Title: The Measure of a Man
Rating: PG (language)
Characters: Clint Barton, Natasha Romanoff, Tony Stark, Jasper Sitwell, Phil Coulson
Summary: When Phil Coulson died, he left Clint his old sidearm and his Captain America comics, Natasha his personal library, and Stark…well, Stark got what was coming to him.
Warnings: Rating is for language.
Author's Note: Written to flesh out my own Avengers headcanon, in particular as related to Phil Coulson. Very much in the same universe as Believing in Heroes, this story focuses on Coulson's relationship to Hawkeye, Black Widow, and Iron Man.
Many thanks go out to my beta, Alpha Flyer, who took my story and made it much better by helping me get more solidly into Clint's head. This wouldn't be what it is without you, and you have my gratitude!
The measure of a man
Stands or falls with what he leaves behind
-Measure of a Man by Heather Dale
Clint Barton thanked Sitwell as he escorted the man to the door, ignoring the boxes he had brought with him. They were now sitting on the coffee table in front of the oversized, ridiculously comfortable couch Stark provided in the living room of his borrowed apartment in Stark Tower. The other agent responded with a nod, clapping a hand on Clint's shoulder in understanding before exiting the room.
Clint closed the door behind him slowly and engaged the lock after it slid closed, leaving him alone in the too-large, too-empty apartment. He was still unsure how he, of all people, had ended up with a suite of rooms four times the size of his bunk at headquarters with a bird's eye view of Manhattan. He expected that he would have found it beautiful were it not for the lingering damage from the battle – things clearly evident to eyes used to noticing details at a distance.
He was just now, nearly four weeks after it happened, able to take in the view, to look at what he had helped cause—helped stop, another voice inserted in his mind—and able to think about it with a hint of rationality. The first days had been full of swirling emotions as he started trying to sort through everything that had happened from the moment Loki's spear touched his chest to the silence of the shawarma restaurant. When the initial shock of it all had faded, he had been left feeling empty, guilty, and completely aware of the lingering looks from the other agents as he walked from his bunk at headquarters to the training rooms, or psych appointments, or debriefings. And so he had jumped at Stark's offer, not necessarily because he wanted to, but because anything was better than Headquarters and the accusatory looks that followed him everywhere.
Most importantly, the sense of something (someone) missing was not nearly as strong here as it was at S.H.I.E.L.D, and for that he could at least be thankful.
He sighed and turned back to the living room, crossing the floor to sit on the ridiculously comfortable couch and stared at the boxes on the coffee table. One was small, rectangular, deep, yet fairly lightweight; the other was large, long, and heavy. Both had pieces of paper with "Barton" on them in the square printing that he recognized as Sitwell's taped to the top. He sat forward on the cushions and carefully pulled off both labels, setting them aside and studying the boxes that were now as they had been when they had been carefully put together, perhaps even by…
Clint resolutely pushed that thought away, fighting the rising swell of grief that the thought of Coulson brought now. Instead, he gave into his curiosity and picked up the smaller of the two boxes, opening it slowly. He set aside the lid and reached in, withdrawing the case inside and opening it to find a handgun. It had not been used recently; this was an older model that Clint he had not seen in almost a decade, although he remembered it distinctly. The moment he first saw this weapon was not one he would ever forget.
Panting heavily with exertion, Clint Barton rounded the corner at a dead run, the hair on the back of his neck prickling as he felt the gaze of his pursuer, ignoring the pouring rain and the explosions of water in the puddles beneath his feet. The alley was narrow, with metal fire escapes rusting on either side and a wall at the end that was too high to climb easily. He made the decision without extraneous thought, jumping and grabbing the lowest hanging bars of the nearest fire escape, pulling himself easily despite the slickness of the wet metal onto the first landing. He continued up the stairs towards the roof, confident he could move more quickly on the rooftops than his pursuer.
He froze when he cleared the edge of the roof, however. Somehow, the dark-suited man he had been conscious of for weeks had beat him to the top of the building. Clint froze, every muscle in his body shaking with exhaustion. He had two choices: forward or back. For a moment, he considered fleeing, but that moment was brief. There were clear sounds of movement from the alley behind him and he cursed himself for missing the others tasked with the pursuit. It was an idiotic mistake, a beginner's mistake, and Clint Barton had been neither for a long time.
His fist clenched and released, the only visible sign of his inner agitation. He wished he had his bow in his hand—there would have been nothing to fear then. It was gone, however, snapped in half several streets and two hand-to-hand brawls back. There was no going back. He kept his peripheral vision on the man as his gaze swept the rooftop, noting the uneven nature of the surface and the complete lack of cover. To his immediate left, the jump was too far to reach the next building; to the right was anyone's guess. He had made farther jumps before, but not when he was exhausted from weeks of running from the very man who was standing across the roof from him, watching him calmly, unconcerned that he had one of the world's best assassins cornered and bordering on desperate.
