Written for this prompt at Avengerkink:
It's like his superpower, he never misses. He's painfully aware that he is only human and trains his ass off to maintain his level of skill, but he never misses.
Until the day that he does.
It's a difficult shot, no one even cares that he missed, but he can't stop beating himself up about it. He can no longer justify to himself his place on the team and is convinced that it's just a matter of time until they get rid of him, but in the meantime he trains non-stop, pushing himself harder than ever before to try to be good enough.
It takes a while for anyone to realise what is wrong, and even longer for them to figure out what the problem is. In the meantime, all their gentle probing just makes things worse for Clint and drives him almost to the edge of a complete breakdown.
Thanks to dysprositos for beta genius. Any remaining errors come from my last pass through the story and are my errors alone.
The young boy had tousled hair that had been sprayed with silver hair paint to compliment the purple of his silk shirt, and his blue eyes glistened with unshed tears as he stood trembling before the tall, powerful dark-haired man in front of him. The boy was small for twelve, still waiting on one more growth spurt, lean and strong but small, with the body of a gymnast. The recurve bow he held in his hands seemed like it would be too big for him, but he held it loosely, comfortably. The man in front of him crowded him, leaned over him threateningly and spoke with a deep voice, making the boy jut his chin in an obvious attempt to be tough.
"You do know what the word 'amazing' means, dontcha, you cocky little shit?" the man said, taking another step into the boy's space and slapping him across the cheekbone with a calloused hand.
"Yessir," the boy said, straightening after the blow and trying to keep his voice even.
"What does it mean?" the man said.
The boy met the man's eyes. "Bull's-eye every time, sir."
The man slapped the boy again, this time drawing blood from the bottom lip he split. "That's right. Bulls-eye. Folks don't pay to see you hit the target. I got four other punks who could be in this show and hit the target. They pay to see you hit the goddamned bulls-eye."
The boy just nodded, clenching his fists by his side, and thought about the card game he'd stayed up late playing last night with a new kid, trying to make a friend. It had cost him during the second performance, today, though, when his concentration wavered and two of his shots had been two inches off center. He knew as soon as he made them that Duquesne would have his hide for it and here he was.
"I'm sorry, sir," he said, wiping the blood off of his lip with the back of his hand.
"I'm gonna make sure you're sorry, and then what are you gonna do?" Duquesne said, putting a hand on the boy's cheek.
"Practice," the boy said, and his voice shook as the big man's hand ran down his cheek and settled on his throat.
"Practice," Duquesne repeated, and squeezed the boy's throat, pressing his thumb hard enough to leave a print, and the boy coughed, but didn't fight back. Duquesne held him by the throat with one hand and hit him with the other, blackening his eye and leaving a fist mark on his stomach, and when Duquesne let go, the boy crumpled to the ground, dropping the bow and laying coughing in the dirt of the center ring floor.
"You mess up tomorrow and I get Carson to throw you and your punk-ass big brother to the side of the road on our way out of town," Duquesne said, and then left him there. The boy took a minute to draw a few heavy breaths and push himself to his feet, picking up the bow and dusting it off. He wiped his lip again and walked heavily over to the edge of the ring, pulling a target out and setting it up carefully. As he walked away, giving himself thirty yards or so before turning back to the target, he heard his brother's voice calling from the edge of the tent.
"Clint! It's almost midnight! What the hell are you doing?" Barney said, taking a swig from the bottle he was carrying.
"Practicing," Clint said thickly, and he lifted the bow and shot, his brother watching from the side for a few minutes before shrugging his shoulders and leaving. Clint shot and shot until he got thirty bulls-eyes in a row, and then he stumbled to his bunk, feeling the bruises coming in and knowing that he'd better not falter in tomorrow's performances, because the circus was all he and his brother had.
The Amazing Hawkeye, ladies and gentlemen.
"Hawkeye, Hawkeye - - we need your shots NOW!" Captain America called over the comms, and Clint drew an arrow and nodded.
