Clint's head ached. He didn't know what idiot junior agent they'd had in charge of the artillery and he had half a mind to put in an official inquiry to find out; they'd aimed too close to his perch and every time a shell exploded the sound was like a dagger being driven directly into his temple. Between that and being awake for twenty-eight hours straight he was tempted to skip out on the debriefing and sneak off to see if he could find somewhere quiet to close his eyes for a few hours.
Not that he'd get away with it; eventually Coulson would track him down and stare at him until he dragged himself up and got it over with. It had happened before.
As the chopper touched Nat glared at him, too exhausted to even flick her hair out of her eyes. "Don't even think about it. If I have to go over that mess in gory detail for the next hour so do you."
"How'd you know I was thinking about that?"
"You're always thinking about that."
Which was true; Clint had never met a debriefing he didn't want to run from. He rode out the final landing jolt – he was apparently surrounded by junior idiots today – and jumped from the helicopter the moment the hatch opened, Nat right behind him. Coulson was there to meet them at the edge of the helipad and that...okay, that was a little strange. Clint would have expected him to be preparing the debrief. God knew with the mess of a mission they'd left in their rearview Coulson could justify using all the fancy Stark tech holo charts his heart desired.
"Glad to see you're both in one piece."
Not like he hadn't been monitoring the festivities closely enough to know how many lucky breaks that had taken. "We doing the debrief out here?"
"The situation's changed."
The tone in Coulson's voice stood Clint up straight, made him take a closer look and he felt the adrenaline start to flow because Coulson looked scattered. Distracted. Clint had seen him in control rooms juggling three different missions at once without ever being close to distracted. "What the hell did we miss?" Clint asked, reaching out to put one hand on his forearm – whatever they'd missed, it must have been bad.
Coulson jerked his arm back, his eyes flicking up quick and hard. Distance, Barton. Like they were in the middle of a big briefing surrounded by half of SHIELD, not standing on an all but empty helipad. Then he sighed, his shoulders slumping and suddenly Clint wanted nothing more than to be back in the field sitting way to close to artillery fire. "I want you both to be honest," he said, looking from Clint to Nat then back for good measure. "Neither one of you are in any trouble." He rubbed his forehead, like he'd managed to catch Clint's headache. "Barton, I think they want to see you first."
Clint glanced over to Nat; he knew she'd caught everything he had and more but he couldn't read her expression now. And in a way, that told Clint everything he needed to know anyway - if Nat had her guard up to the point even he couldn't break through this had to be as bad as it got. Clint realized he must have hesitated too long when Coulson gave him another look, this one almost pleading. Barton, for once just do what I tell you. Clint swallowed hard. "Yes, sir," he said, making his way inside without another backward glance.
There was an agent in a black suit and matching shades there to escort him, one Clint didn't know. There was nothing to do except follow, Clint concentrating on the thud of his boots hitting the floor to distract himself from wondering what was waiting for him and the aggravation of not even being allowed to change out of his gear before having to deal with whatever this was.
They finally stopped at the smaller conference room, Fury's favorite and Clint knew he had to be spitting mad at it being commandeered (he knew Fury couldn't be the one behind this, it wasn't his style and he wouldn't have put Coulson so on edge.) The escort stepped aside and let Clint open the door himself; after a taking a quick breath Clint keyed in his ID number and pushed the door open.
There were two men in the room, neither of them anyone Clint knew; seated at the table was a big man, broad-shouldered and muscled like he'd just wandered in from a weightlifting competition, the build contrasting with his business casual suit and bright green hair. Standing next to him was an older man, Clint put his age somewhere in his late forties-early fifties, dressed in an olive Army officer's uniform. He wore a full colonel's stripes and Clint ground his teeth; that was a much higher level of brass than he ever cared to deal with. The officer caught Clint's eye and waved him toward the empty chair at the table. "Specialist Barton," he said, a broad smile on his face. "Have a seat. We'll try to keep this portion of the proceedings as brief as possible, I expect you'll want to unwind after your operation. Very good work."
Clint took the seat, feeling like this had already gone on too long. "I prefer Agent Barton. If it's all the same to you."
The man's eyebrows drew together, as if he didn't understand why Clint would say that. "I meant no offense. I always like to refer to servicemen by their rank."
"No offense, but I'm not all that proud of a lot of my service. Sir." Technically Clint didn't need to Sir him, he wasn't even in SHIELD from what Clint could tell but anything to move this along, no matter how much it rankled.
The man nodded, giving Clint a look he suspected was supposed to be sympathetic. "Whichever makes you more comfortable. Agent. But from what I've read of your file-" Clint hoped the flash of Oh God, he's read my file didn't show on his face – "yours looks more like a case of poor commanders than poor service. A man should never be ashamed of following orders."