"Mr. Barton," the suit said calmly, his face an impenetrable mask of calm despite the rivulets of water streaming down his face. "You're a difficult man to find."
"That's the idea," Clint shot back, buying himself a little more time to consider his options. "I don't work for people like you. No money in it."
"Indeed." The man studied him for another moment; Clint felt naked, as though the suit was cataloguing his every weakness, visible and invisible. He straightened and took a challenging step forward.
"In other words, you're wasting your time." He pondered rushing the man; however, weeks of little sleep and hypervigilance, of being tracked, had taken the sharp edge off Clint's form. He had barely beaten the man in hand to hand combat three weeks earlier in Petrograd; Clint was not willing to bet on the fact that he'd beat him tonight.
"I don't think so," the man answered calmly. "I'd like you to at least listen to my proposition, Mr. Barton."
"Or I'll have to do something that I am certain I will regret." Clint couldn't help the scoff that escaped him at that.
"You'd be the only one," he said. "Hell, you'd probably be doing me a favor. So, you have your no, either get it over with or be on your way." When the suit didn't move, he scoffed again and crossed his arms across his chest. "No? Don't have the balls?"
"On the contrary," the man said, still unperturbed, like he was ordering a cup of coffee instead of threatening a man with lethal capabilities. "I do what needs to be done."
"Then why aren't you doing it?" Clint asked, turning to walk towards his right as though he aimed to circle the man, putting himself towards the side of the roof where he had a good chance of making the jump across the street to the building on the far side. If he made it, there were several different options for escape, some on the rooftops and a few on the street. If he did not, well…it was a faster and easier end than the government spook would afford him.
"Because I'm not interested in killing you. In my professional opinion, I think you would be much better off working for my organization instead of dead." Clint could not help but laugh at that.
"Now you're just shitting with me," he said, only a hint of the bitterness he was feeling leeching into his words. "I know what happens when people like me get captured by people like you, and it ain't sunshine and roses." He had the scars to prove it.
"Mr. Barton," the man said in a placating tone, his head turning just slightly at the sound of movement off to his right, Clint's left. He took the slight distraction as the only chance he was likely to get, reacting instantly, sprinting towards the edge of the roof, his concentration firmly on the spot where he would make the leap into the abyss and hopefully land safely on the other side.
Clint's ears barely recognized the sound of the gunshot before there was a piercing pain in his right thigh, a pain so sudden and stabbing that it felled him when his right foot attempted to catch his weight. He rolled hard on the concrete roof, barking out a grunt of pain as his skin was torn where his clothes failed to protect him. "Fuck," he snapped as he tried to rise out of the roll, his leg refusing to support his weight. Adrenaline pounding in his body, he turned towards where the suit had come from, prepared to defend himself in whatever way he was still capable.
His refusal to go down easily earned him nothing except more bruises and a possibly broken rib before his hands were firmly and unescapably zip-tied behind his back.
"Fuck," he repeated as he struggled to get his hands free, already going light-headed from blood loss. "Just get it over with," he snarled at the suit, who was removing his tie, having already holstered his sidearm.
"Shut up, Mr. Barton," the man responded calmly, wrapping the silk fabric around his leg just above the gunshot wound and tying it tightly to slow the bleeding. Clint frowned, but the man paid no attention to that, instead tapping his ear. "I need a medical team," he said. "Target is injured. Request immediate evac."
"Target's been shot," Clint hissed at the man. "By an exceptionally poor shot, I might add," he said. "If you're going for the kill you aim higher. Killing 101. Central mass."
"True," the man said. "Good thing I wasn't aiming to kill." He paused and studied Clint's face in the dark.
"Listen, Barton," he said. "This is how this is going to work. My medical team is going to take care of that." He pointed at Clint's leg. "And then you're going to listen to my proposition. After that, we'll see how things go."
"Bullshit." Clint pushed his rising fear and the helplessness down, putting on his cockiest smirk. He held the man's gaze without flinching, keeping his breathing even and calm, not allowing his rising fear to show. The man did not even flinch, merely met his angry gaze unblinkingly with a passive one of his own. Clint finally had to look away, a wave of dizziness forcing him to lay his head down on the concrete, suddenly feeling the weight of his exhaustion. He chalked it up to blood loss.
"I won't talk, so you might as well just get it over with and save us both the frustration." Clint tried to sound confident, but even he could hear the edge of weariness tempering his words.
"Barton." The man's voice, he noticed, had an authoritative ring in it now, seeping into the calm, even tone. "I'm not going to kill you. You haven't earned that."
He scoffed at that. "I haven't, huh? I thought you said you knew my record back in Petrograd. There are days I've killed ten people before breakfast."
