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Second Time Around

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Canadians were an interesting breed of creature. How anyone who lived in such frigid and remote conditions could be so cheerful was beyond any kind of understanding. Now the Germans, they knew how to get it right - Russians too for that matter. Gruff, blunt, suspicious of strangers, with a language that always managed to sound like anger; that was how it should be. Snow and ice and isolation - no human being should actually enjoy those kinds of conditions.

Clint hated Canada.

But he wasn’t Clint anymore; that was the point. He’d left that identity behind, along with his identity as Hawkeye, Agent of SHIELD and archer of the Avengers Initiative.

Now he was just Corey, Corey Bouchard, a keep-to-himself newcomer in a land of friendly neighbors who waved too much and knocked on his door too often.

It was a name that was hard to stick to in his own head. Out loud it was easy; easy to introduce himself as Corey and sign his name as Corey to the receipts he was handed, to read his byline – Corey Bouchard – at the bottom of the little hunting and fishing column he wrote for the local paper. In his head and his heart it was different. Clint still hung on, the Clint who liked snow but not this much snow, the Clint who observed his surroundings almost to the point of paranoia. He might be Corey on the outside, but on the inside he was still the same old Clint Barton, broken and empty-handed.

Fleeing the country and settling down in a remote little cabin on the outskirts of a remote little city that he’d picked up some ten years ago helped. As much as he hated it, it helped, because there was nothing of Clint Barton here. No bow and arrow, no tac suit, no Stark pad… more importantly no Stark.

No Bruce, no Steve, no Natasha.

No one.

Corey Bouchard was an identity he’d never intended to use and one of the few he’d kept entirely secret, even from Nat.

Even from…

Well.

That had been a good decision, hadn’t it?

Whatever.

It didn’t matter, and it was a lot easier disappearing when you had something to fall back on. Leaving New York with nothing but the clothes on his back and the change in his pocket probably wasn’t the best idea he’d ever had, but at the time he hadn’t exactly been thinking clearly. Hell, he hadn’t exactly been thinking at all. He’d been too busy trying not to puke, to faint, to go to his knees in the middle of the nearest intersection and get smeared by a cab because his legs just couldn’t hold him up anymore. He’d only just been capable of catching a bus out of town, using his SHIELD credit card to run and then to bunker down in a shitty little motel, to spend two nights getting liquored out of his head only to wake up the third day with an ache in his chest and a cold, painful plan.

It was hard to leave his bow behind. It wasn’t the first time he’d had to leave one, but it never got any easier. For the first few hours he’d mourned the thing, but it had been Hawkeye’s, and a part of another life. Luckily he had others, stash points hidden around the globe and that was where he’d headed, booking a short flight to South Dakota where he had a safety deposit box under a fake name and a fake address. There he’d ditched his old wallet, the SHIELD money and the SHIELD badge and the SHIELD license, anything that could be traced back to Clint, and picked up the identification and the deeds and the cash that belonged to Corey.

Corey – who happened to be a lot like Clint.

Imagine that huh?

Both with tough, shady childhoods, a bit of a rough-and-tumble attitude, and both with a rather questionable set of skills.

Skills that included liberating a car from some less-than-clean hands, a car that wouldn’t be reported missing and that would take him safely across the border and into his new life.

His new life in freaking Canada.

But Clint Barton was nothing if not adaptable, and so slowly he’d begun assimilating, learning how to live a life without his archery, which was too conspicuous, and without all the bits and pieces that made him who he was. Instead he became Corey, quiet, stick-to-himself Corey, who wrote for the paper and got groceries once a week at the Quik Shop just like everyone else. The Corey who shoveled his eighty year old neighbor’s walk when it snowed because he should, and who adopted a scruffy looking mutt named Lucky from the shelter two towns over. The Corey who seemed like a good enough guy eh, but who had a habit of disappearing every once in a while to god knows where.