Clint was on the verge of mentioning how that hadn't gone over so well at Nuremberg when the second man decided it was time to speak up. "Colonel, if I may?" The colonel nodded and he continued, "Agent Barton, my name is Dr. Leonard Samson. You can call me Dr. Samson, Doc, Leo, whatever you like. My associate here is Colonel William Royce and he'll both be monitoring and in a limited fashion participating in these proceedings."
"You're a shrink," Clint said. He'd recognized the name; it had come up in one of the Banner briefings, he'd been a guinea pig in one of the Army's gamma experiments after the Hulk fiasco. At least it looked like this one had gone better than Banner's little trip to radiation land.
"That's one of the nicer words for it, yes."
"My yearly psych eval was less than two months ago, I can't be due again already."
Samson shook his head. "You are being evaluated in a way, but nothing you say here will affect your field status or wind up in your record. Everything here is as confidential as it gets."
Clint leaned back in his chair. "You're not one of the SHIELD shrinks."
He shook his head again. "I'm an independent. I'm who SHIELD contracts for these kind of situations."
"Someone mind telling me exactly what kind of situation I'm in the middle of here?"
"Doctor, if I may?" Samson nodded and Royce took a step forward. "I'm a member of the Council Oversight Committee and head of Investigations. You can think of us as a kind of Internal Affairs for SHIELD if you like."
Clint dug his nails into the arm of the chair. "Look, I don't know what's going on but my disciplinary record's been clean for a long time, I haven't been so much as written up in over five years..."
"Relax, son," Royce said. "You're not the one on trial." The fatherly tone Royce kept using set Clint's teeth on edge. The guy had barely ten years on him, fifteen at the most and he kept talking to Clint like he was some green kid fresh out of boot camp.
Samson cleared his throat, drawing Clint's attention back. "Agent Barton, approximately how long has Phil Coulson been operating as your handler?"
Well. That wasn't a question he'd expected. "Um...since the end of the first year."
Samson glanced over at Royce, who nodded to continue. "And how many other handlers have you worked with?"
Clint frowned, trying to figure out where this was going. "Since then, you mean? A couple here and there when the situations arose but no one long term."
"Is it unusual for a field agent to have the same handler for so long a time?"
"I kind of have a history."
Samson nodded, marking down notes in shorthand. "Phil Coulson is also Agent Romanoff's primary handler, is that correct?"
Clint couldn't keep his lips from curling up. "She also has a bit of a history."
Samson nodded. "And how would you judge Coulson's performance as your handler?"
Clint drummed his fingers against the arm of the chair, trying to figure out what answers they were angling for. "He's always on top of things. No one preps an operation better. Anyone at SHIELD could tell you the same."
"That and more," Royce said almost under his breath, earning a sideways look from Samson.
"What exactly's going on here?"
Samson put up one hand, a placating gesture. "Just answer the questions, please. Now, in the time you've worked with Agent Coulson have you ever seen him act inappropriately with any agents under his command?"
Clint couldn't stop his mouth from hanging open. "What?"
"In your experience, have you ever seen him take any kind of liberties?"
"I have no idea what you're getting at."
"Has he ever asked you or Agent Romanoff to keep secrets that weren't part of an operation? Or asked a personal favor?"
And suddenly it all slotted into place, like a target stepping right in front of his bow. Clint leaned back in the chair and stared back and forth between Royce and this Dr. Samson, the absolute absurdity of where these questions must be leading stunning him for a second. "Wait, let me get this straight," he said, unable to keep down the incredulous chuckle. "Are you saying this is all because you think Coulson's taking advantage of us?"
No one else laughed and Clint felt reality hit him like a cold wind. That had been a mistake, that had been a bad mistake, it looked bad being that flip but he had to roll with it now. "Someone's playing a joke if that's the intelligence you're getting. Coulson's the last person you'd ever have to worry about."
"Agent Barton, please answer the questions."
Clint shifted in the chair again, fighting down his rising temper until he felt his emotions even out, smooth as glass. Nat wasn't the only one who could put up a mask. "No. Coulson's never been anything but professional."
Royce nodded, the corners of his mouth twitching up. Like he'd expected Clint to say that. He picked up a thick folder and paged through it for a few moments. "Let's go back to the end of that first year, when Coulson was assigned to you," he said, letting Clint see that it was his own file he was holding. "Walk me through it."
Clint chewed the inside of his lip, fighting down another spike of temper. He may be lying through his teeth but he wasn't the only one - he suddenly got the feeling he was going to be sitting here for a long, long time.
