Well You Went Left And I Went Right
"Everyone has an identity. One of their own, and one for show." - Jacqueline Susann
"Shit." Clint repeated, mainly to himself, but his handler nodded slowly in agreement. The two of them sat on Clint's cot for a moment while Clint's concussed brain fought to take in the file in front of him. It took longer than it probably should have, even with his head injury, as his eyelids drooped every few seconds in a way that had nothing to do with his concussion and everything to do with his suddenly unbearable exhaustion.
It was as if the hit to the head had destroyed the last bit of stamina he had in him and now it was all he could do not to face plant into the file. All he wanted was to lie back down and sleep for an eternity – but he couldn't. Not with Phil watching. If he found out how exhausted Clint really was he'd have his head.
And his security clearance.
Clint would be sentenced to surveillance details for months if Phil found out that Clint's dreams had come back with a vengeance and he hadn't told him.
Clint's past as a gun for hire was nothing that Phil was unaware of. In fact it was what had landed him on Phil's radar in the first place, and not something that the man had ever held against Clint. Never judged him for despite how harshly Clint judged himself.
You were a kid, Phil was always remind him – with a compassion that Clint didn't deserve – when Clint spoke of his dreams, A kid who had seen to much, been put through too much, and you made the only choice that was left for you. You survived.
But Clint's survival had been at the cost of others.
And lately those others had been plaguing his dreams with such ferocity that he couldn't stand to sleep more than a couple of hours at a time.
When he had first come to S.H.E.I.L.D the nightmares had been so crippling that he had gone weeklong stretches with barely any sleep at all. They had ruled his life for months until he had passed out during one of his training sessions with Phil and woke in the infirmary to find the older man seated in the chair beside his cot.
Ready to tell me what's on your mind yet? Phil had asked just as calmly as he had asked the exact same question dozens of times before. And so Clint had. Later he blamed exhaustion and the drugs they had pumped him full off, but he had come clean to his handler about what he had done. The lives he had taken.
And when he had finished Phil had merely nodded.
I know. He had said. I always knew. There aren't many hit men that use bows nowadays. I pieced together all of your past hits before I even began looking for you. I know how much blood is on your hands. And I accept it. I saw your remorse, how much every life haunts you, the moment we met.
I saw the man, not the murderer.
And you are a good man Clint Barton. And one day – when you're ready to forgive yourself for your mistakes – you're going to become great.
Clint was still working on the forgiveness part.
Three years later though and he really hadn't made much progress to be quite honest. And in the last few weeks, as the nightmares made themselves at home in his sleep once more, he felt as if all his work to make himself better had been for nothing. Every life he fought to save over the last three years had been for nothing because some nights he felt no better. No more than the worthless killer he was when he first came to S.H.E.I.L.D.
As if nothing he could do might even begin to wipe away the blood that he had spilt.
And on top of all that, he was lying to Phil about it.
As if he didn't feel shit enough about it already.
"I've already called Fury and he's called a meeting with the Council," Phil said, rising from where he sat at the end of Clint's cot and moving back across the room to his own cot and the files strewn across it. "He should be talking to them about now actually-" he glanced down at his watch. "Odds are though that they're going to issue a hit, and as we're the closest team-" His voice faded away suggestively, but Clint knew what Phil hadn't had to say.
It would be him. They'd assign the kill to him.
"You up for this?"
The question caught him off guard and he glanced up to meet Phil's eyes that were suddenly staring down at him too closely for his liking.
"Sure." He said at once. "Why wouldn't I be?"
At first Phil didn't say anything, just continued to stare, but then he shook his head minutely and the smallest of smiles tugged at his lips. "No reason. You just seem a bit off. But if you say you're fine…"
Phil was silent for another moment, and Clint's heart shot up into his throat. God, did he know? Clint had purposely been silent while he lay awake at night, equally terrified and ashamed, and unable to sleep. But Phil was, well, Phil. He just knew things.
Eventually, though, Phil did reply.
The short, and clearly hesitant, answer didn't help to calm Clint's nerves, but he put them aside for now. He had a job to do, and if Phil were beginning to suspect that he was struggling at it he would have him removed.
And that was so not happening with a Black Widow in the picture.
