Halfway through the Avengers movie, Loki utters one of my very favourite lines - one that speaks to the at best ambiguous, at worst sinister political reality we occasionally see peeking out from behind the aliens, the monsters, and the men in flying suits. Here he is, summing up for Natasha Romanoff's 'benefit' just what she does for a living:
"You lie and you kill in the service of liars and killers. You pretend to be separate, to have your own code, something that makes up for the horrors. But they are a part of you, and they will never go away!"
Well, yes. Some Government jobs are definitely more complicated than others. Here's my take on how the guy who 'sees better from a distance' might feel about his - and about taking orders more generally.
Could serve as a prequel to "Going to Ground."
In the Service:
Three Times Hawkeye Questions His Orders (And One Time He Doesn't)
By Alpha Flyer
New York I
The first time Clint gets pissed off about an assignment comes about six weeks after he'd originally been given it. Okay, he'd been wondering about it almost right away, but that had been for different reasons. Now, he's just scratching his head and is wondering what S.H.I.E.L.D.'s political masters use instead of common sense, and whether he's in the right job.
The job in question had been Clint's first, just after he started with S.H.I.E.L.D. The first month had been soaked up by indoctrination, briefings, training and tests, test, tests - physical, psych, skills, you name it. Since they didn't throw him out he can only assume that he made up for shortcomings in categories like "plays well with others" and "interpersonal relations" with what he gained for marksmanship and handling anything that resembles a projectile. They made him come back several times for more tests on strategy and tactics, although he doesn't know whether that's good or bad since he never had any formal training in the stuff.
But here he is, having been declared fit for his first real mission. The assignment is so bloody easy, it's almost an insult. To start with, he could have practically walked there from his place on Lex, the one he'd bought with his first official paycheck (topped up with his private stash 'coz you know, government salaries) when it became clear that he could stomach dorm-living on the helicarrier only intermittently.
Walking to a job should beat sixteen hours in an airplane going to some hellhole whose name you can't spell any day, but of course that's not how it's done at S.H.I.E.L.D. The thing starts with a 6 am briefing at S.H.I.E.L.D. Headquarters, to be followed by Official Transport to the hotel where Clint and Agent Evans - middle name, "Make Sure The Newbie Doesn't Fuck Up" - are to meet their VIP target … no, charge.
"What's so special about this guy that he gets babysat by S.H.I.E.L.D.?" Clint asks at the briefing. It's a reasonable question, really, one that deserves an answer if you're expected to be ready to kill just so someone else can live another day. Clint's conscience isn't exactly the cleanest thing going but when he turned That Page, he decided that if he fires off one of his arrows, at a minimum he'd like to know why.
"There have been several attempts on President Mbuto's life in the last six months," Hill informs him in that supercilious tone she has, the one that makes her so popular with the support staff. Like she's talking to a moron, which Clint is pretty sure he isn't, even if he doesn't have a Ph.D. and is still new to this agent business. "His people have asked the Government for extra protection while he is here to speak to the General Assembly."
Clint glares at her intently. Of course the guy was under threat. Duh. Not what he asked.
"Yeah, I get that. But why us? Isn't that what the FBI's for? Or Kevin Costner?"
Hill gives him a long, hard look that says quite clearly, we didn't hire you to ask questions, carnie, and especially not for sarcastic editorial remarks. What she says is, "The Council requested it."
Ah. Orders are from the top so shut the fuck up. Message received, loud and clear. Clint briefly mulls over how this could be considered as an explanation on any level, but fact is, he is new and maybe that's what it's like in a bureaucracy, maybe he'll get used to it. So he decides, in fact, to shut the fuck up and go with the flow. For now, anyway. Clint doesn't tend to forget a lot of things; unanswered questions, never.
So, a couple of hours later and there he is, in the lobby of the Intercontinental, taking receipt of his assignment. The guy he's supposed to be guarding is wearing some sort of tribal garb, except it's made from the kind of exclusive-looking silk that you go to Liberty's in London for, and a bunch of gold chains so tacky they shouldn't be real, but are.
President Norbert Mbuto (and just where did the Norbert thing come from?) is shriveled and shrunken to the point of desiccation and looks like a breeze could topple him, but his eyes … it's not that they're rheumy and old, they are. But more than that, they're cold and dead, like there's nothing behind them except a bone-chilling wind that will suck the life out of anything and anyone their gaze touches. The man's underlings bow and scrape around him and the whole thing is like a scene out of a shitty movie. Clint can sure see how Mbuto's people need a professional to look out for threats, since their eyes seem to be perpetually glued to the floor for fear they might catch their boss' attention.