"True. But there are days I've done the same." That admission caused Clint to open his eyes again, meeting the man's eyes.
"What matters is the target, Mr. Barton," he said. "Shall I list your last few? Andrei Petrovitch, a Russian arms dealer who liked testing his merchandise on children because they present smaller and faster targets, the better to test for accuracy. Richard White, head of a worldwide syndicate specializing in prostitution for rich first-worlders in third-world countries. Not a target I would have picked for you until we did some more research and discovered that most of the women and girls were not volunteers. Before that, you turned down a hit on Jacques Lamoine, a French businessman whose competitors wanted him dead, but who has a wife and three small children and no criminal record or activities to speak of. You're picky, Hawkeye."
"Haven't always been," Clint responded.
"No, you haven't," the man agreed. "But that hit in Pakistan changed all that, didn't it?"
"How the fuck do you know about that?" Barton demanded.
"We have ways of finding out things we want to know," was all the man said. "And we know a great deal about you, Barton."
"So what, I'm going with you to rot in jail?"
"That is an option on the table," the man admitted. "But only one of a few." He turned at the sound of booted feet on one of the building's fire escapes. "We'll go over the rest once you're not bleeding out in the rain, if it's all the same to you."
"Fine," Clint said, coming to terms with the fact that this man was not going to make the end easy or quick.
At the resignation in his voice, the man's mouth actually dipped into a slight smile, one that contradicted the flash of sadness in his eyes. He started to speak, but he was interrupted by the medics reaching them.
"Excuse me, Agent Coulson," one said. The man rose easily to his feet, stepping back to give them room to work.
Coulson, Barton thought, cataloguing the name for future reference before he gave himself to unconsciousness, unsettled in the knowledge of his defeat, unhappily knowing that when and if he woke, the end would be hard and painful.
When Clint did wake, it was to the sound of the steady beeping of a heart monitor. He made sure that his breathing remained steady, stilled every twitch and took stock of his body, using his ears to catalog and reference sounds. He was lying on something soft, his head cushioned and his leg elevated. There were only the soft edges of pain; he was probably drugged, though the dosage was not enough to affect his thought processes yet.
And he was not alone in the room. The television was murmuring in the corner, words of a show he did not recognize, and someone was writing, the scratch of a pen on paper barely audible. Clint could feel a slight pressure around both wrists; what that was he was unsure of; he would have to open his eyes to be able to tell. Damn, he thought, precisely at the same moment the other person in the room spoke.
"I know you're awake, Mr. Barton."
Clint thought about pretending the man was wrong, but he recognized that voice from Petrograd and the rooftop in Belgrade and knew realistically that the man would not be fooled. He opened his eyes and did a quick sweep of the room. It was a standard hospital room, that is, if you considered hospital rooms coming standard with guards and security cameras. His keeper—Coulson, his mind supplied—was sitting on a hard plastic chair, using the swinging tray table attached to Clint's bed to work. The file was closed and had no written labels; the only identifying mark on the outside was a sigil he had never seen before in person.
S.H.I.E.L.D. Fuck. He had heard enough underworld rumors about the faceless organization to know that he was screwed.
"How are the pain levels? Manageable?"
He glanced down at his leg and, sure enough, it was expertly bandaged. He could feel butterfly bandages holding a cut on his forehead together and various other bandages covering his cuts and scratches from the fall.
"They're fine," he said when he realized Coulson was not going to stop staring at him until he answered. "Why the hell do you care anyway?"
"Because I meant what I said, Mr. Barton. I have no interest in seeing you harmed."
"You do realize that you're the one who shot me, right? That's not confidence inducing."
"Yes, Mr. Barton, I do realize that. I also realize that I saved us both another two to three weeks of chasing across the better part of the world, so I think you'll be able to forgive me in time."
Clint snorted. "Not likely, but you can go on thinking that if you want to."
"I will, thank you," Coulson said amiably. "You recognized this." He motioned to the eagle logo on the front of his folder. "That makes things easier."
"Going to skip the interrogation and go straight for the kill?"
"There will be no interrogation," the man answered. "We're looking to hire you, actually, Mr. Barton."
"You couldn't fucking afford me," Clint shot back easily.
"We could use your unique skills in our organization," Coulson continued as though Clint had not spoken. "We are able and willing to offer a permanent salary, hazard pay, room and board if you choose to stay on base, and the ways and means to use your skills for the good of global security. We will have to insist, should you take us up on the offer, that you live on base for a probationary period, and you will have to go through new recruit training, at least to start. I think it likely that after tests of your skills, you will be able to skip most of the classes. After that probationary period, you'll be kept on payroll and assigned missions that advance S.H.I.E.L.D's objectives. Should you have any objections to a particular assignment, they will be taken into consideration and plans will be reassigned or adapted as needed. On top of that, we have some of the top minds in R&D in the world who would work with you to create weaponry to make your job easier, however you should wish. They're practically fighting each other over the possibility of designing a bow updated for the twenty-first century and you haven't even signed on yet."