Natasha watched Clint's eyes follow Coulson out of the conference room side exit and into the commissary, flanked by a supremely irritated looking Maria Hill and one of the better SHIELD lawyers. "They gave him Walters," she said, making sure to look entirely absorbed in the report she was revising. "She's very good." She didn't elaborate that Fury having Legal pull one of its best lawyers off her usual caseload meant this must be very bad because it really didn't need to be said.
Not that Clint was listening, anyway. "He looks shaken up," he said.
Natasha risked another glance up and couldn't deny that Clint was right; Coulson's usual perfectly neutral expression was firmly in place but she noticed that he'd put his watch back on the wrong wrist after passing through the metal detectors and he'd raked one hand through his hair twice in the handful of moments she'd watched him. "I think that we can tell he's shaken up is how they know there's a problem."
"There isn't a problem."
"Watch your eye lines."
Clint swore and forced his gaze back to the report he was holding. "I hate this," he forced out through his teeth, leaning back in his chair with one foot draped over the back of hers. It was always easy to tell Clint's mental state based on how slippery his definition of personal space became. "I'm used to being the one behind the scope, not the one being watched."
"You'll have to get used to it." That was a reminder to herself as much as to him; she'd gotten complacent at SHIELD over the years, this was proof of it. She shouldn't have needed this reminder that not everyone with a SHIELD badge her ally.
As if reading her mind Clint said, "Which one of us screwed up? Were you able to get one of them to say?"
"No," she said, and not for any lack of trying. But there must have been a mistake made somewhere; this kind of investigation had to run on more than idle gossip. The Howling Commandos card she'd brought back from Munich last spring, maybe; she'd slipped it into Coulson's locker but she could have been spotted. Or when AIM had grabbed Clint during the mission in Seattle and shot him full of so many chemicals Medical was still trying to identify them all, she and Coulson hadn't been part of the rescue team that finally recovered him and he could have said something incriminating under the influence. Depending on how long this had been in the works it could have been any number of little mistakes over the years.
Clint's eyes started to wander back over toward where Coulson was conferring with Hill and Walters – Coulson hadn't so much as glanced in their direction, which was just as it should be – and Natasha tapped Clint's leg to get back his attention. He grimaced when he realized what he'd been doing, drumming his fingers against the table. "What's your read on those two, Royce and the shrink?"
Natasha pursed her lips, replaying the interrogation. "Samson is very sharp. I chose my words carefully and I still think he saw through me at times. I do think his claims of objectivity are more than just lip service, though."
She felt her lips curl down into a scowl before she controlled the expression. "Royce thinks he's serving justice."
Clint let out a soft, frustrated sigh. "He kept calling me 'son.' Haven't had someone do that so much since my own old man, and I didn't like it then."
"I think he's that sort. He even called me 'young lady' once."
Clint shook his head. "Why isn't Fury crushing this? He doesn't give a shit, we all know that."
Natasha shrugged, making sure the gesture looked like she was stretching her shoulders. "Even he has superiors."
Clint didn't seem to have an answer for that. "How's this gonna play out, Nat? What's the short term?"
Natasha knew that Clint sometimes liked to hear confirmed what he already knew. "Short term? We'll be assigned to interim handlers if we're not pulled from the field entirely." Clint scowled at that; there was no quicker way to make Clint Barton grouchy than to assign him to desk duty. "More of these fun little meetings until a final hearing."
"What's your read on the long term?"
Natasha glanced up at him, because she didn't think he'd like this at all. She wasn't very pleased with it herself. "If SHIELD is smart they'll assign us to new handlers permanently, no matter how the hearing works out." Clint shifted in his seat at that, a quick flash of panic in his eyes that he didn't smother fast enough. "And if the hearing goes poorly we'll have new handlers at any rate."
Clint nodded; there was really no escaping that. "They'll demote him, you think?"
It took all of her self control not to stare at him, because she ,knew he wasn't that naïve. "Drummed out is the term I would use."
Maybe he really was that naïve; his expression dropped into stark horror before he got himself back under control. "That's...out of SHIELD? Nat, they...this place is everything to him, you know that. The junior agents still spread around stories that he and Fury live here."
The thought made Natasha feel a little ill as well. "You asked."
Clint kept drumming against the table until Natasha stilled his hand, giving him a warning look. Some fidgeting was fine, expected even, but too much and people would start wondering if Clint was too upset. It was bad enough they apparently had people whispering about them already. Clint squeezed her hand once before taking a deep breath, fake, practiced calm settling over his features. "The sight lines from the roof are pretty good," he said, dropping that casually into the conversation.
"No. Tempting, but no. And it wouldn't solve anything, the Council will just send a new inquisitor."
