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2011

Natasha’s hair is falling into her face, still curled in the tight ringlets she’d set it in three days earlier. She flicks her head back to clear her vision and winces as it pulls on the ugly wound stretching down from the hollow of her throat, across her collarbones and disappearing under the collar of her shirt. Her finger on the trigger doesn’t shake.

“There’s a person,” she says hoarsely, half leaned against the wall. “That person. The person who connects you to the world. Makes you a better person, makes you someone different.”

Clint presses his palm around the knife in his side, his blood dripping out past his fingers. He tries to breathe shallowly and wonders if this is how he’ll die. Wonders if he’ll betray even this last promise to his brother.

Natasha sounds like she might be crying, if she wasn’t who she is. She lowers the gun. “Consider my debt repaid.” Clint pulls the knife from his side with a grunt, lets it fall from his fingers.

“Take care of yourself,” he says, and turns away, limping into the night.

Natasha’s voice follows him into the darkness. “When that person is taken from you, what do you become then?”

Then

Clint remembers Barney as shorter than him, with hair the colour of dirty cornsilk, crouched between Clint and the bigger kids at the orphanage, his fingers laced under Clint’s shoes as he boosts him out the window, his hand around Clint’s wrist as they run down the gravel driveway and into the road.

Barney’s the one who shoves candy under their jackets in the gas stations and sneaks them into the circus, the one that lifts his head up and juts his chin out when they’re caught, the one that gets them the job.

Now

“The day is yours, Agent Barton,” Coulson says, and Clint blinks, the door still half open behind him. He clicks it shut with the back of his heel.

“Well that’s the quickest clock-in clock-out I’ve ever had,” he says. Coulson taps his fingers on the desk.

“There’s a package for you.” Coulson extends one finger to a plain brown parcel resting on the table. He still hasn’t looked up.

Clint pulls a knife from a pocket and cuts it open, weighing the package in his hands. There’s a chocolate box in the shape of a red box, covered in thin cheap velvet. He opens the card in one hand, a pastel flower pattern and a message scratched inside in a loopy scrawl.

Happy Birthday, Hawkeye. Many happy returns from Jarvis and I.
--Stark

“Hm,” he says. “Still calling the machine Jarvis?”

“Machines have names,” Coulson says. “Doesn’t mean it’s reached the singularity.” He turns, finally, and gives Clint a bland smile. “Happy Birthday, Mr. Barton.” Clint decides not to disclose his own ideas on how sentient the machine is becoming.

“Agent,” Clint reminds him, but takes the box Coulson has offered, a plain blue one that fits in the palm of his hand. He knocks the lid off to the floor and tips the key out into his hand. “I’m touched.” The key goes into the pocket of his suit jacket, black and perfectly pressed and still fitting awkwardly around his shoulders, his posture still used to armour and the strap of his quiver across his body. He waits to see if Coulson is going to tell him what lock the key fits.

“Take the day,” Coulson says again. “Do whatever it is you do when you’re not working for me.”

“I’m always working for you.” Clint frowns, but Coulson goes back to his terminal and after a beat Clint leaves, buttoning his jacket neatly as he goes.

//

Agent Barnes is infuriatingly competent, for someone who slicks his hair like Ward Cleaver and smells like the cologne Maria’s dad used to wear. He doesn’t call her sweetheart, doesn’t even hold the door for her, but he expects her to be with him on every wavelength of thought, to have read every file. She’s writing names and places across a legal pad, doodling around trying to find connections and new angles, when he slides into the desk across from her.

“That’s not your seat, Agent Barnes,” she says without looking up.

“Whoever it is can wait, Detective Hill,” he says, and when she drops her pen with a sigh and looks up he’s smirking, very boyish, very charming. “I am a Special Agent,” Hill glares at him until his face smoothes out and he clears his throat.

