shoulder and claimed it hurt weeks longer than it had, just so he would massage her scalp as he washed and comb her then long hair for her. He couldn't braid it for shit though; oddly Coulson had been quite good at it.
"I'll forgive you this time, now turn around so I can do yours," she grabbed the eucalyptus and minty smelling shampoo she liked to buy for him and lathered her hands before working it into his scalp. He never used scented shampoos unless he was planning to stay around base for a few days, and she wanted him to know she planned on him sticking around. Plus she liked the smell and it made his hair shiny, not that he cared about how his hair looked but she did. He almost purred in pleasure as she worked her hands down his neck to knead the tense muscles of his shoulders. She played close attention to the slight bruises where his heavy flak jacket and gear had rested. She pressed a kiss to a bullet wound scar on his left shoulder; he had gotten it before she knew him. He had told her once that it was from a fire fight in Fallujah or maybe it was Kabul. Even as she wrapped her arms around him and ran a loofah across his stomach and chest, she stopped to rub her thumb across the scar on his side from Berlin. It had been her hands that had stopped him from bleeding to death on that roof top as they waited for Squawks to come. It was the first time she didn't hate the red on them because it had saved his life. He tilted his head back and kissed her temple. "My turn," she handed him the poufe and stepped in front of him.
He tried his best to wash her hair for her but she batted his hands away and did it herself. She didn't stop him from running the soapy sponge along her shoulders and down her spine, followed by his strong fingers. She waited in anticipation as he soaped her sides up, the touch feather light, making her skin tremble in ticklish flutters. He kissed her jaw, as he moved the loofah up her stomach and across her breasts, his good hand trailed her lower abdomen to caress the cherry blossom tattoo on her hip bone. She was glad that the first stop on her and Pepper's day out had been to get a wax job done. No more looking like the back drop of "Where the Red Fern Grows."
She felt his thumbs graze across her nipple as he fingers brushed her neatly trimmed hair and she grabbed his wrist, forcing his hand lower. She had had enough of his teasing. Maybe if their sex life had been good for the last four months this would be fine but it had been virtually nonexistent therefore this was torturous. She pushed her hips back against him as his fingers worked their way into her.
"Can't a massage ever just be a massage," he asked her, even as she felt his length against her.
"No, now shut up fuck, me, soldier," she snapped at him and felt a chuckle rumble in his chest. She widened her stance and angled her hips to accept him, as she braced her hands against the wall.
"Ma'am, yes, ma'am," he answered, switching to English, and took her.
This was the other piece of their relationship that was essential. And regardless of what Tony said, it was not just because the sex was good that is was important. It was the intimacy of it. It was the show of vulnerability on both their parts and trusting the other not to hurt them. Clint was the only man she truly organismed with, not just expertly timed Kegel movements. He knew that she wanted him and if he chose, could use it against her, though he never did. And she suspected that she was the only woman he relaxed enough with to really, really have fun. Her jokes about him being a prude aside, he had some seriously weird issues with sex that until meeting him, she only associated with rape victims. But the complete and utter openness of sex between them told him that, "yes I know what you did and why you did it and I don't care. I accept you for who you are and what you did." And it told her, "thank you for sticking by me after everything and not giving up on me."
After they were done, they sat panting and kissing each other on the shower bench. She mentally patted herself on the back again for having it installed. Their movements slow and lazy, were comforting to her and she suspected him as well. It was like a welcome home of sorts.
"Nap now?" he questioned her, as his good hand lightly held her hip.
"Breakfast now, nap later," she nibbled his neck lightly, so as not to leave a mark, then decided against it and purposely left a mark. It was a rare indulgence. He nodded yes and left as she conditioned her hair. She snorted as she saw him pick up the clothes she had dropped on the ground and neatly deposit them in the hamper. He was such a fucking neat freak. She wondered briefly if she should stop him. She might want to be there when he encountered one of the other Avengers but she did nothing. He would sink or swim on his own and she didn't want to sway the way he handled the meeting.
Tuesday August 22nd 9:13 am – Stark Tower New York City, USA
Steve walked into the kitchen after his shower and was surprised to see Agent Barton puttering around the kitchen as if nothing had changed. He had been thinking quite a bit since his talk with Natasha and realized that his judgement of Hawkeye had been far too harsh. He had actually been planning on going over to the SHIELD base to track down the archer so he could apologize. This saved him a trip.
"Hi," Clint said to him, not looking up from a mixing bowl he had in the crook of his arm. He was clearly having difficulty trying to mix whatever was in there with only one working hand.
"Good morning," Steve answered and poured himself a glass of milk. He took a good look at his team mate and much as he remembered, was not happy with what he saw. He looked thin, even under his pajama pants with pink, sprinkle covered doughnuts on them. He also looked tired and a bit tense.
"I didn't know anyone else was up yet, so I didn't make coffee, sorry," he still hadn't looked up. Steve wasn't surprised, Natasha only drank tea and Barton never seemed to drink coffee, once saying, 'I'm too damn much of an insomniac to drink caffeine.'
"That's ok, I know how to use the coffee machine," he smiled at the ducked head and set about making coffee to give himself something to do. He knew what he wanted to say but wasn't sure how to start the conversation. He remained silent, hoping Clint would say something but after having lived with the soldier for months, Steve knew he was going to be waiting a long time. He gave up and went directly to the point. "I talked to Natasha after she got back about what happened." Barton said nothing, just continued to try and stir what appeared to be the beginnings of dough. "I was very upset at first but then she showed me your orders," he explained, which finally made the other man look up.
"You didn't have clearance to see those," he exclaimed.
"If I had clearance to be there, I think I had clearance to see the orders," he explained.
"Actually, no, you didn't, to both," Hawkeye looked back down at his dough but not stirring.
"Whether I had clearance or not isn't an issue anymore but what was there," he leaned against the counter and listened to the coffee maker bubble behind him.
