Title: Time and Reason
Rating: T (language, violence, see warnings)
Fandom: Avengers (movieverse)
Characters: Clint, Pepper and company, Clint/Natasha and Tony/Pepper
Spoilers: Takes place after the movie.
Warnings: Dark Thoughts/Allusions to Child Abuse, Sexual Abuse and Suicide/Torture
Summary: Pepper is determined to get Clint to open up on their trip to LA. As usual, things do not go as planned. Follow-up to Distance. Part #6 of the Recruitment series.
Notes: I don't usually add so many warnings, but while I'm never really explicit in the things referenced, this is fairly dark with mature themes. There are dropped hints at physical and sexual abuse, as well as suicidal thoughts. There is also violence and torture and if any of that makes you uncomfortable, this is probably not the fic for you.
This is a middle piece to what has become a large series and so if it doesn't feel resolved, rest assured, I'm getting there. And hopefully not screwing up canon too much in the process.
Last bit, I swear... I wrote this as one long piece and had originally meant to break it up into about fourteen chapters, but I ended up not liking where it split so instead it is three very long parts that I will be posting daily. I think that it worked out rather well, especially given I start vacation on Friday and will be off the Internet for at least a week. So, happy pre-Thanksgiving!
"Time heals what reason cannot." - Seneca
"You keep looking out the window like you're expecting the wing to fall off."
"Sorry," Clint said, tearing his eyes away and giving Pepper a tight-lipped smile. "I'm not all that used to being in one of these."
"Well, it's not as big as the Quinjet," Pepper admitted as she scanned the small private jet, one of a few that Tony owned, that was currently taking them to Los Angeles.
"It's not the size," he returned, casting his eyes around the cabin as he spoke. "Although, it's not helping. It's more the fact that I don't know the pilot. And, usually when I fly, it's for a mission. I hadn't realized how much having that kept me from thinking about..."
"I didn't realize you were afraid of flying," Pepper countered. They were the only two present, but as soon as she'd said it she realized that it was probably not the right thing to say.
"I'm not," he returned emphatically. "I've never had any problems with heights or... Maybe it's just nerves. I'm nervous. This whole trip... I still can't believe Tony pulled it off. I keep waiting for something to happen. For a call to be made."
Clint had reluctantly agreed to go on this trip, and at first had only agreed in order to get Pepper to back down. He didn't need people worrying about him and he certainly didn't want them worrying about him. But, after a few hours of thinking it through, followed up by Tony approaching him with the hard sell, he realized it was a good idea. Clint did need to get away. Not just from Natasha, but from everyone. Things in the Tower were getting tense and he knew that he was partially to blame.
"I'm sorry it's really not going to be more fun," Pepper added.
"Don't worry about that," Clint said, meaning it.
"I need to spend a few days in the office, to catch up and show you around," Pepper said as she sorted her paperwork. "But feel free to hang out at the house or do... well, whatever you want. You don't have to spend all your time with me."
Clint nodded and kept his mouth shut. He'd guessed Pepper didn't have all the details on what his job with Stark Industries would be, but he thought by now Tony would have at least filled her in some. Maybe that was the point. Pepper had pointedly refused a bodyguard for years, according to Tony; maybe he never was going to tell her that that was part of Clint's new responsibilities and that, besides a chance to get away as she'd intended for him, it was a trial run for how they'd work together.
"Oh, and I know Tony didn't let you fly us out here and probably expressly forbid you from touching his cars..." she said, trailing off but managing to make her point.
"Yeah, Pepper... I didn't fly us here because I don't technically have a pilot's license."
"I do not," he repeated. "Don't have a driver's license either and I'm definitely not insured. SHIELD just trained me. As long as I passed their tests, there wasn't a problem. They weren't too concerned about me being street legal. Harder to track that way."
Pepper's face screwed up in a frown for a moment before she pulled out a fresh notepad and began to jot down notes.
"What about ID?" she asked, her eyes darting up at him as she spoke. "Social security number? Birth certificate? Weapons permit? Anything?"
"I've got plenty of ID," he said with a smile. "None of its mine, but I have enough. And I'm sure I have a social security number, but I have no idea what it is. Same goes with the birth certificate." Clint paused. "Are you writing this down?" Pepper nodded and motioned for him to continue. "No, Pepper. Don't. Don't... okay, first rule... none of the Avenger stuff should be in writing."
"If it's not in writing how am I supposed to remember that you're going to need a mountain of exemptions? This right here is like three or four months worth of waiting and filing forms, and that's with throwing around some influence and calling in favors. I'm going to need to hire a full time assistant just to take care of these things."
"No. You never put things down unless you absolutely have to," Clint argued. "It's dangerous. It's how people get caught. You can't leave a trail. There can be no traces left behind."
"I understand what you're saying," Pepper sighed, "but people leave traces. No matter how hard you try, there's always something and... Okay, I know this is going to be a transition for all of us. We're going to have to change some of what we do, but so are you. You're not going to be with SHIELD anymore. You're going to be a private citizen. People leave traces, Clint."
It was fleeting, very fleeting, but for a split second Pepper saw clear panic on Clint's face. Even after he'd mastered it, he couldn't find any words.
"How about we do this later?" Pepper said, ripping the sheet free and pushing it through the nearby shredder. "We can all sit down and discuss it back at the Tower. I'm pretty sure you aren't going to be the only one with these kinds of hang-ups."
Before he could help himself, Clint leaned over and double checked the shredder, just to be certain everything had gone through.
"Can I see that?" he asked, motioning for the notepad. Perplexed, Pepper complied. "Impressions," he continued, ripping off the top three sheets as he spoke and running them through the shredder, "when you write, you make them. Always take at least the three underneath. Five if the information was vital."
"What..." Pepper started to say, shaking her head and at a loss. There was no way she could see that anyone could get anything useful off of what she'd just written.