Because sure, Corey was pretty good at staying under the radar, but sometimes Corey just wasn’t enough.

Corey kept him safe, hidden from the eyes of SHIELD and the Avengers, but Corey was a regular guy, and the bits of Clint Barton that still clung on weren’t satisfied with the kind of life Corey led.

Corey Bouchard was no hero.

Clint Barton - Hawkeye - had been a hero, for all the good it had done him in the end.

But he wasn’t Clint Barton anymore.

That was ok.

He had an app for that.

Or at least another name.

A name that SHIELD knew, but had never connected to Clint.

Strange, stupid really, since the ruthless assassin Ronin had disappeared right around the time Clint had been taken into custody, recruited with a bow strapped across his chest and a bullet in his thigh. How they hadn’t put two and two together still baffled him sometimes.

Not that he was complaining – going back to Ronin gave him an outlet he desperately needed, even if it was something he’d thought he’d escaped, something he would never have to go back to.

Ronin was a harder, darker, more deadly entity, someone Clint wasn’t particularly proud of having been. He was the slippery slope toward murderer that Clint had had to walk, the bad guy he could have become if he hadn’t been plucked from the streets by the intervention of god and a one-eyed director of shady government dealings still untold. He was most things that Hawkeye wasn’t, but he was familiar and safe in his own right, and Clint was sure he’d slowly go insane if he had to live as Corey Bouchard for the rest of his life.

As long as he could live as Ronin every once in a while, he’d be all right.

So he’d put the word out, a few phone calls here, a few signs and signals there, and the next thing he knew the seedy, filthy underbelly of the world was clamoring for his attentions, money being flashed discreetly at every turn with the promise of the assassin’s services. It had been painful to slip quietly down to Panama, to crack the decades old seal on the storage locker there and choke through the dust to the back, where a heavy footlocker coughed up the remnants of yet another of Clint’s lives. The memories buried in this one weren’t always good, tended toward bloodstained and agonizing in fact. But slipping into the black and gold, the tailed jacket and the hood that covered his face - that felt a little like coming home. It felt like pieces locking into place, matched the chilly, dead, emptiness inside his chest in a way that fit, the same way the katana fit in his hand.

In fact he was so startled by the rightness of it, the flood of old memories that came rushing into him from the time before Hawkeye, that he’d dropped the sword onto the concrete floor with a clatter.

Once he’d caught his breath it was easier to pick it up the second time. He knew what to expect, even welcomed the relief, the release from his emotions that Ronin’s mantle afforded him. It was being able to breathe again after having his chest stomped, his ribcage caved in. It was an excuse, permission as poor as it was to do some damage, to take out a little bit of anger, a little bit of hurt on people who deserved it, and maybe that was Clint Barton’s fated, fucked-up flaw – that he’d been hurt so much he needed the permission to do some of the hurting himself.

And he had been hurt.

Lots of times, lots of different ways, but with SHIELD, with the Avengers and with Coulson, he’d thought maybe things were finally different.

That was his mistake, and perhaps the reason that this final betrayal had been the worst, had finally broken him, maybe too badly to ever be fixed.

Why else would he have gone back to Ronin, the rogue killer he swore to himself he’d never be again?

Didn’t matter.

He’d given that up, walked away from a life as Clint Barton, as Hawkeye, walked away from his friends and his teammates and everything he was and started over. Started over as Corey, who cooked and read and played with his dog and sometimes ran with Kate, the young college student down the street who watched Lucky for him when Ronin needed to stretch his legs.

So what if every once in a while cash got a little scarce and a bad guy needed to be taken out? So what if Ronin made that happen? It was a compromise – the Canadian writer and the silent assassin both together, not nearly as good a man as Hawkeye had been but not nearly as bad as the unforgiving, unscrupulous swordsman he was before.

Before SHIELD had given him a place and a purpose.

Before Phil Coulson had shown him he could be something better than what he was.