“A friend at the Central Intelligence Agency slipped me a tip,” he says. “he was working a smuggling ring a while back and they found some blood that pinged on a cold case on Coney Island. Jacques Duquesne, a sideshow worker at the theme park, was found murdered in his trailer in 2011. Investigation revealed he was in deep with loan sharks. Compulsive gambler.”

Maria takes the file he offers her and starts skimming. “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Barnes says, drumming his fingers on the desk. “I think our friend in the suit was there, maybe contracted out to kill Duquesne. His old lady still lives in the area. She’s gotta know something. You want in?”

“Of course,” Maria says without missing a beat. She pauses. “I have to run something by an informant first. I can meet you?”

“Make it fast.” Barnes stands, rebuttoning his suit jacket. “this is our chance to find out who this guy is. First job, I think, sloppy. May be our only chance.” Maria’s phone starts to vibrate, accompanied by a shrill ringing. Barnes lifts three fingers at her in a farewell, leaves. His shoes click on the cheap linoleum.

“Yeah,” Maria says absently. She slips her fingers to the phone on her belt and frowns, flicks a finger across the screen. “Hello?”

//

Clint goes to the gallery. It was hard to get himself on the list, but once he managed it he appreciated the exclusivity. No one asks questions, no one does anything stupid. He finds an empty spot and undoes the latches on his case, his fingers leaving smudges on the glossy black metal. Stringing his bow is like coming home, the calluses on the pads of his fingers testing the tautness. He slips off his jacket and hangs it on a nearby hook. Something clatters to the ground--the key. Clint picks it up and spins it in his fingers. He tucks it away in a safer pocket and turns back to his bow, his quiver. He draws a single arrow back to his ear, settling into his stance. He looks at the paper target.

Inhale, he thinks, hold, exhale.

Then

Clint zips his duffel bag and slings it over his shoulder. He turns to pick up his enlistment papers and they’re not there.

“You’re leaving,” Barney says. His eye is turning stripes of yellow and purple, blooming out from the socket to stretch across his temple, down to his cheek. Clint rubs his knuckles, split open from where he punched Barney in the face the day before.

“I said I would.”

Barney reaches his hand out, Clint’s papers half-crumpled in his palm. “Little brother.” He sounds bitter, tinges of their old argument colouring his syllables. “I guess we’ve said all we need to say.”

Clint takes the papers, heft his bag higher up on his shoulder. “Goodbye, Barney.” He hesitates at the door. “You’re still my brother,” he says. Barney makes sneering noise from behind him. Clint pushes on. “Just. If you need me, call. Just... just say hey, big brother, and I’ll come back.”

“You’re wrong about Jacques,” Barney says coldly, “and I never needed you.”

 

Clint gets on the bus and looks out the window, all the way out the depot until the bus stop disappears into a long stretch of road. Barney never comes.

Now

Maria slides into a corner booth and looks around the bar Coulson asked to meet her at. It’s not the place she would have pegged him for, a little rowdy, a lot low class. He’s waiting for her, a pint of cheap beer she’d bet half her paycheck was watered down sitting in front of him. No coaster, but it looks warm enough not to need one. Maria’s nose wrinkles, and a waiter in a worn out black apron asks if he can get her anything.

“Club soda,” she says, and he leaves. Maria shifts her weight on the sticky seat and Coulson raises one eyebrow at her. “On duty,” she reminds him, and he inclines his head. Maria appreciates his disdain for small talk. She launches right into it. “You know anything about a murder in 2011, Coney Island worker?”

Coulson’s face doesn’t so much as twitch. Maria taps her nails on the scarred wood of the table, waits him out. The waiter comes back with her club soda, lukewarm with minimal bubbles. He looks almost sorry about it, and fleetingly Maria thinks that he looks very young and too tired to be working this job. There’s an old bruise fading on the height of his cheekbone.

“Agent Barnes, I presume,” Coulson says. “this could present problems for our mutual friend.”

“I’m meeting him after I leave here,” Maria says. “If there’s something I should know, now’s the time.”