He opened his mouth to say something, distract Phil in some way and get his mind back on the case, but the older man cut him off.
"Go back to sleep. That concussion still hasn't worn off and it won't for a while. Not much we can do until Fury gets onto the council and we get more orders. Might as well sleep while we can."
Clint tried his best to school his expression, despite the glance Phil sent him at the mention of sleep. For the most part he succeed, nodding convincingly and laying back onto his cot with his back facing Phil – but despite his efforts, as his handler shot him one last look from his own cot, Phil could easily see the tense set of Clint's shoulders and hear the quiet but fast breathing.
And both remained so for the hours that followed.
Phil woke just in time to see the sun rise while he set about brewing some coffee before he went over every file in the small safe house again. For the life of him he couldn't find anything that connected the Romanov girl to Yozhikov. Not one single scrap of proof that they had ever come anywhere close to one another, let alone met. Not that there was much to go on when it came to Natalia Romanov. The only records they had of her were the occasional photo and alleged assassinations, and even those were hits that had been credited to her due to suspicion alone. If he only put stock in solid facts about her he wouldn't even have her name, even that was unproven.
The only thing he knew about the girl was that she was dangerous.
And he didn't want Clint within a hundred mile radius of her.
He looked over at the archer whose silhouette was clear through the open door of the adjacent room, and couldn't help but grimace.
The kid had tossed and turned for hours while they both attempted to sleep, and even when Phil had finally drifted off and woken hours later the kid had still been as tense as his bow string.
And Phil was furious.
Not just at Clint, for lying to him – and he had too, the shadows under his eyes sold him out – but also at himself. He should have noticed sooner. Should have seen that the kid was exhausted and distracted. Clearly his dreams were back with a vengeance they hadn't had in years, and for some reason Clint had yet to come with him.
Phil would have been lying if he said that didn't hurt a little. He had thought they were past this. That Clint trusted him.
"I thought you went over all of this last night?" Clint's voice broke Phil's line of thought and he looked up to find a sleepy archer in the doorway of the bedroom. He shuffled across the small dining room that was strewn with Phil's files in the direction of the coffee machine and the mug Phil had already filled with an obscene amount of sugar in anticipation of him waking.
"I did, but as I didn't find anything I thought I might as well look through it all again to be sure. Maybe if I wish hard enough some scrap of proof will magically tie everything together."
Clint huffed, amused, while pouring his coffee. "When has life ever been that kind to us?" Phil sighed bleakly at the truth in those words and Clint went on, moving to the seat across from his handler at the small table. "Anything from our red-head over night?"
"Nothing. Wherever she is, she's laying low for now."
"Probably for the best. Don't know if my skull could take another round with her for a couple of days." Clint rubbed his stiches, looking more irritated than pained which reassured Phil. The concussion must have worn off. "Where are the files on her anyway? Might as well get to know what I'm up against." Clint said, looking over his mug at the array of files on the table.
"You're looking at it," Phil nodding towards the thin folder right under Clint's nose.
The agent looked down. "You're joking, right?" He picked up the file and flipped it open to find a small photograph along with only two other, short, pages detailing hits that she was suspected to have had a hand in. "This is it? This is all we have? How is that even possible?"
"If you had asked me eight months ago we wouldn't have even had that." Phil said. "Before then there was nothing on her. She was just a face that kept cropping up in Russian intelligence communications."
"So she's KGB?" Clint asked, reading each page carefully.
"No idea. They're not taking responsibility for her – not that we thought they would. All we know is that she's been around for a long time. Longer than you. We're just starting to piece together her past hits but there isn't a lot to go on." Phil said, leaning across the table to rest his elbows in the space between them. "It's strange though. Before March it's like she barely existed at all. A photograph here and there, a name that to be honest is nothing more than a rumour. She didn't leave a single mark in the world at all despite that we're fairly certain she's been in the game for years, and then all of a sudden she materialised into a living, breathing and almost track-able human being."
"That is weird. Maybe she got tired of being in the shadows?" Clint shrugged. It was the only explanation he could think of.
"Oh, these weren't shadows Clint." Phil argued, his eyes darkening in frustration. "S.H.E.I.L.D sees shadows. She somehow existed completely out of our sight."
