Chapter 1: Taking Flight
Sparring with Natasha was like fighting liquid mercury. Each movement of hers was taut with a fluid tension that would look equally effortless and beautiful to the outside person.
To the one she was sparring with, however, it made her deadly.
Clint took a hit to the ribs and doubled over. He followed the motion through and tumbled into a roll ending up behind her while simultaneously swiping out his leg. She easily jumped over the transparent strike, but Clint was able to regain his footing in the amount of time it took her to dodge it.
They stood opposite of each other again and while Clint attempted to catch his breath, Natasha smirked at him.
“You’re getting better,” she noted.
“I’m already good,” he winked at her.
It was no secret his strength lied high up in the rafters and scaffoldings with his sharp eyes and trusty bow. Still, he was no novice at hand-to-hand and whenever they found themselves at the same S.H.I.E.L.D. facility, which was actually quite often these days, Clint always made it a point to challenge the woman known as the Black Widow to a few rounds of mock fighting. He’d yet to beat her, but that wasn’t really the point, he smirked as she arched her back when he came at her again.
His pride was saved by the fact that he was the only one who stood a chance against her, anyway.
Natasha twirled and Clint was mildly distracted by the way her hair flailed out and caught the light so he didn’t catch the knee coming up to his gut.
“That’s gonna leave a mark,” he wheezed and doubled over.
She clubbed him on the back of the head and said, “That’s the point, Barton. Now keep up.”
Clint grinned and feinted left, which she didn’t fall for. He still managed to get a hit in, though, although Natasha grabbed his arm and pulled him in while bringing up her knee and hitting him in the already forming bruise just below his ribs. He was reasonably sure she hit the same spot as before on purpose.
Still, he didn’t hesitate at grabbing her knee and tripping her back. She rolled a few feet away before expertly flipping back up to her feet.
“Show off,” he muttered.
Clint was about to strike when he felt his right pocket vibrate and a shrill ring filled the gym. He instantly froze and Natasha landed a hit to the side of his head, barely pulling it enough to avoid giving him a rather nasty headache later.
“What the hell, Barton?” she spat, annoyed at his inattention.
Her voice sounded miles away as every single one of his senses narrowed and honed in to the phone in his pocket – the phone he’d religiously charged every night and never left his person. His heart was heavy with dread and anticipation equally.
The phone rang again and he snapped out of it.
His fighting stance fell and he scrambled for his pocket, hands shaking as they finally gripped the small silver flip phone that he immediately answered.
“Eyas? What’s happened? What’s wrong?”
There was a pause on the other end of the line that Clint was able to measure by the heavy hammering beats of his heart. Finally, her voice came through and it was all Clint could do to keep some semblance of control.
“Clint,” she said tearfully, making his heart stop. “Clint.”
Slowly, his eyes closed in dread as he knew what he was about to hear. “Tell me,” he encouraged her softly.
From across from him, Natasha’s sharp eyes pinned him as she absorbed the scene he was making.
“Mom and dad,” Bella sobbed and how he wished he was already there by her side to comfort her.
A terrible sensation of grief and fear overcame him. How, he wanted to ask her. How did our parents die? Foreboding made his arms tingle and his hand reflexively tightened on the phone. Living on opposite sides of the country as his parents had, it couldn’t have been an accident.
It must be because of me, he thought. Somehow or some way an old enemy had seen through the measures he’d taken to hide his family and had killed his parents, leaving his baby sister alone and unprotected.
His mind spun with the repercussions. He’d been so careful to erase his past from his present – how had someone found them?
Bella’s sobbing cut off his guilt-ridden thoughts. “It’s all my fault, it’s all my fault,” she chanted, breaking his heart.
How like his sister to blame herself… to shoulder the burden that Clint was nearly positive was his and his alone to bear. He had to get to her and fast before that kind of thinking set in and she did something stupid. He loved his sister dearly, but she had a tendency to try to take on the world by herself, never asking or expecting help. In fact, he was mildly surprised she’d even called him and knew things must be dire for her to have used her phone. He silently thanked whatever God that may be listening for the snap decision he’d made to give her that phone years ago. He knew that if he hadn’t she’d quickly find herself in over her head now and likely lost to him forever.
“I doubt that, sweetheart, don’t talk that way. Hang in there, little Eyas. I’m on my way.”
