Clint was tired. The kind of tired that went bone deep and made every tiny motion feel like he had lead weights hanging from his shoulders. He hadn’t showered in nearly a week and he couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten something that was a protein bar. His period* was two weeks late but he still had the cramps from hell anyway. At least he wasn’t pregnant, he thought bitterly; dehydrated, starved, and stressed as fuck, but not pregnant.
He curled himself into a ball on the narrow bed and closed his eyes. He was exhausted but sleep was far away. Every nerve in his body was on edge, he wasn’t safe here, wasn’t really safe anywhere. The tiny, dirty hostel was echoing with noise: people talking, laughing, the scrape of moving furniture. All of it echoed in his ears like a raucous orchestra. It made his head throb, but he didn’t dare remove his hearing aids to muffle the noise. Every footstep that tramped past his room was another mercenary looking to collect the bounty on his head. He didn’t dare make himself anymore vulnerable than he already was.
He spent three hours tossing and turning on the narrow bed with his thoughts running wild. The binder around his breasts itched like crazy, but he didn’t dare take it off in case he had to make a run for it. He was starving, his belly hollow and growling, but he’d used the last of his cash to pay for the room and he didn’t dare touch his accounts in case Gregson had found them.
Finally with a frustrated groan Clint rolled off the bed and punched the floor. The pain shot up through arm and for a brief moment it was a relief to have something that wasn’t exhaustion and panic to focus on.
He climbed to his feet, his hand braced against the wall when the room spun around him. Fuck, he hated this. Why couldn’t he have kept his fucking mouth shut? Why’d he have to be so fucking nosy? He didn’t need to know what Gregson was delivering to do his fucking job, but no, he’d had to go and look in the damn crates. And what did he find? Guns, big guns with some kind of tentacled skull insignia on the stocks. Clint didn’t have any idea what that symbol meant but whatever it was made Gregson mad enough to put out a hit on him. And here he was, running for his life, nowhere to go and no one to help.
He staggered to the window and peeked through the blinds at the busy street. Tourists and locals were going about their business as usual, a stream of moving bodies walking up and down the sidewalks. It the crush of motion it was an instant of stillness that caught his eye. Across the street, standing under the awning for the Indian resraurant, was an average looking white man in jeans and a I <3 Galway t-shirt. He was leaning against the wall looking at his cell phone. Everything about him looked casual and innocuous and it set Clint’s inner alarms screaming.
He jerked back from the window. “Fuckfuckfuck,” he snarled. He snatched up his bowcase and duffle bag, checking the gun at his back and the knives at his wrists as he yanked on his jacket. There was a fire escape on the backside of the building, but that was too obvious, there’d be someone watching it. The laundry room was in the basement, there must be an exit down there, maybe even a uniform he could steal and sneak out.
He yanked open the door and nearly walked right into the guy standing on the otherside, his fist raised to knock. Clint had a split second to register dark skin, bald head, glasses, a black suit that screams federal agent, and tranq gun. He’d caught the agent by surprise, and he had panic and adrenaline on his side. Clint lashed out. His fist connected with the man’s nose with a solid crack.
“Shit!” The agent fell back, blood pouring from his nose, and that’s when Clint noticed the other agent beside him. He had split second to register her presence before she grabbed him. The hall was a blur to his eyes as she flipped him to the ground. She had him pinned one arm yanked up behind his back in seconds. Clint’s head swam and he swore, his voice slurred even to his ears. There was a sharp prick against his shoulder and his vision went blurry. His limbs refused to obey him, and everything around him went soft and fuzzy.
“Fucker broke my nose,” he heard the bald guy grumble.
“I warned you,” the other agent said with no sympathy in her voice. “Coulson, package acquired.”
It was the last thing Clint heard before he blacked out entirely.
Clint woke up cuffed to a metal chair. He still had his hearing aids, he could hear the metal from the cuffs clinking against the chair frame, and the muted hum of the halogen lights overhear. He kept still, his eyes closed and head down, as he tried to assess his situation. He wasn’t dead, obviously. His head ached and his mouth was dry, but that was probably a side effect of whatever sedative they’d used. He was still hungry, still achy, but at least he was no longer too tired to function. And while his weapons were gone, he was still wearing all his clothes. He shifted a little in his chair and found that it was bolted to the floor, not surprising.
