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Phil Coulson slid the last completed form into the manila envelope—already labeled with the destination—and then dropped the folder in his outbox. He was done. After this hell of an op finally every last personnel form, ammunition form, after-action report, debrief statement, and intelligence dossier was done. God, Phil couldn’t wait for the day when all of the forms were on the computer—a day that SHIELD IT and HR both swore was imminent, though they had been saying that for the past two years. Technology changed fast, but bureaucracy it seemed was always lagging ten years behind. As it was now, Phil’s computer really only served the purpose of letting him type up his own reports and print them out before sending them via intra-office mail.

Phil leaned back in his chair, groaning as he stretched. How long had he been hunched over his desk reading and reviewing the forms of this cluster of an op? He glanced at the clock and groaned again. He had started the paperwork when the team had returned early Thursday morning. Now it was 10 pm. On Friday night.

He needed to go home. He needed to eat something. He needed to sleep. And most importantly, he needed a shower. But what he wanted on the other hand… His eyes strayed to his own computer, which was currently displaying toasters flying through space.

His fingers itched to awaken the screen and log-in, but not to check his work email which was undoubtedly full of emails about the op. No, it was 10 pm. Phil wanted to drown himself in fan forums. But mostly he wanted to check his personal email and see if DGrayson had responded to his latest email.

DGrayson. It wasn’t his real name, but rather a shortening of Dick Grayson, the original Robin. Phil didn’t know his correspondent’s real name, just like he never shared his. The less known on the Internet about Phil Coulson the better, and it seemed that Grayson had the same philosophy. They never shared anything specific, but it was amazing how personal you could get with a person even without specifics.

Fuck it, it was ten pm. If HR wanted to yell at him about checking his personal email at the office, he would just point out that he had worked eighty hours this week and they had only paid him for forty of them.

A few keystrokes later and he was connected—the glories of working for SHIELD. He was always connected, and didn’t have to worry about it blocking his phone line. And there, in bold black in his inbox was indeed a new email.

———

From: DGrayson@aol.com
To: CapRogers@hotmail.com
Subject: Happy First Day of Spring!
Date: March 20, 2001

I know you said you would be busy this week so I don’t expect you to respond anytime soon. No worries. I’m pretty crazy myself. I just…there’s something about spring, you know?

Or maybe you don’t being a city boy. But I grew up in the country. We were actually on a farm—my family had lost most of the land to the corporations a long time ago, but we still had a pretty big garden, and every spring even when I was too small to do anything real my mom would let me dig in the dirt and help plant bulbs and seeds. I never did anything right, but man, my mom was the best. And I guess…that’s just what spring makes me think of. The smell of the dirt, my mom’s smile and patience, and just good times.

And there weren’t a lot of good times.

Anyway, sorry for the sentimental crap. It’s just there aren’t a lot of people I have to talk to about this sort of stuff, and there is something just easier about typing it out to you, a total stranger, whose name I don’t even know.

Turns out you’re my free therapy, Cap!

I hope you get a chance to stop and smell the roses this week.

— — —

Phil smiled sadly at his computer. This wasn’t the first time Grayson had alluded to his childhood being not so great; it was one of the first things he had learned about him, right after the fact that Dick Grayson was his favorite superhero. Phil had demanded to know why Dick Grayson of all characters was his favorite, and the other man had told him his parents had died and with no extended family he had been sent to the foster system. Grayson had apparently found hope in the character of the original Robin. If Robin could find a new family like Batman and  make something of his life, then well, couldn’t he do the same?

Honestly what amazed Phil in all of this is that Grayson still had the ability to be sentimental, to find hope and joy in comic books, and wish Phil a happy spring. Phil had had a pretty decent childhood—parents who tried—and yet in his teenage angst, he had gone down a dark path. The only thing that had straightened him out was the military—learning discipline and seeing during his overseas tours what true poverty and destitution looked like. That Grayson could survive the death of his parents and the foster system, and still be able to stop and smell the roses…it was astounding.

Assuming he was as young as Phil thought he was—mid-twenties by Phil’s estimation. Time and therapy could also give the same peace and clarity. But something about Grayson’s writings and thoughts, Phil didn’t think the man was yet thirty.

The email from Grayson had been sent on Tuesday and now it was Friday. It would wait until he got home to answer it, but Grayson had been waiting for a response for this long, Phil didn’t want to make him wait any longer.

— — —

From: CapRogers@hotmail.com
To: DGrayson@aol.com
Subject: Re: Happy First Day of Spring!
Date: March 23, 2001

You caught me, I hadn’t even noticed it was spring yet, but that’s not because of being a city boy. I’ve been trapped in my office all week. The only thing I’ve smelled this week is pencil shavings and the body odor of nervous interns. There was a big disaster with a client this week—not one of mine, one of my coworkers—but they messed it up so badly that the account has been handed off to me. And just…the paperwork. I’m drowning in triplicate.

But I have today and tomorrow off. The boss told us all to go home and regroup. We’ll come back fresh and ready to attack the problem on Monday morning. So maybe this weekend I’ll take a leisurely walk through the park and find some roses to smell.