"And if I don't cheerfully fall in line, what then?"
"Well," Coulson said. "I'm afraid you're an internationally wanted criminal, Mr. Barton, and we cannot just release you."
"So play nice or die." That was something he was used to, at least.
"No, Mr. Barton," the man answered, and his calm tone broke a little into exasperation. "We aren't going to kill you. We would turn you over for trial. We have enough to convict you in several countries. You would be facing significant jail time."
"And perhaps the death penalty."
"Perhaps, depending on where you were tried. I won't lie to you and say that isn't an option. But it is one you can easily avoid."
"By signing on with the spooks."
"Precisely." Coulson got to his feet. "Think about it. Nothing will happen until after that," he motioned to Barton's leg, "… is healed. Oh, and I wouldn't try to escape. The minute you get off that bed, security protocols will kick in and you'll be unconscious before you get halfway to the door."
"So why the handcuffs?"
Coulson actually smiled. "Because I don't underestimate anyone. Especially not someone with skills like yours. Get some rest." With that, he disappeared.
Coulson came back again the next day, and the day after that. By the fifth day of failed efforts at small talk during which Clint had refused to even look at the man, Clint's curiosity finally got the better of him and he turned to face the agent.
"Why do you keep coming back?" The I don't have anything to say to you and know what you want was unsaid, but he expected that Coulson would understand. Coulson's gaze left the television and went to Clint, unflappable as ever.
"I'm trying to convince you that I'm not the bad guy."
"You know, shooting someone is not the best way to convince anyone of that."
"Yes, well, Barton, you wouldn't have stopped to listen to me any other way."
"I'm difficult like that."
"Yes, you are." There was a momentary silence during which they both sized each other up. Clint's iron gaze did not falter outwardly, though inside his gut churned unpleasantly as his instinct to trust this man warred with the knowledge that no one was trustworthy, that even if they were now, they'd eventually get to that inevitable betrayal and Clint would be left behind again, just like he always was.
"You know what I wanted to be when I was a kid?" Coulson asked, and the change of subject was so drastic that Clint couldn't help but ask.
"What?" he asked, voice still hard and uninviting but the single word was not followed by the snide comment he would have made in different circumstances.
"Captain America," Coulson said, and that idea made Clint laugh, only a hint of mocking in his tone. "My grandfather met him during the war," he continued. "The Captain saved his life, as a matter of fact. I devoured the comics and the old films and every story grandpa would tell me. I wanted nothing more than to be able to be the hero that Cap believed all of us could be."
"Yeah? How's that working out for you?" Clint asked, trying for snide and uninterested. From the look in Coulson's eyes, he had not been that successful.
"Some days better than others," Coulson said. "But you understand that. You're what, twenty-two?" He opened the file on the table in front of him and scanned it for a few seconds. "Twenty-two," he confirmed. "And you haven't ever had it easy, have you."
It was not a question, it was a statement. Clint fought the urge to flinch. Instead, he concentrated on meeting Coulson's gaze and holding it. The other man sighed and closed the folder.
"You fight for everything you have, Barton. You never give up. I shot you and you just kept fighting."
"Any dumb animal knows enough to keep fighting when it's threatened," Clint said dismissively. "There's nothing special about that."
It was a lesson he had learned early, at the circus and even before, at the orphanage. Take what you need, because no one's going to give it to you. Fight for what you have, because there's always someone who wants to take it away.
Coulson studied Clint for several moments in silence. "I see potential in you, Barton. You have the makings of a real hero, if you trust yourself to take that step."
At that Clint did scoff. "Yeah, right, Coulson. Flattery and pointless ego-stroking aren't going to get me on your side. I know who and what I am, and the words 'potential' and 'hero' don't apply."
After all, he was just a circus brat with freakishly good aim, and the only job that skill lent itself to was nothing anything heroic. He had long since lost count of his kills.
"Turkey, 1998," Coulson started by saying. "Zimbabwe, 1999. Rio, also 1999. Shall I continue? I have plenty more where that came from. I'm not simply trying to flatter you into accepting our offer, Barton. S.H.I.E.L.D does not waste its time attempting to recruit people who aren't worth recruiting."
Barton glared at him. "So I did stuff that you consider good, I'm so thrilled," he said sarcastically. "You're conveniently forgetting Sarajevo, Almaty, Moscow, Chicago, Hong Kong, Singapore."
"Mr. Barton, we've been watching you for a long time. The world isn't black and white. No one can be as good or as perfect as Captain America. Real heroes are simply men or women who always try to do what's right. The Captain's the ideal, not the reality."
Clint sighed in exasperation and shook his head.