Finally he opened his eyes and looked around. The room was a small concrete box with soundproofing lining the walls. The only furniture, besides Clint’s own chair, was a metal table directly in front of him and another chair on the opposite side. There were video cameras in each corner, and a one way mirror to his left.
He gave an internal sigh of relief. Whoever had him was government, not Gregson or his thugs. They didn’t arrest him, so it wasn’t a law enforcement agency. Which left intelligence. The agents who’d grabbed him had spoken unaccented English, so American. CIA, NSA, or SHIELD? he wondered.
Goosebumps rose on his arms and a fresh shot of nerves made his stomach twist. Whoever had him probably wouldn’t kill him, but they could do worse. They could make him disappear. They could break him apart and no one would stop them. He started to sweat, and as much as he tried to keep still he couldn’t stop his hands from shaking. He couldn’t focus on calming himself, and that just made him even more nervous. He was a sniper, a professional at laying in wait and keeping still, but whatever drug they’d dosed him with made it impossible to keep still and calm.
A sharp tap to his left made him flinch, eyes wild as he looked around for a threat, but there was nothing.
A few second later the door opened with a soft creak and Clint’s eyes shot up to land on the new arrival.
He was white, brown hair, blue-grey eyes, receding hairline, and dressed in a tailored suit that cost more than all of Clint’s belongings combined. He had a stack of files tucked under one arm and no weapons that Clint could see. He smiled at Clint, sort of. His mouth didn’t really move but the corners of his eyes crinkled into an expression that was probably supposed to be friendly but just made Clint even more nervous. Nervous and angry. He loathed the assholes who pretended to be all smiles and niceties right before they started hurting him.
“I don’t know what you’ve heard but I’m really not into bondage on a first date,” Clint sneered. “You could at least buy me dinner or something.” He grinned, baring his teeth like a snarl. The smiley ones didn’t really like it when he was a smart ass, and maybe he could provoke the guy into making a mistake.
The suit didn’t react beyond a twitch at the corner of his mouth. He shut the door behind him and approached, setting the stack of files down on the table. “Ms. Barton--,” he started.
“Just Barton,” Clint snapped. “I ain’t ‘Ms’ anything.” A split second after he said it Clint could have kicked himself. He knew what people saw when they looked at him, and now he’d gone and made a fucking stupid rookie mistake that might get him hurt even worse. He braced himself for whatever the suit would throw at him. He’d heard it all before. He could take it.
The suit still didn’t react. “Barton, then,” he agreed, easily. Too easily for Clint’s comfort. The suit took a pen out of his breast pocket and flipped open the top file. “What are your preferred pronouns?”
Clint scowled at him. He hated being baited, and he was confused why the suit would bother asking. “You fucking with me?” he demanded.
The suit looked up at Clint and shook his head once. His expression was perfectly blank of anything but polite interest. “I don’t like to make assumptions.”
Clint’s eyebrows shot up, incredulity written on his face. “You’re serious.”
“I have it on good authority that I’m rarely anything but serious,” the suit replied, a small smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.
“Fine,” Clint growled. “He and him.” His eyes narrowed with suspicion as he waited for the suit to make a comment on it.
The suit only nodded and made a note in the file. Looking closer Clint could see his own mug shot looking up from the first page.
“Mr. Barton, my name is Agent Coulson of SHIELD. We have a proposition for you,” the suit said.
“Yeah?” Clint drawled. “Let me guess, I tell you everything I know and you don’t have me disappeared?”
“Only half correct,” Agent Coulson said genially. He flipped open another file and slid a photograph across the table for Clint’s inspection. Clint froze, his fists clenched tight as he looked down at the man who’d made his life hell for the last year.
“You tell us everything you know about James Gregson and his organization, and we give you a job,” Coulson went on.
Clint looked back up at Coulson. “A job,” he repeated, disbelieving. “As what? SHIELD’s personal assassin?” If he was going to be killing people he wanted it to be on his terms. He had no interest in offing people because SHIELD thought they needed to die.
