Disclaimer: I do not own the Avengers or any of the characters affiliated with them. If I did, there would totally be a Hawkeye/Black Widow movie in the works.
Author's Note: While I embrace constructive criticism, remember this old saying if you choose to leave a review "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all"
Usually when I post my last chapter I issue special thanks to those who reviewed every chapter - unfortunately, given that I am still in New York an posting from my phone, I'm unable to do so this time. So I apologize for that :( I adore all of you, you know that and I am humbled by te reviews that you all leave. Because of you guys, I've reached a milestone in my fanfiction life - yesterday this story broke 1000 reviews and in my worked that is epic and I owe it all to you guys - you who take the time every chapter to review. So THANK YOU!
Special thanks to my two translators for this story writtergirl15 and Timaios
And biggest thanks to Kylen my beta, who is a big part of why this story came together like it did. She pushes me to be better every time I sit down at my keyboard. She's helped me grow as a writer in MANY ways. Not to mention that she practically adopted Dan lol. And even though I was Dan's headspace in this chapter, she was his voice in the conversation he has here at the beginning :)
Now, let's get going because I'm sure you're all anxious to get to the final chapter :) So here's the conclusion of What No One Else Sees...
As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.
John F. Kennedy
Dan blinked rapidly, trying to clear the blurriness that seemed to have settled over his vision. He was so goddamned tired. The words on the chart he was looking over kept bleeding together into indecipherable gibberish. It was truly fascinating how far behind you could fall on paperwork in just three damn days.
He sighed and reached for his coffee taking a quick sip – only to spit it back into the cup with a gag a moment later. He turned in his chair to face his coffee machine. Within minutes – using a water bottle from his fridge – he had a fresh batch brewing.
Content for the moment, he turned back and stared miserably down at the charts spread out on his desk. He decided abruptly they could wait a few minutes – the fact that he'd taken a break five minutes ago to check on Barton was neither here nor there.
This time he glanced at Phil – the man was still sleeping deeply, sprawled on his back on the couch. Honestly, Dan was surprised the man's full body shape wasn't permanently imprinted in the leather. The man spent more time sleeping there than Dan did – at least that's how it seemed at times. Times like now – when Barton was laid up in 'his' room across the hall – it was hard to get Phil to leave the infirmary wing at all when his charge couldn't.
With a deep sigh, Dan turned back to his charts and tried his best to focus on the words – to keep them from blurring dizzyingly.
He really needed to get some sleep at some point.
And he had lectured Phil…
He wasn't sure how long he stared at the chart without actually comprehending a word of it before he heard his coffee pot switch off.
There is a God…
He spun in his chair and greedily poured the fresh brew into one of the half a dozen coffee cups he kept on hand. He peeked over his shoulder at Phil and then glanced at his watch. Nodding to himself, he poured a second cup and turned back to his desk.
Sure enough, less than three minutes later, Phil started to stir. Dan kept his expression carefully neutral, kept his eyes on the chart, and held out the second cup of coffee.
Phil blinked blurrily, a familiar smell invading his senses. His eyes finally focused and he stared in confusion at the bright yellow coffee mug hovering in front of his face – a morbid looking smiley face was painted on it, with 'x' eyes and a zig-zag line for a mouth. Phil knew that mug – knew the other side said "#2 Doc" in big letters. It had been a gift from Clint to Dan a few months ago – when Clint had had too much time on his hands while recovering from Croatia and discovered online shopping.
"Is that coffee?" Phil couldn't keep the hopefulness out of his tone as he sat up fully.
"Wow – that's rare around you. Now I feel special."
Phil accepted the mug with a smirk and glanced towards the window, eyes settling on Clint, who seemed to be asleep.
"I've been up for close to 24 hours, and you took my couch. It was either coffee or drugs."
Phil eyed him with sudden intensity.
"You do look like shit. Why the hell haven't you gotten any sleep? I have it on good authority that this place has plenty of beds waiting to be slept in."
Dan rolled his eyes.
"Because someone needed to keep an eye on Barton, and since he took the head off one of my nurses, I figured it'd better be me." Dan sighed. "And before you ask, yeah, you need to talk to him."
Phil lowered his coffee mug, posture suddenly straightening, and all vestiges of relaxation from sleep fading away.
"Took the head off…what the hell happened?"
Phil started to stand, but Dan motioned for him sit back down.
"Sit down. He's still asleep. At least, he was five minutes ago." Dan ran a hand through his hair. "And the nurse tried to tell him he'd been through a 'major trauma.'" Dan air-quoted the words. "I'm sure you can guess how that went over."
Phil slowly sat back down on the couch, rubbing his free hand across his face.
"Knowing Clint and his usual coping mechanisms…I'm guessing not well." He sighed. "Do I need to do some damage control?"
"Are you kidding me? That nurse needed a little common sense hammered through her skull. We've talked, she's learned euphemisms aren't a good idea around Barton." Dan grew suddenly serious. "But Phil, there's a bigger problem."
"What is it? Is he okay?" Phil started to stand again, eyes going to the window.
"Would you just sit?" Dan sighed. "He's fine, physically – or at least he will be. But, Phil ... he asked me what happened. Apparently, there was stuff he didn't know, stuff no one bothered to fill him in on." Dan's face grew distinctively guilty. "Look, I'm sorry, I honestly thought you'd told him more than you obviously did."
Phil's frown deepened.
"Jesus, Dan – he's barely been coherent. When was I supposed to tell him anything?"
He sighed and rubbed his face, abandoning his coffee onto Dan's desk. He knew how persistent Clint could be when he wanted something – knew the kid would always find a way to get whatever it was. He couldn't really blame Dan for spilling the details.
"What exactly did you tell him?"
Dan blew air out through his teeth.
"For starters? That the initial rescue got shot down just short of the base. Then that you were the one who brought him back." Dan picked up his own coffee mug, and gulped down a long sip. "I don't know which bothered him more."
Phil dropped his head into his hands and blew out a slow, calming breath. He'd been planning on sitting Clint down and explaining everything very carefully – to monitor how Clint took each piece of information and adjust his strategy accordingly.
Now all he could do was try to figure out what state Clint was going to be in – and figure out how to pull him out of it.
"How did he take it?"
Dan raised an eyebrow.
"You think I'd be sitting here kicking myself if the answer was anything but 'bad?' For what it's worth, I offered to get you before I even started. He told me not to, and knowing how beat you were, I took him at his word. Not real thrilled with the results, obviously."
Phil scrubbed his hands back through his hair. Clint had probably been thinking the same thing, trying to look out for Phil instead of himself. He shook his head and looked up at Dan again.
"It's not your fault. When Clint sets his mind to something, he usually gets it." He glanced out the window to where Clint lay sleeping. "How long ago did you sedate him?" Because he sincerely doubted Clint had been able to sleep on his own if he was as worked up as Dan was insinuating.
"A couple hours after you were down for the count, so about eight hours." Dan sighed. "He didn't really even fight me on it, Phil. ANYONE else, I'd be calling psych down here, but that'd be an even bigger disaster."
Phil nodded. He was more than familiar with Clint's emotional issues. He'd been dealing with them – and helping Clint learn to deal with them – since they met.
"What am I dealing with?"