"On it, sir," he said, and then nocked, drew, and released, downed the man headed straight for Natasha and then drew another arrow. Nock, draw, release, repeat. A typical Avengers mission could cost Hawkeye a hundred arrows, and this one was shaping up to be no different. Clint felt fatigue setting in after about an hour, but he was skilled in ignoring it, and the HYDRA troops that kept pouring out of the outpost to defend it were like ants, never being depleted.
The ground fighting was bad, but it would have been so much worse if the archer hadn't been there.
An hour and a half into the skirmish, Clint heard the grenade before he saw it, so he ducked into the edge of the storage building he was perched on and shielded his face as the grenade struck the center of the roof, spraying cement and rocks and metal plating everywhere. The ledge he was leaning into held, but he felt a piece of metal pierce his hip and several rocks strike his arms, leaving stinging cuts up and down his skin. He held still, letting the debris settle before he stood shakily, drawing a breath and locking the bow back into his hands.
"Hawkeye," Coulson's voice came through the comms as Clint took deep breaths and tried to refocus on the battle on the ground. "Hawkeye, report."
"I'm okay, boss," Clint said through clenched teeth. "A little fallout caught me but I'm still in the game."
He assessed the ground below and saw Rogers ducking away from two HYDRA troops, so he nocked, drew, released and took both guys out within seconds. "Got ya covered, Cap," he said, his teeth still clenched.
"Hawkeye, can you get to the north side of the roof? Black Widow needs some backup," Coulson said, and years of experience allowed Clint to hear the faint sound of worry in his voice.
"Yeah, I'm on it," he said, and he turned, realizing that he'd have to do some acrobatics to get past the gaping hole in the roof. He glanced down at his hip, seeing blood seeping through his uniform and the metal chunk embedded there. He steeled himself against a wave of nausea and moved anyway, ignoring Coulson, who was adding that he could pull Iron Man from his focus for a second if Clint needed it. He didn't.
He climbed on the ledge and carefully did a running jump to the north side of the hole, landing awkwardly but pulling himself over to the ledge and nocking his arrow. He took out the first guy advancing on Natasha and drew on the second. A wave of pain from his hip rolled all the way through his chest as he released the arrow for the second guy, and Hawkeye missed.
He swore loudly and drew another arrow, but Iron Man had finished his business and descended on the second soldier, taking him out with a laser as Clint drew his arrow. Twenty minutes later, the fight was over. Clint climbed down off of the building and Cap was right there waiting for him.
"I'm sorry, Captain," Clint said, right away, his voice tight with the pain from his hip and sinking nausea over his missed shot.
Steve gave him a puzzled look. "For what, Barton?" Then he saw Clint limp and he moved to him quickly. "You're hurt."
Clint shook his head and waved him off. "I'll be okay, Cap." But Rogers wasn't having it, and he gripped Clint's elbow, pulling some of his weight, and the pain lessened considerably. "Thanks," Clint said, grateful for the hand that he didn't fucking deserve, and they headed toward the chopper that had descended on the compound. Clint looked away as Natasha joined them and then he saw Coulson hop down from the chopper and hurry over.
"Jesus, Barton, you're bleeding everywhere," Coulson said, and he moved to Clint's other side.
Clint just shrugged, feeling everyone's eyes on him even more heavily than the pain coursing from his hip down his leg to his toes. "Grenade on the roof. I'm okay," he said, but the closer they got to the chopper the dizzier he got, and he knew that Steve was doing most of the work in pulling him into the seat and taking his bow from his hands.
He leaned his head back against the side of the chopper, and when a medic leaned over and pressed against his hip to assess his wound, his vision got spotty and he clenched his eyes shut, feeling Coulson's hand gripping his shoulder. When the medic pressed a needle into his side and the painkiller washed through him, he took several grateful breaths and relaxed a bit, but he didn't let himself lean against Phil the way he wanted to.
He missed a shot today. "Punishment, practice," a voice whispered from the depths of his memory. He shook his head to try and clear it.