Coulson shook his head. “Hardly. You’re far too skilled for that. It would be a waste of your talents. We’re offering you full agent status.”
“And all I gotta do is tell you about this guy? What makes you think I know anything about him?” Clint asked. He tried for nonchalance but he didn’t think he achieved it. He was intrigued by the offer, but it sounded too good to be true. In his experience good things didn’t happen to him, or if they did it was right before everything got fucked up.
“You did contract work for him last year,” Coulson replied.
“He has a bounty on your head. I can only assume you learned something you weren’t supposed to.”
“Maybe I just made him mad. Or maybe he doesn’t like trannies.” The word was like poison on Clint’s tongue as he spat it out. Gregson and his goons had just assumed Clint was a lesbian and he’d let them. They’d mostly left him alone to do what he was being paid for. Clint didn’t believe for a second that would have been the case if they knew he was a guy with a vagina.
“Or maybe you’re far more observant then you pretend to be,” Coulson retorted. “Anything you can tell us would help put him in prison for a very long time.”
“And what if I really don’t know anything?” Clint asked.
“The job offer still stands, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“What if I don’t want the job?”
“You want to take your chances on your own?” Coulson was very good at communicating incredulity with just an arch of his eyebrows.
“I’ve been fine so far,” Clint retorted. He knew he was full of shit, though. He’d been mere hours away from getting himself killed before SHIELD grabbed him and he knew it.
“So far, yes,” Coulson agreed. Clint couldn’t tell if he was agreeing because he believed it or because he was being an asshole. “The human body is remarkably resilient but that level of hyper-vigilance can only work for so long. Eventually you’d slip up, or someone would get lucky. SHIELD takes care of its own.”
“Until I become inconvenient, right? Then you’ll drop me like a live grenade.”
Coulson leaned forward in his seat to meet Clint’s eyes. Clint refused to look away, bitter skepticism and challenge clear on his face.
“We don’t abandon our people, Barton,” Coulson stated. The conviction in his voice caught Clint by surprise. “There’s a lot I can’t promise you,” he went on. “We’re just as human as any other organization and we make human mistakes. However, I can promise you that you will never be abandoned. You will never be alone. There will always, always be someone watching out for you.”
Clint closed his eyes and dropped his head, Coulson’s words echoing in his ears. It was too good to be true. It had to be. There was no way this wouldn’t come back to bite him in the ass if he agreed. But what other options did he have? Walk away and take his chances alone again? That hadn’t worked so well for him in the past. He wanted what Coulson was offering. He wanted people he could trust at his back. He wanted to do more than just shoot people for money.
He’d done a lot contract work for some very bad people; people who were afraid of SHIELD. And wasn’t that a mark in SHIELD’s favor? The bad guys only feared two kinds of people: the good guys and the worse guys.
Fuck it, Clint thought. He was tired of running. He was tired of not knowing when his next meal would be, where he would be sleeping, tired of being hunted. He slumped back in his chair, defeated and relieved. “Fine,” he said.
Coulson’s expression barely changed but Clint suspected the man was pleased, and maybe a little relieved too. “Thank you for your cooperation,” he said, kindly. Coulson stood and walked around the table. Clint tensed, wary of the proximity, but all Coulson did was free his hands before returning to his chair.
Clint sighed with relief, stretching his arms to loosen his joints and to get the blood flowing back in to his fingers. Out of the corner of his eye he thought he saw Coulson’s gaze linger on his biceps, but he might have imagined it. Clint relaxed back into the chair. “So…what now?” he asked, nonchalant.
Coulson’s eyes crinkled in a not-quite smile as he turned to the one way mirror. “Sitwell, get Achebe from H.R. down here with a contract and intro packet.”
On it, boss, a man’s voice replied over the intercom.
Coulson looked back to Clint. “We’ll get the paperwork out of the way first, then we can talk about Gregson.”
“That’s it? No hoops to jump through, no senior officers to double check everything?” Clint asked. He’d been expecting a lot more talking before someone presented him with paperwork.
“That’s it,” Coulson confirmed. “Welcome to SHIELD, Agent Barton.”