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Imagine The World A Little Smaller Tonight

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When Billy and Teddy told her about a witch in their apartment complex during their impromptu Halloween party, Kate should’ve known that taking Clint to run off and investigate was the worst possible course of action. But she'd been rather bored of watching them kiss and cuddle like there was no one else around while No-Varr kept giving her that look and America tried to chat up one of the college girls that had been invited for the occasion. Clint had stood around with his paper cup full of booze, checking his watch every other minute as if counting down to the point at which making a quiet exit would no longer be considered impolite. And hey, Clint trying to behave like he wasn't raised in a barn for her friends deserved a reward, so. Witch.

The expression on his face when she told him she wanted to check out the witch and he obviously had to join her? That's why she keeps him around. Terrible outcome notwithstanding, she has enough people in her life who try to talk her out of bad ideas. What she needs is someone who bounces on his feet just as hard, grabs her arm, and tells her let's go. Besides, what they both expected to find was a quirky old lady with fifteen cats. Kate had only ever met one other witch, and she was more mutant than sorceress, a relative of a close friend, and someone Clint's already known when Kate was a first-grader.

Well. Needless to say, her records will have to be corrected on that one.

The only thing Kate had been right about was the cats. Lots of them. Enough that it was impossible to count them in one go without losing track as they roamed about. The actual witch, though, is closer to Kate's age than to being geriatric, and she's currently serving them herbal tea.

Clint looks like he's caught between exploding with laughter and shooting up from his chair to run away screaming. He does compose himself bravely though, and manages not to do either. He's really having a good run today. Kate's kinda proud.

The witch, who has introduced herself to them as Molly, chatters on about the energy of the universe and the gifts of the spirit world, about how she had been enlightened a couple months ago and will now make it her mission to help other people find their light as well. Or something like that, at least. Kate can't say she's paying too much attention. If she learned one thing from her family's fundraisers and gala dinners, it's to appear interested and charmed while he's actually zoned out and thinking about something else entirely. Never let it be said she doesn't know how to make the most of the spoils she has been given.

“That's really fascinating,” Clint – who has been raised into a completely different skill set and doesn't sound anything close to convincing – says as he's presented a plate of cookies.

He grabs one, inspects it. Even though Kate's pretty sure they're spiked with something to further their enlightenment and has no doubt that Clint's come to the same conclusion, he shrugs and takes a bite. As far as Kate's concerned, that's a wise decision. Getting just a little bit stoned might be the only way to squeeze some entertainment value out of tonight after all. She holds the title of the Smart Hawkeye most of the time, but he does have his moments, and that's why she follows his example when the plate is offered to her next.

Kate holds up a cookie and smiles. “Thanks.”

“I make them myself, sell them sometimes.” Molly nods and smiles back, and judging from how lopsided it is, she seems to be her own best costumer. “You're welcome.”

Rather than keep the conversation going, Kate lets her eyes roam over the apartment. It looks almost like something Kate could see herself living in now. Sparsely decorated, furniture close to matching but not quite, few decorations but those that are there unobtrusive and tasteful – the kind of thing people do when they can't afford to get it all in one go but do care for a cohesive whole. The overall impression is a bit tainted by the incense that's in the process of giving her a headache, though, as well as the seas of plants and herbs and flowers that are strewn over every available surface, hang in the doorways to dry, and are also stacked on the floor. Pre-enlightenment, Kate imagines, none of that was here. She takes another sip of her herbal tea, and finds the cup empty. As good a cue as any.

“We should go,” she says, nudging Clint.

“Yes,” he agrees around a mouthful of cookie, brushing crumbs off his jeans while he makes to get up. “It's, uh. Getting late.”

How he came to the reputation of being the resident womanizer among the Avengers, Kate will never know. He's a lot of things, many of them great, but he certainly isn't smooth. Or a good liar, for that matter. She stands as well, leads him towards the door with a hand at the small of his back and waves to Molly.

The greenish flicker in Molly's eyes as she waves back, Kate's sure, is imagined and owed to whatever was mixed in with the cookies.