His shoulders slumped a little. "Just saying. They're pretty good." He started to drum his fingers again before catching himself, lacing his hands behind his head for a second until the urge passed. "I got to take a look at my file. That was exciting."
"I can imagine." Natasha had never seen Clint's file, or her own for that matter, and could only imagine all the lovely things that must be in there. "Did they need a hand truck to wheel it in?"
"Funny." He picked up the half-written report again to have something to do with his hands. "There was kill order from Fury in there. Apparently I'd been on double secret probation for a while without knowing it."
Natasha had been with SHIELD long enough to know that was the code phrase for a thirty day order of dismissal. Real kill orders never made their way into any files. "How long was left on it?"
"Six days. It's not like I hadn't known I'd be heading back to contracting, before Coulson took my case I hadn't been cleared for the field in three months because none of the handlers would touch me. I just didn't know I had less than a week."
"Wouldn't none of the handlers touch you because you broke your previous handler's jaw?"
All these years later and she'd never seen Clint look sorry about that. "Okay, fine that didn't help, I admit but that was just the last straw. It was the same every time, I'd get assigned a new one, they'd tell me how happy they were to work with me and then as soon as they got a look at my file it didn't matter what I did in the field, they all looked at me the same way. After a while they didn't need to read my file, word just got around. And each time that happened..." He let out a sharp breath. "You wouldn't have liked me back then. I was angry. Keep me away from gamma experiments angry."
Clint shook his head, his eyes going flinty and hard in that way that always made ice line her veins. It was a few long minutes before he spoke again, his voice lost in the past. "I killed a twelve-year-old once. Probably more than once, but that's the youngest confirmed. I was working a security contract in the Sudan, and I don't know if you ever had reason to be there back then but what a clusterfuck that was." Clint glanced up at her, a You sure you want to hear this? expression and Natasha nodded. Clint rarely worked himself into a confessional mood; Natasha had told him virtually everything she'd ever done within the first six months, more as a test to see if he'd turn on her than out of remorse, at least back then, but Clint's past only ever came out in painful fragments, names whispered in nightmares and horror stories told late at night after too much wine.
"My unit was babysitting this minor warlord, no one important enough to make waves internationally but smart enough to grab some strategic territory and hold it. All the big shots used child soldiers but he liked to keep them close, he figured the NATO boys wouldn't take shots at him if he kept the kids in the way. And he was right about that, so hey, good thinking. He had a good thing going but by the time my unit got out there he was getting pretty full of himself – demanding kickbacks, harassing the other defense contractors, blocking supply lines, that kind of thing. So he needed to be humbled but we couldn't just take him out, he was working as a bottleneck with two of the other warlords and we needed them all fighting with each other so no one got too powerful. So about three days after the chopper landed my CO came to me and told me to handle it.
"Found myself a good perch and set up a nest, just watching the camp for a few days." His tongue flicked out over his lips. "The twelve-year-old was the first day. Through the eye. Just happened to be standing next to his boss. After that I took out one a day, all through the eye so he would know it wasn't random. He'd send out parties to find me but none of them ever came back, the rest of the unit took care of them, and each morning it was the same thing, whoever was standing next to him got an arrow for their troubles. I could see him starting to go crazy but he never had the guts to walk around the camp alone. Like he was trying to make it easy for me." His lips twitched up into a grim smile. "This went on for nine days before he finally decided to play ball. Two of them were his own kids, found that out later." He shook his head, the spell breaking. "Not a lot of people still feel like working with someone after reading that. And even the ones who could still look at me, they just treated me like something to aim."
After all these years he still looked at her like her like expected judgment. As if she hadn't done worse. "Why did you break your old handler's jaw?"
"I thought the mission plan as laid out carried too big a risk of civilian casualties and told him so." His lips twitched up again. "He said he was surprised a baby killer like me had even noticed." Clint mimed making a fist before shaking his head again. "Broke his jaw because he was right." Natasha had never seen his eyes so desolate. "Now it's all gonna happen again. My file's not like yours, most of your worst hits are still redacted 'cause it's all wrapped up in national security. Anyone with enough clearance to handle me has the clearance to read everything."
Natasha couldn't even find any words to comfort him because it was undeniably true. "Who was the handler who called you that?" she said, sorting through her mental rolodex of SHIELD handlers to see who she could imagine being so blunt.
She only frowned at that. "I don't know him."