"I didn't want you to see those," Barton finally said.
"Why?" He couldn't understand why Clint wouldn't have wanted to defend himself by showing the rest of them his orders. It explained so much. Barton hadn't wanted to do those things but he had been ordered. He understood that. "Why didn't you show them to us? Why would you hide the fact that you were ordered to do those things."
"Because I wasn't ordered to do all of them. I was ordered to get the result, they didn't care how I went about it," he began cynically, then quietly admitted, "and because you're Captain America," he said and Steve looked at him in confusion. Hawkeye put the bowl on the counter and sighed, finally continuing. "You're a hero and make little boys want to grow up to be soldiers. You stand for everything that is right and just about the American military. Those aren't the kind of orders you should see, but they are what I am used to. Most of what I do are the types of things that make everyone hate the US Army," he looked down, wiping something off his good hand with his apron then looked up, smiling that dead, fake smile at him. "People need you as a symbol and you can only do that if you believe that the US is right. But shit isn't as clear cut as it used to be. If you think about, we're kind of the bad guys over there because we basically invaded other countries because they may have helped people that pissed us off," Steve sometimes forgot how jaded Clint was about the Army. "I guess I didn't want to tarnish your image of our bosses."
Steve thought for a moment. He couldn't deny that at first, at least, he had been livid about what had happened. He had thought that Clint and Natasha had gone rogue and were taking revenge, but then Natasha had shown them the orders. It hadn't swayed Tony at all, he had said something about Nuremburg and refused to listen to anything else. But it had made a difference for him. To be honest, he was still having a problem swallowing the fact that the US government ordered civilians killed and that it didn't seem even remotely odd to Barton that he was asked to carry it out.
"I was pretty shocked when I saw them. It never occurred to me that our government would order civilians to be killed just to cover our tracks. But I still believe in America and still believe those soldiers are good people, who were doing the best they could in a terrible situation," he explained and realized the exact minute Clint followed his unintentional wording, 'those soldiers' not 'you.' He quickly tried to come up a way to backtrack but Clint beat him to the punch.
"I'm sorry you had to see any of that. I never wanted you guys involved in that world," Barton finally looked him in the eyes. The swelling from his broken nose had gone down, but there were still raccoon bruises under his eyes.
"It's all new to me, like everything else," he smiled self deprecatingly. "Soldiers like you didn't exist when I served."
"Soldiers like me have always existed. Kings and Presidents have always had men they send with a treaty in one hand and a dagger in the other," he dropped his eyes, "the US just didn't have a name for us until the late 70s." That shut Steve up for a minute. He knew he was a bit naïve about how the world worked now but it bothered him to think that his government would willingly send soldiers to do their dirty work for no reason. But then again he would rather wear rose colored glasses then be as cynical as Barton.
Clint turned towards the fridge and took out some butter and began cutting it into cubes. "As a side note," he started but Steve could only see his profile. "I'm sorry about what I said. I needed the Target to come with us and he wouldn't have if you had been in charge. I don't think I'm a better leader than you. In fact, I don't think I'm a very good leader at all. And I certainly don't care that I technically out rank you. Your plan was better and safer. We would have come back with a lot fewer body bags, if we had followed it." Steve listened but there was no hitch in Barton's voice, no shaking of his hands as they continued to cube butter. That icy detachment from what had happened was the one thing he just couldn't understand. He just couldn't wrap his head around Barton's complete lack of emotional response to killing children and losing his men. Even Hydra wept for their dead.
"It was a good plan," he started and felt himself relax. He hadn't realized how much it bothered him that Hawkeye had said those things. From Stark or Rhodes it wouldn't have rankled the way it had from Barton. He respected Clint and his military knowledge and though he hated to admit it, it hurt his feelings that Barton had attacked him that way. "And I understand, at least mostly," he watched Clint put the butter in the bowl of flour and buttermilk. He could leave now, in fact he should. Barton always seemed to prefer to be alone, especially when cooking but he couldn't leave it like that. Hawkeye had been put through hell the last few months and Natasha had been right. When they had asked for help, he and Tony and Bruce had ignored their pleas. He hadn't been a good friend or good captain to either of them so he wanted to do something to start mending that bridge and build back up some of the trust they had lost. "I do disagree with you on one thing, though. You are a good leader. You're men loved you and were willing to walk through fire for you. They were willing to go into a situation they hadn't been trained for, just to watch your back. They wouldn't be that devoted to a mediocre CO."
"They were devoted to the rank and to Pierce, who was me pretending to be Squawks. They liked talking about football and James Bond movies with me. I find the former boring as hell and the second stupid as hell. They followed a character not me," he countered and Steve wasn't sure what to say to that. The reason may have been false but the men's devotion was real. Not to mention, he sometimes feared the same thing now that people followed him because of the stories they had heard about him, the caricature he had become not for his skill. "If they knew Barton, they would probably have been scared of me or think I was psycho."
"I know Clint Barton, at least as much as he'll let me which isn't nearly as much as I would like, and I'm not scared of him and I don't think he is a psycho. Not even after what happened. I think he's a soldier that follows orders regardless of what they are and maybe it has hardened him a little more than most people are comfortable with. I think his silence and his staring can be a little intimidating, even to a super soldier but I also think that deep down he is a good guy and I consider him to be a friend," he walked closer and put his hand on Clint's shoulder. The sniper immediately tensed at being touched but Steve kept his hand there. Tony wasn't the only one that noticed the oddity of the way Barton allowed Gator to bump is shoulder or throw his arm around him. Before that, Roger's hadn't seen anyone but Natasha touch the man. He had thought Clint just didn't like being touched but now he realized that it wasn't dislike of touching but distrust of the Avengers. He aimed to remedy that. He never wanted Hawkeye to feel as left out in the cold as Gator had felt.
