[Author's note: In this universe, Hawkeye's origin differs radically from canon, but he ends up in the same place. This is a sequel to the Resilience series, and you need to read that series first to know what's going on;"I'll Fly Away" is part of the same continuity, but reading it first is optional.]
In March, Natasha finally came down to Selvig's place, to test their resistance strategy against Loki.
Clint was so distracted by her obvious fatigue and stress that he nearly forgot to keep his game face on when she began her interrogation.
He knew, with absolute certainty, that she wouldn't damage him permanently, either in mind or in body. But even so, it was a terrifying experience. She turned him inside out. She manipulated his desire for her, his trust in her, his fears and insecurities, even the raw, still-aching guilt and self-hatred from his possession by Loki. Even his nightmares. Even, and the audacity of it took his breath away, even her own nightmares of being tortured by him.
He broke, eventually. She was kneeling beside him, looking into his eyes, cradling his face in her hand, her thumb stroking lightly across the left corner of his mouth, his anchor point. It was a terribly intimate touch that to an observer would have seemed a casual caress. He trembled and blinked, and she asked him, Who gave you Vanya Chernenko? He answered willingly, eagerly: Jeannine. It was Jeannine. Then she asked the real question: What is your plan for resisting Loki? He couldn't look away from her. He dredged through his memories and dreams, desperately trying to find the thing she wanted, the thing that would appease her, that would end this hell and let him slink away in shame and surrender.
He couldn't find it. He wept and begged forgiveness.
When she conceded defeat, when she untied him and told him to get some sleep, the respect in her eyes was better than the water Selvig offered him, better than oxygen, better than…yes, if he could have only one or the other, better than love.
He and Selvig had beaten Chyornaya Vdova. There was a chance they could beat Loki.
He fell into exhausted sleep, with tears, sweat, and a triumphant grin still on his face.
He woke disoriented and off-balance, well before dawn, on Selvig's couch. What day is it? What just happened? And more urgently, Where's Nat? He pulled on his sweats and went looking for her.
He found her sitting on the deck, wrapped in a blanket but still shivering. He sat beside her and opened his arms to her. She slid a little closer, so that he could put an arm around her shoulders, but she didn't lean into him.
"Couldn't sleep?" he asked, tucking the blanket around her more securely.
"No," she said. A long pause. "I shouldn't have asked about Chernenko."
He shrugged. "There were worse things you could have asked."
"That wasn't an apology, Clint." She sat silent for a while longer. "Was it you who took him out?"
He hesitated. "They had to know by then he'd been made. We'd gotten what we could out of him."
"And I figured there was one last favor he could do us."
"One bullet to the back of the head at close range. Not your style at all."
"No. Meant to look like yours."
"SHIELD's idea, or yours?"
"Mine. They hadn't assigned me to take you out yet, but I knew it was coming."
"You thought it would look plausible that I'd killed him. You knew I had a motive," she said.
"I suspected you might."
"Should have been my kill, Clint."
He didn't reply. He focused on keeping his breathing even and calm, and hoped that would take care of his heartbeat as well.
"It was a point of pride for him," Natasha said, "that he'd worked his way through all the Red Room girls but one. And he finally got his chance."
"Nat—" He sat straighter on the bench.
"Shut up. You took my shot. You should know what it meant."
"I was partnered with him on a mission. He didn't have my back, and I got shot. He did get me out, and back to base, and while I was in the hospital, still under anesthesia, he raped me. I didn't even know it had happened, until I found out I was pregnant. My handlers…were not amused." She stared out into the dark.
"The only child I'll ever have," she said after a while. "Up in smoke in a medical incinerator."
He closed his eyes and swallowed. "That part I didn't know," he said softly.
"Why didn't you tell me you knew?"
"It…I shouldn't have known. I only found out by accident. I didn't want—"
"If you say 'I didn't want to hurt you,' I will cut you," she said evenly.
"I didn't want to compromise Jeannine," he said. "She overheard Chernenko bragging about it; she doesn't know it was you."
"When and where?"
"Nigeria. Back in '02."
"He was there to track you."
"I found that out, after I'd already skipped the country. From then on we just led him where we wanted him to go."