"I didn't think that was possible." Clint said, more impressed than anything. "And coming from someone who has tried in the past, that's saying something."
"Yeah, well, she exists now. That's the problem." Phil growled, swallowing the last of his own, long cold, coffee.
"Don't stress. We'll deal with her. No fuss." Clint said, doing his best to seem unconcerned and flippant while taking a large sip of his coffee. "I owe her one now."
"You up for that." Phil asked, blandly, working hard to keep the fire that was quickly igniting in his chest out of his voice.
"Of course I am. I said that yesterday-" Clint began to remind him before he was cut off.
"-this morning actually. Probably seems like a long time ago though, considering you've been awake since." Phil kept his tone as even as possible, bordering on robotic even, but he owed the kid a chance to explain. One last chance to be honest with him.
Clint didn't take it. Instead he froze, mug half way to his lips, and a vein on his forehead throbbing. He just stared at Phil, expression caught between shocked and horrified.
But he said nothing.
"I should have you removed from this assignment-" Phil began, shaking his head slowly. Again he felt like the blame was his own. How could he have let this happen? Let Clint get assigned here when he clearly wasn't up for it. And nearly been killed because of it.
"You can't!" Clint exploded, his expression suddenly becoming much more animated. He leant across the table and stared at Phil imploringly while he spoke. "You know you can't. No one else even has a chance of taking her down, and you know it. You can't take me off this case. I can do it. I can." He sounded as if he were trying to convince himself more than Phil by the end, and that did nothing to reassure the older man.
"How long?" Phil asked quietly. "How long since you've slept-" Clint went to answer immediately but Phil held up a silencing hand and went on,"-properly?"
At that Clint's face fell and his eyes darted down, ashamed, before he answered quietly. "A few weeks."
Phil ran a hand through his hair and over his own tired eyes. "Since Baghdad."
"It's fine Phil," Clint muttered, stripping his face of emotion until he was staring at Phil evenly. "That assignment was just-" He struggled for a moment. "-a little…close to home. "
The kid had been lying awake for weeks and he hadn't noticed. Hadn't done anything. The thought flooded him with guilt, but brought back the hurt he had been feeling before at a whole new level.
"Have I done something?" Phil asked slowly, confused, and a little desperate.
"What?" That seemed to surprise Clint even more than when Phil called him out on his exhaustion. He tilted his head in confusion as he stared across the table at his handler.
"Have I done something wrong?" Phil repeated. "Something that might waver your trust in me?"Realization dawned on Clint's face and a moment later horror replaced it. "God, no, Phil-" He began, but Phil cut him off.
"Then why haven't you come to me?" He asked heatedly, more angry at the situation rather than Clint, but still frustrated that the kid had let things get this far. "You're not alone kid, not anymore. You don't have to carry this on your ow-"
"Yes I do." Clint said with a firmness that took Phil of guard. When Phil looked over at him he found that his eyes had completely closed off. There was no emotion to be found in the blue irises. "I can't afford a crutch, Phil." He continued, anger tinting the words. "And I'm not a kid anymore." He hissed. "I can't just shove all of the memories into the back of my mind and forget about them. What kind of a person would that make me?"
"So you want the nightmares?" Phil asked, uncertain."What? No. I just-" Clint struggled, trying to find the right words before giving up. "You don't understand." He said finally.
"Then help me." Phil pleaded.
"I don't know how-" Again Clint struggled. "-I can't explain it-" And again he gave up when the words wouldn't come to him. "Just forget about it."
"I can't do that, kid. Especially not-" Clint cut him off.
"Forget it." He snapped harshly, standing so quickly that his chair almost toppled over, and stomping back into the small kitchen to refill his mug. "And stop calling me a 'kid'."
Phil might have pushed more, tried another tactic, but before he could even begin to strategize a way to understand the mystery that was Clint Barton his phone began to ring. His hand reached for it automatically and with one last glance at Clint answered, forcing his voice to sound calm despite his own churning emotions. Arguing with Clint – really arguing – always left him unsettled, and if the tension in the archers shoulders was a sign than clearly it had the same effect on Clint.
But neither continued to conversation.
"Coulson." Phil said, firmly.
