Steve respects all his teammates for their strengths and weaknesses, but sometimes it's a relief to have Clint at his back. The archer's clearly had some experience in a military not too removed from Steve's. They share a lexicon of terminology, shorthand, and procedure that's practically a language of its own, and for Steve, being able to communicate in that nearly unchanged tongue is nothing short of a relief.
Maybe that's why Steve doesn't really notice, at first.
Steve is still a man out of his time, and worries he always will be. His teammates range from actively unhelpful (Tony) to unable to help (Thor), and often Steve feels stupid (Bruce) or slow (Natasha) just having to ask for help.
Somehow, with Clint, the same smooth understanding on the battlefield carries over into conversations. Clint's presence, so solidly midwestern, isn't intimidating or confusing. His explanations are simple, but not offensively so, his tone casual and friendly, almost companionable, like he's been in Steve's shoes somehow and he understands how confusing this is.
He tries to enunciate this one time, trying to thank Clint for his patience.
"Not a problem, Cap," Clint says lightly.
"No, really," Steve insists. "I really appreciate it."
Clint shrugs. "I know how you feel, kind of. I mean, obviously, I didn't have to skip fifty years, but SHIELD's full of college grads and big long degrees. It gets frustrating, asking everyone to slow down and dumb it down."
Steve frowns. "I thought everyone went to college nowadays."
"Nah. I ran away and joined the circus when I was a kid." At Steve's incredulous look, Clint continues, "No, really. I never finished middle school, never went to high school."
It doesn't take a genius to see that the admission is a big deal for Clint, so Steve says, "When I was a kid, a lot of kids never finished grade school. Especially if they were going into a trade."
"There's colleges for trades now, too."
Steve pauses, considering his words carefully before he says them. "You know, Stark's supposed to be the smartest man alive. But in the past couple months, I've learned a lot more from you than from him."
Clint hesitates for a moment, and then grins, widely. "Well us public school kids gotta stick together against the brain trust, right?"
"Right," Steve grins back. "Wait, did Natasha go to college?"
"Did Nat go to college," Clint echoes dryly, and the conversation turns into the story about That One Time in Oxford, which results in Steve never questioning Natasha's education ever again.
Tony's used to drinking on his own. More accurately, he's used to drinking often, and he's used to being alone, and those two have overlapped fairly often in his life. Pepper doesn't like it when he drinks heavily. Rhodey's gotten more uptight over the years, and busier lately.
The first time he's getting drunk, after the Avengers move into the tower, Clint wanders into the common room. Tony braces himself instinctively, but all the assassin does is ask, "Mind if I join you? I could use a drink." Clint doesn't drink as much as Tony but he definitely loosens up, turns out to be a mellow, snarky kind of drinker, a good compliment to Tony's mercurial energy.
It's several weeks later when Tony realizes that he hasn't gotten seriously plastered recently. That Clint seems to pop up whenever Tony gets more than tipsy, sometimes by himself, sometimes with company. Tony checks the tower footage to confirm his foggy memories: Clint getting him to drink water, cutting him off when he's had too much, even pouring Tony onto a couch or guiding him up to his bedroom.
Tony's first reaction is irritation. He feels betrayed, almost. He'd thought he'd found a drinking buddy, but really the agent had been "handling" him, like some kind of glorified babysitter.
So he storms into Clint's floor, taking advantage of the fact that Clint's mouth is full of sticky peanut butter-and-banana sandwich to yell in the archer's face. Clint's face scrunches up in some combination of surprise, anger, and confusion as Tony launches into a ten minute rant filled with insults and sneers.
Eventually, Tony realizes that Clint isn't sniping back the way he usually does. "What?" he snaps.
"It's not about you, Tony," Clint says calmly.
Tony stares. "Excuse me, my tower, my drinking habits, my privacy, how is this not about me?"
"I don't let anyone else on the team drink alone, either. They don't drink as often, but it's just something I do when I'm on a team."
"Who died and made you everyone's designated driver?" Tony demands.
Clint crosses his arms over his chest. "My dad, actually."
And that, that one answer Tony had absolutely not been expecting, throws him completely out of his rant. "Your dad," he echoes.
"He drove drunk, killed himself and my mom. I was just a kid. Went into the system. I've seen enough people fuck up their lives, and others', because of alcohol and drugs. It's not my business, I'm not gonna tell anyone what to do with their lives," Clint says, briefly holding a hand up, palm open and facing Tony, "but I can be there, and make sure everyone's safe."
Tony has a few things to say to that, because he always has to have the last word, and then of course things get heated.
They spend two days pointedly not being in the same room with each other, and then a few more days not actually talking to each other but making loud, obnoxious comments as if the other person isn't in the room. Everyone tells them both to grow the fuck up. Then they get called out to a really bad mission in Lima that sends Tony straight to the bar when they get back.