"You, Clint," Coulson said calmly. "Have almost always tried to do right. Since Pakistan, you have done so much more often than not, and I have every confidence that you'll exceed all the expectations I have for you, should you decide to join us."
He glanced back at the television and watched it in silence for a few moments while Clint struggled inwardly with what Coulson had said.
"I'm not that person," he finally stated, his voice flat, his emotions tangling his stomach into knots inside him, desire for such belief and acceptance warring with his refusal to give in to vulnerability. "You say you know so much about me and you can't even see the basics."
"What are the basics, then?" Coulson asked. Clint looked at him like he was crazy, trying to find his angle, wondering how the man could not see what was in front of him. "Tell me. I'm serious."
"I know you are," Clint managed, and wasn't that the weirdest part of it? He sighed. "Look, Coulson, you can think what you want but it's too late for anything else. I kill people. It's the only thing I'm good at. It's the only thing I'm good for. It's the only thing I'll ever be good for. It's the only thing people want from me."
"Please, like you want me for anything different."
Clint took a deep breath, unwilling to continue fighting the bone-deep exhaustion that overwhelmed him. He felt ancient, tired to his very core. He closed his eyes, listened to the television for the long moment of silence that fell over them both. At length, Coulson sighed and Clint, somewhat surprised, opened his eyes to look at the man. He suppressed a wince at the look of pity that briefly crossed the older man's face.
"Go ahead," Clint said. "Tell me I'm wrong. Then I'll at least know that you're as full of shit as everyone else."
"I'm offering you a chance," Coulson said quietly. "It doesn't have to be that way. You don't have to do this alone."
Clint laughed bitterly. "Yeah, I do." And wasn't that the hardest thing of all? Anyone who had ever loved or even just tolerated him had left him or turned on him eventually. Barney, Trickshot, the Swordsman, they had all used him and pushed him aside when he no longer had any value to them. The few foster homes who had tried to take him in and the sisters who ran the orphanage had just seen him as another mouth to feed, nothing but trouble and certainly not worth keeping. His mother, the only person who had ever really loved him, had first been unable to protect him from his father's blows, and then died and left him; the only thing his father had taught him was that anticipating the blow could be more damaging than the blow itself, particularly if you could not clearly see it coming.
It was much, much easier to be alone than to wait and see when the hammer would fall.
It was Coulson's turn to sigh.
"Look at me, Barton," he said. When Clint did not, he sighed again. "I will say this as many times as I have to until you finally believe me. S.H.I.E.L.D accounted for more than just your aim when deciding to try to recruit you. We wanted your aim, yes, but we also wanted your heart, your courage, and your ability to think on your feet. There's more to making a good agent than being a good shot; you have that potential. You are who I think you are and you can be more. You just need the right opportunity."
"And I suppose that's what you're offering me. That's rich. If I kill people for you, it's 'for the greater good' and that automatically makes me a better person? Yeah, right."
"Clint," Coulson repeated. "You do want to be more, don't you." Again, it was not a question.
"It doesn't matter what I want. Never has."
"It does now. You can accept my offer and have the chance to make something of yourself or…"
"I rot in jail or get the death penalty. I get it. What difference does it make?"
"I think you know that it makes a great deal of difference," Coulson said slowly.
"Whatever." Clint turned his head away from the other man and shut his eyes, resolutely ignoring the other man. Coulson himself said nothing further, merely kept his attention on the screen until the show ended. With the end of the closing credits he rose and simply said, "I'll see you tomorrow, Barton." before leaving Clint to his thoughts.
Clint spent the two hours after Coulson had left trying to think of ways to escape but, with the guards outside, that had quickly proved pointless. Any way he could get out of the handcuffs would take time he did not have and escape would be difficult with the wound in his leg. Not impossible, no, but he had heard enough of S.H.I.E.L.D to know that any attempt at escape would be more difficult than he had the strength or energy for at the given moment.
His thoughts, once they had moved past thoughts of escape, had gone to the things Coulson had said the day before. They swarmed his mind, trapping him more effectively than S.H.I.E.L.D's guards could. The suggestion that he could be anything but a gun for hire was ridiculous, but Clint could not help but hear Coulson's words over and over again in his mind. Part of him wanted what the man was offering, wanted to believe that Coulson was right and there was a way out. That part of him, the part that still believed in hope, replayed the words again and again, speaking in a voice that sounded suspiciously like Coulson's. The greater part of him, however, was quick to deny, to attempt to shut down the other words, to save him from the trouble that hoping for the best would bring. The second voice in his mind did not sound like himself either; it was Barney at his worst, a memory of Barney's mocking laughter accompanying it.
You want to be a hero, don't you? My little brother, thinks he's so much better than anyone else. You always were a fucking moron.