"Phil," John Garret's bombing voice met his ear. "We've found Yozhikov."
"Great. Agent Barton and I are on our way-" He kept his eyes downwards, glaring at the table rather than at Clint who leant tensely against the kitchen cabinets listening to the call.
"Don't bother." Garret cut him off. "He's dead. Has been since yesterday. Murdered."
For the first time that morning Clint's insomnia completely fled his mind. "The Black Widow?" He asked quickly, sorting through his files once more – bringing up the records of her other alleged kills for comparison.
"Can't have been." Garret replied in his typical, easy-going tone – one that, for some reason, had forever frustrated Phil to no end – the sound sirens echoing somewhere in the distance. "Coroner at the scene has put his time of death at around the same time she was hanging your boy off that building. He'd almost made it out of the city too, so there's no way she could have gotten there in time."
Phil sighed heavily and in his peripheral vision he saw Clint slowly moving towards him, his curiosity overcoming his agitation. "So we have another player."
"If the Black Widow was after the case, then odds are-"
"Third players here for it too." Garret finished. "I hear you Phil, but techs haven't been able to make a dint in it yet. And trust me, I'm motivating them." Phil had no doubt about that. Garret was a slave driver when he wanted to be. "Nothing opens this thing. Techs say they don't even know what the key is, so we're dreaming if we think we can force it open."
"Lovely. So we have two assassins, an impregnable brief case and absolutely no idea why they're all connected." Phil's eyes flickered upwards just in time to see Clint's brow rise so high that it was in danger of becoming lost in his actual hair.
"You always get the interesting ones, Phil." Garret chuckled.
"Interesting's one word for it." Frustrating as hell is another.
"We'll I'm off to Bora Bora to meet up with a rather delightful contact, if I may say so myself. Gorgeous girl who I've been told has the most skilled hands-"
Phil hung up abruptly, before he heard something that he doubted even bleach would remove from his memory, and set his phone down on the table. "Why even bother killing him if he didn't have it?" He asked – mainly himself – as he stared at the files again.
"So we wouldn't know what's in it." Clint answered, standing just across from him while leaning against the table – freshly filled coffee mug in his hands. "It's what I'd do."
"We'll it seems like everyone else knows but us, so you might be right." Phil leant back in his chair and stared openly at Clint, taking in the hunched shoulders and fidgety fingers that were playing with the mug in his hand. "I can't just drop it." He said after several moments and Clint's twitching fingers froze, his eyes still focused intensely on the mug and not Phil. "I just can't. It's not in my nature to be able to sit by while you tear yourself apart from the inside out." Clint's eyes remained glued to the mug, but the subtle flex of his jaw told Phil that he was listening. "But you're right," Phil went on. "You are the only one who can do this. So I won't have you removed from the assignment, but I won't quit trying to understand either. Fixing your scrambled brain box has always been a two man job, and I'm always up for the challenge." Clint's poker face was back as Phil rose, gathered his strewn files and dawned his jacket. "And just for the record," He added, straightening up and looking back at his agent one more time. "You're always going to be a kid to me."
"-id we get anything else from the coroners report?" Phil was midway through asking as Clint entered the office that had been set up for those involved in the assignment. Troop teams were still filing through every so often, being assigned about the ruins and to run down other leads, and Clint did his very best to stay clear of them. He wasn't the most popular agent on base, and never had been. Other agents had always avoided him, something about his age and past putting them off, but Clint had never minded. He wasn't the social type anyway. His few, close friends on the New York base had always been enough for him. But at the moment he was glad it was just he and Phil amongst all these strangers. It was bad enough that his sour mood and sleepless nights were affecting Phil, without anyone else being brought into the mix.
Phil's words from earlier were still ringing through his head, his handlers determination to understand driving Clint up the walls. It had taken Phil mere seconds to connect the dreams with Clint's recent assignment in Baghdad, despite that for all intensive purposes the assignment had been a complete success.
One hit. It hadn't even taken a day.
The man had been an arms dealer, trading to the worst men imaginable, and Clint had felt nothing but justified in putting a bullet through his skull – but the hit had gone down at a private airport. An airport where Clint had been paid handsomely to execute a hit once before.
Only that hit he could not justify.
