It's a beautiful day. Sun's shining, sky's blue, it's an even seventy degrees Fahrenheit.
Big fucking deal. Clint waves it off and refuses to look, because it's exactly the kind of day he hates with a passion. Nobody ever got good news on a perfect day, and this day delivers in spades on his lack of expectations, because it's maybe three-thirty, four o'clock in the afternoon when a black SUV pulls up outside the cabin and spits out the most perfect B-movie G-man cliché that Clint has ever seen.
It's like the guy was cloned from Men in Black or something, with the suit and the sunglasses and the receding hairline (okay, maybe not that, but hey, not every actor is a Man of the Year contender). He pulls off the shades and blinks into the sunlight, squinting to read the sign over Clint's porch.
Clint leans over his counter, props his chin up on his elbows and calls, "Says 'Hawkeye's.'"
The man notices him, takes the stairs one at a time (seriously, it's like he's pure government-issue; Clint bets he fills out his tax forms on time, too) and pushes open the screen door. "Are you Hawkeye?"
"Depends who's asking."
"My name is Phil Coulson. I'm with the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division."
"Then yeah, I'm Hawkeye." He's only Clint to his friends. "What can I do for you?"
There's an undertone to the question, not outright hostility, but something that makes it clear to this suit-jacketed, stiff-jawed man that he's an outsider. That the offer of help extends only to whatever it takes to satisfy him and send him back where he came from.
"What is this place?"
Clint shrugs. "Kipahigan Lake. Welcome to nowhere."
The man's – Phil Coulson's – smile is thin and insincere. He lifts a hand, and he's holding a GPS-enabled phone with a destination marker on the map, Kipahigan Lake. "What do you do here?" he clarifies, with a gesture around the room at the various trappings of Clint's trades.
"Bait and tackle shop," Clint says. "Archery rentals. Canoes, kayaks. Fishing guide. Hunting guide. Depends what you need."
"Lot of jobs for one man."
"Not a lot of other people lookin' for 'em." He'd call Kipahigan a one-horse town, except it isn't; it's not even a town at all. There's Clint and maybe one or two other locals, because anyone within about fifty miles of here is a local by Kipahigan standards, and the science facility to the south. And then there are the visitors that fly in for the hunting or the fishing or, lately, the eco-tourism.
Eco-tourism is a dirty word to Clint. All it means is that people who don't know how to handle themselves in the backcountry are coming out here and making a mess of things. Clint's had to pull more than one of them out after their leave-no-trace camping plans went wrong, or after they didn't budget enough supplies to get back to their fly-out points, or after they forgot to account for the fact that yeah, there are bears out there in the woods.
"Spend a lot of time on the lake?" the G-man asks false-casually, perusing a shelf of flies Clint would bet easy money he has no idea how to use.
"Well, with the scintillating night life around here," Clint says, then shrugs. "Fair bit, why?"
"Notice anything strange lately? Changes to fish populations, animals you might not have seen before, anything like that?"
"It's not like they wear nametags," Clint says, rolling his eyes, but underneath the counter, his hands have tightened suddenly on the edge of the wooden shelf, and one of his feet is tapping restlessly. What does this guy know, and why is he here?
There've been some weird things lately, and Clint has a pretty good idea of his surroundings. He's not called Hawkeye for nothing; he sees things. And what he's seen over the past few weeks is nothing like he's ever seen before.
Yeah, there have been 'changes to fish populations,' though Clint's word for it is 'bad for business.' Couple of months ago, he'd throw a line off his makeshift dock every evening, pull in a few walleye, and make a meal of 'em. Nowadays, he might get lucky that way once or twice a week, in a good week. He's been having to resort to his stored food, salted venison and bear and bannock that old lady Racette makes and gives to him on his twice-yearly trips to a place that might actually almost be described as a real town. If the fish don't pick up again, he's going to have to find some way to slot an extra hunting trip into his schedule.
Not that he's actually all that busy after the first frost, but hunting's always harder when the bears are going down for hibernation and the deer can hear you coming miles away.
"That's not an answer," the G-man observes mildly, and Clint can hear the secret steel that underlies his words. This guy may look like a pushover, but he's not one.
"Who's asking, and why?"
"I told you. Phil Coulson, agent of – "
"Yeah, yeah, strategic homeward bound something something whatever. What is that?"
"We're an extra-governmental organization designed to deal with… unique problems."
"Like declining fish populations."
"So you've noticed a change."
Clint sighed. "You sure sound like the government."
"We have reason to believe that the wildlife situation in Kipahigan Lake requires investigation."
He brings his hands up into view over the counter, smacks them down onto a pile of fisheries brochures. "I knew it. I fucking knew this was gonna happen when they built those science labs out here in the middle of the woods. Doesn't anyone watch horror movies anymore?"
"What makes you think the science facilities are involved?"
"See, that's what I'm saying, nobody watches horror movies anymore. Of course the crazy secret government science lab is involved."
"I'm afraid that's classified information."