"The usual, I think. He's pissed off that someone died for him. I don't think it crossed his mind that people who didn't know him would be willing to do that. Never mind that he'd do the same in a heartbeat." Dan shrugged. "Other than that? He's tired, he's hurting and he almost DIED. Add the fact that it was you that brought him back ..." Dan looked up at Phil. "Color me confused, but I would've thought there'd be about three people he'd trust in that situation, that he'd want there with his life on the line." Dan grinned humorlessly. "If I'm lucky, I'm the one of them."
Phil chewed the inside of his lip and looked away. He knew Clint. He knew that the kid probably hadn't been thinking about who he trusted – who he'd want – to be the one reviving him. If he knew his agent, all Clint had been thinking about was Phil and about what it had done to him. The kid could be unreasonably selfless like that.
"He trusts you, Dan." Phil pointed out quietly. "He may not always show it, but he does. Trusts Todd too, and even Fury sometimes. But I don't think this was about that."
Dan closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair, the truth apparently dawning on him.
"Aww, shit." The doctor slowly opened his eyes, Phil saw sympathy warring with guilt. "Your nightmare – or his?"
"Mine, more or less. Something he didn't find out about until Paris."
"Great." Dan carded his fingers through his hair again. "One of these days, I'm really gonna have to remember nothing is EVER simple with that kid."
Phil nodded. That was the story of his life. Nothing was ever the easy way with Clint. But that's what kept things interesting.
"How much longer will he be out?"
This time when Phil stood, Dan didn't try to stop him.
"Actually a little surprised he's not awake already." Dan sighed. "Then again, maybe I'm not. He's been through a hell of a lot over the last couple of days."
Phil huffed a humorless laugh. That may have been the understatement of the century. He retrieved his coffee cup and moved towards the office door.
"I should be there when he comes around again."
"Yeah, you should." Dan gestured at the coffee in the corner. "Take an extra cup with you, though. I know he lives on the stuff as much as you do." Dan tilted his head thoughtfully. "Then again…" he turned and reached back into the small refrigerator he kept in his office. A second later, he turned back, holding up a bottle of blue Gatorade in weary triumph.
He tossed it to Phil.
"Call it a peace offering."
Phil caught it and pulled the door open. He looked across the infirmary to Clint and then turned back to his friend.
"You look like shit, Dan. The stuff with Clint…" Phil sighed. "I've screwed up worse than that with him several times in the past three years – hell, in the past three weeks. Don't beat yourself up. He hasn't snuck out. He let you sedate him. Let yourself off the hook, take your own advice, and get some goddamned sleep."
Dan sighed, pushed himself out of the chair and aimed for the couch.
"Fine. I know when I'm beat." As he stretched out, though, he tossed out a final comment. "He's going to fine, Phil. Make sure he knows that."
Phil slid out the door and smirked as he heard Dan mumble one final comment under his breath.
"He's fine. You're fine. I'm fine…we're all fine."
Phil crossed the infirmary silently and stepped into Clint's room. He set the blue Gatorade on the bed table and took a moment to look Clint over, reassuring himself that the kid really was okay. He was breathing deeply and evenly, his expression relaxed in a way it only ever was with drugs and unconsciousness – and death, as Phil had painfully learned.
The swelling from the beating he'd taken had started to fade, leaving his face looking a little less grotesque than it had when Phil had found him. The bruising was still there – a stark reminder that they weren't all that far removed from what had happened.
Phil eased himself down in the plastic chair and sipped his coffee.
All he could do was wait. Clint would come around in his own time, according to his own timetable. He always did. He really must have been exhausted to still be down. Clint had a curious habit of coming out of sedation earlier than he should.
In the end he didn't have to wait long. Whether he sensed another presence in the room or he smelled the coffee, Clint woke suddenly – head turning and eyes focusing on Phil with unerring accuracy.
"Hey," Phil greeted simply, warmly.
Clint blinked slowly and swallowed.
For a moment they just stared at each other. Then Clint raised his hand, rested it on the bedrail and pointed at the Gatorade.
"That for me?"
"A peace offering from Dan." Phil stood and retrieved the drink while Clint used the controls to raise his bed. Phil unscrewed the cap and handed the drink to Clint then busied himself adjusting Clint's pillows while the archer drank his fill.
Then he took the drink back, set it back on the bed table and nudged the table until the drink was within Clint's reach.
"So…" Phil sat back down and fixed Clint with as open a gaze as he could muster. "Where do you want to start?"
Clint – hand resting on the bedrail again – absently pushed the table away and the pulled it back a few times. He didn't say anything for a long time and Phil just waited. Getting Clint to talk – even when the archer knew he needed to – was like drawing water from a stone. Phil knew he couldn't force it – but he could just be here, be a constant presence. When Clint was ready, he'd talk.
Finally, Clint sighed and nudged the Gatorade with his finger.
"I'm not mad at him." Clint glanced towards Dan's office. "He doesn't need a peace offering."
Phil nodded. He'd figured as much – Clint wasn't usually one to hold onto things.
"He'll be glad to hear that."
Clint nodded and scratched absently at the edge of the bandage on his right cheekbone, his eyes focused on some spot on his blanket.
"You didn't tell me." Clint spoke quietly and looked up at Phil through his lashes – there was a mixture of emotions showing in his eyes. Foremost was accusation and frustration, but lingering behind it was a heavy dose of worry – worry for Phil. "You didn't tell me it was you."
Phil sighed. So much for starting with the easy stuff – though Phil was sure none of this conversation would be easy.
"No, I didn't. But not because I wasn't going to." Phil rubbed his hand over his jaw. "You were so out of it when you finally came around – and you've been more asleep than awake the past couple days. I just haven't had a chance to tell you everything."
Clint nodded, looking back down at his blanket.
"I can tell you now though," Phil offered.
"Wilson told me." Clint informed him, a slight frown creasing his features before smoothing away as if it had never been there.
"I know." Phil waited until Clint looked at him. "If you want me to tell you, I'll tell you."
Because Phil knew this part of the conversation wasn't about Clint – it was about Phil. Clint wanted to deal with what Phil was going through. Whether that was because he wanted to avoid what he was going through or because he was being his usual self and thinking of Phil first, was unclear. Either way, Phil knew they'd have to deal with this part eventually. Now was as good a time as any.
He watched the meaning of his offer sink in – watched Clint's eyes widen a fraction in surprise that Phil was volunteering so easily to tell his side of the events that had unfolded in the past few days. But Phil had decided, the night before the gala, when Clint had called him to the mat for holding back on him, that he was going to do his best to stop treating Clint like the lost, sad eighteen year old he had been when Phil found him.
Clint had grown into a man when he wasn't looking – a strong, capable man that could handle seeing the chinks in Phil's armor. Maybe Clint needed to see those chinks so he wouldn't have to be so ashamed of his own.
Clint nodded slowly, still appearing surprised Phil was going to lay it out for him. Phil granted him a small smile.
"I can learn a lesson too, kid. I promised you no more holding back. Are you sure you're ready for that?"
Clint nodded again, more confidently this time.
"I can handle it, Phil."
Phil nodded. He'd come to learn Clint could handle a hell of a lot more than anyone had a right to. He chewed his lower lip and considered for a moment where he wanted to start. When he began, he held Clint's gaze with his own and very purposefully kept his expression open, letting Clint see past the walls he usually kept in place.
"The second I heard your voice on that call, I knew something had gone wrong and everything inside me just froze." In fear.