The man, he had found out later, had been a lawyer. He had been in Baghdad investigating faulty military equipment supplied by a US corporation that had sold the malfunctioning equipment knowingly. After the man died the case had been dropped.
He had been on a flight back to Boston to see his three kids when Clint gunned him down.
He still hadn't told Phil. He just couldn't bring himself to say the words.
As if sensing his gaze Phil glanced up towards the doorway as the agent he had been speaking too turned back to one of the many computers about the room. "Please tell me you have something." Phil said while Clint moved into the room.
"Good looks and charm." Clint answered without a pause, his signature smirk firmly in place. "They haven't failed me yet."
"You'll have to forgive me if I don't rely solely on those." Phil replied just as swiftly.
"Your loss." Clint shrugged. "So nothing on our fiery haired assassin? Or her murderous cohorts?"
"Nothing." Phil said, his frustration returning. "The scene at Yozhikov's murder was clean. And so was the roof top where you had your unfortunate run-in."
"How are they doing this?" Clint shook his head, glancing around the room at the boards upon boards of information – none of it even remotely helpful to them. "Staying one step ahead? Completely out of our sight? I mean this isn't just the Black Widow. It would have taken an entire team to take out Yozhikov and his security."
"Yeah but a team from where?" Phil asked. "Like I said the KGB is still denying everything, and we haven't had a single hit on the records we have of their foreign agents despite that we've cross-checked every camera in the city. It's like they just…"
"…Don't exist." Clint finished, repeating Phil's words from earlier that morning. "Which begs the question, why are we seeing them now?" He turned away from the screens to face Phil again, watching confusion spread across his handler's expression. "What's so important about this briefcase that they're willing to risk catching our attention like this? The case is the key to all this, I'm sure it is, and when we know what's in it we'll finally be able-"
"Yeah, there may be a problem with that."
While Clint was speaking to Phil the doors behind him had opened to reveal a particularly anxious agent who had rushed towards them immediately, cutting Clint off before she had even reached them.
"What do you mean?" Phil's boss voice was at full force.
"The facility where the brief case is being examined is currently being broken into." She said hurriedly, tapping away at the tablet in her hand before showing it to Phil. "This footage was taken less than two minutes ago."
Clint glanced down at the tablet over Phil's shoulder and watched as Natalia Romanova stalked down one of the facilities corridors – taking out the three guards that rushed at her with ease – before the footage went black suddenly.
"What happened?" Phil demanded. "Why did the footage cut-off?"
"She must have disabled the security feed." The agent replied immediately, "The electric locks are reported to have failed as well. She-"
"-Somehow I doubt that she managed to collapse the entire electric system with her legs around a security guard's neck." Clint cut the agent off, before looking across to Phil and continuing. "I think our other, mysterious, team has crashed the party."
"Agreed." Phil nodded, handing the tablet back to the agent while already moving to address the tac-team leaders that were strewn about the office, Clint right beside him and the agent on their heels. "Suit up. I want a team ready to infiltrate in four minutes," He looked across at Clint, "And I want you to go straight for the briefcase, it's the only common denominator so far and I'm not willing to loose it."
"Aye, aye Overwatch."
"The briefcase was being examined in lab five on the third floor, and as far as we know that door hasn't been tampered with yet so hopefully that means the case is still there."Phil's voice echoed in Clint's ear with all of it's usual precision and clarity as the archer made his way silently along a corridor on the first floor of the facility. There was a familiarity in the situation that left Clint feeling more at home than he had in days. His missions usually consisted of only him and Phil, the older man a constant voice of reason and comfort in his ear while he was out in the field alone. The last few days had been unsettling to say the least. He hadn't worked on a large-scale project in over a year and honestly he didn't miss them. Phil often ridiculed Clint for being too self-sufficient and if he was being honest Clint knew his handler was right, but a lifetime of looking out for himself was not a habit he could break easily. And he didn't particularly want to. Clint did his best work when he was alone, in the shadows, with nothing more than his bow.
And in that moment, with his quiver attached to his back and bow held at his side, he felt more alert than he had in days.
