Notes: Let me stress again the warnings. Thank everyone for reading this and dropping reviews and favorite-ing/following (which are love) and say that this isn't the end of this series. I have plans. Evil, evil plans. Also... I hope I got this right.
Pepper stood frozen for several minutes uncertain what she could or should do when the nearest monitor beeped to life and the VTC started itself remotely.
"Pepper," Tony's voice called out, but she was still in shock. "Honey," he called, and she finally turned and saw, not just Tony, but Steve, Natasha and Agent Maria Hill on the screen. "Are you okay? Where's Barton?"
"I'm fine," she breathed, his words finally spurring her into action. "I'm... Clint got your call," she said, indicating Maria, "and then he... he brought me here and went to check the rest of the house. He said if he didn't come back..."
"Goddamn it," Natasha snapped, whipping around on Maria. "We shouldn't have waited. You should have just told him to get out of there. Or lock himself in. You should have just said who was coming."
"They were monitoring the call," Maria said, sounding exasperated, as if they'd been having this conversation for hours. "If I tried, they'd have cut the comm and gone in and probably taken them both. And then they'd have come for you and for me and probably Fury as well. We weren't supposed to know. We're still not supposed to know."
"And we don't know if they've picked him up," Steve said, trying to lessen the tension.
"Then where is he?" Natasha asked.
"They have him," Pepper said, shaking her head. She was trying desperately not to panic, but it was a close thing. "I called 911 like Clint told me to and they intercepted it. Whoever... Who are we talking about? I don't understand. A man told me to tell Director Fury but he didn't say who he was. He said he'd know. What is going on?"
Pepper looked to Tony for answers, but for the first time he didn't seem to have any. Steve looked equally as lost, like he'd only been given part of the information.
"I ran the tags like Barton asked," Maria said, taking a deep breath and steadying her nerves, "and just to be thorough, I ran the names I got back through a SHIELD outpost near LA. When I got into their network, I ran across Barton's name on a watch list. An active watch list that I probably wasn't supposed to see. Since he's been there, he's been tailed."
"Why is SHIELD watching their own agents?" Pepper asked, and Tony gave her a smile that all but told her that he'd asked the exact same thing.
"SHIELD watches everyone," Maria stressed, and it occurred to Pepper that that was the reason she was using Stark Tech instead of her own. "And, given events... I know Barton's not a threat. You know that. We all know that but... SHIELD has a Counter Espionage unit based on the west coast. Maybe it's all because of what happened in New York and they didn't feel like they got a proper debrief or maybe they really think they have something solid on him... I don't know. Technically, Barton was assigned to me after... They should have informed me before making a move."
"So, what does this mean? Do they think he's a traitor?" Pepper asked carefully. She didn't know if Clint wanting to leave SHIELD was enough to qualify him as one in their eyes, but she imagined it did. She also imagined Maria was not privy to that information at all, so they'd all have to tread carefully.
"Something like that," Maria answered. "I didn't read the whole file. They shut me out of it pretty quickly, but they think they have evidence that he's working for someone else now so..."
"Wait," Pepper said. "They just snatched him up and arrested him? Can they do that? Is that what happened? Is he being detained somewhere? And really, they couldn't come to the door? They couldn't just ask him to come in?"
"No," Natasha said, shaking her head solemnly. "That's not what's happening."
"Then..." Pepper started, but now everyone looking back at her had the same worried look.
"They took him in for interrogation," Maria finished. "It's the only explanation for not waiting to notify his chain of command."
"Interrogation," Pepper repeated slowly, and she understood.
They wouldn't just be talking.
"Why are we still standing here talking about this?" Natasha asked. The tight constraint she usually had to her voice was gone. "This isn't up for debate. We go, right now, and get him back."
"I'm in," Tony said readily.
"We can't do that," Maria objected.
"The hell I can't," Natasha returned.
"We aren't even supposed to know," Maria tried, again, to explain. "Are you not understanding what I mean by that? If they find out we've interfered or intercepted their calls, we'll be dragged in next."
"You just said they were supposed to notify you first," Tony bit back at her.
"And they didn't so they must suspect someone else close to Barton," Maria continued to explain, her voice steady but growing strained. "That's either Romanoff, myself or Fury."
"So we leave Clint to it?" Natasha fired back at her.
"No," Steve said, his own voice firm and resolute. "We don't. But what Agent Hill is saying is that if we rush in, before being officially notified, they'll not only suspect him more, but all of us as well. They'll think we're all involved and not only will we not be of any help to Clint, but we'll be left explaining why we were monitoring a SHIELD agency."
"Thank you," Maria sighed, relieved someone finally understood her viewpoint.
"And what if they don't notify us?" Tony asked.
"They have to," Maria answered, but she didn't sound as certain as she once had. "It's protocol. They can bring him in, they shouldn't, but they can. Anything more, they have to have approval."
"And if Fury has already approved it?" Natasha asked, knowing Maria would have that answer.
"He wouldn't," she answered, once more completely confident. "For God's sakes, Barton nearly crashed the Helicarrier and Director Fury still fought to keep him around. Have some faith. He knows which side Barton's on."
"I can't just sit here and wait," Natasha said, crossing her arms and looking on the verge of hitting someone or something.
"We don't have any choice," Maria said, but before Natasha could rebut that theory, Maria's phone rang. She gave the ID a strange look before answering, "Hill."
"Agent Hill," they all heard, looking at the monitor and surprised to see Pepper with her phone to her ear. "It's Pepper Potts. We've met a few times in New York."
"Yes, Ms. Potts," Maria said, completely normal, but the look she shot Pepper over the monitor clearly said, 'what the hell is going on?'.
"I wasn't sure who to call," Pepper continued, ignoring the VTC altogether now and determined to do this right. "Something strange has happened. I'm sure you know Agent Barton is here in LA with me, Director Fury approved his coming along on my trip to give Stark Industries some security pointers."
They needed cause to act; Pepper was going to give them cause to act.
"Yes, I was briefed on that," Maria answered, understanding what was happening. "I spoke with him earlier about some tags he wanted ran. Some trouble with photographers, right?"
"Yes, but now I think it's something more. After he got off the phone with you, he heard someone outside the house," Pepper said, and Tony couldn't help but smile at her, getting it now for himself as Pepper, more or less, ran down the story of Clint sending her to the workshop and telling her to call out for help in he didn't come back. Once she'd finished explaining the 911 call, Maria had enough probable cause to put her on hold and ask a SHIELD tech to run a trace. As they waited for that to be done, everyone certain where it would lead but having to play the part in case Maria's or Pepper's phone's were still tapped, she said, "I didn't have Director Fury's number, or I'd have called him myself."
The SHIELD tech talked briefly with Maria before she responded back to Pepper. Her tone was completely serious and as no nonsense as it had ever been, but on camera, she actually smiled.
"No, Ms. Potts," she said. "You've done exactly the right thing."
An hour or more after they'd finished their call and Fury had been properly notified by Agent Hill, Clint, not knowing where he was or remembering how he got there, tried to lift his head, but it felt heavy. His whole body felt heavy, but he had to try. Clint needed to see where he was and access the situation. He needed to get as much detail, as much information as he could, while he still could.
His ankles were shackled to the legs of the chair he was sitting on. His arms were pinned at his side, also shackled to the chair. A thick leather strap encircled his chest and forearms, further limiting his movement. The chair, he soon discovered, was bolted to the ground.
Wherever he was, they'd done this before.
Finally able to open his eyes, the lights were bright but once he'd adjusted and lifted his head, Clint saw own image reflected back at him.
At least he hadn't been beaten.
Whatever they'd drugged him with was wearing off fast, and Clint breathed easier even if his head still felt muddled. He sat as still as he could, got as comfortable as he could, and tried to conserve his energy and relax.
The fact that he wasn't dead had to count for something. Phil had taught him that. If they didn't kill you right away, they wanted something. And if they wanted something, as long as they still wanted something, a person could stay alive. The trick was figuring out what they wanted so that you didn't inadvertently give it away. Natasha had taught him that.
The door behind him slammed shut and the fun, he knew, was about to begin.
"Agent Barton," a man's voice said and, in the mirror, Clint got a good look. He was tall and plain and wearing a suit. He was so average he practically blended into the background. After nearly a full minute of silence, the man evidentially expecting some form of acknowledgment Clint just wasn't going to provide, continued on, "You broke Agent Simon's nose."
The key, both Phil and Natasha had continuously stressed, was not to be confrontational when in these kinds of situations. Say only what needed to be said and nothing more. No matter what, Clint knew that he should not engage or enrage his captors.
"Was that the jackass who grabbed me from behind?"
He might need a refresher course.
"You went down easy enough," the other man taunted.
"What'd you hit me with? Something heavy," Clint returned. "Some kind of tranquilizer. You're sniper is pretty good."
"He should be," he said, coming around to face him directly and leaning against the side railing near the mirror. "You trained him."