There is something about Central Park in the spring. Just seeing everything come back to life after being dormant all winter, seeing the green breaking through the washed out brown earth. And I love the part of spring where the trees are covered with flowers rather than leaves, how everything is just bright and colorful.

I don’t usually get much of a chance to enjoy it, which is unfortunate. But this weekend I will, just for you.

And I’m always happy to be your listening ear, Grayson. I’m glad it helps.

— — —

Phil re-read his email before hitting send, double checking he wasn’t saying anything that implicated him as a SHIELD agent. He had given Grayson the general impression he was in the corporate world. It was the same carefully curated persona he allowed his neighbors and outside of SHIELD acquaintances believe; though he never directly lied to anyone if he could help it. And nothing in his email was a lie. There had been a disaster this week. Sitwell’s Hawkeye Op had gone sideways in the worst possible way. Five different agents were in Medical, and they hadn’t even gotten a glimpse of Hawkeye’s face. He had taken them down with arrows before they could even get close, and the man had disappeared without a trace. Assistant Director Fury was livid that a team of SHIELD agents could be stopped by a mercenary with a Paleolithic weapon.

And the worst part was Sitwell was the third agent sent after Hawkeye. Three SHIELD teams had tried and failed. So now the Hawkeye situation was Phil’s problem. And well, Phil Coulson never failed.

Or so Fury was counting on.

Yes, next week was going to be a long week as Phil continued to deal with the fallout and make his own plan for eliminating the Hawkeye threat. But for now he had the weekend, and Grayson was right.

He was going to stop and smell the roses.

 

#

 

Clint Barton limped into the library shortly after opening.

“Morning Debbie,” he said with a smile, waving to the librarian who worked the information desk most weekends.

“Morning, Frank!” Her smile quickly turned to concern as she saw his limp. “Are you okay?”

Clint made a face. “Fell off my horse.” A lie, though he did fall—just off a building. The horse lie was more believable out here in the country though, where farming and horses were part of every day life.

“Ah, well.” She made a sympathetic face. “You know what they say. You just gotta get right back on.”

“You don’t need to worry about me, Deb,” he said, giving her his most flirtatious smile. “Nothing’s going to stop me from riding.” She giggled and Clint passed by her with a wink. On some days he stayed and chatted, but today, he had other things on his mind. Like the fact that some obviously government but nebulously identified organization was after him. Or the fact that his Internet friend CapRogers hadn’t responded to him since his email on Tuesday. Honestly at this point, he wasn’t sure which issue was bothering him more—no, that was a lie. He knew how to handle nebulous government organizations. He didn’t know how to reach through a computer and demand someone respond to his email.

It was probably nothing. Cap got busy. It happened all the time. He had some highfalutin corporate job—some sort of consultant, Clint thought, who got flown from place to place to fix problems. It wasn’t unusual for Cap to drop off the Internet for a week or two, just like sometimes in the midst of a job, Clint couldn’t get to a library.

One day, Clint dreamed of having his own computer, of being able to trawl through the forums in his own time and at his own pace, but that required having a steady address where he could pay for Internet, not to mention his own computer. So for now, libraries it was.

It was early enough that there was no demand for the computers, so Clint settled into one of the computer carrels. He connected to the Internet, chicken-pecked in his user name and password and sure enough. “You’ve got mail!” the cheerful AOL voice declared. And thank fuck, it wasn’t just spam. It was an honest-to-God email from CapRogers.

Clint devoured it. But this weekend I will, he said, just for you.

Something warmed inside of Clint. Clint wasn’t an idiot. He knew he lived a dead-end life, and that it would undoubtedly end soon with someone blowing his brains out. This wasn’t the life he had ever imagined himself—being a hired gun, taking down more people than he cared to think about because it was the only thing he was good at, the only way to keep food on the table and fuck it all, he couldn’t go back to being hungry ever again. He was weak okay? But this thing he had with CapRogers, it was probably the only pure thing in his life.

Cap didn’t know Clint was a murderer a dozen times over, so deep in a life of crime there was no way he could ever crawl out. No, to Cap, Clint was just another comic book fan, and well, that wasn’t a lie. Clint loved comics—the hope and justice, the goodness and purity, how right and good always won, and yes he recognized the fucking irony of the fact that he was basically a comic book villain. But in comic books things were easy and black and white, good people lived good lives, and orphans were adopted by rich billionaires, not left to rot in boys homes. Comic books were a dream, and Dick Grayson had been young Clint’s ultimate aspiration. Instead, Clint was Dick Grayson’s inverse. The circus performer adopted by the villain instead of the hero.

So yes, Clint may be a villain, or at least a crook, but reading this email he could say he did some little good in the world. He convinced Cap to take a walk through the park, to stop and enjoy life, instead of letting himself be buried by work.

