Clint’s kicked back, shoes on the coffee table that probably cost more than his admittedly shitty apartment, and he smirks as Tony glares at him. The movie’s junk, but Cap hasn’t seen a movie since the ‘40s and every Avenger has a favorite genre. So tonight is slasher movies and Clint can’t figure out why Natasha likes the damned things. She always ends up throwing popcorn at the bimbos and talking through just exactly what the girl is doing wrong.
Clint’s never been so glad for a phone call in his life. He wriggles out from under Natasha’s legs, steps over Tony and makes his escape from the group, taking the call without looking at the number. “Hello?”
“Good evenin' to you, dear cousin. I do hope I am not disturbing you?”
For as long as he's been avoiding him, Clint still knows that voice. “Boyd. It’s been a long time.”
“Too long, Clinton. Far too long.” Boyd Crowder pauses, the way he would when he’s trying to draw you out, make you blurt out shit. “I saw you on the television. You are the talk of Harlan County, boy. You saved the world from honest to god aliens.” Clint can hear something in Boyd’s voice and it makes his blood run cold. Before he can interject, Boyd asks, “Was that by chance the lovely Natalie at your side? I could have sworn you two had a serious difference of opinion on the direction of your relationship shortly after she took you away from here. Unless I am mistaken?”
Clint swallows, the words stuck in his throat. He glances over his shoulder, stares at his newfound family, and hums quietly. Then he takes a deep breath and walks away. “What do you want, Boyd?”
“Why, cousin, you wound me. We are family. I was simply inquiring as to your well being after seeing the destruction wrought on Manhattan.” Boyd stops. And Clint knows he’s expecting Clint to return the platitude.
Clint scrubs at his face, heads for the roof as he hisses into the phone, “I’m fine, Boyd. Thanks for asking. How’s your daddy?”
“My daddy is dead, Clinton.”
Clint sighs; he should feel something. Bo Crowder took him in when no one else wanted him. He lets his head drop against the wall. “I’m sorry to hear that, Boyd. You have my condolences.” He refuses to ask how it happened. He's hardly surprised that Bo got himself offed with all the shit he had his hands in.
“If you would come home for a visit now and again, you would be aware of such things.”
“I’m sorry, but Harlan ain’t -- isn’t home for me, Boyd. It hasn’t been for a long time.”
“Harlan will always be home, Clinton. You're a Crowder."
Clint grits his teeth against the memory of the events that led to that happenstance. "My name's Barton."
"Your momma was a Crowder. You're blood, Clinton."
"What do you want, Boyd? I gave you this number for emergencies."
"No, Boyd, dammit! We don't work that way."
There's silence on the line and Clint holds his breath, reins in his temper. He's learned patience since he lived in Harlan. He can wait Boyd out.
When Boyd relents, his voice is quiet, making Clint press the phone more firmly against his ear. "There's something going on at the mine. Something un-natural."
Clint rolls his eyes. For as smart as Boyd is, and there's no doubt the guy's brilliant, he still has this tendency to superstition. But the last thing Clint wants to do is antagonize Boyd. For all that he can go off the rails, usually pushed by one scheme or another, he is family. The big brother that Barney never was.
"What does the mining company say?"
Boyd huffs softly.
"You have reported your concerns?"
"I am no longer in the mine's employ. Besides, how am I to know that Black Pike isn't behind the unsettling disappearances?"
"Unsettling? What about the police?"
That made Boyd smile. Clint could hear it in his reply. "Let us say that the local constabulary is less than enthusiastic in investigating." He pauses. "I am at a loss, cousin. There is something going on and I need your help."
Clint is silent for a moment, his eyes taking in the lights of New York spread at his feet as memories of Harlan coalesce and turn vivid.
Harlan had been forced on him during one of the shittiest times in his life. He'd been left for dead by his own brother and awakened in the hospital to the reality that he'd been utterly abandoned and not just by his asshole brother and criminally insane mentor. The circus had moved on without him, leaving Clint lost and alone. Except that he apparently did have some family left.
His mother's brother, Bo Crowder, took Clint in, gave him a home and his boys, assholes the both of them, treated him like a proper little brother. There was no jealousy, no heaping on of abuse, just honest rough housing. It was, in a word, foreign to Clint, but he had been warmly welcomed so worked his hardest to fit in. Boyd, of all of the Crowder cousins, kept at him until teen-aged Clint's square edges had been worn away enough that he "seemed" to fit.
All through high school, Clint kept expecting the other shoe to drop, kept expecting Bo to demand payment for taking Clint in. It never happened, but Clint couldn't settle in completely despite the Crowders’ best efforts.
Once he was healed up and could draw a bow, he'd trained daily, after chores and homework, the hope that he could return to the only stable life he'd known motivating him. Bowman gave him shit about his recurve bow, but was more than willing to drop bundles of straight, thin branches onto the back porch for Clint to whittle into arrows. And Boyd… well, Boyd was perceptive and scarily smart. From the first moment he glimpsed Clint's costume, he had teased Clint about performing, about craving the lights and an audience. He'd also made veiled comments about Clint's eye wandering in 'un-natural' directions, the warning clear: keep that shit in the closet. But beyond those pointed asides and the knowing jibes only given when it was just the two of them, Boyd had taken Clint under his wing, drawing him into his circle of friends. He had even unknowingly introduced Clint to his first crush: Raylan Givens. Clint's sure Boyd knows what he thought of the tall baseball player so he's certain seeing Raylan again would be all kinds of awkward, especially if Boyd is anywhere close by. Still, now that the thought has surfaced, Clint has a hankering to see how Raylan has turned out. He's likely gone soft, all that long, lean muscle turned to flab.
Bemused, Clint chuckles. He had some damn good times in Harlan, made friends, been part of a family He'd led a somewhat "normal" life, getting into trouble pulling more shit than any ten boys his age, and getting away with most of it. He'd even met Natasha in a Harlan laundromat when she'd been hiding as far away from her ex-associates as was possible. Who could have imagined that their paths would have crossed again after his barely legal self fled Harlan with her? They haven't talked about that time in ages, not since she'd appeared in his rifle site and he refused to take the shot. Clint recognizes his weakness now; how he falls so hard and so fast. And Natasha hadn't been the first that he trailed after, hoping it'd 'stick'. He'd done that with Barney, blindly following, swore he wouldn't trust again after his brother's betrayal. But he'd fallen head over heels for Natasha, believed every lie she'd fed him.
They'd had sixteen short months where she was everything she'd said. Then things went down that Clint didn't understand at the time and she vanished on him. He had been abandoned once again, left with a broken heart; but, unlike Barney, she hadn't left him to die or sold him out to her enemies. She had left Clint in a mess of trouble, but ultimately she set his feet on the path to S.H.I.E.L.D. and to Phil, not to mention Stark and Rogers and the rest of the team. For all the myriad possibilities where his life could have taken one bad turn after another, somewhere along the way he'd ended up as an Avenger instead of in jail or worse.
"Clinton?" Boyd's voice pulls Clint back from the past.
"I'll see what I can find out, Boyd. No promises. I'm a long way from Harlan."
"My home is your home, cousin."
"I'll be in touch," Clint replies as he disconnects.
"Barton," Phil calls as Clint passes his open office door.
"Yeah, boss?" Clint stops and leans on the door frame. He's still adjusting to Phil's "return" and his altered position in Clint's life. It's new and all things wonderful, but Clint doesn't always know how to act, which 'face' to wear and when. And sometimes he's an ass and it's hard to hold back, but he is trying to be a professional. Sort of.
Phil shakes his head, a tiny smile quirking just the edges of his lips. "Just thought you'd want to know about that situation down in Kentucky. It warrants further investigation."
That surprises Clint. He drops into a guest chair, propping his feet up on the edge of Phil's desk. "Well, shit, sir."
Phil slides a report toward Clint, pushing his feet off the desk with a sharp shove. "It's a remote area without reliable information, but some preliminary scans seem to indicate that Black Pike strip #4 could be hot. The lab is taking another pass through all available satellite data, but we need boots on the ground."
Clint doesn't look up from the report. "Nat and I--"
"Barton, Agent Romanoff leaves this afternoon on a solo op."
That gets Clint's attention. Natasha hadn't said anything about an op. He frowns, then his expression turns devilish. "You and I make a great team, sir."
Phil's shoulders sag minutely before he shakes his head. "Unfortunately, I must remain here to assist Agent Romanoff."
"Oh." That makes some sense. Clint wouldn't want anyone else watching Natasha's back, but that doesn't keep it from hurting. And he doesn't fail to hide his feelings.
"You'll know as much as we can tell you, Clint. But right now you're not being read into this one."
Clint relaxes a fraction when Phil uses his first name. He doesn't do that in the office. It's not Phil's way.
"Well, we cannot let Stark within a thousand miles of Harlan County!"
Phil's eyes twinkle in agreement. "Ms. Potts has claims on Stark's time for SI." He holds up a hand to stop Cint. "And Doctor Banner is staying in the lab. He'll be the liaison between you and the scientists. If you think Stark and Harlan wouldn't mix, take a moment to imagine the Big Guy in Kentucky."
Clint flinches. No. Banner's place is in the lab. "Steve?" he questions, hope dwindling.
And Phil sighs, shaking his head. "He is stuck on that PR tour since no one else could be trusted."
"I go in alone?" He can easily handle a solo op, but this is a little too personal and Phil knows it. Thanks to his history Clint alone in Harlan is a recipe for disaster.
"Thor is looking forward to meeting your friends and family."
Phil is probably wearing that smug little smile, the one that Clint can never decide if he wants to kiss or punch away. Clint isn't sure because he's slumped down in his seat, eyes closed, as he whimpers, "Nooooooo," his mind filling with all the destruction Thor leaves in his wake and imagines that "power" combined with Boyd's.
Before he can object or suggest that he just go at it alone, Natasha, Bruce and Thor (oh, god) enter Coulson’s office. Natasha gives Clint that half-smile, the one that says she’s sorry that she’s not sorry about his fate. Thor bounds up to him, his golden hair falling in his handsome face.
“I am pleased to go with you, brother Hawkeye,” Thor says, clapping Clint on the shoulder with his mighty hand. Clint winces a little. “I have enjoyed hearing your tales about the land of your forefathers. It sounds like a place of a proud and ancient people.”
“More like a bunch of rednecks and drunks,” Natasha whispers in an totally unsubtle fashion to Bruce, who cannot resist a snort and a snicker that makes him sound like he’s gagging.
“Pot dealers, liars and cheats,” Bruce adds once he recovers. "That's the backwoods of Kentucky in a nutshell."
While Thor looks incredibly pleased, Clint sighs mentally. Best to just saddle up and go with it. “I’m happy to take you with me, Thor, if that’s what’s best for the team and for the situation. But, er, not many of my family are still there. Just a few cousins and friends from high school.”
“Those that haven’t died in the mine, in car wrecks, or of stupidity,” Natasha helpfully continues.
“Excellent!” Thor cries. “It shall be an honour to meet your cousins and friends.”
“Well, I don’t know how much of an honor it’ll be,” Clint says, struggling to hold off the growing panic of taking the Asgardian to Harlan County. “But it will certainly be an education.”
They fly commercial to keep as low-key as possible and Clint misses the Quinjet immediately. Even though they have authorization and bypass TSA security, the gate agents hassle him about carrying his bow case on board. In the end, they relent. Thor's silent bulk at his six probably helps. They're first to board, thank goodness, but sitting next to the large man is a challenge. Even the seats in first class can hardly contain Thor’s well-developed frame. Clint makes a mental note to send the feisty attendant a thank you note for keeping the curious passengers in economy from bothering them both. Then he thinks he's going to seriously consider travelling back via Mjølnir; frostbite would be nothing compared to the hassle of a commercial flight.
The minute Clint turns on his phone after the wheels hit the tarmac of the Louisville, KY airport, it goes off, begins blaring "The Devil Went Down to Georgia". He silences the song and refuses to answer, tries to ignore the glances of the surrounding passengers. Without even looking at the caller, he knows that it must be Stark because Clint doesn't actually have anything by the Charlie Daniels Band on his phone. He rolls his eyes, hopes that Stark will leave it for now, but it starts up again, this time playing "Midnight Train to Georgia". He refuses the call again, mutes the phone as passengers glare at him, hoping that the plane makes it to the gate before Tony tries again.
It must take a few extra entries to hack past the mute on the phone because they've taxied to the gate and have nearly escaped by the time "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia" begins to play. And fuck it, but he can see how this is going to go. If he doesn't answer and humor Tony, the man will go through every single song with Georgia in the title. Clint gives in and answers as the door to the plane opens, "Tony," he growls, leaping up and urging Thor to do the same.
"Katniss! You left without saying good-bye!"
"Stark, I'm busy. What do you need?"
They've made it off the jetway and are in the airport, Clint glancing around for signs for the car rental, even as he's keeping Tony occupied and herding Thor forward, which is easier said than done when the Asgardian wants to stop and talk to every child they pass.
"I'm hurt, Legolas. You took Thor with you to Georgia--"
"We're not in Georgia, Stark."
"Kentucky, Georgia, Tennessee…" He can hear Tony waving his hands in the air. "It's all the same south of the Mason-Dixon, right?"
Clint sighs audibly. He steps to the side to stay out of the glut of passengers moving like lemmings in one giant herd. He has to play this right or Tony will be in the suit with his nose all up in Clint's business before they arrive in Harlan. Clint lowers his voice and begins talking, "Look, Stark, I asked for you first, figured if anyone could blend in with the locals, it'd be you. I got shot down. Seems Fury and Pepper have some scheme they think is more important than this."
Before he can continue, he glances up and realizes that Thor is in the middle of a gaggle of women and children. He's got two kids clinging to his biceps as he's raising and lowering them. The kids are laughing, the moms are ogling the way Thor's muscles bulge and flex, and Thor is smiling bright enough to rival the sun.
"Gotta go, Stark! You get your ass down here, I got a bar stool and a pickup truck with your name on it, k?"
He disconnects the call and hurries to extricate Thor. Hopefully this is not a sign for how this whole op is going to go.
Clint grips the wheel of the boring sedan he rented after rushing Thor to the rental counter. The interstate they’re traveling climbs higher into the mountainous region of eastern Kentucky. Thor had wanted Mjølnir to take them directly to Harlan, but Coulson had nixed the idea immediately. “No need to raise a fuss, and when on Earth do as... well, as the rest of us do, Thor,” Coulson had admonished. Natasha and Bruce had gotten a huge laugh on that one.
Thor looks intently out the window, making odd appreciative noises as they pass exits with brightly lit signs for food, hardware stores, bars, gas stations and the like. Then Clint takes the exit off the interstate and pulls to a stop at the intersection; he turns onto the two lane road that will take them directly into Harlan county. It won’t be long now, and Clint fights off the odd flipping in his stomach. For fuck’s sake, he scolds himself. It’s just home. The gathering dark brings on more lit signs along the road.
“Ah! Hawkeye, there is a food named for your home!” Thor says, pointing at a red and white sign.
“Well, sort of. The Colonel was from around these parts,” Clint replies, drawing to a stop at a red light.