Phil swallowed thickly, the memory of those seconds when he realized Clint was in trouble still struck a chord of panic in him. "I had sent you there. It wasn't supposed to be anything but surveillance. I never even considered it could go sideways like this. But when it did – I didn't hesitate. I geared up and hopped a jet – to hell with protocol. All I could think about was getting you back."
Phil felt emotion swell as he remembered running around the base, getting gear and finding Todd, all the while praying he wasn't running out of time – that it wasn't too late already.
"You need to know there was no way I wasn't coming for you." He gave Clint a hard look. "You know that, right?"
Clint's jaw clenched, causing the muscles in it to twitch, his eyes flashed with some memory, but the flash was gone before Phil could decipher it. The archer nodded confidently.
"I knew you were coming. I knew you wouldn't stop until you found me. I just had to keep fighting till you got there."
Phil felt warmth rise in him. The confidence in Clint's words was palpable. Even after everything, Clint had never doubted him.
Phil's stomach dropped suddenly. Clint had never doubted him – but all he'd done since this mess with Romanoff had started was doubt Clint.
"How long was I there?" Clint asked suddenly, pulling Phil back from his startling realization. "I lost a lot of time." He admitted the last part quietly, absently scratching at the bandage on his cheek again.
"13 hours and 17 minutes."
Clint blinked, no doubt surprised by the specificity of the answer.
But Phil knew because he had spent every moment of that in fear – fear that he was going to be too late.
"That was the longest flight of my life, kid." Phil admitted with a sigh. He rubbed his free hand through his hair. "I knew – somewhere in my gut – that you were running out of time and everything was just taking too damn long. So we landed closer than we probably should have and we went in fast. At first, we were able to go quiet, but one of the guards tripped an alarm…" Phil watched Clint's eyes grow reflective, as if he were remembering something. "Do you remember that – the alarm?"
"I think so…but it all gets kind of blurred."
Phil nodded. He had a feeling a lot of what Clint remembered was just a blur.
"We got lucky. I saw a hose running down the hall and my gut said to follow it – that you were at the other end of it. And you were."
The hose was still running, creating a river towards the drain on the back wall. There was a metal chair – tipped over on its side. A man was still secured tightly to it, but there was a bag over his head. He wasn't moving – hadn't even reacted to the chaos around them.
Maybe it wasn't Clint. Clint would never be that still.
But then he saw something on the man's left shoulder – a scar, fresh and pink, long and thick from surgery. Phil knew that scar better than he knew the scars on his own body. That was the scar made by the bullet that almost took everything from him.
Phil blinked, focusing again on Clint, who was watching him with a concerned light to his eyes.
Phil almost lied – almost 'protected' Clint from what finding him like that had done to him. But then something Clint had said to him, the night before the gala flashed through his mind
"You've been telling me for years now that I'm not alone anymore – that I don't have to carry all my shit by myself...that goes both ways."
And he realized he couldn't hold back – not anymore. No matter how hard it was going to be to be open and honest about it, no matter how much it went against the grain of his personality – Clint deserved that honesty. Just like he deserved – and demanded on occasion – the same honesty from Clint.
So he swallowed thickly.
"When I came into the room, you were on the floor – tied to a chair with a bag over your head." Phil tightened his hands around his coffee mug. "I convinced myself – just for a second – that it wasn't you. That it couldn't be you..." Phil felt a lump lodge in his throat and his eyes started to sting. "But then I saw the scar on your shoulder and I knew."
Phil shook his head and had to look away, just to give him a moment to pull himself together. It hurt just as badly now as it had then – the fear was just as real now as it had been then. And the anger – the unbearable urge to go kill every one of those bastards – came back just as strongly.
"It wasn't until I pulled you from the chair and got the bag off that I realized you weren't breathing." He cleared his throat against the sudden waver in his voice and latched onto the anger – using it to make his voice strong again. "That you didn't have a pulse."
Phil blinked away moisture that was pooling in his eyes in spite of the anger – or maybe because of it – and forced himself to meet Clint's stormy gaze again.
"I've never felt fear like that."
And he hoped he never felt it again.
Clint's expression had gone deadly serious, almost blank, but his eyes told Phil the story of what the archer was thinking. The kid was pissed, scared, sympathetic, and worrying all at once – each emotion warring to be at the forefront. When he spoke, there was a forced levelness to his tone.
"Not even in Cairo?"
"Cairo was different. I didn't have a chance to do anything then, didn't have a chance to help you, to save you. I didn't even have a chance to be afraid. You were just gone, or at least I believed you were. But this time," Phil shook his head, "I had been right there. And I had been too late." Phil had to stop for a moment when his voice broke. He saw Clint shift out of the corner of his eye.
"But you weren't too late – I'm still here. You brought me back." Clint reminded quietly, pulling Phil back to the present.
Wasn't that what Dan had told him?
"Too late? Out of 12 or 13 hours, when they could've done anything to kill him, they chose to try drowning him in the final minutes before you reached him. Offhand, I'd say you were right on time."
It had still been too damn close.
"Training kicked in," Phil admitted. "I started CPR and called Dan while Todd covered my six. I had to force myself to just focus on the compressions – to not think about it being you I was doing them on."
It had been a nearly impossible task.
"After that, it was standard AED procedure and all I could do was beg anyone who was listening for it to be enough. For it to give you the foothold you needed to fight your way back." Phil smiled proudly around the echos of fear he still felt. "And you did – you fought, just like you always have, and you made it back."
Clint's eyes grew deeply contemplative and Phil knew he was probably straining to remember anything from that period of time.
"I'm guessing you don't remember any of what happened after?"
Clint shook his head negatively. Phil nodded. He'd expected as much.
"I told you I forgave you." Phil told him quietly, remembering fiercely whispering those words to the archer. He watched Clint's breath catch and knew, without a doubt, that Clint didn't remember any of the half dozen times he'd repeated that over the last two and half days. "I told you that we were okay."
Clint's eyes widened and Phil saw moisture well in them before it was quickly blinked away.
"I knew in my head that you wouldn't remember, but I needed you to know – even if it was only in that moment – that none of the shit that had happened mattered. That we were all good again. And we are."
Clint swallowed thickly and searched his gaze intently.
It was such a hopeful question – and Clint sounded like he was afraid to believe it might be true.
"Really." Phil assured.
He watched as an almost visible weight lifted from Clint's gaze, watched the relief wash through his eyes. He waited until Clint nodded that he understood before going on.
"After that, we got you back to the jet and headed for Vienna. Dan said he told you about what went down in Afghanistan?"
Clint nodded – something close to guilt, but at the same time not – flashing through his gaze. Phil filed that to address later.
"You gave me a scare on the flight, but you didn't give up. You kept fighting and Dr. Brunner and a team were waiting for us when we landed. After that, it was almost easy."
Phil gave Clint a moment to digest everything he'd just told him. The archer surprised him by clearing his throat suddenly and speaking.
"Are you okay?"
Phil huffed a weary, sad laugh.
"How the hell could I be? After that?" He met Clint's eyes. "I'll get there. I'm working my way towards it even now – but I've never been so afraid in my life, Clint. I almost lost you, kid..." Phil had to swallow the sudden lump in his throat. "And I can't do that. I can't lose you. So you always have to fight, okay? No matter what happens, you always fight, understood?"