For the first time all conversation Clint's lips curled up into a real smile. "About six months in Coulson asked me the same question you did. I'd kept my mouth shut when I'd been interrogated about the incident so the reason why never made it into the file and I guessed not knowing was driving him nuts. It took him three days but he finally got me to talk, and when I was done he...you know that smile Coulson has that's not really a smile?" Natasha nodded. "He just gave me that look and said, 'You should have told me sooner,' he said, doing a passable impression. "Two days later Jennings was reassigned to Bulgaria." Even after all this time Clint still looked like he could hardly believe that had happened. "One of the first things Coulson said to me – aside from saying that he'd taken me on because he didn't believe in assets going to waste – was that he didn't care about what was in my file, just what I'd do for SHIELD. I told him that was a load of crap because every handler told me that, and he just said that this time it was true. He was the only one who'd meant it."
Clint looked over at Coulson again, and this time Natasha didn't have the to heart to tell him to stop. "It's been a good run here. Longer than I thought it would last. Maybe it's time to move on."
That set off every alarm Natasha had. "You told me once that if I came with you I'd find a home here."
Clint was quiet for a few moments. "Maybe I was wrong."
Two days later Clint was back in that room opposite Samson with Royce off to the side. Samson looked to Royce, who nodded and that confirmed the conclusion he'd come to with Nat that he was the one writing the questions, Samson was just translating them into shrink talk. "Agent Barton," Samson said, tapping the folder in front of him into neat edges before opening it. "Why don't we talk about your relationship with Natasha Romanoff?"
Oh, that's sharp. Clint shifted in his chair; they were trying to throw him by changing the subject but he recognized the tactic – he and Nat were the same rank, as much as SHIELD had ranks. Since neither of them gave each other orders a...more than professional relationship wasn't technically against regs. Wasn't exactly given a full blessing, either, but as long as everyone kept things quiet and it didn't affect work performance the field agents could take up with each other all they liked. And it wasn't like he and Nat were any kind of secret.
But Clint knew that could be twisted to make it seem like a discipline issue, that Coulson wasn't running a tight enough ship. Not to mention the old tactic of getting Clint to get admit to one thing, then chipping away for more. "I don't know what you're referring to."
Samson gave him an Oh come on look. "When did your relationship with Agent Romanoff pass beyond the professional?"
Clint hears the rumble behind him but doesn't have time to so much as turn around before the avalanche buries him, like something out of an old Warner Brothers cartoon. He can't even shout before he's off his feet with his mouth full of snow, so much weight pressed against his chest he's unconscious before he can even start digging himself out.
The next thing he remembers is coming to in the cave they'd passed on the way up, Nat on top of him and to this day he doesn't know how she managed to dig him out and drag him halfway down the mountain. There's a small fire but he can't feel it, he's so cold. She has his wet gear half off but she's smaller than him and body heat only goes so far. All he wants to do is close his eyes but Nat won't let him; she straddles him across his waist and cradles his head, talking to him although he doesn't know the words, whether they're English or Russian or some mix of both.
He can't feel his hands. He'd only been wearing half gloves, they weren't supposed to be up here long enough for it to matter and he doesn't like shooting with full ones; now the skin is dead white and he can't feel them and he can't move them. He's with it just enough to know that's bad, he's got pain shaking through him everywhere else but he still can't feel his hands. That terror's worse than the fear that he might not get off this mountain because even if an extraction team finds them without his hands what good is he?
He thinks he must have said something because Nat slides his hands under her gear, flush against her skin; she's like a furnace and it hurts but she won't let him pull away. She's shivering now too and Clint knows he should tell her to get out, to get back down the mountain until she finds the signal and can report but he's not coherent enough. He wants to close his eyes so bad but she keeps shaking him awake.
Clint remembers an article he read when he was a kid about Everest, about how it's too dangerous to recover the ones who fail the climb so they're left where they fall. Even back then heights had been his refuge and that they could betray you like that had messed with him, showing up in dreams until he gave himself more concrete things to have nightmares about. Nat leans over him, holding his head up to try to force eye contact. ...right here, Clint. She's never called him Clint before, since the day he'd recruited her it's always been Agent Barton. He likes the way she says his name. He likes the way she says most things. Not going anywhere, I promise.
He tries to touch her face, even if his hands are still too numb to move; she uncurls his fingers and presses his hand against her cheek, nodding at him. He shivers so hard his skull knocks against the floor of the cave and she cradles his head up. He feels his eyes blinking closed again and tries to fight it because he knows this might be the last chance he gets to look at her.
Clint leans up and brushes his lips against hers; he's wanted to do this forever, probably since the day he'd recruited her if he's honest but he'd held himself back. The last thing he wanted was for her to think that's why he made that call, but he's dying and she's beautiful. He hopes she'll forgive him.
She holds him against her, her lips moving against his as she whispers words he can't make out. The last thing he feels before slipping back under is her breath warm against his lips.
Clint shifted in his chair again. "I don't know what you're talking about," he said, the lie a blatant challenge. Prove that I'm lying. Let's see what you have. "Maybe you haven't read Agent Romanoff's file, but the woman scares the hell out of me."