"You'd be surprised," Clint said, answering the unasked. "No one ever leaves their master plan lying around, because that's stupid. But what they do leave is the little bits and pieces, the unimportant information that gets tossed in the trash and then comes back to bite you. Not by itself, but added up. And it always adds up."
"This isn't going to be an easy adjustment for you, is it?"
"Pepper," he said, sounding sad even though he had a smile on his face, "if I could wake up normal tomorrow, I would."
"I didn't mean to say..."
"That I'm a paranoid mess?" he finished for her. "You don't have to. I know it. That's one of the reasons I want out. I mean, I guess at this point I'm always going to be a paranoid mess but... but this is it. This is my last crack at normal. Or, you know... as close to it as I'm going to get."
After that they settled into an easy silence. It wasn't easy at first, but it grew comfortable the more time passed. It wasn't long before the pilot was announcing their decent and they had landed safely at a private airport in southern California. They then exited the plane, after Pepper thanked the pilot, and made their way down the gangplank towards an already waiting car, as a bemused man looked on.
"Welcome home, Ms. Potts. How was the flight?"
"Long," she said with a smile, reaching up and hugging the man, who then effortlessly took her bag before opening the side door to hand her in. "It's good to see you."
"You, too," he answered, pausing as he did. "And...you," he said, uncertainly as he faced Clint. "You, who I know from that thing, and who I completely remember."
"No, you don't," Pepper laughed. "You've never met."
"We haven't?" the chauffer asked with a frown as he scrutinized Clint once again.
"No," Pepper confirmed. "Happy Hogan, this is Clint Barton. Tony asked that Clint come out and give us some ideas on how to improve security."
"Really?" Happy said as he shook his hand. "Which company do you work for? One of those consulting groups or..."
"SHIELD," Clint answered with a short nod.
They'd decided in advance how much they'd tell everyone, and had gone as far as telling Director Fury exactly that much; Clint was going to take a look at Stark Industries security. He'd easily seen the value in it and had not readily agreed, but was at least on board with the idea.
SHIELD seemed to be all the answer Happy needed. He gave Clint another look, put the bags in the back and then got behind the wheel without another word.
It wasn't until they were on the highway that Happy spoke up again.
"But you're not wearing a tie," he said, meeting Clint's eyes in the rearview mirror.
"I'm not that kind of agent," Clint answered.
"Oh," Happy said, getting it. "So, do you know -"
"Happy," Pepper interrupted quickly, fearing where this conversation could go. Happy only knew two SHIELD agents, Phil and Natasha. Pepper didn't think bringing either of them up at the moment was a good idea. "Did Jim call?"
"He did," Happy answered. "He wants to get together for dinner tonight. I took the liberty of saying yes on your behalf."
"Thank you," Pepper returned. "Tonight is perfect. Clint, I think you'll like Rhodey. Tony's been trying to get him out to New York to meet everyone but the timing has been awful."
"Oh," Happy said, sounding disappointed. "I thought... So, is.. are you going along on all of Pepper's appointments?"
"Most," Clint answered.
"And you're going to stay where exactly?" Happy asked, growing slightly uncomfortable. "Do I need to drop you off at a hotel or at some secret hideout? What's going on?" he finished, hoping to sound like he was joking, but not quite getting there.
"No, there's plenty of room at the house," Pepper said, already pouring over her notebook and only half paying attention; missing the inflection in Happy's voice that indicated his wariness at this proposal.
But Clint caught it, and it would have been funny, but he really didn't want Happy, or anyone else for that matter, thinking he was trying to start something up with Pepper behind Tony's back. Which he really, really was not doing.
He liked Pepper. She was warm and kind and unlike any other woman in his life, past or present, which wasn't to say she was dull or uninteresting. Pepper and her ability to stay normal amid the absolute chaos that surrounded her daily was an endless source of fascination and admiration to Clint. She was strong and persuasive and whole in ways he didn't realize people could be, given that everyone he knew had been broken and rebuilt a thousand times over in a thousand different ways. Pepper was a complete person, without apology or exception, and Clint envied that, but ultimately couldn't relate it back to himself. It's why he liked her, might even one day love her as friend, but never more.
And while he did appreciate Pepper's deflection of certain peoples' names, Clint found he was going to have to bring it up on his own anyhow.
"So," Clint said, looking casually out the window before catching Happy's attention again, "I'm not on the west coast much. How's the pizza?"
"The pizza?" Happy asked, clearly confused. "It's okay. Some good, some bad. Although, there was this one place... Hold up, I do know you. You. You worked at that place... I forget the name. A few years ago. Pep, you know the place. It opened up nearby and we started ordering from them for awhile and then they..."
"Suddenly went under," Clint provided with a smile.
"What?" Pepper asked, looking up as she caught up on the conversation.
"Yes," Happy said. "You were the delivery guy. You came by the house a few times. Holy crap."
"I also answered the phones. Another agent was behind the counter. We actually only delivered to Tony's place. Got the pizza from another shop around the corner."
"You're kidding," Pepper said disbelievingly.
"Nope," Clint laughed. "It was just preliminary. SHIELD wanted to keep a closer eye on Tony but weren't quite ready to commit to a full time agent. That was about..." he paused, pretending to mull it over, "six months before Nat went in."
"Oh, so you do know Natalie," Happy said.
"I do," Clint said, holding eye contact with the other man just long enough to get his point across, which was all he'd wanted. "But her name is Natasha; Agent Natasha Romanoff. She really doesn't like anyone calling her by anything less."
"Except for you, right?" Happy asked, still smiling.
