Polaroids of the two of us
Scattered on the passenger seat
I drove slowly and evenly
And I dream about home - John Darnielle
Clint is sitting hidden in the tall prairie grass. The time of year has reached where it’s as yellow and frayed at the ends as his hair. It’s ideal weather: chilly but not too windy outside. Barney won't nag him about ticks or catching cold. He buries his fists into the thick bases of grass stalks, and leans back on them to look upwards.
The sun has set but the sky is still a clear azure despite a haze of the moon peeking through. Scattered across the heavens are a few muted pinpricks of light that will soon turn into whole constellations. Clint doesn’t know all of them yet, but his big brother has promised him that soon he will. For now, he knows only one: the Big Dipper, which has the most important star at the end of the spoon – the North Star. Barney has told him that that’s all you need to travel the world and find your way back home again too.
A gust of wind ruffles his hair and brings along with it the feeling that someone is close by. He gets to his feet, brushes his hands off on his jeans, and scans the field. Nobody ever sneaks up on him except-
Barney is on top of him and pinning his arms to the ground with a wicked grin. Clint squirms to get free, but it’s no use. Barney is four years older and his weight always wins out in the end, not that Clint would ever admit it. When he’s finally given up his struggle, he yells, “Truce!”
Barney lets up immediately. He always does when he needs to sign something.
“Mom made dinner tonight.”
Clint smiles. He signs “Race you!” and bolts before his brother can even process it. The wind beats against his skin as he runs with his arms outstretched like a baby bird learning to fly.
Bruce’s parents are fighting again. It’s always worse in the summer because being a professor gives him three months off to drink and scream at anyone who looks at him funny. The one good thing he ever did was buying Bruce a bicycle for Christmas this year, although the neighbor kids were the ones who taught him how to ride it. If Bruce is quiet enough, he can get away on his bike without his dad even noticing that he’s gone.
The suburbs of Dayton are green and brown in June. Wild, dry yards held back only by chain link fences edge onto hot black asphalt. Dogs bark at him as he rolls past, gravel skittering beneath his wheels. Above him, storm clouds block out the sky, promising days of rain that will plummet temperatures and limit his freedom. Bruce hasn’t yet figured out how to steady his bike in a downpour.
He rides down a hill, wind blowing through his shaggy hair for the first time that afternoon, and takes a sharp turn left to pull in to the local 7-11. He has four dollars in his pocket, an apology for the last time he got hit, and it’s the perfect day to sit around and drink a Slurpee.
The inside of the shop is cool; the hair on his arms rises in goose bumps after the heat of the weather outside. He makes a beeline for the Slurpee machine, pulls out the largest cup, and squirts blue slush into it. This is the first summer that he’s been tall enough to work the handle for himself, and it makes him overzealous every time. He lets go in enough time that it doesn’t completely overflow, but not enough that the juice doesn’t drip all the way down onto the cup and his hand. Bruce doesn’t bother wiping off the side when he grabs his cap. Making a mess of it is half the fun anyway.
“Hey, Bruce,” says the cashier as he approaches. “Same as usual?”
“Hey, Lenny. Yeah, the same. Maybe a pack of gum too? Dad gave me four dollars.”
Lenny gives him a look of concern as he scans Bruce’s items. “Last time he gave you three.”
“Summertime makes him generous,” says Bruce, sliding the dollar bills onto the counter. “Can I sit on the bench outside for a while?” He grabs his Slurpee and pockets his gum.
“Sure. Just take care, alright?”
The heat outside smacks him in the face like walking into a brick wall. He tongues the straw into his mouth, and hoists himself up on the rubber-coated bench next to the bike rack. The seat burns his legs a little but his drink is cold and it’s quiet here so it’s an ok tradeoff.
He hates having to go home on days like today when it seems possible that he could pedal indefinitely towards permanent freedom, tongue blue and spirit free. However, Bruce is old enough now to know that isn’t really an option yet, and it’s no use spending too much time thinking about it. He closes his eyes, takes another sip, and tries to enjoy the last few hours of quiet summer before the rain comes.