"Okay, look." Clint's going to lay it all out on the table, and this guy's not going to like it. "You want to go out there in your suit and your sunglasses and your fancy shoes – are those leather? you're not gonna last five minutes, are you? – and look for some weird science experiment gone wrong that's living in the lake and eating all the fish? You go right ahead. But," and he grins, because hey, this sounds like fun, "if you want to actually 'investigate' anything out there? You're gonna need my help."
Phil Coulson blinks back at him, opening his mouth to answer and then pausing. Clint has no doubt there's a reason they sent him out here; maybe he's some kind of scientist, or maybe he's just good with a gun. Doesn't matter; he's not from around here, and it's not like he has a lot of choice in his allies.
"Understood," he says finally, and Clint grins broader than ever.
"Okay. So spill the beans. What's out there?"
The next half-hour is the weirdest of Clint's entire life, and that's saying a lot. Phil tells him about the experiments going down at the science labs, about the gene splicing and hormone stuff and a whole bunch of technical-sounding words that Clint doesn't really pay attention to until he hears something about 'designing the perfect predator.'
"Wait, wait, wait, say that part again?"
"Using multiple gene splicing and reactivation to create the perfect predator?"
"Yeah, that part. Tell me more about that."
"The program was supposed to take the strengths of several successful, top-level predators in their natural environments and combine them through genetic manipulation to yield an organism designed for flawless hunting. Or fighting, or whatever other uses the government had for it."
"Great," says Clint. "And, no, hold on, let me guess, it escaped. And now it's terrorizing Tokyo."
"Not quite," but Clint thinks there was maybe the hint of a smile, the faintest glimpse of a crack in the façade, and he is pretty sure that Phil knows exactly what he's talking about.
"Okay, so… what is this thing?"
"The program was only partway to completion. I'm under the impression that what we're looking for is a snakeshark."
"That should be fairly self-explanatory."
"Who the hell," asks Clint, beginning to rifle through his drawers, "thought combining a snake and a shark was a good idea? I mean, seriously. What the fuck."
"Are you saying you're not up for it?"
Clint snorts. He's up for anything. Finally, he finds what he's looking for – the key to the gun safe. Not that it's necessary, really; no one lives close enough to him to make it worth their while to rip off his weapons collection, but hey, better safe than sorry, and if there's one thing Clint Barton's learned from the living he makes, it's that there's always reason to account for stupid people.
He opens the safe, pulls out a couple of his favourites. Phil, beside him, says calmly, "I have this," and draws out a handgun Clint spotted ages ago and didn't think it was a good idea to mention. Now that it's out in the open, though, it's okay to do what he's been wanting to do ever since he first noticed it.
Phil gives him a look.
"Oh, come on," he says. "Do you seriously think you're going out hunting anything with that? Maybe at the Pentagon or wherever you're from, but not out here."
"Do you have a better suggestion?"
"Depends," says Clint. "Can you handle one of these?"
The shotgun he tosses to Phil is a knock-off Remington import with a super magnum chamber and a custom Picatinny rail instead of iron sights.
"This is illegal," Phil comments, catching the gun and flipping it deftly around so that its muzzle is pointed toward the floor (okay, yeah, Clint thinks, he can handle it, all right). "How did you even get this?"
"You gonna ask me questions," Clint shoots back, chambering a round in his own gun, "or are we gonna go and do some 'investigating?'"
He barely knows this guy. He's not about to start talking histories with him, and even if he were, he wouldn't be about to start talking this history. There are reasons Clint owns paramilitary weapons, and he suspects they're the kind of thing that would get him in about as much trouble as this snakeshark thing is in now.
"I'll table it for now," says Phil, and Clint nods. "Hawkeye – "
"Clint," he volunteers, without entirely knowing why he's doing it. "It's Clint."
"Clint," amends Phil, and the snick-snick of his shotgun ratcheting in the late afternoon sun is unmistakeable, "we're going to bag ourselves a snakeshark."
"Aye, aye, sir," says Clint, and he even holds the door for the G-man on their way out. "'The one that got away,' my ass."
It turns out it's not as much fun as Clint was hoping it would be. He's had this idea in his head of actually going and getting shit done, like, in the woods with guns and manly honour and stuff. What happens instead is that they take Phil's SUV down to the science labs, maybe an hour's drive because the car can't travel properly on what passes for roads around Kipahigan.
Clint's bored before they even pull away from the lake. "Aren't we supposed to be, you know, hunting this thing?"
"We are," says Phil. "This is how I do things."
"The boring way?"
Apparently, they're going to interview the lab staff and find out what happened and what exactly was released ("escaped," Clint corrects, and Phil says, "You have no idea what went on," and Clint says, "Yeah, I do, I've seen The X-Files," and Phil says, "You can stop comparing this to science fiction gone wrong anytime," and Clint says, "You're just mad because you're Scully," and Phil says, "I'm pretty sure I would be Mulder," and Clint says, "You just keep telling yourself that," and Phil taps his fingers against the barrel of the shotgun he's holding and Clint shuts up real fast).
The facility is damn near deserted when they arrive. There's one dirt-streaked, canvas-covered Jeep parked crookedly on the grass clearing, driver's side door hanging open like someone's made a too-hasty exit; other than that, there's no sign that the lab buildings are even in use.
Clint exchanges a significant look with Phil, but knows better than to say anything.