Happy grinned, evidently more at ease with the idea of a man he didn't know staying over with Pepper, now that he thought that man was involved with a woman like Natasha. A woman who, not only would rip out Clint's throat for thinking about cheating on him, but who trusted him enough to head out for a weekend with someone else. Which was, again, all Clint wanted him to think. It didn't matter if it wasn't true.
However, it did have the unfortunate side effect of confusing Pepper, but she held her tongue.
Once at the house Happy brought in the bags and proceeded to the kitchen. Pepper lingered for a moment in the entry with Clint.
"Mind if I check things out?" he asked, eyes already shifting about the room.
"Make yourself at home," she said with a smile, before watching him leave and then joining Happy in the other room.
"Who is that guy?" Happy asked, nearly whispering, as soon as she arrived.
"I told you," Pepper answered, setting down her notebook and getting herself a water bottle from the refrigerator. "He's with SHIELD."
"Well, there's with SHIELD and then there is with SHIELD," Happy said, stressing his point with inflection. "Was he in New York when everything happened?"
"Right there," she sighed. "On the ground with... Happy, I really can't..."
"Sorry," he said sincerely, seeing that the trauma of the whole situation was still almost too much to talk about. "I just want to make sure you trust this guy and he's not just here because someone else wants him to be."
"Tony did ask him to come," she said, hoping to set Happy more at ease. "I asked him to come. And, Clint would probably tell me I shouldn't... but I do trust him. I do."
"That's all I needed to hear."
Pepper smiled and, as they waited for Clint to rejoin them, they discussed the upcoming schedule for the week. Pepper had two important meetings with clients and one presentation to make, scattered throughout the week, and had squeezed in a few dinners out with friends and a few other things.
"House okay?" she asked with a smile as Clint pushed open the kitchen door.
"I see the remodel went well," he answered with a brisk nod.
"Everything is more or less... back," she agreed.
Clint nodded sharply and Pepper could tell that something was bothering him. It would have to wait. She had a lot to do, she had to get situated and dialed back into the west coast operation. Her assistant was supposed to meet her in a few hours and she needed to be ready.
"Well, make yourself at home," Pepper said, repeating her early sentiment with a smile. "If there's something you want that isn't already in the fridge, just type it in there," she said, indicating the LED on the door. "Actually, that goes for anything you need. If you need a ride, Happy can take you anywhere you want to go. Otherwise, take whichever room you like and I will be in the office if you need me."
"Thanks," Clint said his eyes still shifting about the room.
Finding himself alone with Happy, and not wanting to make small talk, Clint excused himself in order to settle in and unpack. It was a very thin excuse, he had packed light, but he didn't want to lapse back into a conversation about Natasha.
Having picked out a room, the least ostentatious one he could find, Clint put away his things and had a seat on the bed.
That's when the full realization of the situation hit him.
Clint had nothing to do.
He was use to down time. He was use to waiting for a mission, on a mission, for a shot, for other people to be organized and ready, but this was different. This was just waiting for nothing.
Dissatisfied with that idea, Clint got up and decided to take another tour of the house. It was massive and quite frankly beautiful. Everything in it was perfect and polished and pristine, and it was hard to feel like he fit in to this environment given that he'd spent his entire life being none of those things.
It wasn't that he didn't see why Tony would want to live there, it was just not how he was use to living. It was the exact opposite of how he was use to living. Stark Tower had all the same look and feel, was just as immaculately designed; it just had a different energy. That probably had a lot to do with the fact that Tony had insisted that they pick out their own things for their own spaces; here, everything was Tony. And Clint liked Tony, against every instinct he had, Clint really did like Tony, but this was kind of insane.
Clint would never be comfortable here.
Unable to find a library, and having left his bow behind, against his will and something vague about Federal regulations, the only thing left to do was try to get in some exercise or else take a nap. He supposed he could have sought out Pepper or Happy, but he didn't want to bother either of them; they had actual jobs to perform. There was also the television, but that had always been a last resort for Clint. So between sleeping and running he ended up choosing to run. As much as he loved a good nap, he tried not to during the day unless he was on assignment. It was too much of a good thing.
"There you are," Happy called out, finding Clint on the treadmill about an hour into his routine. "Delivery guy just dropped this off," he said, holding up a package.
Clint stopped the machine and hopped down, toweling off along the way.
"Thanks," he mumbled as he took the box from the other man and turned it over a few times before finally just ripping it open.
"What the heck?" Happy asked, having stuck around out of curiosity, as he got a look at the contents. Clint laughed and shook his head. "Is that some kind of inside joke?" Happy pressed.
Clint picked up the accompanying note, which confirmed his suspicions about the sender, before taking out what had to be the smallest working bow and arrow set he'd ever seen. It had to be just under half a foot tall and was amazingly detailed.
"I think Tony is building this," Clint answered, handing the note off to Happy. "It says it's a prototype."
"Well, I hope the real thing is bigger," Happy replied as he skimmed over the words on the page.
Clint laughed but was soon struck by an idea.
If he knew anything about Tony, he was pretty certain that this bow didn't need to be any bigger.
Two hours later, as Pepper had reluctantly called it a day and sent home her assistant, she was hoping to find Clint relaxing in one part of the house or another but he wasn't in his room or by the pool or in the lounge. She was just starting to think he'd asked Happy to drive him somewhere, which considering Happy had also disappeared seemed very reasonable, when she heard a laugh. And then another. And then both men laughing... somewhere.
"Guys?" Pepper called out.
"We're in the dining room, Pepper," Happy answered.
Pepper pushed open the dining room door and stopped.
"What's going on here?" she asked, one part curious, the other part amused.
"Pepper, have you seen this guy shoot?" Happy asked, looking more than a little impressed. "It's completely insane."
"We were just..." Clint started to say, stopping because the next word out of his mouth was going to be 'playing' and he'd long since outgrown that kind of behavior. Or should have. Sort of.