The closest foster home the agency can find after their parents die is in the suburbs of Madison, Wisconsin, and Clint hates it. When he lived out in the country, it was so easy to run for miles until his dad forgot his anger in exhaustion. Here, there are no endless fields and no visible stars. His new ‘parents’ treat him and Barney like troublemakers when they talk to each other in sign language. The sky is constantly grey, which matches the way he feels inside. The only reason to even live is that Barney is still alive.
One night, Clint wakes up to a fully clothed Barney poking him in the face.
“Ow!” Clint cries before Barney covers his mouth with his hand. He shakes his head no, and takes his hand away.
Clint sits up and stretches his arms. “Barney, why are you in your clothes?”
Barney throws Clint’s coat at him. “We’re leaving. Tonight.”
“Where are we going?”
“Anywhere. Far away from here.”
He holds out his hand, looking more serious than Clint has seen him since their parents’ funeral. Clint takes it without hesitation. The warmth of his brother’s palm is enough of a promise that everything will be ok.
Bruce is sitting alone in his aunt’s station wagon, eyes glazed and cup of coffee in hand. He’s in the town library parking lot with the car idling in park. The radio isn’t tuned to the correct station so that the music it emits is full of static. This is not an accident; Bruce set it to fit the mood. The sky has set his perception off-kilter and it’s nice to have something alongside him that sounds like he feels.
He looks out of his window and up at the sky. It’s grey-white with no visible sun, same as the last four days and nights. The color is oppressive, sickening. It is as if an enormous pillowcase is suffocating Madison, Indiana. Soon it will be eradicated off of the map and Bruce Banner along with it.
Nobody sees what he sees. They all go about their lives on days like today as if everything is fine. He did too, once. Maybe his mother’s murder opened up his inner eye; maybe he’s going insane like his father. He swishes his coffee around in its cup and takes another sip. It’s gone cold. He puts it in the cup holder, buckles up, and puts the car in drive. It’s warm enough to sulk at the park, and he’s got an hour left before nightfall.
In December the town had looked like a winter wonderland, but no more. February winters brought dirty ice so that people could drive their cars and go on with their lives as if the weather wasn’t telling them to stop. The car fishtails on several sharp turns he takes, but that doesn’t concern him much anymore. Driving on ice started out nerve-wracking, but Bruce is numb to the danger now.
Bruce arrives at the park and idles his car. It’s as muddy and cold as everywhere else is. No children are playing on the swings or laughing. He was certain a playground would have some ray of light that would pull him out of this miserable state where he drives aimlessly from place to place, running the gas tank until it’s empty and never actually going anywhere. There is nothing that will fix him; there is nowhere to go. Nothing will be right until there is sunshine again.
He puts his car in drive, and sets out to go home. Maybe tomorrow will be different.
It’s surprisingly hot in North Dakota in August. Clint’s fingers sweat when he pulls his bowstring taut, and it’s causing his technique to falter. He’s tried using chalk like the acrobats do, but the Swordsman caught him and took it away with a murderous look on his face. Cheating in any way is unacceptable under his employ, so for now Clint has to learn to make the best of sweaty hands.
The Swordsman is a good teacher. Even during the dog days of summer, Clint can hit his mark every time. He pressures Clint to be better, more. A decent performance is no longer a cause for celebration. The Swordsman wants him to be the best, to outstrip the masters. Though his praise is infrequent, the cheers from the carnival audience are enough to prove that Clint has become a star.
Clint is basking in the glow of performance behind the tent one hot summer night. He’s removed his mask and much of his costume to see if the wind will wick away any of his sweat. So far it hasn’t, but it’s nice to not be wearing so many layers anyway. He feels free on the edges of these small towns, unafraid that people will judge him for how he behaves or what his past is. It’s just him, his performances, the vast, sprawling prairie, and the sky. Clint is fifteen but he feels endless, as much a part of the landscape as the yearly blizzards and the miles of sunflowers they pass by as they move from town to town, never staying anywhere too long.
The lights go out underneath the tent, and the Swordsman emerges from underneath it. He walks over to Clint and, surprisingly, sits down so close that their knees are almost touching.
