Getting their hands on Sitwell was almost embarrassingly easy.
Natasha dropped in on him at his apartment and said she needed to speak with him, perhaps in a louder venue as she heavily implied suspicion of surveillance. He agreed, because why wouldn’t he? He had nothing to fear from them, and he never had. While Nat was upstairs convincing him she needed his help, Clint had found the mans car and proceeded to tear out the GPS, secondary tracking chip, and audio recording device that came standard in higher-ranking agents’ vehicles. Clint also removed the secondary tracking chip embedded in the spare tire’s rubber in the trunk, the one SHIELD agents weren’t supposed to know about. Then he removed one more, which was not of SHIELD design; Clint knew all the designs SHIELD favoured, and it always paid off.
Sitwell wasn’t expecting Clint to be waiting in his front seat when he followed Natasha into the parking garage, but clearly he wasn’t as thick as he occasionally played at. The moment he laid eyes on him Sitwell went to activate a silent alarm in his suit pocket, only to flounder slightly as Natasha basically hip-checked him into the backseat of his own vehicle and smoothly slid in beside him. Clint was pulling the black sedan out of its parking spot and up the exit ramp as soon as the door closed behind her. Natasha made a show of producing Sitwell’s emergency button like it popped into her hand with magic and examined it in interest as Clint rounded the building’s corner and merged with traffic.
“That doesn’t look like standard SHIELD issue,” Clint pondered from behind the steering wheel, obnoxious sunglasses over his eyes but no hat on his head. If people were searching for him he’d bet only a select few were looking for a bald world-class marksman. This was a better disguise than a ball cap. Maybe he should grow a moustache and keep shaving his head.
“Neither does your haircut,” Sitwell smirked, easy and friendly as he rubbed a palm along his own hairless scalp, but his posture was stiff. Nat threw the tiny gray box out the window, uncaring where it landed.
“Then maybe you should have told your people to go easy on the shaving cream,” Clint joked back, and did not react when Sitwell reached swiftly into his jacket for his weapon. He stalled when Natasha causally leaned forward in her seat and passed Sitwell’s Glock over the seat to Clint. He jammed it under his right thigh for easy access and swerved around a beige Toyota that was going ten below the limit. There weren’t a lot of cars on the roads at this late hour, but there was no excuse to drive that slowly.
“Aw, Jasper,” Clint forced a friendly tone, knowing Jasper was growing aware of exactly how much shit he was in with them, “you don’t need your gun, we’re all friends here.” Clint dropped the smile, watched as Jasper leaned back, face pallid as Natasha settled beside him. She twisted in the seat to lean her back against the door to watch him. Sitwell pulled his seatbelt on with a heavy click.
The three hour car ride was made in complete silence.
“Whatever you’re thinking, I had nothing to do with it,” Jasper broke the thick silence as Clint turned onto a gravel parking lot and drove through the rolled-up door of an old mechanics garage. He put the car in park as Sitwell unbuckled his seatbelt and turned slightly in the seat to get a better angle on Clint and Natasha. They sat there in the quiet, the cooling engine clicking and pinging as they contemplated each other. The bay door began closing behind them and Sitwell glanced out the back window. “You hired yourself some help?” he raised an eyebrow sceptically, and then apparently grew impatient. “Come on, we’re at your secret meeting place now, what’s going on?” He asked. Three hours of silence where the gig was obviously up and he was still willing to play the innocent game.
The car door beside him opened and a metal arm, gleaming in the dim garage’s interior lights, reached in and dragged Sitwell out by the front of his shirt.
“Oh, fuck no,” Sitwell grabbed the arm, fingers slipping over the intricately layered alloy as he tried to struggle away. It was like watching a kitten try to pry free from a vet’s determined grip with a bit of hissing and panic. He had no chance of getting loose. “Clint-” Sitwell looked over his shoulder to him, pleading.
“I’ve noticed that you haven’t tried to get help from Natasha,” Clint sighed as he hauled himself tiredly from the driver’s seat, his ass feeling a little like it had moulded in there.
“Don’t take it personally,” Sitwell stopped struggling as he was marched a few steps backwards and pressed into a metal fold-up chair. He made exactly zero attempts to get up when the soldier, and it was the soldier, not James, only moved two steps back, crossed his arms, and stared. “You just have the reputation of a bleeding heart,” Sitwell tried, in a sort of hopeful-yet-condescending way.
“You’re a jackass,” Clint grumbled and scratched at the back of his neck, wishing he had his quiver on, just for comfort. He pushed the sunglasses he hadn’t needed, as they’d driven in the dark, up to rest on the top of his head, wanting nothing interfering with his line of sight. This guy sitting in front of him, they’d known him for years. He was a friend.