Phil doesn't say a word either, just shifts his grip on the shotgun so that it only occupies one hand, then uses the other to dig into the inside pocket of his suit jacket and retrieve a little white plastic card. It turns out that the set of heavy metal doors set deep into the concrete wall of the building has a keypad and a swipe thingy beside it, and Phil's card lets them in.
"What's the code to get into a top-secret snakeshark facility?" Clint asks.
With a long-suffering sigh, Phil says, "One-two-three-four-five."
"Unfortunately," Phil says, pulling the door shut behind them. "Security appears to have grown somewhat lax in the depths of the Canadian backcountry."
Clint shrugs. "Yeah, I mean, hey, they have a snakeshark, right? Create the world's best predator, it's not like you need to worry about locks on your doors."
"Locks aren't made just to keep things out," Phil points out as they round a corner and he knocks on a nondescript wooden door.
"Hey, wait, what?" Clint asks. "I thought we were sneaking in here."
"I swiped in on a government ID and entered a keycode," says Phil. "What gave you the impression we were doing something illicit?"
"I just…" but then the door opens and Clint's saved from having to try to explain his nineteen-fifties science-fiction logic.
The woman who welcomes them in is older – Clint's guessing late middle age – and has worry lines that trace along her face and deepen the weariness in her expression. Phil greets her by name ("Moira, nice to see you again," "Phil, it's been years,") and she guides them down a long, white corridor to the genome splicing lab.
"Where is everyone?" Phil asks, and Clint's overly-dramatic whisper of, "It's quiet. Too quiet," earns him an impressive glare.
"Packed up and left," Moira reports. "No one wants to be associated with this kind of mistake. The lead scientist on the project will never be funded again."
"Who was the lead scientist?"
Phil looks like he wants to say something in response to that, but Moira swings open a laboratory door and gestures them inside, already only half paying attention to them.
"Not coming?" Clint asks, following Phil through the door, and she shakes her head.
"Brian should be able to tell you anything you need."
There's only one other person in the lab, and it's a kid who can't be out of school yet, there's no way, he's like three feet tall and ten years old or something. Clint says something to that effect before Phil can realize he's about to talk and shut him up, and he gets a glare off the kid that's nearly as good as the ones Phil has been giving him.
"Yeah, in what, dog years?"
"Clint." And Phil inserts himself neatly between his companion and the kid sitting at the laboratory bench, and Clint discovers that, despite his casual attitude back at the cabin, Phil is pretty damn good at interrogation when he wants to be.
In fact, Clint is a little terrified.
The kid is a lot terrified, and most of his answers fall somewhere along the lines of yes, sir and well, I – I suppose you could call it a snakeshark, sir and yes, I was a member of the project and well, no, we had assumed our security measures were adequate. That last one comes right around the time Phil finds out the snakeshark doesn't have a GPS tracker implanted and nobody knows where it might be, and that comes right after Phil finds out that nobody really knows the full extent of the snakeshark's capabilities, how big it can grow, or what it might do out on its own in the wild. Which comes right after Phil finds out that yes, the snakeshark can and does show hostility to humans.
"What were you thinking?" Phil demands in disbelief, and the kid in the too-long lab coat stares helplessly at him.
"My partner is phrasing that a little wrong," Clint says, stepping in front of Phil and facing down the kid himself. "What he means is, what the hell were you thinking?"
The kid just shakes his head. "I was – it was – it wasn't supposed to be like this," he protests frantically. "We didn't know!"
"You – " Phil begins, but they're cut off by a crash and a scream and before either of them knows what they're doing, they're both running out into the corridor, skidding around the corner to Moira's office where Clint comes to a dead stop and Phil nearly crashes into his shoulder.
They both stand there, shotguns gripped tight (Phil's right hand, Clint's left), staring at the scene of destruction in front of them. There's blood in the hallway, blood and water and an overturned cart of laboratory glassware with its former contents spattered across the wall. Phil calls, "Moira!" and from behind them where they've already forgotten him the kid shouts, "Dr. Kinross!" and Clint holds his silence, listening to the echoes of the words as they die down into stillness, unanswered.
Phil and Clint look at one another for a long moment, then turn to the only remaining (only surviving) scientist on the project.
"Well, kid," says Clint, and he claps a hand down on one trembling shoulder, "the way I see it, you got two choices now. One, you stay here and hope to hell we catch this thing before it comes back around and kills all of us. Or two," and he sends a significant look at Phil.
"Two," says Phil, "you come with us."
"Do I get a gun?"
"Hell, no," they both answer in unison.
It's late by the time they leave the building, walking bunched-up close together like that's going to save them if they're attacked by something. It seems to make the kid feel better, though; he's less jumpy, and Clint – well.
That's a part of Clint's life he's long since buried, but he's out on a strike team mission (if you can call it a strike team: one fed, one scrawny kid in a lab coat and one man who isn't willing to admit that he has callouses on the trigger fingers of both hands and a tattoo high up on his shoulder that only partially hides the scar of a large-calibre bullet) and if he's flinging himself out into the unknown with only a gun and his wits about him, then let's just say he feels a hell of a lot better having a handler.