“‘Kentucky Fried Chicken’ is an indigenous eating establishment for your home state?”
Clint rolls his eyes, but smiles. Really, they need to get out of Stark Tower, with its crack kitchen staff and sumptuous and nutritious meals, every once in awhile and take in classic American fast food, if not for Thor’s general education of the lowest Earth has to offer. “KFC can be had anywhere on the planet, Thor. It’s like the fried chicken Tony’s chef made for us last week, only greasier.”
Thor turns to him with shining eyes and excitement on his face. “May I try it? I have never heard of this restaurant.”
“I think calling KFC a "restaurant" is overkill, but yeah, let’s get some greasy chicken.” Clint hits the turn signal and negotiates across the lane to turn onto the access road to the KFC. “And if it gives you the runs, you have only yourself to blame.”
“I think it will be worth it to try out more of American food.” Thor is as excited as a 4-year-old. “Jane tells me McDonald’s food is crap, but I liked it very much.” Clint stifles a laugh at that. Thor’s paramour would be appalled to know his opinion of that particular brand of fast food.
“Then you’re gonna love the mashed potatoes and biscuits,” Clint says as he pulls into a parking space.
Thor is out of the car in a flash. “Come on, Brother. This will be an excellent experience.” He opens the door to the eatery, and stands there, inhaling deeply. “It smells divine.”
“I hardly think so.” Clint follows, eyeing the excitement Thor’s entrance into the KFC causes. Of course it does. He’s Thor. The girls flock around him, and Clint sighs as they enter.
Once back on the road, Thor, sated and happy, is cheerfully humming to himself. Four pieces of chicken -- which had taken for-fucking-ever to decide because Thor needed to know the difference between regular, extra crispy and grilled, and the women (young and old alike) had been more than happy to give him samples of each -- and large helpings of each of the sides (Clint hadn’t had the heart to tell him the ‘most excellent creamy mashed potatoes!’ actually are made from a powder), plus the fawning from KFC staff and customers, has put him in an even better mood (Really, Thor is one of the happiest guys he knows. It’s a rare day when he’s cranky and out of sorts, mostly when he has to deal with Loki or political machinations from home.) Clint’s seen him put away twice the amount of food as much as the rest of the Avengers combined, but Thor’s big and burns through the calories with his twice-a-day workout, a workout that no one can match. Bruce had tried to do it while in Hulk-phase, but even the Big Guy had had a problem getting through the thousand or so crunches Thor had sailed through.
But Clint has bigger things on his mind now that the hills of home are closing in around him. He has to deal with an unknown threat, though with Thor at his side, he’s reasonably comfortable they’ll be able to handle that issue. He has to endure the few members of his family still extant in the Kentucky hills. He has to introduce Thor to them, and while he doesn’t fear for Thor, he’s not quite sure what the courtly and mannered prince will think of them. He’s embarrassed in that moment -- of where he’s from, the impoverished country, dilapidated housing, the run-down town full of shabby, run-down people. They are a proud people, but no one could ever accuse them of gracious manners and putting on airs.
“Thor,” he begins. “I think I need to fill you in on my family and where I come from.” He shifts in his seat and adjusts the seat belt. This conversation is never easy, no matter who he has it with.
“I am honoured to meet your family, Brother Hawkeye,” Thor states, turning to face him. “So few of the Avengers have family, so it will be a true pleasure to meet yours.”
Clint is taken somewhat aback by what Thor has said. It’s true: Tony, Steve, Natasha, Bruce -- none of them have any family left. Phil Coulson has his mother, a feisty and beautiful blonde woman who can still turn any red-blooded male’s head; Thor has his parents, though he doesn’t see them very often, for reasons he’s never explained fully to the team.
“Look, I’m going to meet my cousin Boyd,” Clint says as they pull onto US-25. There’s no really good way to get to Harlan, but Clint’s driven from his mother’s hometown to the more populous areas of Kentucky, especially Lexington, more times than he can remember. Driving the county roads, some 4-laners, some just two, familiar as the back of his hand, brings back flashes of times in his misspent youth spent behind the wheel of a pickup truck. Some involve his cousin Boyd, the very man they are going to see; some involve times he’d rather not remember, especially the one with the flipped car, a thousand flashing red and blue lights, an appearance in county court -- yeah, some not good times with his cousin. “Boyd is, well, he’s wily. He’s smart. And. . . .” He stops, then sighs. “Just try not to rile up the locals and get involved in any fights.”
Thor regards him with raised eyebrows. “I do not intentionally begin fights, as you very well know. Only when my brothers and sisters are threatened, or my honor is besmirched.”
“Well, some of these folks will intentionally besmirch your honor, believe me, just for the fun of it. If you’re different in any way, they’ll question you, just trying to get a rise out of you.”
“I do not look different,” Thor replies. “I am wearing clothing of your world. Though, in truth, these jeans are a little snug tonight.” He shifts in his seat as if to prove a point.
Clint snorts. “KFC has a way of doing that,” he mutters, looking at the t-shirt stretched tightly across Thor’s massive chest. The man looks fucking hot -- beyond hot -- in his Earth-bound clothing. “True, but someone will give you grief for your long hair. I’m not saying it makes sense, because in a lot of ways, nothing my relatives and friends do or say makes any sense at all. It’s one of the many reasons I left Harlan.” Clint picks at one of his fingernails as he moves his hands on the steering wheel. “They just didn’t get how or why I used to bow the way I do. I learned in the circus, practiced night and day until my arms were numb and my fingers bled, but people only saw the results, thought I was possessed or some such bullshit. That, and the fact that I have sex with other men… I had to leave.”
Thor is quiet as he watches Clint speak. Finally, he says, "Small minds lash out at that which they do not comprehend."
Clint is amused and impressed. He's always been in awe of Thor's fierce devotion to his family, his kingdom, and his tight circle of friends, here on Earth and on Asgard. But he's never thought of Thor as particularly -- thoughtful. He thought Loki was the brains of the family, and Thor the brawn. But apparently, beyond the muscles and the stellar good looks, there is a good mind as well as a big heart. "Tell me about it," Clint replies. "You are going to find some mighty small minds amongst the good citizens of Harlan County, my friend."
Clint is startled to feel Thor's large, warm hand clasp his wrist. "I shall endeavor to keep the peace. These people do not appreciate your amazing skills."
"Thanks. That...means a lot."
The sun slips behind the trees as they drive further towards the town of Harlan, the county seat. It gets dark quickly in coal country. The mountains climb high into the sky, causing black shadows to obscure the last of the dying sun. The tall, spindle-ly pine trees wave in the cool breeze of fall; winter is coming. Best to clear out anything that may prevent good folk from working, Clint thinks. Winter is always hard here in the mountains.
It's that thought, that he and Thor are here to do a service for a community that wouldn't have the first notion of how to rid themselves of a global threat, that provides him with the resolve he needs to face his relatives for the first time in a decade. He's here for them, the hard working people who try to scratch out a living in this economically challenged part of the country. Harlan County has always been hard, been hard on its people. The land doesn't produce much in the way of sustainable agriculture, and marijuana doesn't count. It brings in the money, but it always attracts the seedier side of humanity. Harlan has plenty of those types as well; it doesn't need any more, especially outsiders who have no attachment to the land.
Another hour and he pulls into the Skyway View Motel. There is neither sky nor a view from any room on site, but it's clean and Clint remembers the older couple who used to run it as being honest and conscientious.
Thor climbs out of the car, looks around, inhales, and stretches. He pounds on his abs with a fist and says, "This is a fine place. I like the trees and the roaring river. These mountains are impressive. Not as tall as the ones on Asgard, but beautiful and green."
Clint gives him a smile and doesn't say anything. The mountains have been ground down, stripped away, dug into, scraped out, robbed of the minerals and life they hold within, all in the name of progress. It's the irony of all of Appalachia: robbing the mountains of life in order to sustain life.
He shakes his head at the conundrum of his homeland, and walks up to the check-in window. "Mr. Graham?" he calls through the speaker. "Mrs. Graham?" he tries instead, hope lifting his voice.
A spritely elderly man appears; the years have been good to Mr. Graham. "You calling, sonny? Need a room?"
"Yes, I do." Clint pulls out his wallet to hand the man his credit card.
"We don't take that here, sonny," Mr. Graham says. "There's a money machine down the block at the Piggly Wiggly."
"Oh, that's all right," Clint says. "I've got cash. Let's start with two nights." He lays several bills in the tray.
What returns are one of the bills and a registration card. "Just fill that out, and add the kinda car you're driving. Damn fool kids park here and go over to that pool hall. Kinda gits crowded hereabouts on a Friday night."
Clint smiles as he fills out the card. He feels Thor come stand beside him. "Hello," Thor says, leaning down to look into the window and giving the old man a flashy smile. "It is a very nice evening."
Mr. Graham gawks at him for a moment. "Big fella, ain'cha?"
Thor chuckles. "I get that a lot."
The dawn comes slowly in the mountains. The pale, radiant fingers of the rising sun splay gently through the dense thicket of trees. Fog rising off the river creeps through the quiet streets and around the buildings, both modern and dilapidated. There are some who would say Harlan is an ugly city, but in this light and when there’s no one about to despoil the serenity of nature taking its course and with the trees in full leaf, it is a place of dramatic beauty.
Clint is up early, well, earlier than he usually is. Stark Tower is equipped with a large, state-of-the-art gym, with plenty of treadmills. He used to be able to run the streets in the morning hours in New York. But after the encounter with the Chitauri he and the other Avengers were too recognizable and it became inconvenient. Other joggers had started stopping him, and Natasha, his usual running partner, on the Central Park paths or even in the streets, to thank him, or get a picture with him (very annoying) or to chat about Stark (extremely annoying) or to ask him for Natasha's phone number (he almost punched the guy). He loves the feel of the misty fog on his face, the breeze through his hair, the first rays of the sun that filter through the tall buildings. But mostly, because New York is at its most quiet in the early morning. New York City is never completely silent, but 5 a.m. is a pretty good time to catch the first twitters of birds and the sound of the wind.
But here in Harlan, he's up at first light, the early morning glare of the sun off the Cumberland River as it travels east to west through the valley on its way towards joining with other tributaries to the Cumberland Falls, eventually joining with the Ohio River. In the years since he's been away, a running path has been made along the waterfront, and he eyes it with joy. He sits in the yellow and blue webbed lawn chair outside their room to pull on his running shoes. Satisfied that the strings are tied, he stands and jumps up and down a few times, warming up his stagnant muscles.
Thor comes out of the room and draws in a deep breath; he lets it out, and says, "It is a beautiful morning in the land of your ancestors."
"That it is," Clint replies. "And the power plant has been idling since last night. We should be enjoying the haze of burning coal right about now." He turns and smiles. "Care for a run along the river?"
Thor grins in return. "That is a most wonderful invitation. I shall find my shoes."
While waiting for Thor to get ready, Clint walks to their car. The parking lot is littered with empty beer cans and cigarette butts; a bag from McDonald's rustles in the breeze. "Jesus," he mutters to himself, "what a mess." He also wonders how on earth did they miss the noise from the 2 a.m. partiers.
They start out along the road but then enter a river-side park. “Wow, this is new,” Clint says as they run down a short hill to a gravel path. The bank of the river is devoid of brush and trees so that the water flows freely by. “Even the water looks better than I’ve ever seen it.”
Thor looks around. “It is a fine river. Not as grand as the Gunnthrá, but it is a good one, nonetheless.”
After a long run, down to the bridge and back, they return to the motel to shower and change. Over breakfast and the best grits Clint's eaten in forever at May’s Diner, they plan their day. They need to get in, stop the bad guys, and get out. No lingering. As much as Harlan was a home when Clint needed one, it's not now and hasn't been for more years than it was. His home is back in New York, back with his team, and his family, Natasha and Phil. And he wants to get back to them.
They return to the motel to brief Phil. Clint boots his laptop and connects to his Starkphone's wireless hotspot. Then he's logging into S.H.I.E.L.D. via a secure, encrypted VPN tunnel. It's still pretty early in New York, but Natasha's in Europe, so Phil's likely already been working for a few hours. Clint pulls up StarkTalk and buzzes Phil, who replies almost immediately.
"Agent Barton," Phil opens with, immediately reminding Clint that they're on the clock.
"Sir. Just wanted to report that we've arrived safely and established a base at the Skyway View Motel. I plan to meet my contact at noon." Clint can be a professional. Just watch. But he does give Phil a goofy smile.
Phil doesn't return the smile, but his lips twitched ever so slightly, and Clint counts that as a win.
"Please stick to the mission parameters, Barton."
"What? I'm always careful."
Phil snorts. "I was thinking about Thor. You're there to gather information, determine the threat level, and then report back. You are not, under any circumstances, to get involved. Reconnaissance only. Do I make myself clear? Under no circumstances are you to attempt to curtail the threat on your own."
"I got you, boss. No heroics," Clint replies.
"Please be careful, Clint. I don't have a good read on the situation," Phil says, his voice changing ever so slightly. It's warmer now, softer. This is Clint's lover talking, not the stone cold badass agent.
"Always, babe. Thor's a helluva backup to have, plus I have the family. As crazy as they are -- every last one -- they protect their own. I'll be fine," he reassures.
Phil smiles, his eyes crinkling at that. "I'll hold you to that." His phone rings in the background and Phil frowns at something out of camera range before turning back to Clint. "I've got to take this." He hesitates and it's obvious by the way he swallows and meets Clint's eyes that he wants to say more, but can't quite bring himself to do so on the open channel. Clint can easily guess, though he does wonder when he learned to read Phil so well. The sentiment in his eyes has Clint grinning.
"I love you, too. Go be a badass and I'll keep in touch. Regular intervals. The usual protocols," Clint confirms.
Phil nods, says, "Coulson out," then clicks off.
Clint's screen goes dark and he sighs. For all the time he's been in love with Phil, this feeling right now is confusing, too hard to process; contains joy and worry with a heavy dose of longing thrown in for good measure. Clint's still learning how to separate his lover from his handler and keeping it straight while apart isn't easy.
But he has a job to do and he needs to get right on that.
Clint steels himself with a fortifying breath and dials Boyd's phone.
Plans made for a meet later in the afternoon, Clint uses the few hours of free time to acclimatize Thor to the area. After sitting in the dingy hotel room for half an hour, Clint and Thor are both climbing the walls. He will never admit it, but living at the tower spoils you to the point that a perfectly passable motel -- one that Clint couldn't have dreamed of crashing in at times in his past -- becomes claustrophobic and far too small. So he opts to drive around the county; to show Thor the land and its people while he half reminisces, half debriefs Thor.
In the end, they spend an altogether surprisingly pleasant afternoon as Clint cruises through the hills and valleys of his former home. He's telling tales as they drive, pointing out far too many places he'd gotten into a mess of trouble, but the stories leave them both smiling; laughter bubbling up when Thor recounts some happy tales from his own youth. Even the passing mention of Loki doesn't dampen Clint's spirits. No ghosts from his past or Thor's come to haunt them. And that's even better.