“It’s too light out to sleep,” he says, lips close to Clint’s ear. His hearing has gotten considerably better over the years, but it’s still nice that the Swordsman is considerate. “I can see the sun through the blinds. Whoever came up with a ten PM sunset never heard of a five AM alarm.” He throws his arm around Clint’s shoulder. “It was a good show tonight, eh Hawkeye?”
When he touches Clint this way, in training or in familiarity, it always makes it a little hard for him to focus. His hands are warm and his fingers are long enough to wrap around Clint’s whole arm. “Yeah it was good,” says Clint after he catches his breath. “I thought Sally did really nice on the trapeze-“
“Aw, c’mon Hawkeye. No need to be shy. The audience loved you the most.”
This is the closest to praise he ever gets from the Swordsman. He feels his cheeks flush pink. “Yeah, they did.”
They sit there together in silence and watch as the sky fades from yellow to pink to black. The moon appears, full tonight, and a few stars make their way onto the scene before Clint speaks again.
“You’re really missing out, going to bed so early. You never get to see the stars.”
The Swordsman laughs. “When I was young like you, I saw plenty of stars.”
“It’s weird to think of you as young,” says Clint.
“Nonsense. I’m eternally twenty.” He squeezes Clint’s arm a little too tight, a warning to drop the subject. Clint can read the Swordsman so well, his guided touches, his facial expressions. He is not an open or a kind man, but he is the mentor Clint always needed and Clint wants to please him more than anything.
“When me and Barney were kids, our parents lived way out in the country and we saw stars like this. After they died it was a long time before we saw them again.”
“This is your life now. You never have to go back.”
Clint turns his head, and sees how close the Swordsman’s face is to his own. His eyelashes are so long. It would be so easy to just-
The Swordsman closes the gap. He kisses Clint softly and strokes his cheek with his thumb. Clint reciprocates, confused desire consummated with his first kiss. Then he’s on his back underneath the Swordsman, the grass crunching beneath them as they touch each other hungrily. Clint can see the North Star shining bright out of the corner of his eye. It’s telling him that he’s home.
It’s Christmas Eve in Minneapolis, and Bruce has rarely heard the city so quiet. He can still hear muffled conversations from the adjoining apartments in his predominantly Indian complex, but the streets below are silent save for rare cars driving slowly by and distant ambulance sirens. Bruce looks up from his organic chemistry textbook and checks his watch. 1130PM – great timing.
He stands up, stretches, and puts on his coat. There’s a cathedral having a midnight mass a block away that sounds way better than being alone or pretending he’s close to his aunt for Christmas. He pockets his keys, shuts the door, and descends on the stairs fast enough that he can hear the keys jingle happily in time with his steps.
It’s a great evening for walking outside. The sky is dark blue, and light snowfall is decorating the city like a sugar cookie. The cold air tastes clean, and there are so few pedestrians that it makes Bruce feel like the city is all his. As he approaches the church, more people appear on the street. He’s not as dressed up as they are, but he also hasn’t been to Catholic mass in a year and has sinned a lot in the meantime. If he’s going to Hell, wearing jeans to church on Christmas won’t be his hand basket.
The inside of the cathedral is candle-lit and stone. Stained glass images of Christ’s life and death decorate the windows. He crosses himself with Holy Water, kneels before the crucifix, and takes one of the last spaces in a pew in the back. Everyone next to him is praying on their knees, so he follows. He isn’t sure if he believes in God, but on any occasion he is expected to pray, he always prays that his mom is doing ok if there’s any sort of an afterlife.
Organ music begins to reverberate around the church. A choir sings familiar Christmas songs with it. Bruce gets off his knees to sit in the pew. The elderly man next to him already has the hymnbook out and is extending it to Bruce so they can share. Together their voices ring out:
Joy to the world! The Lord is come. Let earth receive her king!
Clint is in bed and staring at a grody motel wall. He’s memorized every inch of it and the ceiling too in the three weeks that he and Barney have been here. Everything hurts; he has a sprained ankle, a concussion, a hair fracture on his rib, and a broken nose. Truth be told, he’d be up and fighting again if the person who cultivated his talents wasn’t the same person who broke him.