Back at his apartment, Kate immediately beelines it to the sofa and lets herself flop down dramatically, and Clint's stuck somewhere between annoyance and overwhelming fondness. They're her friends. She wanted to go. He's the one who did her a favor by tagging along. What's more, he's also the one who will have to put up with a renewed wave of raised eyebrows from the actual Avengers for hanging out with the kid's club. Seriously, one more midlife crisis joke from Spider-Man, and Clint's going to lose his patience. He marches past her into the kitchen, planning to dig around in the fridge for leftover pizza, but she grabs his hand and pulls him down next to her, doesn't let go while she turns on the TV and starts channel surfing.

Kate Bishop is a handful and then some, and the fact that she's claimed both him and his space for herself, naturally, as if them belonging by each other's side is a law of nature that cannot be disputed, should probably annoy him more. He did get by just fine before he ever knew she existed, thank you very much. But the opposite happens. The annoyance evaporates, leaves him in that state where he's looking at her and can't comprehend how he ever lived in a world that didn't include her. He knows that feeling, knows where it leads, and averts his eyes before she can catch on.

She never does though. Catch on, that is. She bumps his shoulder, chatters on about how damn boring nighttime TV is, all repeats and soft porn, who even watches that shit. Her head comes to rest on his shoulder, and he's just glad, so fucking glad she's back. They fell back into step with each other pretty quickly, as if she never left, as if he didn't behave like a total asshole before she did, as if he didn't lose most of what was left of his hearing and have an epiphany in the meantime. Well. More than just one.

Before long, he's got an armful of softly snoring Kate folded into his side, and it says something about how regularly this happens that he doesn't have to look at her to know she’s fallen asleep, knows it from the cadence of her breathing and the way her body relaxes against his. As if it uncoils, almost, displaying an amount of trust he's still not sure he deserves. He picks her up and carries her upstairs, Lucky on his heels, then makes a bed for himself on the sofa.

In the morning, he's woken up by the smell of coffee and not, as he should be, by Kate puttering around just a few feet away. Damn hearing aids. Clint blinks, disoriented, zeroes in on the cup she’s put into his direct line of sight.

He yawns, sits up. “Good morning, Hawkeye.”

“Right back at you,” comes her voice from the kitchen, accompanied by the clink of actual, porcelain plates he doesn't remember buying. “I went and got us some pastries too. C'mon, get over here. Breakfast.”

Rubbing his eyes, he takes the time to sip from his coffee before he replies. Or wants to reply. It dies in his throat.

Within the space of a blink, he knows that Kate got up two hours ago, that she couldn't sleep because she had a bad dream, although about what, he doesn't get to see; she's got that buried deep and well-guarded. On the way down, she stubbed her toe, hard, and it's still throbbing faintly. He knows it made her smile when she saw him on the sofa, curled into himself and drooling a little bit. She wanted to wake him right away, let him distract her, but didn't have the heart. And he knows that's why she went for a walk with Lucky and got the pastries. All of that is suddenly filling his head, as if it belongs there – her thoughts, her point of view, her emotions. And if he's getting all this from her...

When he looks up, Kate's staring at him, wide-eyed, and it's like a feedback loop of panic and confusion. He recoils, tries to stomp down on anything that might be bubbling to the surface and that he wouldn't want her to see, and she swivels around on her heels, facing away from him.

“What the fuck was that?” Kate asks the kitchen wall.

Clint tries to catalog through his latest assignments, but doesn't come up with anything that screams curse or freaky-ass poison or mind-control experiments. Or... any of the other things that could possibly cause something like this. Whatever this is. Telepathy? Doesn't sound quite right. He has no idea, and tells her so.

She turns around slowly, as if she's afraid something's going to jump out and bite her if she'll dare look his way. “Do you think, uh. Molly. That she actually did something? To us?”

“The witch?” Clint considers that. Her cookies were totally spiked, but he was thinking more along the lines of weed, not so much anything magical. On second thought, he didn't feel the least bit high, and he's had a wild enough youth to be able to distinguish between slightly drunk and a tad stoned. “It's possible, I guess.”