"Where did you get that?" Pepper asked, pointing at the miniature bow and arrow set. "No, wait... I know the answer to that one. Tony sent it. But... he sent a whole target range, too?"
"That we had to improvise," Clint answered, still a little embarrassed.
"I hit that one," Happy pointed out. "It took twenty-three shots, but I hit that one. By myself. Give it a try."
Pepper's eyes glanced over the assortment of boxes and tiny targets they'd set up on the far side of the table. It was rather detailed, complete with cardboard buildings populated with tiny paper people, and she was beginning to wonder if this trip might be too much free time for Clint to handle.
"Oh, I don't know..."
"Here," Clint said, handing the tiny weapon off to her. "It's not hard. The tension is all wrong, but it still works."
"Um," Pepper hemmed, and Clint understood her hesitation.
"Let me show you," he said, taking it back.
Clint wasn't afraid to look a little silly, which he knew he must, but he wasn't lying. The little bow worked almost exactly like he imagined the full scale model would eventually, and he was able to fire it with his usual accuracy. There were a couple of things he'd like to ask Tony to modify, but so far he loved it.
Pepper watched and laughed when he'd done it and then gamely gave it a try herself.
Her attempt did not go so well, but she did manage to send the arrow at least partially down the table. They each took turns, with Clint helpfully pointing out ways they could improve their aim, and before long the doorbell rang.
"That's Jim," Pepper said warmly as she exited the room, excited to see her friend again.
Happy followed immediately after, leaving Clint to hang back a second more and reluctantly put the bow down. If it had been collapsible, he would have taken it with him in heartbeat.
Clint made it to the front room just as Pepper had finished greeting Lt Col James Rhodes. Clint didn't know him personally, but like everyone else in and around the Avenger Initiative, he had read his file so he felt like he did. Of course people were often different in person than they were on paper; that was a lesson he'd been continuously learning and relearning since joining SHIELD, but he had the feeling that would not apply to Jim Rhodes.
"Jim," Pepper said, smiling as she saw Clint enter the room, "this is Clint Barton. Clint, this is Jim Rhodes."
"Rhodey is just fine," the other man said, shaking his hand with a warm smile. "Nice to finally meet you. Tony's been talking my ear off about everyone at that Tower of his."
"Well, I hope you only believe half of it."
"With Tony that's all you can believe," Rhodey replied with a laugh.
Rhodey had come prepared, with dinner, and the four of them sat down to a comfortable meal in the front room. Clint offered to dismantle the make-shift range, but Pepper wouldn't allow it. Pepper and Rhodey did most of the talking, which wasn't surprising since they had the most catching up to do. Happy interjected here and there with a story of his own, but for his part Clint was satisfied to listen. Every so often the conversation would shift to something he had an interest in but he assumed that was more out of politeness than any real interest.
"Excuse me, gentlemen," Pepper said, getting to her feet and picking up a few spare plates. "As excellent as this meal was I think we need something sweet."
"There's carrot cake in the fridge," Happy said, starting to stand.
"Perfect," Pepper said, waving for him to stay as she moved out of the room. "I'll just be a second."
It was an awkward wait for the first few minutes.
"I'm going to give Pepper a hand," Happy said, more or less escaping the scene and creating more awkwardness in his wake.
"Tony told you everything, didn't he?" Clint asked quietly after another long pause.
"I'm that easy to read?"
"No, Tony's just that predictable," Clint returned and Rhodey laughed, shaking his head. "I guess I should just be happy he didn't issue a press release."
"Tony's a big believer in transparency," Rhodey said, hoping that explained it well enough. It should. "Plus, he's excited."
"About having me onboard or about stealing a SHIELD agent?"
"Don't be offended, but I think it's that second one."
Clint wasn't offended. He even laughed. After that, after the open secret was out there, the tension in the room lessened.
"Also," Rhodey continued, dragging the word out, "I think Tony thought I needed an explanation since... well, since he essentially offered you my job."
The surprise must have clearly shown on Clint's face, because the other man laughed.
"He's giving me your job?" Clint asked once he had straightened it all out in his head. "Tony never said he had someone else lined up for this or I'd..."
"Don't worry about it," Rhodey stressed, hoping to sound sincere. "It's an eventually for me. I'm not retiring yet. I'm still pretty happy where I'm at. And, when the time comes, I think Tony's new plan will be me on the west coast and you on the east. So, don't get any crazy ideas about turning him down. He doesn't take no very well... or really, at all. Besides, as I understand it, you could use a change of profession."
"That's true," Clint admitted.
"How does that even work?" the other man asked him. "How do you leave SHIELD? I'll admit, I don't know a lot about the organization, but I was under the impression it was a lifelong gig."
"I don't know," he said. "There have been agents who've gone rogue. Agents who've turned. Men who've died..." Clint added quieter, "but, as far as I know no one's just up and left SHIELD on their own. I really don't know what they'll do to me."
"Don't know or don't care?"
Clint shrugged and took another drink from his glass, not wanting to admit that he'd reached the point where he didn't care. He'd stopped caring sometime after New York. He just wanted it to be done. All of it.
Rhodey gave him a scrutinizing look and Clint knew what he was thinking.
He was thinking the same thing Pepper had been thinking, that there was something wrong with him.
Clint also didn't want to admit that they might be right.
"We've got cake," Happy said brightly, rejoining them in the front room with several plates, forks and a carving knife in his hands.
Pepper was right behind him carrying a platter with the promised treat, setting it down lightly and, with an assist from Happy, doling pieces for each of them. Clint took the offered plate, more to have something to do with his hands than out of actual hunger. He'd stopped craving sweets sometime around his second year at the circus and never really regained the taste for them. For a time, the thought of anything resembling dessert actually turned his stomach; the very idea of cotton candy still did. But, to be polite, he picked at the offering and kept his mouth shut.