Not that stuffed-shirt G-man Phil is his handler. But the guy knows how to carry a weapon, and Clint supposes he'll do.
They breathe a little easier when they get to Phil's SUV, its long black shadow stretching out across the clearing to swallow their feet and quicken their pace a little. Clint's in the front, Phil's driving, and the kid – Brian, Clint reminds himself, Brian Braddock, but it's a lot easier just to think of him as 'kid' – is perched in the middle of the back seat, like he thinks the snakeshark might get him if he sits too close to the locked doors. Clint considers, for a minute or two, telling him he's sitting in the ejector seat, but Phil's probably psychic or something (damn, he would make a good handler), because the glare he gives Clint stops the words before they're even out of his mouth.
"Okay, so where are we gonna find this thing?" Clint asks.
"Uh," says Brian. "In the lake, probably. It moves just fine on land – like a snake, a really fast snake – but it definitely likes the water better."
"In the lake," Phil says flatly. "In the lake, where it moves even faster than on land. Where we can't see it. Where we're going to have to find it."
Clint lets the silence stretch on for a minute while Brian fidgets in the back seat, then gives up on any pretence of restraint and mutters, "We're gonna need a bigger boat."
It's worth it for the look on Phil's face.
As it happens, they take the biggest boat they've got, which is Clint's fibreglass fishing boat. Phil produces his sunglasses out of nowhere; Clint rolls his eyes and points out that it's mid-evening, and Phil doesn't answer, but the sunglasses vanish again when Clint isn't looking. The shadows of the trees are reaching out across the water as he yanks the outboard motor to life and the boat jerks into motion, nearly tumbling the kid off his seat in the bow, while Phil, on the wide bench in the stern, barely flinches.
"You know," Clint says meditatively as they speed away from the shore, "if we have to be in a real-life B movie, there could at least be topless co-eds or something."
Brian pipes up with a grin, "I can take my shirt off, if you really want."
Phil's deadly look is put to excellent use on the kid, whose jaw snaps shut so fast Clint can hear it.
Ten or so minutes later, they're well out into the middle of the lake when Phil's suddenly on his feet and taking aim and firing, and Clint goes, "Holy shit, easy, soldier," and the look he gets tells him that he's revealed more about them both than he intended, but Phil nods and lowers his gun.
"I saw something."
"Yeah, I got that."
"What," and the kid's eyes are enormous, voice shaky from the other end of the boat, "the fuck."
"Saw something," Phil repeats, because the kid is not a government agent or a soldier or a bait shop owner, and he can be afforded a little gentleness.
There's no snakeshark carcass floating up to the surface of the water, though, and nothing breaks the stillness of the lake except the last remaining ripples of the slug Phil has just fired into it, so Clint cuts back to minimal engine power and they follow the line of the shore out into deeper water.
It turns out shortly thereafter that the kid is really good at profanity.
The way they find this out is, Phil turns his back for a split second to reload his shotgun and Clint raises a hand to shade his eyes so that he can look at the setting sun. They're more than a few hundred yards away from shore, enough so that the edges of the trees are burnished gold in the dusk and the cabin on the lake is almost invisible against the shadowed hillside.
Of course, that's when the outboard motor sputters once, twice, then dies.
Clint is pretty good at profanity, too.
When they've both finished cursing, Clint watches the hollows of Phil's face deepen – not just with worry, but with the fading light. The sun sets late in the northern summer, but when it goes, it goes quickly, and now Clint's the one who's worried.
"Um," he says.
"If you're about to tell me," Phil says, "that we're stranded in the middle of a lake with a snakeshark and it's getting dark and you're out of ideas, don't."
"Um," Clint says again. "A snakeshark that knows we're hunting it."
"Oh, good," is Phil's answer. "Any other good news for me while you're at it?"
Clint thinks about the fact that his fishing boat is old and may have a slow leak; he thinks about the fact that they have only the two guns and they're not exactly carrying a stash of ammunition; he thinks about the fact that they have neither food nor water in the boat, because this was a brief reconnaissance trip before they called it quits for the night. He lets his eyes slide from Phil's, full of comprehension of their situation, to the kid's, wide open and clueless, and shakes his head. "No," he says, "I think that about covers it for now."
"So what do we do?" The kid's voice is high and a little desperate, and even without the savvy to catch onto everything Clint and Phil aren't saying, he can tell they're in a pretty goddamned bad position right now. Not that anything that involves 'stranded' and 'dark' and 'snakeshark' can really be expected to be anything but.
The sun slips below the horizon, the sky's a breathtaking shade of purple as the light goes, and Clint swallows grimly, watching the faint ripple of the water.
"We keep watch," Phil says firmly, his voice calm and even and the opposite of everything that Brian's is. "We'll take turns, one of us awake while the other two sleep, and if we see anything, it's shoot first, ask questions later."
"Looks like you're gonna get your wish, kid," Clint deadpans. "You get a gun."
There's more than half a moon, thank God, because it's black as pitch out here and while Clint normally appreciates that feature of living in the middle of goddamn nowhere, tonight, he could really take it or leave it.