“I saw something. In her eyes. When we left,” Kate says. She's turning around all the way now, making her way to the sofa, to him, albeit hesitantly. Her eyes are pinned to the floor, looking anywhere else. “Fuck. I thought I imagined it.”

His first instinct is to take Kate and march right back to Molly's place, but given recent events, he thinks better of it. He's not entirely obstinate. He won't run into this blindly and without asking for help, not again, not when it'll affect both of them.

Clint picks up his phone, scrolls through his contacts, and settles on the name of the woman least likely to chew him out for his life choices.




“Something like this was bound to happen, if you keep running around with your teenage namesake after hours,“ Natasha spits.

She looks from Clint to Kate, then back, and Kate's pretty sure she's hearing her tsk. The urge to reply something appropriately scathing and bratty arises, but Kate bites her tongue. She can shit-talk Captain America all day long, has done so on more than one occasion, but the Black Widow is another matter entirely. And anyway, she doesn’t have to. She knows that Clint is about to speak before he does, as if the thought is forming in her own head.

“She’s not a teenager.” He holds Natasha's gaze, which, from where Kate's standing, is a rather heroic act of defiance. “And I'm her namesake, not the other way around.”

“Oh, whatever.” Natasha rolls her eyes, stabbing a finger at him. “Don't try to derail, this is so not the time to lecture me about linguistic fine print.”

It’s a fascinating study, actually, watching them have a go at each other. She’d often imagined what it’d been like when they were dating, couldn’t quite work out how they’d fit together. Now that they're arguing right in front of her, however, with all the fervor of an old married couple but none of the vitriol, she sees it. They're not an obvious match, but it's there in the way they interact: Natasha's lingering fondness, ripping into him out of concern rather than anger, and Clint appearing like he enjoys the echo of something that may have happened any number of times before, back then probably crowned by make-up sex that made the walls rattle.

Kate's not quite done with that train of thought when Clint shoots her a glance, looking mortified. The feeling that goes with it – dismay and irritation with a tiny hint of amusement – hits her just a blink later. Okay, so from here on in, she needs to pay closer attention to the thoughts that spin through her head. Given how she has a hard time controlling what comes out of her mouth a lot of the time, that’s going to be a challenge.

“No. It's not. But it's also not the time to lecture me about how or with whom I spend my downtime,” Clint says, back to staring Natasha down, and yes. Kate is impressed. She also suspects, not for the first time, that he may have a slight death wish. “Something happened, and we need to reverse it before it gets worse.”

Finally there's a note of panic to his voice, blink and you miss it, accentuated by the feeling of unease that rolls through her own stomach in response. Natasha must've caught it as well, because when she replies, her voice has softened. “Okay. We will. That's why I'm here. So we can look at this rationally, make a plan. You'll both be back to normal in no time.”

It sounds a bit forced – genuine, yes, but lacking conviction. Reassuring white lies are not quite what the Black Widow excels at, it seems. Clint's lips twitch, but he nods. “Yeah. That's exactly why I called you.”

“Good. So let me make a plan. I'll look into your amateur witch, and in the meantime, you two sit tight,” Natasha orders, with all the authority of someone who's used to taking the lead. “I'll send someone by to get you back to the tower, have you checked out, and I expect both of you to still be here when they arrive.”

Clint glares at her with all the disdain of someone who's never liked taking orders, and is all but allergic to sitting idle. Kate can relate. These are traits they share. “Call me the second you know something.”

Natasha gives another one of those patented eyerolls, doesn't bother with a reply. She stands, buttons up her coat, and heads for the door. Clint looks after her like he wants nothing more than to leave with her, and Kate tries not to take it personally. She gets it. This thing that's happening to them, it's more intense when they're alone.




Avengers tower is a cesspit when it comes to gossip. Everyone's living in each other's pocket, and news spread like wildfire. Given how odd of a life they all lead, they should be a little more resistant to spectating whenever one of them is under the looking glass, but, well. Nope. They gather around like a flock of school kids looking in on a locker search.