He snapped the phone closed and his eyes fell shut. He stood there breathing for a moment, finding the repetitive reflex of sucking in air oddly reassuring. Each deep and comforting breath allowed his sorrow to give way to planning, his instincts sharpening and clearing away his grieving thoughts, if only for the moment, while he instantly turned his mind to damage control.
Thank God he was only in L.A. He knew Bella had moved to Forks to live with their dad and he’d be able to get to her within a couple hours or so. Faster, even, with his connections. There’d be no airport security, no waiting for flight clearance.
Clint was not above abusing S.H.I.E.L.D.’s resources in order to get to his sister as fast as possible. In fact, he relished the thought, thinking it the least his godforsaken job could do for him seeing as how it was very likely he’d gotten his parents killed.
Over his cold dead body would his sister be next.
Clint snapped back into himself like a rubber band that had been pulled taut and then released. Instantly, every party of him was in motion, every one of his faculties working towards one goal.
I’m coming, Eyas… I’m coming…
“Clint?” Natasha’s voice sliced through his racing thoughts like a whip against his mind.
His eyes cut to her and he knew by her slight frown that his usually impassive expression was gone and his fear and concern were branded on his face, making him feel naked to her probing eyes. “I need a jet. A fast one,” he muttered.
With that, he whirled to his gym bag, shoving his effects into it. He had no idea what sort of situation he’d be flying into, but he’d be prepared, as always. For Bella’s sake, he had to treat this as he would any of his missions. Prepare for the worst, hope for the best.
“Clint!” Natasha snapped again, dogging his steps as he ran to his locker, throwing on his tactical gear before he ran to his special corner in the armory to grab his quiver and bow.
“Clint!” she shouted again, but this time she hooked her arm through his and spun him to face her.
They stared at each other for a moment, long enough that her own concern began to leak through her usual cool mask of indifference for anyone to see. Or maybe not anyone. Clint had always been able to read Natasha, to see through the personae she’d perfected for the job, just as she could with him. There was no hiding from each other.
“Tell me,” she said softly, but with the timber of a command. “Who was that on The Phone?”
He closed his eyes again as his hand tightened on his bow. The way she said The Phone, with the implicit capital letters, let him know she’d been far more observant of him than he’d given her credit for. In hindsight, that was stupid of him considering Natasha was the best specifically for her attention to detail and ability to make connections. But she’d never confronted him about it, likely knowing he wouldn’t have told her the truth anyway, no matter if he trusted her with his own life.
There wasn’t time enough for the thorough explanation he knew she deserved, but he had to tell her something and he couldn’t quite bring himself to continue his lie to her. Not anymore.
“My sister. It was my sister.”
Natasha blinked once, her expression going blank.
“I have to go to her,” he said softly, a hint of pleading in the words. Please, don’t be mad, Natasha, his heart said. I had to protect them. Had to protect her from it all. Even you.
But he swallowed those words back like the true soldier he was. While he may regret lying to her all these years, he’d never regret doing what he thought was best for his family. Even if his carefully crafted lies were about to crumble in, he still would never apologize for protecting his baby sister. Not ever.
Natasha’s eyes narrowed on him in her signature penetrative glare he was convinced could read souls. He had the distinct feeling she was reading his now, playing judge, jury, and his executioner if need be. She’d never seriously hurt him, no matter what she was capable of, but Clint didn’t doubt he’d leave their next sparring session with more than mere bruises.
“I’ll fly,” she said abruptly, and Clint knew that was that. The interrogation was yet to come, but when push came to shove, they always had each other’s backs.
She moved to go by him and Clint caught her arm. “Natasha,” he said around the lump in his throat. His other hand came up to cup her cheek when she turned to him. “Thank you.” He’d never meant those two words more than he did now, no matter how many times he’d said them to her in the past.
Her eyes narrowed on him again and after a moment, she gave him a sharp nod and continued walking to her gear, following his cue and suiting up for an unknown battle.
“Where are we going?” she asked. She sounded like she meant business even though he knew she was dying to get to the bottom of his secrets. But she was good at compartmentalizing and would get her answers later. For now, they were both focused on the mission.
“She lives in Forks, Washington. Closest military base is the Coast Guard in La Push.”
She frowned. “They won’t have a landing strip. We’ll have to take the Harrier Jet. Call and arrange for ground transport once we land.”
Despite the situation, Clint smirked. “Kind of feels like Bombay all over again, eh?”