Clint tipped his head back and shut his eyes for a moment, trying to think clearly. It had been a heavy dose even if it was wearing off, because he should have caught on immediately. The suit; the other 'agent'; this wasn't a hostile force.
This was SHIELD.
In a lot of ways, that made this easier. They weren't going to harm him. They probably wouldn't even hit him. They'd just want answers and that was the problem. If they hauled him in like this, they must think something was seriously amiss and that Clint was up to no good.
"I want to speak with Director Fury," Clint said, turning his eyes from the man before him and staring straight ahead at his own reflection.
"I want to speak with Agent Hill," Clint returned without hesitation.
"Couldn't reach her. I am -"
"I don't care who you are," Clint interrupted, a little angry even though he knew he had to press that down. "I know procedure. You can't continue until my direct supervisor has been notified and is present. I'm owed that."
"Well, we tried notifying Agent Coulson but... there was no answer."
"I want to speak with Director Fury," Clint repeated, as calmly as he could, still refusing to meet the other man's eyes. If he got angry, he was giving them an excuse. That was more important now that he knew this was SHIELD than it had been before.
"I want to speak with Agent Hill."
"Let me tell you how this is going to happen," the man continued. "I am Agent Campbell. I think you know why you're here." When Clint refused to respond, he waited and then went on. "You need to just come clean, Barton. Tell us now and maybe we'll be lenient. This is your only chance."
Agent Campbell stood and stared at him until it became perfectly clear that Clint was not going to talk.
"Have it your way," Campbell said, but instead of approaching Clint, he tapped on the mirror and the room behind the glass lit up revealing a woman.
For half a second, Clint panicked, because he could not believe what he was seeing. For a second he saw the woman, saw Pepper, tied up with her back to him and he assumed the absolute worst. She was tied up the same way he was, struggling slightly and evidentially gagged as well. He saw it, but soon reconciled himself to the sight; to the lie.
Clint couldn't help himself. He laughed. He knew he shouldn't, that doing so was a mistake, but it was absurd. It was almost embarrassing to think that this was SHIELD.
"Do you think we're here for a good time, Agent Barton?" Campbell asked him, a flicker of annoyance passing over his features.
"Am I supposed to know that woman?" Clint returned. "Or did you read my file and assume that because I never finished high school that I was a drooling moron? I mean, I get that you think she looks like Pepper Potts, but come on," he finished, shaking his head disbelievingly. "There's no way in hell that anyone authorized an interrogation of Tony Stark's girlfriend, the goddamn CEO of Stark Industries. No way. If that had happened, Stark would already be here, punching a new skylight in your ceiling with his pretty little suit."
"This matter was serious enough -"
"Don't. Don't try and pass her off now. That's not her. She's too short. Her hair is too long and the it's wrong shade of red. Her skin tone is off; whoever that is, they're tan. Pepper is not. I mean, really? I was just with her. I'm a fucking sniper, a real-live agent of SHIELD, trained to notice those sorts of things," Clint finished more than a little affronted by this obvious ruse. Or he thought he had finished. "Plus, the shoes. Did you even do your homework? Have you ever even seen the woman? Pepper Potts runs in heels higher than those. I realize I've been drugged but... this is insulting."
Campbell dropped his head for a moment and the light flipped off so that Clint was staring at his own reflection again.
"Tell us what you know about HYDRA."
"Gladly," Clint answered, pausing just a moment before he tacked on, "as soon as Director Fury arrives."
"You really don't want to make this easy, do you?"
"I don't want to make this easy?" Clint fired back at him, all the humor gone from his voice. "You ambushed me. What? Did I drop out of the SHIELD directory? Did you lose my number? This is how you bring in agents to talk about organizations that have been dormant ten, twenty, hell... thirty years?"
"They're not dormant. They're very active, Agent Barton."
"Great. Why don't you go look for them then and leave me alone before this goes very badly."
"Have you met Nick Fury?"
"Director Fury isn't here, Barton," Campbell snapped. "And he's not going to be here for quite some time. I think, by the time he does arrive, we'll have worked something out."
"Yeah, keep telling yourself that."
Clint dropped his eyes for half a second, and in that time Campbell pulled something from the inside pocket of his jacket.
"You can't do that," Clint said, really angry now that he saw the hypodermic needle. "I know procedure and..." But Campbell had already done it. In one swift movement he'd taken out the drug and injected it into the same spot the tranquilizer dart had hit earlier; high on his neck. Clint had just enough time to register why he'd do that; because there it wouldn't show. "You son of a..." Clint managed as he fought and lost the battle with consciousness.
When he woke, it was dark. At first Clint thought he'd been left alone in a dark room but quickly realized his mistake. It wasn't dark because the lights were off. After his eyes adjusted and slowly slid back into focus, he could see. It was dark because they'd thrown something, a mask or a bag of some sort, over his head.
The first thing he did was remind himself not to panic.
No one was going to hurt him. Campbell was an asshole, but he was still SHIELD. Fury would never authorize whatever it was this idiot had in mind. Clint would just have to be mildly uncomfortable for as long as it took a Quinjet to fly across the country. That was it.
The second thing he did was try to push past the pounding in his head.
For the first minute all he heard was the steady beat of blood rushing to his temples. It was a pulse really; a throb. Whatever they'd given him, twice now, it was strong and it was making him nauseous. The limited air the sack had to offer wasn't helping. Clint had to keep reminding himself that he couldn't throw up, especially now, once he realized he was no longer sitting up but laying flat on his back, although still heavily restrained. Or, if he really couldn't help himself from getting sick, at least he should try to wait for them to take the damn hood off so he could aim for Campbell.
"Sir," a new voice said, another man whose words sounded thick, like maybe he'd gotten punched in the face recently. Probably Agent Simon. "I think he's coming round."
"Good," Campbell chirped. "Are we ready?"
"You can't do this," another voice said, a woman this time. She sounded familiar, but that could be the drugs.
"I'm in charge here, Agent Morse," Campbell said firmly.
"This isn't procedure," the woman, Morse, bit back at him. He imagined she'd played the part of Pepper earlier. "We don't have any evidence that directly links Agent Barton to this operation. And, forgive me sir, but we don't know enough about this operation to question him."
"Was it not your suggestion that we bring him in?"
"For an inquiry, not for formal questioning. Not for an interrogation."
"Well, he refuses to answer."
"Maybe because he doesn't know anything," Morse said, her voice still firm and steady. "You've hardly explained yourself."
"He knows something," Campbell said with unshaken certainty. "And I'm going to find out what."
"All of his training has taught him not to talk," Morse tried to reason. "Until he sees a friendly face telling him it's okay... What do you expect? He doesn't know us and we're supposed to work together."
"Do you remember what division this is, Agent Morse?"
"I do," she answered quietly. "But..."
"You've never taken in an... an agent like Agent Barton. One of Director Fury's men. It's not the same. He's not going to answer you. You're not going to get anything from him. This is pointless and unnecessary."
"So what do you suggest?" Campbell asked, and even Clint, through a drug induced haze, could hear the condescension in his tone.
"The same thing I suggested before," Agent Morse said tersely. "Wait for Director Fury. Explain the situation to him. Let him ask Agent Barton. Let him decide."
"We're doing this my way."
"Then I'll have to file a formal complaint," Morse returned.
Clint expected to hear the sound of footsteps, possibly low-heeled footsteps, crossing the room followed by the slamming of a door, but he didn't. Morse, whoever she was, had obviously stood her ground. Was maybe still standing it, Clint couldn't see. But even he could feel the tension radiating around the room.
"You can't do this," she said, her voice low and menacing.
"Agent Simon," Campbell said. "Please escort Agent Morse from the interrogation room."
"Yes, sir," Simon returned, and Clint kind of wished he'd hit the man harder earlier in the night.
No one spoke after that for several long minutes, but the room was far from silent. Something was being set up, but Clint couldn't see what. He realized that this could all be a mind game. That they could be pretending to have some kind of lie detector test set up or worse in order to intimidate him into cooperating, but the way Agent Morse had sounded, he was doubtful. She sounded genuinely disturbed by whatever it was Campbell had in mind. Either that or she was a hell of an actress.
"Agent Barton," Campbell said after a few minutes more. "Can you hear me?" When Clint didn't answer, he ripped the hood from his head and glared down at him. "You need to come clean with us. We know the truth. We know you're working for HYDRA and that you have been for many years."
"I am not," Clint said firmly. "And I demand to speak to Director Fury."
"He's not coming."
"Then I demand to speak to Agent Hill. I'm owed that."
"You're owed nothing but what I give you."
"Then let's get this over with," Clint said, hoping to call the other man's bluff.
Clint knew that he really couldn't touch him. Or at least, he shouldn't. If Fury had okayed it, that would be a different matter, but he knew better than that. Fury, if he thought Clint was a traitor, would be right there in the room. He'd want to hear it for himself. He wouldn't let this be done by inferior men. And, for Fury, this sort of treatment was an absolute last resort. Fury wasn't above torture, but it wasn't his first plan, or usually even his second or third.