"Thanks," Barton answered shyly. It amused Steve how shy Clint was compared to how he acted as Hawkeye. He still didn't look up from where he was trying to mix the butter into the flour. He was clearly having a hard time of it.
"Do you want some help with that?" Steve asked on a whim. Barton usually didn't let anyone help him cook but he thought he might as well offer.
"You don't have to," he said.
"I know, but I want to. Besides, you look like you are having some trouble."
"Yeah, making biscuits with only one hand wasn't my brightest idea," he handed the bowl over and walked him through what to do. It was sort of fun to get to play with the dough like he had as a kid in his mother's kitchen. He continued to roll it out until Natasha came in, hair washed and wearing shorts and knee high socks. He made sure not to look too long though, out of respect for her relationship with Barton. He just wished she wouldn't parade around with so little clothes on, but it was sure sign she had no plans to go anywhere that day. Given the fact Clint was wearing pajamas, he suspected they planned to spend the day relaxing and goofing off. He was glad; they both looked like they needed it.
She smiled at them, eyes dancing and walked up to him, kissing him on the cheek. "Don't you two just look adorable," she teased and wiped flour off of his nose. "I bet if you work at it, you might make as good of a wife as Clint," she slid up in front of where Barton leaned on the counter and tucked her fingers under the tie on his apron to pull him closer and kissed him. "Though he failed and breakfast is late," she pushed him back against the counter.
"Whiner," he threw at her but produced a plate of toast and a pointed towards a pot of tea on the table.
Steve finished the last of the biscuits, only cutting them with the cup, not spinning it, and tucked them into the oven. Clint moved to the range to start cooking sausage for gravy and Steve sank down at the table across from Natasha. He buttered a slice of toast and waited for her to stop staring at him. "How are you this morning, Captain?" she asked, her voice light but the emphasis on Captain told him she was still annoyed with him. He didn't really blame her. He had said some pretty awful things about her partner before he saw the orders.
"I'm good. I had a long talk with Barton and we're square," he smiled at her and her eyes softened a bit, making her beautiful rather than fearsome. He had never been one of those people that went gaga over redheads but she was changing his mind. Too bad her and Clint were sweethearts.
She reached across the table and squeezed his hand gently, mouthing, "thank you." He wondered if Barton was as upset thinking that Steve was angry with him as Steve was thinking Clint was upset with him. He didn't know and didn't think it was worth asking. He just smiled at her and enjoyed the homey smell of the kitchen, which had been lacking for the last four and a half months. It was good to have them home.
Tuesday August 22nd 10:01 am – Stark Tower New York City, USA
Bruce polished off the last of his biscuits and gravy, with a smile on his face. Words did not adequately express how much he had missed Clint's cooking. There was just something about home cooked meals that no restaurant could rival. He noticed everyone else, including Pepper, which was a rarity indeed because that woman never ate, also seemed to be enjoying it as much as him. Tony being the exception, as he was still sleeping off last night's bender.
Barton also didn't seem to be indulging the way everyone else was, which was a shame considering how much he looked like he needed a few good meals. Bruce had nearly not been able to hide his shock or the flush of anger at seeing the shape the sniper was in. He was thin, haggard, and exhausted looking. It also hadn't helped that he refused to make eye contact with anyone except Natasha, as if he were trying to be unconsciously submissive to the rest of them. It almost seemed like he was asking for forgiveness from them and that made him sad. If anything, they should be apologizing to him.
When everyone was finished, Barton rose to start clearing away the plates to the sink, like a waiter. Bruce immediately stopped him. "Go ahead and leave this, Agent Barton, Steve and I will clean up," he smiled, as he saw the other man was going to protest. "It's only fair; you cooked, so we should clean." Though before that hadn't been the case. Clint usually cooked and cleaned not to mention threw things at anyone that messed up his kitchen. He could be a little OCD about keeping things neat.
"You don't have to, I don't mind doing both," he looked down and away from Bruce's eyes. There was a part of him he hated that wondered if Clint's reactions were real or designed to illicit sympathy. But then he thought otherwise. One thing he had noticed about Clint, was that outside of combat, the man was perhaps the most non confrontational person he had ever met. He seemed to always leave disagreeing with people to Natasha. He had to have realized that there would still be hard feelings and he seemed to be trying to placate them before anyone said anything. He had done the same thing at first, after Loki, though then it had been interspersed with bouts of complete coldness and refusal to communicate. It had actually taken months for him to stop and actually start treating them like acquaintances rather than assets to be protected.
"Please, let me and Steve do it. Beside, you shouldn't be getting that hand wet," he pointed to the archer's bandaged hand. He hadn't missed the way Hawkeye was doing nearly everything possible to not move it. That type of wound through the delicate tissue of his hand must have been quite painful.
"Thank, Bruce, he graciously accepts," Romanov answered for him, leaving him no further room to protest. He didn't miss that she picked up an ice pack for him, confirming his suspicion that Barton's hand was bothering him.
"Thank you," he answered quietly with his Stepford smile and allowed Natasha to lead him away. Bruce didn't like seeing that smile turned towards him, it made Barton look like a cipher, soulless. "Nap?" he heard the man ask Black Widow.
"No, TV," she answered
"Upstairs?" he sounded hopeful.
"Nyet, out there," she pointed towards the common room and he watched her pull his thumb from his mouth, where he had started chewing on the nail. Bruce didn't think he had ever seen Clint do that before but Natasha seemed completely exasperated by it. "Remember what I told you, no more hiding. I gave you 5 days, that's long enough," she wrapped his fingers with her own in what would normally seem a romantic gesture.
"What are we watching," he asked as the two headed over to their favorite couch. He couldn't hear her answer but soon he heard the music from Merry Melodies start to play and he guessed they were going to watch a collection of Loonie Toons. Barton's love of cartoons was actually sort of endearing and weird.