"On it, Overwatch. I'm heading for the north staircase now, ETA two minutes." Clint murmured across the comm, slipping through the door to the staircase silently and starting upwards. He reached the third floor in a matter of seconds and pushed the door to the corridor open a few inches to glance up and down it. Nothing moved in the darkness – the facilities lights having faulted when the security cameras were disabled – and Clint eased himself out into the open space cautiously.
"No sign of the Widow or any other menacing, mystery mercenaries." He reported, keeping his bow arm tensed in case that changed abruptly, "They may not have known whereabouts they were keeping the case – they're probably still searching the first two floors."
"It won't take them long to clear them," Phil replied. "Just get the case and get out – we've still got no visual from the security cameras so where essentially blind out here."
"I'm almost there." Clint reported, spotting a large 5 on a door only a hundred feet down from him.
"And 'menacing, mystery mercenaries'?" Phil said, and Clint could almost hear the affectionate grin in his voice. "Feeling poetic today are we?"
"I almost added 'murderous' to the start but I thought that was a bit much. Didn't want to ruin it."
"Your restraint is noted and appreciated."
"You can't fool me Overwatch," Clint grinned as he reached the lab door and began typing in an assortment of random numbers. "I know how much you love my poetry. Bet you still keep that haiku I gave you for your birthday under your pillow-"
Clint couldn't explain it, there was no sound or a warning, but a sudden tingling sensation made itself known on the back of his neck – had been the entire way alone the corridor – and he had learnt long ago to never ignore it.
He pulled away from the metal lab door instantly – throwing himself to one side – and not a second later a bullet imbedded itself in that door where his torso had been.
He had his bow drawn, arrow notched, before he had even straightened back up. He rose slowly as he stared down the bows length at the figure in front of him, the shadows hiding her face but unable to dull that unmistakable red hair.
"You'll have to forgive me if I don't say it's a pleasure to see you again." He said casually mainly for Phil's sake so that the older man would know he had found the young assassin again.
She didn't dignify the words with a response, instead – keeping her Berretta pistol aimed at his forehead – she raised her empty hand to the metal door and entered in the passcode that Clint had seconds ago been typing. When she finished the keypad flashed red for a moment and the door remained locked.
"You didn't think I'd enter the real password with you watching, did you?" He deadpanned, all humour gone. "I was thinking we might have a chat instead."
"Hawkeye disengage and go for the case." Phil's voice ordered in his ear.
Clint glared at the woman before him, planted firmly in place in front of the door he needed to get through. Call it intuition but he was fairly sure she wasn't going to make it easy for him to get by.
"What's in the case?" He demanded, calculating every possible way around her and not liking the answers he was reaching. He had learnt from last time. He knew better than to engage in a fist fight right off the mark – she had proven that she clearly had the upper hand in that particular field – but his firing range within the corridor was small and he saw no other way to get around her than to physically move her.
That didn't mean he couldn't tip the odds in his favour though.
If he ricochet the arrow from the metal door at the right angle it would catch her thigh at a particularly painful angle and he would have the upper hand when it did come down to blows.
But he never took the shot.
A loud crash and several gunshots from the floor below told Clint that the S.H.I.E.L.D Tac-Teams had found the mysterious troop of mercenaries that had killed Yozhikov but he didn't take his eyes from the red-headed woman in front of him. All she needed was one lapse on his part and he was dead, she was that good – so when it was her who threw a glance down the corridor towards the commotion his confusion had him pausing.
For the first time the impassive mask that she had kept firmly in place both times they had met faulted, and something he had not thought possible passed across her expression.
"They're not here with you are they?" Clint asked after a second of tense silence. She didn't fault again. Her eyes – which were once again fixed on him as she kept her Berretta pointed squarely at his forehead – remained empty.
Her jaw, however, tensed – only slightly – but enough.
Enough for Clint to finally put all the pieces together.
"They're here for you." It wasn't a question. Clint knew he was right. It all made sense. Why they continually showed up after her, not with her. Why the Consulate had been blown away with her inside of it.
The sound of gunfire was now echoing in the stairwell only a hundred feet from where they stood, and Clint knew that in a few seconds the corridor was to be a hell of a lot more crowded.
That knowledge had him doing something that he was sure would turn out to be the worst – and possibly last – mistake of his life.
He lowered his bow.