When Clint is sixteen, the circus he’s with travels to Russia.
Apparently, the son of a former oligarch is a fan of the Carson Carnival of Travelling Wonders, their circus-slash-travelling-company-of-misfits, and has decided to pay for the shipping to Russia of both the artists and their equipment just so that he can have their show at his fingertips.
“You sure about this?” asks Clint. The gaffer, who calls himself Carson, looks at him, considering. Clint may be young, but he’s been with Carson for four years now and he knows he’s proved his worth. His tactical advice on some critical business decisions has saved the circus thousands of dollars over the years, and he’s become one of Halo’s most renowned acts. ‘Hawkeye, the World’s Greatest Marksman, Carson calls him.
Clint’s pretty certain Carson just really wants an act called Hawk.
“We won’t be on his leash,” Carson answers, and Clint arches an eyebrow. “We will perform for the boy once, twice, three times at most. Then he will be bored and send us off.”
Clint gets it now. “And we’ll tour Russia for a while?”
Carson laughs his crooked grin and point his middle finger at Clint – the guy lost the pointer decades ago, doing an act that involved bears, fire-breathers and precision knife throwing. Clint doesn’t know the specifics and never asked. “Yes. Show our party tricks to a fresh audience!”
They go to Russia.
Carson was right. The boy, Yuri something-or-other-ending-in-ov, waited for all their equipment to arrive, gave them a week, and had them perform two nights in a row. The first time for himself and his family. The second time for himself and an army of girls in their late teens and early twenties, accompanied by a dozen young men about Yuri’s age. The girls are too enraptured by the swirls of flame, by the breath-catching trapeze artists defying death in the rafters, by the spinning knives reflecting their wide eyes back at them to notice the predatory looks in their companions’ eyes.
Clint grits his teeth and does his job, and if his arrows thud into the slab of wood next to Bobbi’s head a little too hard, if his knives twirl so fast through the air that catching them is harder than it’s ever been, if his bow at the end in Yuri’s directions is as forced as his smile – who can blame him?
Then they are not asked to perform for nearly a month. They don’t get paid for their shows, but they spend their time eating on Yuri’s dime, living in Yuri’s home, feeling like royalty instead of castouts.
When Yuri calls for them again, the tent is filled with what must be half of Russia’s upper class families. Romanovs, Carson tells him, Yakovlevs, Udinovs, and a whole bunch of other names that are too Russian for Clint to remember. He exhales when he walks onto the stage, relieved that the crowd is not just a herd of prey this time.
In the front row is a redheaded woman, very beautiful, with a child on her lap. The little girl is perhaps four years old, and watches intently as he throws knives, avoids giving Bobbi an extra piercing, hits two, three, four targets, shot from watered-down spud cannons, with a single arrow.
Clint saves his favorite bit for last. He always does. He has one arrow with barbs and a red banner, about a meter in length and as wide as his hand. For the occasion, he has snuck some silk from the pile of gifts Yuri something-or-other gave to the circus.
An apple is fired with one of the spud cannons. Clint waits, waits, waits until the angle is just so and the apple is only a little above head height, then shoots his barbed, red-tailed arrow and pierces the apple from the stalk, all the way through the core and out the other side. Seeds splatter everywhere. The barbs still the apple as the arrow is about two-thirds through, and the tip sinks into the heart of the target placed on the wall for that purpose, quivering.
The banner flutters, then stills, barely brushing the ground.
Under thunderous applause, Clint stalks to the targets and grabs the arrow before yanking it out. He always gives it to one of the front row spectators with a flourish and a smile of which he knows it melts their insides.
Decidedly, he walks to the redhead and kneels down before her, although the stage is not elevated.
“Here,” he says, “take it,” although he knows the child probably does not speak English. He presents the arrow and the apple to the toddler, the banner draped over his shoulder so that it won’t get dirty. The little girl giggles.
“Спасибо,” she says, her green eyes sparkling.
By the time they’ve made their way through Russia and Europe, hitched a ride on a ship to the UK in exchange for a free show for the captain and crew, earned enough money to get passage for themselves and their stuff aboard another ship and made it safely back to the US, Clint is twenty and fluent in Russian. He doesn’t remember much of their first shows in Russia, back when he was only a teenager, and he certainly doesn’t remember green sparkling eyes and a tiny hand reaching for his arrow.
He’s also pretty much done with the circus and wants to do something really useful with his life. Long story short, when a nondescript guy in a suit comes to him after a show and offers the Hawk a ‘more lucrative use for his talents’ before assuring him it’s completely legal, he says yes.