Procedure and protocol aside, no one strapped a man on his back unless he intended violence, which was fine. Clint had been beaten before. He'd been tortured before as well. It wouldn't be pleasant, but if he could keep it in his head that it would end, he'd be fine.
Clint was confident he'd be fine until Campbell 'accidentally' kicked his foot against a container at his feet. It was something just out of Clint's sight, whose contents sloshed and spilled onto the floor, just a little bit. Just enough.
"I've read your file, Barton," Campbell said menacingly. "You really go out of your way to stay out of the water, don't you? Why is that?"
"I think there is," Campbell sneered back at him. "So did Agent Coulson. You see, way, way back when you failed your first water safety practical exam, he wrote two words: undiagnosed aquaphobia. So I have to wonder, since it's never mentioned again... did you ever get treated for that?"
"Until Director Fury arrives," Clint said as calmly as he could, "I have nothing to say."
His face was a mask of indifference. There were no nervous tics or tells. Hell, Natasha and Phil would have been proud he hadn't told this numbskull to go fuck himself by this point. But they weren't here. And, on the inside, Clint was a riot of nerves. He knew what came next and he absolutely knew that Campbell would follow through. He had that look about him. Some men always did.
Clint's only sustaining thought was that he would not let Campbell know how much he was getting to him.
He would not speak. He would not yell. He would not fight, or cry, or beg.
It was all he could do.
"I guess we'll find out," Campbell said, but he didn't sound disappointed. He sounded gleeful as he pulled the hood back over Clint's head and barked an order at Agent Simon, ready to begin.
Clint braced himself, mentally, as best he could and it was barely enough. The water came too soon, too soon for him to catch a good breath. It felt hot, even though in reality it had probably been cold. Water always felt hotter to him than it actually was, a side effect from Miss Margery's early attempts to save him from a life of delinquency. He sputtered, and gagged, and gasped, he tried not to thrash about, but his body had a different idea. It reacted even as Clint tried not to.
It reacted as if he was dying.
He tried to keep telling himself that wasn't true. He wasn't going to die. This was temporary. This would pass.
It was something he clung to, desperately, in his head but...
Even with his eyes shut tight, even with the hood wet and clinging to his face, all Clint could see was pristine white tiles and all he could hear was a long gone voice saying in his head, 'It's for your own good.'
And then darkness.
When Director Fury arrived, accompanied by Agent Hill, it was nearly dawn. They'd found Clint where he'd been left, in one of the detention cells, having been cleaned up and drugged again. He was so insensible, at first, that he didn't recognize either of them, and may even have taken a halfhearted swing at Hill. It was all very blurry.
"Take it easy, Barton," she'd said, deflecting the jab easily. Maria didn't even sound mad, which she always kind of did. If anything she sounded sympathetic. Once it registered, Clint thought that might have been worse. "We're getting you out of here."
Fury had disappeared down the hall, but Clint could still hear him, so someone was getting an earful. Maria stayed behind and sat him upright. Firmly, she placed her hands on his face and tilted his head up so that she could look him in the eyes.
"Did they tell you what they gave you?" she asked.
"No," he mumbled as his eyes slid shut of their own accord.
"All right then," Maria said as she let go of him and began to rummage through a bag she'd brought in with her. "I'm going to take a blood sample."
"Don't argue," she shot back at him, already swapping his arm and sticking him with the needle. "I'm already done," she finished, slapping on a bandage and then grabbing him firmly by the forearm. Unprepared and with a head full of haze, Clint flinched. "What's wrong?" Maria asked and when he only shrugged and shook his head for an answer, she took hold of his hands, getting a good look first at his wrists before pushing up his sleeve further up his arm for a better look there as well. "What did they do? Were you restrained?"
"They didn't..." Clint said, trying to keep the words straight in his head before they slipped from his mouth. "I was tied up. I resisted. That's it."
"That's some pretty serious resistance," Maria said shrewdly.
"Are you done?" he asked as he pulled from her grasp.
"Yeah. Come on," she said, offering him a hand up but, despite the weight in his stomach that all but screamed 'assistance is necessary', he declined and struggled to his feet on his own.
Clint really couldn't blame Maria for rolling her eyes at him for that one. It was a stupid decision based on pride that he immediately regretted, having nearly fallen back over once he was on his feet. But, instead of fighting with him over it, she took him by the elbow, steadied him, and lead him out the door. The hallway was surprisingly empty, except for Fury's voice drifting down it from some unnamed location, and it didn't take long until they were out of the building and into a waiting car.
"Barton," Maria said after a few minutes of silence. Evidentially they were waiting on the Director. Clint didn't mind. The fresh air had done him some good and his head was starting to clear. "You need to tell me what they did. Exactly what they did. I know it may not be something you want to talk about..."
"You don't know that."
"...but you need to tell me," Maria finished, ignoring his remark. "It's the only way we can file a report -"
"Stop," Clint said, interrupting her louder now than he had before. "A report? You think that's going to change..."
"It can get him removed from command," Maria reasoned. "Possibly jailed depending... depending upon the severity of the infraction."
Clint laughed because only SHIELD would say it like that. Only SHIELD would call torturing its own men an infraction. And really, only Hill could say it without a hint of irony. She lived in a world that was black and white, even after New York. Clint didn't know if he should feel sorry or envy for her.
He wished he could see it all that clearly again.
"What they did was wrong," Maria said and finally there was anger in her voice, which unfortunately only made Clint laugh harder.
"Because they didn't call you first?"
"No, Clint," she bit back at him, turning in her seat and facing forward again. "That's not why."
Clint's laughter died off with a sigh as he dropped his head back against the headrest. He was frustrated and mad and lashing out, and Maria was there so...
He knew she wasn't just angry about the failure of procedure that had taken place. Maria didn't like Clint, and Clint certainly didn't like Maria, but there had always been a grudging respect between the two of them. She was good at her job, damn good, and he'd never say otherwise, but Maria was so efficient it often came across as cold and uncaring. Clint had no real evidence to suspect that that wasn't the case, but it was unfair to assume it. Especially now when it really seemed as if she was genuinely concerned and not just doing her job.
"Listen, Maria," he said quietly, but she was still refusing to look his way. "I just want to forget all of this as soon as possible. Okay? Campbell is already going to get reprimanded for what happened. If," he stressed, "something else went on, then I'd be looking at another six rounds with the psych department and... and I'm pretty sure there's some reg out there somewhere that only allows agents so many visits a year."
"I'd find that story easier to believe if you hadn't ducked out of your mandatory visits the last time."
"Well..." he hemmed.
"Or, if the time before that you went and said absolutely nothing."
"So we agree that it's a waste of time."
"Damn it, Barton," Maria said, shaking her head but sounding more frustrated than angry, which was more normal for her. "You're going to let him get away with this shit because you don't want to talk about your feelings?" When Clint refused to respond, Maria rolled her eyes and let out a huff of air. "Fine. It's your call."
Clint knew it wasn't. Not really. But, Maria had to know she couldn't make him talk about it if he didn't want to.
If Agent Campbell hadn't been able to get him to admit to anything, true or false, with all of his advanced techniques, Agent Hill, armed only with her infallible righteousness, certainly could not.
That in mind, Clint allowed himself to shut his eyes and opened them only once Director Fury had given him a firm shake.
"Agent Hill tells me you'd rather skip medical," Fury said. "I told her that was out of the question, but she was rather insistent. She also thought you might not want to stay onsite so we brought you here." Clint took a moment and scanned his surroundings, easily recognizing the place as Stark's mansion back in Malibu. The sun was just coming up and Clint's whole body ached. "Was she right?" Fury asked after another pause.
"Yes, sir," he answered, sitting up straighter and ready to go inside. "Thanks," Clint said, his eyes briefly meeting Maria's in what usually passed as an apology between them.
She nodded and he felt free to keep disliking her, despite her good deeds, as she would no doubt keep disliking him. If Clint had planned on sticking around SHIELD for any longer he realized Maria wouldn't make a half bad handler, but after tonight his mind was firmly set against that. He had waivered before, had gone back on forth over the pros and cons of the situation, but after this he couldn't stay. Clint couldn't trust but three or four people, in total, out of the whole operation, any longer. It was something to admit, even to himself, that Maria was one of those people, and she would undoubtedly be pissed when she found out the truth, but he also thought she'd understand why.
How could anyone expect Clint to keep working for an organization that might, at any time, drag him away, lock him up, keep him without cause, or more? What was to stop them from declaring him a threat? From even putting a bullet in the back of his head?
But that chance had always been there, he knew that. He'd just been ignoring it. Phil had largely kept him and Natasha sheltered from the worst of it; he'd had a lot of influence but that protection was gone now.
Satisfied, Fury got out of the car first, followed by Clint, and then Maria. Without preamble, Fury led the way up the drive and straight into the house where Clint found three different kinds of worry etched on the people gathered in the front room. Tony, Pepper and Steve were all there, none of them looking as if they'd slept a wink.