They gave the kid first watch, he and Phil, mostly because it was so early no one was going to sleep and that way, they could keep an eye out for themselves (and an eye on what Brian did with a shotgun, which was, thankfully, nothing). Now it's probably sometime after midnight and he's asleep in the bow of the boat, Clint sitting amidships staring out into the shadows, Phil at the stern with his shotgun at the ready. He's on watch, not that it really matters; Clint suspects that neither of them plans to sleep tonight.
"So what brings a man like you to a place like Kipahigan?"
Clint could almost tell himself he's imagined the question, soft as Phil's voice is when he asks and unlikely as it is that he's asking at all. He could tell himself that, but the truth is, he's already trying to formulate an answer that won't get him arrested or dragged off for some government thing he doesn't want to think about.
"What's that supposed to mean?" He's on his guard, remembering a swipe card and a keycode and a calm familiarity with a gun that's definitely not government standard-issue. Phil knows more than he should about a lot of things, and suddenly Clint's not so sure he isn't one of them.
Phil shrugs, easy movement that rolls off his shoulders. Even in the faint light from the moon, Clint can see taut muscles underneath the fabric of his shirt. This guy is a paper-pusher about as much as Clint is a backcountry guide, which is to say he wears it well but there are cracks in his disguise just like there are in Clint's.
"I like the quiet," Clint tells him. It's a half-truth that's served him well before, covering up deeper reasons that have nothing to do with the quiet and everything to do with the fact that there's no one else out here to notice his tattoo or his scars, to question his training regimen or his hyperactive reflexes, to call attention to his collection of guns and bows and arrows and, somewhere in a dusty box under a floorboard, maybe a few medals he'd like to forget he ever earned.
There's no one here who will know the story behind the code name Hawkeye, and if there were, they'd keep it to themselves, because Kipahigan is a place where secrets stay buried.
Phil is looking at him in the moonlight, and there's a strange kind of smirk tugging at the corners of his mouth. "I like the quiet, too."
"In kind of the wrong line of work for that, aren't you?" Clint hazards, because he wants to push.
Now Phil really is smirking, broadly and at Clint's expense entirely. "This is quiet for me," he says, and even though he's passing it off as an amused comment, Clint takes it and readjusts his view of the man in the suit a little more.
They switch when Phil shivers and reaches for his jacket. It gets pretty damn cold in Kipahigan, even in the summer, and Clint is a lot more used to it than Phil, so he takes over the watch. Not that it's much more than a formality; they're still both staying awake, still both watching the glimmer of the stars over the surface of the water.
"There's a legend they tell around here," Clint murmurs, keeping his gaze trained on the lake. "That at the bottom of the lake is the house of the Great Serpent, and that he stole the cousin of Nanabozho, the hero. So Nanabozho banished the wind and the clouds and ordered the sun to shine until the lake boiled."
There's a pause. Clint figures if Phil's going to laugh at him, he may as well do it now, but there's no sound from beside him, so he keeps talking. "He disguised himself as a tree and hid on the shore with his bow and arrows until the Serpent had to leave the lake. Then, when the Serpent was sleeping, he drew an arrow and shot it through the heart."
"Yeah. Well, not right away. First it killed his cousin and the whole world flooded and stuff, but after that, the Great Serpent was dead and the evil spirits never dared to leave the lake again."
"Right." Clint can see that Phil's suppressing a smile, and for some reason, it makes him want to smile, the idea that there's something behind that stoic façade and that Clint, if he tries, can maybe get to it.
"So did you bring a bow and arrows?" Phil asks, and Clint's pretty sure he's not intending it as a serious question. After all, they're equipped with modern shotguns, all the bells and whistles, and it's obvious they both know how to use them.
But the question is less tongue-in-cheek than Phil probably means, because Clint gestures to the bow of the boat. "Got a set in stowage." They won't be in great condition – Clint only checks them every couple of weeks, instead of twice daily like the rest of his collection – but at least he knows they're there in case he wants to feel the familiar curve of the bow under his hands, nock an arrow or two against this snakeshark thing.
Something catches his eye; just a shadow, maybe a trick of the light, he doesn't know. But Clint's no rookie solder, so he tightens his grip on his shotgun, pulls back the slide and flicks off the safety.
"See something?" Phil asks, voice pitched low as he shucks his suit jacket again and hefts his gun. The kid is still asleep.
"Thought I did." Clint's not taking his eyes off the spot in the water where the ripples might still have been just a figment of his imagination. He doesn't think so, though, and –
– suddenly it doesn't matter because the thing lunges at them from the water, crashing down onto the boat like a ton of soaking wet bricks and then they're underwater for a second, listing so far to one side that the boat takes great gulps of the lake before it rights itself, and thank God Clint went for the stupid, double-hulled semi-flat design, or they'd be so much shark bait in the lake right now.
The silence is so sudden that Clint thinks for a second his ears have stopped working. He realizes his hearing is just fine when he catches a faint groan from behind him in the waterlogged boat, turns so quickly he sends a bucketful of lake cascading over the side, and sees Phil sitting in the thwart-high water trying to hold shut a gaping wound in his shoulder, and shit, Clint knows shoulder wounds intimately and they're never good.