“There may be evidence,” Coulson starts, and Maria swears that he has to have worked for the government. No one can hold a conversation while imparting so little information like a government man can.

“You want me to obstruct a federal investigation.”

“That’s not what I said.” Coulson sips from his drink. “If there is evidence it will be up to you what to do with it. It is your choice, Detective Hill, as it has always been.”

Maria stands. She fishes a few bills out of her pocket and drops them on the table, enough for both drinks. “I’ll update you as the situation progresses.”

Coulson smiles thinly, tips his glass in her direction. “Thank you for the drink.”

2011

Clint looks up at the hospital and tilts his head. He’d expected Barney to get a job at a bar, maybe a lower scale restaurant. Maybe a fast food joint. He wonders when Barney picked up the work ethic necessary to hold down a job as an orderly.

The automatic doors swish as they open, and the blast of air conditioned air is refreshing on his skin. He takes a deep breath of hospital smell, antiseptic, bleach, and finds a nurse who looks the least harried. He waits until she hangs up the phone, and she smiles at him in thanks.

“I’m looking for an orderly,” he says. His voice chops out rough, and he knows he hasn’t shaven in a quite a while, his cheeks are hollowed, his skin sallow. He clears his throat and hunches in on himself to appear less dangerous. “Barney. I’m his brother.”

The nurse frowns. “I don’t know an orderly by that name,” she says.

“He might have moved on,” Clint says. “I know he was here a few months ago. Last name Barton.”

The nurse clacks away at her keyboard. “No Barton,” she reports. Clint frowns harder.

“Try Duquesne,” he says, and spells it for her. She hits the enter button and they wait.

Clint sees it in her face before she says it, “I’m so sorr--”

“How did it happen,” he interrupts, and she looks at him very softly.

“Car accident,” she says, “two months ago.” Clint rocks back on his heels, a the information a physical blow. He takes a deep breath, and then another. “I can give you his emergency contact number,” the nurse is saying, but Clint turns and walks away, limping down the hallway.

The automatic doors open with a woosh, and Clint narrowly avoids colliding with a man in a wheelchair.

Inhale, he thinks, hold, exhale. Keep breathing. Keep walking.

Now

Maria Hill has never been to Coney Island.

She thinks it looks how she imagined it, a little run down, a little dirty, a little window into the history of the city. She takes the subway because she feels like she should, and she watches the landscape grow greyer around the edges, smudged and broken down and poor. She gets off to walk the three blocks to the right address, a traincar house painted a chipped dingy yellow across the street from a tiny park with brown grass and a rusted out metal structure that might have been a slide, once. There are a few teenagers leaned against the small section of fence still left standing, picking up discarded cigarette butts and smoking the last centimeters on them.

She knocks at the door twice and waits for it to open.

//

Clint thinks Coulson could use a few pointers on catching a trail. He thinks maybe Coulson has gotten too used to the machine, and too practiced at lying to himself that the machine doesn’t shield them of its own initiative. Clint walks behind Coulson, almost two blocks behind, and he can see security cameras, traffic cameras, turning to follow him. He thinks about waving, decides against it.

Coulson is arguing with a man in a law enforcement jacket. Clint wanders a little closer and makes out the badge on the man’s chest. Marshal. Clint makes an executive decision, slips one of the fake badges out and clips it to his belt. “Heya Vince,” he says, taking Coulson by the arm. “You aren’t cheating on me, are ya?” He pulls Coulson back and away, slips himself between the two men. He shifts his jacket so the badge shows. “Vice. He’s my CI.”

“Federal Marshal Yardley,” the man says. He steps forward and Clint leans in, aggressive, until Yardley backs up a step.

“Thanks for finding him for me,” Clint says, and turns. Coulson stumbles as Clint drags him, having to make an odd half skip to catch up. Yardley doesn’t follow.

“NIce accent, Mr. Barton.”

“No case today you said,” Clint says. “you’ll hurt my feelings,Coulson.” He opens the door of Coulson’s car, the passenger side, and gives Coulson a little shove.