"Are you still planning on asking for Barton to be reassigned?" he asked Steve as he rinsed the plates off and handed them to Rogers.
"I have thought about it and no, I won't. He did things that I would never have done in ways I would never have done them but I can't expect everyone to act the same way I do. Besides, Natasha was right, I was being a hypocrite, claiming to be his friend but only when he acted the way I wanted and did what I wanted. I have to stop thinking of everything through the lens of what it was like 70 years ago," he answered.
"I'm happy to hear that, I didn't want them to go anyway," he smiled. "It's nice to have them home, and not just for the food."
"Yes, it is and the food doesn't hurt," Rogers smiled that ridiculously beatific smile that made his eyes sparkle. "Now we just have to worry about Tony," Steve sighed and Bruce agreed. Tony was taking this whole thing pretty badly. Even before his second trip to the Middle East, he had been blaming himself for all of this. Now he had transitioned all the blame over to Hawkeye, which was patently unfair, as far as Bruce was concerned. And it wasn't because Barton wasn't culpable, because in a way he agreed with Tony that just because he was ordered to kill people didn't mean he had to do it. Not to mention the way he had killed his friend seemed more like revenge than anything. But by the same token, he wouldn't have been there at all, if it weren't for Tony's designs. He knew Tony pretty well though, and he knew that his lashing out at Clint was just him trying to work through his own guilt and Natasha's speech the other night hadn't helped.
"True but let's tackle that later," he finished the last dish and dried his hands. "Right now I feel like some cartoons," he smiled and headed to the common room, where he found the two assassins, well there was no other word to describe it other than cuddling on the couch. It was so strange to think that two such lethal people could be so cute when no one else was around.
As he and Steve entered, he noticed Clint stiffen as if he were going to move but Natasha held him down. It made Bruce a little sad to see that Hawkeye felt like he needed to hide their affection around the team again. It had taken nearly six months for them to be open enough to even admit there was anything other than professional respect in their relationship. He didn't like that Clint seemed to have lost his feeling of security and trust around them.
"Mind if we come and watch too?" he asked, doing his best to sound normal even though he felt like crap over how they had treated the two. Even after he had nearly killed Natasha, these two agents had accepted him and lived beside him as if the Other Guy were just a mild inconvenience. They didn't ignore it and skirt around the subject like Betty did or make fun of it like Tony but just treated it as they did everything else about him, as a fact that needed to be planned for. It had been utterly refreshing.
"Sure, knock yourself out," Romanov waved at them, but stretched out to make sure no one else sat on the couch with them. Barton still wouldn't make eye contact but seemed to relax.
"Is this Bugs Bunny?" Steve asked, looking enthralled?
"Yeah, except this collection has all of them Bugsy, Daffy, Pork, the whole gang," Natasha supplied, as she switched out the icepack on Clint's hand with a heat pack. Bruce could see from the amount of bruising and edema around the wound site that the break must have been pretty bad or he had reinjured it.
"Really, wow, I remember seeing these at the cinema, before the movies started. I didn't know they would still be popular."
"Mostly they are popular with children and those that are children at heart, ergo why Clint likes them," She tickled under Barton's chin and he seemed to almost smile for real but stopped at the last instant, as if he had forgotten how.
They spent the day snacking on the biscuits from breakfast and watching cartoons. Clint got up now and again to work on dinner but always made his way back to the couch with Natasha. He didn't say much or really engage much with the rest of them but Bruce could see him growing more at home again around them. It did his heart good to see that there was hope, if Tony didn't ruin it.
By midnight, Barton was clearly fighting to stay awake, and Natasha pounced on him, making him take some Ambien CR, which he did and bid them all goodnight. Bruce made it a point to find Tony in hopes of softening his harsh feelings towards the sniper. Of course when he found the man, he was in a knock down drag out fight with Pepper, so he decided to wait until the morning. It always sort of made him smile to think that with all the burly badasses in the house, it was two tiny red heads that ran the roost.
Wed August 23nd 2:57 am – Stark Tower New York City, USA
They were too far away. They weren't going to make it. He looked over at Gator and knew his spotter realized the same thing. The chopper was going to leave them behind. They ducked left, into an alley and started tearing away from the extract point. It wouldn't be long before there was a fully fledged fire fight going on and they needed to be as far away as possible. They rounded the corner, and crouched down, Clint quickly disassembling his riffle and tucking it into a back pack. His fingers smarting from the heat of the barrel, luckily his calluses were thick enough that his hands wouldn't blister.
"We're going to have to hall ass out of the square and steal a car. Our best shot is that we can make it out before they lock us down," Gator explained as he loosened his bright shemagh from over his face to free his beard. Singer was tanned, bearded, dark haired, and dark eyed. He had an ice cubes chance to fit in. Barton on the other hand was clean shaven (his beard grew in red and patchy so was abandoned), just shy of blond, and blue eyed. They would have to move quick and he would need to keep his head down. He pulled his cap on and his dark glasses down not only to shield his eyes from the setting sun but also to hide the clearly European color. He nodded that he was ready to move. They had to play him as a tourist because there was no way he could be a local, which would be awkward if stopped because he was the one that spoke Dari, though is accent was Afghani at best.
They took off at a jog until they were in the center of this section of Mashhad, then slowed to a walk. Running was one of the most sure fire ways to be noticed. They were edging towards the outskirts, looking for a car they could jack, when they heard the police whistles. They both remained calm and cut into another alley, ducking behind some rubbish bins. "We could split up, you have a better chance of blending in without me," Clint suggested.
"And you are the only one that speaks Farsi. We stick together, Hawk," Gator countered and tried his radio. It was risky, if anyone was listening to their frequency. Perhaps luck was on their side that there was nothing, complete radio silence, meaning they were on their own.