"C'mere," he says, sloshing over to Phil's seat, "come on, let me look, let me see." He's trying to peer around Phil's hand without moving it, because if Phil lets go, things are going to be a whole lot worse. The slash looks deep, ragged; even with Phil's vise grip on it, it's spilling blood over his white shirt, glistening darkly between his fingers, and Clint already knows he's not going to last long this way.
Then Phil asks, "Where's Brian?"
There's a long moment where an answer would go if Clint had one.
Somehow, Clint finds himself alternating between bailing out the boat and stopping to check on Phil, talking all the while as he does, trying to keep the older man awake through shock and blood loss and the freezing cold of being thrown into the lake in the middle of a northern Canadian night. It's really, really not a good combination, and by the time the boat is some vague approximation of dry enough, Phil's curled up on the centre thwart with his skin waxy, lips blue, shirt nearly half crimson-stained. They made a weak attempt at applying a tourniquet using Phil's tie, but shoulders don't lend themselves well to that sort of thing, and so Phil's hand is still clutched across his chest, pressing the fabric of Clint's balled-up T-shirt to the wound.
Clint's trying to convince himself he's fine in just Phil's ill-fitting suit jacket. He's not; he's freezing, but it's no worse than it would have been in his sodden T-shirt, and he's a hell of a lot better off than Phil. There's been no sign of the snakeshark since the attack. Clint figures it probably slunk off somewhere to chow down on the kid.
Phil winces when he says it, but there's no point in trying to spare anyone's feelings. The kid's gone, and it's not like he's going to come swimming back.
Worse news, the shotguns are gone, too, and they're sure as hell not coming back. Clint reckons they went over the side when the thing hit the boat; he hasn't told Phil yet, despite his need to fill the silences with words, because that's the last thing Phil needs to be worrying about right now. What he has done is haul his bow out from the stowage locker, along with every arrow he could find, including a few that are probably illegal. (Making stupid trick arrows is kind of a hobby of Clint's in the winter and most laws don't mean much this far away from civilization.) It's not much, but it's better than going up against a snakeshark unarmed.
Finally, he puts down the bailer (fancy term for something that's really just a chopped-up milk jug), and pauses in his flow of conversation to go, "Phil. Hey, Phil – talk to me – " because Phil's eyes are closed and his breathing is shallow and Clint has seen this before (not here, but far away on battlefields he'll deny ever having fought on), and " – shit, Phil, come on, stay with me – "
"Cold…" Phil manages through chattering teeth, and yeah, no shit.
"Okay," says Clint, because he knows how to deal with this, has practice with Canadian winters and idiot eco-tourists who think they know everything about thin ice. "Okay, okay, come here." And he peels Phil's soaked shirt from his body, careful around the shoulder where they have to take the pressure off the wound for a fraction of a second and a fresh trail of blood snakes down Phil's side. He gets Phil's shoes and socks as well, then takes the blood-stained T-shirt away and folds up the button-down into a new makeshift dressing to press against the gash.
"I think it's starting to close up," he says, which is not only a lie but probably medically impossible, but either way, Phil meets his eyes briefly as if to acknowledge the reasons behind the comment, and Clint suddenly realizes that if anyone is on thin ice right now, it's him.
And then Phil's whole body shudders, and Clint lets the borrowed suit jacket fall from his shoulders and wraps his arms around Phil, curls in behind him and shares as much of his warmth as he can.
There won't be any sleep for Clint tonight, despite the fact that he's soaked to the bone and exhausted. Someone's got to keep watch, even if it's a bleary-eyed gaze out at the water with his bow drawn and balanced wearily over Phil's shoulder just in case.
Clint isn't sure he could get to sleep like this even if he tried. There's a deadly snakeshark out there somewhere that knows now just how easy it is to pick them off one by one. There's a chill night wind blowing over the lake. There's a nagging hint of fear at the edge of his brain, because Phil's not getting any warmer and the night's not getting any warmer and somewhere in between thoughts of hypothermia and bleeding out and what if snakesharks are poisonous, he's starting to realize that he's really not okay with this. And then there's Phil, pressed skin-to-skin with him, shivering in his sleep and making soft, involuntary sounds, and it gives him a hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach, because Phil may have been a cookie-cutter G-man on a mission when he showed up at Clint's door, but, well.
That thought rattles around in Clint's head for a while, bouncing off his most stubborn corners and refusing to settle, because he is very carefully avoiding thinking about where it came from or what it means. It rattles, and Clint's head starts swimming a little (damn, so maybe he's not doing so hot himself either, but at least he's still ahead of Phil). His vision's kind of going a little ripply at the edges, until he realizes that it's actually the lake that's rippling, not his sight, and then he's bolt upright in a flash, trying to clear his mind enough to formulate some kind of a plan.
The snakeshark is back, and now Phil Coulson's blood is in the water.
"Phil," he shakes the shivering figure on the centre thwart back to consciousness, "Phil, I need you to wake up for a sec, c'mon." He's got to get Phil to the back of the boat, got to tuck him away there under the suit jacket – only cover they've got – so that it might not spot him right away. Clint can still picture where Brian was sitting, and if the snakeshark got the kid that easily, Clint's not placing any bets on Phil's safety if it sees him.