“I didn’t say no case,” Coulson says when they’ve buckled their seatbelts and Clint has turned the engine over. “I said you had the day off.”

“Semantics. Tell me about the number.”

“Kyle Greenly,” Coulson says, pulling a file out of nowhere. “Rap sheet for bad checks, identity theft, credit card fraud.”

Clint hums. “Explains the Marshal.”

“One problem,” Coulson says, “Kyle Greenly has no credit history to speak of. The alias has only existed for three months. Raises a few questions about the good Marshal. Were you following me?”

“Just a bit,” Clint says. Their eyes meet in the rearview mirror. Clint smiles.

//

Barnes pulls Maria into the hallway, the older woman puttering into the kitchen for another cup of tea. “Widow,” he says. “Mourns her dead kid more than her husband, barely admits the husband ever did anything wrong.”

Maria nods. “She know anything about our friend?”

“No.” Barnes looks tired, angry. “Dead end. Sorry to call you all the way down here. I’ll keep you in the loop.”

“I’d like to ask some follow up questions,” Maria says. “Poke around a little.”

Barnes shrugs. “Suit yourself. Let me know if you find anything?”

“Yeah,” Maria says, and he leaves. Maria goes back into the main room.

“Sugar?” the woman (Elise, Maria thinks, or maybe Elouise).

Maria takes the cup and smiles. “Thank you, Mrs. Duquesne.”

Then

“You have a message,” Natasha says. She lobs him his phone and he catches it one handed.

“You didn’t listen to it?” Clint grins at her, teasing. “Some spy you are.”

“Well, we are partners.” Natasha smiles at him, sharp edged, but with something that might be genuine affection.

Clint doesn’t think about the last set or orders he got, the ones that said to eliminate his partner. He wonders briefly if Natasha received similar orders about himself. He thinks he’ll worry about it later, and tosses her a grin before turning to listen to his message.

Barney’s voice echoes from the speakers, tinny. He sounds tired, run down. He sounds old. “Hey, little brother,” he says, and Clint’s whole body freezes.

Now

Coulson settles himself back behind his desk with a sigh of relief. Clint walks to the board and looks at Kyle’s photo, taped side by side with a list of his criminal offenses and a picture of Yardley in a dress uniform. “Abuse,” Clint guesses. “Familial rather than spousal.” He thinks for a beat, looks closer at the two pictures stacked up side by side. “Brothers.”

“I was afraid this particular case would... offend certain sensibilities.”

“Of mine,” Clint clarifies. “I hope you now realize what a mistake that was.”

Coulson extends a hand, a neat address printed on an index card. “Kyle’s place of residence.”

Clint takes it. “We’ll discuss this again later.”

//

“My husband was a good man,” Mrs. Duquesne says. “More tea?”

“No thank you.” Maria sets the teacup down with a gentle clink. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

“A good man,” she repeats. “not like the police said he was. Taking in those boys was his idea, you know.”

Maria blinks. “Your son was adopted?”

Mrs. Duquesne touches a bent finger to a frame on a nearby table, worn down with age. A young man smiles up from behind the glass. “A good boy. Not like his brother--but my husband took him in too. That’s how good he was.”

“Two sons,” Maria says. “They must have been a handful.”

“Not my Barney,” she says. “Such a good boy. I lost him two months before I lost my husband. A car accident.”

Maria casts a look around the room. There are only pictures of one boy, starting from maybe age ten. “What about your other son?” Mrs. Duquesne’s lips purse. She makes a dismissive noise.

“Walked out,” she says, “took good money out of our pockets before he went, too. But my husband never complained. That’s how I know the police lied about him. Him, a gambler? He could have never hidden debts from me. No loan shark ever darkened our doorstep.”

Maria isn’t sure what to say. She thinks Barnes was right about this being a dead end. “I see.” She stands, and smiles. “Thank you for taking the time to talk to me.”