Clint takes up his position a few feet behind the guy as they walk to the car and puts his eyes into scan mode, sweeping first the hotel lobby and then the street with a gaze that misses nothing. Or it wouldn't, if there was anything there to see. The Intercontinental is playing host to at least three other heads of state, all in town for the "High Level Segment" of the UN General Assembly, and the cops have sealed off the whole block with metal gates. Most exciting thing Clint picks up is a couple of bewildered pedestrians, trying to look nonchalant in the face of all those guys in suits and shades talking into their sleeves.
Clint is stuck in a suit too, standard S.H.I.E.L.D. issue. Only guy he's ever seen who rocks those things is that guy Coulson; as for himself, he finds it way too tight on his arms and shoulders and he's unexpectedly glad he won't need his bow today. The cheap shit it's made of would rip at the first draw. He's already decided to go arms-free when he's in the field, where Hill can't complain. Hell, if she gets to wear leathers when the mood takes her, he should too.
He gets to ride in the car with the Man Himself, which turns out to be a mixed blessing. But at least he sits in the front and doesn't have to look at the guy while he spits guttural invective at the Foreign Minister, who's stuck in the seat beside him and tries to say something his boss obviously doesn't want to hear. Evans gets to ride with the Number Two, a general with so many medals pinned to his chest that he has a hard time walking straight. (Belatedly it occurs to Clint to wonder why he gets to watch the top guy; presumably one more of Fury's tests.)
Eventually, and an interminable trip through Manhattan later they finally get into the UN building (POTUS is speaking first off, and the streets are a fucking parking lot, thanks to his motorcade). Clint is less than impressed with the security arrangements at the entrance, which seem to be mostly flash. The security dudes seem to have been picked to demonstrate UN member state diversity rather than for their competence; he could take each and every one of them out with a Kleenex before any of the diplomats could raise so much as a briefcase in self-defence.
But at least they seem to have the traffic regulation thing down – although the lobby is a zoo, his VIP gets in without slowing down. Bonus: as the personal protection officer for His Creepiness, Clint is allowed to walk around the metal detector. He takes a mental note: Seems like if you're a PPO and your job is to bring in a gun, you're the one guy they don't actually check out. He probably could have brought his bow.
An excruciating, speech-filled two hours later it's Mbuto's turn. Clint covers his back as he walks up to the front, then turns crisply and starts scanning the audience from his place beside the nicely exposed podium. Even though there's supposed to be all heads of state here, many of them left after POTUS and the lady from the European Union finished speaking, maybe to go to the can or for bilateral meetings, who knows. They filter back in with their hangers-on when their speaking slot comes up. Apparently Mbuto ranks only the C-team for many delegations; Canada and Australia are down to what looks like fresh-faced interns. Maybe they're making a point?
Based on what he saw at the entrance, Clint pays particular attention to the PPOs in the room, them being the ones most likely to have guns and him being big on mathematical concepts, like probability. Sure enough, he spots this guy in a suit, tall black dude standing off to the side, halfway up the steps, beside a row occupied apparently by a bunch of African states besides Mbuto's. (Who knew there were two Congos? Clint resolves quietly to do a bit more reading.)
Anyway, the guy is glaring at Mbuto intently and shakes his head almost compulsively as the Great Dictator starts a rant about non-interference in the internal affairs of his shit hole of a country, and how the Colonial West (huh? Been a few years …) should bugger out of how he's dealing with its people and natural resources - probably personally, Clint thinks, he doesn't sound like the kind of guy who'd share.
Halfway through the rant the guy on the steps clenches his jaw and reaches for his pocket. He pulls out an object that shines matte and metallic in the neon light of the assembly hall, and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to know what it is.
Time slows for the Hawk, as it always does in moments like this, with him moving at what's his normal speed.
Now presumably he should jump out in front of his client and take the hit, but he's not wearing Kevlar and he sure as fuck doesn't think Mbuto is worth the Kevin Costner approach. So instead he flies at him and knocks him aside, pulls his piece and, after a quick calculation of possible exit trajectories and ricochets, plants a bullet in the big guy's forehead. The gun that guy manages to fire goes off harmlessly into the ceiling. Well, almost harmlessly – a bit of neon fixture comes off and falls down somewhere around Vanuatu.
Chaos ensues, of course, but Clint doesn't stick around to watch it unfold. He grabs His Worshipfulness and half drags him off the stage, heading for the exit before anyone else has the time to think about running. The UN security guys are actually pretty quick to react and surprisingly helpful, and he manages to stash Mbuto in a small room and lock it down before comming S.H.I.E.L.D. for an update. The rest of Mbuto's people are nowhere in sight, but that's Evans' problem, not Clint's.