Clint was done talking for the night.
He stayed up and listened as everyone talked. He laughed when it was appropriate to do so but never really joined in, going so far as to excuse himself to wash the dishes as soon as he could.
Pepper had objected to that, but Clint wouldn't hear her as he was determined to help out in some way or another.
After Rhodey left for the night, a very late night, and Happy and Pepper retreated to their separate rooms, Clint took his customary walk around the property to ensure everything was locked and in place. It was an old habit of his that predated even his time at SHIELD. He'd only recently stopped pacing the Tower at night, confident enough in the doors and locks to sleep soundly without doing so, but this place was just too new to ignore.
Clint had never felt safe anywhere unless he physically checked a lock for himself or someone he trusted did so for him.
Growing up, the best he sometimes had was just a door and in the Barton house, a door simply never stood a chance, not when his father had been drinking.
After that it was foster home after foster home, and if he was lucky, a simple pop-lock or better, Barney at his side. But even those locks were easy to get around and his brother was not always there. Clint had woken up too many nights with someone hovering over him, wanting things he was too young to fully comprehend.
Finally he'd ended up at the circus, sleeping where he could and when he could. Learning to love high places that kept him out of reach and out of trouble. Barney had laughed and called him a coward; said he needed to learn to fight back. Jacques, the knife-thrower, had called him smart. He'd said that a man knew how to pick his battles and that the most important thing to know was which ones couldn't be won.
Back in the room he'd picked out for himself, Clint stripped down to his underwear and pulled on a pair of sweatpants to sleep in, but sleep wouldn't come easy. It never did in a new place. Eventually he did doze off only to find himself wide awake again, three hours later at four in the morning.
He'd thought he'd heard a noise.
Holding perfectly still and shutting his eyes, Clint concentrated on listening and after a full two minutes of silence, he heard it: someone was outside the house.
Not bothering with a shirt or shoes, Clint moved as fast as he dared to go so as not to make any unnecessary sound. He had no weapon, nothing to protect himself or anyone inside the mansion with, so he'd have to use the only advantage he had, surprise.
Clint slid out the back door and, it took a minute, but he managed to slip out the side gate and began to skirt the fencing, looking for whoever might be out on the property without authorization. Tony's house was literally on a cliff, but had two large side yards that provided ample coverage and a walkway down to the beach. It was a lot of ground to canvas. Just as he thought he was getting somewhere, when he sensed he was closing in on whoever it was, a sharp noise to his right startled him and brought about the realization that there was not one, but two intruders.
The first person, the only one Clint had actually known about, bolted and he could hear the second person heading down towards the beach. Clint hadn't been far from the first person, he'd evidentially been lying in the brush, but at sound, maybe it was a signal even, the man grabbed his bag and made a break for it. Clint gave chase since he'd been the closest, but it was a futile effort. He didn't have shoes, in hindsight a stupid mistake, and the terrain was rough and unfamiliar. By the time Clint rounded the last corner, the guy was back in his car and tearing down the drive.
Clint ended up walking the length of the road and back again, just to be certain, and was surprised to find Pepper waiting in the doorway upon his return.
"What are you doing?" she asked, wrapped in her robe and looking startled.
"Some guy was outside," he answered, pointing vaguely to the fence, realizing that both intruders were long gone. "Didn't get his plate number. Do you have a flashlight?"
"In case he left something behind," Clint answered.
"Sure," Pepper said, shaking her head and clearly confused by his behavior.
She left him for a minute, standing in the doorway, and quickly returned with the flashlight he'd requested.
Clint set off immediately with Pepper right no his heels.
"Maybe you should -" he started to say, but her look cut him short.
"What do you think he wanted?" she asked as they both came to a halt.
"I'm not sure," Clint said, leaning down and checking over the place the man had been.
From there, he'd had a pretty clear view of the house, but not of the entrances or exits. Only the windows. If the man had been looking for a way in, he was scouting in the wrong location.
"Let's get inside," Clint finally said, and Pepper didn't disagree. They walked back in silence, until, "What are you doing up? I didn't wake you, did I?"
"No," Pepper smiled. "I'm still on east coast time. I was already awake when I heard the car."
"But you didn't hear anyone outside? Near the house?"
"No," she said, shaking her head as she opened and headed to the kitchen to start a pot of coffee.
Clint sighed and shook his head. He hadn't imagined the guy in the car, that had definitely happened, but he was beginning to doubt the presence of a second man. That may have just been a piece of a leftover dream or an animal or any other number of things.
"What are your plans for today?" Pepper asked, taking down a couple of mugs from the cabinet and hoping to draw him out of his thoughts. "You're welcome to hang out here. Or the beach is very nice and private, if you prefer. If you don't have a suit -"
"I don't swim," Clint said, shaking his head abruptly.
"Sorry," she grimaced. "I forgot. You probably don't shop much either."
"Not a lot," he admitted with a laugh. "I was actually thinking of just going with you to Stark Industries, if you don't mind. I'd like to get a look at the place."
Pepper turned her back to him briefly to fill up the mugs, so he missed her reaction, but she sounded like herself, maybe a little disappointed, when she said, "Yeah. That's fine. If that's what you want."
"If it's a problem... " he started to say, but she met him again with a smile.
"I just want you to have fun," she shrugged. "This was supposed to be a vacation for you. Don't get me wrong, I love my job, but it's hardly what I'd call exciting."
"I promise you that finding holes in Tony's security is fun for me."
"All right," she said, giving in, "but it's really going to be just one meeting after another for me. You might want to take a book."
"Yeah," he said with a nod. "Hey, speaking of that... where are the books in this place?"
"Ugh," Clint replied. "Never mind. I hate those e-reader things."
"There's a bookstore near the office," Pepper suggested. "We can swing by on the way in."
"How's nine o'clock?"
