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It was Clint’s first job in collections. At least, that’s what the mob boss had called it. He’d laughed uproariously at his own joke, and everyone else had laughed too, even though no one thought it was funny. Clint didn’t understand why people did that, but he went along with it. He was smart enough to know that he had to keep these people happy if he wanted to get paid. And he was so very hungry.

So he kept his head down and didn’t ask questions. They were headed to the docks, to a warehouse owned by some weird collector guy. Clint didn’t know why they were going there or what they were gonna steal—his job was just to provide backup. He double, triple, and quadruple-checked his bow and arrows, just to make sure they were all there and accounted for. No one made fun of him for his weapon anymore. Not after he put an arrow through the last guy’s hand who tried to hit him.

Once they got to the warehouse, Clint decided that he really should have asked more questions. It was full of the most beautiful, strange, and terrifying creatures he had ever seen. And they were all alive.

The other guys spread out quickly, searching for whatever it was that their boss wanted. Clint tried hard to keep lookout and not get distracted by all the weirder animals, but some of it was just insane. Then he heard a shout of excitement, and couldn’t help but turn and look.

It was one of the thugs, a particularly mean one, who was leering at what appeared to be a—mermaid? Clint rubbed his eyes, sure that he must have been hallucinating. But no, when he looked again she was still there. The mermaid was trapped in some kind of aquarium, just big enough to contain her contorted limbs. She looked young, around his age, and had long brown hair. Her tail was a mixture of shimmery blues and greens, and seemed to shift colors in the light. She was…terrified. She was utterly terrified, and without thinking Clint moved closer.

“—that’s a pretty mouth you got there, you little freak. I wonder, would you like to know how a man tastes?” the thug asked, pulling at his belt buckle.

Clint’s hand tightened on his bow, and in a flash he’d knocked an arrow and pointed it at the asshole. “Leave her alone,” he ordered, grateful that his voice didn’t shake. He definitely wouldn’t be getting paid after this. Looking at the terrified woman, he couldn’t bring himself to regret it. She was staring at him, too, and placed a palm flat against the glass between them.

The man laughed, pulling Clint’s attention back to him. “What are you gonna do about it, you little punk?”

“You really shouldn’t have said that,” Clint mocked, and released his arrow. Then, all hell broke loose.

When everything was said and done, Clint had set part of the warehouse on fire and released all the other creatures.

That should keep everyone busy for a while, he thought with vicious satisfaction as he made his way back to the mermaid.

She shrunk back into the water (as much as she could in such a confined space, anyway) as he approached, and Clint stopped several feet away from her and put his hands out in front of him slowly. “I don’t want to hurt you,” he reassured her. “I just want to get you out of here. The whole place is about to go up in flames.”

“I can’t live outside the water,” she cried in despair, but reached for him anyway. “I’m not old enough! I’ll suffocate.”

“I can get you to the docks, if you can hold on that long.” She nodded, and he scooped her out of the tank and headed for the exit as quickly as he could.

Just as he could make out the docks through the dark, she started to fade. “Stay with me,” he said, jostling her body in his arms slightly to urge her awake. “You have to survive this, or it was all for nothing.”

A soft chuckle escaped her at that. “You’re so bitter for one so young,” she observed. “My name is Darcy,” she added. “What is yours?”

Clint stopped walking. He’d reached the end of the dock. “Clint,” he grunted as he slowly lowered her to the water. “My name is Clint.”

He started to straighten up, only to hesitate as she reached up and placed her hand against his cheek. “Clint,” she murmured. He tried not to savor the way she said his name, and failed. “You saved my life, Clint,” she said. Then she was gone.

“Yeah, yeah,” Clint grumbled, already turning to look at the devastation he’d wrought. “I just hope it was worth it.” The place where she’d brushed her fingers across his cheek lingered with her warmth, and he couldn’t bring himself to be all that angry.

 


 

I knew this was a bad idea, was all Clint thought as he took a bullet to the shoulder and tumbled off the dock. After years of practice, he’d learned how to steer clear of jobs that crossed the line. He’d developed a sense for it, knowing when a contract was likely to go bad or when he was likely to be double-crossed.

And damn it all if his gut hadn’t been screaming at him on this one. But his stomach had been screaming, too, in hunger and starvation. So, he had taken the job against his better judgment, and look where it got him: shot by the assholes who gave him the contract in the first place and left to either drown or bleed out from a bullet wound, whichever came first.

The pain in his shoulder was excruciating, but Clint refused to open his mouth to scream. Blood flowed freely from his wound, muddying the water all around him. He was going to drown, down here in the dark and the cold, but all he could think about was the mermaid he’d set free all those years ago. How could a creature so bright and fierce thrive in a place like this? he wondered hazily.

