Clint and Kasha disembark the ship at Dover with a light heart. It is the first time they have been back to England in a long while. They might go to see the Gyptians before this trip is out. Word is that Lord Faa is still alive and Clint misses the waterways, the fens, the rough camaraderie he experienced on the trip back from the North, over fifteen years ago now. That is all a little while in the future though, and for now, they just follow the crowds of passengers and sailors. Sure enough, they come to a market, crammed with sights and smells and sounds.
Traders shout their wares and buyers pass judgment on the value, always trying for a knock-down price. Clint will need new boots before long, but these will last him a while, so he just wanders, takes in the jumble of accents and languages. A woman selling clothes tries to talk Clint into buying a velvet jacket so ugly he's actually a little offended. He buys a scarf instead, and while he haggles for a better price, manages to find the location of a cheap but not completely disreputable boarding house, and the name of a pub where sailors fresh from sea often find work.
Kasha stays close enough that Clint never feels that painful tug, still terrifying after all these years. He loses sight of her once or twice, her slender wings and darting motions always difficult to follow against the backdrop of bright sky and the colourful fabrics of the market stalls. He buys a meat pie and eats it as he walks, the filling hot enough to burn his tongue, but too rich and peppery and flavourful to resist. Eventually the market stalls become thinner on the ground. There's a patch of less reputable sellers, and Clint finds himself a knife that needs sharpening, barters the price down to something more reasonable, and tucks it away in his satchel. It's not the only one he has, of course, but Clint's got into the habit of buying a weapon every time he finds himself in a new place. Some of them he's lost over the years, but it's a superstition that's served him well.
Finally, with the sounds of the market all but gone, they find a public park, tall oak trees surrounding a wide open space covered in lush grass and dotted with wooden benches. Clint settles himself on the ground under a tree and Kasha's high laugh warms him as she swoops away from his shoulder. Her double iridescent wings flick through the air above Clint's head, peacock blues and greens catching the sunlight. He can feel her joy at flying so free, her excitement at the sound of ants and crickets in the grass. Most of the time she stays on his shoulder or folds her wings in tight and settles in the satchel Clint carries. He still feels a little shiver of fear when she goes too far – and that's his definition of too far, has nothing to do with when it starts to hurt – but Kasha has always been braver than him, and he can feel her amusement flickering through him. This is the first chance she's had to really fly in weeks.
"Finally," she says a while later, as she swoops down to land on his shoulder. Clint touches a careful finger to her back, and her wings settle with a little shiver of pleasure. She's larger than a normal dragonfly, too large to sit on the palm of Clint's hand anymore, not unlike the ones ridden by the Gallivespians during the war, except of course she is so much more than that. When they were younger, they used to argue about what shape she would take. Clint had wanted a bird, something fierce like an eagle or a hawk, but she had always favoured insects. For several long months she had been a gaudy butterfly, and she'd almost tricked Clint into believing she'd settled that way.
"I'm hungry," she announces.
"Go catch a cricket," he tells her, shrugging his shoulder. It doesn't unbalance her even a little, naturally.
She resettles and says, "You have cake. I know you do."
Clint rolls his eyes and digs through his satchel. The cake is a flat disk of sponge, covered with white icing and sprinkles of caraway. He crushes a piece and holds the crumbs in his hand for her, taking a bite for himself. As she eats, she tells him quietly, "We're being watched, Clint. Your eyes are useless."
"Where?" he asks, embarrassed. Just because Kasha's huge, beautiful eyes see everything, it doesn't mean Clint can start slacking off.
"A swallow in the tree behind you. I think her human is the man in the grey suit, to your left."
Clint takes a sneaky look at the man to his left. His grey suit is well made, but nothing about it stands out. His shoes are cleanly polished, he has slightly thinning hair and a pair of smoked-glass spectacles on his nose. There are also, if one knows how to look for them, signs of several weapons secreted about his suit.
Clint nods and whispers, "Be ready to run," barely moving his lips at all.
He folds what's left of the cake back into the greaseproof paper and stashes it in his bag. Then he picks up the strap of the satchel and gets to his knees, pretending to inspect the strap's buckle. Kasha flits in the air in front of him for a second and then they bolt together without saying a word, Kasha darting ahead, just enough of a little tug to lend Clint speed. Kasha calls directions down to him as they flee the park and head back towards the bustle of the market.
Clint can hear the sound of footsteps behind him, and the man must be close, because Clint feels the breeze as his swallow dæmon swoops low over his head. Clint puts on another burst of speed and they throw themselves into the narrow, dark streets.
"Left!" Kasha calls down to him. "Into the alley."