Debrief that evening is short and sweet. Mbuto has already left the country where "this heinous attack on his life was tolerated."
Apparently he left Clint a couple of diamonds and a thank you note, but the rules don't allow anyone to benefit personally from a government job, so Fury has already locked the baubles away for S.H.I.E.L.D.'s annual charity auction. Clint doesn't give a shit about the thank you note, especially when he learns that the guy he killed had family in the oil-rich part of Mbuto's fiefdom, who were driven out and slaughtered as they fled when his goons moved in. (Those tribes in Africa straddle borders; nothing is ever simple there.)
"Good job, agent," Fury says, and Hill gives him a long look that could mean anything but probably doesn't. Evans just stares at his fingernails, and is asked to stick around after Clint leaves.
He goes back to his little broom closet on Lex that night and has a very long shower, followed by Chinese takeout from the place downstairs and a couple beers on the water tower two roof tops over, listening to police sirens below.
Now here's the actual point where Clint first wonders what the fuck he is doing at S.H.I.E.L.D. Six weeks later, Fury gives him a new assignment, his first one overseas. Solo mission, plausible deniability and all that.
He is to take out President Norbert Mbuto.
Clint doesn't have a problem about this as such. Killing people is basically what he signed up for, let's be honest, and Mbuto struck him as being a good example of the sort the planet would be better off without. But what bothers him is the … well, inconsistent approach, and he decides it's worth questioning Fury.
"So, the guy's an asshole. I get that. Was pretty obvious from the crap he spouted at the UN. So why did S.H.I.E.L.D. get asked to protect him in the first place? Never did get an answer to that."
He glares pointedly at Hill, who is remarkably quiet, for her.
"Because we thought he was our asshole, Barton. Turns out he wasn't. Or isn't anymore."
Six weeks is a short time in politics, apparently. Clint doesn't buy it.
"What was it - the mass graves? The systematic rapes? Or because he's selling his oil to the Chinese now? You telling me that we didn't know any of that six weeks ago?"
Hill's head bops up at that, and she stares at Clint.
"You're not paid to think, Barton," she says. She wants to add something, but he snaps back before she can open her mouth again.
"Hey, so I watch the news. The washed up carnie can even read. Can the Council?"
"Just go do your job, Barton," Fury says, but his voice is kind of tired and Clint understands that he's not being dismissive; the Director may be just as pissed off as he is.
And so Hawkeye packs his bags, fretting quietly that he can't take his bow in the hand luggage but since it qualifies as sporting equipment, at least it will be in his bag at the other end (provided the airline doesn't lose it in Frankfurt). Someone will meet him in Brazzaville with the things you can't take one a plane at all.
Clint is welcomed by Mbuto's sycophants with open arms, the hero of New York and all that. Apparently they didn't get the memo about how they're no longer so popular back where he came from, or else his cover story - he's now freelance, selling security and protection - really was convincing. The up-front pay (in cash) is pretty fucking amazing for a third-world hell-hole; Mbuto sure has his priorities straight.
First time Clint gets close to the man himself is for an Independence Day speech (independence from what, exactly?) and he doesn't waste any time. The food in the place is disgusting – the pre-mission briefings stressed that meat is a no-go thanks to various parasites, and Clint is not a vegetarian – and even in the so-called presidential palace where he bunks the sanitary facilities suck. So, first chance to complete the op, he grabs.
It helps of course that Ex-Agent Barton The Security Guru set up the security arrangements himself, pro that he is. So his sightlines from the rooftop are excellent, and the timing and choreography of the event have his back to the sun; people won't be able to see let alone identify him. Targeting should always be this convenient.
Five arrows is what it takes, not because he needs to make sure, but because he figures he might as well take out the General and three other prize specimen from Mbuto's inner circle who are dancing attendance on the Big Man on the stage (he leaves the foreign minister, who seemed the most sensible of the lot, just grazes his cheek with an arrow so it doesn't look like the guy arranged the thing). And yes, Clint knows he's stepping over his brief, but what the hell. From what he's read, the whole lot is this close to indictment in The Hague anyway.
Getting out of town afterwards is easy; the jeep's ready, stashed away from the city centre and even though he's one of very few white guys around, Clint has no trouble making his way through the mix of chaos and celebration caused by his handiwork.
Halfway to his extraction point, though, there's gunfire and Clint stops to investigate from over a hill. A bunch of bandits or whatever – actually Mbuto's thugs, judging by bits of uniform – are attacking a small refugee camp full of unarmed, pathetic civilians and aid workers.