Mrs. Duquesne hesitates a moment, just a few seconds. It’s the pause people take when they’re not sure whether or not to say something. Maria waits her out, another three seconds. “There’s a box of Barney’s things,” she says finally. “In the basement. Would you like to take a look?”

 

At the bottom of the cardboard box, tucked into the corner and weighing down the water-soaked bottom flaps is a picture, creased diagonally across. It’s two boys with dirty blonde hair, the kind that’ll turn dark as they get older. She flips it over to read the scrawled caption, smudged at the edges. Clint and Barney Barton.

//

Clint pulls the battered kitchen chair out to the living room of the tiny apartment, puts it in a place where he’ll be visible as the door opens and closes. He settles himself in the seat and braces his feet on the ground. He waits.

//

Officially the coroner ruled Barney Barton’s death a result of blunt force trauma, his skull smashed into a spiderweb of cracks in a windshield off a windy stretch of road. The police report is sparse, one statement by a first responder, a note from the medical examiner that the blood alcohol content was lower than expected, given the number of beer cans found in the car, but high enough that it was considered surprising he managed to stay conscious long enough to crash his car through a guard railing and into an impressively large tree, and then, in the back, a report from a Detective Barrigan detailing that Barton had contacted her two weeks prior requesting a confidential interview.

Maria taps her fingers against the crime scene photos; no brake streaks on the road, an unexplained failure of the airbag to deploy. The timeline has two points on it, Barney Barton last seen leaving a diner, Monday eight pm, a 911 call from a passing driver reporting a crashed vehicle, midnight Tuesday. Maria flips her phone awake to double check her quick calendar math; two months after the crash, Duquesne found dead in his private office at the carnival. She turns the pages to read the last police statement one last time, signed Diana Barrigan, White Collar Division.

//

The window rattles in its frame, inching up and up, and Clint frowns. The fire escape. Clint pushes up on the balls of his feet, twists his body until the back legs of the chair creak in protest as he turns himself to face the window. Kyle is a slip of a thing, skinny enough that Clint figures his ribs would be visible if his shirt was off. Ratty sneakers, jeans with rips worn through the knees. He sees Clint and freezes, tensed in the millisecond between flight and fight. He goes for a nearby drawer, picking fight, and Clint smiles, pleased.

“I have it,” he says, and holds up his hand, where the tiny six shot revolver dangles from his middle finger. “Where did you even get this? Off the back of a truck?” He takes another look at the piece. “In the early seventies?”

“Who are you?” Kyle looks ready to jump back out the window, enthusiastically enough that he might miss the fire escape entirely.

Clint spreads his hands. “I am the solution to your problems.” Kyle’s face twitches, caught between trying to show disbelief and trying not to anger the man holding a gun. Clint stands and he flinches, very slightly.

“What do you want from me?”

“I want to help you.” Clint offers him the gun, butt first, muzzle pointed towards the wall. “I know what it’s like to run, run and run and never stop. And I can help you.”

“No one can help me,” Kyle says, his shoulders hunching up. “You don’t know Blaine.”

“I know Blaine,” Clint says. “There are a million Blaines, and they are all of them the same.”

“You can help me,” Kyle says. He sounds like he’s thinking it over. Clint reaches out with two fingers and adjusts the barrel as it wanders to point at him, keeping the line of fire pointed at the floor. “Okay,” Kyle says, and Clint smiles. “My real name is Kevin. Kevin Yardley.”

“I know.” Clint says. He stops. “Pack a bag,” he says, and calls Coulson.

2011

Clint buys his entrance ticket from a teenager, looking bored at his kiosk, like the biggest regret in the entirety of his life is that he took a job that doesn’t allow him to sit at a chair. Clint walks straight from the entrance to the familiar section, the fence sagging deeper but everything almost exactly the same: the old timey signs, old fashioned tents, chipped up targets in carefully cordoned off lanes. He takes a deep breath, stale popcorn and haybales, and moves around to the entrance marked ‘private.’ His feet point the way to Duquesne’s private space, muscle memory. It looks smaller than he remembers, and he cracks a humourless grin.

