Clint Barton worked in a circus, which isn't quite right. He lived it, breathed it, soaked himself in the atmosphere of cotton candy, lights and swirling colours that spun on in his dreams like a fever. He woke up in the middle of night, drenched in sweat and the need to leap out of a window and never return. Instead, he covered his head with his pillow to drown out the constant noise.
Hawkeye was the circus, though. Hawkeye propelled it to new heights. They came to see Hawkeye shoot while leaping through hoops of fire, bending backwards. Hawkeye, Hawkeye, we want you, your rise and fall, we want to rip you apart, we want you to blaze so brightly that you'll wink out, like a star.
He's not deaf.
Sometimes, after a really good night, they would chain him to the bed (as if that meant something. He knew how to pick locks, for fuck's sake). Either way, Clint would lie there and listened to the roar in his head. Wasn't there supposed to be more than this?
Wasn't there supposed to be just more?
It was one of those nights, when he drew in a particularly good crowd, that he went back to his trailer and found a man dressed in black, waiting. Instinctively, he drew his arrow (he didn't pause to breath, men in black generally don't mean good news for carnival acts). But the man himself didn't react at all.
The man raised one unimpressed eyebrow at him, "What do you think you're doing?"
"What?" His hand doesn't shake but his voice did, and Clint wanted to slap himself, if he could.
"What are you doing?"
"I don--What does that have to do with anything?"
"You could be doing more, you know. Someone with your skills. We've watched the videos. I don't have even half the agents that could shoot at that level and you're what? Fifteen?"
"And a half," (damnit barton, don't pick now to be cheeky) "Agents?"
Of course, it had to be SHIELD. Clint lowered his arrow, just a little, "SHIELD's full of people who want to die."
"Is that what you heard?"
"That's what everyone heard," and Clint listened, he's a good listener, the hush-hush whispers of the organisation no one knew anything about, but everyone wanted to talk about.
"What about you? What do you think about SHIELD?"
What do I think? Clint blanched. He can't recall the last time his opinion meant something, "I think you're nuts to hire me."
"Because you're a cog?"
I'm the Amazing Hawkeye, Clint thought, but it felt hollow. It was just a name right now and this--this agent cheapened it with one word: cog. And he was a cog. An important cog, a voluntary cog, a precious cog they chain to themselves because he could shine.
And he could.
When Clint Barton brought Natasha Romanoff, SHIELD turned on its head. Coulson was writing reports every day, detailing her every move, Fury was secretly thrilled and repulsed (he hadn't quite decided yet), Maria Hill simply said, "About time" and decided she was going to either bond with the Black Widow or shoot her (she's also undecided there). Clint Barton, Hawkeye, got treatment of a very different degree. Any distance he had was now marred with rumours. His name, once pristine as being the best, became infamous and dangerous.
Natasha, of course, dealt with everything in stride.
Clint didn't deal with it at all because he didn't have to. He was too far removed from SHIELD, even if he loved them dearly. They couldn't connect with him and he knew that. It didn't bother him, he just wished they would realize that being called Hawkeye didn't make him deaf.
It was Natasha, and only Natasha, who waited calmly in his high corners and holes, waiting for him (or not waiting. He could never tell. That only made him more proud of her. And he was always so, so proud of her. His Nat) and it was Nat who said, "They really talk rubbish about you."
Clint shrugged off his bow as he sat next to her, "So?"
"Why do you let them?" Natasha looked him over, assessing and sometimes Clint thinks she should bear the Hawkeye name because there are no other words for a gaze like hers, "I don't understand."
"I understand," Clint said finally, "That they don't see what I see. What you see. They don't have to. I see fine on my own."
This was the right answer, if there was ever a right one. She keeps coming back, he never asks her why, and their shoulders, sometimes they touch so lightly, it seems like a promise.
You have heart.
And it all Clint can do, not to tear it out and beat it with a stick.
What did it show you?
Clint was a cog in the machine, Clint was the amazing Hawkeye, Clint was Agent Barton, valued and unseen, Clint was ...
Clint was fractured. One battle does not fix them, only slapped a bandage over them. He hobbled back between SHIELD and the Avengers, while the world screamed his name. And in his dreams, like a lurid fever, he dreamt of blue light.