"Whenever you want," Clint answered. "I'll be ready."
Pepper flashed him another smile before taking her mug with her out of the room.
True to his word, and after a shower, shave and quick bite to eat, Clint was ready and waiting for Pepper when it came time for Happy to take her to the office.
"Tell me the truth," Pepper said as they walked through the building. "You've never been here before?"
"Promise you won't be mad?"
"I won't be... if you tell me the truth."
"I have," Clint admitted with a sheepish grin. "I helped scope out Stark Industries and Tony's place just before SHIELD decided to send in Natasha and... and the rest of the team."
Pepper nodded, and mentally noted the absence of Phil's name, but let it pass. She had bigger fish to fry, for the moment.
"During your days as a pizza guy?"
"Yes," he laughed, still sounding a little embarrassed, He dropped his head, in truth, because it was hard to admit to, even if he had been doing his job, but also out of habit. He habitually dropped his head in public places so that no one could get a good look at him. Clint knew how to look without staring; to see without being seen.
"Did you scope out my place?" she asked as they stepped onto the elevator.
Clint was about to confess, but before he could several more people stepped onboard, most giving Pepper a friendly hello or a firm nod. Some did both.
"Ms. Potts?" a young lady asked, after they were nearly alone again, evidently deciding that Clint wasn't exiting any time soon. "If you have a moment today, I'd like to go over the desalinization plans with you for final approval."
"Isn't Ian Summers in charge of that?" Pepper asked.
"Yes, but he isn't comfortable proceeding until you've signed off on it," she answered, her eyes darting from Pepper, to the tablet in her hands, to the floor again without ever once looking in Clint's direction. She seemed nervous, but she was talking to her boss. "It will only take a few minutes. Or I can send you the files if you like but... he asked for your signature."
"No, that's fine," Pepper said good naturedly. "Ride up with us and we'll go over them now."
Her eyes finally shifted over to Clint, as Pepper had motioned his way, and she gave him a small smile. If he'd been a nicer person, he'd have returned it. But honestly, Clint didn't do nice very well. Pepper, sensing the sudden unease, frowned at him and for a moment Clint felt bad. Pepper could do that to a person. It was her gift.
"Ignore him, Ms. Moore," Pepper said with an unaffected laugh. "Stern is his default expression."
Clint didn't want to, but he laughed as well. And Ms. Moore, tried another weak smile, but didn't aim it at Clint this time.
Good as her word, the meeting with Ms. Moore only took a few minutes, and as soon as she'd left, Pepper turned to Clint, hands on hips, shaking her head.
"I'm only going to say this once," she began.
"I wasn't trying to scare anyone," he said defensively before she could get any further.
"Then don't," she finished. "Don't do that here. I won't let you back in if that happens again."
"I'm sorry, okay? I didn't mean to scare the staff," he said, hands up and as apologetic as he could be. "I'll refrain from making eye contact the rest of my stay and I will sit," he continued, looking around and finally spotting an out of the way chair, "right there," he pointed for emphasis, "out of your way."
"I'll just read my book."
"Even better," Pepper laughed, as she sat down behind her desk.
"You won't know I'm here."
"No one had better know you're here."
"You're the boss," Clint finished, sitting down and making a show of opening his brand new book.
"Mm-hmm," Pepper said with a nod, and for some reason, that didn't sit right with him, but he let it pass.
The day went by rather quickly, even if Clint ended up hating the book he picked up and began randomly skimming through Stark Industries network via a tablet Pepper lent him before taking a walk around the building to get a firsthand look at their security measures. Later Pepper's assistant had brought them lunch, which he hardly touched, and by the end of the day he felt like he'd been on assignment. Maybe not a successful one, Clint accomplished nothing, but sitting still and waiting for other people was comfortable ground for him. After work Pepper had Happy swing by a local restaurant for dinner, Thai this time, and the three of them ate back at the mansion and that was that. Pepper retired early, having a lot of work still to go over, so while Happy hung out in the den, Clint took a run on the beach and then decided to call it a night himself.
The next day happened in almost the exact same way, minus the early morning wake up.
They had breakfast at the mansion, grabbed a new book for Clint on the way to the office, and made it to Stark Industries in time for the first of Pepper's many meetings of the day.
While Pepper was off attending her third meeting, this one in the conference room nearby which Clint could see clearly from his vantage spot, Sandra, the assistant whose name Clint finally learned, stepped inside the office.
"Excuse me, sir," she said, crossing the room and motioning him over to the computer on Pepper's desk. "Mr. Stark would like to speak to you."
"Thanks," Clint said, reluctantly taking a seat and seeing Tony's already smiling face on the screen.
"Clint," Tony said loudly. "How's LA? How's everyone treating you? Have you done anything fun or reckless or... both? And if not, why not?"
"LA is... fine. Warm? Everyone's been fine. Happy's a good guy."
"Everyone loves Happy."
"Rhodey, too. Although, Tony... why didn't you tell me about this being his job? That's not..."
"Stop it," Tony said sharply. "Don't worry about that. I'll worry about that. Besides, I think, when the time comes, I can afford two of you. Trust me. I'm not planning on paying either of you very much."
"Okay," Clint sighed.
"How's the secret mission going?" Tony asked, dropping his eyes momentarily and if Clint didn't know better, it sounded as if he was a little embarrassed.
"You mean the one where I follow your girlfriend around like a watchdog and pretend I just like sitting in the corner all day?"
"Yeah, that's the one."
"It's all right," Clint answered with a shrug.
"She doesn't suspect anything..."
"I don't think she does," Clint returned uncertainly. "She hasn't said anything. Not really. I think she's a little disappointed I'm not out... what'd you say? Having fun and being reckless."
"But she hasn't said anything," Tony confirmed.