Clint shivered. He was being stupid. There was no point to believing any of it; he had heard enough of S.H.I.E.L.D to know how they operated and there was no way they wanted a screw-up like him. He didn't know what Coulson was playing at, or why he was trying so hard, but he knew that unavoidably the nice illusion would shatter and he would be worse off than he had been before.
That was what happened when you trusted people.
It was much better to keep everyone at a distance; he could see them and their motives much more clearly that way than if he let them in, let them close, let them watch his back. Distance ensured that you weren't blinded to what was right in front of your eyes, the inevitable betrayal that came when he was no longer of any use. He would take jail over allowing that to happen again. Hell, he would take death over allowing that to happen again.
For a brief moment he wished Coulson had been merciful and shot him where it counted on that rooftop. It would have been a much quicker, cleaner end, and even Clint Barton, pragmatist that he was, could see the appropriateness of his life ending in gunfire on a roof in the rain.
There was still time, he supposed.
With a slight sigh, he closed his eyes and attempted to sleep, though even that was a failure. He was too well trained by years on the run, on his own, to even think of falling asleep for more than a few minutes at a time in a place where he knew he was in danger. There was more to it than that, a small part of him admitted between the warring voices in his mind. He might have been able to escape S.H.I.E.L.D's security, but he would never escape the competing voices in his head, particularly now, when he'd screwed up so badly and gotten himself caught. The only way he could do that was to surrender to them, to forget what Coulson offered and just accept that there was no chance to escape the truth.
Clint was who he was—fuckup, stupid, worthless—and it was far too late to change that, no matter what Coulson believed.
When the doctor came in several hours later on her final rounds for the evening and found him awake, he did not protest when she added a dose of something to his IV despite how much he usually hated to be drugged. It didn't matter. Not anymore. For the first time in his life, it was time to give up.
Sleep, when it claimed him, was a welcome relief.
When Coulson came in the next morning, Clint pretended to be asleep. The other man had seen through the strategy before, but this time made no comment. There was simply the sound of someone putting paper down on the tray and movement to his right side. Clint assumed Coulson was moving to turn on the television; he was startled into opening his eyes when the handcuff around his right wrist moved. Coulson paid no attention to his face, merely went through the motions of unlocking and removing the cuff from around Clint's wrist. That done, he went back to the far side of the bed and unlocked the other side, allowing Clint to move his arms more than a few inches for the first time in days.
When Coulson finished, he sat down in the chair at Clint's bedside and picked up the folder he had placed on the table, holding it out to the sniper.
"What's that?" Clint demanded suspiciously.
"Your file. Everything we have on you. Take it. Read it."
"Why are you doing this?" Clint asked, every inch of him waiting for the hammer to fall, for the strike to come. Surely Coulson couldn't mean it, not really; this was probably a highly classified file and his bosses couldn't know he was offering it up to Clint.
"It occurred to me last night," Coulson said. "That I couldn't expect you to trust me unless I trusted you first."
"Seriously?!" Clint was unable to hide the disbelief in his voice. He shifted on the bed to better look at Coulson, putting a little more distance between them, searching his face for the catch.
"Yes," Coulson simply replied. "I'm giving you another choice. You can try to escape. You may even be successful, you're good enough."
"Your superiors are going to rip you a new one if that happens," Clint said.
"In all likelihood you're right," Coulson responded. "There is a caveat on your third choice, however, Barton, so if I were you I'd think very carefully before you make it. If you do try to run, you can guarantee that the next time S.H.I.E.L.D finds you—and they will, make no mistake about that—the bullet will hit somewhere far more critical than your thigh. There won't be any second chance to take what I'm offering you now."
"And what, you'll be the one pulling the trigger?"
"Doubtful. I'll most likely be out of a job. It took me a long time to convince my superiors to even give you this much of a chance. I have as much riding on what you choose next as you do, Barton."
"Staking your career on me. That's the single most idiotic thing I've ever heard in my entire life."
"I respectfully disagree."
They stared at each other for several moments before Clint reached out and took the folder from Coulson's still-outstretched hand. He opened it slowly and found several pictures of himself paper-clipped to the very top. He put those aside after noting where they were from: one from a job he had recently done in Monaco, one from his time in the circus, and a third, grainy photograph of himself and his brother at the orphanage. The latter made him shudder internally as he switched over to the printed file.
It was all there, written out in black and white. Being orphaned at age six; the orphanage; a comprehensive list of his foster homes (all fifteen in the span of four years; his time at the circus ending with Barney's betrayal. There was a slight gap after that before the file began listing the jobs he had taken. A few were missing, but not many, and certainly none of the ones he saw as important. Pakistan was there too, in detail. That made him blanch; he had thought he had kept his involvement below the radar, and it bothered him that it was so plainly reported without showing just how much of a clusterfuck those three days had been.