"You said you'd call," Pepper said immediately, and she would have rushed forward to inspect Clint for herself had Tony not stopped her.
It was subtly done, Clint noted. Tony just gently reached out and slid his hand down her arm into her own hand, and held her in place as he said, "Or at least knock. This is my house, remember? I don't recall handing out keys."
Clint wasn't fooled by his joke. Tony had to have known, at least a little bit, what had happened that night. They all probably had a good guess, judging by their stares, and even if they didn't, they all knew it was serious. Tony hadn't stopped Pepper so that he could take a not-so-subtle dig at Fury, he'd done it because he'd been in Clint's position. Tony knew what the fallout was like, and how little a person wanted to be touched afterwards unless specifically invited. Tony wouldn't know the details, and Clint wouldn't be providing those to anyone, but torture was torture and that was all he needed to unofficially know.
"How are you?" Steve asked.
"Tired," Clint allowed, carefully not to fidget too much or do anything to try and hide the bruises he knew were beginning to show on his wrists. If he hid his hands, Tony and Steve would both pick up on it. His forearms and chest, Clint was certain were also marked, along with his ankles and thighs, but those bruises were hidden by his clothes. Clint didn't realize he'd fought as hard as he had against the restraints, but that had been an involuntary reaction. When your body thought it was dying, it rebelled.
"But you're not..." Pepper started to say, but she seemed to have caught on to Tony as well, and didn't finish.
"I'm fine," Clint lied, a little too easily for his own taste. "Sorry if... if any of that scared you last night. I wasn't sure what was happening."
"When you heard the prowler?" Pepper supplied quickly, not sure how much information Director Fury had or didn't have at the moment.
"Ms. Potts," Fury said with a weary smile. "Please. We all know what happened. Agent Hill caught me up on the ride here." After they'd gotten on their way, they'd received a very informative call from a field agent actually assigned to the case. She'd told them everything she knew, more or less, and given them an exact location that the tech who had reverse tapped the line used to intercept Pepper's call had failed to get. "Barton, any idea why they think you're working for HYDRA?"
"None," Clint said, and this time it wasn't a lie. "I've never even dealt with HYDRA. Never had a mission or... or anything." But as he said it, he realized that wasn't exactly true. "Well, beside..."
"Agent Romanoff," Fury provided with a nod.
"You did bring her in," Maria provided.
"Eight years ago," Clint said. "And so what? She had past dealings with them but she wasn't in the organization. She's given information on people and places inside the group to SHIELD."
"That never pan out," Maria returned, not because she was trying to argue with him, but because she really believed in presenting all sides.
"Because they're defunct," Clint said.
"Agents," Fury interrupted. "Another time."
"Great," Clint said, rubbing his head. He had a massive headache and couldn't keep this up any longer, this sham that he really was okay. "Can we go over all this later? Sir?," he added, realizing he was still talking to the Director.
"Fourteen hundred," Fury said with a firm nod. "I'll be back for a debrief."
"Can't wait," Clint mumbled, not bothering to stick around. He bypassed everyone else in the room and headed straight for the one he'd been staying in all week.
As soon as he arrived, he locked the door behind him and then, thinking that wasn't enough to deter Tony, he shoved a nearby chair under the doorknob as well. Clint took out a fresh set of clothes and knew that he probably should shower, but couldn't stomach the idea of it. At the moment, even splashing water on his face from the sink didn't seem like a possibility. A simple change would have to suffice.
Clint then shut the shades on the windows, the light had been growing steadily stronger, and propped up a few pillows before laying down on the bed. Picking up his SHIELD issued phone, Clint knew the number he wanted to dial but also knew it was a very bad idea. His line was likely still being monitored. Hers as well.
He realized he could probably reach her through Stark's tech, but he didn't want to go back out there. Fury and Hill were probably gone and Tony, Steve and Pepper would be much freer with the questions without them present.
If only the mansion had an intercom system.
"Jarvis?" Clint asked tentatively, looking up at the ceiling the way he always did when he addressed the AI.
"Yes, Mr. Barton?"
"Tony really takes you everywhere."
"I am indispensable, yes."
"Can you do me a favor?"
Clint relayed his request and a few minutes passed before there was a tap at the door.
"Special delivery," Tony called, having tried the doorknob without luck. "Barton. Open up. Got you a phone." Clint looked at the door for a moment, realizing that of course he'd have to open it, Tony was already doing him a favor lending it to him and letting him stay at his house, amongst other things. "I can just leave it out here," Tony said after a moment, "but I'd feel better about that if you at least said something. Anything. You're choice."
"Sorry," Clint said, cracking open the door and feeling like a fool. "I'm just not..."
"Understandable," Tony returned, cracking a small smile as he handed the phone to him.
"Yeah, well... Hey, tell Pepper -"
"Stop," Tony interrupted quickly. "You already told her. It's not your fault. She doesn't blame you. End of discussion."
"Okay," Clint nodded, too exhausted to fight. "Thanks again for the phone."
"Tell Natasha I said hi," Tony said, turning to go. "And, I'm sure she'll tell you this herself, but just in case, she wanted to come. She even got on the plane but Fury wouldn't have it. Oh and Bruce and Thor... well, Bruce isn't big on travel and we still can't convince Thor the jets are entirely shipshape so... they send their best and look forward to seeing you back in New York." Clint offered him a half a smile in return and nodded his head in acknowledgement as Tony walked away. "If you need anything," he called over his shoulder, "send Jarvis. He likes that sort of thing."
Phone in hand, Clint shut the door but this time he only locked it, not bothering with the chair. Back on the bed, he dialed up the number to Tony's VTC back at the Tower and waited, somehow knowing she'd be waiting there to answer.
"Hey," Natasha answered, looking strained as the line connected.
"Hill already call you?" Clint asked, holding the phone as steady as he could so that the camera captured his face.
"About an hour ago. Said you were sleeping."
"Car ride," he confirmed.
"How are you?"
"I'm..." he paused, considering his words carefully for a moment. "I'm right as rain."
Natasha's eyes dropped for a moment and nodded, understanding. Another code between them. Another indicator that things were very wrong, even if the words and tone said otherwise.
"I wanted to come," she finally said.
"I know," he said quickly. "Tony told me. There's nothing you could have done here. It's fine. Really."
"I'm glad you called."
"You are?" he asked, still wondering why he'd done it. It had to have been habit, a bad one that he had to break. Nothing was going to happen between them and he had to start needing her less. Clint had to or else he'd never move on. He couldn't and wouldn't cut her out completely, Natasha would always be part of his life, but he couldn't keep holding on to nothing.
"I was worried," she admitted.
"It wasn't..." he started to say, but the lie caught in his throat. Even if things were bad between them, he should be able to tell her the truth. Clint settled for a half-truth. "It's over. It's done and I'm here. I'm still here."
"What did they do?" she asked, but her tone was no longer soft or concerned. It was hard. And angry. Clint really expected nothing less. This was her at work. This was business.
"They ask you to find out?"
"No," she answered, her voice firm with a bit of edge to it. Like it was a question he didn't have to ask. On the surface, it wasn't an offensive question, but his tone had suggested that Natasha was in on something larger, against Clint. That she would try to pry information out of him unwillingly for someone else.
"I'm tired. I'm..." Clint tried to apologize, but never got further than that. "Even if they had asked, you wouldn't tell them. I know that," he stammered. "I don't know why I called."
"I'm glad you did," Natasha repeated.
"I needed to hear your voice," he admitted, hating himself a little bit for being so weak, but that was the truth of it.
Natasha's mouth twitched, she almost smiled as she said, "Me, too."
"All right," Clint said, dropping his own eyes from the screen as he bit his lip to keep from saying more. Continuing on in what he hoped was a casual tone, "I'm going to get some sleep. Fury's coming back this afternoon. That should be fun. And, you know, maybe this whole thing will get me out of that fundraiser tonight."
"I wouldn't count on that," Natasha returned, sounding more like her normal self.
"You're probably right."
"I usual am."
"I know," Clint said, smiling, really, for the first time.
"Get some rest and... and call me, again. If you need to."
"Thanks," he said, ending the call there.
Clint set the phone down on the nightstand and then shut his own eyes. Thankful to be so tired that sleep came almost immediately and that he didn't have to keep thinking; so tired that it was heavy, dreamless sleep as well.
He stayed in bed only a few hours, unable to make even that exhausted sleep last, and woke up cranky before noon to a nearly empty house. Pepper and Tony had evidentially gone into the office, Happy was out running errands for the evening, which left Clint and Steve alone. Clint went straight to the kitchen, filled a mug with some lukewarm coffee and headed out to the patio where Steve was busy sketching the coastline.
He didn't want to talk, but Clint also didn't want it to appear as if he was avoiding everyone. If he could have gotten away with that, he would have; if he'd known them all a little less than he did, he would have. As it stood, Clint felt he owed all of them something. In the very least, the acknowledgement that he appreciated their support.