His goodbyes are emotional but not teary. He hugs Bobbi, and tells her not to fall off the goddamn tightrope again. She punches him in the arm with her left hand, her right arm in a sling. Carson looks at him and dramatically states that he ‘always knew this day would come’ before enveloping Clint in a bear hug that leaves him breathless.
“Come back sometime,” everyone tells him, and Clint nods although he hates liars.
He walks to a fancy black car with Phil Coulson next to him and his bow on his back, and if he looks back he won’t admit to it.
The put him through the goddamn Academy, which Clint figured he’d hate. He thought he was done with school after he ran away, never even attended high school. It’s not so bad as all that, though. Clint learns three more languages (French, German and Chinese) and has classes named Hand-to-Hand Combat, Marksmanship (with sniper rifles and handguns rather than arrows and knives, but he has a knack for it anyway), Strategy, Politics, and Infiltration. Among others.
It’s tough, but Clint is smarter than most people realize and he enjoys most of his classes except Politics. That’s the only class he does not get a top grade in.
Two years later Clint graduates and decides to become a sniper, which requires extra training in the form of marksmanship and mission oversight (eyes in high places see more than those on the ground). He also learns Hungarian and Spanish, bringing him to a grand total of seven languages he’s fluent in.
He is twenty-two when SHIELD sends him on his first mission, to Mexico, where he snipes off several cartel leaders without hesitation. Fury himself comes down to praise his resolve, saying most new Agents fail this mission, good job Barton, and Clint cries into his pillow for the next two weeks, the cartel leaders’ heads exploding over and over again, stuck on a gruesome loop inside his brain and his nightmares.
Two years and a dozen successful missions later, Clint no longer cries after a successful shot. Apparently, you can desensitize to anything, even murder.
SHIELD sends him to Russia with Strike Team Gamma. He’s ‘the arrow guy’, the outsider. These are all veterans who have fought side by side for a decade, they’ve been in the Middle East for a deep cover that took them a year and a half and so they’ve only ever seen Clint before he made a name for himself as Hawkeye. Clint knows that, to these guys, he’s nothing but the rookie new sniper with a bow , a honest-to-god bow for a favored weapon. For them that’s hardly any better than a water pistol or a NERF gun, and who uses bows nowadays anyway?
They’re sent to Volgograd on account of the mysterious murder of a rich young man in his early thirties called Yuri Belinskov, and Clint cocks an eyebrow. He’s heard that name somewhere before, hasn’t he?
It’s not the murder itself that is threatening, they're in Russia after all so Clint figures people must turn up dead pretty often, even rich people like Belinskov, but the wounds that killed Yuri are. Clint studies the pictures of the murder scene and the autopsy (Belinskov has obviously been choked to death and the marks look like they come from a thin, strong rope; a red sash that is not the murder weapon is wrapped around the man’s throat like a scarf; two bruises on his lower back indicate that whoever murdered him dug their knees into his back to exert more force. The bruises are weirdly high up, almost between his shoulder blades, so the killer must be small) and he freezes, eyes wide and staring. The veterans of Gamma jab each other in the ribs with their elbows and guffaw openly – hey check that out, the new guy can’t even look at a dead body, what a wimp – but Clint says, ‘I knew him,’ and they go quiet.
“You what?” their Team Leader says, and Clint repeats his sentence.
“I used to be in the circus, before SHIELD.” Once again, he ignores the chuckles. “This guy had us all shipped out to Russia, and we toured the country for two years.”
They don’t find out who murdered Yuri. They figure out that it was someone small, someone child-sized, although they know no child could have ever pulled this off. Yuri would have been too strong to be overpowered by a kid anyway, and besides, what are the odds that there’s a murderous ten-year-old running around?
They do find a single red hair, and if that gives Clint pause, especially when seen next to the red silken sash that had been wrapped around Yuri’s throat, he doesn’t understand why. He does know that he feels as though they’re missing something important, a vital puzzle piece that’s right in front of them but invisible somehow.
It’s the first mission Clint’s been on that doesn’t end up in SHIELD’s mission archives, neatly wrapped up for future generations to find.
He knows this: the killer is a redhead, and small, and has a thing for red silk, or just left that sash there for them to find like an Easter egg hunt because he thinks he’s smarter than SHIELD. Well, it’s either that, or it was just laying around and whoever murdered Yuri decided to pretty him up like a doll.
When they get home, Clint asks for a two-week leave (his first vacation ever) and drinks himself into a stupor.