By the time he got through his timeline, he was not sure he wanted to read any more. He closed his eyes for a moment, leaning his head back on the bed, wondering how the hell Coulson could still think he was worth recruiting with all of this spelled out in black and white.
"Keep reading," Coulson suggested from his side, his voice gentle.
Clint forced himself to open his eyes and flipped to the next page. There was a list of his skills, "World's Greatest Marksman" underlined at the very top. Below that were mentioned his swordsmanship skills, his acrobatics training, his levels of strength and physical conditioning. All those things he expected, but he was surprised that the list went on, this time in handwritten notes in the little space available instead of typed:
Shows considerable tactical ability and a way of thinking outside the box that would be invaluable for an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Extremely loyal, but willing to refuse assignments he does not see as following his personal moral code.
After that, there was simply a line at the bottom which read, "Recommended action: TERMINATION."
Someone, in the same pen and handwriting, had crossed off TERMINATION and written "RECRUIT."
The handwritten notes continued beyond that:
In my time doing surveillance on Mr. Barton, I have come to the conclusion that he is a highly desirable addition to S.H.I.E.L.D. I believe he would do well as a special asset and would be best used in situations where he has leeway to make his own decisions, preferably with the aid of a dedicated handler.
Stunned, Clint flipped to the next and final page in his folder. It was an official memo, typed on S.H.I.E.L.D. letterhead, repeating everything Clint had seen handwritten in his file and signed by Agent Phillip J. Coulson.
At the bottom, in different handwriting, was a response:
Request approved. But I reserve the right to say "I told you so," when this goes to shit. –NF
Not if. When.
Clint looked up at Coulson and for a long moment just stared at him. When he had regained his voice, he spoke in a mixture of disbelief and surprise.
"You're actually fucking serious."
"Yes, Clint, I am."
Coulson got to his feet and held out his hand for the file still clutched in Clint's hands. Clint handed it back to him automatically, his face incredulous, as though he was questioning Coulson's sanity.
"Sometimes," Coulson added as he took back the file, "You have to get a little distance to see something clearly. Don't you think so?"
Without another word, he turned and left the room with the file, leaving Clint unchained and stunned into considering what Coulson had said.
Trust, so readily given, yet so little earned.
Clint was powerless in the face of that. He stared at the door through which Coulson had left for what felt like hours, the words he had read swirling through his mind. Coulson didn't care that he was an ex-carnie who never finished middle school. Coulson didn't care about his years making a living through murder and death. Coulson didn't care about Pakistan, for God's sake. For reasons Clint was never going to understand, Coulson not only didn't care about these things, but actually trusted him to the point of gambling his own career on the vague possibility that Clint would not try to escape the future he had earned, whether that was a lifetime in jail or a lifetime in S.H.I.E.L.D.
"What the fuck?" Clint demanded under his breath to the empty room. "What the actual fuck."
He was not one to panic, not usually, but now he felt emotions he'd always tried to squash as useless, pushing their way up through others that were safer, protective. For an eternal instant, he was both pushing away and holding on to the fear of rejection, of betrayal, of yet again having it proven to him that he was not worth the trouble, that others were willing to put up with him only so long as he was useful to them.
Clint rode it out as best he could and no one came in the room to bother him, even as his heart rate spiked on the monitor and an alarm started beeping out its warning. His breath was loud in his ears as he tried to get enough air into his suddenly protesting lungs, his mind whirling with thoughts and emotions too quickly to get a lock on any of them. Closing his eyes, his hands gripped his elbows tightly to his chest, his eyes pressed tightly closed until at length he felt the spasms passing. At the end, Clint was capable of nothing except lying on the bed and taking deep, slow breaths, thankful both that it was over and that he had gone undisturbed throughout it.
Had that been Coulson's doing too? He would never ask. He didn't have to. He had been in enough hospitals to know the protocols when a patient's heart monitor started going crazy, and none of them included 'wait and see what happens.'
He managed an exhausted bark of laughter, feeling sleep stealing up on him. For the first time in countless years, he actually welcomed it, letting his eyes fall closed, surprisingly secure in the knowledge that he was safe.
Face it Barton, you're screwed, he thought to himself just before he fell unconscious, no bitterness at all in the wry statement.
Clint signed his first S.H.I.E.L.D contract the next day, fully conscious of how pleased Coulson was despite his poker face.
Clint couldn't help but feel the same way.
Clint set the weapon on the coffee table with his left hand, his right hand seeking out the scar from the old bullet wound on his thigh. Once they had settled into their partnership, their friendship, he had constantly teased Phil about the old wound, always informing him that his recruitment strategies needed a lot of work. Phil, for after that first year he had always been Phil in Clint's head, had given as good as he got, though, and had always responded with a single phrase. Yes, but it worked, didn't it, Barton?
