Clint's bones felt even more empty than usual as he soared out over the city. The sights and sounds felt hollow and distant but it was welcoming and kept drawing him forward. It reminded him of old times when he would go out into the throngs of people crowding city streets just to lose himself in the chaos. When he could surround himself with people who would never ask questions or look twice at him as he passed by. It was refreshing and freeing, and something that he hadn't felt the need to do in years. Not since he and Nat and Coulson had solidified into something more than just a team.
But they had lied to him. They had both kept him grounded when they knew he would be safe in the air. Even worse, they had gotten the rest of the team to lie to him as well. So that every single person who Clint truly trusted himself around were all working together to keep things from him. And now all of the walls that time and trust had torn down were rebuilding themselves faster than he could try and reason them away.
So he did the one thing that had always worked to clear his mind. More than getting lost in a crowd or shooting his bow until his fingers bled, nothing compared to the simple freedom of soaring through the air. Normally he relied on ropes and trapezes and safety nets; things that he didn't need now. And, as he folded his wings to his side and plummeted towards the ground, he couldn't help but laugh at the sheer ecstasy of it. The pavement speeding closer and closer and the wind whistling past him, whipping the myriad of thoughts clogging his mind away with it. Until he spread his wings just inches from the ground, pushing himself back upwards as fast as his wings could take him. Using that exertion to push out the last few lingering thoughts and emotions.
When the anger and hurt fell away he stopped climbing, letting himself glide effortlessly over the city. He was high above even the tallest skyscrapers, the world below him nothing more than a sea of glistening glass and metal. It was silent and still from this far away and gave the city a peacefulness Clint had only ever dreamed of. Only it was even better than his dreams, the stillness of it, as he found himself in a place where he was finally outside of everyone's reach. Where he didn't have to keep looking over his shoulder for a threat. Where he didn't have to try and think ten steps ahead of everyone else in order to stay safe. Where he was finally able to simply be, to exist without any effort at all.
It was more than just his mind going blank, that happened every time he practised for hours on the range. It felt more like his entire soul was scrubbed clean. As if it was a fresh, new slate and that all of his past sins and pains were nothing more than things that had happened to a character in a book he'd read. He was tempted to say it was the happiest that he'd ever felt but that wasn't the right word for it. Rather it was contentedness. As if all of the pieces of his life had finally slotted into their proper places.
Because he was finally free. Free to see the world in a way that he had never imagined. Free to feel the air and relish in it without guilt or fear. He wasn't going to poof back into human form at any second. He wasn't causing Nat or Coulson to freak out. Right this second, they might as well have not existed for the time he had to spare on thinking about them anyway. They didn't exist up here. Not them, nor the rest of the team, nor any of the other people who had lied to him. There were no monsters or aliens or mind-controlling gods. No responsibilities or reality. It was emptiness. And it felt like the first breath of air after drowning.
Clint drifted down, spiraling in slow, easy circles until he was just above the buildings. The buzz of the city below filtered up towards him and it sounded different than it had just a little while before. As if his ears no longer wanted to hear any anger behind the constant din. He stayed at that height, flitting around the tallest of skyscrapers. It was completely opposite of the last time he'd flown out free over the city. He flew lazily, not forcing himself to get all of his energy out in one quick burst. This wasn't going to be the last time he flew. He had time to simply enjoy himself.
When the sun was just past overhead he started to consider heading back to the Tower. He isn't sure that he wanted to face the others yet. He wasn't really angry at them anymore, not like he knew they would expect him to be. Slightly frustrated, yeah, and still not ready to fully trust them again, but the anger itself had vanished into the wind. He decided on simply taking a long, round-about way home. Crisscrossing the city and occasionally swooping low enough that he was forced to follow the grid of the streets, the skyscrapers forming a maze of windows.
He was so lost in the joy of it that he almost didn't notice the shadow in time or the sound of accompanying wing-beats. He spun to the side just as outstretched talons slipped past him. Instantly Clint's mind sped into overdrive, thinking through his options. The bird that had gone after him was too large for him to fight against and he wouldn't be able to outrun it. But he might be able to outmaneuver it.
He sped forward, ducking down low and spiraling to the right around the corner of a building. As he did, he got a better look at the bird and felt himself resolving that there was no way in hell he was going to let it beat him. He did not want his dying legacy to be that of the Hawkeye who was killed by a hawk.
The chase continued, with Clint weaving and dancing around the hawk as it screeched and kept kept diving for him but never quite reaching. There were a few close calls, when outstretched talons brushed through Clint's outer feathers or when a beak snapped down and pulled out a small tuft from his tail. With every twist and turn Clint took them closer and closer to the safety of the Tower until finally he was flying above the stone tiles of his favorite balcony, aimed for the glass doors leading inside.
The doors were locked and Clint pecked rapidly at the glass to get Jarvis' attention. He saw a flash of movement in the reflection and stopped flying, dropping down to the ground just as the hawk thudded loudly against the glass above him. It dropped down beside him, neck twisted at an unnatural angle. Clint slumped against the glass, heaving and shaking from the adrenaline flooding his veins.
There was a pounding of footsteps and the door behind Clint whooshed open with him just managing to stop himself from falling over when the part he was leaning on disappeared. He staggered slightly, limp from exhaustion, and looked up to see the entire team staring down at him with varying levels of concern.
"Are you okay?"
They all spoke up at the same time, none of them leaving a break for Clint to actually respond. He just sat there, nodding his head occasionally and assuring them that yes, he was fine and that it wasn't him that had hit the window.
Which, of course, was when Tony figured out just what the other bird was. "Did you almost lose to a hawk?" The shit-eating grin on his face promised Clint that this was something Tony would never let go of. And knowing Tony, the story was going to get more outlandish with each retelling and never in Clint's favor. He figured that by the end of the week half of SHIELD would hear the story of how Tony had been forced to shoot the hawk with a repulsor in order to pry its talons from around Clint's neck.