Natasha frowned, unwilling to accept his peace offering of levity. “Bombay was completely different. That was an assassination. This is a rescue. So shut up and get in gear, Barton. You owe me an explanation in the air.”
Shit, he thought, knowing she wasn’t playing around. Neither was he, of course. He’d always tried to use humor or dry wit to deflect the more unsavory emotions that could pop up on a mission. Emotions like fear. This time, his fear was all the more intense knowing his sister was likely in danger.
I’m coming, Eyas, he thought again. I’m coming, Bella.
The good thing about being top field agents in S.H.I.E.L.D. was that when you demanded the use of a jet, especially in the rushed and demanding tone that Natasha had used, no one really questioned you. Explanations would be owed when they got back, but for now, it was a small thing to suit up, take flight, and make the necessary arrangements for landing in La Push.
They were in the air all of five minutes when Natasha spoke, her voice sounding deceptively light through the headset. “So you have a sister?”
Clint clenched his jaw. “Yes,” he said.
“By ten years.”
“Quite the age gap,” she noted.
“Parents had me young, while in high school. They weren’t really good together but stayed married for me. Bella was an oopsie-baby too, only by then their marriage couldn’t take anymore strain and they divorced soon after having her.”
“Isabella,” he offered.
“You’re close to her,” she said. It was not a question.
He smiled unconsciously as he thought of his baby sister. “We lived with my mom after the divorce. She was flighty, but loving. I took care of Bella mostly.”
“So you’re like Brother and father, then?”
He nodded, though she couldn’t see him as she was in the front pilot’s seat. “Yes, through no fault of our dad’s, really. I haven’t spoken to her in about five years.”
His mind flashed back to when he’d gone to her school after a couple years of only calls and letters that had slowly dwindled as he climbed higher and higher up in the ranks. She’d run into his arms and as it always happened, it had felt like they’d just seen each other yesterday. Even though he’d felt guilty for pulling away from his family, he’d always known a part of Bella understood. She’d always been wise for her years, growing up with their mother had done that – forced her to grow up quicker, and while he was certain she knew nothing about his real life and his job, he wouldn’t be surprised if she had an inkling.
That’s why he hadn’t hesitated in giving her the phone. He knew she’d understand what it, and he, meant by it.
“Yeah,” he answered a little hoarsely before shaking himself together. “Five years.”
“Since the Larson incident,” she said softly, a world of understanding behind the words.
Agent Larson had been someone who thought he could have his cake and eat it too. He loved the danger of the job, the importance of each mission. But he’d loved his family just as much. He’d a wife and two kids that he adored – talked about them all the time, raved, really – which had been the problem. A mission had gone wrong and his identity was compromised.
It’d been an easy thing, sadly, for the enemy to find out about his life outside the job since Larson had never wanted to shy away from his family as though ashamed. It’d been even easier for said enemy to kidnap Larson’s wife and kids, eventually killing them in front of Larson who had attempted a failed rescue mission. He’d gone mad afterwards and had killed himself with a bullet to the brain.
The incident had haunted Clint with images of his own family and him in Larson’s place. He’d already distanced himself from them, taking a new name the instant he entered S.H.I.E.L.D., but he had stubbornly kept small ties and knew it was time to cut them. He’d gone to Bella before his plan had been set in motion, determined that his sister know how much he loved her and to give her an out if she ever needed one.
After Larson, he knew disappearing for good would be for the best; that it was better his parents thought him lost in battle, presumed dead, for their own safety. They’d known of his military career, if not the extent, and it’d been a small thing to make Clint Swan disappear to his family even as Clint Barton lived and breathed.
Colonel Fury had agreed with him. It’d been him who had gone to his mother’s house with a folded up flag and condolences.
When he’d come back from the harrowing visit, he’d told Clint of how Bella hadn’t cried but had studied him with an odd tilt to her head. After a moment of staring at each other, she seemed to have reached some sort of conclusion and had looked more resigned than sad. After that, she’d gone to where her mother was sobbing on the couch, throwing a comforting arm around her shaking form even as she stared at Colonel Fury with a faintly knowing glint to her eyes.
“I’ve never seen eyes like that on a kid,” Fury had told him. “So observant, almost penetrating. Reminded me of Agent Romanoff, in a way.”
As sad as he was to put his parents through that sort of pain, a corner of his heart had thrived knowing that Bella, his little Eyas, knew better.