Leading him onto a tightrope and then cutting it down. Un-fucking-believable.
Barney walks over to the bed, and drops a letter in front of his face. On the front it simply says S.H.I.E.L.D.
“Put it in a pile with the others,” says Clint glumly. “Or burn it.”
“Clint,” says Barney, sitting down on the bed. “You can’t just refuse to tell S.H.I.E.L.D. how your mission with the Swordsman went forever.”
“Because I know any day now Nick Fury himself is going to come flying through our motel window looking for answers. I don’t want the staff to make us leave.”
Clint sighs loudly, and opens the letter. Rather than an ever-changing telephone number, it’s a note.
You have done well under our employ, but it is becoming too risky to have one of our operatives a constantly moving target. In two days’ time, Phil Coulson will meet you at your place of residence to take you to one of our bases in New Mexico where you will be more formally trained, equipped with better technology, and implanted with tracking equipment. Your readiness and compliance at the time of his arrival will be very appreciated.
He sits up, wincing, and hands the letter to Barney. “You were only half wrong.”
“Count on S.H.I.E.L.D. to be dramatic,” he says after reading it. “You’re a great fit for the organization.”
“You suck, Barney.”
“Make sure you brush your teeth before you say that to Coulson,” signs Barney absentmindedly. Clint’s heart drops to his stomach. He’s going to be on his own for the first time. The private world he and Barney have shared over the past 19 years is due to crumble as they settle into adulthood.
Clint throws his arms around his big brother and doesn’t move away for a very long time.
Bruce’s cross-country drive from Minnesota to Virginia necessitates passing through Ohio. His original intent was to speed through it as fast as possible, but the ‘Welcome to Ohio’ sign puts a lump in his throat as he drives by. He can’t leave the Midwest without visiting his old home one last time.
His hometown hasn’t changed much in the past ten years. Late summer is yellower than June, a reaction to the heat, and more people in his neighborhood have vegetable gardens than he remembered. Not many of his peers left town after they graduated high school or college; some of his peers must own these houses and have families of their own.
He never learned to drive until he left Ohio. It’s strange to be navigating these streets he knows so well in a car rather than on his bicycle. He rolls the window down so that the wind blows through his hair and airs out his car. The heat this time of year is suffocating, and revisiting his old house is making him feel slightly sick.
His childhood home is run down and clearly vacant. One of the windows is blown out, and the siding is covered with dirt and other stains. Several of the trees have the remnants of toilet paper on them. It’s clear that local kids think this house is haunted, and Bruce doesn’t blame them. He parks his car in the driveway, locks it, and tentatively goes inside the house.
It’s as crappy on the inside as it is on the outside. Beer cans are strewn across the living room, and writing has been carved into the floor.
Jeff <3 Brienne
Sally and Jacob 4ever
For a good time call 3458914782
He walks into the kitchen, heart pounding. This is where he found his mom when-
His dad with a bloody knife and a look of shock on his face. A cruel glare at Bruce. 911. Crying. Sirens. His dad being pulled away, screaming. ‘This is your fault you mutant child!’ His mother’s cold body being taken away from him. A lady with a kind face telling him it will be ok. It’s not ok.
It’s not ok. Bruce sinks down against the cabinets and onto the linoleum floor. He allows himself to cry for the first time in years in this dirty house that used to be his.
They all meet at Stark towers in the aftermath of the battle with the Chiutari. Clint tries to sleep like everyone else but realizes after a while that that’s not going to happen. There’s too much adrenaline pumping through his veins for him to sleep now or possibly ever again. He decides to get some fresh air by going up to the roof. There’s a nice view of the city up there, and the air seems cleaner than most of the places in New York City.
When he reaches the rooftop, he’s surprised he’s not alone. Bruce is up there too, sitting with his legs dangling over the edge of the building. He’s staring out at the darkening sky with a thoughtful look on his face.
“Couldn’t sleep?” asks Clint.