Clint does as he's told, and when she flutters about near the top of the alley wall he doesn't hesitate to climb it, one good jump and then he drags himself up and over, into the back yard of a pub, by the look of it. Over two more walls, all the way through a shop, and he finds himself back in the busy market again. He starts to relax, but Kasha's urgent call draws his attention to where the swallow, sleek and quick, is darting from stall to stall.
"Run, boy!" Kasha tells him, zooming down to shoulder height to throw her weight at him. He stumbles on and she takes to the air again. Clint dashes between market stalls, dodging traders and customers, cursing under his breath when they get in his way. He makes it through the market and into the second maze of alleyways on the far side, and just when he thinks they might have lost their pursuers, here in the dark and narrow turns, there is a sharp tug right at the heart of him.
Childhood taught Clint to be careful with his Kasha long before Bolvangar reinforced the lesson, and he feels her fear spike suddenly as her escape is cut off. Clint freezes and dashes back a few steps to crane his neck and see up into the bright light filtering through the gaps between the buildings. The swallow dæmon buffets Kasha with powerful beats of her wings. Clint can feel Kasha's fear and he cries out for her. Running didn't work, but they can fight, so Kasha swoops down and settles on Clint's shoulder, face pressed to his throat.
The man in the grey suit appears out of the shadows and his dæmon flutters down to settle on his shoulder. Clint can't help glaring at them both. The swallow looks calm and harmless sitting on her human's shoulder, but Clint doesn't believe it of either of them.
"Don't touch her," he says. "We're armed. Don't you dare touch her."
"We're not going to touch her," the man says, and the look of surprised distaste on his face at the idea of breaking the taboo seems honest. Clint should have said us, he's given too much away, revealed a fear. He decided a long time ago though, that he was fair game but Kasha had to be safe. It has happened four times, that people have put their hands on Kasha, and Clint knows from experience that he would rather take a beating than let it happen again.
Kasha shakes her wings in irritation at Clint's tight grip – and probably at his line of thought – and flies up to hover around his head instead.
"What the hell do you want?" she demands, her darting flight taking her close enough to the swallow that Clint feels anxious.
The swallow doesn't even twitch, but her human says, "Just to talk."
"We don't want to talk to you."
"Kasha, shush," Clint mutters. However nondescript they might both look, Clint is sure this man and his dæmon are dangerous. In fact, he thinks they might be the most dangerous person he and Kasha have met in a long time.
"We know you were in Bolvangar. We know your brother underwent the process known as intercision and survived. We know this is your first time in the country as an adult."
Kasha lands on Clint's shoulder so abruptly there's a thud. He knows if she could still change she'd either be a roaring lion or a tiny mouse tucked way down in Clint's shirt. They don't like thinking about Barney and Demetria.
"So what? How do you know that? Are you Church?"
The questions tumble out of Clint one after another, making him sound afraid. He is afraid.
"We're not Church. My name is Phil Coulson, and this is Aesina."
They obviously know Clint and Kasha's names, so they don't both introducing themselves. Sure enough, after a moment, Phil Coulson inclines his head and says, "Clint Barton and Kashallion."
Clint frowns, fear settling into curiosity. There's still a part of him that thinks the man might be Church, but if that turns out to be true, all he has to do is yell. This part of Kent lost a lot of children to the Gobblers, and there is probably still a lot of anger towards suspected Church sympathisers.
"I work for an organisation called Shield."
"Sounds creepy and secretive," Kasha comments.
Clint is surprised when Phil Coulson cracks a smile and easily admits, "A little. We were set up in the last days of the war, with the purpose of looking forward. Looking beyond. Ensuring that nothing like intercision would occur again."
"And we have a particular interest in the paths taken by the children who escaped Bolvangar."
"Why?" Clint asks, making the question cold and clipped.
"Because we need people who understand this fight. It's already fading in people's memories, do you realise that?"
Of course Clint realises that. He has seen it happening, seen the hurry people have to return to a form of normality, to put their faith in some kind of authority, even if it isn't the Authority. He has been fighting little fights for years, when he always meant to fight the big one.
"Don't trust him," Kasha whispers in Clint's ear.
"I'm not. I don't," he says back, barely making a sound.
"Feels like it," she mutters, flickering her wings in irritation and darting into the air almost far enough to pull.
"Stop it," Clint tells her, then focuses his attention back on Coulson. "Why us? It's got to be more than Bolvanger. There had to be more than a hundred kids pass through that place. You keeping tabs on everyone who made it out whole?"