A wry smile played across his face as he heard Phil's voice repeating the phrase in his mind. Right, Coulson, he had usually responded. But most people wouldn't respond well to that as a method of recruitment. "Of course not Barton, but you've always been a special case." His breath caught in his throat as it always did after the first time Coulson had said those words to him and he had realized that he meant them, and not in a negative sense.
It took Clint years to stop questioning it. And through it all, Coulson had been nothing but patient, always a step behind him, always ready to believe that Clint was the hero he could never bring himself to believe in. It had been Coulson who put his name on the list for inclusion in the Avengers Initiative, who put him up on that pedestal with geniuses and legends and Natasha, for God's sake.
Clint shook his head and set the sidearm aside carefully, almost reverently, and opened the second, much larger and longer box. Inside, carefully organized and wrapped in plastic protective covers, resting on backing boards, was what he could only assume was the entirety of Coulson's Captain America comic book collection. On top was an envelope with his name written on it in Coulson's neat script. With a suddenly hesitant hand, he picked up the envelope and pulled out the single sheet of paper inside, plain white with S.H.I.E.L.D's logo in the top left corner.
I always knew you would do it. Read these for further inspiration, not that you need it.
Clint read the paper several times, taking a steadying breath before folding it and slipping it back into the envelope. He withdrew the first comic, studying the shining cover of Captain America punching Adolf Hitler squarely in the jaw. He remembered the time Phil had shown him old black and white footage of Steve Rogers on stage doing the exact same thing. He had laughed, then, the ridiculousness of the entire production not lost on him, but Phil had just smiled and had never said a word about it. He forced himself to take a deep breath and shut his eyes for a moment, seeking his calm center, forcing away thoughts of never again.
"Clint," he heard from behind him. Only years of experience kept him from jumping in surprise at Natasha's presence behind him.
"I shouldn't be surprised you got past Jarvis," he said.
"You never actually told him you didn't want visitors."
"I figured the locked door would suggest that." She vaulted herself over the back of the couch and fell easily into the seat next to him and shrugged. "Guess I won't assume next time. Be sure to give Jarvis better instructions."
She did not respond, merely moved slightly closer and rested her head on his shoulder, studying the comic book in his hand. They both knew he wouldn't.
"His comic books?" she asked.
"And his old sidearm," Clint said wryly.
"You were friends for a long time."
"Yeah," he said, his voice catching in his throat. Natasha's arms snaked up and around him, her head remaining on his shoulder. He canted his head to the side to rest it on hers, his left hand rising to squeeze hers where they rested on his shoulder. She knew what Coulson had meant to him, knew that he was the first person in Clint's life to give without any need to take in return, the first person to believe that Clint was worthwhile. She understood what that meant. He had been that person for her, in turn.
"It wasn't your fault."
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "I know," he said after a long moment of silence.
He did now at least. In the weeks following the battle, he had lived in a haze of guilt and grief, but he had forced himself past that, remembering how hard he had fought against the haze of Loki's mind control, trapped in the corners of his own mind as he fulfilled every objective put before him without hesitation. He shuddered slightly at the memory of watching himself—his hands, his voice, his body doing things he would never had done had he the opportunity to fight against the seductive voices in his mind, pushing his will back and leaving only the desire to please Loki.
"I know, Tasha," he said.
"That's not what you said before."
"I know. I've had time to think about it now, though, and I've changed my mind. Coulson would have been pissed if he knew I was blaming myself, you know that. And he would have been right. I blame myself for a lot of stuff and I've done a lot of shitty things over the years but I didn't do that to him. I'd never."
"I know." She gave him a slight squeeze.
"It's just…" His voice trailed off and he pushed away his old weakness, as familiar as the feel of a bow in his hand, a quiver on his back.
His eyes closed and he fought against the rising bile in his throat, memories brought to the surface by these final gifts from the first man he had truly respected, whom he saw as a partner, a mentor, a friend, in all the best senses of the word. He had had partners before Phil, he had mentors, and he had friends, but even so he had never known the true meanings of those words until Coulson forced him to listen by putting a bullet in his leg with the gun now sitting before him.
"I always hoped that this would be the one time when I wasn't left behind," Clint finally said. "That he would never…that I would go first, for once."
Natasha's embrace tightened momentarily. "It was stupid to hope that. I just…damn it, Nat, why him?"
She was silent in thought a long moment, perhaps thinking of the best thing to say, perhaps simply fighting her own demons, before she answered.
"Because he was a hero, Clint," she said quietly. "That's why."
For a moment, the truth of the statement was like a punch in the gut. He forced himself to breathe through it, fighting to keep himself from drowning in a maelstrom of emotions, grief and guilt and pride mingling until he could not speak against the lump in his throat.
Natasha did not say anything else, merely guided him into her arms, pulling his head down so he could press it into her shoulder, his strong arms wrapped around her as he mourned, the sidearm and the comics momentarily forgotten on his coffee table.