So it is a smiling Clint that pulls up to Boyd's "bar". Clint's perspective on the world has changed and he would no longer call it that, but he's not arguing. It's a public space, so makes a good venue for meeting up with Boyd.
Boyd strolls up to their car just as Clint shifts into park. "Cousin!" he greets, but his eyes are fixed on Thor.
Clint hops out of the car, hand outstretched for a firm shake when he's pulled into a quick hug. He's more than a little stunned, but offers Boyd a smile nonetheless. In the meantime, Thor has exited the car and is standing on the passenger side, elbows on the hood of the car as he observes his surroundings.
"Boyd Crowder, I'd like you to meet Thor of Asgard. He's an 'associate' of mine." Clint nods his head to pull Thor toward him just as Boyd takes a step back.
"You're a very large specimen of manhood, sir," Boyd says, warily eyeing Thor.
"So I am told, Boyd Crowder, son of Bo. It is a pleasure to meet a family member of my shieldbrother." Thor's voice cuts across the gravel parking area, but it doesn't make Clint or Boyd wince, so Clint counts it as a win for his Harlan survival lessons.
"I was not expecting your… uh, companion, Clinton," Boyd says.
Clint shrugs. "My organization doesn't send people in without backup." He grins at Thor, then smirks at Boyd. "Meet my backup."
"Impressive." Boyd is obviously unwilling to say more, but Clint has no interest in playing his game.
"Thor's safe, Boyd. Whatever you want to tell me, he can hear," Clint urges.
"No offense, but I am not comfortable having this conversation here or in front of any other ears." Boyd is being stubborn.
Clint inhales to steady himself, then he turns to Thor and asks, "Will you be okay in the bar for a bit?"
"Aye, a drinking establishment is one of the best locales in which to hear the local gossip," Thor says, nodding.
Clint chuckles, wonders if Thor ever has a bad day. He digs one of Tony's new tiny comm units out of his jeans pocket and tosses it to Thor. "Wear this and we'll keep in touch."
"As you say, Hawkbrother," Thor affirms. He fits the comm unit in his ear and heads for the door of the bar.
Clint turns to Boyd. "Well?"
Boyd is unapologetic. "I do not know him. I am only telling you because you're family."
"I thought you wanted my help?"
"I do," Boyd answers. "Why don't we head to the mine? I can tell you what I know on the way."
Clint slips back into the sedan and backs out onto the blacktop before replying. "Okay, no witnesses, no audience. What the hell's going on, Boyd? And how am I going to get into the mine in broad daylight during first shift? Waltz right in?"
"Exactly. You are my down on his luck cousin and you need a job."
"Hmmmm, that could work," Clint nods.
Thor scans the sparse crowd in the bar. He’s been in many bars since he has come to Earth. Tony Stark has a well-stocked one in his home, something Thor had appreciated immediately, even though the selections tend mostly towards spirits. Tony had found a craft brewery in the city that makes a higher alcohol content lager that happily and readily supplies the Avenger with kegs.
This bar, however, is nothing like the establishments in Manhattan or Los Angeles. They are dark, richly furnished, well appointed. Even the bar in Brooklyn where the police officers (still in awe over their recent heroic actions) insist on taking them. It’s good for inter-agency cooperation, Coulson insists, and Thor just really likes riding the subway.
Boyd Crowder’s bar is little more than a shed in the woods. The counter is flimsy and made of naked plywood that splinters if you’re not paying attention. The lighting is low but not by design; one fluorescent bank and two uncovered incandescent bulbs dropped from the ceiling give the whole place a weird glow. There are but a few tables, with mismatched folding chairs on the floor, a jukebox in the corner that’s playing the kind of American music Thor secretly likes but is scorned by the rest of his teammates, and two ancient humming rusting, dirty white refrigerators near the bar, one that’s dripping water. Not exactly an appropriate place for the King of Asgard, but Thor has come to appreciate Earth life in all its diversity. When in Rome, do as those who live in Rome. Something like that. And since this particular establishment is owned by one of his shieldbrother’s blood relatives, then he will drink and appreciate.
Thor goes to the bar and looks around. The barkeep does not seem to be in residence. He raises his hand to bang on the wooden surface, when someone interrupts him.
“Wha’chu want, there, big guy?”
Thor turns. A small, skinny guy sitting at a table with a sweating can in front of him is giving him the once-over with a shit-eating grin. “Are you speaking to me?” Thor asks.
“I did. Tom ain’t thar right now. Wha’chu want?”
“I would like a beer.”
“Git you one outta that ice box over thar.”
Thor points to the broken-down, rusty-around-the-edges, leaky, dingy white refrigerator. “That one?”
Thor strides over to the fridge beside the bar and tugs on the handle. The door sticks then opens in a rush and with a loud scrunching sound. It’s packed with gleaming silver cans, most with red, white and blue paint spelling out the two, no, three, names of brewers.
He pulls out a can. “Budweeser,” he says, holding the can up in the weak light. He pulls the tab on the Budweiser and it opens with a hiss. He raises the can to the man and lifts it to his mouth.
“Hey, here’s mud in yer eye,” the man says, raising his own can in salute, then laughs.
Thor nods, smiling, not really knowing what to think the salutation means, and takes a long gulp. He pulls the can away, swallowing, anticipating the sweet tang of hops and the refreshing pop of chilled bubbles. But it doesn’t come. He takes another great slug, swallows and then looks at the can. “I do not understand this beverage,” he says out loud.
Thor looks over at the man; he’s holding a can of the Bud as well. “I say, why does this not taste like beer?”
The man (in truth, Thor thinks, the man almost the size of a child, except for the mustache that covers a goodly portion of his face) looks at the can, looks at Thor, then looks back at the can. “Tastes like it should to me.”
Thor goes over to the small table, pulls a rusty folding chair from a nearby table that looks nothing like the other, and sits. “This beer, it does not have any taste to it.”
“Whut the hell should it taste like, then?”
Thor sits back; the chair rocks and twists dangerously from his size and weight, so he tenses to keep himself from spilling onto the sticky floor. “It should taste like...beer. Hops and barley or wheat. When you swallow there should be a bite on the back of the tongue that brings much pleasure.”
“It ain’t the taste that brings the pleasure, dude. It’s the buzz.” The man laughs and slaps his hand on the flimsy card table.
“But why should not the buzz also be a pleasurable taste sensation?” Thor asks, truly curious.
The man leans in and looks at him with a squinty eye. “You ain’t from round these parts, are ya?”
Thor gives him a wide smile. “I am not. But my. . .friend and comrade is. He is called Clint Barton. Perhaps you know him?”
“Know him? Know him?” the man chortles. “Dude, I raised ten kinds of hell with him an’ Boyd when we wuz kids.”
Thor brightens. “Ah! Then you know his blood kin Boyd Crowder as well?”
“Oh, man, we’ums is thick as thieves.” He sticks out a hand wet with beer can sweat and dirt rivulets. “Dewey Crowe. I’m Boyd’s right hand man.”
Thor takes the hand and wrings it heartily. “I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Dewey, son of Crowe. I am Thor, son of Odin, lately of New York City.”
Dewey grimaces as Thor releases his hand, pulling it into his lap and shaking it under the table. He then smiles. “Aww, hell, I wuz jest beginnin’ to like ya'.”
“You do not like people from New York?” Thor asks, puzzled. “I am originally from Asgard.”
Thor stops. The Avengers, of course, know he is from another planet, but they have advised him that it’s not always a good thing to admit that to just anyone. “It is a place far away,” he says simply. “However, New York City is my current home, and it is a place of great men. Allow me to change your mind, Dewey, son of Crowe. We shall drink to our friendship.”
“I kin drink quite a bit.”
“So can I,” Thor admits candidly. “What other kind of beer do you recommend?”
Dewey gets up from the table and shambles over to the refrigerators. He opens the door to the second, somewhat less crappy looking one and peers in, hooking two long necked bottles with his fingers. “Now these here is the good stuff. Costs a bit more than the Bud.”
“That is most excellent!” Thor cries. “My friend Tony says that life is too short to drink inexpensive beer. We shall drink the best this fine establishment offers.”
Dewey slams down the two Michelobs, twists the caps off, and throws them towards the garbage can at the end of the bar. “Well, then, let’s git down to some serious bizness, my new friend, Thor, son of...O--O--”
“Odin,” Thor finishes. He lifts the beer up to toast. “To this noble land of my brother’s forefathers.”
“You gotta be kiddin’ me, man. This place is a shithole.” Dewey clinks the longnecks then takes a long, long swig. “But whatever.”
Clint drives without speaking, allows the silence to envelope the car and keep him distanced from Boyd for a bit longer. He knows the way to the mine, recalls every winding road in the county -- swears he has to avoid the same potholes -- remembers it like it was yesterday and he was taking driving lessons in Bo's shitty pickup from Bowman. Bowman had been a crappy ass teacher, with no patience and a tendency for far too much shouting, but he'd taken time for Clint. And that kindness from the elder Crowder son had been freely given, never ceasing to amaze Clint.
The knowledge that Bowman is dead and that Ava'd done it in self-defense … well, that is less shocking than he might have expected. Clint had recognized Bo's penchant for abuse from the moment the social worker had dropped him off at the family's house. And Bowman had been his daddy's son.
But reliving the past isn't why Clint came back "home". It's not why he's driving a rental sedan and trying to play at belonging in Harlan once again. Instead of being stuck in Harlan, he's an Avenger and a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. And he's here to get a job done.
That thought makes him shudder and laugh out loud. He throws his head back, full of joy in the moment. When he sees Boyd's confused expression, he just grins. "Just reminiscing," he says, not offering more.
"Been too long, Clinton."
Clint blinks, then nods, something in him settling. Without Harlan, he wouldn't be where he is today. So surely, like the circus, the orphanage and all the rest of the shit from his past, Clint can accept Harlan and the Crowders as an important part of his formative years? "Yeah, Boyd, I'm thinking you're right," he agrees, a bit of the drawl he acquired in Harlan lengthening his vowels.
He presses the accelerator and zooms down the straightaway, passing a mattress truck, an old Chevy pickup, and a brown Oldsmobile before he has to slow for the sharp curve. He whoops and smacks Boyd on the shoulder. "Okay, man. Tell me what's got you all riled up."
Boyd's eyes immediately shift away, his shoulders tense and his hands clench once, before they open and he presses his palms flat on his thighs. He shakes his head and starts talking, voice flat. "Something ain't right at the mine."
When he stops and doesn't elaborate, Clint prods, "You told me that over the phone. Could you be a little more specific?"
"'Bout a year ago, there was an explosion up on the mountain near Black Pike strip #4. It lit up the night sky, it was that bright." Boyd's looking out the window and his voice is tight. "The next day there was a press release. Black Pike claimed they were burning off a pocket of methane." He stops and glances at Clint.
"That's not so unusual," Clint answers.
"No, but it's never bright like that and you can't feel the ground rumble when it happens."
"So. . .what? You think Black Pike's opening illegal shafts?"
Boyd replies, sounding frustrated. "Hell, I don't know. And I wouldn't have thought anything of it, except that not long after that things started."
"Things started? Like what?" Clint asks.
"Well, at first I didn't think there was any correlation. Just thought some of the guys had decided that they needed something harder than drink. That they'd taken to mushrooms or even acid because meth just doesn't leave you hallucinating strange lights and out of this world noises. Not, and leave a body capable of speaking, if you know what I mean?"
Clint nods, but doesn't speak. He's personally experienced far worse side effects than hallucinating a few strange lights and noises. He still has nightmares about the vicious, black scorpion-like creature that turned out to actual be Phil rescuing him. But Boyd doesn't need to know any of that. He needs to keep talking so Clint can formulate a decent plan.
After a few moments of silence, Boyd continues, "Then folks started going missing. Not the kind that anyone'd send out a search party for, mind. A few bad uns to be sure so we could ignore it as the mine taking her due. Same as always."
Boyd goes quiet and Clint glances over at him. He's face front with that wide-eyed stare that unnerved Clint until he got to know his cousin. "Hey, man," he says. "We all know how dangerous working in the mine can be."
Clint's words break the spell and Boyd inhales, then nods. "Fuck yeah. But then other things started…"
His brow furrows, lips draw into a thin line. He lifts his chin and finally looks at Clint. "Then people started acting weird."
"Weird?" Clint questions. "How? Like guilty? Suspicious?"
Boyd shakes his head. "Nope. It started out small so we didn't notice. One asshole turning into a fuckin' boy scout. He used to whale on his wife when he'd been drinking. But he just stopped all that."
Clint's jaw clenches. He fucking hates abusive men. "How is that a problem, Boyd?"
"You don't understand. He gave up the drink, gave up smoking. Overnight. Literally. One day he's the kind of guy you want to draw and quarter and the next… well, he returned from an overnight shift -- he's security -- and he's painting his house, going to church, just… it's not natural."
"Huh. So maybe he found Jesus?" Clint's only half teasing. He's seen faith turn more than one dickwad into an almost decent human being. He wishes it worked on more, though.
"No." Boyd's throat is working, like he's fighting the words and Clint can't tell if he's holding them back or trying to force them out.
"It's… shit!" he gasps. "It's Ava, too. She's been working in the mine. At the office. It's part of her plea bargain after Bowman. She has to stay out of trouble, hold down a job. So…"
"I didn't realize," Clint says. "Ava's working at the mine and what? Did something happen to her, Boyd?" And no matter how much Clint refuses to claim the Crowders, he still feels a flash of worry and anger. No one touches his family.
Boyd tilts his head back against the headrest, his eyes closing. But he's speaking before Clint has to prod him again. "She's different. She's sweet. Pliant." He says that last word like it shredding him, tearing his throat as it comes out. Then he turns and pierces Clint with a baleful glare. "My Ava. The woman that shot Bowman, that has no trouble surviving a fuckin' shoot out in a shed and givin' her own back. That woman could never be described as pliant, cousin. She's not just different. I swear to all that's holy, she's not there half the time I meet her eyes."
Boyd gives a shudder and that little tell sends ice down Clint's spine. For all that he's known Boyd since he was a scrappy teen, he's also always known that his cousin can be, at heart, a cold, ruthless bastard, with very little able to touch the steel at his core. That there could be something that has him so unnerved makes Clint swallow and shift against the cloth seats.
"Well, hell, Boyd. Guess we'll have to make damn sure I get into that office then, won't we?" It's the best reassurance that Clint can offer and his voice is surprisingly steady. He's glad for Phil's influence as he sets his eyes back on the road, a plan forming in his head.
Thor watches the saggy-faced barkeep shuffle over to the refrigerator and pulls out two more Michelobs. He shakes his head as he opens the bottles, places them on the bar, and yells, “Come git ‘em.” This is most certainly not the way it is done in bars in New York, Thor muses as he retrieves the beers.
Boyd’s bar has filled up considerably since Thor entered it some time ago. Some of the men have gotten off shift at the mine; as soon as they enter, they go to the small, dirty bathroom to wash off the black dust that clings to every part of their being. It seems to be an understanding they have with the owners of this establishment, Thor notes, as another man comes out with a somewhat cleaner face and hands. Necks, though, get the short end of the deal as the pink skin barely shows through the coal dust. One after the other, they shuffle through the bar, then shuffle out, grab a beer and sit outside in the chilly, though sunlit day.