With Phil stashed away in the stern, Clint's free to lie along the gunwales, arrow nocked, bow drawn, and peer into the water. The disturbance he saw in the water was definitely off to starboard, no way he mistook it (after all, the code name he never had was Hawkeye for a reason), so where the hell is the damn thing?
Clint ought to know better than to ask questions like that, because that's the exact moment the snakeshark bursts out of the water inches from his face, jaws slamming shut so close that the denticled skin scrapes over Clint's forehead and suddenly he's bleeding into one eye. It's way too close for Clint's bow to be any good, and so it's pure reflex (coolest goddamn reflex Clint has ever had; he's going to be telling the whole world about this if he survives the next thirty seconds) that he slings his bow over one elbow, draws back and –
– punches the snakeshark right in its fucking eye.
"Smile, you son of a bitch!" And while he's glorying in that, the ability to quote Jaws twice in a single day and the fact that he just punched a snakeshark in the eye, he's reaching for the quiver tied to the stern thwart, pulling out an arrow – not just any arrow; this is one of Clint Barton's midwinter specialties – and nocking it for the snakeshark's inevitable return.
He isn't waiting long. The thing glides back around the boat in a wide arc, and now that Clint knows what he's looking for he can track its path in the water like some kind of nightmare training exercise for the army (except he wasn't in the army, no, he's lived here all his life, and there are no scars on his shoulders and no memories of night-time tracking missions). It's coming back, and this time, this time, Clint is fucking ready.
It lines up its approach. Clint draws his bow.
The sinuous ripple of its wake tightens as it picks up speed. Clint's fingers twitch on the bowstring.
It leaps, holy fuck, a snake, shark, thing should not be able to leap out of the water at the boat, and its jaws are wide open and yes, fucking yes, this is perfect, and Clint fires his arrow deep into the creature's mouth and then ducks and rolls because oh shit it's going to come down right on the boat –
– and it does, of course it does, and that's when Clint realizes that he and Phil need to get out of there fast, because the arrow he's chosen, the arrow he fired straight into the snakeshark, was not an ordinary arrow. He needs at least one hand free for swimming if he's going to drag them out of there, so the choice is between letting go of his bow in his left hand or unwrapping his right arm from where it's snug under Phil's arms in a rescue carry.
He lets go of the bow, spits out enough water to yell something useless to an unconscious Phil about taking a deep breath, and pulls them both under the water, farther and farther down until there's a sudden boiling of the water all around them, and then a shockwave that slams into them like ragdolls at the end of days.
When he finds his way back to consciousness, he's drifting on the surface of the lake, walleye and Northern pike belly-up all around him. He can't help it; he starts laughing, heaving in great gulps of air and freezing water until he cough-chokes and tightens his grip on something – not something, Phil, how in the hell is he still holding onto Phil after everything?
"What," Phil manages thickly, and Clint wonders if it's the cold or the shockwave that's revived him, "did you…"
"I blew it up," Clint says, fighting an insane urge to giggle as they cling close to one another under the surface of the water, trying to combat the hypothermia that's already setting it. "I blew it up, Phil, I blew up a goddamn snakeshark!"
Phil huffs out a breath that might almost be the beginning of a how, but Clint shakes his head. "Got to get out of here," he says, "gotta get back to shore." He hasn't asked about Phil's shoulder, terrified to look, but he knows what the damage was before, and a dive into a freezing lake to withstand an explosion (not a small one; Clint gets really bored on eighteen-hour winter nights) will not have done it any favours.
"Can you stay awake for me?" he asks, already pulling them through the water with his free hand. It's lucky he's left-handed, really, and luckier still when Phil, his lips pressed into a thin, grim line to stop his teeth from chattering, shakes his head.
"I doubt it."
"Okay. Okay, that's fine, I've got you. You just… just focus, okay? Try to stay awake. Talk to me."
Phil doesn't say a word and his eyes fall closed only a few seconds later, but Clint can feel his heartbeat against the arm that's still firm around him, and that's enough.
It's the grey morning light that wakes him, or maybe the blue jay screaming overheard, or maybe it's just the fact that he's freezing his ass off on the pine-needle-littered forest floor. Whichever it is, he goes from passed-out to fully-conscious with a jolt, tries to sit up, and realizes his numb arm is trapped.
Phil. Oh, God, Phil.
"Hey," he says, yanking his arm out from under the still form, "wake up, come on, Phil, look, we're not dead, don't make me start mouth-to-mouth, come on…" and then Phil stirs and makes some kind of attempt at a groan, and Clint has possibly never been so relieved in his life.
He gets Phil into a sitting position, back against the rough bark of a jack pine, then checks out his shoulder. It's still bleeding, but sluggish now, thick droplets tracing their way slowly down the skin. It's not a good sign; like the grey cast to his face, like his trembling fingers, like the chill of his skin even under Clint's freezing hands, it means Phil has lost too much blood. Clint is not entirely sure how he's conscious at all, even partway, but he thinks Phil might actually be almost as stubborn a bastard as he is, and the thought makes him crack a smile.