When he wakes up the next morning, hungover but not nearly as much as he could've been - should've been - Clint's already whipped up some of Tony's crazy shake-blend-things, all hydration and nutrition. The archer's halfway through one glass himself and holds out another to Tony in silence.
It's another week or two before things are really back to normal, and another month before Tony admits to himself that he generally feels a lot better with this cutback in alcohol abuse.
Thor is a bit like his own power, quick to anger but also quick to laugh, an unapologetically loud presence that can light up a room or destroy it. There are rough spots and awkward moments aplenty, especially when he talks about his brother. Especially when he misses his brother.
Eventually, even someone as dense as Thor can be realizes that Clint's taken to physically leaving the room if Thor brings up Loki. Thor realizes that he owes the archer an apology. Of course, he goes about this with all the subtlety of an earnest grizzly bear, chasing Clint through the Avengers Tower in an increasingly ridiculous game of Marco Polo except that Thor's shouting words of apology and Clint isn't replying. After about half a day of tag, an unexpected thunderstorm rolls over New York City in strange synchronicity with Thor's sulking. Even in the short time they've gotten to know him, the Avengers have learned that Thor in a bad mood can turn into flash floods, so Clint bites the proverbial bullet and plops himself down on the couch across from the Asgardian.
"Does this mean you accept my apology?" Thor asks hopefully.
Clint sighs. "Yeah, look, it's not … ugh." He pinches the bridge of his nose. "He's your brother, I get it. It's fine you want to talk about him."
"Yet it is a conversation which upsets you greatly."
Clint makes a noncommittal noise. "I've got a brother, too. Older brother."
"I was not aware of this," Thor says, smiling. "Is he also a warrior of great skill?"
"Yeah. He's also in prison." Clint pauses, gives Thor time to work through the emotions that are plain on his face, before continuing. "He tried to kill me, once, actually."
Thor looks sad again. "You have my greatest condolences, Clint Barton. The betrayal of a brother is a deep wound." He touches his side where Loki stabbed him during the battle.
"It is," Clint agrees. "He's still my brother, though."
Thor makes that face he does when he broods over Loki, the one that looks disturbingly like a kicked puppy. "At least yours did not lead an alien invasion upon another world."
"Yeah. Also didn't brainwash anyone. What I'm trying to say is, I understand, okay? You don't need to apologize to me."
"Yet I upset you when I speak of Loki," Thor insists.
"I'm working through it," Clint shrugs. "Whether or not you talk about him doesn't change what happened."
Thor nods, then perks up. "Perhaps we should speak more of our brothers, then? I know that, in Asgard, those who have lost companions have said the loss is easier to bear when shared with others who have also suffered. And if you wish to speak of it, I will apologize for my brother for his actions against you."
Clint doesn't look entirely comfortable with the idea, but he shrugs again. "Later, okay? Let me think about it."
He thinks about it. A couple days later they have their first tentative discussion of brothers. Aware that he's trying to make up for his previous behavior, Thor tries his best to listen and not jump defensively on behalf of Loki or Asgard.
To his surprise, sharing stories with Clint not only lightens his mood but also broadens his mind. Clint is a younger brother, and when he speaks of Barney, Thor can't help but hear the sentiments he now knows Loki felt towards him. The parallels are enlightening. For the first time, Thor truly begins to glimpse Loki's perspective, looking up to a protective older brother who cares more about his own advancement than their relationship.
Thor does have to curb his own impulse to seek out and challenge this Barney Barton. Much as Thor finds the man's behavior unforgivable, Natasha insists that Clint wouldn't appreciate Thor teaching his brother any lessons via physical violence. Instead, Thor finds himself feeling protective of Clint and going out of his way to watch the archer's back in combat.
Everyone else seems to find this hilarious. Thor doesn't understand why, but then again, Midgardian humor is often confusing.
Bruce gets along with Tony far better than he ever thought he would. For all the billionaire's quirks and Bruce's own hang-ups, it's fantastic to have a friend who's as interested and as brilliant a scientist as he is. Mechanical and biological, daring and reserved, their talents complement and bounce off each other perfectly.
Outside the lab, however, Bruce has to admit that Tony can be a little overwhelming. Bruce wouldn't mind so much if he were left alone, but now that he's part of the Avengers, downtime is limited. He spends more time as Hulk in the first weeks on the team than he has in years of self-imposed exile. He spends hours on the plane, waiting to see if the Hulk is needed, or recovering from the transformation. Sometimes he feels superfluous, just the storage box for the real Avenger.
After all, he's not a hero. These other people, they run toward danger. Bruce runs away.
He's feeling that sense of difference one night when everyone's laughing over pizza. He wanders out to the balcony, watching them from the dark through the window. Somehow it feels more appropriate, putting himself physically on the outside tonight.