So Clint chose to ignore him, instead taking off into the Tower and settling on his makeshift bird stand in the corner of the kitchen. The others followed along behind a moment later, scattering themselves around the room. Natasha perched herself onto the counter nearest him, holding herself slightly too stiff for even her normal pretense at relaxation. As Clint glanced around the room he noticed that all of them were slightly on edge and kept glancing over at him before letting their eyes drop.
Which is when it clicked in Clint's head that they all knew that he knew the truth. They were tense because they were expecting him to be furious with them. Five sets of eyes on him, waiting for him to start yelling or freaking out or doing any of the things Clint would normally do in a situation like this. But that's where they were wrong, because there weren't normally situations like this. Not ones where he was transformed into a bird, anyway. The 'being lied to by everyone he trusted' wasn't actually all that unfamiliar.
And even as the thought crossed his mind he could feel the anger coming back. Memories flashed through his mind of all of the times he had been betrayed. Of the people who had left him bleeding out and dying and all alone. With each betrayal it had become harder and harder to move on afterwards, but he'd always done it. And for what? So that he could finally be lied to by the people he counted as family?
Clint huffed, trying to fight back the venom he could feel boiling in his veins. It felt stifling, after the peacefulness of the open sky. He wanted to leave. To say 'screw it' and fly back out the door and into the sky. Flying wouldn't be quite as calming after nearly being lunch to a hawk, but it would be better than being stuck in a house full of traitors.
Natasha, as usual, seemed to read his mind. "I wanted to tell you."
"So why didn't you?" Clint snapped. Inwardly he chided himself. He couldn't let himself openly feel around these people anymore. They had kept things from him. He shook his head. "It doesn't matter now." Clint kept his voice calm this time.
Natasha's face went blank. "We were following Coulson's orders." She spoke slowly and carefully.
Clint barely stopped himself from laughing. "Because you are always such a perfect soldier."
"Clint." Thor took a step forward, putting himself slightly between the glaring contest that was going on between Clint and Nat. "We did not keep this from you happily."
"But you did it anyway." Clint couldn't meet Thor's gaze. He was trying not to think about the deal he had almost made just one day before. Or about the way that Thor had tried so hard to advise Clint against it. Or how hard Thor had been working to make him feel needed and appreciated. Thor had honestly tried to help, even if he had still been lying as he did it. The guilt and anger were becoming too much for Clint to handle. He needed a distraction. "Jarvis, what is Agent Coulson's current location?" He asked, turning away from the others.
"He's in his office. He asked me to inform you that his offer from this morning still stands."
"Thanks, Jarvis." Clint took off down the hall, ignoring the others trying to call him back. Hanging out with Coulson wasn't very high up on Clint's current list of fun things to do, but he had questions that only Coulson could answer.
There was a familiar soft whooshing sound and Phil looked up to see Barton perch himself on the back of one of the chairs facing his desk. Phil looked him over quickly, scanning for any damage that may have been done during Barton's run in with the hawk. He could see a few feathers out of place but nothing that looked serious. Still, he asked out of habit, "Situation report?"
"Nothing more than some ruffled feathers." Barton responded. Phil couldn't tell if he was trying to be funny or not. The gleam in Barton's eye that normally gave him away was missing. "Can I ask when you're planning to go to HQ?" Clint asked, his voice nearly monotone.
So apparently the time spent outside flying hadn't restored Barton's usual good humor like Phil had been hoping. Which, really, he shouldn't be that surprised. One morning out flying wouldn't be enough to make up for the weeks that Phil had kept him under house arrest. Still, Phil just wanted this to be over and done with. He wanted his old Barton back. He wanted the witty, sarcastic archer who never shut up over comms. The sniper who could stay as still as a statue for days yet who was quick and light on his feet enough to escape from anywhere. He wanted the man who smiled and laughed and had just started relaxing enough to truly trust the people he worked with.
"Sir?" Barton pressed when Phil didn't answer immediately.
"We can leave whenever you want." Phil said, snapping out of his thoughts. He needed to focus on the Barton in front of him in the here and now.
"That's for you to decide, sir." Barton answered. He was still standing stiff and unmoving on the chair back. "After all, you're the one with all of the information."
Phil sighed. So this formality and calmness was still Barton being an ass. It was his way of telling Phil just how pissed off he was by the lying. "I tried to explain this to you. I was trying to protect you."
Barton quirked his head slightly. "I'm sorry, sir, but I don't understand what that has to do with when we leave for HQ."
'Smart ass,' Phil thought. Half a second later it was replaced by 'Shit, I fucked up.' Out loud, he just said. "I'm sorry." Barton huffed once but otherwise didn't move or speak. So Phil continued. "I knew full well what I was doing and what I was keeping you from. I knew that what I was doing was unfair to you and entirely selfish on my part. I'm sorry for lying to you, and I'm sorry for forcing the rest of the team to lie to you too."
Phil barely dared to breathe as he waited to see how Barton would respond. For a moment, he didn't. And then, finally, his posture loosened just a fraction. It was only the tiniest of shifts, but it was enough for Phil to know that there was at least a chance of being able to fix all of the things he had screwed up.
"Can we go to HQ now?" Barton asked quietly.
Phil nodded. "Of course." He smiled, quickly shutting down his computer and gathering his things. Right now, Barton could ask the world of Phil and he would give it to him. Having him still willing to spend time with Phil in any way was something he hadn't been expecting. The fact that Barton had even come back to the Tower in the first place had been relief enough for Phil. Because he understood. He really did. He knew that he'd well and truly shattered Barton's entire view of his teammates. And that now it was up to Phil to put everything back together again.