An hour or so in medical yielded him a stitched and bandaged hip, bandaged arms, and painkillers that he wasn't going to take until after the debriefing, but at least they didn't try and make him stay. Well, they did try and make him stay but he didn't have to fight as hard to get out as he usually did. He limped to the debriefing room and sank into a chair, looking at the table in front of him while the others filed in and took their spots around the table.
"You okay, Barton?" Stark asked, stretching out in the chair next to Clint.
Clint just nodded and said, "Yeah. I'll take the good stuff after the meeting and I'll be fine tomorrow."
"That was a hell of a hit that roof took," Natasha said, sitting down next to Clint. "You're lucky the whole thing didn't crumble."
Clint nodded and looked over at her, and a lump rose in his throat so he looked away. His mistake could have cost her life and he couldn't bring himself to hold her gaze. The others left him alone when it was clear he wasn't up for much. Coulson led the debriefing, and Clint had a hard time concentrating. When they came to the bit where Tony had to finish off the other HYRDA soldier coming after Natasha, Clint tensed.
"Hawkeye took care of the first guy and I was able to neutralize the second," Tony said easily. Coulson nodded and looked to Clint for confirmation. Clint took a breath and nodded, "Yeah, Tony finished them off." He looked away quickly and ducked his head to his chest. They moved on to the wrap up of the mission, but Clint didn't hear anything except 'Punishment. Practice,' until the meeting broke up.
When everyone started getting up to leave, he looked up to see Coulson staring at him.
"Anything other than the injury keeping your head out of this debriefing, Agent?" Coulson asked calmly.
Clint knew he suspected something was wrong, but he just shrugged and said, "No, sir. I won't let it happen again." He met Coulson's gaze and the other man nodded, and Clint realized he was apologizing for something different than what Coulson thought he was apologizing for. He clenched his fists under the table.
"Do you want a ride back to the Tower?" Coulson asked, gathering his things.
"Sure," Clint said, pulling himself up with a grimace. "But I'm just gonna crash at my place tonight, okay?" He and Phil had recently started spending a few nights a week in each others' rooms; after they got over all the awkwardness involved with Phil's alleged death, they settled into a routine they'd both been dancing around for years, finally letting themselves spend many nights together playing cards, watching bad tv, and relishing the fact that they were both alive.
Coulson looked startled at Clint's statement, but he nodded. "Okay." And they headed to the parking garage and Phil's car. They rode in silence back to the Tower.
Clint was too tired to explain.
"I'm gonna make sure you're sorry, and then what are you gonna do?" Duquesne said, putting a hand on Clint's cheek.
"Practice," Clint said, and his voice shook as the big man's hand ran down his cheek and settled on his throat.
"Practice," Duquesne repeated, and he squeezed Clint's throat, pressing his thumb hard enough to leave a print, and Clint coughed, but didn't fight back.
He woke sweating, trembling and nauseous about three in the morning, and he stumbled to the bathroom and threw up. He sat shivering on the tile floor for a long time after the nightmare receded and didn't sleep anymore that night.
He hit the range early in the morning to practice, staunchly ignoring the stitches in his hip and arms. He'd worked around pain before, but obviously he was out of practice with it, so he forced himself to shoot through the pain. Natasha appeared after a couple of hours and shoved a water bottle in his hands, asked how long he planned on practicing, left, and then came back a couple hours later.
"You're done here, Clint," she said, opening another bottle of water for him.
He took it and set his bow on a nearby table, and then drank the whole thing at once. "I've got two more rounds to get through," he said, startled at how rough his own voice sounded.
"Light activity," she said, stepping in front of him.
"What?" he said.
"The release papers from medical said light activity. Four hours straight on the range does not equal light activity. You're done here. Coulson called and told me he'd make me talk to medical if you had to go back in to get them to rework the stitches. I don't want the hassle. You're done." She crossed her arms and gave him a wilting stare. He hated when she did that.