Still, when Steve didn't immediately set in with questions or small talk, it was a relief.
Steve seemed content to sit silently and work while Clint was content to sit silently and read.
An entire hour passed before they were interrupted by Tony's arrival. As soon as the door opened behind them, Steve flipped the cover down on his sketch book and at the same time Clint shut his book, both of them knowing that Tony would absolutely need to talk. That was just Tony's way.
"Everyone ready for tonight?" Tony asked as he took the longue chair in between them. "Suits? Ties? Shoes? All set? There's still time. Not to back out," he added quickly, seeing Steve ready to interrupt. "You're going. Both of you are going."
"Okay then," Steve shrugged.
"I'm good," Clint said.
"Are you?" Tony asked, turning slightly to face him directly and Clint knew he was no longer talking about the fundraiser. "But, wait," Tony continued, almost immediately, "before you answer that... Pepper and I have talked." During the abnormal pause Tony took, Clint's heart nearly stopped, afraid of the conversation that was undoubtedly to follow. "She mentioned that you might be having second or third or even fourth thoughts about leaving SHIELD and coming to work for me. And while I might end up taking that personally, if it's what you want, Clint... I'm not trying to force you to leave. If you're more comfortable with SHIELD, if the time isn't right, if... if for any reason," he stressed, "you need to stay, then stay. We'll work something out with the Avengers. We're going to have to anyway to keep Red around."
"The idea was never to cut out SHIELD completely," Steve interjected.
"It wasn't," Tony agreed. "We just felt that they shouldn't be in control of it. That it should be more of a joint effort."
"Okay, okay," Clint said, finally finding his voice after he realized that this wasn't what he thought it would be about. "You can stop there because... Yes, I had doubts. Yes, I was going back and forth about what to do. I thought it would be easier to make a decision, and it wasn't. Not at first. Now though..." Clint stopped and let out a low breath. "I'm not going to talk about what happened last night. I don't want to talk about it. I don't need to talk about it. After Fury runs me through whatever debrief he needs to, I'm just going to forget it." He paused to let that sink in. "All I'm going to say to you both is that after last night I can't stay with SHIELD. I can't trust the organization. I believe Director Fury has the right idea. I trust Hill to do the right thing. Natasha is not going to leave, but I know her and I will support her, no matter what. But things have changed in SHIELD since New York. Maybe they were changing before that and I just didn't see it. Whatever it is, I can't work for them any longer. I can't do my job and worry about who's watching my back."
"You realize though..." Steve started to say, but Clint was already nodding.
"I know. We'll be working with them. With not for. I can do that."
"Okay then," Tony said after giving it a moment of thought. "I'm taking this to mean the sooner the better?"
"Yes," Clint confirmed.
"We'll start working on it as soon as we're back in New York then."
"Great," Tony said, slapping his hands on his knees before rising to his feet. "That's settled. Let's get lunch."
"I'm actually supposed to wait here for Fury."
"Then we'll order lunch," Tony shrugged. "We can do that. Easy."
As Tony wandered back into the house, Steve and Clint locked eyes.
"We should probably help," Steve started to say with just a hint of a smile. They were both remembering the only time Tony had ordered a meal for the Tower.
"We should definitely help," Clint concurred.
After lunch, which Clint and Steve intervened in time so that they ended with enough to feed the three of them not three houses worth of people, Director Fury and Agent Hill arrived. Tony offered up his private office for use and resisted the urge to eavesdrop. However, as short as the meeting was, he doubted there had been much to hear. And as it turned out Clint and Maria were plenty loud enough to be heard from two rooms away.
Tony knew the situation was serious, but it was kind of amusing; or at least it would have been under normal circumstances. If he hadn't just heard Clint say that he did trust Maria, if he hadn't seen firsthand proof that Clint had respect for how Maria did her job, if he didn't know exactly why Clint was leaving SHIELD, Tony would have sworn she was the sole reason. The two of them just did not mix well. He'd never seen two people argue more over absolutely nothing and then end up walking away in agreement time after time. It had to be frustrating for both of them but it seemed like the only way they could work together.
This time, Tony understood her frustration. He felt that frustration himself, because he did want to know what had happened and not just out of his own endless curiosity, but Clint was stonewalling everyone.
Less than twenty minutes after they arrived, Fury and Hill left and Clint retreated back to his room where he remained until it was nearly time to leave for the fundraiser. Even then Clint only left out of desperation. Tony would often purposely mess up his bow tie in order to get Pepper's help; Clint was truly clueless.
"You look nice," Pepper said as she gave him a hand, trying to be cheerful and push from her mind everything he'd said to her the night before at dinner and everything she suspected had happened after that dinner.
"Thank you," he returned, sensing her unease and not quite able to meet her eyes.
"Oh, so it's just Clint then?" Tony asked with a smirk.
"Steve looks nice, too."
"Thank you, Pepper," Steve returned pleasantly. "You look lovely as well."
"Okay, okay," Tony said, shaking his head, but still smiling. "Enough with the nice talk. We're all beautiful people. Let's go. Rhodey is meeting us there and the party has already started."
The ride there was a quick one, Pepper more than determined to keep the conversation light and with Tony's help, easily managing that feat. Once they arrived the four of them ended up splitting up out of necessity. Pepper and Tony were called away almost immediately to meet and greet various guests, leaving Steve and Clint to more or less hang out.
"What are we supposed to do at this thing?" Steve finally asked after a good ten minutes had passed and they both ended up shuffling to the farthest corner.
"I honestly have no idea," Clint answered, making Steve laugh.
They ended up talking in general about what had been happening over the week. Steve wanted to hear everything he could about how Pepper had figured out Clint had been assigned as her bodyguard, a story he found highly amusing. But even as they spoke and laughed together, Clint couldn't keep from scanning the room remembering clearly that there had been an unnamed woman in the room with him last night that was probably in the room with him again now.
Agent Morse, whoever she was, was likely a plant inside Stark Industries. He'd argued with Fury and Hill hours earlier that Tony and Pepper both deserved to know that information, but had been ordered not to tell them. If she was or wasn't, they'd both agreed, was of no real concern. She was likely only there to protect Stark's interests, as misguided as those attempts had been. To leak that information now would only further the Counter Espionage unit's case against Clint.
Clint did not feel the same.
He'd already come up with a few ideas who he thought she might be, based solely on who he'd met during the week. Scanning the room, he finally spotted her and it felt right.
"Excuse me," he said to Steve. "I need to talk to someone."
Steve followed Clint's eyes across the room and looked perplexed by who he was looking at, but didn't stop him. A few minutes of shuffling across the crowded space and he was there, his eyes shifting from person to person in the small group gathered, talking business but mostly happy to see him.
"Clint," Beth said with a bright smile. "I thought you'd come."
"Pepper's very persistent," he said as pleasantly as he could.
"So you like persistence?" she asked with a smile.
"I do," he returned, and she smiled brighter at him.
"Oh," Beth continued, afraid she'd been rude, "you know everyone here, right? Ian. Rebecca. Did you meet Marty?"
"I don't think I have met Mary, but yes," Clint answered with a nod, "I know everyone else." He paused for a moment, his eyes momentarily flicking down, "Nice shoes," he directed at Rebecca. "I thought most women wore higher heels to these kinds of things."
"Too hard to run in," she returned with a straight face and without a doubt he'd been right.
"Want to grab a drink?" he asked her, too afraid she'd slip away if he didn't confront her now and ignoring Beth's look of irritation.
"All right," Rebecca, well, Agent Morse returned, giving him a weak smile as she let him lead her away, but they weren't headed for the bar.
Clint put a firm hand on her waist and steered her out a side door, eventually finding a semi-secluded spot on the balcony.
"Watch the hands," she snapped, her voice losing all the meekness he'd associated with 'Rebecca' and sounding much more like the woman he'd heard last night. Clint ignored her, continuing to pat her sides, unable to determine what weapon she had, but certain she had something stitched into the boning of her dress. "They're staves," she said. "Relax, Barton. I'm not wired."
"Sure you aren't," he said before shaking his head and adding, "Staves? Really?" as it dawned on him that she basically admitted to fighting with sticks.
"A bow? Really?" she snit at him.
"Fair enough," he fired back, "but I don't care if you are wired."
"Still convinced I'm working for the bad guys?"
"That was not my call," she said firmly, her eyes darting off towards the sound of some nearby passer-bys. As they got closer, she let out a flirty giggle and leaned into him so that they appeared to be a couple that had wandered off for some privacy. Clint kept his hands on her lower back and looked her in eyes, realizing for the first time that she was very attractive. He just hadn't noticed before because she'd done such a good job of fading into the background. "But what happened," she said after a pause, once they were alone again. "It was wrong and I'm sorry. I didn't know Campbell would do that when I told him I thought you might have information."
"Sure you didn't."
"You heard me object. You heard me try and stop him."