Bruce cranes his neck to look at him. “I turn into Hyde at night so I have to watch the sunset away from other people.”
Clint sits down next to him. “Sounds terrible for your sex life.”
The two of them gaze at the setting sun in comfortable silence. Clint swings his legs to and fro, tapping his feet against the edge of the building. He’s been fascinated with Stark towers’s height for a long time. The tricks you could do with a tightrope and the right gymnasts-
“Aren’t you scared you’ll fall? I have the other guy to catch me, but you don’t have any, I dunno, grappling arrows or anything on you.”
“Nah, I have good balance. I grew up as a carnie.”
Bruce laughs. “Really?”
“Six years. We toured all through the Midwest. I was the star of the show. ‘Come see the fabulous Hawkeye’; that’s how S.H.I.E.L.D. found me.”
“That’s so crazy,” says Bruce, his eyes wide. “I saw ads for that show! I was too old for the carnival then but you guys passed through Indiana when I was in high school. Never would have thought it was the same Hawkeye.”
“The one and only,” Clint says, smiling.
“Why did you decide to work for S.H.I.E.L.D.? Touring as the fabulous Hawkeye sounds way better than beating up aliens from an outer space portal.” Bruce squints upward as if he can still see the hole in the sky that was there only hours before.
Clint looks at his feet. “Creative differences.” He’s not a good liar, but Bruce doesn’t press it. “Where in Indiana are you from?”
“I lived in Madison when I was a teenager, but I wasn’t born there. I’m from Ohio.”
“In the city?”
“The suburbs. Moraine. It’s close to Dayton.”
“Why did your family leave?”
It’s Bruce’s turn to look at his feet. “Not my family. Just me. My parents are dead.”
Clint leans backwards to rest his head on the roof. He rests his head on his hands, sighs, and says, “Mine too. Car crash.”
Bruce leans backwards too; the sky is dark now and void of stars but a brilliant crescent moon persists through the light pollution.
“Homicide,” he says quietly. “My dad killed my mom. He’s in a mental institution now. Not actually dead but…as good as.”
“That’s pretty rough,” says Clint. It’s hard to know what else to say.
Bruce turns to face Clint. His glasses gleam in the moonlight, half-concealing his eyes. “It is what it is.”
“I hate that you can’t see the stars out here,” says Clint, turning over as well. “I don’t know how Tony lives this way all the time. How does he breathe?”
“He dives into a money pile and uses a snorkel,” says Bruce with a straight face. Clint cracks up entirely too hard. It’s been a long day.
“Sounds about right.”
“I know what you mean, though. Life outside the Midwest is…different. People treat you different when you’re from there. I had a colleague at Virginia Tech call me ‘North Dakota’ for two full years and I never even lived there.”
“Almost everyone in S.H.I.E.L.D. treated me like a backwoods hick for a really long time. What you need to do is just point a poison arrow at someone enough and eventually they shut up.”
Bruce smiles in a pained sort of way. “Nobody except Tony has the nerve to try and mess with me anymore.” He points to his brain. “Got my own weapon right in here.”
A passing satellite flashes overhead. Clint and Bruce both catch it out of the corner of their eye.
“I think that’s as close as we’re getting to a shooting star tonight,” says Bruce. Clint can feel his breath on his cheek. Until he looked away, he hadn’t noticed how close they were lying together. Their hands are nearly touching. The hair on the back of Clint’s neck stands on end, and he shivers a little despite the heat.
“Should we make a wish?”
“I dunno. Anything you want. World peace.”
“World peace requires work. Everyone wishes for world peace and no one does anything.” Bruce has moved his hand so that the tips of his fingers are brushing Clint’s palm. He yawns. A sudden wave of tiredness hits Clint like a brick.
“How about we wish for a good night’s sleep? I think we could both use one.”
Bruce hums in agreement, his eyes already closed. “Sounds like a plan.”
Clint can’t give him a hard time for falling asleep on the roof. The wish is only half formed in his brain when he finally succumbs to his own exhaustion. The lights of the city dimly illuminate their interlocked fingers as they sleep peacefully and dream of home.