“I had to Natasha. I couldn’t take the risk with them. With her,” he said as his mind focused on the present. “But now it all feels pointless.”
“Bella is smart,” he said gruffly. “She’d never give up on me, just as I’d never give up on her. She wouldn’t ever believe me gone without a body for proof. I knew a part of her would always be searching for me so I went to her and told her just enough to give her hope, to keep her faith in me. Maybe that was selfish, but I couldn’t leave her helpless. I gave her a phone and kept its match with me always. Just in case of an emergency.”
His teeth gritted as he thought of Bella sobbing into the phone, the realization that their parents were dead.
“So what’s the emergency?” she asked carefully.
She sensed his sorrow and nearly overwhelming anger, but needed all the facts before entering the situation. Now was not the time for sparing feelings and mistakes.
“Parents are dead. They live on opposite ends of the country,” he bit out, knowing she’d pick up on what he was implying.
“Not an accident, then,” she murmured darkly, already knowing he was blaming himself, thinking someone was attacking him through them.
“Bella’s alone and defenseless,” the words and their truth had him leaning forward in his seat as though to propel the jet even faster.
There was a sudden burst of speed that had him sitting back in the seat once more.
“Not for long,” Natasha promised grimly.
What would’ve taken them about two and a half hours to fly commercially was cut down to one hour in the military jet. Soon enough they were landing at the Coast Guard base in La Push, a Humvee waiting for them just over to the side of the landing pad. There was no runway to land a normal jet on which was why they’d taken the Harrier and Natasha executed a textbook vertical landing without the need of a long stretch of asphalt.
There was some personnel waiting for them, but their clearance was indefinite in all factions of the military, so it was a small thing to wave a badge, spout off some numbered level nonsense about security and then hop into the Humvee and peel out of the base at breakneck speed.
Almost there, Eyas, almost there, Clint chanted in his mind, his white-knuckled grip on the wheel expertly steering them towards Forks where his baby sister waited for him.
They made it within twenty minutes to the Swan home and Clint swallowed grimly as he saw the yellow tape and cop cars blocking off entrance to the house. A group of pedestrians were gathered across the street, huddled together and gossiping about the events.
“Get out your badge,” he ordered Natasha.
Somewhere behind that yellow tape was his baby sister and no rent-a-cop in a Podunk town was going to keep him from her.
They marched with grim determination towards the house, Clint vaguely noting a man in his wheelchair as close to the yellow tape as he could get with tears running down his cheeks.
Without a hint of hesitation, he and Natasha ducked under the yellow tape and kept walking.
“Sir? Sir you can’t be here!”
But Clint’s sharp eyes were already scanning the perimeter for his sister and he found her almost instantly. She looked smaller than he remembered, sitting with her arms around her knees on the corner of the front porch, ignoring some officer kneeling beside her. Even from here, he could see the pain in her eyes, a broken hollowness that had his feet moving forward and his fists clenching, ready to deck anyone who got in his way as he went to her.
Behind him, Natasha was showing a badge, stating credentials and covering their tracks while allowing them access to the crime scene.
But none of that was important, not to Clint. Covering their tracks was the last thing on his mind when he saw the officer by Bella reach out what was supposed to be a comforting hand to her, causing her to flinch back.
Growling under his breath, Clint jogged the last few steps and his vice-like grip wrapped around the officer’s wrist to prevent the outstretched hand from attempting contact again.
“Don’t. Touch. Her,” he nearly growled, tightening his grip with each word.
Bella’s head immediately snapped up.
“Clint!” she gasped, and the tears she’d been refusing to let fall were set free again.
“Eyas,” he breathed as he swooped down and pulled her to him, relief making his arms shake as he tightened them around her. And like he’d thought before, it was like no time had passed since he saw her last. Their bond was unequivocal and impervious to things like time and distance.
“Sh-h,” he hushed her, aware of Natasha making her way up the steps behind him. “I’ve got you.”
“It’s not safe,” she muttered into his shoulder.
Clint pulled back to look down at her. Her eyes were different from the last he’d seen her. The youthful innocence that usually twinkled along with the sheen of an old soul, had dimmed and disappeared. There was a hollowness that went beyond the tragedy of their parents’ deaths. Someone had hurt his sister, taken away her smile.
That person would pay.
But first, he wiped the tears from her cheeks and said as comfortingly as possible. “Tell me exactly what happened, Isabella.”
