Man down in a desert sea
It’s Iowa, small town, small world, and Clinton Barton starts out with a scream. His brother is the first thing he sees, haloed in the light, and peeking over the edge of the their mother's bed with candy clutched in his fingers.
The world is wonderfully small.
A scream of tires and a wreck of steel with burning gasoline. Both of them are tossed headfirst into an orphanage, but they’re together, alone and together, so Clint can’t really grieve. They stay until his brother whispers about a circus down the road, with lions and a magician and a man who doesn’t miss.
It’s a thick rope and a wind blowing lighter than a caress, and Clint knows what’s he’s doing, has since before double digits, and he’s falling, and he doesn’t miss the ground. He hits and the world explodes with lightning.
Blinks and it comes back, except not, everything too close, pressing in against his skin like the air’s filled with needles and he’s dazed as shit but knows that there’s someone behind him and moving.
His brother hauls him to his feet and Clint’s flinching even though he can see him. There’s two hands on his arm in the same space, he shouldn’t be feeling fingerprints through the fabric and how in fuck does he know how his brother’s balancing on his feet when he’s looking at his eyes.
The world’s still misted out; it doesn’t come back for days.
Their life’s been a circus for a decade and Clint’s been a fast hand at shooting, a fair gig and a smooth life forever, and now he can. not. miss.Arrow’s slice arrows, he can hit a fly’s wing at the other end of the ring (he can feel it there and the arrow just needs a little push). He’s hitting things he can’t see because its there, and he knows it. It’s a rush, heady like the vodka they hand out, and hawks have always been his thing so he can’t say no to the name.
The life’s good, its great, its fantastic. Only lasts until his brother throws a beer glass and screams “freak” like its gospel, and the word leaves a sound that echoes forever. Clint knocks it out of the air before the F leaves his brother’s mouth and it shatters on the wall with Clint’s hands in his pockets.
Two choices, and it’s the mob or military from there on. He chooses the military because sometimes, he still believes in America.
He lies at all his medical exams, yes, I’m eighteen, and aims (doesn’t shove, can’t push, freak) for something that isn’t always the bull’s-eye on the practice range. He’s still the best shot but they don’t let him use arrows, even though he insists arrows are so much easier to shoot with (play with).
Special Forces because no one can surprise him, and when they do, pain is nothing but a motivator, and they can’t hide in the fake battlefields they have the soldiers playing in like vicious children and Clint Barton, Sniper, has been calling him since he laid eyes on the barrels spread out of cloth covered tables. He’s good at it and they need killers.
Now he only aims for the bull’s-eye, doesn’t even need to pull, and he doesn’t get a nickname this time around.
He gets a dishonorable discharge when he goes AWOL to save a mate’s life, stripped down and sent off as if he’s a dog you can just toss out. On a range on home soil he shots and shots and shots to work off fury and some of it comes from what the fuck am I doing. A suit walks into his range; Clint’s not expecting it when the suit tilts his head and challenges him. It's wrong.
But the guy’s wearing authority like cheap cologne so he takes the bite. The suit shoots first, than he hits the targets without thinking about it, locks on the bull’s-eye and thinks, hit it, hit it, hit it. He think’s he’s won, except, except, except-
Except the targets had been moving, he’d thought it a glitch in the target system and the suit smirks like his brother. It’s ice water down his spine, the government come’s to collect, but Shield is offered as a job. It’s the fucking mob, a fucking mob, and he goes because there’s nowhere else for him to go.
It doesn't take long for him to swear the man can read his thoughts.
(Coulson can. He walked into a bookstore, New Jersey, said hello to the woman behind the counter, 23 and cocky, and a “Your rival’s destroying the evidence in the building over”. He waited for three hours with a gun trained on him, and greeted the Boss with a genial smile)
Murder is a game called life
Natasha is the end of a lot of things. She doesn’t have a beginning except for a faint memory of fire and ash in the air, a wind biting so cold and snow falling, falling, falling, and her tracking footprints in the whiteness that got painted red, a dancing, dancing, burning red.
She’s so tired of hearing it, the apologies, poor girl, and the I’m so sorry, she doesn’t want to grieve forever. Natasha thinks she should be more than grief and there’s a man. There’s a man and he smiles and offers her a coat with silver buttons. She walks away with him because he doesn’t say a word.
Later, she learns better than to trust that smile, any smile, or to love like a child because love is for children and she doesn’t think of Natasha as anything more than a convenient name.
It's not that far yet, so she looks at walls colored with a darker shade of the same snow and can say, “fuck this” without a feeling of impossibility. Not as old, thinks she knows everything and she’s ready to get out, get out, get out. Natasha lets the shadows swallow her whole, deep and dark, silk shadows she’ll learn to put on as a shawl, and walks through the red like they’re nothing at all (except they’re everything).
Somehow it’s a test, everything’s a test, she passed it and it hurts, what they’re doing, until nothing hurts at all.
Everything is a test and everything teaches with pain because otherwise it’s not worth learning at all. She learns and learns and learns and earns it. She’s the best at all of it and nothing can hurt. You can’t get hurt if there’s nothing there to touch.
Every smile is fake, every laugh a sour note, every whisper said in antonyms.
(everything’s a lie, nobody can speak the truth, life is cheap)
She stops smiling except when she needs it to sell and to buy, and her laugh is a clear C on a silver flute, the crescendo to her story song made of lies.
Bones break under her fingers, blood ruins her clothes until she stops being sloppy, she injects poison, steals secrets locked in virgin vaults filled with so many shadows all she has to do is walk. Unsurprising, really, that they forget to take the shadows out, who thinks about shadows? Sometimes it’s an order not to use them and so she doesn’t, even though she can hear them mourn.
(No one ever asks, but yes, the shadows are alive)
It isn’t hard to destroy the red rooms and to pull the collar from around her neck (they shouldn’t have taught her to kill without her shadows, it makes it so easy and now they fall and fall and she’s out). She walks away with bloody footprints left in white, white snow, and stained clothes, tries new names on for size.
(she’s always liked spiders)
Her languages she makes into something more fun than asking who and when and where. Finds she likes the food and the music and thinks its something new to try. Picks up trumpet, than the oboe, and toys with the idea of piano.
She steals some more because its easy.
She kills some more because its simple.
Black Widow becomes a reputation better than Natasha Romanoff and it’s always easier to smile if you’re already behind a mask. She’s killing on her own rules now and it feels better than she thought it would.
It’s a risk when she takes a hit on a mob (those who forget there’s more than one tend to die fast and she intends to survive) but she’s been interested in this one since she walked away from the red rooms with a broken collar in her fingers.
All it takes is a room full of shadows.
She steps in front of the target. Let’s the shadows fall from her shoulders and bows because it’s polite. Her shadows are in easy reach because she doesn’t intend to stop here.
(she’s lived far to long to do something so hard as die)
They go to kill her but her target holds up a hand.
He laughs when Natasha tells him. It’s a first (she wonders if it’ll be the last).
She goes back to her former employers and takes their heads, citing a job transfer. Remembers not get any blood on her clothes.
The first day they meet, she guesses he can read her mind (Coulson can’t say he’s surprised) and picks the red rooms for a wall. Her target grins at her from behind the Boss and she smiles as she bows.
Thinks, maybe this one’s real.