The katana was a comforting weight in his hand – an extension of his will in a way the bow could never be. ”There is no break in your defenses with a sword in your hand. No pause to reload, like with a bow or a gun.” It was a lesson Jacques Duquesne had beaten into him when he was seventeen – Clint had spent most of his adult life trying to pretend he hadn’t internalized it as his teenaged self lay bleeding into the dirt of the circus grounds.
A scant three week’s work had shown him how very wrong he was. From the moment Saigo Takamori had placed the weapon in his hands, Clint had felt safe on a level he had thought was lost to him forever.
As he brought weapon and body to rest at the end of the kata, Clint sensed that he wasn’t alone in the space. ”Nate knows a guy, who knows a guy, who knows a samurai.” Eliot hadn’t been lying about that. And, grateful for the opportunity to turn his mind from the tragedy that had cut his own family in half, Nate Ford had been more than willing to put his resources at Clint’s disposal.
That wasn’t to say the self-styled Robin Hood wasn’t going to expect something from him in return – Clint most definitely hadn’t needed Eliot’s warning to see that coming. And you’re here to start collecting, he thought, sheathing his weapon and signaling that he was comfortable with Nate entering his space.
“You’re looking good,” the older man said, his easy manner belying a darkness in his eyes Clint suspected matched his own – and came from a similar place. “Moving better, and I think I’m starting to see hints of the man you were.”
Clint frowned at that. “I’m no hero, Mr. Ford,” he said carefully. “Not anymore, if I ever was. Best for both of us if you try not to think of me that way.”
Ford was completely unruffled by Clint’s words. “I don’t need a hero, Clint. I don’t even need a good man. I need somebody willing to do whatever it takes…whatever it costs…to get the job done.” He moved a few steps closer, but not close enough to set Clint’s nerves on edge. “I know what the kind of loss you’ve suffered does to a person; especially a person like you that hasn’t always walked in the light.”
If he’d had any doubts about Ford’s intentions in helping him, the fact that Eliot was out of earshot, standing guard over their conversation, would have put them to rest. “I have my own reasons for walking this path,” he said. “I am grateful to you and to Eliot for helping me, but…”
“I don’t want your gratitude.”
Finally Clint saw the man who was more than Faith’s father, Daisy’s over-protective uncle. This was the man who had once stood toe-to-toe with Phil Coulson and refused to be intimidated, the man who had the loyalty and respect of someone as deadly as Eliot Spencer. “If you are determined to be Ronin, that is your call,” Ford went on. “I’m not in a position to judge. You are in debt to me though, and I will see that debt satisfied.”
“You got balls of steel, Nate,” Eliot murmured, exhaling softly and shaking his head as he listened to his mastermind put the screws to Clint. Barton’s mood was chancy under the best of circumstances – which these most assuredly weren’t. Eliot knew he would have thought twice about facing off with a sword-wielding Clint, especially to tell him that he now owed a debt of honor that nobody could even swear he believed in anymore, let alone had.
”Eliot said you were with her…your wife…when she dusted.”
He’d known he was taking a chance, sharing their personal tragedy with someone who could only generously be counted a “friend of the family”, but Eliot had wanted Clint to understand exactly what they had been through before he threw in his lot with Nate.
A shudder of revulsion raced across the hitter’s shoulders as memory of Faith crumbling to dust in his arms flashed through his mind. Fifty percent of all living creatures on Earth, the reports had said, and nothing Hardison could dig up was able to contradict them. “He’s not going to be able to find what we need,” Nate had finally concluded. “Not without help.”
Privately Eliot agreed with him, but it was significant that neither of them were willing to say as much where Hardison could hear. As far as Eliot could judge, hope that his beloved internet held the answers they all so desperately needed was the only thing keeping the hacker going.
Grateful Nate needed his skills as well, Eliot had hit the road, tracking down every contact he had with even the most tenuous tie to the sort of supernatural activity that could have erased fifty percent of the planet in the blink of an eye.
At first he hadn’t found much that was more encouraging than the little Hardison had managed to put together. His twin brother Lindsey had been safe, but his separation years before from Wolfram & Hart had robbed him of most of the connections Eliot could have found useful in a situation like this. Dean and Sam Winchester were gone – Eliot had spoken to a twitchy, dark-haired, older man named Castiel, and a woman named Mary who had claimed she was the boys’ mother.
Clint Barton had been drinking himself to death in a bar in upstate New York. From him Eliot had learned that not only had ‘Hawkeye’s’ lover Phil Coulson been a casualty of the global event – Faith’s cousin Daisy Johnson had vanished as well.
”You’re the key I need to get into SHIELD and find out everything they know about what happened.” Ford hadn’t much cared that Clint and SHIELD had parted company a while back, just as he hadn’t cared about the legality of what he wanted to do. In his mind it was a simple quid pro quo – in trade for giving Clint the means to get back on his feet and potentially fight back against what had happened, Clint would give Nate anything he asked for.
A debt, he’d called it – and even from the shadows of his grief, that was something Clint could understand and appreciate. “What makes you think here is where we need to move?” he asked, looking up from his thoughts to finally meet Ford’s penetrating gaze. “Phil had been looking at activity in Wakanda…before.” He felt strangely detached now, saying his lover’s name out loud.
Unlike Nate or Eliot, Clint hadn’t been with Phil when it happened. Melinda May had reached out to him immediately, but it had taken four viewings of the security footage at the Playground before the magnitude of Clint’s loss had even started to sink in. Once more he tried to picture a scenario where he’d been there, where they would have at least had a chance to see each other one last time, and once again he couldn’t see himself surviving the experience.
“I’m not putting anyone else at risk without better intel,” Ford said, yanking Clint back from the edge of another downward spiral. “We might end up in Wakanda, but not until I’m sure it will lead us to answers.”
“You know odds are nothing natural was behind what happened.”
Clint was perversely reassured by the steadiness of Ford’s expression. “I’ve faced a lot of things in the last few years – things that I’m pretty sure should have driven me insane. Your job is to take me as far up this ladder as it’s possible for us to go. I’ll take care of the rest.”
“And so we understand each other,” Clint added, “you don’t care how I get you up this ladder?”
Of all the things they’d both endured, that surprised the smallest hint of a smile from Nathan Ford. “I will tell you the same thing I told Eliot: nothing is more important to me right now than finding our people.” He held up a hand to forestall Clint’s next statement. “Let me finish. If retrieval proves to be impossible, the focus shifts to revenge. Means and methods aren’t even on my radar at this point.” He huffed out a quiet breath. “I know who you are, Clint Barton – what you’ve done. The same is true for Eliot. I wouldn’t be standing here if I hadn’t already accepted that this could get bloody.”
Clint tasted his words, rolled them around in his head, and decided they were enough. Extending his hand, he nodded as Ford clasped it between his two – the significance of the relationship they were forging not lost on either man.
“Let’s do this.”