"We need to wait for Maghrib to be called and try and get lost in the shuffle," Clint directed. They were all taught the fundamentals of Islamic culture to help them fit in, but Barton was better than most at picking up patterns and reading people so he could mimic them.
"Where do we hide till then?" Gator looked out into the streets while Hawkeye looked up.
"Roof tops, no one looks up."
"You always want to go on the roof tops," Gator smiled at him, checking his watch. "Did it ever occur to you that if someone happens to look up there is no way to explain why we are perched up there? We need a tea house, café, or better yet a Western style business."
"We're too far toward the outskirts for where they let Westerners. You can hide in plain sight, I can't," Clint pointed out, ducking lower as people ran past.
"We aren't splitting up," Gator told him again. "We were left behind by our command, and sticking together is our best chance out of here. I don't know about you, Hawkeye, but I got me a reason to get out of here, so we stay together."
"Yes, sir," he answered.
"Don't call me sir, I work for living," Gator teased him and scanned the other side of the street. "There, two streets down to the left, there's an open air café. We go get some drinks and act like we fit in and we'll be good to go at dusk."
"I still think it's too exposed but, ok."
"You think anything other than being 1000 meters away and hidden under a ghillie suit is too exposed," he stood and started to walk towards the café as if he belonged. Clint followed and tried to mimic the same energy. It was tough though, since even with his hat and sunglasses, people stared at him and gave him a wide berth. This was a bad idea. A really bad idea.
Clint had never been the "I told you so" type but in this one instance, he wanted to say it. It took all of 15 minutes before they were spotted, probably because he was clearly not Persian and because the guy that looked Persian couldn't speak the language. So they were off again, darting through streets and trying to find a place to hide. It didn't do much good though, after 45 minutes they were pinned down and forced to fight. Clint noticed a flight of stairs above him. "I'll cover you, run for the stairs and go up and across the roof tops," he offered, pressing himself as far into the wall as he could get. Pieces of mortar broke off around him from gun fire.
"No, as soon as I'm up there, I have no line of site to cover you, you'll be trapped." Gator told him
"I'll be fine, you need to go," he tried again. Gator was married and was going to be a dad. He had a better chance of getting out without Clint and really, what did Clint have to go back to anyway, a brother he hadn't seen in 3 years and had no way to find, a bunk at Ft. Bragg, and an identity that didn't exist anymore. What was the point?
"I am not leaving you behind, Hawkeye, so get that thought out of your head," Singer snapped at him.
"Don't be an idiot about this, Gator," he sank down as a bullet sailed over his head. They had made it all of 7 feet. "Nobody is going to care one way or another if I don't come back but you need to get back to your family."
"So I'm supposed to let you sacrifice yourself for me? You getting yourself killed now is no guarantee that I'll make it back to them and you damn well know I couldn't live with myself if I let you die for me."
"Then what the fuck do we do?" Hawkeye asked as he saw the hint of a flash of light on the opposite roof top. It was a sniper. "DUCK!" he yelled and jumped for the fire escape, catching it with his hands and swinging up behind a metal pole. Gator wasn't so lucky. He looked down and saw his partner on the ground bleeding and trying to get back behind cover. Why hadn't he ducked? "Shit, Gator," he dropped back down and pulled them both into an alcove. The wound was bad.
Gator gripped his pistol and pushed himself up. "I'll cover you, run." He spit blood.
"Now you want me to leave you here? What happened to staying together?" Hawkeye asked, beyond annoyed.
"The only guarantee we have now is that I'm a dead man. Keep your head down and shag ass to the boarder. Just make it to the boarder and you're in like Flynn."
"You're not dead yet and I'm not leaving you behind. We still have one chance," he said and took a deep breath, fighting down all of his instincts. He stood up, put his weapon above his head and walked out to surrender. Their only hope was that their captors desire to question them outweighed their desire to kill them. Luck was on their side, for once.
The next 3 days were a nightmare for him, which was saying something because he had lived through some pretty shitty situations. They kept him blindfolded (though not well enough to completely obscure his vision), bound (very poorly, since he could have gotten out of it in about 2 seconds but where would he go? The whole point was for him and Gator to stick together), and tied by a noose to the back of a transport truck. He had to run to keep up with it and if he fell, he was dragged by his neck along the barely paved roads. He had road burn all over his arms, shoulders, and back from tripping. Even though it was 90 plus degrees out, they only gave him water twice a day and even then, someone had pissed in it. Fuck'em anyway. He had spent a few months after he and Barney ran away eating out of dumpsters so this was nothing. Try scraping mold off of left over baby food and eating that; it took serious concentration to not puke that back up. But they saved Gator's life. They patched him up and gave him drugs to keep him stable as Clint jogged behind their truck and wished someone would just fucking shoot him.
Then they were dumped in their prison cell. Clint was so tired and so dehydrated by then he was pretty sure he was delirious but then again if you are delirious you aren't the best judge to tell if you are lucid. He didn't know or really care at that point and besides maybe it was normal for the walls to look like there were snakes slithering just under the surface. Frankly, he was just happy to be in the shade. Gator was hanging on though, so he sucked it up and peeled his blood soaked socks off his feet where they had dried into the huge, open blisters. After years in the army and even longer as an acrobat, he knew what stress fractures in his feet felt like and he knew he had more than one. Oh well, they heal, no pun intended.
Gator was in and out, sometimes talkative and sometimes dead to the world but Clint was ok with that as long as he wasn't really dead. He liked quiet and Gator tended to talk too damn much for his taste. The beatings and questioning sucked but it wasn't like it was the first time he had had the shit kicked out of him. Hell, there were a few of them that didn't even hit has hard as his dad had. It was ok, he guessed, he just kept thinking "don't scream, don't scream, don't scream." They didn't feed them enough, not by half but at first Gator didn't finish his so Clint did, and afterwards, it wasn't like he wasn't used to going hungry. He just wished they wouldn't put that horrid Baharat spice on everything that tasted like nothing but coriander and cumin. He was pretty sure he was going to hate the smell and taste of it for the rest of his fucking life. And then there was the lack of sleep. He always wondered how long he could stay up apparently the answer was a little over four days.