"You didn't try very hard," Clint said coldly. "And, sorry if I don't just take your word for it."
"You heard -"
"An act," Clint interrupted. "A well played one, but it was an act. The two of you fight in order to show me that you're on my side. We casually bump into each other, you make sure I recognize you despite the cover, and then you have an in. After all, you stood up for me. You were the one that objected. So, you get close, get me to open up and spill my secrets and then I'm right back in the hot seat. Right where you and Campbell want me. It's not happening."
"In case you weren't paying attention to your own imaginary soap opera, in that scenario, I approach you, but tonight you tracked me down."
"You wore the same shoes, Agent Morse," Clint said evenly. "We run in a very small circle here. At some point tonight, we'd have met. And I'd have noticed those shoes because you wanted me to notice them. I'm not some guy off the street. I've done this and I've seen it done a thousand times before by agents a lot better than you. You're going to have to try harder."
"My name. You keep calling me Agent Morse. My name is Bobbi."
"I don't want to know your name," he said, growing angry despite himself and just the tiniest bit flustered. "I don't care."
"I'm trying to be fair. I know yours so..."
Clint opened his mouth to say something probably mean and more likely foul, but stopped himself just in time. There was another possible reason for her to so obviously break her cover: because she wanted to. It was a real possibility that Agent Morse, Bobbi, wanted out of this assignment after witnessing the lengths Campbell was willing to go to. And, Clint knew, the only way out of an assignment was to complete the mission or have your cover blown.
She could easily say that they had ran into one another at the fundraiser and he'd recognized her voice. She didn't even have to admit to wearing the same shoes she'd worn the night before. No one in their right mind would even ask that question.
It was kind of brilliant, if it was what she was doing, but he had no proof either way.
"Listen," he said, finally resolved to just go with this, whatever it might be, "I know who you are now. I was told, ordered actually, not to go looking for you. And, I didn't. I just happened to see you. Heard your voice and knew."
"Sounds about right."
"Good," Clint nodded, feeling only slightly better as he took a deep breath and a small step back. "So this is what you need to do. You have to resign."
"From Stark Industries, Rebecca."
"Oh," she nodded. "Well... I don't see how staying undercover here would help me any longer. Even if your handler hadn't ordered you not to say anything, given the circumstances, we can't trust that to be enough. You know who I am and why I'm here."
"Why were you here?" he interrupted their pretend conversation. Because this was pretend. They were only going through the motions of discovery now.
"You were told why."
"I wasn't told anything," he objected.
"HYDRA," Bobbi said, lowering her voice as she spoke. "There are reports you could read. They aren't hard to find."
Clint nodded and knew she wouldn't be telling him any more than that. "Fine," he said.
"I trust you won't be telling your new friends who I really am."
"I won't say anything," Clint assured her, stressing the third word to get his point across. He wouldn't have to say anything. Enough people had seen them disappear together. Pepper was a smart lady. When they rejoined the party and 'Rebecca' suddenly quits, she'll put it together.
"Thank you for that."
"Just doing my job," he said, ushering her back toward the main ballroom.
"I was too, you know."
"That doesn't make it right," he said with a sullen shake of his head.
"No," she agreed. "Nothing will make what happened right. I am sorry. I did try and stop him."
"Well," Clint sighed, "next time try hitting him with those sticks of yours."
"Maybe I will. Watch yourself, Barton" Bobbie returned with a wink, as she pulled open the door and moved quickly away from him and off in Pepper's generally direction.
Clint smiled, stopping just inside the door himself and taking a good look around the room. Steve was still in his corner, but he had company now. Apparently Beth's affection was fleeting, very fleeting, as she was doing her best to engage Steve in any kind of conversation.
"He's hopeless, really," Tony said, slinging an arm around Clint and pulling him off in the opposite direction. "I should go rescue him from her, Beth's notorious, but it's too much fun to watch."
"Better him than me," Clint said as they stopped at the bar. He hadn't wanted a drink earlier, but now he did.
"I understand it was you earlier this week," Tony said with a leer.
"Yeah, well, I've resigned myself to the fact that, in our group, I'm going to be second or third choice on my good days. And today... not a good day."
"You're looking at it wrong," Tony argued. "I'm off the market. Thor's pretty well besotted with young Dr. Foster. Bruce is a hermit so..."
"So it's me or Captain America?" Clint asked sarcastically. "I think you just made my point ."
"I'm sure there will be plenty of groupies for the two of you to share."
"We're not some kind of rock band, Tony," Clint laughed. "And I'm really not interested."
"Not yet," the other man amended. "Oh, hey," Tony said, spotting Steve looking their way from across the room. "He's waving at us."
Clint and Tony both watched with nearly identical grins as Steve was obviously not waving, but signaling for assistance. Being good friends, they did what any good friends would do. They both lifted their glasses to him, as if to toast his good fortune, before turning back around again to the bartender.
"He's going to kill us for that," Clint said mildly before he took a sip from his drink.
"No he won't," Tony argued. "He's Captain America. We may get a mild talking-to, but he won't actually kill us."
"I really don't think it's going to be that mild," Clint laughed.
"Hey," Pepper said, sliding an arm around Tony's waist as she joined the two of them and giving Clint a curious look, "Rebecca Moore just quit. Said she was offered a new job this afternoon and it really couldn't wait."
"Rebecca Moore?" Tony puzzled. "Bio-something department, right?"
"That's a shame," Clint said, looking down into his glass. "An employee like that only comes along once or twice if you're really lucky. What was she? Some kind of assistant?"
Tony picked up on it almost immediately, his whole face lighting up at the allusion to Natasha's own stint inside of Stark Industries. Pepper's own understanding of the real situation came right behind Tony's own.
"Was she responsible for what happened?" Pepper asked, and it was the only time Clint had ever heard her sound, not only angry, but mean.
"No," Clint said, surprised by how quickly the lie came from his lips.
"Who is she really?" Tony asked, knowing that the name had to be a fake.
"I can't say," Clint answered, more truthful this time. "Fury has ordered me not to talk about it. Or her. Or anything that happened. Not that I want to. It's not important. What is important is that she's gone. And that you really, really need a better screening process."
"I'm sure we'll be hiring someone soon to help me with that," Pepper said pointedly.
"I've heard that you will," Clint returned with a smile.
A few more hours were spent at the venue before they called it a night. Tony was a lot more fun to hang out with when he wasn't prying into Clint's personal life. And Clint couldn't say enough positive things about Pepper. Steve he knew had his own sense of humor, and when he wasn't busy being very serious, which Clint figured was a generational thing, he was rather easy to get along with. Although he really wasn't happy they'd left him to deal with a very hands-on Beth Smith on his own, Tony was right, it was good for him.
Back at the mansion everyone was ready to retire for the night, Clint especially. He hadn't slept much in the past few days and even if the only thing they had planned for the next day was a return trip to New York, he knew he needed to sleep. Sleep he'd be lucky to get; tonight he wasn't tired enough for his sleep to be dreamless and he knew it. And Clint really needed at least four hours of solid sleep to function, it was a known fact.
Opening the door to his room he stopped cold when he realized the light was already on.
"You clean up nice."
Clint smiled as he pushed the door closed behind him. "Do I?" he asked.
"I'm starting to wonder why we weren't sending you in to seduce the mark," Natasha finished, smiling back at him as she crossed the room and playfully tugged on his tie with a questioning expression.
"With the tie or the whole suit?"
"Both," Clint answered, his hands moving to her shoulders and giving her a gentle squeeze.
He was surprised to see her, but in the best way.
"It's a good look for you," she said, pulling the tie undone.
"Too limiting," he said, unable to keep from touching her and hardly believing she was really there. "Not very practical for the job."
"Just as well then," Natasha said, dragging his tie free and letting it drop to the floor before wrapping her arms around his midsection. "How are you?" she said, finally getting to why she was there; he'd known why. "You look better. If I'd have realized that, I'd have saved myself the flight."
"I thought Fury told you not to come?"
"He said I couldn't go on the Quinjet," she answered. "And I didn't. Tony lent me his. Now answer my question."
"Okay in the way you are always okay when you don't want to answer a question or actually okay?
"You can't be both," she said, pushing his jacket down his shoulders before tugging it off for him.
"What are you doing?" he asked, not really objecting or stopping her, only watching as Natasha began to unbutton his shirt.
"I want to see you."
Clint nodded and understood. She thought he was lying, which to be fair he was, and Natasha wanted visual proof that he hadn't been harmed. "I've got it," he said, taking over for her, because trying to talk her out of it would only make her go about it an entirely different way. Stripped down as much as he was going to, in his undershirt and pants, he held up his hands and gestured for her to take a look. "I told you I'm fine."
"What's this then?" she asked, running her hands gently over the bruises on his forearms.
"I resisted the restraints."
"And these?" she asked taking hold of his wrists and holding them up to his own eyes.
"The restraints, Tasha," he sighed, momentarily taking her hands into his own and squeezing them before letting go again. "Do you think they just strapped me down at the chest?"