Her breathing shuddered and her eyes flickered to the lingering cops by them before meeting his gaze again. Immediately, he knew she couldn’t tell him everything exactly, not with extra ears nearby.
Whatever small hope he’d been secretly clinging to that it was all just a terrible accident dissipated at that telling look.
Breathing deep, Clint reluctantly pulled away from her. “I need to go inside, Eyas,” he said.
Instantly, Bella’s breathing quickened and she started shaking her head no. “Please Clint – you can’t. Don’t leave me.”
Torn, Clint looked down. He had to see the scene; he had to find the clues the cops wouldn’t be looking for. But he was loathe to leave Bella. Now that he had her again, he never wanted to let her out of his sight.
“Go,” Natasha breathed quietly. “I’ll stay with her.”
She edge closer to them, a tentative hand coming to rest on Bella’s shoulder.
Clint looked deep into her eyes. “Thanks Nat.”
Looking down at Bella again, he saw her watching them with her usual observing eyes flicking between them. Finally, they rested on him and he read the question there. Am I safe with her?
He nodded slightly and Bella willingly moved to Natasha’s side.
“Be quick,” she whispered. “I already have what you’re looking for anyway.”
He frowned at her, a new fear starting to take him as he wondered just how much his sister actually knew about his life and the death of their parents. Exactly what made her think this was her fault. Regardless of their secrets, he knew they’d stand beside each other. They’d both know the truth soon enough.
Steeling himself, Clint moved away from them and into the house. The scene he found there was one from nightmares. His father, a socially awkward man that had truly loved his children, sat brutally torn asunder, shredded as though a wild animal had clawed through him.
Clint swallowed, fighting back the urge to vomit… and cry.
Mentally, he distanced himself and tried to pretend that man wasn’t his father. Wasn’t the man that taught him how to catch, how to shoot a bow.
Five minutes was all it took for him to know the scene was clean. Literally clean. As in impossibly clean. With the type of wounds Charlie had, blood should be sprayed everywhere but the amount was minimal.
Something was definitely not right.
Exiting the house, he paused in front of the door for a moment to gather himself, trying to hold it together for Bella. When he went out, he saw that Natasha had moved Bella to a secluded spot by the tree in the front yard, her arm still kept comfortingly around her as the shorter girl stared absently towards the woods, only moving when she heard him coming to them.
Once he reached them he hugged her automatically, his eyes closing and the image of their father’s body burning behind his eyelids.
“Clint?” Natasha asked.
He sighed into Bella’s hair, pulled back and shook his head at Natasha. “It doesn’t add up,” he muttered. “The scene isn’t faked, but it’s not right as well.”
Bella took a step back, shaking slightly and suddenly refusing to meet his gaze.
“Eyas?” he asked in concern, his hand reaching to her.
“Don’t,” she said, her lip trembling like he remembered it had always done when she was younger. “You won’t want to comfort me. Not after I tell you.”
The same fear from earlier rose again. “Tell me what?” he asked with a hint of command.
Bella sighed again and reached into her back pocket. “I didn’t call the police. They came by because Charlie missed his shift and wasn’t answering. I knew they couldn’t do anything and I was going to wait for you, but once they were here, all I said was that I’d found him like – like that, after coming home from a hiking trip.”
“Hiking?” he asked dubiously. Bella was not known for her coordination and her love of the outdoors.
She shook her head as her tears overwhelmed her again. Removing her hand from her pocket, Clint saw a folded white piece of paper shaking between her fingers, spots of blood lingering on the corners. He took it from her carefully, his eyes never leaving her face.
“It was,” her throat closed off and she cleared it and started again, “it was n-nailed to his chest.” Her hand extended it out to him resolutely
Horror filled him as he imagined what must be written there. A threat, a promise to take away his loved ones because of some foiled scheme or the like. He was loathe to read it, but knew he had to.
Finally tearing his eyes away from hers, he looked down at the terrible white papered death omen and his mind froze as he saw a name scrawled there, not his own as he had imagined it would be.
His eyes flew to hers again and her lip quivered.
“Read it,” she said, her voice deadened. “Read it and I’ll tell you everything.”
Clint looked at her a moment longer, trying to read her but unable to, much to his frustration.
With heavy hands and heart, Clint unfolded the letter and read it, the world he thought he knew shattering with each word.
(A/N): So some answers here… and more questions. Stay tuned for more!