“Why do they all sit outside?” Thor asks as he hands Dewey a beer.
“Becuz they’s down in the earth all day long,” Dewey says. “Coal minin’ is hard, hard on the body, and the spirit.” His face darkens. “Them asshole owners, they don’t give two shits about the men who work for ‘em. All they care about is if a shift makes quota. Must’ve made it early today. Means no one got hurt or died.” He takes a swig. “M’ daddy died in the mine. Fuck if I’ll work there agin.”
Thor is surprised. It’s the first thing Dewey’s said that is a commentary about...anything other than his drinking prowess and how much he hates the city. “You worked in the mine?”
“I did. Jest a bit, though. Got the cough early on and thin I hurt m’self. Broke an arm.” Dewey takes another swig of the Michelob. “Hate that place, man. That’s why I work for Boyd now.”
“Ah. What is it that Boyd does, besides owning this fine place?”
Dewey stares at him. “Boy, open you’s eyes. This is not a fine place at all. It’s a dump for downtrodden people who ain’t got nothin’ else.” He takes another drink. “Sorry. I’m bringing us down when we should be happy, happy to be gittin’ shit-faced with a guy from Noo Yawk City. WooHoo!” Dewey’s voice rises as he shifts gears from thoughtful to drunk.
Thor knows about life in the mines on Asgard. It is dangerous work, but good work. Done by highly trained and skilled workers, the men and women of the mines are compensated well, their equipment is always the best, they are highly regarded. But these men, they are not. It’s written in the stooped-over shuffle, the vacant eyes that stare out from darkened faces. Despair rolls off them in waves. Thor shivers.
“So you know the mines here well?” Thor asks.
Dewey nods. “Worked in most of ‘em at some point. Black Pike rotates the crews around frequently. Not sure why, but they do.”
Thor takes the chance that Dewey might know something useful. “Have any of these good men relayed that there were strange things happening in the mines? Especially at night?”
Dewey thinks as he drinks the rest of his beer. “Git me one more of these and I’ll tell ya.”
Thor turns and raises his hand. “Another round, my good man!” He almost dashes the bottle to the floor to emphasize the order, but stops.
“That’s right,” the barkeep says, as he retrieves two more longnecks. “You stop that right now, boy. One more time and I’ll bash you over the haid with that broom.” He shoves the beers towards Thor. “Damn fool New Yawkers.”
They're nearing the turn off to Black Pike’s main entrance when Boyd hisses at Clint to pull over. From long habit, Clint turns the little sedan sharply, sliding into a rutted side road that curves nearly one-eighty until it runs parallel to the highway. He only stops the car once the trees and vegetation obscure them.
"What the fuck, Boyd?" he growls.
"Look, if you're needing a job, then you best not be driving some fancy ass new car, right?" Boyd questions.
And, shit. Boyd's right.
"It'd also help if you looked a little more like Harlan and less like New York," Boyd adds.
Clint flips down the rear-view mirror and looks at himself objectively. Burnished dark blond hair cropped short, clean skin, perfect teeth, and bright eyes stare back at him. He looks down at his hands and sees the scarred knuckles, the callouses, but his nails are neatly trimmed and clean. To top it off, he's wearing a designer button down and nearly new black cargo pants. At least he's wearing his favorite combat boots, years of ops and wear taking their toll on their outward appearance, though the inside is as comfortable as ever. S.H.I.E.L.D. outfits its assets well.
He takes a breath, shakes his head and nods at Boyd. "I can fix that."
Stepping out of the car, he's stripping off his shirt even before he's cleared the door to reveal a battered and soft Army Rangers tee. It's Phil's and a bit too tight, but Clint loves it, steals it whenever he can get away with it. Call him a sap, but he'd wanted something of Phil's close during this trek down memory lane. Something that can keep him grounded and firmly set in his current life; make sure he doesn't lose himself in the past.
Boyd arches one eyebrow when he sees it. "You were never--"
"I wasn't, but it's a good cover. PTSD. I'm having trouble… integrating," he smirks at Boyd even as he's kneeling down beside the car. He runs his fingernails through the tire tread, gathers dirt and black tar, then rakes them through the loam beside the trail. It's a matter of short work to rub it in and then brush off the excess. His hands now fit the part, scarred and dirty.
He assesses his pants and sighs. Dammit. These are one of his favorite pairs. They're still new enough to hug his ass, but broken in enough to be soft without being threadbare. Still, they need to show a bit more wear, so he tugs them off, turning them wrong side out and spreading them along a flat rock. With a combination of gravel and a sharp stone, he etches wear into the underside of the cloth, nearly scrubs a hole in one knee before he stops. When he puts them on again, they've aged years.
Clint straightens, but he holds himself differently, back tight, posture almost parade rest, but jittery; eyes scanning, never lighting on anything for long, and his hands won't settle. They're at his side, clenching into fists before unconsciously stroking over the site of an injury on his left side. He glances at Boyd, then looks away, won't hold his gaze.
Boyd whistles. "And your pretty smile?" he asks.
"Not much I can do about that. I'll just explain it away if it comes up. I haven't been cut loose for long, so those are courtesy of the VA. That'll explain the hair, too. Military short because I'm unaccustomed to civilian life. That's why you're helping me. I need a job." Clint answers and his voice is different, too. It's hard and cold, snappish, as though he had no idea how to hold an honest to god conversation, or that he's holding back immeasurable anger.
"That'll do," Boyd says. "Guess you are a goddamned spy. I never could have imagined that the scrawny kid with the floppy hair and big eyes that got dumped on our stoop--"
Clint cuts him off. "I'll whip your ass if you start that shit, man. I'm no kid and I haven't been for a long time."
"Yeah, I get that," Boyd laughs. "Scrawny little Clinton's all grown up and filled out."
Shaking his head, Clint steps away from the car. He tugs his cell phone out of his pocket and waves Boyd away as he dials.
"Coulson," Phil answers on the first ring. He sounds completely impassive and utterly professional, but the simple fact that he answered on the first ring conveys more than Phil's tone ever will.
"Hey, boss man," Clint greets. "How's Nat?"
"Barton. This is not a secure line," Phil reminds.
"I wasn't asking for details. Just making sure my partner's still breathing."
"I can assure you that everything is proceeding according to plan," Phil's calm assurance eases any lingering worry Clint has. "Will I be able to report the same for you, Agent Barton?" Phil asks. He sounds mildly curious, but his tone carries a hint of concern.
"We're good, sir. Just wanted to check-in before I walk into the lion's den," Clint says, lips quirking.
"Barton!" Phil barks. "Your mission is recon and surveillance only. What--"
"I'm kidding!" Clint interrupts. "I mean, I'm not…"
"What?" Phil jumps in before Clint figures out what he wants to say. "You are not authorized--"
"There's no way I can figure out anything unless I get into the mine. So I'm going in."
"Barton. Clint," Phil's tone turns urgent. "I know this is personal, that it's family, but do not do anything rash."
"I'm not, Coulson," Clint says. Then he takes two steps further from Boyd, turning his back on him. "Phil, this is a good plan. I'm just going to get a job and poke around for a bit. I'll be careful. I promise."
Phil huffs out a breath. "I expect you home in one piece in less than a week, Clint, Phil murmurs. "I'll make it worth your while."
Clint's stomach tightens and he inhales shakily. "I swear to god, Phil… You are not allowed to tease like that."
"No teasing. Consider it incentive."
"Well, you achieved that goal, all right," Clint says, nodding. "I'll check in later tonight and let you know what I found."
"Be safe, Clint," Phil says, voice warm.
"I will. Give Nat my regards," Clint says. "Bye, sir," he finishes, closing the connection.
Turning back toward the car, he tosses Boyd the keys and says, "Drive on, cuz."
Boyd drives and Clint sinks into his persona, becoming the man he had been saved from becoming. Tapping his foot he clenches his hands, fidgets, glares at the sky. The chip on his shoulder grows until he's suffocating under the memories (most real, but not a one from in theater, his demons were a little closer to home). They turn into the main entrance only to pull up short. The gate's closed and two guards wave them to a stop.
A man Boyd obviously recognizes walks up to him. "Hey, Wick," Boyd greets. "I thought you gave up security? What happened to being 'management'?"
"Boyd Crowder," Wick says, then he leans down to look in the car and eyes Clint with a cold gaze. "I do not know you."
Before Clint can answer, Boyd interrupts. "This is my cousin, Wick. He's looking for a job."
The other man has moved closer to the passenger side of the car. He's a big, burly man, face covered in acne scars and a flat expression. He's said nothing, just crossed his arms over his chest, but Clint gets the impression that he's loaded for bear and ready to kick some ass.
"-- no jobs," Wick finishes once Clint focuses on their conversation again.
"What's that, Wick?" Boyd asks. "Black Pike's not hiring? Since when?"
Boyd's gone tense, his hand resting on the gear shift even though his voice sounds very casual and indifferent.
"I said there are no jobs, Boyd Crowder, and you best leave."
The guy outside Clint's window shifts his stance, dropping his arms to his side, one hovering near his holstered sidearm. Clint's instincts are screaming at him to get the hell out of there. Now.
"Boyd," Clint hisses.
But Boyd's already reacting even before Wick straightens. "O-kay, Wick. We don't want no trouble. Be sure and give my regards to Marnie," he says even as he's backing down the drive. He's forced to take his eyes off the goon squad to reverse them out of there, but Clint watches, his heart in his throat as the two move to stand in front of the tall chain link gate, matching stances, dark eyes following the sedan until Boyd gets them turned around and out on the blacktop where he floors it, racing away.
"What the fuck, Boyd?" Clint gasps when he can stop staring behind them. It'd felt like staring into a bottomless pit with a monster hiding in the dark that was going to reach out and drag him down into its suffocating depths.
"Fuck me, if I know what the hell that was," Boyd answers, his hands white knuckled on the wheel. He hasn't slowed down one bit and Clint is relieved to have the miles between him and the mine.
"Okay, since when is the mine not hiring?" Clint finally asks once his heart has slowed and his wits have returned.
"Never." Boyd pulls off onto a gravel side road, barely slowing. "Mining's hard as hell. People get injured. Quit. Die. Black Pike's doors are always open." He shakes his head and turns again, this time into a barely visible rutted path. "Were," he emphasizes.
After taking two more turns, each progressively less traveled than the previous, Boyd finally stops the car beneath a large oak behind a tangled row of overgrown evergreens. He throws the car into park and lets his hands drop from the wheel. He inhales deeply then turns to pierce Clint with a baleful expression. "Now do you believe me?"
Clint nods. He's seen a lot of weird shit in his life, the least of it in the sideshow at the circus, but the vibe from those two guards was definitely 'off'. Their hostility hadn't felt like that from the usual toughs that Clint has tangled with.
"Okay, so now what? There ain't no way we're getting into the mine offices. There's probably more like them all over the grounds."
"I admit to being at a loss, but we have to get into the mine," Boyd says.
Clint leans back in the seat, closes his eyes, shushes Boyd when he starts to protest. "Give me a few minutes."
He's so very tempted to call Phil. They're partners, better together, more than the sum of their parts. But Phil needs to concentrate on keeping Natasha safe. And Clint may miss his lover's tactical brilliance, his sly humor, his ability to anticipate every possible scenario, as well as the way he remains cool and collected when everyone around him is falling apart, but Clint needs to handle this one on his own. Clint needs to prove to himself that he hasn't gone soft as an Avenger, that he's still one of the best agents S.H.I.E.L.D. has. Besides, he wants to prove to Boyd that he's more than a carnie who struck it rich. Clint has a little something to prove to his family, too. He'll call Phil later.
But the thought of Phil and all his sneaky methods has Clint contemplating the mine, the far reaching tunnels, and all the possible back doors. Then he recalls a summer joyride that turned into an idiocy of oneupsmanship. He and Dewey had each gotten paid and, flush with cash, they'd wheedled Bowman into getting them beer and weed. But they couldn't exactly sit around getting drunk at the Crowder's. Bo would have beat the shit out of them both and taken the booze and pot for himself.
So they were toking as they drove, hunting for a safe place to land, ending up pretty wasted by the time Dewey turned off the highway. Clint recalls the overgrown road, the broken down fencing until the road turned and they were faced with more than the usual 'Keep Out' signs. These were grimmer, threatened trespassers with death instead of just arrest. And what hyped up macho teen boy could resist that lure? So they'd parked the car, enlarged a hole in the fence, and crossed into a shuttered mine. The trouble is that Clint had been stoned out of his mind and he has no idea where Dewey had taken them. If the areas were connected, though, they might stand a chance at sneaking in and finding out what the hell is going on in the mines of Harlan.
Clint opens his eyes and turns to Boyd who is sitting and staring out into space. "Hey, Boyd. You know of an old mining area that's been closed down since before I moved to Harlan?"
Boyd is pulled from his thoughts and he nods. "There's more than a few. Do you have a specific one in mind?"
Clint describes what he remembers which is lacking in detail, but Boyd just shakes his head. "You are a damn fool, Clinton. I don't know how you survived long enough to leave Harlan."
"Don't tell me you never played around the mines?"
"I did not. Daddy woulda had my hide and I liked to be able to sit down to eat my supper." Boyd's lips curl into a smile. "But I'm pretty sure that was Old #7. It's been shuttered for a long time after a bad cave-in. I remember hearing about it when mama was still alive, so that was long before you came around."
"Well? What about starting there?"
"The shafts are all connected, right?"
"Who knows? I don't have a friggin' map of the tunnels and did you miss the part about a cave-in? Miners died," Boyd is frowning.
"But we have Thor."
"Thor?" Boyd looks at Clint like he's crazy. "Your overly large companion?" At Clint's nod, Boyd continues, "Unless he's an over-sized mole, I don't see the connection."
"Look, let's just check it out first. Get the lay of the land and then figure out where to go from there, ‘k?"
"Fine. But we should probably wait until after sundown," Boyd concedes.
"And that means equipment," Clint concurs.
"Right. You got any?"
"We do." Clint's going over their gear in his head, sorting out what they'll need and what they can leave behind. The mission is recon only, but Phil is a master at contingency planning and Clint recalls seeing four high power headlamps along with rappelling gear in their pack. Thank god for Phil Coulson!
"Let me call Thor, warn him that the plans have changed and that we're coming to get him."
Clint closes the call and stares at it unspeaking.
"Clinton?" Boyd calls, drawing his attention away from the phone.
"Thor is going to meet us there," he explains.
"How would your friend know where the mine is?"
"Dewey Crowe," Clint says, rolling his eyes.
Boyd frowns at Clint.
"Dewey's driving them," he says, shrugging. It's not like things could really get worse, right?
Boyd looks at Clint like he has two heads.
"Well, what did you expect me to do? Thor is… well, Thor is a grown man with his own ideas."
"But, Dewey, cousin?"
Clint shrugs. "It'll be fine. Let's get the hell out of here and go pick up the gear."
Boyd shakes his head, but does get into the car.