Clint is twenty-nine, going on thirty, and he’s sent to Russia again, this time to investigate the weird-ass death of a Russian test pilot, Alexei Shostakov. SHIELD had been hoping to draft the guy – he was a brilliant pilot, even designed some of his own gear, which is just about the most advanced stuff in the business if you don’t count Stark’s inventions. Shostakov’s only downsides were that he was firmly rooted in the KGB, and that he was married to a sixteen-year-old girl, which, in Clint’s humble opinion, is child abuse.
Okay, back when he was sixteen he hadn’t been entirely innocent either, but at least he’d never been married to someone who was older than his own age multiplied by three.
When they get to Russia, Shostakov’s widow, Natalia Shostakov (sorry, Shostakova. Clint will never understand why a surname can’t just be a surname), has disappeared. No trace of her. Which is weird, but not too much so, considering it's Russia and her husband died. She probably went back home to her parents, of whom they find an address, but Clint decides not to visit. Spooking Natalia won't get them anything.
She's a black-haired beauty, it would seem from the pictures scattered throughout the Shostakov mansion, with pale skin, full lips and green eyes that spark a long-forgotten memory inside of Clint. For just a second, he sees red, and fire, and an arrow with an apple, but he can’t make sense of it so he shrugs and moves on.
Anyhow, she’s gone, so they don’t talk to her about Shostakov’s sudden death. The whole thing is very mysterious but their budget for the mission is too low to dig much deeper, and when Clint is called back to base with his team (he’s a Team Leader now, Strike Team Delta is officially his and if he grinned when he first heard that because hey, the archer guy has accomplished something, take that Gamma veterans, well, who could blame him) he feels almost as disgruntled as six years earlier, when they failed to figure out what tiny demon redhead had killed Yuri Belinskov.
He decides Russia is cursed and goes on another bender, from which he neatly comes back when his month-long leave is over.
Clint is thirty-three and he’s chasing the Black Widow.
She’s led him on a wild goose chase across eleven cities in six months’ time, leaving little hints for him to find everywhere. It’s like a goddamn Easter egg hunt, and he can’t help but grow to admire her for her wit and her combat skills as well as her audacity.
One time, he wakes up in his decrepit hotel room in Ljubljana in the middle of the night. He doesn’t understand why he’s awake until he spots the Post-It tacked to his window. On the outside. It says BOOM.
He grabs his bow and his quiver and throws himself out of that third-story window into the night as the building explodes behind him. He hits the ground, rolls, and is back on his feet in a blink of an eye. No one’s there, but then, he hadn’t really expected there to be. The message is clear. Your move.
Clint grins. He always liked chess.
He tracks her to Paris, to Rome, into the actual fucking Vatican, of all places. He can’t believe this woman’s nerve. She’s either nuts or amazing or both, and this chess game between the two of them is the most fun he’s had in a while.
He finds her on a rooftop in Berlin, where she has nowhere to go. An arrow is trained on her forehead, and her red hair (red, apple, Russia) and green eyes (fire, arrow, Russia) make him stop short of releasing the bowstring. He doesn’t understand why, doesn’t understand the flashes in his brain, but they give him pause.
If there’s one thing Clinton Francis Barton has always done, it’s following his gut.
“I’m supposed to kill you,” Clint says, without releasing the pressure building in his bow.
“So kill me,” the Widow says, and it’s a challenge and a demand and a plea all wrapped up in three little words, spoken with a perfect American accent. She looks between his eyes and the rooftop and the tip of his arrow, and Clint inches closer.
“No,” he replies in Russian, “I don’t think I will.”
“Okay. So what now?” she replies in Swahili, which he picked up at some point between the test pilot mission and the Black Widow mission, and he shrugs.
“Come with me.” Finnish. A challenge issued.
“Alright.” Chinese. A challenge accepted.
Clint takes the Widow to the chopper, her hands tied behind her back, an arrow pointed at her neck for emphasis, and swats at the air around her when sways her hips at Clint’s backup.
“Cut it ou, and get in,” he tells her sternly, and snaps his fingers at the men in the chopper. “Pick that jaw up off the floor, Sitwell. Childes, you’re catching flies.”
The Widow sits ramrod straight, the whole flight long, unresponsive, and when they get to base and Coulson is done grilling Clint, done glaring at the Widow suspiciously, done checking her handcuffs, and he hands the Widow a few forms, she writes Natasha Romanov under Name.
“That even your name, or just an inside joke?” Clint asks, and the Widow shoots him a barely-there smile.
“Both,” she says.
Natasha Romanov. Well. Clint supposes it has a nice ring to it.
And if images of fire, an apple, an arrow, or red silk sometimes flutter though his brain when he looks at her, he doesn't question it.