"We need to get back to my place," he says, because Phil needs 911 and medical attention and Clint's is the only phone line for miles.
Phil gives him kind of a resigned smile, words coming with effort as he says, "I'm not sure I can walk."
"You can walk fine," Clint reassures him with false cheer. "Look, we'll just – " He kneels beside Phil, gets an arm around his waist and hauls him to his feet. It's really more 'being dragged' than actually 'walking,' but it gets them moving in the right direction, so it works.
Kipahigan is not a big lake. Clint's cabin is maybe two miles through the woods from where they washed up (along with chunks of snakeshark that Clint is estimating add up to maybe a quarter of it; the rest is probably at the bottom of the lake now, or maybe it'll be food for the grizzly bears). The walk shouldn't take them much more than half an hour, but neither one of them is exactly in fighting condition, and the sun's filtering down to them from high over the trees before they get within sight of Clint's land.
They stop dead.
"Wh's going on?" Phil mumbles from Clint's shoulder. By now, Clint is pretty much carrying him, even though they're both pretending Phil's futile efforts at walking are working just fine. His left arm is holding his right shoulder, trying to keep it from being jostled; his head is on Clint's shoulder, and he's about halfway between conscious and not.
"Uh," says Clint. "You know anyone with a helicopter? Big, black, army-looking thing?"
"That," says Phil, and he's smiling faintly again, "would be my boss."
And, okay, Clint is understandably wary of secret government helicopters and the military on his front lawn and whatever the hell else is going on right now, but it's not like they're here by coincidence, so he figures he might as well take advantage of their presence. He steps out from between the trees, into full view, and shouts, "You want to give me a hand over here?" in the direction of the nearest suit-clad secret-agent type.
After that, he isn't really sure what happens. They take Phil and leave Clint standing at the edge of the clearing, and he catches glimpses of foil blankets and medkits and God knows what else, and then they're loading him onto the helicopter, saying something about 'hospital' and 'fluid resuscitation' and 'New York,' and that's when Clint's brain finally kicks back in and he yells over the sound of the chopper's rotor, "Wait a minute, New York?"
They look at him like they have no idea what he's still doing here, and he has a vague urge to remind them that he lives here, that it's his boat launch they're standing on, that it's his cabin their helicopter is practically shredding with its blades. Instead, he just yells, "You can't take him to New York!"
The goon nearest him, black suit and squiggly earpiece thing in his ear like a bad spy movie, squints at him in confusion, but the tall, black man off to one side is giving Clint a curiously appraising look (through one eye, because he's wearing an eyepatch and who does that?). He whispers something to the woman beside him, and she asks, "Where's the nearest fully-equipped hospital?"
"Fifty miles south of here."
"Get in," and behind her, the man with the eyepatch jerks his thumb at the chopper.
They don't have to ask him twice.
There's an awful lot of Specialist Barton over the next few days, because these people are the government or something else equally shady, and they have ways of finding out the things Clint would rather keep hidden. Clint's "that's not my name" response becomes automatic. That isn't his life anymore, hasn't been in years and didn't end well the first time, so he is not eager to have that designation tagged to his name ever again. They leave him alone, eventually, and he wanders the halls, tries to clean up at the sink of a too-small, iodine-and-rubbing-alcohol-scented bathroom, and pretends there's a legitimate reason for him to be there.
Phil wakes up on the third afternoon and it's the first time someone's called him 'Clint' in days, so he's more grateful than he can say. They go over what happened, a little at a time because Clint's first summary ("I punched it in the eye and then I shot it") is deemed 'insufficient' and Phil can't keep his eyes open long enough for the full version of the story all at once. They go over some other stuff as well; Clint says, "I used to be a soldier," and Phil says, "I figured that out," and Clint says, "Not anymore," and Phil says, "I know." Clint walks in a few times on Phil having strained conversations with Mister Eyepatch, and then Phil's up and walking around and wearing his featureless government persona again.
Clint can't exactly decide how he feels about that.
He should maybe have been expecting the question, but he wasn't, and when they spring it on him, he's completely caught off-guard.
"Would you like to work for the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division?"
"I'm not a soldier."
"And we're not the military. Not even close."
He looks helplessly at Phil, who is standing by the door in a suit and tie, ready to go back to New York or wherever it is he's really from. Phil looks back at him, deadpan, but when the silence stretches on too long, he says, "I've already signed on to be your handler if you agree."
Well. Okay, that makes things a little different.
"Can I keep the bow and arrows?"
The corner of Phil's mouth lifts in the barest hint of a smile.
Clint figures he might as well give it a shot.
The cabin at the Kipahigan has been abandoned for a few months now that its owner lives full-time in New York working for the government. There are weeds starting to grow over the dirt surface of the boat launch, and the targets hanging from the nearest trees are cracking and peeling with disuse.
Nobody notices, then, when something white washes up at the edge of the launch, right where the grass disappears into a maze of tall cattails and rushes. Nobody bothers to go and investigate, so nobody finds what remains of Brian Braddock.
And nobody looks a little closer, so nobody sees, hidden in the weeds where a lifeless hand twitches just slightly in the current, a tough outer casing with a half-dozen pale, perfectly-formed eggs inside.