There were scary bits too, like one night that Gator had problems breathing and Clint had to stay up with him and hold him up so he could breathe easier. He didn't know how many times that night he heard the story of how Singer met his wife or about the little girl that was probably about to be borne. He didn't care, if it kept his partner alive, he could ramble all he wanted about his high school sweetheart and the weird pod creature in the grainy ultra sound picture. Clint listened and grunted every time he recounted it and tried not to notice the warm, fuzzy feeling in his chest, whenever Gator called him 'Brother.' He hadn't been anyone's brother in so long it felt nice, even if Gator didn't mean it the same way as Barney had.
Eventually his spotter got stronger and they could escape. As far as these things went, it was actually pretty easy, a pretend trip, a little sleight of hand to pick the key off the guard, and wham bam thank you ma'am they were free. There was some fancy foot work across some roof tops, some cool acrobatics by him, and maybe they had lied to some nice, old lady into thinking they were with the Red Cross and needed some food. But eventually they made it out, made it to Pakistan and onto a C-130 heading back to the States.
They made it out, they were safe. He looked over at his partner and saw his guts hanging out and his throat slit from ear to ear. He scuttled backwards away from Gator's bloody form. This wasn't right, they made it out, they made it back to the states. Gator had a daughter, he handed her to Clint and said, "that's your goddaughter, Hawk, anything happens to me and you take of her." He didn't die coming back. They had fought so hard to make it out alive. He wouldn't have made it, if he hadn't had Singer counting on him. All the beatings, the fear, the torture and they had both come back. Gator didn't die, he hadn't died, he wouldn't die, he was too tough to die. No one could kill Gator.
He looked down at his hands and they were covered in blood. Ok, maybe somebody could. He tried to wipe it away but it was everywhere, all over the plane and all over him. And for some reason Gator had a gaping hole in his middle like someone had stabbed him with a spear in the chest and he wanted to scream and to cry but he didn't remember how.
He bolted upright realizing he was not in a blood splattered C-130 and he most certainly not sitting across from the corpse of his first partner. He tried to even his ragged breathing but was too late as Natasha stirred beside him, "you ok?" she mumbled in Russian. He knew she was playing less alert than she was in case he wanted to be alone. It was a kindness he appreciated. She had probably been awake before he was.
"Yeah, I'm fine. Go back to sleep," he answered in kind. They almost always spoke Russian in the bedroom. He didn't know why, they just did. He rose and grabbed his hoody. He knew she wouldn't sleep till he got back and he felt bad for keeping her up but he needed some air. He was thirsty, his head still felt stuffed with cotton, and he felt like he was moving through water, which told him he hadn't metabolized all the Ambien Nat made it take yet. And he wanted a cigarette, he really fucking wanted a cigarette, in fact he might just skin Steve mother-fucking Rogers alive for a smoke. He should just go back to bed or at least stay on the same floor with Tasha but he wanted to get outside so he threw caution to the wind and went to roof and sat down, his feet dangling 130 stories above the ground and rested his forehead against the railing and tried not to think.
Wed August 23nd 3:01 am – Stark Tower New York City, USA
Tony circled his tower twice before turning to touch down. He had been up flying to clear his head of his bitter and confused thoughts rather than the nearly half bottle of whiskey he had consumed by himself in his lab. And because he wasn't sure Pepper was going to let him into his own bed. She was still steadfastly defending Hawkeye and Black Widow, even after she had seen what happened in Syria. He didn't get, he absolutely did not understand how his sweet natured Pepper could side with those two murders. He hadn't been able to bring himself to come upstairs and enjoy the happy home coming of their wayward raptor, the way she had. His mind was still seething with the images of the dead children, dead woman, dead friends, and for some reason the image of that Sanders kid crying over his stupid fucking dog. A dog, he hated dogs but couldn't get the image of the mutt trying to crawl back to its handler. Why of all things he couldn't forget that, he didn't know.
It didn't seem fair or right that between Barton and Natasha they had killed 6 kids, a pregnant lady, a Delta Force Operator, and countless civilians but expected to spend the day eating junk food and watching cartoons. They should be punished for what they had done and he didn't believe for one fucking minute that following orders was a viable excuse for the things they had done, because that removed the culpability from them. If they were just following orders, then they weren't responsible for their actions, which was bullshit. Clint knew what he was doing when he put a silencer on his gun and shot a those kids in the head. And more to the point, if they were responsible for the body count, then he wasn't. If he agreed that Clint was just doing what needed to be done, then he had to look at why he was being ordered to do it, and that inevitably lead back to Tony and everything being his fault.
He circled one last time, coming in for his final approach when Jarvis spoke, "sir, Agent Barton is on the west side of the roof, near the door. If you wish to avoid him, I suggest going in through the garage."
"Noted, but it's my building, my name was on it, so I'll land where I jolly well please," he sniped and continued towards the roof. He was surprised that Clint hadn't left, or moved, when he landed and wondered if the man was asleep.
He landed and watched as the sniper slumped there with his forehead resting against the railing, his legs dangling down, and staring glassy eyed at the city. He didn't seem to even notice Tony was there, which was really weird. He wondered what the man was thinking, was he feeling guilty or was he happy that he got to kill. Before this whole thing he never would have attributed Hawkeye with either emotion. Frankly he couldn't guarantee he was 100% sure Barton even had real emotions.
Hawkeye finally looked up at him listlessly, almost confusedly. "Stark," he stuttered, as if it never occurred to him that Tony would be in his own building.
"Barton, what are you doing up here this late?" he sneered. He was drunker than he had meant to be. Whiskey always did that to him.