She made the doctor uneasy. Not nervous, just uneasy; she could tell he was a man used to being able to read others and he was having trouble with her. It made him proceed carefully, like a well-matched opponent in the early stages of a fencing match.
Royce was another issue; he treated her with the deeply concerned pity she'd learned to expect from some men when they read her file, what little of it was available, the kind that wrapped itself in sympathy. Like she was a bruised butterfly, some helpless thing that needed his protection. She encouraged that feeling, drawing out his emotions when she saw the opportunity. Men like Royce revealed themselves when they felt like someone was asking for their chivalry, and anything that let him underestimate her could be useful.
Samson was falling for none of it. She was beginning to like the man. "Agent Romanoff, how would you characterize the relationship between Agents Barton and Coulson?"
She watched Royce's reaction, the faint curl of his lip. She wondered if the disgust was simply because both of those names were male or because he also thought Clint was something that needed to be protected. Probably a little of both. "Frankly, it would probably do Barton good to be forced to work with other handlers. He's been coddled." They're looking for impropriety; she could give them something that matched the file but still wasn't actionable.
Royce nodded but Samson saw through the word play. She dearly wished the colonel hadn't found himself so intelligent a bloodhound. "When you first were brought into SHIELD you had an outsider's point of view. Did you notice any...irregularities?"
Natasha wondered if it taking her two weeks to notice that Coulson was the only handler Clint made a point of calling Sir would count as an "irregularity." It had certainly come as a surprise to her that she'd missed it for so long. Or when she'd noticed how Coulson would hold himself a little straighter when he knew Clint was up on some hidden perch watching him, especially when some time went by and she knew them well enough to see how much Clint liked watching him and back and forth until it all became a voyeuristic feedback loop. Or how surprised she'd been the first time Coulson had casually called her by her first name, first Natasha and then Tasha, when with Clint it was always Barton. How he never demanded any of the deference Clint gave him from her or any of the other agents he handled.
But really, Natasha would have to say the most irregular thing she'd ever noticed was when she'd realized that despite the Sirs and the watching and the general circling around each other there was actually nothing going on. At least not then, and not for a frustratingly long time afterward considering she had to work around all that tension. Considering how quickly she and Clint fell into bed she still wasn't sure what had been wrong with the two of them for so long.
She remembered Clint forcing her to watch The Princess Bride with him one night, part of his campaign to get her to watch all of the movies of his youth under the guise of helping her blend in better with Americans, ignoring that she'd done a perfectly good job of that before meeting him. She'd found the movie unbearably twee aside from the very entertaining if not in any way realistic sword fights, not that she'd told Clint any of that since he spent the whole film utterly enthralled.
It did give her a moment of clarity, though, when she realized all the Sirs and "Barton"s were their version of As You Wish and neither of them had realized it yet. It made her give serious consideration to rolling them both down a hill to see if that did any of them any favors.
"No, I can't say I noticed anything inappropriate between them when I was recruited."
"So in your opinion there were no incidents that struck you as memorable?"
They're still just setting up for the mission when Coulson shoves her hard to the ground. "Get down!" he says, then the next second she hears the crack of a rifle shot, the sound coming from a building on the opposite side of the plaza from where she knows Clint's set up his nest. She hits the dirt as the sound echoes around the quiet buildings and sees Coulson do the same in her peripheral vision. She counts to five but there's no more shots; she picks her head up, knowing the movement puts her at risk but not much more than being exposed like this does anyway.
That's when she realizes Coulson isn't moving. She commando crawls over to him, reaching him as he finally starts to stir; she turns him over and sucks in a breath when she sees blood already soaking through the front of his suit. "You should have ducked too."
"I'll take that under advisement," he whispers back, and Natasha doesn't know if that's a good sign or just proof shock already has him. He shakes his head when she starts tearing his suit open, trying to find the wound. "Get under cover."
She just quirks an eyebrow at that. "No," she says, making sure he knows that's a ridiculous order. There isn't much cover to find anyway and trying to drag him to what little she can find is the most efficient way to get them both killed. She finds the neat entrance wound and sets her hands against it; it's too far to the right to have hit his heart but even though she can't feel any air whistling out the placement's right for the bullet to be in his lung.
As if to confirm that he murmurs, "I can't catch my breath."
"I think it hit your lung," she says – no reason to sugarcoat things – and he nods. "I didn't see an exit wound so it's probably lodged." In some ways that's better news than if it had gone through, he'd bleed out faster with an exit wound. It takes all of her self-control not to look over to where Clint's hiding. "The sniper has a shot, why isn't he taking it?"