Before he’d learned to trust in and rely on other people again, and before he’d had that trust betrayed one final time.

Clint Barton’s life was full of befores.

Corey Bouchard’s was the beginning of all the afters.

AVAVA

Phil Coulson had never given much thought to dying. Consequently he’d never given much thought to what he would be leaving behind. His parents had both passed years ago, and he had no siblings or extended family to be worried about. His affairs were all in order and had been since he’d started working for SHIELD, his burial wishes and his will updated each year like clockwork. Fury would miss him, and the blue beta-fish Captain that cruised around the glass bowl on his kitchen counter, but chances were good that the two would be enough to take care of each other.

As for the rest… well.

He expected the Avengers might miss him, some of them any way, in the manner you might miss a boss who’d been good to you, one with whom you had a good working relationship and it would be an inconvenience to lose.

Clint and Natasha might miss him a little more - after all they’d known each other longer, worked together closely for many years - but it was still just that.

Work.

Even if it was more, even if he liked them, took a somewhat proprietary view of them, it was still work. They were his and he treated them like his, with respect and care and perhaps a little too much jealousy, but he was a professional and so were they, even with Barton’s ridiculous jokes and flirtation, Natasha’s rare and sudden displays of affection. In some ways they belonged to each other, the three of them, but it was SHIELD and Strike Team Delta that had brought them together, that made it so. Coulson was careful, careful to be objective and not to get to close, to only give them what they needed to keep them up and running, in the best condition physically, mentally, and emotionally for the job that they had to do.

Or maybe that was just his excuse, because sometimes he did want to touch Natasha’s hair and tell her that she was safe, or to wrap Clint in a loose hug and tell the archer that he was proud of him. That as long as they wished to be they would be taken care of, by him and by SHIELD.

And if he sometimes tortured himself with thoughts of actually letting himself fall for Clint, then that was his own business. He’d never acted on it, wouldn’t ever act on it, because he knew that that road only led to hell - rejection and awkwardness, or worse a sense of betrayal. If there was one thing he’d promised himself after becoming Clint’s handler it was that he would never let the man down the way he’d been let down all his life.

And yet here he was, doing just that, breaking the promise he’d made to himself even though it was unintentional.

In his very minor defense, he hadn’t know he would be brought back after dying in the Battle of New York. He’d signed the papers when he’d first joined up with SHIELD, experimental medicine in life-threatening situations, but it had all been vague and hush-hush. His only thought going into the actual fight was the need to get Clint back. Losing him to Loki, to the mind control was quite possibly the worst thing Phil had ever lived through, the fear and disgust and sorrow he felt enough to send him charging into the fray with an untested weapon and a complete lack of back-up plans. His last thought as the spear pierced his chest was that he hadn’t achieved his directive, hadn’t freed his Specialist as he’d intended.

It was also the first conscious thought he had on waking three months later.

Luckily Nick Fury knew him well, and gave him a full debrief the moment he could keep his eyes open long enough to listen. Clint was back and he was safe, Natasha too, and all the rest of the Avengers who had finally gotten their shit together in the wake of Coulson’s death. His words, not Phil’s. In all the week’s he’d been comatose and unresponsive they’d pulled together nicely, become a real team and had a few more successful fights, though thankfully none as large or as serious as their first battle for the city. He’d been in no shape to make demands, but Fury must have seen it in his eyes, because the very next thing he did, after all the rest of Phil’s unasked questions had been answered, was to tell him that no, they still didn’t know he was alive, and for now it had to stay that way.

He didn’t like it.

He could think of half a dozen reasons why it was a terrible idea, but Fury had a few good points of his own, and the powerful, pervasive feeling that he was being selfish, that the real reason he wanted them to know was so that he could have Clint back, was enough to keep him quiet on the subject. In the months that followed Fury brought him newspapers and a Stark pad, footage of the team that had grown out of his death, and they all seemed to be doing well enough. He’d suspected as much – who was he but the quiet, unassuming senior agent who corralled them every once in a while – but it still stung. Certainly not the reactions from Stark or Banner or even Rogers, but Clint and Nat…

That was different.