"Good," Tony said, looking relieved. "That's good. So... nothing else happening? Nothing exciting? Interesting? Have you taken any pre-dawn strolls as of late? Anything like that?"
"Pepper told you."
"Yes and no," Tony said with a smirk. "She said you're hearing noises, not sleeping, not eating. The usual."
"There was a guy outside your place, Tony," Clint said firmly. "I'm not imagining things. I'm not making this up. I know you both think I'm paranoid or depressed -"
"I'm leaning towards PTSD."
"Whatever," Clint said through gritted teeth. "But she heard the car, same as I did."
"Oh, no. I know there was a car. And a guy," Tony said, grinning wickedly as Clint continued to become more and more confused. "Don't you want to know how I know?"
"Sure. Tell me, Tony. How do you know?"
"You're no fun," the other man sighed and shook his head. "Here," he said, pulling up a few pictures on the monitor for Clint to see.
Clint leaned in and muttered, "What the hell?"
"You've officially arrived, my friend," Tony said cheerfully. "The paparazzi have found you out."
"Oh, no," Clint said, shaking his head and leaning in closer to the monitor for a better look at the poor quality pictures displayed. "No. No, this is not good, Tony. This is not good at all."
"You're telling me," Tony laughed. "Apparently, I've been dumped."
"This isn't a joke."
"No, it isn't," Tony returned, suddenly serious. "I'm appalled. And heartbroken. How could the two of you? And in my own house."
Clint continued to shake his head, staring at the pictures. They weren't great, but it was clearly him in most of the shots, taken near the front steps of the mansion. Pepper featured in a few of them as well, and while there was nothing damning about their demeanor, other than the fact that Clint was half dressed and Pepper was in a robe, Clint felt horrible.
The last time he'd had his picture taken was for his SHIELD security badge.
SHIELD, with Tony's help, had even managed to keep his and Natasha's pictures and names out of the accounts of what had happened in New York. Given what they do, the things they'd done, it was better if they kept a low profile. The better part of Clint's life had been about keeping a low profile.
This was a disaster.
"Tony," Clint said, when he finally found his voice again.
"Relax," Tony said, letting him off the hook. "They're not published. A guy called me up, told me about all about Pepper's little rendezvous, and offered to sell them to me. So, naturally, I thanked him profusely, told him I would consider his offer and then hacked into his computer remotely, stole the pics for myself and destroyed his hard drive in the process."
"Are you trying to give me a heart attack?" Clint asked, not appreciating Tony's humor at all in this situation. "This is not a joke. That's not funny."
"What's not funny?" Pepper asked, having just come back into the room.
"Pepper, love," Tony called out, smiling at her when her face finally came into frame. "Why? Why are you doing this to me?"
Pepper looked at Clint, confused. Clint just shook his head, stood up and flipped off the monitor before walking away.
"What's happening?" Pepper asked.
"Barton had his first taste of fame," Tony laughed, still amused even if Clint was not. "The guy outside the house the other night, he had a friend. With a camera. They seem to think there's something happening there."
"Oh my God," Pepper said, half horrified and half amused, as she got a good look at the photos. "How ridiculous," she laughed. "Am I sleeping with Happy, too?"
"Not this week," Tony returned.
"I'm glad the two of you think this is funny," Clint sighed, back in his chair by the door and in Pepper's opinion, looking pale.
"Tony, we'll call you back," Pepper said, disconnecting the line before he had a chance to respond. She watched Clint for a few seconds as he sat there, rubbing his hands over his eyes, before finally crossing the room and sitting in the chair beside his own. "What's bothering you the most about this? It can't just be the pictures. You know Tony was joking and that sometimes his jokes..."
"I'm not worried about his jokes. I know he wasn't serious," Clint said, taking a deep breath as he tried to shake off the sensation of being exposed and vulnerable. "I was thinking... I was thinking I could have killed that guy. If I'd had a weapon. If I'd caught him. I could have killed him and for what? Doing his job? Granted," Clint continued, "his job sucks but.. I don't... the first place my mind went when I saw him was that he was a threat. Not an annoyance or a nuisance, but a threat that had to be neutralized."
"It's... it's going to be an adjustment," Pepper said quietly.
"I don't think I can do this."
Pepper sat there for a minute, watching as he slowly pieced himself back together. Second by second, Clint looked a little better; breathed a little easier. Until, she finally thought he was, not good, but better.
"Let's get out of here," Pepper said, touching him on the shoulder. "Let's call it a day. How about the two of us go out? Do you like movies? We can go get a drink somewhere. Anywhere. Whatever you want to do, Clint. It's completely your call."
"Pepper, I don't..."
"Don't what? Have fun?"
"Not really," Clint said with a half-laugh. He was at the point where he had to laugh.
"We're going out," Pepper said, getting to her feet and looking determined. "Come on. Up. I know just the place."
Half an hour later, Happy dropped the two of them off at the end of a crowded closed off street. There were restaurants, shops, a few bars and clubs, and a band playing in the square at the very center, and the place was packed with people of all sorts. Some with families. Some on dates. Some having just gotten off of work. A few people Clint thought he even recognized from Stark Industries.
"Do you like sushi?" she asked, looping her arm through his and pulling him towards her favorite restaurant.
"I like sake," he answered and she grinned.
Very quickly they found themselves at a table near the back. Neither of them said a word to one another until after they'd ordered and both taken a few sips from their drinks.
"Okay," Pepper said, nodding her head and fixing him with a firm, stern look. "Spill. We're talking. Right now. Just... just get it out. Let's go."
"You can't make me talk to you."
"Yes, I can."
"No, Pepper," Clint said with a laugh that was maybe a little dismissive. "You can't. I don't want to talk."
"But you need to."