It was suddenly the most important thing in the world that Clint promised him that. That he promised he would always fight – if not for his own sake, then for Phil's.
Clint nodded – but that wasn't enough.
"I'll fight." Clint swore quietly, his voice a little more unsteady than it had been a few moments before.
Phil nodded and sniffed, wiping a hand across his face. He cleared his throat and blew out a breath. There was one more thing he needed to say before he turned the tables on Clint and made him face what had happened as well.
"What I haven't told you yet – and what I'm going to tell you now – is that I'm sorry."
Clint immediately shook his head.
Phil held up his hand to stop him.
"No. I'm SORRY – that I didn't trust your judgement, that I didn't back your play. I should have been the one you could count on without a doubt and I let you down. It will never happen again."
He watched Clint's breathing speed up, watched the archer swallow thickly. Phil waited until their eyes met again.
"Never again, Clint."
Clint nodded quickly – never doubting Phil's word. Phil nodded carefully in return – wishing his own faith in Clint had been as unwavering. Maybe they wouldn't be here right now if it had.
"I never should have doubted you. If you believe bringing her in was the right call – I can find a way to believe it too."
Clint's expression shifted slightly – as if he were still troubled despite the assurance.
"What is it?" Phil frowned in concern.
"I don't want you to 'find a way to believe it', Phil." Clint spoke very carefully, very precisely, every word packed with firm resolve. When his eyes clashed with Phil's, every bit of that resolve was written in his steely gaze.
"I don't understand." Phil's frown deepened, and his heart started pounding. He was struck with sudden fear that his forgiveness, his acceptance, had come too late. That Clint had decided not to care what he believed anymore.
The archer's eyes lost their razor's edge – softening with something like affection, though the resolve stayed just as strong – and Phil felt a little of that fear fade. All he could do was listen as Clint started to explain.
"When you found me, I didn't care about life," Clint scoffed derisively at the reference to his former self. "Hell, Phil, I killed people for money. I hated myself, sure, but I still did it. I still took every payment without hesitation. I was nothing but darkness." Clint's lips quirked slightly, in a small smile that was almost wistful. "And then you found me and everything changed."
Phil watched Clint's eyes light with overwhelming gratitude.
"You reminded me what it meant to care about people again. To look at a mark and see not just a paycheck, but to see a person too. To see a life that should be valued and never taken lightly." Clint gave him a painfully confused look. "How the hell did you not expect this to happen one day – for me to look at a mark and not see what everyone else did? To see a life that I couldn't take instead?"
Phil felt like a freight train had just slammed into his chest. Found himself remembering a conversation months ago, where he'd been told something so similar it was almost uncanny.
"You brought him here and reminded him that people matter. After everything he'd done – you had to know there would be backlash."
Dan had seen then, what Phil hadn't been able to. What he was realizing now with startling clarity. Without realizing it, he'd set Clint on the course that brought them here – with a girl like Natasha Romanoff in their midst, and Clint taking punishment because he'd seen something in her nobody else could – maybe because nobody else had bothered to look.
"And you had to know – after everything I've done," Phil hated how Clint paused after that, how for a moment he could see the weight Clint carried because of what he'd done. But then Clint swallowed, literally squared his shoulders, and pushed on, "that I would never just kill anyone because I was told to."
Phil did know – had always known. It was that odd little moral demand – one of the few Clint had when it came to his job – that the archer held onto with more ferocity than Phil had ever expected. It was that insistence – to be shown all the evidence, to be given the choice to make his own call – that kept the darkness Clint had been drowning in when Phil found him at bay.
Honestly, in retrospect, Phil was a little surprised it had taken three years to become a serious issue.
He searched Clint's eyes, his own resolve hardening as he saw the confidence and openness shining back at him.
"And whatever you saw in her – it was enough?"
"Phil, I wouldn't have done all of this if it wasn't." Phil wasn't surprised by the fervor in Clint's tone.
"Okay. Then that can be enough for me. I trust your call, Clint. But you gotta understand, she's still gotta prove herself...to you, to me, and to SHIELD."
"I know, believe me. She did shoot me, Phil – not once, but twice. Worth saving or not, I'm still pretty pissed about that, and I trust her about as far as I can throw her."
Phil inclined his head in agreement. He wasn't really ready to trust her yet himself. It was nice to know Clint wasn't jumping in blindly either.
"But I do trust that she wants – that she needs – to be better. And I know she can do it if we give her half a chance."
"Okay. So we give her a chance and hope she proves you right."
Clint nodded once.
Phil cleared his throat.
"Now, we've dealt with me and with Romanoff...now it's time to deal with you."
Clint immediately looked away.
"No more hiding from it, kid. Face it head on like you do everything else. You know I won't leave you alone until you do."
Phil waited, and eventually Clint's gaze returned to his.
"Where exactly would you like me to start?"
There was anger in Clint's voice, but Phil expected that. Clint dealt with hurt in exactly one way – anger. And if the amount of anger the kid was projecting right now was a measure of that hurt – then this was worse than Phil expected.
"Should I start with the team of dead Afghan agents?" Clint's eyebrow arched in sarcastic curiosity. "Or we could start with the torture – because that, of course, I remember with near-perfect clarity." He gestured at his bruised and burned torso with his bandaged right hand. Phil frowned curiously when he saw the hand shaking – a physical tell that Clint would normally never let show, even in his condition. He snapped his eyes back up to Clint's – seeing something more there for just a moment before it disappeared as Clint went on. "Or we could dive right in and talk about how I died!"
Phil watched him thoughtfully for a moment.
"For starters, didn't you just get done telling me that I wasn't too late – that you're still here? Or was that just a bunch of bullshit to make me feel better?"
"No." Clint defended. "But damn it, Phil..." he shook his head and looked away.
"It's not the same, I know." Phil allowed carefully. "But the point still stands. You did die, Clint." Clint's gaze cut to his sharply at the blunt statement. "And we both have to deal with that – but you are still here. That's what we have to focus on or we'll both go crazy."
Clint swallowed and kept his eyes on Phil's.
"How do I do that? How do I not think about it? Every time I breathe, I get reminded." He gestured in frustration at his deeply bruised chest and the ribs Phil knew he'd broken with CPR.
"It isn't going to be easy." Phil allowed. "But it'll get easier, for both of us – it has to."
"Why? Because it can't get any harder?" Clint shot back with a slightly sarcastic huff of a laugh.
Phil inclined his head and allowed himself a small smirk.
"Something like that." He grew serious again. "You're okay, Clint." He assured firmly. He watched Clint's eyes widen and the sarcasm fade out of his expression. "You're alive, you're breathing – and as long as you plan on staying consistent on both, all the other stuff will fade with time."
He saw Clint's jaw twitch and his eyes flash, no doubt remembering speaking very similar words to calm Phil down after he'd taken the bullet to his vest at the gala. He'd spoken like a bullet to the back wasn't anything but an annoyance. He'd been confident in his own strength to push past the injury and keep going.
He needed Clint to remember that strength now – to remember he was strong enough to keep going, to push past what had happened.
Before his eyes, he saw that strength return to Clint's gaze – saw him remember what Phil had always known. Clint was as strong and as tough as they came. His strength didn't come from those around him or from his situation – it came from somewhere deep inside him. His was a strength forged in fire and blood and it would not be easily broken.
Phil had never been more grateful for it than he was now. Because Clint was going to need that strength to face what was coming next.