"Okay," he said, "Fine. I'm done. For now." She huffed and left as he packed up his bow for later. After a little food and a few aspirin since he didn't want to get fuzzy from painkillers, he headed down to SHIELD on his bike for a meeting with the weapons range director. It was usually one of his favorite parts of non-field work, helping Martin Zeger analyze the test results of trainees on the weapons range, but he wasn't focused today.
"You want to quit this and go get a beer instead?" Martin asked after about an hour. "Seems like you could use one, man." Martin was laid back, but didn't waste time.
"Nah," Clint said, pushing back from the table, "Sorry. I got a little banged up in the field yesterday. I'm more worn out today than I expected." He gathered his folders as Martin shrugged.
"No big deal. Come back by tomorrow? We can finish then."
"Thanks, Martin," Clint said, shaking the man's hand. "I'll see you then."
He left the room and literally bumped into Coulson on the way down to the garage.
"Hey, are you okay? I haven't seen you all day," Phil said, stepping back and raking his eyes down Clint's body, clearly assessing him. He frowned. "You've overdone it already, haven't you?"
Clint shrugged. "I'm okay, Phil. Some time on the range and a meeting with Martin. I'm headed back to the Tower now and I've got nothing on the docket until Team Dinner tonight."
"Natasha had to threaten you to get you off the range, didn't she?" Phil said.
Clint grinned. "Yeah. You know I lose time down there. It's all good now."
Phil sighed. "Okay. You want to stick around here and I'll give you a ride back to the Tower? You can get your bike tomorrow."
Clint shook his head. "No, a ride sounds good. I'll see you at dinner, okay?" And he headed off down the hall, feeling like the walls were half a foot narrower today than usual.
The ride did feel good, and when it was time for the Team Dinner he thought maybe he could relax. Maybe yesterday wasn't as bad as he was making it out to be. Maybe he could forego the punishment and practice thoughts that were lurking in his head.
"I have to go to Washington tonight," Phil said as he sat down at the table with his plate full of food. Clint looked up sharply. "Cap and Sitwell will handle any emergencies that come through while I'm gone." He looked at Clint, "Sorry. I just found out as I was leaving."
"We'll look after him, Agent Agent," Tony said, leaning across the table for the salt.
"Shut up, Tony," Clint said, looking down at his food. Phil leaving was punishment. He deserved it. His hip burned and his appetite departed in a hurry. As the conversation swirled around him, he lost focus again. Finally, he stood.
"Sorry, guys. I'm wiped out. I'll catch you tomorrow," he said quietly and took his plate back to the kitchen, scraping it off and setting it in the dishwasher. He headed back to his apartment, and a few minutes later there was a knock on his door.
"Can I come in?" Phil asked, leaning on the doorframe. "I'm leaving in about half an hour."
Clint nodded and Phil entered the room and wasted no time wrapping Clint in an embrace, pressing his lips to Clint's. "I'm worried about you," he said, softly.
"I'm okay, Phil," Clint lied, pulling away and sitting down on the couch. "It's the day after an injury-op, I'm always off on those days. You know that. Sucks that you have to leave, though."
"Yeah. It may stretch to a couple of days, too. Fury's got me playing liaison to the Senate again and he thinks that's going to lead to meeting with the big guys."
"Shit. You always take at least a week to decompress from a meeting with the WTC," Clint said, leaning into Phil's shoulder.
"Yeah. I know. That's because they're all idiots. Some idiots I can handle. Those idiots, not so much."
"You'll manage, though."
"Yeah. What about you?" Phil said, running his hands through Clint's hair.
"Go. I'll be okay when you get back. I'll help you decompress," he said with a wicked grin. He would, too. He'd quit beating himself up soon and be ready for Phil when he got back. He just had to . . . practice some more.
They kissed, long and slow, and then Phil's phone beeped. "Damn. I have to go, sorry," he said, pulling back.
"Okay. Come find me when you get back in," Clint said, opening his door. Phil nodded and left reluctantly.
Clint stood in the doorway after Phil left and assessed the situation. The day after he screws up a mission Phil gets called away. That's after a day where he also fucks up a meeting. He trembled in the doorway and then closed the door slowly.