“Asset,” Sitwell commanded, sharp and forceful, changing tactics. “Detain these two.”
James didn’t even twitch.
“Asset,” Sitwell glared at him. “You will follow orders, or you will be assigned to recalibration, program three.” At this James glare grew colder and he somehow managed to loom a bit more without moving a muscle. Clint watched, impressed by the shift. It wouldn’t have intimidated Clint, but he hadn’t been overly bothered by the looming when James had actually been someone else’s puppet threatening him, so…yeah. Clint looked up to find Natasha watching him from behind their guest. He lifted his eyebrows in silent inquiry.
What? He asked.
Not everyone is born with a complete lack of self-preservation instinct, her quirked lips and tilted head told him.
Please, that’s my best quality, he smirked.
Stop checking out the Winter Soldier's ass, her eyebrows retaliated, and he boggled a bit.
What? I wasn’t! He denied, though maybe a little too vehemently. He shouldn’t have used both eyebrows.
“You’re an idiot,” she grinned back, words sharp and gaze fond.
“Please, I’ve gotten away with this for how long now? I’m not the idiot in this room,” Sitwell grunted, slumping in his seat and completely missing their silent byplay. Clint knew Sitwell, he knew he was well aware that he was up shit creek and the boat was sinking. The guy really wasn’t an idiot…or else, like he said, they would have figured this out a long time ago.
“Oh yes, you are,” Nat didn’t bother stepping around to face him and Clint slumped back against the black car door, a clear line of sight on everyone. “You’re the one that told them when to take Clint.”
Clint considered this. It fit. If anyone in the agency would know when Phil was going to do his “I’m not dead” reveal to Clint, and it wasn’t Fury or Hill, it would probably be Sitwell. They were all kind of connected like that, a special inner circle linked to other inner circles.
“That hurts my feelings,” Clint decided. “I didn’t know you held such a grudge from Karaoke Thursday.”
“You ruined Wind Beneath My Wings forever. That is not okay,” Sitwell glowered, clearly still willing to play along as he tried to figure a way out of this.
“Did your bosses seriously think Barton would be a good candidate for your program?” Natasha scorned, shrugging when Clint eyed her. “He’s shit at taking orders.”
“He took them just fine for Loki,” Sitwell said, tilting his head to eye Clint with a speculative leer.
“We already know you wanted to see if you could advance your mind-controlling agenda, what I’d like to know is why,” Nat said, moving away to get another chair from where it leaned against the garages grimy wall. This one was wooden and it was oddly clean for their surroundings. She dragged it lightly across the cement floor, over grease stains and grit, and plunked it down a few feet behind Sitwell, but didn’t use it. “Clearly you already had a program that worked,” she didn’t look at James, and he remained utterly still with his ramrod posture and glacial glare. Sitwell shifted slightly, not sure if he wanted to move away from her at his back, or from the soldier at his front. He didn’t seem to be worried about Clint at all. She leaned closer to his ear. “Or at least, it used to. Your asset doesn’t seem very concerned with falling in line at the moment.”
“Oh, don’t worry Nat, he’ll get over that,” Sitwell said flatly, and looked back to Clint. “I hear orders aren’t the only thing you took from Loki,” he smirked. Clint felt his veins turn to ice, his heart thudded impatiently in his chest, but he’d been expecting this, because it’s where people like Sitwell always went when they turned out to be malicious dicks on the opposing side. So he kept his cool and allowed a very small curl to his lips.
“Jealous?” it wasn’t really a question. “Can’t figure out why I wouldn’t flip so easily when Hydra was gearing up for the takeover?” he paused and considered. “Or is it that I was promised to be your asset, like James here worked for Rumlow, and I wasn’t playing along?”
“The Asset works for whomever he’s assigned, he’ll remember soon enough. You though,” he tilted his head back to direct his opinion at Natasha. “Clint’s like a fresh peach ready for the picking. Brain all open and exposed, practically begging to be taken. It was all there in the scans medical took.” This was new information. He’d never been told this, and as far they knew Clint’s scans had turned up nothing. Sitwell had just given them a few more targets to look into at SHIELD. “But there was a bit of a time crunch. Honestly,” he looked at Clint, eyes tracking from head to feet, and back again, “I told them they should have taken you weeks ago, but they were too afraid of being exposed.” He shook his head. “Can I get a drink? That was a long drive.”