"Watching," the man answered, standing up to move away from the ledge. He was barefoot, which was also rather strange. He and Bruce took bets on whether he wore his boots to bed.
"What are watching for?" Tony asked.
"I don't know, nothing I guess," he answered. Tony wondered if he had woken the man up. "I just couldn't sleep."
"You couldn't sleep? You couldn't sleep!?" Tony shouted and felt anger flare in him at the mere sight of the murder and whipped his bottle of whiskey at Barton, who dodged it, scurrying away from the impact. The bottle exploded against the wall with a loud shatter, making him feel better. But more than anything, he was surprised to see Hawkeye startle and jump away from the sound, his eyes wide. He had never, in the entire time he had known the archer, seen him startle at anything. Of all the things to make the assassin shoot out of his skin, it was a liquor bottle flying at him. It made no sense. But then again neither did anything else about what had happened lately.
Tony felt glass crunch under his shoes as he walked, but was uncaring. Barton stood still as stone, his face showing even less than usual after his initial show of fear earlier. "You're soulless," Tony spat at him. "You murdered someone that was your friend with no remorse, no hesitation, no trying to save him. How, how could you do it?"
"Because I was ordered to," he answered simply, his voice as flat as Jarvis.
"And good little soldiers always follow orders? Worked out well for the Nazis," he taunted but Barton did nothing but stare at him with that annoying blank expression. "You bastard," he hissed at the archer and took a swing. His technique was sloppy and of no threat to Hawkeye, who simply side stepped his wild swing and uncaring of the glass under his bare feet. "You are worse than Loki because at least he had passion; he had something he was fighting for. All you are doing is 'following order.' You fight but you don't even care why or for whom. Do you ever fucking think for yourself or do you wait for Fury to tell you to wipe your own ass?" He swung again and Clint gently blocked his strike. "Were you ordered to kill those kids or was that just how you got your rocks off?
"What if you were ordered to kill one of us, would you do it?" he swiped a third time, and again Barton safely batted him away. His blocks were gentle and controlled, like they always were.
"Let's hope it doesn't ever come to that," Barton said with such a combination of regret and detached iciness that it made him shiver, even in the August heat. He realized suddenly that Barton had probably been told that he might have to kill them, like he had killed Gator. It wasn't a stretch. He had a specially made arrow to stop the Hulk, who was to say he didn't have one that could stop Steve or Iron Man? Why had it never occurred to him before that SHIELD would cover their bases by having a failsafe around to stop any of the Avengers? That failsafe was Clint fucking Barton's marksmanship. How the fuck did Barton live like that, knowing that he might have to kill his teammates and how could they live with him, knowing he might kill them?
Tony fell down on his hands and knees, whiskey soaking into his pants and stinging his nose. "I just don't understand," he felt tears blur his eyes. How had things gone so wrong? How had they gone from teammates and friends to someone that Tony could honestly say he had been afraid of?
"What's so hard to understand, Stark, I'm an assassin, a killer, I killed people? It's not rocket science," Barton explained and Tony felt his lips quirk a bit at his choice of words. The mechanics of rocket aerodynamics being second nature to him but the inner workings of this simpleton's mind were a black box.
"How, how can you do it? How can you just, just do those things?" Tony sobbed, unable to even vocalize the atrocities he had seen his teammate commit. "How can you know you took so many lives and just keep going like nothing has changed?"
"Because nothing has changed," he answered.
"That's bullshit! It's all changed, everything has changed, you killed," he trailed off.
"The only thing that's changed is that now you know what Tasha and I really do. This isn't the first time I've had to do any of those things and most likely won't be the last. I haven't changed, just your perception of me." Tony couldn't argue the logic of it nor did he try as he hiccupped for breath.
"So what, it's like sex for a virgin, it only hurts the first time?" He sneered then deflated, "how do you do it? How can you look someone in the eye and end their life, like that?" He finally asked, grinding his short nails into the concrete and driving slivers of glass into his skin. The whiskey burned as they wove their way in. How could he gently run his fingers, through his friend's hair, then slit his throat like it was nothing? Could he do it to him, Steve, or Bruce? Would he be able to kill Natasha if Fury ordered?
He expected Clint to walk away, to ignore his question, like he always ignored personal questions but he didn't. "You turn it off. You concentrate on the mission and shut down the part of yourself that feels. You only think about the next thing you need to do the next turn, the fire fight, the thing so you can stay alive and complete the mission. Everything else, regret, remorse, fear, pain, doubt doesn't exist. It can't, because if you let it you're dead and so is everyone else. People aren't people anymore, they're targets and assets and they don't have lives, just value to the mission," he answered and his eyes changed from blank to something else but Tony couldn't tell what it was.
"What about when the mission is over?" he whispered and could finally decipher the look in Barton's eyes, it was uncertainty, maybe even fear.
"I don't know, that's the problem. When you don't have anything else to concentrate on and it's just you and the things you've done. I don't know how to turn them back on," he paused and for the first time Stark noticed how jerky Clint's eye movements were and realized just how heavily drugged he still was. "But the missions aren't over, they're never over; they end but they aren't over. There is always another one, another place, another job, another Target," he mumbled and for the first time Tony saw what Bruce had been talking about before Hawkeye and Black Widow had left. For the first time since he had met the archer, he looked like a shell shocked soldier, like someone that had actually seen the things he had seen. 'They took away our humanity, made us killers, and never told us how to go back,' he remembered Gator saying.
Tony realized with a sense of disgusted fascination that Barton was sick that the guy was as fucked up in the head as Natasha was, only in a different way. That he needed help and he needed his friends to be there for him but Tony didn't know how to do that. He didn't know how to support someone else, how to help, how to be the strong one. He also didn't know how to look past Gator's guts spilling on the floor or the smile on that little boy's face before Clint put a gun to his head. And if he was honest with himself, he was a mess right now too.