“Now, this here,” Dewey crows, “is a ride!”
Thor props the smaller man up against a cherry red Cadillac with white leather interior. It is indeed a beautiful car, as far as he knows cars in this world. Tony has an entire level of the Stark World Headquarters filled with cars, of all makes and sizes and colors and level of use. He drives the Porsche, a black one, most often because it handles well, and never fails to turn heads when he races through the clogged streets of New York. Most of Stark’s cars are monochromatic, but he did own a sweet older red Thunderbird that was Thor’s personal favorite. That red is brighter, flashier than the Caddy Dewey is currently valiantly trying to jam a key into the driver’s side door.
“Dewey, my good man, perhaps I should be the one to drive us,” Thor suggests. “My friends tell me that one should never get behind the wheel of a motor vehicle when one has drunk as much as we have.” Of course, Dewey is completely and utterly shit-faced; Thor would admit that he is feeling somewhat woozy, but overall, the beers served here have little alcohol in them, nothing like the ale of Asgard.
“No, no,” Dewey says, flapping his hand, “I kin drive us out to the mine. You don' know the way. The road there is kinda twisty turny and there’s a wicked hair-pin turn ha-way up the mountain. If’n you don’t start the turn early enough, you kin go over the edge.”
It sounds fun, and Thor is willing to allow the native son of Harlan County to squire him around in the car he says is his, but which Thor doubts very much is. For one thing, it looks brand new, and it just does not look like a car that belongs in Harlan County. Still, he has the keys and he acts like he knows the car, now that he has the door open. “Git in, bro!”
Dewey slides behind the wheel, but Thor stays put. “Dewey,” he says, leaning into the car, “I do not think you are capable of driving this car.”
“Son, I been drivin’ since I wuz twelve year old. And I bin drinkin’ that long, too. I kin git us anyw'ere.”
“I do not doubt that, my friend, but perhaps I should pilot the car whilst you navigate.”
Dewey stands very still, then lists to the right. Thor reaches in and grabs him by the shoulder. “Yeah, you should drive.”
“A wise decision, Dewey.” Thor shoves the smaller man over to the passenger side and slides in smoothly. The car is even more beautiful inside; he takes a moment to appreciate the lovely, pristine interior. “This is very nice.”
Dewey’s head lolls around, and then his eyes follow and focus on him. “Hey, thar you are! Yeah, this is nice, ain’t it? Boyd’s lettin’ me drive.”
Thor half-turns to him. “I thought you said this car belonged to you.”
“Oh hell, no. I cain’t afford nuttin’ like this.” Dewey settles in, ignoring the seatbelt that Thor is pulling around his body. “But it’s okay. Boyd lets me drive it all the time.”
“I do not think he would be pleased to know you’re driving Boyd Crowder’s car, especially one that is in such fine condition,” Thor says, looking over at Dewey. “You should use your seat belt.”
“Nah, man, seat belts’re for sissies."
Thor puts the Cadillac into drive and starts down the bumpy dirt road from the bar. Dewey rattles on about the misadventures he and Boyd and someone called Raylan used to get into when they were teenagers.
“So what’d you do as a kid?” Dewey asks, draining the last of the Bud and tossing the can out of the window.
“Wait!” Thor cries, slamming on the brakes. “You have littered!” He puts the car in reverse and guns the motor. The car screeches as it picks up speed.
Dewey’s arms go flying. “WHAT are you doin’, man?”
Thor leans over. “Dewey, you will get out of the car and pick up that beer can. I cannot in good conscience allow you to litter.”
Dewey looks out of the car window at the field where they've stopped. "Well, if you kin tell me which can it were that I thrown out, I'll pick it up."
Thor opens the door and stands; he surveys the completely trashed field that ends up against a wall of stone. "Start picking them up."
"Whut? All of ‘em?"
"Consider it your duty to your homeland."
Twenty minutes later, and with a back seat full of cans of a variety of beverages, they get back in and take off. Dewey cracks open another beer and takes a long, long draw. “Damn, boy. You got me all thirsty, doin’ trash pickup like a common jailbird.”
“What?” Thor asks.
Dewey doesn’t answer because he’s finished off the beer and is rummaging around in the cooler beneath his feet for another. He extracts it and pops the top. “Hey, dude. Watch this,” Dewey says, pulling his feet up onto the seat. “We’re comin’ up on a fun part of the road.” He levers himself up and hangs out the window, beer can in hand. “Woooooo-Hoooo! You gotta go faster, dude!”
Thor shakes his head, smiling. That is precisely what he doesn’t want to do. Dewey had it exactly right when he described the road to the mine as “something straight outta the Devil’s ass” -- it is extremely narrow and curvy. A number of times Thor could not see what was coming around the corner. Not that there were any other cars on the road; the mine is shuttered, closed years ago when one of the shafts collapsed in on itself.
"Dewey, I have ridden on roads such as this in the high mountains above the city of Asgard," Thor says, turning to Dewey. He leans over and pulls Dewey back into the car by the back of his jeans. "I would not recommend that you hang yourself out of the vehicle."
Dewey tips the can back, and after several long, noisy swallows, crumples it in his hand, and almost throws it out the window. At the last second, he reconsiders and tosses it over his shoulder into the back seat. It lands with an audible 'clink' on top of the mountain of aluminum cans they'd picked up at the field.
"You have mountains where you'se comes from?"
"I do," Thor says. "They are almost always topped with ice and snow, but in the warm months of what you call summer, they are lush with trees and green plants. Just like the beautiful hills here." Thor grows misty-eyed, remembering. "When I was a boy, my brother and I would walk up to the snowline where the trees end and there is bare rock. There is one place in particular that holds special meaning to us. It is an overhang that looks out over a valley where crops are grown. I especially loved going there when the grains turned ripe and golden, almost ready for harvesting."
Dewey reaches into the small cooler and pulls out another Bud.
"Then," Thor continues, "my brother and I would put on suits of fabric and bone that allow us to fly. One time, my brother Loki -- he is adopted, but still my brother -- flapped his wings." He lets go of the steering wheel as he turns and shows Dewey. "He ran as fast as he could towards the point of the overhang and then--"
"DUDE! Take the wheel!" Dewey shouts.
The car veers off as the road curves to the left, and heads towards the unprotected edge of the road. Thor grabs the wheel, over-corrects as the road then curves back to the right, and the wheels squeal as they head in the opposite direction, away from a hundred foot drop-off into the river below.
Thor tries to pull the car back onto the road, but the tires on the left side skim the edge of a ditch and sink into the soft gravel; the front tire slips off the edge and leads the car into the grassy ditch. The Caddy lists to the left for a few seconds, and then it does a slow tumble and comes to rest at a steep angle. The engine sputters for a few more seconds and then it dies.
United States Marshal Raylan Givens switches off the radio and rolls down the window, hoping the fresh air will clear his mind. These last few months have been some of the most fucked up in his life and now, just when he's feeling the most off balance since he originally fled Harlan, he's going to be a father. He puts his foot down a little harder on the gas pedal as that thought makes his gut ache. It's not like he doesn't love Winona -- he never stopped -- and it's not like a part of him hasn't always assumed he'd have kids. But what the hell does he know about raising one? It's not like he had a good example to learn from.
His mind's not where it should be. Instead of tracking down the escaped asshole from Tennessee, Raylan's off being maudlin, feeling sorry for himself and his fucked up life. The sun's setting and he really should return to the office, call it a wasted day of no leads, not a word, when the actual truth is he'd been lost in a fog the entire time. He's scared and he doesn't do scared. But Winona's picked up on his mood, her own isn't much better and the two of them have been sniping at each other and that's just not where Raylan wants to be right now.
So he drives without rhyme or reason; the narrow, twisting roads taking enough attention to keep him from dwelling on anything. It's soothing and easy.
Until he rounds a hairpin curve to come upon a Cadillac stuck in a ditch.
"Fuck!" he growls. He'd know that car anywhere and the last thing he is in the mood for is Boyd Crowder. Still, he can't drive past without investigating.
He pulls past the car and turns onto the shoulder. As he steps out of the car he's met with the image of Dewey Crowe standing unsteadily in front of the car. He's got his hands up and is as jittery as a popcorn kernel on a hot skillet. "Raylan Givens! What brings you to this neck of the woods?" Dewey calls, smile wide and as suspicious as ever.
"Shut it, Dewey. Where's Boyd?"
"Dewey Crowe, do I need to call the sheriff? Have you thrown in the drunk tank? Then booked on charges of grand theft auto?"
Raylan's moving forward now. There's someone behind the car and this whole situation feels 'off' to him. He's got his hand on his gun, registers Dewey shifting from one foot to the other as he glances over his shoulder.
"Now, Raylan, thar's nuttin’ going on here. We jes’ had a spot of trouble takin’ the curve."
"I can see that," Raylan says lifting his gun as he steps around the car to confront Dewey's partner in crime. "Alright, you. Hands up."
The man stands.
And keeps standing.
Raylan blinks. The man lifts his hands and gives Raylan a puzzled expression. "Is there some trouble?" he asks, his voice grave and thickly accented.
"Just move away from the car," Raylan flicks the gun to the side, toward open ground.
"Raylan, we weren't doin’ nuttin’!"
Raylan glares at Dewey over his shoulder. "This doesn't look like nothing. That's Boyd's car--"
"Yes! This vehicle belongs to my shieldbrother's cousin," the tall, blond man interrupts. "You know Boyd, son of Crowder? We were driving to meet them when I overestimated the vehicle’s ability to take the turn."
Dewey's nodding worse than a bobblehead to Raylan's left, but Raylan is not about to take his eyes off Dewey's associate. He raises his hand to stop the man. "First, can we start at the beginning?"
The man begins, "To which beginning do you refer? And may I put my arms down now?"
"Just." Raylan takes a breath, then nods. He slips his gun into its holster, but rests his palm on it. "How about we start with who you are, big guy?"
The man drops his arms and straightens. "I am Thor Odinson of As-- of New York. Shieldbrother to Clinton, son of Barton. New friend to Dewey, son of Crowe. And you are?"
"Thor? Are you--" he starts, then stops as the name Clinton sinks in. "Wait. Did you say Barton?"
"Aye! Clinton and I have traveled here to the land of his mother's folk at his cousin's behest."
Raylan asks, "So how does Boyd asking you to come to Harlan end up with Boyd's car stuck in a ditch and no Boyd or Clint nearby?"
"That is a long story, my friend. If you would kindly introduce yourself, then mayhap I will share it," Thor answers. He's still smiling, eyes keen on Raylan's face as he crosses his very impressive arms over an even more impressive chest.
"I am U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens," Raylan says, wary.
And Dewey chooses that moment to pipe up. "That's gubmint, Thor."
"I am aware of the United States Marshal service, Dewey, son of Crowe. It is an honorable profession." Then Thor offers his hand. "Well met, Marshal Raylan, son of Givens."
Nonplussed, Raylan reaches out, but instead of a normal handshake Thor clasps his forearm and Raylan gapes, but recovers quickly, reciprocating.
"It's good to meet you, Thor," he says. Raylan knows he's going to regret asking this, but he does it anyway. "Can I call a tow truck? Or give you a lift somewhere?"
Thor glances at Dewey then answers. "I have a much better way of getting there," Thor says, going around the driver’s side back door, opening it, and reaching into the back seat; he pulls out a large chunk of what looks like metal attached to a stick. "And it is safer than any auto-mobile."
"Well, hell, boy!" Dewey says, swaying next to the car. "Why didn't'ja say sum'in before?"
"Because my brothers tell me to not be a show-off in front of the folk of Midgard." He gives them a sly grin. "But this is an emergency. We need to get to Old #7 most expeditiously."
He starts to spin the hammer by his side; it makes a sort of revving up sound.
"What?" Raylan asks, disbelieving. "It's Hammer Time?"
"No, it is called Mjølnir," Thor says, wrapping a large arm around Dewey. "It may look like one of your hammers, but it is no ordinary tool for home improvement."
Thor raises Mjølnir and in the blink of an eye, Thor and Dewey take off, straight up into the air.
"Son of a bitch!" Raylan exclaims. He looks around, hoping that someone else is there to witness this thing that he cannot comprehend. Flying men and aliens might have been on television during the Battle of New York, but seeing it with his own eyes, and knowing that it was not merely special effects, is another thing entirely. With no one around to share his amazement, Raylan takes a few moments to come to grips with it all, then another few minutes more to decide to follow instead of ignoring the whole business and driving off in the other direction.
He walks back to the Lincoln with measured steps, then slams the door and peels out, gravel flying as he hits the black top and floors it. "The big guy was wrong: that was definitely hammer time."
Thor had said something about Old #7, so Raylan heads that direction. He wants answers, dammit. He turns off the highway down an overgrown, rutted road taking the turn too fast and skidding hard before pulling the Lincoln's tail end straight once again. He barrels down the narrow road intent on his destination, determined to get to the bottom of whatever the hell Boyd's up to now.
Clint and Boyd sit beyond the closed gates of Old #7, their car concealed off the road behind a thick strand of pine while they are clad in dark clothes, gear and faces camouflaged for the terrain and the coming night.
Boyd, whites of his eyes and teeth shining from his blackened face, turns to Clint and hisses, "Where the fuck is your friend? He was supposed to be here by now."
Clint glances at his watch. Thor is late, but they still have more than fifteen minutes before night falls completely. For the Asgardian who doesn't wear a watch, that's not remotely 'late'. Clint shrugs, saying, "He'll be here. It's not like we don't have plenty of time."
Boyd's jaw clicks shut, but he doesn't argue. Clint licks his lips and wonders what Phil's doing back home about now.
Suddenly, a high-pitched whistling, or scream, becomes evident. They look up to see a fast-moving object -- no, people -- coming straight down at them. They land hard; dust and gravel flies up around them. Boyd and Clint duck, throwing up their arms, to avoid being hit with debris in their faces.
“Brother!” Thor cries. He puts Mjølnir on the ground beside him as he supports a floppy, unconscious Dewey. “We have made it.”
“Looks like Dewey didn’t,” Clint says.
“He was screaming most of the way over, but was able to show me where this mine was located.” He gently lays Dewey on the ground. “As we started our descent, he began to scream again and passed out.” Thor examines him more closely, wrinkling his nose. “He has also wet himself.”
Boyd looks him over. “No wonder. Pretty sure Dewey’s never flown, by airplane or hammer. That’s an amazing trick you can do with that thing, big fella.”
“It is no trick,” Thor states. “It was bestowed upon me by my most excellent father, Odin, the king. . . .”
“I think that’s enough!” Clint says loudly, breaking off Thor’s explanation of things that would require way too much time. “I’m just really glad you’re here now.”
“What have you found out, brother?”
"Boyd's not wrong. Something is definitely wrong at the mine. They've got it shuttered tighter than a coon's ass."
"A what?" Thor asks. "How would you know that a raccoon--"
"It's a saying, Thor," Clint interrupts. "Just means that we aren't getting in the front way."
"I see." He leans down to pick up Mjølnir. "Then we will take my way."