"The Afghan team."
Phil waited for Clint to meet his gaze.
"What happened to them isn't on you."
"Oh no?" Clint scoffed.
"No. They knew what they were getting into – just like you do every time you got out on an assignment. They accepted that risk willingly."
"It's still a goddamned waste."
Phil's gaze hardened and his tone hardened with it.
"They were coming for you – so it was not a waste." Phil took a breath, forcing himself to calm down. He met Clint's eyes firmly. "It's men like you that keep this world from going to hell. And those men protecting you, they do it because you're one of the good guys – so it makes the being in danger part a lot easier."
Clint's eyes widened in shock.
"It's not the same. Moreau and me – we aren't the same."
"No, you aren't – because his job puts him at risk once every now and then. Yours puts you at risk every day. And you accept that willingly – it's who you are. It's part of being SHIELD. So, no matter how it turned out, those men were willing to take that risk for you – a fellow SHIELD agent. You would do the same thing and you damn well know it."
He knew Clint couldn't deny that – saw the frustration blossom on Clint's face when he realized it too.
"Don't cheapen what they sacrificed by wallowing in guilt."
"Damnit, Phil! This isn't about guilt." Clint's eyes were suddenly lit up with fiery anger. Clint shook his head as if Phil just didn't get it. "Guilt means I had control – it means that I could have stopped them from dying. I don't feel guilty because trust me, I had no fucking control over anything in this entire clusterfuck of a situation."
Phil frowned at the sudden tremor in Clint's tone and he narrowed his eyes thoughtfully when he saw the same flash of something in Clint's eyes that he'd seen when Clint had talked about the torture.
What did control have to do with anything?
He'd never known Clint to completely lose control of any situation. Even captured and tortured, he always managed to gain a foothold of control, even if it was just spitting sarcasm. That had been taken away because he'd been gagged, but Clint had been gagged before – it had never affected him like this.
He thought back suddenly to Clint's shaking hand. To what he had sensed lurking behind the physical torture – something else that had happened to put that tremor in Clint's hand. To put the tremor that was now in his voice.
He realized he'd just run face first into that issue.
Somehow, they'd made Clint feel like he didn't have any control.
"How did they take your control, Clint?"
Clint pulled up short, caught off guard by the change of tracks – by the shift away from the Afghan team and onto him.
"You were gagged, but that's never gotten to you like this."
Clint glared at him, angry all over again. But Phil could see the fear and the pain hidden beneath it.
"What am I missing, Clint?"
Clint scoffed angrily and waved his hand in frustration – as if the answer should have been obvious.
"The fucking bag, Phil."
Then he remembered the bag he'd pulled off Clint's head when he found him. He'd thought it had just been part of the water torture and had forgotten it the moment he tossed it aside. Realization settled in heavily even as Clint replied.
"They gagged me and strapped the damn thing on the second they had me subdued. I couldn't say or see a damn thing the entire time."
Whether Clint realized he was allowing it or not – Phil could hear the lingering tension in his voice. Not being able to talk had just been part of it – that combined with not being able to see...and Phil suddenly understood.
Clint had an amazing ability to remain almost inhumanly stoic even amidst horrible torture. It was a way of mentally protecting himself that also served to drive a torturer to distraction. But that stoicism hinged on being able to mentally prepare himself for what was about to happen.
Clint couldn't do that if he couldn't see what was coming.
That was a measure of control Clint had never had taken away. And they'd taken it with just a bag. Whether the bastards had known it or not, they couldn't have picked a more perfect psychological torture.
Jesus … Phil couldn't even imagine what that would have been like – especially given the nature of the torture methods they'd chosen. He was suddenly surprised Clint wasn't a quivering pile of frayed nerves.
"Clint…" But Phil realized he had no idea what to say.
"I couldn't handle it." He sounded so ashamed and Phil wanted to go kill the bastards all over again.
"Clint … no one could have handled that. Especially not without being trained to."
That was on him. He should have prepared Clint for something like this.
"The fact that you kept it together at all means you didn't let them win. It means that you kept control whether you knew it or not."
Clint frowned and Phil could almost see the gears in his head turning.
"Did you scream?"
Clint frowned more deeply.
"Did you beg for them to stop?"
"No." A little more confidence leaked into Clint's tone.
"Did you give up?"
"No." Clint's tone was firm now and Phil knew he was realizing what Phil had. Just by fighting – by holding on until Phil got there – Clint had kept them from winning.
"You never lost control, kid."
He'd lost most of it – Phil couldn't argue with that. But when it came down to it, Clint's nature – his fighting nature – had kept him from losing all of it. It may not have been obvious to Clint or to the men that held him captive, but it was obvious to Phil.
Clint hadn't let them win.
He watched that realization sink in, watched Clint realize that even though it had been hell – he'd kept it mostly together. He'd kept fighting. He'd held onto the only control that ultimately mattered.
Clint clenched his jaw, his eyes shining a little brighter than usual.
"All I've ever asked is for you to do your best, to do your best – every second," he watched Clint's eyes light at the memory of that phrase, "of every day. You did – both in Uzbekistan and in Paris."
Clint chewed his lower lip and nodded. The archer lowered his eyes to his blanket again, and spoke unexpectedly.
"You know what made it worse?" Clint didn't give him a chance to guess before he continued. "They never even asked me anything. It was only about pain. Even if I would've, I couldn't give them anything to make them stop because they didn't want anything from me. What the hell is that about? Why didn't they just kill me?"
"I don't know, kid." Phil sighed. "But I'm glad they didn't."
Because they could have – easily. Phil didn't even want to think about that scenario.
"Look," Phil waited until Clint looked at him, "All we know is that they were Germans in a supposedly abandoned Uzbek compound, which means…"
"Mercenaries." Clint realized suddenly.
"We have no idea what they were doing there, or what you stumbled on. We may never know. But they're all dead – and you're alive. And as far as I'm concerned for now, that's all that matters."
Clint nodded slowly, still looking troubled.
They didn't have all the answers Clint – or Phil – wanted. But Phil knew they just had to let it go. Everyone was alive – and as meager of a win as that seemed at the moment – it was still a win.
That would have to be enough for now.
Three Days Later...
Clint tilted his head curiously and watched Romanoff jog back to the start of the parkour course. She was the only one out there at the moment. Her training class had dispersed more than fifteen minutes ago. But she'd stayed – and kept running the course over and over.
He brought his blue Gatorade to his lips and took a sip, absently tapping his bare heels against the brick as he sat on the edge of the roof with his legs dangling over the edge.
He figured he had at least three or four more minutes before someone realized he was missing from his bed in the infirmary. At least five more before someone – probably Phil or Wilson – found him.
Some sort of scolding was sure to follow as they escorted him back to the infirmary. But they all knew it wouldn't mean anything – Clint would be a good boy for a few hours and this whole process would start again.
He smirked and sipped his Gatorade again.
He sensed a presence approaching behind him and took a mental bet with himself that it'd be Phil.
"Isn't your ass supposed to be in the infirmary, Barton?"
Clint shifted so he could look behind him without pulling at his ribs.
"The one and only." Todd Bryan smirked and moved to sit on the roof next to him. "Expecting someone else?"
Clint glanced back at the door – expecting to see Phil or Wilson storm through suddenly. When neither appeared, he shifted back so he was facing the parkour course again.