He changed out of his clothes, poured himself a heavy drink, and fell asleep miserable. He woke in the middle of the night shaking, with a frantic apology on his lips and images of fists and blood and anger filling his head. "Punishment. Practice," he mumbled as he stumbled into the shower to try and wash away the images.
The next morning he made it to the range before seven. Practice. His hip wasn't hurting that much and the cuts on his arm weren't bothering him at all. He shot for an hour, but realized the pain wasn't hampering him like it was yesterday. 'This isn't punishment', he thought to himself. Looking around the empty range, he pulled a knife from his pocket. It was his favorite sheath knife that he kept with him all the time. He looked at it for a few minutes and then pressed it against his bicep, digging and twisting until his breath caught and sweat popped out on his forehead. He pulled it out carefully, watching the blood pool on his arm. Pulling a towel from his bow case, he wrapped his arm tightly, making the puncture throb.
He practiced for three hours, feeling every draw like a screwdriver digging into his arm before his phone beeped, reminding him that he had an Avengers meeting at ten-thirty. Three hours was good. He packed up his weapon and went to the locker room, pulling his first aid kit from his locker and cleaning the wound on his arm. It got lost amidst the other cuts from the op, and Clint looked at it in satisfaction. It was an adequate punishment.
He made it to the meeting just as Cap was standing to begin, and he took a pull on a protein drink as Tony scurried in a minute later. Cap just gave him an exasperated glare.
"Okay. Coulson's off in Washington, but he and I talked briefly last night about what we should focus on today. We both agreed that after the battle with HYDRA the other day we need to focus on contingency plans."
"What kind of contingency plan can the HULK have, really?" Tony asked, grinning. "There really is no backup for him, after all." Bruce just shrugged.
"Yeah," Tony continued, "And I'm sorry, but you only have one fancy shield, Cap, Thor only has one hammer, and I only have room for one suit in the field."
Steve leaned against the wall. "True, but we can still come up with a backup plan. Look, here," he said, and he pulled up the video footage of the battle. Clint sat up straight in his chair when he realized what Phil had seen in the footage.
Steve stopped the footage and hit play, showing Natasha scrambling to get out of the way of the two HYDRA goons that Phil had called Clint in on to get her back. He watched as he shot an arrow, taking out one of the soldiers, and then. . . his breath hitched as he watched the second arrow careen off to the right; his hands started to tremble so he shoved them under the table as he watched the footage of Iron Man swooping in and taking the second soldier out. Steve paused the footage. Clint wanted to bolt. He didn't, though, and he looked up at Steve.
"Look," Steve said, "Hawkeye was wounded and his roof was exploding, so he missed the second shot." Steve stopped as Clint's hands jerked up and hit the underside of the table a little too hard. "Clint, it's completely understandable! The first shot you made was incredible, and Tony was there as backup for the second. That's not what I'm talking about at all."
Clint thought he heard bullshit in Steve's tone, a cover up attempt at calling Clint out. "What are you talking about, then?" Clint asked through clenched teeth, and he could feel Natasha move a little closer to him in her chair.
"Backup," Steve said. "This scene just made me think: what if you run out of arrows or get hurt? What if Natasha is too injured to fight? What if Tony's weapons fail? What if my shield does get lost? We need contingency plans. That's all," he said.
There was a roaring in Clint's ears by the end of Steve's statement. His hands were shaking under the table, and all he could hear was the casual way 'he missed the second shot,' had come out of Captain America's mouth. It was playing on a loop in his head. He stared at his hands on the table as the others talked around him, and after a minute he heard Natasha say, "Can we take a break, Steve?"
He looked up as Steve shrugged.
"Sure, I guess so," Steve said. "Meet back here in ten, okay?"
Natasha leaned into Clint's shoulder, "You need some air, Clint?"
He looked over at her and took a deep breath. "Yeah," he said, pushing his chair back and trying to walk confidently out of the conference room. Punishment. Practice. He walked quickly to the kitchen area and grabbed a glass and some ice water, downing it all in one gulp as Natasha followed and watched.