"No!" Clint barks. "Uh, sorry," he apologizes, schooling his tone. "But no. We don't know what we're getting into, we don't know how many men. We don't know shit. And the last thing we want to do is poke the hornet's nest without knowing just what is going to come boiling out."
Boyd interjects, his tone eerily quiet. "I don't like my cousin's plan, but we really have no other choice."
Thor looks at Clint, waiting for an explanation. Clint isn't excited about this plan, but he's good at making the best of a bad situation. He says, "When I picked up our gear from the motel, I had Phil send me topographic maps as well as anything he could find on the mine shafts and any possible caves in the area."
"And?" Thor prompts.
"And from Boyd's recollection, the original incident was in one of the newer mines… a strip mine. But we can get there from here, if we're willing to enter an old, shuttered mine."
"An old, dangerous, collapsed mine shaft," Boyd adds.
Thor looks between the two men. "I am no dwarf, but I am unafraid of being under the earth."
Clint inhales deeply. They're doing this shit.
"Okay," he nods. "Boyd, Thor, please tuck Dewey into the car." He digs into his pack, coming up with a pair of handcuffs. He tosses them to Boyd. "Make sure he stays put."
Boyd looks at Clint, his expression indecipherable, but he turns and nods to Thor. "C'mon, big guy. You got Dewey plastered, you can carry him."
"Aye," Thor agrees.
Meanwhile, Clint is pulling out gear, checking inventory, making sure they have plenty of lights and tackle. He says a silent 'thank you' once again for Phil as he glances at the pile of gear spread on the ground.
When Thor and Boyd return, he hands them each a headlamp, a coil of super-thin rope, some carabiners, and a collapsible pick. "No hard hats, so we're going to have to be damned careful."
"What is this?" Thor asks, looking suspiciously at the pick.
"That'll be less likely to bring the whole shaft down than Mjølnir, buddy," Clint answers. He shoulders his quiver and bow, puts on his headlamp, tossing on the pack. "Let's go, then."
Before Clint takes two steps, he hears wheels on gravel and sees lights coming up the road. Grabbing Thor, he ducks behind some brush and hisses for Boyd to follow.
A large car rounds the bend, nearly slams into the gate before stopping. A tall man in boots and a cowboy hat steps out of the car, gun drawn. "Alright, Boyd, get your ass out here right now and tell me what the hell is going on," he demands.
Clint mouths at Boyd, Who'd you tell?
Thor stands before Clint can stop him. "Marshal Raylan, son of Givens! We meet again!" Stepping forward, he tugs on the rusted gate, popping the old lock. The large fence swings open with a loud groan. "Have you come to join us on our epic journey to 'kick ass' as Anthony, son of Stark, would say?"
"Fuck!" Clint swears but stands. He turns to Boyd, piercing him with a hot glare. "You told Raylan?"
"Calm down, Clinton. Our local U.S. Marshal likely learned of our plans from Dewey. Or your 'shieldbrother'." For once in Clint's life, he hears a subtle undercurrent of contempt in Boyd's voice. In all their years, that tone had never been directed toward him, despite everything that Boyd knows about Clint.
Boyd's gun slides into the back of his jeans and he sidles up to Thor and Raylan. "Good evening, Marshal. What brings you to the area?"
Raylan's eyes are fixed on the broken lock, clinging to the fence before it drops with a nearly silent 'thud'. He looks up at Boyd's approach, nodding toward Thor. "Just scouting the area, Boyd. But what business do you have on Black Pike property?"
Boyd and Thor's headlamps illuminate the little scene before Clint, his eyes tracing up from Raylan's boots, over his long legs, and on up. He takes a deep breath. Standing in the light was Clint's first crush, the older baseball player that Clint could never formulate whole sentences around. Well, shit! This is the kind of thing that he so does not want to deal with. Not now. Not ever.
But Clint Barton is a professional, a .S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, an Avenger. The last thing that is going to trip him up is Marshal Raylan Givens. He carefully drops his quiver and places his bow on the pack, tucking them under the brush before stepping into the light.
"Is there a problem, Marshal?" he asks, all eyes turning his way.
"Clinton!" Thor greets, smile wide. "This is United States Marshal Raylan--"
"Got it, buddy," Clint says, cutting him off. He moves forward to stand beside Thor, his own gun tucked into his thigh holster, arms crossed over his chest. He still has to look up to meet Raylan's eyes. Some things never change.
Raylan snorts. "My, my. The big guy wasn't lying. Look at you." He holsters his gun and waves a hand at Clint. "Pesky little Clinton Francis. All grown up." He chuckles. "Never thought you'd amount to anything after you took off outta here like the devil himself was chasing you."
Clint inhales sharply, grits his teeth. Raylan is a handsome man, but the guy is straight as a board as well as a hot-tempered dick. Clint has Phil now. He doesn't need this guy's respect. Or help.
"Water under the bridge," he begins.
"Ancient history, Raylan," Boyd interrupts. His face has gone cold. "We have business here and you are delaying us."
"What kind of legitimate business is conducted at night in an abandoned mine shaft?" Raylan asks. "Can't be anything good."
"We are on a reconnaissance mission!" Thor booms.
Clint steps between Thor, Boyd and Raylan. He's trying to channel Phil, hopes like hell he succeeds. "Look, I work for S.H.I.E.L.D. and we're here because there have been strange occurrences at the mine. People acting odd. And now Black Pike is not even hiring."
"What the hell is S.H.I.E.L.D.?"
"That's the only thing…" exasperated, Clint stops himself. "Look. I'd love to stay and chat, but we’re on a tight schedule--"
Suddenly Raylan draws his gun. "I don't give a shit about your schedule. No one's going anywhere until you explain what you're doing here and why."
Thor growls. "We are Avengers. On an important mission. What more do you need to know?" He steps forward, but Raylan's gun stays trained on Clint.
"Goddammit, Raylan. Haven't you been paying attention to what's been going on around here? Boyd even asked you for help but you ignored him!"
Lightning crackles, making Clint's head jerk up. He pats Thor's bicep. "It's okay. Raylan's not going to shoot anybody." Clint glances at Raylan "Right?" he prompts.
Raylan hesitates, but Clint doesn't blink and finally Raylan drops the barrel of his pistol. He doesn't holster it, but at least he's not outright threatening them.
Clint holds back his snark, he knows he's being defensive and can't dial back the glare he offers Raylan, but he grits his teeth and nods. "Thanks."
"I still want answers," Raylan says.
"Boyd already told you something was up and when you couldn't be bothered--"
"With what? People do weird shit around here all the time. If I got up in arms and investigated every incident, I'd never have time to do my damn job," Raylan almost growls.
"So quit being a dick and listen for once," Clint hisses.
Raylan tilts his head back, eyes hard. He crosses his arms over his chest, pistol resting on his left bicep. "I'm listenin'."
"Boyd called me for help. My agency -- S.H.I.E.L.D. -- investigated. There's some strange signals coming from the mine and whatever it is started about a year ago at Strip #4," Clint explains. "If that isn't enough for you, then you explain to me why Black Pike turned away an able-bodied job seeker?"
Raylan frowns. He glances at Boyd, then back at Clint. "No idea. What are you implying?"
Clint huffs out a breath. "Not implying a damn thing. Something's fishy at the mine and it ain't something the US Marshal service or the DEA or any of the usual alphabet agencies need be concerned with."
"So I'm supposed to believe this S.H.I.E.L.D. sent you?"
Raylan's condescension grates on Clint, but he simply remembers Phil and how he has always let people underestimate him. "Yeah, they did. Me and Thor are enough to handle it. So you can run along. We got this." Clint imbues his voice with as much dismissal as he can. He so does not need this shit.
Raylan snorts. "If you think--"
And that breaks Clint's resolve. "Enough! I don't give a shit about your little power play here. Your ego's all wrapped up in that gun… shoot first, question later. Well, I know a man worth ten of you and he never pulls his sidearm unless he uses it. He's a hero that never lets his temper get the best of him. And he trusts me. So fuck you, Marshal. We got this."
Raylan blinks, looks like he's about to protest, but holsters his gun. "Nice speech, Clinton. But I'm coming with you."
"Fine. Fuckin' hell. Whatever. You got any caving gear in that trunk of yours?"
It turns out that Raylan does have a good flashlight and some rope. It's not S.H.I.E.L.D. gear, but it's better than nothing.
While the three men adjust their gear, Clint steps away and phones Phil. When he doesn't answer, Clint sighs and leaves a message. "I'm going in. There's definitely something seriously weird going on and we're having to go in the long way round. I have Thor, Boyd, and now US Marshal Givens with me. If we don't knock ourselves out butting heads, we'll be fine. I'll report in when I can, but there won't be signal once I'm in the mine proper."
Clint hesitates, whispers, "I love you, babe," then closes the call.
The trail starts out easily enough, the old, rusted tracks leading them deep into the mine. Clint takes point, their path already committed to memory. He hopes the cave-in hasn't spread because once in the mine, changing their route will be time consuming and risky enough to have to consider scrapping the whole attempt.
For the first half hour, the going is easy; even Thor can walk upright. He's at the rear of the party to watch their backs and to keep Raylan off Clint's back.
They take a branch off the main shaft, the area was once used for storage of the larger equipment since this vein had long played out even before the cave-in. They pass nests and yellow eyes glinting in the dark, but none dare approach Thor. The passageway seems to dead-end and Boyd swears, but Clint shushes him and nudges Thor toward a pile of fallen stone and leavings piled against a cave wall.
He points out three weak points, then stands back, tugging Boyd with him and nodding for Raylan to move away as well.
"What the hell? We lost, cuz?" Boyd hisses, still wary around Thor.
"No. This is the way we need to go."
"It's a dead end," Raylan unhelpfully points out.
Thor swings the pick, driving it deep into the first crack Clint pointed out. The wall groans and stones begin tumbling down the pile.
"What the fuck?!" Boyd shouts. "You tryin' to bring the whole place down on our heads?"
Clint tightens his grip on Boyd's forearm, and pulls him back as far as they can go before their backs hit the opposite shaft wall. "Wait."
The rocks don’t fall down around them; instead, they fall outward and down; when they land, it sounds as though it’s a long way off. The actual amount of rock falling is small because Thor has tapped into a relatively thin wall that opens up into something much, much larger.
Boyd and Clint come closer while Raylan keeps his distance. “Were you expecting this, Boyd?” Thor asks. “This does not look like a mine shaft.”
“No,” Boyd says softly. “It most definitely does not.”
Before them is a wide, deep and airy cavern. Other-worldly light illuminates the cavern floor below them, probably a good hundred feet. On the far side of the space, they can hear pops and cracking, as though someone is still digging.
“What in Jesus’s Holy Name is this?” Boyd asks.
“This is why we’re here,” Clint says. He shoves Boyd and Thor back and behind the opening they made, and snaps off his headlamp; Thor, Boyd, and Raylan do the same. Clint waits for his eyes to adjust to the lower light; he closes his eyes, listening for any change in the sound, indicating their presence has been noted. They wait for several minutes. If anything, the sound of digging increases.
“I believe we have not been detected,” Thor says quietly.
Clint acknowledges the observation with a short nod. He slips around the edge of the opening, now able to see somewhat better; below them, a narrow ledge rings the cavern, though for how far, he can’t see. He leans back to Thor, gesturing with his hand to the left and says, “See the ledge? Follow that for as long as you can and see what and how many we’re up against. Don’t do anything. Just reconnoiter and then come back here. Ok?”
Thor nods and grins. He loves this part, but he loves doing the beat-down on enemies even more; Clint trusts him, more than just about any of the other Avengers, to follow an order. Thor slowly feels his way along the wall, and drops down far enough to where just his head is above the ledge. He disappears into the growing dark.
“For a big dude, he moves quietly,” Boyd says, Raylan at his side, silently watching.
They wait for another few moments, and then Clint hears the unmistakable sound of a gun sliding through leather and a click as a bullet enters the chamber.
“Raylan!” Clint hisses. “What the fuck are you doing?”
Raylan sidles along the wall to Clint’s location. “Where’s your boy? Now, it’s not that I don’t trust you, but there’s something down there that ain’t right and we need to be prepared.”
Clint resists the temptation to bop Raylan upside the head like his mama used to do him when he was being stupid. He takes a breath. “I’m gonna ask you to trust me on this, all right? I wouldn’t have sent Thor to see what’s going on if I didn’t think he was the best man for the job. So, please, just wait, Raylan.”
He’s not sure if he’s gotten his desperation through to Raylan because he desperately does not want Raylan Fucking Givens going cowboy on this operation. He’s confident Thor will be able to suss out what’s going on; and if he can’t, Thor will tell him that as well.
After several seconds, he hears the safety click on. “All right,” Raylan says. “But I’m giving him five more minutes to get back.”
“No,” Clint says. “We give him all the time he needs. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is for us to be patient and to wait for Thor.”
In the dim of the cavern, Clint sees the light-colored hat dip in acknowledgement and Raylan moving back. Clint sighs internally.
Five, then ten minutes pass. Even Clint is getting antsy; Boyd has slid down to squat against the wall, remaining quieter than Clint’s ever thought possible for his loquacious and hot-headed cousin. Raylan is leaning casually against the wall, but he's tapping his foot, each of them growing increasingly unsettled.
"Stop it!" Clint hisses. "We wait for Thor."
"And what if your associate has been captured?" Raylan says softly from somewhere past Boyd.
Clint grits his jaw. "We would know if that had happened."
"How?" Boyd chimes in.
Clint wants to shout, "Because he's a freakin' GOD!" but he holds his tongue. "He would not go down without a fight and sound travels far in caves."
"Since when are you an expert geologist?" Raylan scoffs.
"You don't need to be a geologist to know that sound echoes," Clint replies, but inside he's fretting. Thor should have been back by now.
"Fuck it," he growls in an undertone, his instincts telling him to investigate. He never has been good at waiting unless he's in a sniper's perch with Phil's voice in his ear. Come to think of it, he was always rushing into things before he met Phil. Huh, he muses. Man, did he have some things to discuss with his lover once they figure out what in the hell is going on.
Dropping his rope, he uses a couple of carabiners to make a harness. "We're going in." He shows Boyd and Raylan how to wrap their ropes around their waists then ties them all together. "Raylan, you take the back," he orders just as he's slipping through the opening and out onto the narrow ledge, moving only by feel. The rock juts out from a shelf of rock above them, keeping them from standing upright, so they have to crawl on all fours. Crawling is safer without light. The eerie light is good for nothing except ruining Clint's vision.
He moves forward pulling the rope taut as Boyd quietly clambers through the hole, followed by Raylan.
Clint turns and whispers over his shoulder, "On three, we move like this: right hand-left leg, then left hand-right leg. We keep the cadence until I call a halt." He takes a breath. "Got it?"
"Got it," Boyd replies.
"Yep," Raylan finally answers.
"One-two-three!" he says and they start moving.
It's slow going and tedious, but the ledge is stable and flat as it slopes steadily downward. Clint's grateful for the knee pads in his tac suit and the leather palms of his gloves. He'd have some sympathy for Raylan who's in jeans and boots without gloves, but he's taking more satisfaction in Raylan's discomfort than is probably nice. But fuck that shit. Raylan's been an ass from the get-go and this'll show him.