"What brings you up to my neck of the woods?" Clint asked as he took a long draw from his Gatorade and watched Romanoff roll across the finish line. She immediately came to her feet and started back to the front of the course.
"Saw you watching – hadn't gotten to talk to you since all the shit went down. Thought I'd sneak up before they carted you back to the infirmary."
"Fair – I've been meaning to thank you anyway. For helping Phil haul my ass out of Uzbekistan."
Bryan's expression grew troubled, but he nodded.
"No thanks required, kid. Nowhere else I'd rather have been in a situation like that. I'm glad Phil let me come."
Clint watched him closely for a moment and then looked back at the parkour course, taking a sip of his Gatorade.
"Guess you were there, huh?" he commented casually. "When Phil pulled me back from the brink." He shifted his eyes to watch Bryan's reaction.
As he expected, the man's dark skin paled slightly and his eyes darkened.
"Yeah, I guess I was."
Bryan swallowed thickly and looked away.
Clint lowered his drink, cradling the plastic bottle in his lap with his left hand. He sighed and turned his head to face Bryan.
"Thank you for being there – for going with him. There's no one I'd trust more to have his six."
Bryan nodded. Clint rubbed at the skin under the now bandage-less gash on his cheekbone – stitched and healing quickly. Wilson didn't even think it would scar.
"I know it probably wasn't easy – being there."
Bryan glanced at him and swallowed.
"I just want you to know I appreciate it."
Bryan shrugged in a poor attempt at nonchalance.
"Phil had the hard part."
Clint inclined his head slightly with a shrug.
"Maybe. But I think having to stand guard at the door – not being able to help – that would have been harder for me." Clint shrugged again. "But that's just me."
He saw Bryan's jaw clench and knew he'd hit the mark.
"Maybe not just you." Bryan sighed. "You can make it up to me but not ever being in that situation again, okay?"
Clint raised his drink to his mouth again and remained silent. He wouldn't make a promise he couldn't keep, not even for Bryan's peace of mind. He heard the trainer sigh.
"Yeah, I didn't figure that'd work."
They both watched Romanoff run the course in silence for a moment.
"Look, kid, this whole shit storm was hard one everyone involved." He gave Clint a meaningful look. "Present company included."
Clint shrugged slightly and didn't try to deny it.
"I'll be okay, Barton. It was rough, but I'll deal. You worry about yourself, okay? And not just the physical stuff. Give yourself time to heal up here too." He jabbed a finger gently against Clint's temple. "Everybody knows you're the toughest shit there is. You don't have to prove anything to anybody. So cut yourself a break and take your time healing up for once."
Clint smirked. Sometimes he forgot how well Bryan knew him. He tipped his drink towards Romanoff, who had just started the course for the umpteenth time.
"So how's she looking?"
Bryan rolled his eyes, but didn't fight the subject change.
"She's good – really good. Maybe even better than you were."
"Oh, I know she's better than I was – you don't have to pussyfoot around that."
"I think you made a good call, bringing her in. She's a good fit here. Well…" Bryan made a wry face. "She's a good fit here like you're a good fit here. So take that for what it is."
Clint barked a short laugh.
"You should really get back to the infirmary before they come looking. I'll cover you if someone comes asking."
Clint nodded and mentally prepared himself for the arduous task of standing. As if reading his mind, Bryan suddenly climbed to his feet and held out a hand.
Clint weighed his options quickly. Accept the help and admit his weakness or refuse it and risk falling off the roof.
He reached up and grasped Bryan's hand tightly. Through a joint effort, Clint was on his feet a moment later. Bryan released his hand and stepped back with a chuckle.
"Is there a reason you aren't wearing any shoes?"
Clint shrugged, brushing off his blue scrub pants with his free hand. He smoothed his plain white t-shirt next as he responded.
"Couldn't ask for any, or I'd give away my escape plan."
"When you've been in the infirmary enough times to have an 'escape plan,' you should really start reconsidering your lifestyle." Bryan teased.
Clint tilted his head in acquiescence and took one last look out at where Romanoff was training.
"You know I haven't had a chance to say this yet, or I would have already…"
Clint turned back Bryan curiously.
"I'm sorry I gave you shit about bringing in Romanoff. You didn't deserve that."
"Don't sweat it, Bryan. I probably deserved a lot worse."
Bryan caught his arm as he tried to turn away.
"No – you didn't."
Clint's smirk faded as the serious intensity in Bryan's eyes sank in.
"If there's anyone around here whose instincts have never been wrong, it's you. I should have trusted you, we all should have."
Clint dipped his head once in acceptance.
"Thanks for saying that."
Bryan nodded in response.
"Now go – I spent too many bullets saving your ass to have Phil or Dan kill you now."
Clint obediently moved back towards the door. He heard someone coming up just as he reached it and stepped quickly to the side. The door swung open and Clint hid himself behind it – watching Wilson storm out on to the roof.
"Todd? You seen Barton? He's MIA from the infirmary again. Phil's about ready to tie him down – and so am I."
Clint met Todd's eyes across the expanse, wondering if the trainer would give him away.
"No, haven't seen him."
Clint smirked and silently slid back through the door and started down the stairs. He had to bite back laughter as he heard Wilson's response and Todd's subsequent reply.
"Then what the hell are you doing on the roof?"
"What? Are you the roof police?"
Clint couldn't hold back a slight snicker as he rounded the flight and slid out onto the first available floor.
Let the chase begin.
Natasha slid silently out onto the roof, easing the door shut just as silently. She had hoped that tonight would be one where she got some sleep. It had been a good day. She'd kicked the ass of some jerk named Jared Matthews in sparring – kicked it so bad he'd been out of training for the rest of the day. And she'd heard Barton was released from the infirmary – finally. After a week and a half of recovery from whatever had happened on his doomed mission two weeks ago.
But sleep hadn't come – no matter how long she laid in her bunk. So she'd eventually given up and decided to roam. She wasn't sure what led her to the roof – he'd only come here a handful of times. But now that she was up here, inhaling the cool night air, it felt good, relaxing in a way.
She didn't realize she wasn't alone until she rounded the corner and saw none other than Clint Barton himself already perched on the ledge. She tried to turn around, but he was already turning in her direction.
She turned back and met his eyes.
"I'd heard you've been stealing my spot. I figured I'd restake my claim."
She almost defended herself, snapped that the roof wasn't his to claim – but then she saw something in his eyes – something that looked an awful lot like amusement. A smirk twitched on his lips.
He was joking.
People didn't joke with her. She couldn't remember the last time anyone had even smiled at her outside of a mission. For a moment, she didn't know what to do. Before she figured it out, Barton rolled his eyes.
"Jeez – relax, Romanoff. You can have any other spot you want."
She didn't move. She hadn't come up here for company, and still didn't particularly want it now that it was here.
He rolled his eyes again and carefully pushed himself to his feet. She nearly winced right along with him when it seemed he tweaked his healing ribs.
"You can retract the claws, I'll go. I wasn't planning on staying after you got here anyway."
"You knew I was coming?" She accused sharply, wondering suddenly if he'd been spying on her.
"Call it a gut feeling." He moved to stand in front of her – staying carefully out of her personal space and eyeing her critically. "I'm not so far removed from where you are that I've forgotten what it's like to be the new, scary kid on the block. I still come up here to clear my head."
She frowned at him, wondering why he was telling her any of this.