“Either you’ve shrunk...” he says aloud. He walks to a shelf, where Barney’s face grins at him from behind cheap frames. He picks up one with Barney’s arm slung around a shoulder cut off by the edge of the photo, turns it over to slip the felt back off and unfold the picture to reveal himself, younger, grinning up at his brother with their bows slung over their backs.

Now

Clint waits until the shift change overlaps with lunch hour, until there are minimal people flowing in and out of the U.S. Marshal’s office. Then he touches the icon on his phone to pull up the keypad for an outgoing call. Instead of dialing he raises the small speaker to his mouth.

“I would appreciate it if the cameras got minimal footage of my face,” he says, and slips his phone away without waiting for a reply.

Inhale, he thinks as he holds the door for a man, nods at his thanks, hold, now he’s in the office, exhale. There’s Yardley.

“Hi Blaine,” he says, and breaks his arm in one movement, cracks Yardley’s forearm, hears the double snap: radius, ulna. Blaine makes a noise like all the air and fight has gone out of him at once, his weight sags and Clint supports him over to a chair. “I’m guessing that those charges on Kevin’s rapsheet? Bullshit to help you track him.”

Another deputy enters, drawn by the noise, and Clint kicks him in the groin, follows it by a quick strike to the throat and a blow to the temple with a nearby three hole punch. He turns back to Blaine, bats his good arm away from the gun at his belt. “There’s no one who can protect you from me. There’s nowhere you can’t go that I can’t follow.” Cilnt smoothes the front of his suit and checks the buttons at his cuffs. “Go home, or I’ll show you what a real monster looks like.”

 

He’s back in the car when his phone rings. “We have a problem,” Coulson says.

“I just fixed it,” Clint tells him.

There’s a telling pause on the other end of the line, and then Coulson moves on. “Kevin gave me the slip.”

Clint sighs. “You had one job, Coulson.” He’s torn between annoyance and relief--Coulson doesn’t have time to dig into what just happened.

“He’s left his phone behind,” Coulson says, “I won’t be able to track him.”

Clint makes an abrupt u-turn. “People found people before your little bits of tech came along, Coulson. Don’t fret.” He tosses his phone on the seat beside him and presses down on the accelerator.

 

//

 

Coulson is pulled over on the side of the road outside Kevin’s old apartment when his phone rings. “Detective Hill,” he starts, “if this could possibly wait--”

“Two federal marshals just filed reports of assault and battery with a deadly weapon.” Maria cuts across him. “Would you like to hazard a guess on how they described their assailant?”

Coulson takes a second. “The situation is being handled.”

“Assault and battery with a deadly weapon on federal agents.” Maria’s voice half rises in hysteria before she tamps it down.

“What’s your reading on the investigation with Agent Barnes?”

Maria sighs down the line at him. “Mr. Barton is probably off the hook. I’ve got a friend in the local PD running done a file for me. My eyes only.”

“Excellent,” Coulson says. Someone taps on the glass of his window and he looks up to see Clint leaning over from the sidewalk. He makes a motion for Coulson to open the door.

“I’m not saying I’ll cover it if anything pops,” Maria is saying.

Coulson interrupts her. “I’d be obliged if you kept me updated.” He ends the call and cracks the window.

“Kevin was detained by transit authorities at Grand Central,” he tells Clint. “Ten minutes ago they radioed in to report that Marshals picked him up.”

Clint nods. “You have access to the lojack in Yardley’s vehicle?”

“Yes,” Coulson says, and sends the information to Clint’s phone.

Clint looks down as his phone beeps. “Good. Get out of the car.”

Coulson hesitates. “I could call Detective--”

“Coulson,” Clint says. His voice is hard. “Get out of the car.”

Coulson gets out of the car. He watches Clint drive away, and takes his phone out of his pocket. It rings twice and clicks as the call connects. “Detective Hill,” he says, “I need your help.”