Their path takes them behind a large protuberance, a stalactite that met the edge of the ledge at some point down the millennia, their sightlines for the weird glow obscured for long minutes. Their path curves sharply as it opens back up and Clint stops, warning Boyd and Raylan to do the same.
The light is more direct now, and moving, as though someone is patrolling or looking for them. Clint tries to remember the topographic maps, but this cavern isn't on them, so his recollection does them little good. He takes a breath as he hears footsteps.
"Carter! What the hell are you doing?" a voice calls from a distance.
"Thought I heard something, boss," a second voice replies, but this one is much closer, nearly upon them.
"Up there?" the first man asks. "Probably bats. Now get your ass back down here."
"Yes, sir!" Carter says, his flash light suddenly sweeping right in front of Clint who has to fight to not jerk back. He only begins breathing again once he hears Carter rejoin the first man.
"So where the hell is Thor?" Boyd whispers.
"No clue, but they didn't sound like they'd found him." Clint takes a breath, turns to glance over his shoulder. "We go on three--"
Before he can begin the countdown, Thor rounds the corner, nearly running into Clint. "Shieldbrother!"
"Thor! Godammit! Where have you been?" Clint asks as he scoots back, nudging Boyd to make room for the Asgardian.
"Clint! I have news!"
"Shhhh!" Clint tries to quiet Thor.
"Right," the big guy whispers.
"How many are there?" Boyd asks.
"What did you find?" Raylan asks.
Clint sighs. "One at a time." He slides his hand forward until it reaches Thor's. "Go ahead. What news do you have?"
"There are men and a few women scurrying around a center area which seems to contain large blackened metal plates," he begins. "They appear to be working on something which is generating the strange light. I could not get close enough to decipher what the apparatus was, but some of the men were not speaking English."
"Was it German?" Clint asks.
"Nay. It was not a language of Midgard or of Asgard."
"How can he be sure?" Raylan questions.
"Because he is," Clint answers, his patience stretched thin.
"And there is something else," Thor continues.
"What?" Clint focuses back on Thor.
"They have prisoners."
"What? Why?" Clint asks.
"I do not know, but there is a cage of metal containing half a dozen folk."
"We need to talk to the prisoners. They'll have answers," Clint says, Boyd and Raylan agreeing immediately.
"I can show you the way," Thor says.
"Will we be crawling the entire way?" Raylan asks, tone mild and curious. Surprisingly, considering that his knees must be in bad shape, he's not complaining.
"Nay, Marshal. There is a section where we can stand and stay hidden. It is just up ahead."
"Lead on then," Raylan urges.
Clint would prefer a better approach, less exposed, but they don't have a choice, and he trusts Thor's judgment.
They crawl until the ledge widens and the light is more intense. Clint inhales sharply, slams his eyes closed, and ducks back against the wall. "Shit! Too bright!"
"They have added another powerful light source. Forgive me."
"It's fine." They straighten, all of them still huddled in the shadows as they tug off the ropes. "Are there patrols, Thor?"
"Nay, but the ones in charge seem particularly paranoid."
"Aren't they all?" Clint mutters.
"Are we doing this?" Boyd asks.
Clint glances over his shoulder at Boyd and Raylan; despite the deep shadows, he can see they're ready. No reason to hold back. He nods, then tells Thor, "Go for it. We're right behind you."
There's a ten foot gap where the light spills over the ledge, illuminating the whole stretch with nowhere to hide. They have to time it carefully and Thor goes first. He crosses and immediately shouting begins. Clint freezes, listening, but no one comes their direction. He makes out a few words in English, swearing at the 'idiots' but the rest is gibberish, unintelligible and Clint knows they're not dealing with any rank and file humans.
Thor waves him over and Clint glances around the barrier, sees it's all clear and races across, his gear held tight to his chest to keep it silent. Thor tugs him into the shadows and they both watch the flurry of activity below. The light has changed hue, is more sickly green than before and a metallic hum starts.
There is shouting, thankfully in English, from beyond Clint's range of vision, but from the words, he figures it must be the prisoners. The diversion allows Raylan and Boyd to cross and Clint breathes easier. They're directly above the central hive of activity, close enough that they can make out faces. Clint nods to Boyd. "You recognize anyone?"
Boyd shakes his head, perplexed. "I worked for Black Pike. But there's not a soul here that I know."
A shout breaks the air, echoes in the sudden silence. Then a woman's voice cries out, "Let me go, you monster!"
"Ava?" Boyd blurts out, eyes wide, mouth agape.
"What is it, Boyd?"
"That was Ava, I swear it!"
"You think she's been strange because she's being coerced?"
"Who is this Ava you speak of?" Thor interrupts.
"She's my…" Boyd hesitates.
"She's Boyd's lady, Thor," Clint supplies.
"If she is in trouble, we must rescue her! We cannot leave her!" Thor insists. And Clint agrees.
"How many do you think we're talking about, Thor?"
"No more than a dozen, and most seem to be sheep, taking orders. The leaders are but few."
"So if we take down the leaders, the rest fall like puppets with their strings cut?"
Thor shrugs. "It is likely and the best that we can hope for."
"Okay, then. Thor, you and Boyd free the prisoners. Raylan, you grab something heavy and start knocking out anyone that moves or gives resistance."
"And where will you be?" Raylan asks.
Clint pulls out his bow and reaches over his shoulder for an arrow. "I have something in mind for whatever that contraption is."
Raylan frowns but Clint ignores him. "Thor, when the prisoners are out of here, hit the comm and tell me, k?"
"Aye. We will not fail Boyd's beloved."
Clint quickly loses sight of Thor and Boyd in the dark. He nods to Raylan. "You can do stealthy, can't you?"
"Of course." Then Raylan heads off and Clint is left alone to find a vantage point with good sightlines. He is soon scrambling down a giant stalagmite and settles in a narrow ledge on his knees. He's got the whole cavern in his sights, the cave wall at his back and a good span to draw his bow. He waits for Thor's signal and tries not to think about the fact that this is totally blowing the mission parameters out of the water.
Then he hears a muffled 'Oof!' and detects the sound of a body being dragged over the ground. Glancing down, he sees a pale hat duck behind another outcropping. There's more shouting from the direction of the prisoners and then a loud clanging, almost like a gong, but is probably the sound of Mjølnir meeting metal bars. Shots ring out.
It's time for Clint's diversion.
He fires a flash bang which blows about ten feet above the center where the equipment is placed. At nearly the same time, Thor shouts, and Raylan fires his gun.
Basically, all hell breaks loose.
Clint fires more arrows, trying to pin down the hostiles so that Thor can get the civilians to safety. He's taking steady fire now and bits of stone keep coming at him. At least that's better than a direct hit. The metallic hum increases in pitch and then an energy weapon takes out a chunk of rock above Clint. He swears, switches to a grappling hook arrow head and jumps. He makes the shot, but there's no window to swing into. The cavern wall rushes to greet him. This is going to hurt, he thinks, but braces his legs for impact. He hits the wall, absorbs as much of the blow as he can before rolling and ducking behind some equipment as more energy shots zing by.
He lays on the ground, panting for a moment, shakes the stars out of his eyes, and stands. Nothing is going to plan, but luckily for them, these people are not well organized. There's shouting and he hears someone running his direction. He stands, prepared to shoot, but it's Raylan. They both drop behind the large console, the humming growing until Clint winces.
"What the hell is all this?" Raylan has to shout to be heard.
"I have no idea, but recon is out. We have to blow this shit."
"Blow it? That could bring the whole cavern down!"
"Do you have a better idea? We're separated. There are civilians and they're starting to get their shit together."
Clint considers their options, which are very limited. He drags a small camera out of a pocket and hands it to Raylan. "Record everything you can. It's the best we got. I'll create a diversion. Then help Thor and Boyd and get the hell out."
Clint stands, the concussion arrowhead already on a shaft and nocked. He sees a ledge above a pile of rock and metal. Aims. Shoots. The whole cave rocks with the explosion. Clint's ears ring and he drops, dazed. "What the hell is in this rock?" he muses out loud.
Two goons almost get the jump on him -- he hadn't heard them -- but he feels the ground shift under his palm and whirls in time to block the large pipe one is wielding. His associate tries to get behind Clint, but is easy enough to overbalance into the path of the other; he hears the faint whistle of a the heavy pipe cutting through air, and then it connects with something solid. Clint winces at the sharp crack of what he assumes is bone breaking accompanied by a howl of pain. The first goon stops, stares at the buddy he'd taken down, the pause giving Clint time to get inside his reach and direct an uppercut to his jaw. He's large, but he has a glass jaw and goes down in one.
Clint leaves them and stands. He sees three others trying to drag equipment down a back passageway. "Oh, no you don't!" he murmurs, an explosive arrow flying as he speaks and the tunnel collapses in front of them.
They turn and lock eyes with Clint. "This looks bad," he says, thinking it's time to get the hell out of dodge.
Tapping his comm, he hisses, "Thor!" then has to duck yet another energy blast. "Thor, dammit! Are the prisoners safe?"
He thinks he hears words through the static, but can't be sure. Still, the big, scary guys with hard eyes are advancing on his position and, no matter what some people think, Clint's no martyr. He dials up three timed-delay arrowheads, nocks the first one, then takes off running. He lets it fly, the next one nocked and loosed before he takes another breath. The third is sent off practically behind his back as he dives to avoid another energy blast. However, this one catches him in the thigh, spinning him around. He ducks, another shot sends a fiery trail along his bicep. He's flat on the ground of the cavern, but can see the open, empty cage along with bright lights coming at him. Groaning at the searing pain, he dives toward the light, tackling a hard body as he hits the release on the explosives.
The blast knocks Clint flat on his stomach, knocking the breath out of him, and out of whomever he landed on. The floor groans, the walls shudder, and he hears another explosion, then a third. Shaking his head clear, he's pushed off of someone -- Raylan -- who is swearing, loudly by the face he's making, but Clint only hears ringing. Before he can clear the spots from his eyes, Raylan drags him up, throws an arm around his waist and then they're sprinting out of the cavern.
The topographic maps were wrong or had been altered or something because they emerge onto the eastern side of the strip mine. Clint can't quite focus on anything just yet, but he's being passed off to Thor as a helicopter lands amidst the chaos. Just as the wheels touch down, a larger explosion blasts through the cavern, knocking everyone off their feet. The helicopter pilot aborts their landing and hastily lift off as the mountain of slag erupts and covers the hillside behind Clint.
"Well, shit!" he mutters to Thor who's helping Clint to his feet.
"That was most fun, Hawkbrother!" Thor booms.
The helicopter lands, followed by Iron Man. Oops.
Clint hears sirens in the distance and shakes off the spots in his eyes to see Phil -- Coulson -- step down out of the helicopter. He's wearing his sunglasses and staring at the blaze at Clint's back.
Clint looks around for help, but Boyd has his arms around a petite blonde, probably Ava, and Raylan's lost his hat, but he's got his gun pointed at a couple of not so little green men sprawled on the ground. Now where the hell did they come from?
Tony and Phil stride up to Clint who's doing his damnedest not to wince. At least energy bolts don't leave you bleeding out.
"I can explain--" he starts, but Tony cuts him off.
"Sure you can, Katniss. This looks like one of my clusterfucks." He lifts his visor and he's grinning. He turns and gives Phil a smirk. "I told you so."
Phil does not smile. His face is impossible to read behind the glasses and the stony expression. "What happened to recon-only, Barton?"
"There were prisoners?"
Thor joins them and nods. "We could not leave Boyd, son of Crowder's beloved in the hands of the Skrulls! That would have been dishonorable."
"Skrulls?" Tony, Clint, and Phil echo.
"The aliens. The green-skinned shape shifters?" Thor points toward where Raylan is cuffing the two… Skrulls.
"Shape shifters?" If it'd been anyone else but Phil, Clint would almost swear Phil was surprised, but nothing surprises Agent Phil Coulson.
"Aye. They are known for kidnapping people and taking their forms. They have no honor in battle. Instead of meeting their foes head on, they lie, cheat, and steal," Thor says grimly.
"Sounds like most bad guys, buddy."
Thor turns to Tony and greets him with a full body hug. "Man of Iron! You were missed!"
"Whoa, there! Hold on a sec!" Tony's squirming in Thor's grasp.
"Nay! You missed the chicken of Kentucky! It is most delicious! As is the clean mountain air! And the weakened ale!"
"Clean mountain air?" Phil mouths at Clint who shrugs.
Tony pats Thor's bicep. "How about you let me go, Point Break? Then we can check out these Skrulls for ourselves."
Thor releases Tony, then they both walk toward Raylan. "And I must introduce you to US Marshal Raylan, son of Givens! His aim is nearly as keen as our Hawkbrother's!"
Phil turns his attention back to Clint while Clint is lost in the reflection of the blazing fire in Phil's sunglasses. "Is it wise to let Tony and Thor loose on captured aliens, sir?"
"Possibly not, but it's not my problem."
Clint blinks, then shifts under Phil's gaze. That puts pressure on his thigh and he hisses.
"Are you injured, Agent Barton?"
"Maybe?" He's not sure how to answer anything right now because Phil's closed off to him, obviously displeased. Clint sighs. "There really wasn't any other way, sir."
"You've destroyed a mine and set fire to a mountain and gotten yourself injured in the process." Phil's voice is tight and Clint looks away. He can't stand to look at Phil and only see himself staring back.
Phil reaches for Clint's arm. "C'mon. Let's get you to medical." He taps his comm, "Containment units are cleared to enter the area. We need that priority one cage ASAP." He pauses, then answers, "Aliens. And we'll need a cover story for the captured civilians."
"Jasper?" Clint asks, he feels himself wavering on his feet as the sparks flying through the air go a bit hazy.
"Clint!" Phil's hand tightens and then Phil's holding Clint up with his arm around Clint's waist.
"'m fine, sir."
"The hell you are!" Phil's turned them back toward the helicopter, nodding at Thor and Tony to follow.
"What about Boyd and Raylan?"
"I've got this, Clint. Let me do my job," Phil says.
"K," Clint murmurs, his legs going all shaky on him. "Mind if I just sit for a bit?" he asks as he drops onto the rear seat of the copter. Closing his eyes against the throb and hum in his ears, he misses the others that join them, but soon enough they're taking off as S.H.I.E.L.D. SUVs and vans converge on the spot.
“Don’t get up. I’ll get you another -- well, I guess it’s beer,” Tony says, as he rises from the rusty folding chair. “I haven’t had Bud since I was in middle school. Bud. Good god…” He mutters, stalking off to the bar and opening the whining ‘fridge. “Well, looks like it’s gonna be ‘last call’ because there are about five cans left.”
“Bring them all,” Boyd says, waving his arm.
Tony shuffles over with the last of the beer in Boyd’s bar, handing them out. He sits next to Clint, who’s got his injured leg propped up on a chair. He’s still in pain, and the Bud isn’t even close to touching it, but he wasn't about to take the pills the S.H.I.E.L.D. medic had pressed into his palm. There's still more to do and he's wrung out enough the heavy duty pain meds would have put him on his ass.