"Don't worry," he smirked again. And again she was struck with how at home the expression looked on his face. "I'll share."
She stepped to the side, clearly giving him a path towards the door – a blatant hint that she was ready for him to leave her alone.
"Wow, okay, I can take a hint. But before I leave you to your brooding, there's a reason I came up here." He reached into his left cargo pocket, extracting a thick, rolled file. He unrolled it, tried unsuccessfully to make it lay flat, and then just shrugged and held the curved papers out to her.
"What's that?" She demanded, eyeing the file curiously.
"It's a file."
She glared. He smirked. Then the smirk faded and his expression grew serious.
"It's a file on a man named Henri Moreau. Sound familiar?"
Natasha felt her heart speed up, her eyes cutting sharply to the file then back to Barton's face.
"Take it." He urged.
She didn't move.
His gaze was so heavy she imagined she could feel its weight – could feel it seeing deep into her soul. It took everything she had not to look away.
"Because you should know the man you tried to kill." If possible, his expression grew more intense. "And the man I would have died to protect."
Natasha stared at him – and knew in that moment – that he would have done just that. Died to save Moreau. Just like he had risked everything for her.
She was beginning to realize, that was just who Barton was.
"Take it." This time it was more of an order, less of a suggestion.
Without her consent, her hand reached to take the file.
Barton stepped past her without another word, heading for the door.
She turned and watched him pause, turning back to face her.
"What if I don't want to know?"
His lips curved into a sad smile.
"You don't get that luxury anymore."
Then he slid through the door and she was alone. She slowly moved to the spot he'd vacated and eased herself down, weighing the file in her hands. For a long time, she just stared at the name printed in the top corner.
Then she opened it and started to read.
Clint glanced up from the book he was reading – Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – when a knock came at his door. Phil was making a pizza run in the city and wouldn't be back for at least twenty minutes. Wilson had finally stopped checking on him every hour and Bryan was running a night training session.
With a muffled groan, he eased his way off his bed and shuffled to the door. The day he didn't feel like a ninety-year-old man with arthritis couldn't come soon enough. He hated broken ribs.
He finally reached the door and pulled it open just as his guest started knocking again.
He blinked dumbly.
The director's eyebrow arched.
"I'm pretty sure there should be a 'Director' or something in there."
Clint ignored the comment and just stared at him for a moment.
"Since when do you make house calls?"
"Since I own the house, Barton." Fury glanced down at the book in Clint's hand, and Clint swore he saw amusement in the man's eye when he raised it again. "You have a moment to spare in your hectic schedule?"
Clint rolled his eyes and stepped back into the room to allow Fury entrance.
"I think I can fit you in."
Fury stepped over the threshold and glanced around the room briefly before settling his gaze on Clint.
"I'll be brief." The Director eyed him seriously. "You're still on my shit list, Barton."
"You came all the way down here to tell me that. I'm touched."
"Stow the bullshit and just listen."
Clint closed his mouth and held up a hand in surrender.
"As I said – you're still on my shit list. And I'm still pissed as hell at you for pulling the stunt you did with Romanoff. That being said – you can't go off and almost get yourself killed every time you piss everybody off."
Clint blinked. Fury was coming dangerously close to admitting he cared. The director's gaze grew serious and Clint decided it'd be wise to keep his mouth shut until the man was done.
"I may have saved your ass from the Council, but you have a long way to go before you earn my trust again. So you can rest assured that your list of upcoming assignments will be the most tedious and boring of your career. Call it probation."
Clint resisted the urge to release his most put-upon sigh. Instead, he just nodded – and rolled his eyes as subtly as he could.
He knew the director saw – nothing ever seemed to get by the man – but instead of reaming him, Fury's lips just quirked slightly. Then he nodded once in return and headed for the door.
He turned back once he reached it and folded his hands behind his back.
"I also thought you should know. We got confirmation that the hit on Moreau has been cancelled. The issue before the Security Council has been resolved. Moreau is safe."
Clint nodded slowly, relief washing through him. Moreau was safe. This whole mess was finally over.
Fury nodded and turned back to the door.
Clint hesitated for a moment and then spoke.
"I know you sent a team for me – even though it's against protocol."
Fury didn't turn, stayed with his hand on the door knob.
"I wasn't about to let a group of mercs kill you before I had my chance to do so myself."
Clint smirked. Fury totally cared.
"Don't worry, sir," he threw as much sarcasm as he could muster into the term. "I won't tell anyone you care."
Fury pulled the door open and stepped into the hallway, not deigning to dignify that with a response. Clint moved to the door and called after him.
"Cat's out of the bag, Fury. You're a big, fluffy, caring teddy bear!"
He thought he heard Fury respond as he closed his door.
"Who are you calling fluffy?"
Clint smiled and moved back to his bed. He'd probably pay for that in some form, but he couldn't quite bring himself to care.
Natasha stalked into the training room – the smallest of the three housed in the base – and glared two of the three men present out of the room. The third man was her target.
Barton was attacking a punching bag with impressive ferocity, given the ribs she knew were still healing. He had headphones snaking up to both of his ears and she assumed that was the only reason he didn't seem to notice her approach.
She saw the moment he sensed a new presence in the room. He stiffened and turned immediately to face her. She used that opportunity to slam the Moreau file against his chest.
He grunted, caught the file against his chest, and showed no sign of pain except for a ticking in his jaw. And she knew it had to hurt. His ribs were still broken. It just aggravated her further that he seemed unaffected.
"Why did you give me this?"
Barton glanced around the training gym, no doubt searching for credible witnesses, and slowly reached to pull the headphones from his ears.
"I told you why."
"I didn't want to know any of this. I never wanted to know any of this." She shoved her hand against the file and sent him back a step. Barton's eyes suddenly lit up with fire and he shoved the file back at her.
"Tough shit, Romanoff. Now you know. You know that you almost killed a good man. A man that never hurt anyone – never deserved you or anyone else being sent after him."
"Why did you give me this?" She demanded again, her fists clenched around the file. She didn't know if she wanted to rip the thing in half or beat him with it. The latter option was looking more and more appealing.
Barton pinned her with that penetrating glare of his – the one that made her want to look away before he was able to see her soul. When he spoke, his tone was low and dangerous, making her remember she wasn't the only deadly one in the room.
"Because it's time for you to wake up. You don't get to live in that blissful little thing called ignorance anymore. You need to own up to what you were – deal with the fact that it was wrong."
Natasha stepped back as if he'd struck her.
"Because until you face that, you won't be able to do what you need to do here."
She looked down at the file in her hands. She could see, in her mind's eye, the words that were written inside. Words telling her about a man who had done nothing but good in his life. A man who, from the beginning of his political career, had spoken up for those who couldn't speak for themselves. A man who had never been afraid to make the hard choice – even when no one around him had the nerve.
And she'd tried to kill him.
She raised her glare to Barton, who was watching her knowingly.
"That's what guilt feels like."
She hated him in that moment – for reading her mind, for giving her the file, for introducing her to 'guilt.' She'd never felt any emotion concerning her job before – and she liked it better that way.
"I don't want this."
She pushed the file back against his chest – and pushed with it the guilt that was swirling through her. He pushed it right back.
"Well, suck it up, Romanoff, because that's just too damn bad. Guilt is the job – doing what we do, the guilt – the feeling – that's what makes us different from the people we hunt. Feeling is what makes us human beings – it's what makes us the good guys."