A long silence.
"What is she?"
"A friend. She was working for a charity group. She and Chernenko had crossed paths twice, and he was using two different covers. It got her attention, and she told me about it."
"And before that? You said she'd known you since you were ten."
"I…went through some stuff. She stood by me." Don't ask, Nat, he thought. Not now.
A long silence.
"Hawkeye—" she broke off. He waited. Eventually she stood up, pulling the blanket more tightly around her. "Let's go inside," she said. "I'm cold."
He followed her, uneasily, half-expecting an explosion, an attack. At the door of the guest room, she said a firm "Good night", retreated inside and shut the door. He went back to the couch.
The next morning when he came into the kitchen, she handed him a cup of black coffee and said "Go practice," and he obeyed without thinking.
Selvig had already left for work. Clint stepped out onto the deck, slipped his armguard and glove on, flicked open his bow and began shooting pine cones off the trees, at the very limits of his range.
He found he missed the professor. They'd had little use for each other before Loki's appearance, but since their release they'd found they worked well together. Clint respected Selvig's determination and his agile, versatile mind. In turn, the professor seemed to regard him with a combination of protectiveness and awe. Clint could understand the protectiveness; he felt the same way towards Dupree and Hernandez, the other two members of the Mindfucked by Loki Club, despite the fact that they had gotten off much more lightly than he and Selvig had.
He'd emptied his quiver. He collapsed the bow and swung himself down off the deck, jogged off in a wide arc to collect his arrows. He moved through the neighborhood swiftly and silently, keeping to cover, conscious of sightlines, though most of the houses were empty on a weekday morning.
He missed SHIELD, or at least he missed having a mission. Eight weeks of furlough had long since elapsed, and there was no word from Fury or Hill.
If they don't call, what do I do?
He'd never actually held a real job. There had been a year and a half of college, then training for the Olympics, then three years of hiding out, sleeping rough until he took up with the circus. There had been dangerous men on the streets, and dangerous men among the carnies, and some of them had been willing to teach him some of what they knew. He'd spent every spare minute learning to fight hand-to-hand, honing his skills in secret to take out the man who'd murdered his mother—and as soon as the plan was set in motion he'd been recruited by SHIELD. His whole adult life he'd been Agent Barton: he'd worked for them, killed for them, risked his life for them; and then he'd betrayed them.
What if that one day with the Avengers was all he got?
He missed Coulson, his calm voice on the headset, his middle-manager nerdiness and the unexpected streak of do not fuck with me just below the bland surface. He'd heard Coulson had gotten in one good shot at Loki before he died. He hoped it was true.
He missed Thor. He'd had a soft spot for the Asgardian ever since he'd first seen him, wading through SHIELD agents like a bull through a cornfield, not hitting them any harder than he had to, but laying them out one after another, even without his hammer and his supernatural strength.
He picked up the last arrow, the one whose black fletchings had a sheen of blue-and-bronze iridescence.
Hell, he even missed the damn bird. Huginn had proven unexpectedly good company. It had been interesting hanging out with him; the raven saw everything and said nothing, but his body language was eloquent and he had a wide repertoire of meaningful looks.
He didn't miss Stark, or Rogers, or Banner. Stark and Rogers at least had seen him as useful, during the battle; afterwards they'd barely acknowledged his presence. Banner had looked past him, or through him; the Hulk hadn't been within sight of him for long, and hadn't seemed to notice him at all.
And what the fuck did they do to Nat? he thought.
He retrieved his empty coffee cup from the deck and wandered back into the house, headed for the kitchen.
Natasha wasn't there. She wasn't in the bedroom either. Neither was her gear. She'd left a note on Selvig's worktable:
Thank you very much for your help and hospitality.
He packed his own gear, fighting down panic and frustration, and scrawled & Clint at the bottom of her note on his way out the door.
Outside, he paused, tried to regroup. He could follow her; tracking her phone would be trivial if he connected to SHIELD's network, but it would draw attention to them both. Even without it, he thought he could find her; he'd done it before, when the stakes had been infinitely higher. But when he found her, what then?
And if he didn't follow her, where would he go?