"How can you know that you have that much blood on your hands and keep going?" he asked more for himself than anything. Tony was many things but he wasn't an idiot. He knew he was lashing out and Clint because he was angry at himself, because those kids were killed because of his designs. Clint may have been the weapon but Tony was the cause. He was no better than Fury or Loki in that respect. It may not have been on purpose and he hadn't given the order, but he had turned Clint into his own personal killer.
"Because the other option is that you just don't. You give up, you lie down, and die, or you swallow a bullet," he again, strangely answered.
"Why don't you, then? Why do you keep going instead of giving up? What reason could you possibly have to keep doing all of this?"
"I'll face it with a grin, I'm never giving in, on with the show," he mumbled and smiled, that same annoying Stepford smile Tony had seen a hundred times on his face. It didn't mean anything, a manufactured expression to create a manufactured emotion in the person seeing him. It was all bullshit, a lie, like everything else about him. Tony was so sick of the lies but so scared to see the truth, because he had seen the truth in Syria and he still couldn't face it.
He was about to call him on it when he registered what Barton had said, it was a line from the Queen song "Show Must Go On." Not one of his favorites but he remembered hearing it in Phil's office once, on the helicarrier before after they captured Loki. He remembered he had barged in and if it were anyone other than Coulson, he would have said they looked verklempt. Tony had questioned him on the song and all he had said was, 'it reminds of my asset, buddy, my best friend, now what the hell do you want?" It hadn't occurred to him at the time, but Coulson must have been talking about Clint. At the time they hadn't known if Barton was alive or dead, a good guy or a bad guy and frankly Tony hadn't cared because he had no idea who he was. And going back and learning how close they were, that must have torn Coulson apart. But more than that, even though the lyrics were about Freddie Mercury's hidden battle with AIDS, they seemed very fitting for Hawkeye and Black Widow as well, hiding everything they feel and everything they are, to get a job done.
"And all you live for are missions. Nothing else matters to you?" Tony asked, almost afraid of the answer.
"Tasha," he whispered and Tony thought for a moment the redhead had shown up and his next thought was that he was going to be murdered very painfully for taunting Clint. But then he realized that she was Barton's answer. She was why he kept going.
"That's not very healthy," he blurted out, trying to regain his composure. "Hinging your entire existence on one person."
"It's better than the alternative, which is that I don't have anything to hang on to," he answered, his voice flat again and Tony could tell that the moment of weakness was gone. Barton was clamped up like a clam again. "I'll leave once I sober up enough to drive, Stark, and let Fury know to assign Gunnarson here full time," he looked down and away from Tony. It was the first time he had seen the sniper ever break direct eye contact. In that moment he seemed so defeated it made Stark's stomach hurt.
He thought about what Natasha had said, they were tired of hiding who they were and that Avengers had the chance to really accept them, all of them. Could he do it? He couldn't ignore the fact that these two were assassins and all that went along with it any longer, not after what he had seen. But the question was now that he knew; could he still see them as friends and teammates? That was the million dollar question. He didn't have to figure it out now but he also knew he couldn't let this man walk away because how long would it be before he snapped? He finally understood why Natasha had asked him to befriend the archer. If he only had Romanov has a friend, then what if something happened to her, he would shatter. And he realized, whether he wanted to admit it or not, he didn't want to see that. He didn't want to see Hawkeye hurt anymore.
Barton turned to walk back inside and he nearly shouted, "Tony, my name is Tony. My friends all call me Tony." We aren't people. We're code names and numbers. Gator had said and he realized in a way it was true. Barton never called people by their first names, not even Phil, thought that could have been because Coulson was his boss. Natasha was the only one he addressed with familiarity and she was the only one that called him Clint. It was sad and scary to think of how lonely it must be to keep every other person at arm's length like that because they may try to kill you or you might have to kill them. How could you live your life never trusted other people enough to tell them your name, to tell them who you really are? He did not understand how Clint and Natasha did it. It was no wonder Gator had lost it.
"I know what your name is," he said but didn't turn around.
"Then use it. I'm Tony and you're Clint and we're friends so that is what I am going to call you, because you are not a weapon or a code name, you are a person," Tony explained, watching blood well up on the pin prick cuts on his hands, making them look like a macabre connect the dots.
"Ok," he walked to the door then stopped. "If we're friends, let me give you some friendly advice, you've twice thrown punches at me and I haven't done anything to you. If you try again, I'm going to lay you out, Tony."
He couldn't help himself as he started laughing almost as hysterically as he was crying earlier. It was all just so stupid. Clint finally used his name but it was to threaten him with violence. But it didn't matter, the Hawk had taken a step closer to allowing someone other than Natasha to handle him.
"Fine but I want an omelet tomorrow with double cheese and no mushrooms," he called at the retreating figure, who ignored him. He stood, his knees protesting the position he had been in, and his whiskey soaked pants now chilly against his skin. He looked out over the city they had protected when first they had become the Avengers and he finally realized that he couldn't fault Clint and Natasha for finally showing him their true selves. Either he accepted them for who they were or he wasn't really their friend and he wanted to be their friend because something told him that not many other people ever did. And he had promised Natasha that he would try with Clint. This whole thing had been a huge setback for his efforts but in a way it was a break through because now he knew exactly what Barton was really like.
All this time he had thought the stoic, stone face, blank eyed look he used was a mask to hide his real feelings but now he realized he was wrong. The smiles were also a mask and the cold, virtually emotionless killer was also the real Clint. The jokes and softer side were an act to put other people at ease as much as the stone cold killer visage kept them at arm's length. There was more to it, Tony was sure but for now, it was enough that he could accept this new view of Hawkeye. And maybe one day, he would trusted enough to see the real emotions rather than the blank face or the fake smiles.