As if summoned from his thoughts, long brown hair floated into his line of sight, followed by two arms that wrapped around him from behind. Something smooth slid along his legs, and then he was yanked into motion. He screamed at that, swallowing bloody salt water in agony. Everything went black.

 


 

When Clint came to, he was vomiting salt water. There was a hand at his back and a woman’s voice murmuring in his ear. Clint tried to move, but couldn’t do anything but expel the water from his lungs. “That’s it, Clint. You’re going to be fine,” the voice soothed. Then a hand pressed on his uninjured shoulder, gently maneuvering him so that he was lying on his back.

“Don’t be scared if..it’s just a side effect….I used to treat your wound.” The words seemed to come from far away, fading in and out through the haze of pain. The woman leaned over him, long hair spilling over one shoulder and onto his chest. Her grin was fond, teasing almost. “How is it that you always manage to find yourself in trouble like this, anyway?”

Clint’s eyes darted restlessly, trying to understand what was going on. He was in some kind of cave, his shoulder hurt like hell, and his limbs were frighteningly heavy. Experimentally, he tried to turn his head. He couldn’t move. His breathing sped up, and he started to panic. Clint’s captor—or was it rescuer? His head was so fuzzy and he couldn’t remember—gave him a wry smile. “It’s okay, Clint. I’m not going to hurt you.”

Her smile shifted something in him, and he remembered. Darcy. The mermaid from the aquarium, with the gentle touch and a fiery spirit. Her name was Darcy.

She gently traced the bridge of his nose with one finger. Clint tried desperately to focus and not get lost in the depths of her eyes. Where was he? Why had she brought him here? His head swam, and he felt like she was casting a spell on him. She added, “I just couldn’t not try to repay you for helping me,” and withdrew her finger. Clint shifted forward, his body subconsciously chasing her touch.

As some of the fog in his mind lifted, a wave of fear swelled and crashed over him. His heart told him that he was safe with her, but his body was fixated on its paralyzed state. After years of abuse in the circus and then life on the streets, Clint did not have good memories of being tied up or pinned down.“Then buy me a card or a fuckin’ pizza, not whatever this is,” he spat, shaking with fear. He cursed and focused all his attention on wriggling free, but all he managed was a feeble twitch of his arms.

“Stop, you’re hurting yourself. Clint!” she urged, concern for his well-being written all over her face. He saw it too late—understood it, and realized he had read the situation wrong. She was trying to help, had saved him. But a full-blown panic attack had already overtaken him, and he started to hyperventilate. She put both hands on either side of his face, coaxing him to breathe, but it was too late.

The archer felt himself slipping away, trying desperately to hold on to Darcy’s face. But it kept shifting, moving a great distance from him. There was a soft brush against his forehead, and the mermaid whispered, “Just rest, it’ll be okay.“

And then she sang him to sleep.

 


 

Clint woke to a blinding headache. Literally blinding, as in the sun was shining directly into his eyes. He shifted his head to one side, trying to escape the ferocity of its rays, only to stick his nose and mouth directly into wet sand.

He sputtered and sat up, scrubbing at the sand on his face with a hand. A gritty hand, it turned out. “Aww, sand, no,” he whined, dropping his arm away from his face. The ocean stretched for miles in front of him, frothy and blue. Like a lightning bolt, everything came back to him.

Ignoring the sandy mess on his face, Clint surged to his feet and scanned the waves frantically. There was no sign of his mermaid. Worried that he’d run her off—or worse, made her think he thought she was a monster—he took several rapid steps forward. The ocean lapped at his feet playfully, but he ignored it. Reaching up to shield his eyes from the blinding sunshine, Clint froze. A message was written on the inside of his forearm in feminine handwriting. Darcy.

We’re even, it read. Take care of yourself, hotshot. There was a tiny heart drawn at the end.

Clint stood there in confusion for long minutes before he remembered the gunshot wound. He reached up to touch the bloody mess at his shoulder and found smooth skin instead. Briefly, he considered diving back into the ocean and making her save him again. But there was no guarantee she’d still be there, and Clint wasn’t interested in drowning for real. He’d have to find her another way.

Months later, when Coulson approached him about joining SHIELD—“We could use someone with your skillset, Barton”—Clint pretended to be skeptical.

“Government agency? Sounds boring,” he taunted, daring the agent to prove him wrong. He wasn’t disappointed.

Coulson lowered his sunglasses, staring right into Clint’s eyes. “Barton, you wouldn’t believe some of the things I’ve seen.”

“Is that a promise, Agent?”

With SHIELD’s unwitting help, Clint would find his mermaid again.

 


 

(And he would find her again. Years later, and in the most unexpected place. After all, who would think to look for a mermaid in the desert?

She took one look at the tattoo spanning his right forearm and laughed. Then she kissed him.)