"Are you all right?" She asked, leaning on a counter.
"Yeah, just needed a drink," he said, trying to sound calm, the words 'He missed the second shot,' pounding in his ears.
"No one is upset with you about the shot, Clint," she said, and he turned to pour himself some more water and avoid her searing gaze.
He drank some more and turned back to her. "Yeah. Okay. Whatever. Contingency plans, though? For Iron Man? Seems kinda farfetched." He paused. "Not a bad idea for me, I guess."
"He's talking about ammunition and injury," she said, watching as he set the glass in the sink and turned to go. He felt the ice water coursing through his stomach, settling the nausea that had risen. He took a deep breath and looked back at Natasha with fake confidence. "Okay. Let's go back and work on it."
They went back to the meeting room and Clint spent the next hour clenching and unclenching his fists under the table and not contributing much to the contingency planning. After Tony finally frustrated Steve (but at least agreed to work on a better quiver for Hawkeye so he could carry more arrows) the meeting disbanded and Clint hurried out of the room, ducking away and heading back down to the range.
"Punishment. Practice," he murmured as he unpacked his bow and took his knife from its sheath once again. This time he lifted his pants leg and made a long incision on his right calf, where the pants would cover it but it would hurt like a son of a bitch when he dropped into his stance. He wrapped it the wound and started shooting.
As he practiced, he found himself running a commentary in his head. They have video footage. I missed a shot and they have footage. I missed a shot and they have footage. Natasha could have been killed. Natasha could have been killed. Punishment. Practice.
He stayed on the range for four hours this time, the targets in the modern archery range fading into cloth targets on a dirt floor in a circus tent so much that after a while he could feel the dust in the air and he could smell the animals nearby. When his arm began to shake and the sweat soaked his shirt completely, the sleek range came back into focus and he knew he had to stop for a while.
When he got back to his room there was a message from Martin in R&D on his phone – Clint had missed the rescheduled meeting. He ignored it. He locked his door and stripped down to his shorts, staring at his knife that was still in his hand. He set it down carefully and pulled out the supplies he needed to bandage the cut he'd made on the range, and he had just finished when his phone rang . He ignored it again.
He sat on his floor, rocking back and forth with his arms around his knees, and tried to think of other ways to punish himself.
By the time he was fifteen in the circus, he wasn't missing very often. Duquesne and Trick Shot thought of other reasons to beat him up, but he didn't hear the 'I'm gonna make sure you're sorry and then what will you do?' line much. But one night he had the flu and he did miss. He was off target by three whole inches, the worst he'd shot since he first picked up the bow three years ago. After the show, he packed up his equipment and stripped off his costume, sticky with sweat from a fever and sweat from his act. He wanted to get out of there as fast as he could. He couldn't avoid punishment entirely, but sometimes if he managed to hide himself until the next morning then Duquesne's beating wasn't as bad as if it were fresh. But Duquesne caught him as he was leaving the tent.
"Where the hell are you going, you bastard?" Duquesne growled as he caught Clint's wrist. Clint was through his last growth spurt by now, but he still wasn't very tall, and Duquesne towered over him.
Clint didn't answer, and Duquesne shoved him back into the main tent, sending Clint sprawling in the dirt. As he picked himself up, Duquesne pulled out a long knife and began flipping it in his hand. Clint clenched his fists and tried to look defiant. The knife was one Clint didn't recognize. It was new.
"You're getting a bit big for my punishments," Duquesne said, slowly advancing on Clint. "I have a new solution."
Clint just trembled and stood his ground.
"Three inches tonight, you untalented faggot. You were off by three inches." He paused, and threw the knife so that it landed between Clint's feet. "I figure you're old enough to take care of your own punishment now. Pick up the knife."
"Pick it up, asshole. Trust me. You can take care of this on your own or you can let me make it twenty times worse than it's ever been." As he said this, he pulled out the sword he had sheathed at his waist. "Your choice."