Then

“We should go,” Clint says, tripping over the ends of his pants. Barney pushes him down into a sitting position and rolls the cuffs above his ankles. “We shouldn’t stay in one place, you said!”

“Don’t be such a brat,” Barney says. “This guy says he’ll give us jobs.”

“But we won’t trust him,” Clint says, sure he’s parroting the right thing.

“Right,” Barney says. “remember, can’t trust anyone--”

“--and everyone dies alone,” Clint finishes. “Except us.”

Barney brushes Clint’s hair out of his face, grown too long. “Except us.”

Now

Clint kicks down the door, briefly appreciating shoddy motel room construction for the dramatic splintering and smashing. He slaps the gun out of Yardley’s hand and dodges when Yardley swings the cast on his right hand at him like a club. He pops Yardley’s good arm out of the socket and leaves him gasping on the carpet to untie Kevin from the tableleg bolted to the floor. There’s a fresh bruise darkening his eye and his lip is split open, but he looks good. Clint reaches in his pocket and finds the roll of cash he’s stashed there earlier.

“I don’t know,” Kevin stammers.

“Might want to get that lip checked out,” Clint says, tucking the money into Kevin’s shirt pocket.

“What should I do?” Kevin asks, bewildered. “Where do I go?”

“Wherever you want,” Clint tells him. Kevin clenches and unclenches his fingers, his knuckles cracking.

“It’s over,” he says, and something close to wonder flits across his face.

“Yes,” Clint says.

Then

“I can’t believe you would even suggest something like that,” Barney snaps. His knuckles are scraped over raw, drops of Clint’s blood dotting the skin between them. Clint presses a hand to where they split the skin above his eye.

“It’s true,” he says. “I went back and checked the numbers, Barney, he’s been skimming for months--”

“I’m not going to listen to this,” Barney says. “We owe him everything.”

“That’s why I’m leaving,” Clint says. He spits to the side and straightens up his spine. “I’m joining up, I’m not reporting him. That’s all we owe him, Barney, he used us.”

“He made us,” Barney spits, his face twisted up. There’s something there, under what he said, that Duquesne made one better than the other, maybe, that one is jealous, but Barney bites it back before he says it.

Clint nods in recognition and turns away. “Come with me,” he says.

Now

Clint sees the lights in the rearview mirror and knows it must be HIll. He pulls over and waits for her to approach the window. “Evening, officer,” he drawls.

Maria glares at him.. “I need you to get out of the car, Clint.”

Clint raises an eyebrow. “I’m okay, Maria. Thanks for the offer of assistance.”

Maria props her arm on her waist in a way that pulls her jacket back to expose her gun. “Not an offer.”

“Do you know what people like Yardley do to those around them?” Clint asks. Maria waits him out, and after a few seconds he starts again. “They change what makes up a person, twists it, reach into their brains and play. Do you know what it’s like to be unmade?”

“Can’t let you kill him,” Maria says, and it’s almost an apology.

Clint looks her in the eye for the first time since she pulled him over. “Do you trust me to do what needs to be done?”

2011

Clint is crouched on the balls of his feet, his back leaned against the wall, when Duquesne comes in. “Close the door,” he says, and Duquesne stares at him before complying.

“Who are you?” he asks, and Clint laughs, a broken noise that doesn’t even really sound like a laugh, not even to him.

“There is that person,” Clint murmurs. He stops. Duquesne stares at him. “Who connects you to the world. What do you do when they’re gone?”

Duquesne takes a small step towards him. “...Clint?”

“They make you someone different, someone better,” Clint says, more loudly. “You took him from me.” He stands, rolling up from the balls of his feet to his heels and back again. Recognition dawns in Duquesne’s face. He pulls a knife from his pocket.

“What do I become now?” Clint asks him, and advances.