"Yes," Pepper argued. "You need to talk. You do. I don't care what it's about. I'm not going to judge you. I'm not going to tell anyone. And I know this is a novel approach, but maybe if you actually say what you're thinking and feeling, if you express yourself in some way that isn't silent and broody, you might actually feel better."
"See... no," Clint said, shaking his head. "You say that but I know how you and Tony are. You may not mean to tell him, but you will. He's the mouth and you're the ears of your relationship and... and everything I say to you, you say to him and then..."
"I would never betray a confidence. If you say this is between us, than it is. Completely."
"But..." he egged on, knowing it wasn't as easy as that.
Pepper took a deep breath and looked him in the eyes.
"But," she finally said, "if you tell me you want to harm yourself... I'd have to get you help."
"Christ," he said, dropping his chin to his chest, "do you think I'm that bad? That I'm that..."
"You tell me."
"Then talk to me."
"What do you want me to say?" he asked, exasperated by her persistence. "I'm... I'm a little lost, okay? I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do because... because no one will tell me what I should be doing. I've..." Clint stopped and took another sip from his drink. "I've spent my whole life listening to other people telling me how to live it. There was Barney, then there was Buck. SHIELD. Hell, Pepper," he said, letting out a biter laugh, "the last time I was left to my own devices I... I practically starved to death and got myself arrested. I'm a mess. I'm a complete mess. I don't know how to function on my own without someone telling me what to do."
"So, what are you saying?"
"That... maybe I shouldn't leave SHIELD. It's safer, for me and for everyone around me. Maybe it's too late and..."
"Because of the guy outside of the mansion?"
"Not just him."
"Is it Natasha?" Pepper asked kindly.
"No. No, she's... she's not going to care if I stay or go. That's got nothing to do with us, what there is of us," he said, unconsciously rubbing the back of his neck as he cast about the room for anything other than Pepper to look at. "She's made her choice and will want me to make my own."
"I thought you had."
"I did too but... It's a big change. Bigger than I thought it would be and everything just keeps changing and changing and..." Clint stopped again, and against his better judgment, finished his sake and poured another. "I keep doubting. I keep second guessing myself about everything. I've always worried... I grew up knowing I was good for nothing, and the one thing I can do... That's the only use I have. That's all I have to offer, so why do I keep fighting it? Why not embrace it? Maybe I belong in SHIELD doing their dirty... doing the work that has to be done by someone. Why not me? I'm not any better than that."
"That isn't true," Pepper said earnestly.
"It is true, Pepper," Clint said, shaking his head. "You're sweet to say it isn't, but like I've said, you don't really know me. Besides, it was the plan. It was what I was meant for."
"You were what?" she asked, having gotten lost in his train of thought.
Clint sat there for a moment, silent as the waiter brought them their orders. Neither of them moved. Neither of them touched their plates. Pepper continued to patiently wait. She didn't stare, but she didn't avoid his gaze either.
Finally, Clint cleared his throat.
"It was what I was shown," he said evenly.
"I'm not sure I understand."
"The Tesseract," Clint said quietly once he'd checked the room again to be certain no one was paying them too much attention. "It... it showed us things. Made things... clear. For me it was not only what I needed to do, but what I was supposed to do." Pepper sat back and fixed him with as neutral of an expression as she could muster, but the way he was talking was frightening and Clint seemed to know that. It almost seemed to scare him as well. "And I was supposed to kill," he continued after a pause. "It's what I'm meant for. I was supposed to get to the Helicarrier, and I did. I was supposed to ground it, and I almost did. And then, after I made sure... after I checked on... on him, after I made certain he'd escaped as planned, I was supposed to go back and do what I'd been shown. Do what I was made for," he repeated. "And die. When I was done, when my usefulness ran out, I was supposed to die." Pepper couldn't respond. She brought her napkin up to her eyes and discreetly wiped them, having no idea what to say. "It was like knowing yourself," Clint continued after another longer pause. "It was like seeing perfectly. I saw myself, Pepper."
"First," Pepper said after clearing her throat, and a good solid minute or two had passed allowing them both to regain some composure, "that wasn't you. That... that thing didn't really know you. It used you. He," she said, not the only one of them unable to say the name, "used you. He'd have done anything, he did do everything he could do to... to twist you to his needs. That wasn't real. It wasn't you."
"You say that. Natasha says that. Everyone... everyone says that but," he answered, shaking his head skeptically, "none of you really know what it was like on the inside. Things had never been clearer than they were then. Never."
"You almost sound like you miss it."
"I miss the certainty of it," Clint admitted after a brief hesitation. "The work I do for SHIELD is pretty straightforward. I'm given a target. Sometimes a team. Sometimes it's just me. Whatever I need, I get, to get the job done, but ultimately I have to decide. Ultimately I make the decision on who lives and who dies, because I'm taking the shot." He paused as if thinking over exactly how to say what he needed to say. How to best be understood. "It's very rarely easy," he decided on. "There have been a few times when I knew, without a second thought, that I was doing not only the right thing, but the only thing. People are rarely just good or evil, right or wrong, and being responsible... it's hard and I've made mistakes."
"I'm not going to pretend to know exactly the kind of... I have an idea of what SHIELD does. The kinds of people they handle. But, Clint, you're proving my point. You're not some bloodthirsty killer who does this for fun. You're doing a job, a hard job, and it's taken a toll."
"I'm not saying I am or that it hasn't," Clint agreed. "I know it has. I guess what I'm trying to explain is that while I was... when I was being controlled, there wasn't any reason to hesitate. There was no second guesses. There was just what needed to be done. It was... peaceful. He was right about that. There was no struggle. No conflict. No anything. Just acceptance. I'd never accepted who I was until..."
"And it's gone now," she added quietly.
"And I'm left..." he agreed. "Knowing what I am and hating it."
Neither of them knew what to say after that so instead they ate their meals in an uneasy silence.