"They're dueling," he says. "Can't...reveal his position." She realizes it goes even deeper, the sniper's using them being in the crossfire as a shield. She really, really hopes Clint puts an arrow right in his throat. And the sooner the better; Coulson's eyes are already fluttering and she presses harder, startling them back open.
"Wake up." Her hands are full of blood and he's wheezing for air; if the lung hasn't already collapsed it's well on its way. She can't call for back up because that would just be putting the rescue team in front of the sniper but by her estimation they only have minutes. "Stay awake and look at me."
She can tell he's trying; his eyes blink back open with another start, his hand latching tight around her wrist. "It feels like you're falling?" He nods and she knows it's a good sign he's still that alert. "That's the shock."
"I know," he says, his hand still tight around her wrist. "Been here before."
"It never does start getting fun, does it?" He shakes his head, squeezing her wrist. "Stay with me, Coulson."
"Allowed to...to call me Phil now. Considering." She can't stop her lips from curling up at that. "Why do you always laugh when you hear my name?"
"Because it's a funny name. Phil." He manages to scrape up the energy to look offended, which is the whole point, after all. "It doesn't suit you."
"'Nothing wrong with my name," he says, his voice going hazy again. His eyes are wide but glassy and Natasha wonders how much he's seeing. She watches him blink slowly and she can hear the blood in his lungs now, can see it at the corner of his mouth. "Tasha?" he whispers, as if he's not sure if she's still there.
"I'm right here," she says, watching until his eyes focus back on her. "Just keep breathing."
"Feels...feels like I'm under water."
"Breathe anyway." She does risk a glance up to Clint's perch then, making sure Coulson follows the movement. "Clint's up there, remember. Unless you want him to watch you die."
He actually glares at her. "You fight dirty."
"I thought that's why SHIELD recruited me in the first place."
He's shivering hard now, his grip weak around her wrist as each breath takes him a little further away. "I'm sorry...ordered Barton to kill you."
"I'm not," she admits.
Coulson squeezes her wrist so hard she can feel his nails digging into her skin. "Don't let him quit."
She nods and that seems to be what he wanted; his grip starts to go slack again and Natasha adjusts her grip to keep his hand in place. "Don't you dare." His eyes are glazed over and she's not sure he can hear; she can feel his heart beating weak and rapid under her hands and knows she has to do something, fast.
Shock therapy, then. Natasha leans forward and kisses him on the lips, relief washing through her when she feels him reflexively try to return it. When she straightens back up there's such perfect surprise in his eyes that she almost laughs. "Keep breathing and I'll do that again someday. Understand?"
His voice is very small when he whispers, "Okay."
This much awareness is good. Better than good. "Now keep looking at me. Breathe when I breathe."
He nods, his eyes locked onto hers. They're very nice eyes, she notices for the first time. That blue-gray she's always been partial to. Sweat's pouring down her face despite the chill in the pre-dawn air and her shoulders burn, pins and needles racing up and down her arms. He must be able to see that exhaustion's about to overwhelm her because he whispers, "It's all right, Tasha."
"Shut up. Phil." If someone had told her a year ago she'd be fighting this hard to save the life of a man who'd ordered her dead she would have laughed. It hits her then like a bullet to the heart that she likes this new life she's fallen into at SHIELD and she's not ready to say goodbye to it. Not any part of it.
She hears the sharp sound of something slicing through the air, then an instant later there's a piercing cry and something falling with a wet, heavy thud. Another two seconds pass and she hears Clint's voice crackle over the comm. "We're clear," a tone there that turns her blood to ice.
She doesn't have time to deal with it now; she taps her earpiece and says, "Code 452, agent down and in need of assistance. Requesting a recovery team, now."
She breathes a sigh of relief when Hill answers; she's the only person Natasha's ever met who hates wasting time as much as she does. "Location?"
The back and forth only takes a few more seconds before the comm clicks back off and it takes less than two minutes for the helicopter to appear overhead. SHIELD is nothing if not prompt in an emergency. Coulson's hand stays latched around her arm like she's a good luck charm while Medical gets to work and while she's probably in the way neither of the EMTs want to be the one to tell her to leave. Considering that someone must have inside information to know to place a sniper at that location she isn't all that inclined to leave Coulson alone with anyone she doesn't know by both sight and name anyway.
Fortunately for everyone forced to deal with her HQ is the closest facility and Coulson's placed into senior enough hands that she can stop worrying on that front. Hill goes off to pin down the source of the leak, giving Natasha a nod of approval. She's amazed sometimes how quickly SHIELD's turned around from thinking she needed to be put down to considering her a valued member of the team.