Now

Hill slips into her desk and leans her head into her hands. Her hand is shaking, very slightly, and she balls it into a fist to make it still. Her knee jumps up into the underside of the desk and she pushes herself away in her chair, frustrated and second guessing herself. Her palm slaps down on the surface and she feels paper instead of beat up wood. Closer inspection yields a manila folder file, papers in a medium sized stack held secure with brass tacks. A post it note is half-peeled off the top, a scrawled message in faint ink for your eyes only.

Maria bites her lip. She slips the folder under her blazer jacket and finds her way into an empty utility room, with bundles of cheap pens stacked on metal shelves next to tangled messes of paperclips and boxes of staples lined up in neat rows, battered office machines shoved against the wall. She shuts the door behind her, smacks at the light switch until the weak bulb flickers to life.

She slaps the file down on a clear bit of shelf and flips it open with two fingers. “Let’s see you,” she murmurs to herself, “the Man with the Bow.”

//

Clint finds Coulson on the riverside, sitting on one of the wooden benches bolted to the ground, looking out over the water. Clint smoothes his long coat and sits beside him, and there’s silence for a moment, the noises of distant boat horns and the sound of the wind on the currents.

“Before we started working together,” Coulson says without looking at him, “there were a few numbers, this... this set. They came up, over and over, and I couldn’t understand why their lives were in danger. Constantly. I checked, and they weren’t in the military, the police department, firefighters; no high risk professions. And then I realized my oversight: they were constantly in danger because they lived with the people who would eventually murder them.”

“Did you prioritize?” Clint asks. His voice sounds a little hollow, even to himself. “Protect the women and children first? Not Barney. He wasn’t being abused, not then, right? Was his number one that came up over and over again, every night he did a money drop until the night he noticed?”

Coulson turns his head. “Does it matter?”

Clint’s fingers clench on his knees. “It does.”

“Whatever it was,” Coulson says, “whatever it could have been. Whatever--my failures, it was before we started to work together. It is no longer relevant.”

Clint thinks about this. “Irrelevant,” he says, “but not unimportant.”

“Yes,” Coulson says, and then: “I have something for you.”

Clint smiles. The breeze coming off the water is refreshing on his face, little drops of water pleasantly cool on his skin. “It’s like it’s my birthday.” Coulson smiles at that, just a bit, and gives him a business card made of expensive stock, the kind where the writing is stamped in instead of inked on.

“Happy Birthday, Mr. Barton,” Coulson says, and leaves, walking down the path with his head bent against the wind.

Clint flips the small card in his hands to see an address handwritten on the back, a neighborhood he recognizes, the neighborhood where his favourite shooting gallery is. Clint smoothes his thumb over the writing and it smudges from the mist in the air, the oil on his finger. He thinks he’s finally figured out where the key in his pocket fits.

//

Maria closes the file with a muted thump, slumped back into her desk chair at home. She presses a knuckle to the space between her eyebrows and takes a deep breath. Hill likes to pride herself on snap decisions, weighing pros and cons and consequences and doing the best with the information she has available. She takes one more breath, inhaling until her ribcage creaks and exhaling long. She flips the file open on her desk and slips a photograph from between the pages, two boys smiling at the camera, the same tilt to their eyes, the same crooked smile. The shapes of their noses are similar, the dishwater yellow of their hair identical. She puts the photograph in her inner jacket pocket and smacks the shredder to life.

The file vibrates when she feeds it through, thrumming up her fingers. The Man in the Suit, she thinks, the Man with the Bow, Agent Clint Barton.

“Tomorrow is another day,” she says, and flips the light off.

2011

There is that person, Clint thinks, his hand pressed to his side, the person who connects you to the world, who is and was what you’ve been and become. Blood seeps between his fingers and he shrugs the halves of his jacket closer together, hiding the wound. He smiles hesitantly at a fellow passenger and she blanches, standing to move down the rocking aisle of the bus to a different empty seat. Clint leans his head against the cool glass of the window and half closes his eyes. He wonders what stop he should get off at. He wonders where he should go now.

//

What do you do when that person is taken from you? What do you become then?