Clint re-read the email, but he didn’t rush to respond. He always carefully responded—with a dictionary by his side so he could double check his spelling. He didn’t want Cap to know he was just an uneducated carnie. He wanted Cap to like and respect him, so he always deliberately wrote his responses. But before he could get to that, he needed to spend some time researching the problem that was actively trying to kill him: the government agency that wouldn’t leave him alone.

They’d come after him three times now—and each time Clint had managed to escape. He wasn’t sure how they found him any of those times, which was one of the reasons why he suspected they were a government organization. Every time they had come after him was on ops when he was working for a larger crime organization—as opposed to the occasional one off he did for individual people. A government agency might have people embedded in those organizations, who reported back whenever Clint was hired.

The other reason he thought they were government was that it was clearly a coordinated effort, including SWAT-like teams and individuals attempting to be undercover tracking him. Of course, they couldn’t account for his sharp eyes, and that Clint could tell when someone was really casual as opposed to pretending to be casual.

Clint pecked his way through various searches, pulling up websites and pages for various government organizations, trying to figure out which one it was. The group had found him both in the US and Mexico—so probably not the FBI or CIA, unless the two groups were working together—but surely Clint wasn’t that big a threat. He was just a low level mercenary. Sure he’d killed some—okay a lot—of people. But mostly for drug lords and cartels. If he did the occasional charity case of offing an abused wife’s husband, well, he didn’t really think that was something the CIA would care about, would they?

Unless it was just the sheer numbers he’d killed getting him on the radar. Clint supposed there was such a thing as being too good at your job.

Of course the agents following him hadn’t been wearing anything as obvious as SWAT gear. There were no emblems or insignias or ranks for Clint to research. Just a coordinated group of people who seemed to be able to track him down in both domestic and international locales. Which was frankly just fucking annoying.

Clint huffed with frustration at the computer. Wouldn’t it be nice if he could just ask it for what he wanted? Like Star Trek. “Computer, research what government agency is tracking me.” And then boom, it would come up with an answer. But despite the fact that it was the fucking 21st century (if barely), Clint was still chicken-pecking at a keyboard. Ugh.

Clint re-opened his email.

— — —

From: DGrayson@aol.com
To: CapRogers@hotmail.com
Subject: The Future
Date: March 24, 2001

Do you ever get frustrated with the fact that we live in the 21st century, and it’s nothing like we were promised it would be? We were supposed to have flying cars, space colonies, and sentient robots! Instead we have all this technology, and the closest thing we have to Star Trek technology is cell phones. It’s just frustrating. Comic books promised me this bright shiny future, and yet here I am struggling to use a computer to do basic research.

Ten year old me would be so disappointed in the year 2001.

— — —

From: CapRogers@hotmail.com
To: DGrayson@aol.com
Subject: Re: The Future
Date: March 24, 2001

I understand. Sometimes I look at the world and it seems we’ve made no progress. We still have poverty, racism, corruption, and unimaginable horrors. I imagine Captain America miraculously appearing and seeing the world as it is today, and I wonder what he would think. Would he be dazzled by television? Amazed that we went to the moon? Or disappointed in us as a nation, as a people, and as a world. He fought so hard in the 1940s—to integrate his unit and save the world. And what have we done with it?

Also ten year old me would be expecting to live on a moon base by now.

— — —

From: DGrayson@aol.com
To: CapRogers@hotmail.com
Subject: Re: The Future
Date: March 24, 2001

City boy would pick the moon. Me? I want Mars. Red land for as far as the eye can see, unadulterated and ready to be explored by the few brave men and women who survive the journey there.

— — —

From: CapRogers@hotmail.com
To: DGrayson@aol.com
Subject: Re: The Future
Date: March 24, 2001

You’re such a cowboy.

Also I walked through Central Park this morning. It may be spring but it wasn’t even above fifty and nothing is growing. But it was nice. Just taking a walk, by myself, in the crisp morning air. Things have been so crazy, and something about the morning quiet and the cold, just helped clear my head and center me.

I should really take time for myself like this more often. But work is always so demanding, and everyone always needs my help. And it always seems that if I don’t help them, the world will end.

I need to do better at remembering that I can’t save the world if I’ve lost myself.

— — —

From: DGrayson@aol.com
To: CapRogers@hotmail.com
Subject: Re: The Future
Date: March 25, 2001

Guilty as charged, Cap. Give me the open frontier over the city any day.

And I know what you mean about losing yourself. Sometimes I think I don’t even know who I am anymore. Do you ever just look at your life and think—this wasn’t the path I was meant to be on. Ten year old me wouldn’t just be disappointed in the world. He would be disappointed in me.

— — —

From: CapRogers@hotmail.com
To: DGrayson@aol.com
Subject: Re: The Future
Date: March 25, 2001

Well, whatever decisions you made, whatever path you’re on, it brought you to this neighborhood friendly Internet and me. So I can’t claim too much disappointment.

And if you think your path is wrong, it’s never too late to change your trajectory, and put yourself on a different path. It won’t be easy, but it’s not impossible. It’s never too late to make your ten-year-old self proud of you.

And if there is ever anything I can do to help you, Grayson, just let me know.

— — —