"Fine. Now drop them."
"Drop... No," he snapped. "I'm not taking off my pants."
"Yes, you are."
"No, I'm not."
"Now, Barton, or I'll take them off for you," she threatened.
"I'm not -"
"Do I have to remind you that you once demanded to see my ass?"
"For medical reasons. You were shot."
"I was grazed."
"And I couldn't know that until you showed me," he finished, throwing his head back and muttering several colorful curses into the air. Neither Clint nor Natasha liked receiving medical attention so, because of the ass-grazing incident, they'd both agreed to show one another their wounds so an impartial decision as to the seriousness of the situation could be made. And although an argument could be made that neither of them were exactly impartial, mostly it had worked. "Fine," he spit out, looking mutinous as he slipped out of his shoes and started undoing his belt. "This is ridiculous. I wasn't shot. I wasn't even hit but if you're going to insist..."
"...then fine. Take a look," he finished as he dropped his pants.
"Why'd they strap you above the knee?" she asked after looking him over for a minute, the wheels in her head clearly turning.
"I have no idea. I guess," he lied, stretching for time to think, "they thought I'd find a way to get free if they didn't."
"Okay," she said, giving him a nod as if satisfied. "Sorry if I overreacted but... I was worried."
"I know you were," he returned quietly.
"Why don't you go shower and change while I get dressed out here," she said, tipping her head towards the bathroom as she began to rummage through her bag. "You don't mind sharing a room, do you?"
"Um," he said, stepping out of the pants entirely and refusing to look up at her. "Sure. No, we can share," he said slowly, partially relieved to not have to sleep alone. Clint was certain that alone he wouldn't get any sleep, but also knowing there was no way he was going to be able to shower just yet. He'd managed so far by sponge bathing, which wasn't going to work forever. And it certainly wasn't going to work with Natasha in the next room. "Are you okay with that?" Clint tried instead, hoping that the ups and downs between them, especially as of late, might be enough to make her rethink the situation.
"Of course I am."
Clint nodded, knowing that should would be. If he knew Natasha, and he really did, she considered herself still in his debt. She owed him and come hell or high water, she intended to pay him back. He'd just helped her through a rough patch, complete with nightmares, without any hesitation once he'd known the problem; she'd do no less for him.
Awkwardness be damned.
He hadn't mistaken all her casual flirting for a change of heart, Natasha had only been trying to give him something normal to latch on to.
It was this easy back and forth that made them both so very screwed up, if he was being honest.
"Clint?" she urged and he realized he was still standing there, sans pants, staring at the bathroom door. "Is there a problem?" Natasha added, and for a moment she looked as if she expected to be asked to leave. Or told to go to hell. Or both.
Clint considered it for half a second before sighing. "I can't... I can't do it," he said, pointing useless at the other room. "Tasha," he said, finally turning to her and stopping because he didn't have to go on. He saw it in her eyes that she knew. "How?"
"They only strap you above the knees if you're prone," she answered. "And if you're prone... They have your file. They'd know what would work best."
Clint nodded. It was frightening how simple it all had been. How easy it had been for her to jump to that conclusion. How hard it still was to admit.
He hated feeling helpless.
Natasha dropped her bag on the floor before moving to pull him into her arms. Clint only hesitated for a moment before letting himself relax and wrapping his own arms around her waist.
"We'll work out showering later," Natasha said firmly, letting go long enough to lead him to the bed. "Let's just get through tonight and take the rest from there."
"Okay," he agreed, feeling dazed as she stripped down to her underwear and turned down the covers. "But... okay, wait," he said, taking hold of her by the wrist and demanding her attention. "I don't want you to read into this..."
"Read into what?" she asked.
Clint answered her by placing his hands gently on her sides of her face and titling her head up towards his own, meeting her lips with his. It was short but meaningful, because he did mean it. Absolutely and without a doubt. "I needed to get that out of the way," he explained after he'd broken away, "or else I might try it later and really wreck things, more than I have."
"You haven't done anything wrong, Clint. I never wanted you to think that. I just wanted you to..."
"Stop being in love with you?"
"Yes," she answered honestly.
"That's why I love you," he laughed and she shook her head at him. "I know you don't want to hear it and I'm not going to say it again. Except right now. I love you. That's it. But you don't owe it to me to return that if you can't. I'm not a child. I know that if you don't, you don't. And I'm working on it but..."
"We don't need to do this now," she said dropping her eyes and moving out of his arms.
Clint got the message. They didn't need to do this now, or ever really. Natasha wasn't going to change her mind.
It was probably for the best.
Without saying more, Clint got into bed, shifting a few of the pillows so that they divided the bed evenly. Natasha climbed in on her side and shook her head, picking up and tossing the makeshift wall onto the floor.
"I think we're past that point," she said with a hint of a smile, before she shut of the lamp and wrapped her arms around him, pulling him close.
Natasha ran one hand through his hair as she felt Clint sigh and relax against her, the other hand rubbing soft, if not irregular, circles across his back. He didn't say any more and she really didn't expect him to. He needed to sleep and more importantly to feel safe again. Natasha could do that, even if she couldn't do any more.
Eventually his breathing grew steady and slow. His body grew less tense and Clint slowly sunk into a deep sleep. Natasha stayed awake a little longer than he had, still running her fingers through his hair as she thought over the words he'd said. She realized that it had been the first time they'd shared a kiss that she hadn't initiated, but she couldn't let that change her mind.
It was the only way. The only solution. They had no future together. It could only end in heartbreak, worse than what he was enduring now.
"I love you, too," she whispered into the night, before shutting her own eyes to sleep.
The next morning Clint was not surprised to find himself alone in bed. He'd really expected no less. Natasha never stayed a whole night in his bed even at the worst of times. Checking the clock he was surprised to see he'd slept nearly six full hours, which explained why he felt so good. True, he probably could have used a few extra hours of sleep, but six was plenty to start with.
Getting to his feet, he stretched, and knew what he had to do next.
Clint made his way to the bathroom and stared at the shower stall as if it might somehow physically harm him. It was a ridiculous thought, but no one's fears were particularly rational. There was truth to the saying that the only thing to fear was fear itself, however those kinds of maxims were easier to say than believe. Especially less than forty-eight hours after one of Clint's worst fears had been repeatedly inflicted upon him and it was all very fresh in his mind.
Still, he knew that if he didn't do this now, he'd end up taking field showers for the rest of his life, which just wasn't a viable solution. Eventually, no matter how thorough he was, Clint would start to smell.
Turning on the facet, a move he almost immediately regretted, Clint turned his back on the steady stream of water and began to strip. That done, he waited, taking ragged but deep breaths in an effort to calm himself, and mentally counted to ten. After ten came twenty. Then thirty. When Clint reached two hundred and sixty he knew that particular technique was not working.
Telling himself he only had to go in for a minute, half a minute at the most, Clint forced himself to face the shower stall again.
If he could just get this first time over with, the next time would be easier. It was a process. He'd done it before. It was like ripping off a bandage; better to get on with it.
"Mr. Barton," Jarvis's voice came unexpectedly, just as Clint had taken his first step towards the water. "Are you in need of assistance?"
"Shit," Clint shouted, so startled he'd nearly slipped.
"Should I send for help?"
"What? No," Clint snapped. "What... What are you doing in here, Jarvis? We've had this talk about personal space, haven't we? This is a private area. The bathroom is off limits. Completely and always off limits. Right?"
"Yes, sir. Normally the bathroom is off limits, as you like to say, but as we've discussed, there are certain protocols I am programmed to adhere to no matter the location."
"Like watching me shower?"
"Is that what you're doing, sir? Forgive me. Your heart rate was extremely elevated and your breathing irregular. I assumed you were in distress."
"I am in distress because you're spying on me. Again."
"Your heart rate was elevated before I spoke to you, sir."
"I know it was," Clint admitted, shaking his head and wondering how the hell his life had come to this. He was scared of the shower and talking to an omnipresent AI. "I'm fine. I'm... If I need help, I'll ask for it. Okay, Jarvis?"
"Of course, sir."
"Can you get the hell out now?"
"Right away, sir."
"Christ," Clint sighed, and without really thinking, he stepped into the shower. It took half a minute for his brain to catch up to what his body had done, and initially he had panicked, but he stayed put. He washed as quickly as he could, and it may not have been the world's greatest job, but it was enough.
Out again, Clint dried off as fast as possible before retreating back into the bedroom and getting dressed. Before he left he made the bed and repacked his bag, leaving his newly acquired books on the dresser and his new suit hanging up in the closet, but packing the miniature bow and arrow set Tony had sent to him on the first day. There wasn't room in his bag for anything else and he assumed he might be back one day soon for the rest any way.
Clint found everyone still gathered out on the balcony enjoying a leisurely breakfast. He'd almost brought up how perverted Jarvis was, but realized that would only lead to a lot of questions he didn't want to answer about why the AI had showed up in the first place. Clint had discovered that Jarvis wasn't totally adverse to complaints and suggestions, and he figured it would be easier to have another conversation with Jarvis about boundaries than to bring it up with Tony.
