A/N: I think both Steve and Clint are a smidge out of character, but I really, really wanted to write this conversation. If I return to it someday and rewrite it after I have a better grasp on my characterizations, so be it. But it's written now, and I'm mostly happy with it. Enjoy or not as you please.
Disclaimer: Marvel and Joss Whedon own everything, including my soul.
The Old Lie
Steve had gotten the long line of punching bags out again. Clint watched from the rafters of the darkened gym as the soldier below started in on the fourth bag. The broken ones were piling up against the wall, sand spilling out of them. Steve would clean it up before he left. He always did.
Clint watched until the fourth bag went flying to land with a thump on the pile, sand trailing in a long curve from the top of it. He dropped down easily and Steve looked up, mildly surprised.
"I thought I was alone," he said. Clint shrugged.
"If I'm bothering you, I can leave. But I thought you might want to talk." It was Steve's turn to shrug. He hung up the fifth bag and steadied it. He punched it once, twice. He stopped and shook his head as if to clear it. Clint could almost see the images playing across the backs of his closed eyelids. He knew the feeling.
"I should be dead, you know," Steve murmured suddenly, quietly. He rested his forehead against the punching bag and refused to look at Clint.
"I'm not Stark," Clint said, crossing his arms over his chest. "I'm not going to tell you that you were saved for a reason, that your superpowers are keeping you alive so that you can do something with them. That's shit that might work for Banner. But we're not scientists, we're not dreamers. We're soldiers. We know differently."
"You were a soldier?" Steve asked opening his eyes.
"I don't talk about it. I was a sniper."
"That makes a lot of sense." Steve sat down on one of the benches ringing the gym and gestured for Clint to sit beside him. "Explains a lot."
"Nah, I was a marksman long before I joined the army," Clint elaborated. "I learned that in the circus." Steve's eyebrows shot up. "I don't talk about that much either."
"You ran away to the circus?"
"They taught me how to shoot, I got good, became an attraction. It didn't last. The circus was corrupt. I ran away from the circus." Clint paused. Remembering the look on his mentor's face when he realized that Clint knew, remembering the blood on the floor, seeping from his own beaten body, waking up to the empty trailer. "I joined the army because I had no where else to go. Less noble reasons than you." Steve made a noncommittal noise in the back of his throat.
"Doesn't mean it wasn't a good reason," he said. Clint shrugged.
"I had problems with authority. So they stuck me in a sniper unit where I'd have a margin of independence. There were five of us, all troublemakers, and our CO, who was an ass, but kept us in line as well as he could." He stopped.
"What happened?" Steve asked quietly.
"They died," Clint responded bluntly, simply. But there was pain in his eyes. "Two went batshit crazy first—one started killing without authorization, stone cold murder, and he got killed in a prison riot, and the other had nightmares and ended up eating his own gun to get away from the deaths he'd doled out. One went back home to his family, became a police officer, and got shot in the line of duty after only a year and a half on the job. The last one got lung cancer and died alone in the hospital. Our CO went to all the funerals. He had a heart attack at the last one and dropped dead in front of the coffin."
"That's…" Steve stopped, unable to say anything. "I'm sorry, Barton."
"We survived the war, but they all died anyway," Clint said, after a deep, steadying breath. "I wake up every day wondering when I'm going to join them." Steve nodded.
"You wonder why you're the only one left?" he asked. Clint's turn to nod. "I've read the files," Steve muttered, "on my old team. They all survived the war, too. But it doesn't matter, because they're still dead. And I should be dead, too."
"Maybe," Clint said. "I tell myself that, too. Maybe I should be dead. But I'm not. You're not. And you know what?"
"Being alive sucks," Clint said. Steve let out a bitter laugh of agreement. "But you know what else?"
"What?" Steve repeated.
"It's also the best thing in the world. So, we tell ourselves over and over again that we should be dead. The bullets should have found our heads, the cliffs should have dumped us over the side, the frostbite should have set in already, yeah? We're soldiers. We should have died the hero's death, in the line of fire, laying our lives out for our country or our friends or something. Something that matters. But we didn't. We lived. And we tell ourselves that's a bad thing, that it's wrong, but it's not."
"'Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,'" Steve quoted. "I don't normally read poetry, but Wilfred Owen was…" He paused, his eyes dark with memory. "Peggy liked Wilfred Owen."
"'It is sweet and proper to die for one's country,'" Clint translated. "But everyone always forgets what Owen calls that: the Old Lie." Steve looked up. He had forgotten. Clint smiled sadly, briefly. "We shouldn't have to die for our country. We shouldn't have to die in war. We shouldn't have to be dead. I always forget, too." They sat in silence for a long moment, both thinking, both remembering. Clint finally stood up, as if to leave. Steve stopped him.
"Why did you come talk to me?"
"To let you know that you're not alone," Clint replied. "To let you know that even if everyone you know is dead, that doesn't mean you should be, too. To let you know that you've got friends. That even though I don't know what you've been though, I didn't suffer what you suffered, and I can't possibly know the depth of your pain…I guess, I've got an idea of how you feel. 'Cause I've felt it, too."
Steve smiled as he stood up, offering his hand. Clint shook it warmly, and smiled back.
"Thanks," Steve said.
"Just trying to help."
"Hey, happy birthday, Rogers," Clint said, suddenly remembering. "You're looking good for 94." Steve laughed, a real laugh.
"Thanks," he said again. "Happy Independence Day," he added. Clint raised his eyebrows.
"Yeah, happy birthday, America."
"Suppose we celebrate not having to die for her today?" Steve proposed. Clint smiled.
"I've got beer and sparklers at my apartment," he said.
"Let's go be alive."
A/N: So, I did some sketchy research, and Google tells me that Clint never was part of the army—he was part of several circuses, but he never joined the army. But in my headcanon, Clint was a sniper who had problems with authority. SHIELD recruited him from the army. It's a bit more plausible than them collecting him after he randomly decides he wants to be a superhero (sorry, Marvel). If you don't like my deviation from comic-book-canon, I'm sorry. Please don't yell at me about it in reviews, though. :)