Clint got him a Gatorade from Sitwell’s own stash in the trunk and tossed it over. Sitwell caught it easily, cracked the lid, taking a good swallow before he eyed Clint again. “Anyway, I told them you’d be a shit asset; ‘deaf and delusional’ I said, but apparently Loki’s fix and your ass, excuse me, eyes, make up for it.” He leaned back in his seat and took another drink of his Gatorade. Clint was not amused by what Sitwell was implying he did for Loki. There was nothing humorous about it. It made his chest heavy and joints stiff, and seeing Sitwell’s lips twitch in an aborted grin made him want to knock his teeth out. Individually.
Sitwell looked to James. “We’re getting you a partner, someone to cover long distance,” he explained, like he was giving him a generous gift. “Times are changing, technology and skillsets are growing, so we’ll get you a pet of your very own to work and play with. Lock these two down and you’ll have this tool within the week.” He looked back to Clint. “We’ve got the program all worked out.”
“I’m beginning to feel like a third wheel,” Nat looked a little disgruntled at this and Sitwell scoffed, but didn’t have a reply. He and Nat had never gotten along, he was always too willing to talk your ear off and she was never interested in allowing it. It was good to know that bit about him was true. “So, you get Clint all emotionally turned around -”
“Hey,” Clint protested half-heartedly, and ignored the quick glance James broke his statuesque pose to give him.
“- because you know he’s been abnormally vigilant since Loki and you’re not getting an easy drop on him. Then you grab him in broad daylight. You and Coulson must have had a good laugh when you came up with that plan,” she did not hold back her bitterness.
For a moment, a brief moment that felt like a lifetime; felt like Clint had ages to make decisions and reactions; felt like that moment in the height of battle when everything was still and easy, despite the chaos; for that moment Sitwell looked completely confused. Then time rushed back and he schooled his features into a smug knowing little curl in his lips.
“We’ve been planning this since Clint went running from medical like he was responsible for almost ending the world as we know it,” he took another drink from his Gatorade.
Natasha didn’t pay attention to his answer, because she was looking at Clint. Her gaze had rested on him the entire conversation, getting her answers from Sitwell through him, lulling Sitwell into thinking she wasn’t seeing his every move. The thing was, a lot of SHIELD kept forgetting that Clint was more than a master marksman: his specialty was watching, assessing, seeing, and he’d been Natasha Romanov’s partner more than anyone else, ever.
Clint smiled, and seconds later she plunged a syringe into Sitwell’s neck. He slapped at the injection site, too slow to catch her.
“Thank you, for your cooperation,” she said softly, stepping around to watch dispassionately as Sitwell realized that he’d given them the answers they wanted. He looked pissed, and a bit confused. Sitwell preferred to talk his way through situations, throwing out so much information, real or not, that he would eventually lead you where he wanted. He’d never played with them when they didn’t trust him though, and -
“Your poker face is shit, that’s why you get fleeced every time we have a game,” Clint made no move to catch him as he toppled off the chair and smacked into the ground. The guy blinked a few times, wiggled, and then lost consciousness. Clint looked at Natasha, and they shared the first true smile that day.
“Coulson’s clean,” he said for James’ benefit.
Hydra never got to him. He hadn’t handed Clint over to them on a silver platter. Clint wasn’t going to have to take him out.
The relief was enormous.
“Who’s Coulson?” James asked after they dumped Sitwell into the mechanics pit, and chained his ankle to the ground. They left him a case of water, some boxes of stale pop tarts, and a bucket, before James dragged a massive, heavy steel plate to cover over the top with one arm. He didn’t even glance to Clint and Nat for help.
“He was a friend,” Clint answered after a long moment, when he decided it would be dumb to keep the guy in the dark. You don’t build trust that way, and while Clint might be short on it right now, James was a lot further down the line of ‘never again.’ “Now he’s an ally.” He tossed a bag of tools in the vehicle’s trunk, ignoring the look Natasha was giving him from where she sat, cross legged, on the roof of the car.
“We going to him now?” James asked, which was a reasonable question, and probably a reasonable plan. Clint’s stomach churned at the thought and the anger, the bitterness of the betrayal, was bubbling back to the surface now he wasn’t distracted by imprisonment and torture. He wasn’t sure, but he thought he might prefer the imprisonment over dealing with Coulson at the moment.
“Fuck him,” Nat said, startling a laugh out of Clint, because he hadn’t heard her swear in years. She slid off the roof and stopped before him, reaching up to wrap a hand around the back of his prickly head and pull his forehead to rest against hers. “Fuck SHIELD,” she decided. He pulled back and raised his eyebrows. She grinned. “For a little while. We’ll clean up this mess, and then they’ll owe us one.”
Which was Natasha speak for reminding them of exactly whose emotions they’d played with, intentional or not, and she’d warned them about her zero tolerance policy when she’d joined. She wasn’t worried about her own feelings. Clint felt a kernel of warmth build in the pit of his chest.