"There he is," Tony said as soon as Clint joined them. "The man Pepper left me for."
"What?" Clint asked, momentarily confused while everyone around him seemed to be in on the joke.
"Sorry, buddy," Tony said, standing up and handing him the tablet he'd been reading. "I tried, but this time they didn't bother asking me to bid. Can't imagine why," he added dryly as Clint took a look at the latest pictures pulled up from some tabloid blog. Most of them were of him and Pepper, taken at various locations around town throughout the week. Some of them were even from the fundraiser the night before; those carefully omitted the fact that Tony had also been in attendance. The general idea of it was that Pepper had done the unthinkable and dumped Iron Man for a nobody. "They don't have anything on you, not even a name and... well, they aren't great shots but..."
Clint shrugged it off, knowing what the but was; they were clearly him. A few were blurry. A few were too far away for a positive ID, but anyone who did know Clint would know it was him.
"Fury see these yet?" he asked.
"He's not happy," Natasha answered, "but I think he expected it to happen sooner or later."
"I tried to have it stopped," Tony added.
"We might still be able to stop the newspaper tabloids from printing them," Pepper said, not because she cared, she'd been lied about before in the press, but because she knew it mattered to Clint.
Or it had.
"Don't bother," he said, waving them both off and handing the tablet back to Pepper in favor of a cup of coffee. "The more you tell them not to, the more they'll want to run them. And if they don't run those, they'll keep taking more."
"True words," Tony agreed happily. That had always been his approach.
"It's really okay?" Pepper asked.
"I'm going to have to get used to it," Clint answered. "To change, right? I mean... Please don't think I want to end up in the papers, I'd really rather not, but... What am I going to do about it? It happened. I imagine with Tony around, it's going to happen again so... People leave traces, right?"
"Right," Pepper agreed happily.
The plane ride back to New York was much louder than the trip to LA had been, owing exclusively to Tony, but everyone was in good spirits.
Everyone except Natasha.
As the day wore on, the more discontent she seemed to grow.
Bruce, Thor and Jane were all waiting to greet them, back at the Tower, and the first few hours in New York were spent talking, laughing, and eating; more or less just enjoying company. When everyone wound down and began to retreat to their own quarters, Clint was a little shocked to find Natasha trailing after him, but he didn't try and stop her.
"You're serious," she said as soon as the door had shut them inside his room.
"You're really leaving SHIELD."
"Natasha, we've been talking about this for months."
"Yes, but..." she stammered, crossing her arms defensively to cover herself and her anxiety.
"You never thought I'd do it," he finished for her, brow furrowed in surprise.
"Because, frankly, you're a follower," Natasha said coolly. "I always assumed if I left or if..." she stumbled again, but they both heard Phil's name in their heads. "Sure, then you'd go. But you're really doing this. You're really going to leave." Clint had to turn his back on her and walk across the room.
It shouldn't have made him as mad as it did. Part of him knew she'd felt this way. That she hadn't believed him, not once, not really, when he said he'd go without her. That he wouldn't be capable of leaving. The sheer fact that he'd delayed it for so long kind of proved her point.
And truthfully, he had felt that way.
That didn't make the accusation sting any less.
"What finally convinced you?" he asked, finding his own reflection in the window easier to face than her at the moment.
"So, I tell you I'm tired of all the lying. I tell you I'm sick of having no say in things. I say I love you and I want us to be together... I tell near perfect strangers things I couldn't even admit to myself for years and... and this convinces you? That I stopped caring about who takes my picture?"
"It's a process."
"It's really not," he said, shaking his head and turning to face her again. Even if she was right, he had waivered, to hear her say it hurt. He already doubted himself; to have her doubt as well... "If you'd have told me you were leaving, I'd have believed you."
"But I didn't say that," she returned, and even though neither of them had raised their voices in the slightest, it was an argument. There was no getting around the fact that this was a fight. "And you've been saying these things for years. You've always complained."
"You think I've just been complaining? Letting off steam? What? What exactly? It wasn't like I was saying I was sick of the rat-infested hellholes the safe houses always end up being... I was telling you that I had serious questions about SHIELD. About what we do. About everything we are."
"Not we. You."
"Fine. Me. It was just about me, but I thought you understood that."
"I thought..." Natasha said, shaking her head and wanting him to understand but not able to make it happen. "Part of me knew you were serious..."
"Well, isn't that nice," Clint interjected bitterly.
"...but I never thought you'd do it. Not really. I was obviously wrong."
"Clint..." she said, taking a step forward. Towards him and across the room.
Natasha didn't know what she was going to say next, but it turned out not to matter.
As far as Clint was concerned, she'd said enough.
"I don't really think we have anything more to say here."
"All right," she said with a gentle nod. "Just... promise me you'll be careful."
"So now I'm not only a follower, but a helpless one as well?"
"That's not what I mean," Natasha said, for once letting the hurt through her voice. "SHIELD does a lot for you. We've... You've made enemies out there. They've given you shelter and anonymity. That's going to be gone once you leave. They've protected you as much as you've protected them."
"But they never let me in. And they'll never let you in."
"I never wanted in," she argued. Clint stood there, his own arms folded the same way as hers were as he looked her in the eyes and nodded. He understood it as much as he ever would. It was more than she'd ever given him. Much more. And that was their problem. "All I ever wanted from them, they gave me. They still... I just want a safe place," she finished, defeated.
"And I thought I gave you that," he shrugged. Natasha dropped her eyes, unable to answer. "Why can't we just talk and listen to each other? When did this get so hard?"
"When you started wanting more," she admitted. "Clint, you want things I can't give you and I don't know how to deal with that."
"That's not true. I only want you. Just you."
"No," she said, shaking her head with a near scowl on her lips. "You want normal. You want a regular relationship; a wife and kids with a house and a picket fence. You want... you want more than I'll ever be capable of and you'll never be truly happy with less."
"What I want is for other people to stop telling me what I want," he said, his voice rising against despite his best efforts to keep it in check. "Or how I feel. Or how I should feel about what I want."
"And what about what I want?"
"Everything is about what you want," he fired back at her. "You need space, I give you space. You need someone to talk to, and I talk to you. I do everything you ask, as soon as you ask, and I've never asked for more."
"You've asked for more," she corrected.
"I've asked for acknowledgement. For something... for anything that tells me that I'm not just imagining all this between us. I have been there for you, with you, through some crazy shit, and I'd do it all again. Just the same, Tasha. Exactly the same, if that's how you wanted it. But... Yeah, maybe you are right," he said, winding down in defeat. "I need more. I need... I need you to go."
"I can't do this halfway," he returned, shaking his head. "Just like I couldn't leave SHIELD halfway. You've been saying it now for years and you're right. I need time and I need space, away from you."
"This is... sudden," she stalled, not sure what to say. She had never expected him to follow through. "You want me to go?"
"No, I don't," he said, sounding exhausted. "I don't want... I'm not going to get what I want. What I need is for you to go. Not away from SHIELD or the Avengers or anywhere you want to be... as long as it's not around me. This," he said, motioning at the space between them, "it has to end. You've been very clear about where I stand with you, about how it's going to be, so... this is what I need it to be. You can't push me away with one hand and pull me closer with the other. I can't... I can't do it. I thought I could. I thought I was stronger than this but I'm not. You know I'm not."
Natasha didn't try to argue with him. Clint was right. She had been pushing him to cut her off now for weeks, if not longer, much longer. And it hurt, now that he was finally acting, but it would be better in the long run. He was dependant on her, as she was on him; but she was the only one enabling the situation. Clint didn't seek her out. Clint didn't tell her no and then promise a yes. He hadn't even kissed her before the other night. He'd never moved first, that was her, always her, until now.
Natasha realized that she never thought he would.
"I'll go," she said simply.
She really thought he'd try to stop her. Even then. Even after he'd sounded so certain and steady.
Maybe she'd wanted him to, but he didn't.
Clint watched her leave and stood there, still watching the door, for some time after it had shut.
It was for the best, he told himself. It had to be, even if it didn't feel that way. It was as if he'd cut out a piece of himself and thrown it away. Clint had to fight down the urge to chase her down, to fix it while he still could, but he couldn't let himself do that. If he crawled back now, he'd do it again and again, same as before and nothing would change between them.
He loved her. He wanted her. He couldn't have her.
That was the truth and it would take time before that truth stopped hurting, but in time...
Clint had done this before, he reasoned. Had cut ties and changed his life. More than enough, but he was hopeful that this was the last time. That this time would count for something more than all the reset combined.
He'd have to make it count.
He'd have to do it alone.
End Notes: I kind of want to apologize here... The ending, it's abrupt, I know, but again... middle piece I swear. There will be more. I will resolve this in my own way. Hope you enjoyed it. Thanks again!