Clint picked up the knife, his hand shaking as he held it.
"You missed by three inches, little hawk. Three inches, three cuts, one inch each."
"Where?" Clint asked, his voice shaking as badly as his hands.
"Arms. Where it'll hurt tomorrow," Duquesne said, stepping closer with his sword. "Anywhere it'll smart when you shoot."
Clint nodded and held up the knife. He deserved this. He knew it. He was scared that Duquesne was making him do it, but he deserved it and that was enough to still his shaking. He took a deep breath and pressed the knife into the flesh of his arm, shuddering at the pain and watching blood seep out of the wound.
"What is this, and what are you going to do next?" Duquesne asked, darkly.
Clint looked up as he made the second cut. "It's punishment. I'm going to practice," he said, and Duquesne nodded and walked away as Clint made the third cut.
From that night on, inches missed equaled the number of cuts he deserved and gave himself. Duquesne just watched and laughed every time it happened.
He didn't even try to sleep that night. Instead, he sat on his floor, rocking and shuddering his way through hours of memories. He felt tears run down his face as he thought of the circus and every single punishment Duquesne thought up for him and then he wrapped his head in his arms as he remembered taking over the punishments himself.
He thought of after the circus, when there was no one there to make sure he was punished, yet he kept the knife from Duquesne and he carried it to this day. Coulson and Natasha just thought it was his favorite, but it served a dual purpose. He didn't use it very often, really, but this miss had sent him into a tailspin that even the two cuts he'd made and the hours on the range couldn't compensate for.
Now he was an Avenger. It was a big responsibility, and missing with them meant that the punishment should be bigger, right? Duquesne always punished him harder if the show was bigger. It made sense. He sat on his floor and rubbed his finger over the knife. The Avengers were a really big show.
It was morning when he realized how big a show they were. He stood up and stretched, stiff from sitting on the floor all night. His leg hurt and his arm hurt and he couldn't remember the last time he'd eaten, but none of that mattered. He gathered his knife and a few bandages into a bag and headed down to the range. He locked himself into the range this time, asking JARVIS to engage privacy settings, claiming he just wanted to be alone. JARVIS was a respectful AI and since Clint had security privileges he locked the door as asked.
This time Clint really didn't want Natasha barging in on him; she wouldn't understand. The Avengers were a really big show, and he needed to do this.
He pulled out the knife and rolled up his pants legs, cutting deep gashes into both of his calves. He wrapped them in tape and moved to his shirt. He rolled it up a bit and then made a cut across his stomach. He taped that and then rolled his shirt down. He was already lightheaded from the pain. "Punishment. Practice," he murmured as he gathered his bow into his arms and began to shoot.
Clint lost himself on the range. Pain flooded his limbs with every draw of the bow, but he kept going. He shot against the memory of towering Jaques Duquesne and his knife, hitting the target every single time.
He didn't hear the report that JARVIS gave to the Avengers, who had gathered for lunch when Phil returned early from Washington and asked that Clint be told to join them, saying that 'yes, he'd asked Agent Barton to come but he didn't seem to be hearing anything, and someone should know that his heart rate was dangerously elevated."
He didn't hear the shouts of "leave him alone," and then "he locked himself on the fucking range, I'm not leaving him alone" from Natasha, who understood, and Phil, who refused to. He didn't hear Tony telling JARVIS to override Clint's request for the locks and he didn't hear the door open behind him or Phil's startled cry when he saw blood streaming down Clint's arms and through his pants and soaking the front of his shirt.
He did feel strong arms around his own, pulling the bow down, and when Clint tried to turn around in those arms and press them away, he failed. . . again. He lost his balance and it was Phil who kept him from falling face first on the floor, who eased him down, pushing his bow away, trying to frame Clint's face with his hands, looking at Clint with fire in his eyes, saying, "Clint, stop. Stop this, now. It's over."