"He wants to know how long you've been spying on us," Kasha calls down, and it's been just the two of them for so long that sometimes Clint forgets how annoying she can be when she takes it into her head not to like somebody.
"We've been aware of you since you involved yourself in the smuggling situation in Brazil."
Clint blinks. "We were fifteen."
Coulson shrugs, and his Aesina says something too quiet for Clint to catch. He gives the bird a disapproving look and tells Clint, "You were making your own way just fine."
"And now we're not?"
"Far from it. Mr. Barton, please understand, we have no intention of forcing your hand."
"You couldn't if you tried," Clint says, because Kasha would never forgive him if he didn't.
"I'm sure," Coulson says, and he actually doesn't sound like he's humouring Clint, or being polite. No, he sounds like he actually believes that Clint could give him and his dæmon and his whole organisation the slip if he chose.
Clint doesn't often get to make choices, and when he does, they're usually between something bad, and something worse.
"So what do you want me for?"
"We think – " Coulson starts, and his dæmon ruffles her feathers. Clint's willing to bet that means she doesn't agree with whatever her human is about to say. " – that your skill set – infiltration, interrogation, we hear you're a rather impressive marksman – would be beneficial to the work of Shield."
"You still haven't told me what that work is."
"We work to identify, and neutralise where necessary, former members of or sympathisers with the Consistorial Court and the Oblation Board. Our mission, Mr. Barton, is to keep this world safe."
"And you want the Bolvangar kids because we have an axe to grind, is that it? You find us and offer us the chance at revenge?"
"In part, yes," the swallow dæmon says, before Coulson has a chance.
"We need to talk," Clint says. "Alone."
Coulson points out a small cafe and says that they will wait there, offers to buy Clint a coffee as though he doesn't think Clint is going to bolt given half a chance.
"Well?" Kasha says once they're gone. "C'mon, let's go. We can get a spot on another ship before the morning's out."
"I don't – Kasha, I think we should do this."
"Are you mad? We can't trust them!"
"Because we don't know them – "
"We don't know anyone. Kash. Kasha. I'm lonely."
"What if they're lying? What if they're Church? What if they're rounding us up again to finish the job?"
"Then I'll kill him," Clint promises her. "I swear, Kasha. No one's going to hurt us, but."
"You want revenge," she says, and she sounds almost disappointed, which surprises Clint a little.
"I... Yes. Yes, but we could do it ourselves..."
"We haven't so far," Clint reminds her gently. "We've stopped robberies and saved people in ones and twos. Don't you want a chance to hit them where it hurts? To grind what's left of them under our heel? Shit, I do."
"Yes," Kasha says, and there's that thread of viciousness he loves so much. "Yes. We could use their resources."
"Exactly," Clint says. "We're not working for them, we're using what they know to get our job done."
Her slender body is practically vibrating with determination and Clint grins at her. She seems unsettled though, about something other than what they've just agreed.
"What is it?"
She flies in close, tucks herself into the folds of his shirt so he can't see her, and says, "I didn't realise you were lonely."
"Kasha, I..." Clint hadn't meant to admit it, it had just slipped out. "I love you the most. Forever. You're my soul and – "
"I'm your damn brain, boy," she mutters.
"Yeah," Clint agrees. "But I – we could both use some company, I think."
"I could use a chance to annoy that snooty swallow," Kasha says, with a hint of wicked glee in her voice.
"That's my girl," Clint says.
They find Coulson and Aesina in the cafe and Clint slumps into the chair opposite them, Kasha taking up position above him and to the left, eyes scanning the cafe and the street beyond for threats.
"Alright," Clint says in response to Coulson's raised eyebrows. "Sign us up. We won't hurt kids, no matter what they've done or what's been done to them. We won't hurt anyone unless you give us evidence. And we won't go up against the Gyptians."
"Naturally. We have plenty of allies in the Fens, anyway. Billy Costa?"
"Yeah, we knew him a little," Clint says, thinking of the man's bright eyes and wild dark hair, his rough voice and the way he always seemed to know what to do.
Coulson nudges a cup of coffee over to Clint and he splashes some into the saucer for Kasha. She still seems rattled, and Clint can't help remembering the last time he'd made a decision she advised against. It had gone so badly, eventually led him to Bolvangar and the loss of his brother and almost the loss of his beloved Kasha.
"We apologise," Aesina says, her voice both deeper and more pleasant than Clint would have guessed at. "For chasing you. I am protective of my human too, Kashallion, and I understand your mistrust."
Kasha pauses in the midst of sipping at the coffee, then shakes her wings, settles a little and say, "I prefer Kasha."
Clint smiles into his coffee cup. This feels like a whole new start.