They’d known each other for years, had executed countless missions together, had been more…

Fury noticed the melancholy in him and responded by offering him the footage of his funeral, but Phil had declined. Instead he focused on getting himself back in shape, on increasing his endurance and his muscle mass until he was the fittest he’d been since the Rangers. There was something a little strange about that – it had felt too fast, too easy - but within a year of his death Phil was stepping onto SHIELD’s new pride and joy, the fully functional hellicarrier, with Level 7 clearance and a new team waiting for him.

It hurt for a while.

More than a while.

He kept waiting for Clint’s chatter to come floating across the comms, or turning to make sure that Stark wasn’t getting himself into trouble, and every time it was jarring and sent a chill down his spine. He had trouble warming up to Lance Hunter, the new sniper at his disposal, and knew that he’d been spoiled when he found himself unimpressed with the man’s shots. Even May, who was a badass in every way, fell short in his estimation of her piloting skills. It was ridiculous he knew, his agents were the best of the best, but they weren’t.

Not when he was still wishing for the Avengers, for Strike Team Delta.

But he’d made his choice when he’d made Fury promise him that his new life would never be revealed to the Avengers. Too much time had passed and wounds now ran to deep for that. So he let them go, let his old life go and embraced his new team, worked his new cases and did a damned good job of it.

Or at least he tried to.

It wasn’t easy, but eventually he began to settle, to accept.

Leave it to Nick to tear those scars back open just when they’d begun to heal over.

It had been an ambush, there really was no other word for it. He’d sent out a Threat Level Midnight, the worst of SHIELD’s panic codes, and called Coulson back to HQ with the promise of keeping his presence unannounced. Suffice it to say that he’d felt justified in decking the director when he’d pushed into a small, disused conference room only to find himself face to face with every single one of the Avengers. There’d been a lot of shouting after that, and Captain America himself had actually had to hold him back from going after Fury again until the room got settled. The quiet had been louder than the shouting in that moment, and the only thing he could think about was the archer, the only one out of all of them who hadn’t said a word, who’d just stared at him with the most pained, broken face Phil had ever seen.

He’d said his name, his first name.

Soft, quiet, the sound as hurt as Clint looked but he’d flinched, visibly flinched and taken a step back like Phil had swung at him too. Tears had welled hot and bright in his eyes and for just a second he seemed to fall in on himself, like he was finally, finally crumbling. But Hawkeye was nothing if not resilient, and he snapped back like the crack of a bullwhip, slipping past Natasha and out the door before anyone could stop him. He’d made to go after but she’d held him back, murmured quietly in Russian to give him a little time. Phil could only nod as his heart broke in his chest with all the promises he’d made to Clint inside his own head, and then jolt when Natasha wrapped her arms around him and clung on like a child.

He wasn’t much comfort to her that day. He could barely keep his own sobs locked behind his teeth. As it was, he’d held her tight and buried his face in her hair, his own tears hot against her neck until she’d finally pulled back again and place her palm flat over his heart, the scar beneath his shirt thick and raised against her hand.

“Don’t ever do that again,” she’d whispered, and he’d apologized in a tone that was broken and scared and small.

To his lasting shock as soon as she’d stepped back Tony Stark took her place, pulling him in for an awkward, jerky hug of his own and a hoarse ‘welcome back.’ For Banner and Rogers it was a handshake and significant looks, eyes darting constantly to the door until Phil had finally turned on Fury with hot accusation and he’d defended himself only by saying that it was full time to get the band back together. Hydra had resurfaced and there was simply nothing for it. The world needed the Avengers, and the Avengers needed him. A few nods and hopeful faces were all it had taken to have him signing the papers.

Unfortunately, even as they gained a member, the team was still incomplete.

Hawkeye never came back.