“The team?” he asked, and Lia, Gob, and Akira dropped from where they’d been clinging to the top of a long skinny fluorescent ceiling light that they’d never bothered to turn on. They landed, mostly, on his shoulder. He lifted his elbow at the last moment so Gob could land on his bicep, and she scurried up to join the other two at his neck. They draped themselves over his right shoulder in a sort of pyramid pile. He felt better almost instantly. He grinned softly, wondering if he should be pissed at what he suspected was their subtle emotional manipulation.
With everyone trying to fuck with his head lately he knew he should be more concerned. Akria’s little paw pushed at his neck a moment.
Meh, he could deal for now.
“Maybe we’ll bring the team in later. Let’s keep them clean for now,” she said, and Clint’s grin grew. From the appreciative gleam in her own eyes he knew he looked slightly blood-thirsty. He felt like he hadn’t been on a proper hunt for years.
He turned to James, meeting the intense, intelligent blue eyes.
“We’re going to destroy Hydra,” he announced. “Interested?”
“Wouldn’t miss it,” James smiled, and it was cutting, dark, and one hundred percent honest.
He was fucking beautiful.
That night, their last in the garage, James went on perimeter duty, because apparently, like Nat, he never got tired. Not long after he slipped outside Natasha looked at Clint, crowded into his space until he floundered back and fell on the couch in self-defence, and then she stood over him with crossed arms.
He preferred the couch in their secret barn, this one stank of old oil and metal dust.
“What?” he asked.
“He’s Hydra,” she said, no fuss about it.
“You were Red Room,” Clint pointed out, because she would appreciate it, despite being very well aware.
“And you were an idiot to trust me.”
“Just because you got me shot and electrocuted that first month before you followed me to SHIELD like a little imprinted duckling,” he waved it off as an unimportant detail, and then reconsidered. “Actually, I was shot and electrocuted with him as well, he just didn’t do the actual shooting or electrifying.” He raised an eyebrow in point.
“It was a graze,” she reminded him about their own first meeting, “and harpoons don’t count.”
“They do when you’re the one shot with them,” he argued.
“You’re okay,” she said, and he nodded, because it was true. “Clint,” he looked up at her, “you’re okay.” He broke his gaze away to stare at an old, dirty rag abandoned on the floor. He missed the chickens pecking and scratching at bare cement.
“They had plans, Nat,” he said softly. She sat beside him.
“I would kill them all,” she said.
“Would you kill me?” he wondered, and when she didn’t respond he didn’t press. He wouldn’t put that on her; she would do what she had to if it ever came to it, but he would never demand she agree. He took a long, steadying breath. “You heard about Assink’s crew?”
“I did,” she said simply, pressing her shoulder to his. He fidgeted, picking dirt out of his nails with his index finger. He never could seem to keep them clean. He didn’t say anything. “They had it coming,” she shrugged.
“Not like that,” he forced out. “Ronin-”
“It wasn’t you,” she cut him off, harshly.
“You know it wasn’t you, as Hawkeye, as Clint Barton, as Ronin. It wasn’t you, and you will not carry that.”
“He gave me my hearing back,” he choked out. It was old news now as it had become apparent to everyone as soon as Natasha had pulled him from Loki’s influence. That wasn’t the point, the point… he took a breath. He hadn’t told anyone, he hadn’t - “He fixed my ears as a reward, for-” he couldn’t finish the explanation, and he didn’t need to. Not with Natasha. She dragged him into her lap like he was a rag doll, and wrapped her arms around him like a vice. It pulled at his still healing wound, pressed into his still sore and bruised skin and aching ribs, but he barely noticed the pain. The shaking was starting, first in his hands, and then arms, and soon it would be all of him. He’d been holding off for so long, he’d been keeping it together for the team, for SHIELD, even for his enemies. He was so tired of keeping it all in.
Tiny warm hands wrapped around his neck. Warm, furry bodies tucking in close, pressing in where they could between the grip Nat had around him. They didn’t do anything to calm him, he was watching for it now, had realized he could tell the difference, and he always knew if they were sending him a message. They held off, only comforting with their presence, and he clung to Nat.
“He gave you back your hearing to hurt you,” she whispered, “just because he could.” She pressed her lips against the skin of his skull, despite the prickly blond hair trying to grow longer than a millimeter. “Do not let him,” she said.
He let the shakes come, and they sat there for a long time, not moving until the early morning sunlight began to filter through dirty windows and James, staying out far longer than had been expected, came back with an emotionless report of no activity, and some rabbits for breakfast.
He’d brought a handful of crickets as well.
Clint could work with that.