Barton wanders out to join him. Bruce has already figured out that Clint is the most observant, but he hadn't expected the archer to act on it. It's not like they have a lot in common.
"Hey," Clint says. "You good?"
Bruce offers his signature half-smile. "Don't worry, I'm not feeling green. Just needed some air."
"Yeah, me too," Clint replies, and while Bruce is tempted to call him on the pretense, his tone is oddly honest.
They stand in silence for about a minute.
Absently, unprompted, Clint says, "Sometimes it just feels like I don't belong in that room, you know?"
Bruce stares at him. "What, really?"
Clint seems equally surprised at Bruce's reaction. "Yeah, well, you're all legends and geniuses and super-soldiers. I'm just a guy with a bow."
"You worked for SHIELD, though," Bruce can't help but point out. "You were already doing the hero thing."
Clint gives him a strange look. "I took down some bad guys. Way I heard it, you were the one who kept up the Doctors without Borders thing while you were hiding from every government on the planet."
Bruce opens his mouth to argue, thinks about it, and then chuckles. "I guess we're both feeling some imposter syndrome, huh?"
It turns out Clint doesn't know what that is, so Bruce explains, which turns into a discussion about pop psychology. It's nice, Bruce realizes. Clint's intelligent despite being uninformed (uneducated, Bruce learns later). He listens and offers ideas based on keen observation and insight. They're interrupted when Tony finds them and drags them back inside; Clint shows up the next afternoon in Bruce's lab to pick up where they left off. The next time, it's Bruce who finds Clint.
It's good. It's calming and friendly. The honesty of their initial discussion opens the door to further quiet admissions. Bruce feels he can be truthful about his coping mechanisms and his reflections on the Hulk. Clint, in turn, tells him about his brother and his time at the circus.
One night, after the team's had a particularly bad day, they find out they share another similarity. They talk about fathers, mothers, belts, the unbearable pity in the eyes of adults when they insisted that they fell down the stairs or off the bike.
JARVIS promises to delete the footage. And the backups. It's nice, Bruce thinks, to have friends.
It's been two weeks since Hawkeye and Black Widow met for the first time, the former interrupting the latter's assassination mission. Many bullets, arrows, blood, bruises, chases, and conversations later, he's talking to her about switching sides, and he lack of running away indicates that she's listening.
At first Clint talks about SHIELD protecting Natasha, but when it becomes clear that Natasha doesn't trust any organization, he changes tactics. "Fine," he says. "I'll protect you."
She gives him a look that's at once seductive and derisive. "Big strong man," she sneers.
"Oh, I know you can take care of yourself. What I'm saying is, if you need to cut off some fucker's balls because he tries to cop a feel, I'll knock out the security cameras."
She stares at him. It's at once the most egalitarian and most understanding offer she's ever received. It can't be real. "And what will you charge for this service? You want to be the only one to touch me?" He's turned down every attempt at seduction thus far, but she knows he finds her attractive.
He groans. "Listen. I've been there, okay? Not there, exactly, obviously, I don't know what kind of hell you've been through. But I've been alone, had nothing, let a sick bastard turn me into a monster so I could survive, killed people on orders and scrubbed my hands raw trying to get the blood off." He has to pause to take a breath and unclench his fingers. She doesn't interrupt. "I didn't believe it either, when someone offered me a hand. So I get it. You're trying to figure out the price. But there's no price, and even if there was, there's nothing you can pay me. I'm paying it forward, you know that expression?"
"Da," she says softly, because he asked her a question.
"So just, stop, with the sex comments." He makes a face. "Seriously, the thought of anything - even if you're okay with it, which I don't think you are - because you think you owe me, or have to pay me, makes me actually sick."
Natasha's having a hard time believing anything, but she believes this, not only because of the raw emotions in his tone, the tells she's figured out in her time talking to him, but also because she feels the weight of the comparison. She's always been cursed with a creative and vivid imagination, and she knows, without having to follow the idea though, that if she was in Hawkeye's position, she would be equally nauseous.
In the end, she takes the chance.
It's been two weeks since Hawkeye and Black Widow moved into the newly christened Avengers Tower. They have their own spaces, but they spend as much time together as they do apart, free from the close quarters and constant scrutiny of SHIELD. Tony teases them once when he finds them draped over each other on the couch, Natasha reading a book while Clint watches Animal Planet. "Shut up, Tony," Natasha drawls without moving.
Neither assassin cares what the other Avengers think. They know what their relationship is, always has been, and always will be. There's no scorecard between them, no debts. Touching Clint is touching an anchor, solid, safe.
Decontamination is tough this time. The enemy creatures were coated in some kind of slimy goop, so now the team is, too. One by one they go through a field tent, emerging on the other side in clean civvies, looking wrung-out and tired.