The thugs aren't used to dealing with a professional and getting rid of them is almost ridiculously simple, especially since Clint uses his bow and they have no sounds by which to track his location and movements. It's over in minutes and the ensuing silence is deafening. The survivors – many of them kids, with black eyes big as saucers – stare at Clint like he's some kind of avenging angel, with a mixture of revulsion and awe. He has no idea how he should feel about that, and so decides not to.
The closest thing to a person responsible for the camp is a doctor from some idealistic relief organization. She comes up to him and follows him around as he retrieves his arrows. (The reason Hawkeye always goes for the eyes, when he can, is that it's relatively easy to pull the arrows back out; fletching the suckers takes a lot of time.) The doc winces a bit at the squelching sound that happens when he does the twist-and-pull thing, but she's a physician in the middle of a civil war and has probably seen and heard worse. Clint gives her silent points for not retching, like he did the first couple of times he did this.
She doesn't bother asking him who he is – smart lady - but she does want him to know she understands what he's done for her and the people in the camp. He shrugs it off.
"Too little, too late," he says, but doesn't offer any further explanation.
"Well, thank you, anyway," she says with her cute French accent, and he thinks she probably means it, despite her evident ambivalence over the carnage he's leaving her with. The people she is protecting are still here, and that matters.
Clint looks at her, one professional to another.
"No, thank you."
Extraction point is only a couple of hundred miles away according to his GPS, so Clint just keeps some water and gives the doc everything he's got in the car by way of supplies, plus the cash he got from Mbuto for that short-lived security gig. Hill will have a bird, of course, but since he's not entirely sure he'll still have a job at all when he gets back that's the least of his worries.
The doctor and a couple of dozen of the kids watch him leave in silence, then turn to bury their dead.
Since he still has five minutes before he's supposed to meet Fury for the debrief, Clint heads to the coffee room and grabs a Nespresso capsule from Hill's private stash - marked "don't even think about it" – and mentally thanks whoever washed his "Archers Do It With A Recurve" mug while he was away. (The mug comes from an archery competition he entered after he left the army, with a vague notion of finding kindred spirits. The other competitors snickered at his unorthodox handhold and made patronizing comments about his double armguard, and stopped talking to him altogether when he … didn't miss. He'd tossed the medal in the trash on his way out - basket at a hundred feet, didn't even look - but the mug is cool, so he kept it.)
Careful not to slosh – no point wasting good java, thank goodness for a steady hand – he walks up to Fury's office, past the command center. Some of the monitors are set to CNN; seems like there's been little mourning for Mbuto, and the foreign minister is putting together an interim government, looking mediagenic with that dramatic bandage on his cheek and promising land reform. Clint isn't all that optimistic, but he raises his cup to the guy before walking into Fury's office.
Once he gets there he doesn't bother knocking, after all he's being asked to come at eleven hundred on the dot and that's what it is. Besides he expects to get fired, so who cares?
Hill and Coulson are there with the Boss; the three of them were obviously discussing something. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that the something is Clint, since the discussion comes to an abrupt halt when the archer walks in.
Fury does not seem amused. Then again, he never is, so who knows what he's thinking behind that patch. His face has basically one mode: grim. As always, he gets straight to the point.
"Agent Barton. Care to enlighten me exactly why you killed off Mbuto's entire junta, instead of just the guy you were sent to take out?"
"Just being proactive," he says. "Thought I'd save another six weeks of dithering and however many dead civilians would pile up in that time. Besides, I left the least objectionable one."
Hill is not impressed, and says something like, "You thought? We're not paying you to think." It's, like, the third time she's used this line and it's starting to really piss Clint off.
He takes another sip of her coffee and fixes her with his most intense stare but it's Fury he's really talking to. Slowly, and deliberately, he's dictating his quitting notice to the Boss.
"If you want a flying monkey, sir, I know a circus."
Coulson seems to be suppressing a smirk, although with that guy's poker face it's hard to tell.
Fury lets out a deep breath that seems to be incorporating an hours' worth of stored up opinions, but all he says is, "Coulson will be your handler from now on, Barton. May the Force be with you, Coulson. Dismissed, both of you."
Well. So much for getting fired.
And … well, shit. So he's got a handler now? Probation must be over, too. Four months early.
That seems to be it and there isn't really anything else to say, so Clint nods his acknowledgment and turns to leave. Coulson follows, his chair scraping on the metal floor as he gets up. On their way out they hear Hill's slightly indignant voice.
"That's it, sir? What about the reprimand?"
They don't hear the Director's response, since Coulson picks that precise moment to close the door behind them. He gives Clint a suspiciously bright look, like he's happy about something.
"Another coffee, Barton? We should have a chat."