It takes eighteen hours to stabilize Coulson and Natasha stays awake the entire time, downing coffee until she gives serious thought to asking Medical to hook an IV into her veins. She never even liked coffee before joining SHIELD. She does manage to avoid being called in for a debriefing, a minor miracle, although there isn't much more to say aside from what's in the report she manages to cobble together.
Clint's not as fortunate; she catches a glimpse of him being led into a conference room by a cloud of senior agents, the look on his face like he's being led to a gallows. She watches as three hours click by then slips back to her bunk, listening for noise from the adjoining room.
She only has to wait ten minutes - SHIELD consistently running like a well-oiled machine does have its advantages. Clint slams the door so hard the wall vibrates. The wall is thin enough for her to hear him pace for a few seconds, the fall of his boots dull thuds on the floor, then something heavy crashing against the wall. She hears the sound of bed springs creaking as Clint lets out a low, ragged sob, then there's a few minutes of rustling before the door opened and closed again.
Natasha leans against the wall, her arms crossed in front of her. So. That's what Coulson meant. Of course Clint would run. She can only imagine how much worse it would be if he'd taken a few more minutes to win the duel.
She waits twenty minutes – she doesn't think it would take any longer than that for Clint to get past the perimeter guards and away from HQ – then makes her way back to the ICU, settling in the chair at Coulson's bedside. "Well, you were right about what Clint would do," she says, taking his hand. "I'm giving him thirty-six hours, there'll be no reasoning with him until then."
She's not sure if she's imagining the faint squeeze she gets in return. "Just make sure you don't die before then," she says. "There will definitely be no reasoning with him then."
Natasha tracks him down just over the Quebec border, holed up in a flophouse motel that makes her want to take a shower just from looking at it. The lock is pitifully easy to pick and when she steps through the door Clint doesn't even look surprised. "SHIELD send you to drag me back?"
"I am here on orders," she says, closing the door behind her. It's technically true. "Clint, what are you doing?"
He doesn't look at her. "How's Coulson?"
She shrugs, pulling up a desk chair that's seen better days. "They took out a piece of lung," she says, watching Clint's fingers curl into the mattress. "So his marathon career is over but aside from that there shouldn't be any permanent affects."
When he finally does look up his eyes are bloodshot and his hands trembling. It takes a lot to make Hawkeye's hands shake. "I didn't see the sniper." She wonders if he's been intentionally not sleeping to make himself an easy target. They both know he has more than enough enemies who'd be happy to take advantage. "He had himself set up in a perfect nest and I didn't see it. It's my job to see it."
"There's nothing shameful about being fooled once by someone better..."
His next words come out in a growl. "There is no one better than me."
Got him. "Then come back home and prove it."
He blinks at her for a second, like he's not quite sure what just happened, then he sits back on the edge of the bed. "Hate it when you do that."
"No you don't."
He shakes his head, pulling her closer and wrapping the tips of her hair around his fingers. "Thought you were cutting it short again."
She shrugs; she prefers it shorter, it's easier to fight with but some cover identities work better with it long like this. "This length is useful for a cover identity I'll need to use soon."
"I like it long." He presses his forehead against hers. "It's for real that he's gonna be okay?"
"Would I lie about that?"
Fair enough. "If I was really lying it would be good enough that you wouldn't think to ask."
He chuckles at that, shaking fingertips tracing along her jaw before he kisses her. "That should have been a kill shot."
"It wasn't." She lets herself lean into the kiss this time as Clint's fingers trace over her heart where the bullet should have hit. "I'm all right, Clint. We all are." He nods but doesn't pull back, breathing in the words like he can't bring himself to believe them. She eases him back onto the bed and tangles his shaking hands through her hair. "Come home with me and I'll prove it."
"Told you I'd get you to call SHIELD home."
"Shut up." She kneels up and eases herself off the bed, pulling Clint to his feet after her. "Enough stalling. If Phil wakes up before I drag you back we're both going to be in trouble."
"Phil?" With that smirk on his face he almost looks like himself. "When did that start?"
"I'm full of secrets."
"He doesn't let me call him Phil."
Natasha just rolls her eyes at him, because they both know Clint wouldn't want him to. "Maybe he likes me better."
He kisses her again, deep gratitude in his eyes as he pulls back. "Can't say I blame him."
On the ride back it occurs to her that her bringing him back to SHIELD might technically make them even. Cross that debt out of her ledger.
She pulls over and watches him sleep in the front seat for a few minutes before deciding she'll give him this one for free.
Natasha returned Samson's look, holding his gaze. "SHIELD makes for a life full of memorable incidents, doctor. You're going to have to be more specific."
He tipped his chin up, giving her a little nod to acknowledge she'd won that volley. "I can well imagine."
Natasha leaned back, waiting for the next serve. She'd always been at her best when put on the defensive.