At least they're not far from the Tower, Natasha thinks as she comes out of the tent, the last of the team to do so. They're across the Hudson, basically, in a now-destroyed factory in New Jersey. If the others are ready to go, they could fly right back and take real showers in less than an hour.
She spots Steve not yet on the Quinjet and walks over. A woman in SHIELD uniform with medical stripes is working on his shoulder. There's a long cut, shallow and nonthreatening, but given they don't have the full specs on the creatures, the medic is thoroughly sanitizing the entire wound.
Natasha frowns slightly. It doesn't look like an injury caused by the creatures they just fought. "You alright?"
Steve nods. "I wouldn't have bothered the medics if it wasn't for all this gunk everywhere."
"You're not bothering us. You bother us more when you DON'T report your injuries," the SHIELD medic huffs. Steve shoots her his most innocent smile. Natasha represses a snicker.
"Have you seen Clint?" Steve asks.
Natasha frowns again. "No, why?"
"I want to make sure he's okay. He doesn't normally miss."
Natasha freezes. "Clint clipped you?"
"Just a scratch. But I glanced up and it looked like he'd slipped in the gunk. Maybe he got hit in the head, wasn't seeing straight?"
Natasha rewinds her memory. Clint was the first into and out of the decontamination tent, and then she'd lost track of him. She's suddenly absolutely certain she knows where he'll be.
"Clint doesn't miss," she says softly. Steve blinks at her, brows furrowing as he catches the emphasis in her tone.
"Everyone misses sometimes."
"Try telling him that."
Steve, bless him, gets her meaning, and nods. "Let’s find the others."
Natasha finds Clint in the range Tony set up for him. JARVIS confirms he's been there for too long. He's been firing arrow after arrow, just normal arrows, destroying targets, pausing only to recollect and reset.
Clint doesn't miss, because he doesn't let himself miss. He has no powers, no superhuman abilities, no magic. He doesn't miss because missing means failure. Pain. Worthlessness. It's an old wound, and Natasha is one of the few people who knows how deep it goes.
"Hey," he replies casually, because she's seen him shooting his fingers raw on the range before. He takes another shot, then has to interrupt himself reaching for another arrow in order to catch what she throws at him. It's a bottle of water. He blinks at it.
"Dinner," she says.
Clint's eyes narrow. "No thanks."
"Wasn't asking," Natasha smiles. She sweeps his feet out from under him and plucks the bow from his other hand as he falls. It shouldn't be this easy, but he's exhausted and his head's not in the right place, so he just makes a face up at her.
"Ow." He sighs. "Fine." No doubt, Natasha thinks, he's planning on grabbing a protein bar and sneaking back down here.
When the elevator brings them up to the communal area, however, the rest of the team is there, dishing food out of large takeout containers onto plates. Clint recognizes the smell immediately, of course, because it's one of his favorites. Usually when they order Italian he has to fight with Tony, who thinks LAVO is better (and is wrong). Natasha shoves him into a seat next to Bruce.
"There he is," Tony grins, handing Clint a plate before he can protest. "Had fun on the scenic route home?"
"We have acquired take-out from the eatery you spoke of!" Thor booms. "I still do not understand why they are called Car Mines, but this meat is excellent." Thor has a bowl of pasta in front of him that could feed a family of four and is working on a similarly sized steak.
"You had me worried," Steve says with a gentle smile. "I saw you slip, but the medic said they hadn't seen you."
"Um," Clint says, eyes straying to Steve's shoulder.
Steve touches Clint's arm. "Hey. We all slip sometimes."
"Tell me about it," Bruce groans. "I feel like someone used the Big Guy like a pinball, but I'm pretty sure he mostly did it to himself."
"I've got the video," Tony grins. "It's hilarious. Hulk on Ice. JARVIS, let's cut it to ballet music. Dance of the SugarHulk Fairies." Thor looks confused, but his mouth is too full of pasta to ask what that means.
Natasha slides into the seat on Clint's other side with a small bowl of ice-water and gives him a pointed look until Clint drops his throbbing fingers into the bowl. Then she reaches for the mussels and helps herself, though she keeps her leg pressed against his under the table.
Thor bursts out laughing at the video of the Hulk sliding around on the goop like a cartoon character. In what Clint realizes is a conscious effort for his sake, Thor laughs even harder when he himself is shown being knocked over. "I would not believe it had I not been there!" Thor exclaims. "Look, Clint, it is very amusing now that we are not covered in slime."
Clint has to admit, it's pretty funny. Clearly Tony didn't just think of this and spent time getting this footage and cutting it together, a suspicion confirmed when Clint sees Tony glance at him in what Tony thinks is a covert manner.
"You'll let me look you over after dinner?" Bruce asks, though it's almost not a question.
"Yeah," Clint says, a quiet surrender to the outpour of care and concern around him. It feels nice. Like home.