All Clint could do was to lean into Phil's chest with his forehead, murmuring, "Punishment. Practice," over and over again, feeling Phil's hands running through his sweaty hair. He didn't know how to stop, how to convince himself that this was over, how to accept that his place on this team was solid, even with such a horrible mistake in the field, how to avoid the wrath of Duquesne all these years later every time he made a mistake.
Phil just held him, saying, 'No, it wasn't your fault and nothing bad happened. It wasn't your fault, and nothing bad happened,' and holding him tighter, pressing his hands against Clint's back, trying not to touch the wounds on his arms and legs. Finally, a water bottle was pressed into Phil's hands from someone and he held it to Clint's lips and said, "Please drink this, please stop."
Clint couldn't refuse the water that washed down his throat into his belly that was on fire from the cut, and when he finished Phil eased him down to the floor and held his hand as he lay there, shaking, saying thickly, "I'm sorry, Phil. I'm sorry I missed the shot. I won't do it again, I won't do it again," and Phil clenched his teeth and growled at Clint, "Stop. It wasn't your fault. You were hurt. It wasn't your fault."
And finally medics arrived and pulled him onto a gurney and he felt them put an IV line into his arm and saw them plunge something into the line and Phil's angry face faded away and he slept. He woke enough to see Phil and Natasha standing over him and heard her say "I'm sorry, I should have realized." And he saw Phil wrap her in an embrace as sleep overtook him again.
He woke later, and he saw Phil sitting in a chair nearby, sleeping with his laptop on his knees and his head leaned back at an awkward angle. He felt the IV in his arm, felt bandages on his belly and on his arms and legs, and he knew he was on good painkillers. He tried to talk, though.
"Phil, you're gonna be sore if you keep sleeping like that," he said, sluggishly through the drugs, and Phil started awake, closing his laptop and rolling his head as he stood to come to Clint.
"It happens," Phil said, and Clint's tired brain wondered if he was talking about his neck or about Clint's mistake. "How are you feeling?" he asked, gently running his hand down Clint's arm and holding his hand tightly.
"Tired," Clint paused, thinking back to the last two days with a more rested brain. "I fucked up," he said, closing his eyes.
"No, you didn't," Phil said. "You overreacted."
Clint laughed weakly. "You could say that." He opened his eyes and looked at Phil. "They're gonna kick me off the team, aren't they?"
Phil stared at Clint, not answering, for a long moment and then sighed. "No. Psych said they'd work with you for a couple of weeks and re-evaluate, but that it was likely something they can help with, and it wasn't a suicide issue. They're convinced it's an esteem issue that you can learn to cope with," he said, saying the last lines as if he were reading a textbook.
"Are you convinced?" Clint asked.
Phil sighed. "You beat yourself up all the time, mentally, Clint. I know that about you and, while I wish you wouldn't do that, it usually doesn't affect your work. This was extreme. You were injured in battle and missed one shot after making a hundred amazing ones. I just don't understand."
Clint looked at him and realized what he had said. His voice dropped to a whisper. "You do know what 'amazing' means, right Phil?"
Phil looked at him, puzzled.
Clint spoke again, bitterly. "Bulls-eye every time. That's what amazing means. SHIELD has plenty of marksmen who can hit their mark, so I have to get a bulls-eye every time."
Phil stared at him for a moment and then leaned over his bed, running his hand down the side of Clint's face. It felt so goddamned good that Clint closed his eyes again, leaned into the touch, but he opened them quickly when he heard the tone of Phil's voice. "You are more than a marksman, Clint Barton. You bring more to SHIELD than your fucking bow and arrows. That may be all you were in the circus, or in the ARMY, or to the mercenaries you worked for before we found you. But we don't recruit hired muscle, or marksmen, or assassins. We recruit Agents who have to be that and fifty things more. And you excel at the more. You're not even just an Agent any more. You're an Avenger."
And Phil's voice held such vehemence, such conviction, that Clint spent a moment believing him, and it felt good. Maybe he could be convinced.
Maybe Duquesne's voice would finally be silent in his head, replaced with Phil Coulson's conviction.