Phil Coulson comes to sit behind him, pocketing his phone as he does. Then Clint feels a brief brush across his arm. They still haven't talked and Phil's likely completely pissed at him for expanding the mission or getting hurt or, well, any number of things, but the slight touch lets him believe they'll be just fine.
Phil says, “The prisoners are immobilized in our special containment unit which is on its way to a secured facility. The locals will be processed and debriefed later this morning. For now, they’ve been given something to help them sleep.”
“And forget the past year tomorrow?” Tony asks, half joking.
Phil inclines his head, tone cool and serious. “If need be, yes.”
Tony's eyes widen a fraction and Clint can tell he has no idea if Phil is joking or not.
To wind Tony up a bit more, Clint winks at him, then mouths, "Men in Black." It's almost comical how fast Tony stands.
"Phone call!" he blurts out, stepping outside.
The whole table turns and watches him go. Clint smirks, chuckling under his breath.
"Clint?" Phil murmurs, warm breath closer to Clint's ear than he was expecting. He gives an involuntary shiver, but the palm Phil places on his ribs is comforting.
Clint just shrugs. Tony baiting takes his mind off how much he hurts. The two wounds sting like giant papercuts, but medical had cleaned them, wrapped them up and declared that they'd heal nicely if he'll go easy on the leg. They gave him the usual admonitions and care instructions which Phil takes too seriously. But physically he's pretty damn good all things considered.
Glancing around the table, he shakes his head. They're all grimy and a bit battered, except for Phil. Thor, who still surprises Clint at nearly every turn, is leaning back against the wall, his chair fragile beneath him, those magnificent arms crossed over his chest. But he's smiling, looks pleased and content, but that makes sense for a man (God?) born to war.
Raylan's got his hat tilted forward, his long (so very long!) legs stretched out in front of him, ankles crossed. He's less wary, Clint supposes, but his eyes are shadowed. Clint recognizes the vigilance of a man in enemy territory. He doesn't know what to think about that. What to say to Raylan. They have both overcome their upbringings, making something better out of shitty childhoods. But nothing makes up for the uncomfortable twist in Clint's gut when he looks at Raylan, when he thinks about Raylan being the one that made him realize the fullness of his sexuality. He swallows, eyes darting away from Raylan as he leans a little harder into Phil.
Phil must sense something because he gives Clint's waist a firm squeeze. He won't lean in, won't say much in this crowd of virtual strangers, but he's not leaving either. His calm presence eases the kink in Clint's stomach. He's got more than he ever expected to have and now, when he looks at Raylan, he sees someone as screwed up as himself and feels only sympathy.
And then there's Boyd. He's sober for all that he's been making a show of drinking with the rest of them. But that's Boyd's way. He's never been the trusting sort, is less wary of Thor, but he keeps glancing at Phil like he can't quite understand why Clint's aligned himself with a suit. Clint should probably talk to him. Before Clint can broach that subject, Raylan shifts in his seat, cocks his head at Thor.
“So tell me about these Skrull things, Thor,” Raylan asks.
“I'm sorry, Marshal, but that is need-to-know information,” Phil interjects. “S.H.I.E.L.D. will provide you with an NDA and a report with all of the pertinent details that we can divulge.”
“Need to know, huh?” Raylan says, giving Phil a squinty eye. “You're telling me I don't 'need-to-know' or is that just S.H.I.E.L.D. cover-up for ‘we don’t know a goddamn thing'”?
Phil sits up straighter, pins Raylan with a hard stare. Clint bites his lip to keep from smiling. He does love it when Phil goes all stone cold badass. “The world… the universe is larger than you know, Marshal. S.H.I.E.L.D. has it covered, so you don't need to be concerned with it.”
“Wow. Reckon I’ve been told.” Raylan pushes the brim of his hat up with one finger so he can see better when he turns to Thor. “So what’s your story, Thor? You sure ain’t from New York. Not with all that hammer mumbo-jumbo.”
Thor leans back in the chair. “That is true. I am of Asgard, a world that is not so far away, but one that, as my brothers-in-arms have advised me to say, is not yet open for ‘public discussion.’ One day, I pray that Midgard and Asgard will enjoy an open and fruitful relationship.” He finishes off the last of his beer. ”But that day has not yet dawned. But I will tell you what I know of the Skrulls…"
Phil clears his throat. Clint glances at his lover over his shoulder, pleading silently for Phil to allow this bit of story telling. Phil's jaw clenches, but he gives a sharp nod and doesn't say anything.
Thor continues, undaunted. "We are lucky 'twas only a scout ship with but few of the dastardly fiends. Skrulls have no honor in battle. They hide and skulk about, using trickery instead of skill. They change shape, stealing your ally's form such that you can no longer trust your eyes. And with civilians around, it would have been nigh impossible to prevail in a fight with greater numbers."
Raylan leans in to ask another question, when the honking of a car horn, at first from far off, then louder as it gets closer, cuts him off. There is the unmistakable sound of a car skidding to a halt, an engine turning off, and a door slamming. Then the door to the bar flies open. “Did’ya miss me?” Dewey Crowe yells, a thoroughly bemused Tony Stark trailing after.
“Dewey! Brother!” Thor rises and, in just three mighty strides, reaches for him and picks him up in an enormous hug.
“Put me down, goddammit!” Dewey cries. “I’m jus’ sober enough to know I need another beer. Y’all having a party without me??”
“We are out of beer. I am sorry,” Thor says, dropping Dewey, who stumbles. “The night was most eventful and we have feted our victory. But tomorrow will come soon enough and bring with it more celebrations!!”
“Aw, man! Ow!” Dewey says, slapping Thor’s arm, then shaking his hand. “I knew it! Y’all did sumthin’ without me.”
“Dewey, you were wasted,” Raylan adds helpfully. “Good thing I knew you’d slept it off for the past” -- he checks his watch -- ”ten hours or else I’d be arresting your ass for drunk driving.”
“Aw, hell, Raylan, you know I kin hold it.” With that, his eyes grow wide. “Speakin’ of, I’m gonna find myself a tree.” He turns and bolts out the door, passing Tony who can't help but laugh.
“Apparently, Dewey, son of Crowe, could no longer hold it,” Thor comments and all of them, except Boyd and Phil, join Tony in uproarious laughter.
Clint notices Boyd's frown, how he's been holding back the entire time. He supposes it's time for that talk. Clint pulls his bad leg down and feels Phil immediately tense up.
Clint reaches down, gives Phil's hand a firm squeeze, then taps out an 'all okay' signal. He kicks Boyd's shoe and stands. "Show me around?"
"Subtle," Phil murmurs.
Boyd glances at Phil then up at Clint, standing as he does. "I take it you and I need to 'have words', Clinton?"
"No shit, Sherlock," Clint snarks.
He limps toward the door, Boyd on his heels. Clint can feel him at his back and it takes effort to allow him that close.
"We can talk inside, you know," Boyd offers.
Clint shakes his head. "It's stuffy inside. That place is a shit hole, Boyd. You should fix it up."
"I do not believe you dragged your ass out here to discuss renovations on my bar," Boyd says. He moves away from the parking lot, toward the side of the building where trees and stubbly grass are trying to grow into the gravel strewn down for parking.
Clint follows, the ache in his leg making him lag behind. But he catches up with Boyd and the early morning light reveals the truth he'd been hiding inside.
"You're worried about Ava." It's not a question. "Look, I was giving Tony a hard time. She'll be fine, Boyd. It's the ones on the outside that have a harder time of it."
Boyd frowns. "How the hell would you know anything about that? You with your perfect life, fancy ass friends, suit wearing… whatever. Ava was a prisoner, Clinton. And I was fuckin' sleeping with a goddamned alien! How will that ever be alright?"
He's understandably angry, furious, scared and heartsick. Clint gets it. Better than Boyd can imagine. "I do get it. I understand--" He shook his head, silently asks for Boyd to be patient with him. "But I swear to you, it'll get better. You'll need some help and S.H.I.E.L.D. has the best shrinks in the business--"
"I'm not crazy, man!"
"Dammit, Boyd! Listen!" Clint takes a breath, calms down. "I didn't say you were. But this is not your run of the mill incident. You and Ava gotta talk to someone so you can get past all this. Trust me."
"And why in the hell should I? It's obvious you left Harlan a long time ago, Clinton. And I have no fuckin' clue why you came back."
Clint huffs out a frustrated sigh. Boyd's angry with him as he should be. And he has no idea what hell Clint went through and how he came out on the other side.
So, Clint tells him.
In the end, it's less scary and more awkward than Clint had always worried it'd be, but Boyd is all the family Clint has left and maybe that's reason enough to make the effort. The fact that Boyd seems to give Clint's words honest consideration and acceptance leads to the realization that Boyd's blood. Family. And family might not be perfect, but they stick together.
They stroll back into the bar, coming in just as Phil's reaching for his cell phone. He reads the text. “Time for us to make the rendezvous point for the extraction.” He stands. “Marshal, thanks for your assistance in this matter. Your superiors will be hearing from us.”
“Not sure I did all that much,” Raylan admits, taking Phil’s hand.
“You got me out of a bad situation,” Clint pipes up. “Thanks for that.”
Raylan nods at him, and then turns to Thor. “It was nice to meet you. I truly hope to visit your world some day.”
“And I, too.” Thor grasps Raylan’s forearm firmly, and favors him with a dazzling, God-like smile. “It was an honour to do battle at your side, United States Marshal Raylan Givens.”
Raylan looks a little thunderstruck. “The honor is all mine, Thor. Thanks for helping us out here.”
Thor nods to him, then leans forward to ask, “Do you know which tree is Dewey’s? I should like to bid him farewell.”
Raylan covers a snort of laughter by quickly clearing his throat. “Um...I think if you just go outside and look around, you’ll find him.”
“Excellent. Fare thee well, Marshal.”
Clint limps over to Raylan and extends his hand.
Raylan shakes his head and clasps Clint in a quick hug. "Still can't fuckin' believe how you turned out, Francis."
"And look at your skinny ass," Clint quips, but he's smiling.
Raylan snorts. "I think your suit would object to your eyes being anywhere near my ass."
That makes Clint laugh out loud. "Still an ass, but thanks again."
Phil nodes toward the door. "We need to leave, Barton."
Tony's already heading out the door, so Clint follows. "Another time, Marshal," Clint says.
Raylan offers Clint a two finger salute. "Right, Hawkeye."
Clint, Phil, and Boyd follow Tony out to hear him moan, “I am so ready to get out of here. Back home to real beer and a chair that doesn’t collapse when you look at it funny.” Tony's rubbing his ass. “I thought I needed to lose weight until I saw the damn thing didn’t have any lateral support.”
“Anyone seen Thor?” Phil asks. He hits the unlock button on the key fob and the lights on the black SUV flash.
“I think he was heading to find that Dewey guy,” Tony says, going around the front to claim shotgun, but Clint cuts him off and mouths 'my man's driving, you go in back'.
Tony is about to argue, but Clint just angles his head to the back-seat. He's said his farewell to Boyd, but still pulls his cousin in for one last hug. "Keep what I said in mind and call me."
Boyd purses his lips but offers a short nod.
"Take care of yourself, Boyd."
"You, too, Clinton."
At that moment, voices come from the darkness off to the right side of the bar. “I am sorry, my friend, but it is impossible.” Thor’s voice has a way of carrying.
“I got nuttin’ here. I could be yer personal assess--assit--ass,” Dewey cries.
“Got that right,” Tony mutters.
“I could help ya!”
Clint's laughing to himself, but says nothing.
They come into view: Thor is striding with Dewey trotting along quickly behind, waving his arms. “Dewey, you are an honourable man with a tie to a noble land with family and a way of life that goes back many generations,” Thor says.
“I ain't got no fam’ly to speak of left and there is no life!” Dewey says. “Aw c’mon! Take me to New Yawk with ya!”
Thor stops and turns. He puts his large hands on Dewey’s slight shoulders. “It is not to be. I will not be staying in New York City much longer myself. I have duties to my people and my king. Sadly, I cannot take you with me to Asgard either.” Thor straightens, then reaches out to gather Dewey into a mighty hug against his chest. “I have truly enjoyed our adventures together, Dewey Crowe. I shall miss you as much as I miss Kentucky Fried Chicken.”
“Ow,” Dewey says, his mouth smashed against a hard pec. Thor releases him, and walks quickly away. He opens the back door and gets in, settling next to Tony.
Clint's grinning as he leans the seat back and stretches out his injured leg. "That went well," he says.
Phil looks around, rolls his eyes, but he's got that little quirk to his lips that says he's forgiven Clint. "Could have gone better, Barton, but you got the job done just as I knew you would."
Dewey wipes his nose on the sleeve of his t-shirt as he watches the big car take off into the early morning fog. “Bye,” he says softly.
He feels Boyd come stand beside him. “That was the Avengers, right here in our little county, Dewey. How’d you like meeting an honest-to-pete god?”
Dewey snorts. “Naught but one God, Boyd,” he replies hotly, wiping his nose again. “You knows that.”
“That’s what Thor is, you idiot. God of Thunder.”
“Jest some guy from New Yawk, jest like Clint is now.”
Boyd shakes his head. “You need to watch something other than Spongebob on TV, boy.”
Dewey turns and starts to walk back to the bar with Boyd. “Got any more beer in the back?”
Raylan comes out of the bar, sliding his service weapon into the holster. “Dewey Crowe, you are under arrest!”
“Stealing a Federal agent’s car.”
Dewey stomps his foot. “I did not steal yor car! Thar it is!” He points to the dusty Lincoln.
Boyd looks around. “And where the hell is my car?”
Raylan pulls his cuffs out. “Well, let’s add that to the charges because last time I saw it, it was up on the mining road rolled on its side in a ditch.”
“I did NOT roll yor car, Boyd!” Dewey yells. “Thor did it!”
“But you took it!”
Raylan looks in the car and sees the wires hanging underneath the steering wheel. “And destruction of Federal property. Damn, Dewey. You are not having a good day, and it’s only seven-thirty in the morning.”
Dewey looks angry, and then, he turns and starts running into the woods.
“Aw, hell, I was hoping he wouldn’t do that,” Raylan says, pulling his gun out again. “I hate shooting the little guy.”
Boyd puts his hand on Raylan’s. “No need for that. We know where he lives and he’ll be heading there ‘cause he ain’t the brightest bulb in the pack.”
“True that.” Raylan says, re-holstering his gun. “Well, looks like you need to get your car back. But first, feel like some breakfast at the Waffle House?”
“Yeah, I could really go for the All-Star Special.” Boyd goes around to the passenger side of the Lincoln, but pauses as he opens the door. “You know, we’ve all had a hard time of it lately. If you can see your way clear to not arrest Dewey, I’ll get him to work it off.” He slides in.
Raylan inserts the key and the car starts right up. “Well, I wasn’t really gonna arrest him. I mean, I did put him in my car. Maybe I can just get him to wash it.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Boyd says, settling back and drawing the seat belt around himself. “Coffee sounds mighty fine right now.”
“Sure does.” And they drive away.