He stepped around her and towards the exit. She turned to watch him go, feeling the weight of the file in her hands. He turned back as he reached the door, walked backwards as he left her with one parting comment.
"Welcome to the human race, Romanoff. No returns, no exchanges. Comes complete with feelings and emotions – the good and the bad." He paused at the door. "You told me I wasn't wrong."
She froze. He'd been awake when she visited him. He'd heard her. She wasn't sure if she was furious … or relieved. She raised her eyes to his as he reached behind him to push the door open.
And then he was gone and the door was swinging closed in his wake.
Natasha wasn't sure how long she stood in the middle of the empty training room. She wasn't sure when she'd gone from barely gripping the file to having her arms wrapped around it, hugging it to her torso.
She didn't know how to do feelings. All traces of emotion had been drilled out of her when she was just a child. Or at least she'd thought they were drilled out – thought they were gone forever.
But as she stood there, she knew that wasn't so – because she sure as hell felt something now. She felt overwhelming guilt – not just for Moreau – but for the dozens before him. For faces she'd thought she'd forgotten. Names she'd thought she'd erased from her memory.
She had red in her ledger – so much so that it was dripping with the blood of her victims.
But Barton had said there was good too. And she realized with sudden clarity what that good was for her right now.
It was hope.
Hope that one day, she'd wipe that ledger clean.
Clint frowned at the target down the range. It wasn't nearly at the distance he was used to practicing at, but he was exhausted. So exhausted that on his last draw, his arms had started shaking. He was so sick of 'recovering'. He'd had his fill after Croatia.
Thankfully, Wilson assured him that his recovery from Uzbekistan wouldn't take nearly as long. Although Clint was already reaching the limit of his patience at three weeks. Three weeks since Phil had pulled him from that cell. Four since he'd made the decision to defy what apparently amounted to 'the entire universe' and let Natasha Romanoff live.
Clint sighed and drew another arrow.
Wilson was clearing him back to duty next week and Clint would start the first of several boring assignments that Fury had hand selected.
The Moroccan dessert was his first stop. A three-week solo distance surveillance mission – distance meaning he sat in a hovel dug out of the sand and watched live surveillance feeds of a compound ten miles away.
He was bursting with enthusiasm.
He loosed the arrow and frowned when it hit the bottom quadrant of the bullseye.
"Fury tells me you've added to the reasons you're on his shit list."
Clint turned to watch Phil join him in the otherwise empty range. There had been a handful of agents practicing when Clint arrived. It hadn't taken long for Clint to 'convince' them to move along.
"That depends," Clint smirked, "has his Teddygram arrived yet?"
"That depends," Phil replied with a matching smirk. "Was it a black teddy bear with a leather trench coat and an eye patch?"
"I'm fairly certain I saw it meeting an untimely demise by blow torch."
Clint barked a laugh.
"Blow torch? A little extreme."
"Something I missed?" Phil asked curiously as he set a small package on the table next to Clint.
"Nothing much – just Fury acting like big, fluffy teddy bear. I just wanted to honor the moment with a memento."
"He said he was going to add a new level to his shit list, just for you."
Clint put his hand over his heart.
Phil rolled his eyes and nudged the package towards him.
"That's for me?"
"Considering you seemed to have managed to rid the range of any other occupants – yes, it's for you."
Clint pulled the package over and looked for a sender address, but none was listed. He shot Phil a wary glance.
"I've already had it scanned. You're good to open it."
Clint reached to his back and pulled his knife, slicing into the packing tape quickly and cleanly.
The box contained exactly two things. A book and a folded piece of paper.
Clint pulled the paper out first and opened it.
I hope this note reaches you well. Finding a way to reach you was somewhat of a challenge, but I'm proud to say I was victorious. I'm sure my methods have sparked your curiosity, but I cannot reveal my sources. You are not the only one who can operate with "subtlety."
You have my continuing gratitude for all that you and your associate did for me while you were in Paris. For such reason, if you should ever find yourself in my city again, please know that you are welcome in my home at any time. I should very much like to debate local cuisine with you once again.
You'll find in this box a book. I sent it because it reminded me strongly of…you. I hope you take the time to read it as you will, I think, rather like the leading character.
I hope you are well, Monsieur Barton. I thank you again and I wish you safe keeping in all that you must do…and perhaps should I also say…happy hunting.
Votre ami…your friend. Clint couldn't help but stare at the note and ended up reading it through again.
He wasn't sure why he was surprised – Moreau had been dogging him for friendship from day one. Clint realized now – for the first time – that he'd considered Moreau a friend all along. No matter how much he'd teased the man and played at keeping everything painfully professional.
The last friend he'd had outside of Phil, Wilson, and Bryan had been in his circus days.
The realization that he'd added one to that number was…heartening.
He looked at Phil. His handler looked torn between worry and curiosity.
Clint nodded and wordlessly handed the note to Phil. The handler took it as Clint pulled the book out of the box.
"Take a Thief" by Mercedes Lackey
He turned the book over, lips curving into a grin as he read the summary.
"Looks like you made a friend." Phil was smiling as he handed the note back. Clint folded it and stuck it in the front cover of the book.
"I guess I won't be telling him I recruited his would-be assassin into SHIELD." He was only half joking. He couldn't imagine ever trying to explain that to Moreau.
Phil shook his head and smiled slightly.
Clint looked down at the book again, a smile finding its way to his lips. At least he'd have something new to read in Morocco. He couldn't remember the last time someone outside of Brit and Kara, and more recently Phil, had given him a gift – much less one that fit him so well.
He found himself suddenly hoping that the next time he went to Paris – because he knew his job would take him there again – he'd be able to stop by and pay his friend a visit. If for nothing else than to tell him what he told all of his friends when they tried to thank him for doing something that was just his nature – just a product of that friendship…
No thanks required.
"Come on," Phil drew his attention. "Romanoff is getting ready to hit the sparring mat with the other recruits, should be entertaining. If she's as good as you and Todd claim, they're talking of pulling her from general training as soon as she passes her testing tomorrow."
"No shit?" Clint laughed as they headed out of the range. Then he thought about it. It probably was the safest move for all parties involved. "Who's she gonna train with? You?" He teased.
"Actually," Phil tossed him a serious glance, "my suggestion to Fury was you. When you're on base, at least."
"You're the one that brought her here," Phil smirked somewhat deviously making Clint's eyes narrow. "You might as well be the one she beats up on."
Clint knew in his head that it was more likely because he was the only one on base that stood a chance against her. He scowled anyway.
"Thanks, Phil. You're all heart."
End of What No One Else Sees
Kylen totally gave me the idea for the Teddygram when she saw I had Clint calling Fury a teddy bear lol :)
That was my longest story yet - and it was a wild ride for both you guys and me :) Thank you so much for sticking with me :) I'll have the next Milestone coming at you soon hopefully (Year 8 is the next up) and hopefully some more one-shots to hold you over while I work on my next story.
Now before I reveal what's coming next, I urge you to go check my profile page in the next couple days - I'll be making a few changes to my story list that may interest some of you :)
Next in the Vantage Point Universe is... (drumroll)
They never thought they'd fight the battle where they lived - but then an attack on the New York SHIELD base brings the fight home when old hatreds come to light. Sequel to Budapest.