Clint's uncomfortable enough on his own. The last time he was in the center of attention like this, with Tony and Bruce and fuck knows who else swirling around and looking at test results, was when he was losing his eye sight, and that's not a period of time he's very fond of remembering. But he isn't on his own. Kate's nervousness floats over to him like a bad smell, mingles with his own and builds something that's both of them and neither at the same time. She flinches when they stick a needle in him to get some blood, and he's got just enough time to register that fact before it's her turn and he's sharing her pin prick too.

She looks up at him, all defiance and bravado on the outside, slight frown on her face, and suddenly he wants nothing more than have their connection severed. That's how he wants to see her, the way she wants to be seen; it's not his place to know what's underneath. But it's there before either of them can stop it: not quite fear, not yet. For now, what's most prominent is her feeling boxed in, examined, exposed. For all her posturing, the center of attention is not a place Kate likes too much – not like this, when she's not in control.

He tries to relax, hopes it will catch on, and she's smiling at him from her gurney even as she's shaking her head.




Being invited to the tower is something Kate would've quite enjoyed, if it weren't for their current circumstances. And the needles. Really, the needles sort of spoiled the experiences as a whole. Even now, settled in a common area on one of the shared floors while Clint is off chatting with some official junior Avengers whose name Kate didn't bother to memorize, she still feels like something to be dissected.

He flops down next to her a few minutes later, an easy smile on his face that she already would've been able to look right through before she gained exclusive access to the emotions boiling underneath. In the time she knows him, he never mixed too well, but since he fell back to hearing aids and lip reading it's gotten worse.

She taps his shoulder, makes sure he's looking right at her, speaks slowly. “So you lived here too?”

“Once upon a time,” he says, his expression wistful in a way that's not new but always looks a little misplaced on his face. “Seems like that to me, at least.”

Kate never really frequented the gossip sites and tabloids that take it upon themselves to inform the public about the Avengers' private lives. She knows a little about Clint's personal history before they met, or before they grew close, but not much. He's not a big talker, at least not in that respect. There are the essentials, of course: his start as a criminal with Natasha as his partner in crime, the lasting impression he left, his recruitment when it was just a handful Avengers and not a full skyscraper of them. He lived here with Bobbi, that much she knows, and later when he started dating Jessica.

That thought reverberates between them, and he blinks – a brief reaction to bad memories, or good memories that hurt in hindsight. Sorry, Kate signs, and he drops his gaze. It's followed by a wave of shame and regret, and she closes her eyes, tries to concentrate on not chasing after them. She could; he's not doing a very good job of protecting himself, wide open in front of her, but if there's something to tell this isn't how she wants to find out.

They sit in silence, neither of them daring to think about much of anything, until Natasha marches in through the big glass doors, Stark in tow. She's smiling, and the way Clint straightens, radiating hesitant hope, makes Kate's heart beat a little bit faster too.

“So I talked to your witch,” Natasha says. “Which left me with a few suspicions. The result of your examinations and a quick detour into New Attilan confirmed them.”

Kate fails to connect the dots between Molly The Witch, their situation, and the fallen city of Inhumans in the middle of New York, but Clint's mood improves further. “Don't tell me she's –“

“A brand new, mist-infused Inhuman, yes,” Natasha confirms, although what exactly, Kate doesn't understand.

There's bits of silent conversation Kate barely catches the gist of as they echo through Clint's mind, and she's reduced to looking back and forth between them, dumbfounded and disproportionally annoyed, before Clint picks up on it and explains.

“Last year, the mist, when the ancient city crashed? It woke dormant Inhumans within the regular human population. Molly’s one of them.” He turns his attention back to Natasha. “Did you find a way to reverse what she did to us?”

Natasha inclines her head, lips thinning. “She didn't mean you two any harm, for what it's worth. More the opposite? That part of the interrogation got a little wordy.”

She pauses, and Kate finds herself with a vague sense of impending doom. So this is the part where the but happens. Of course there's a but.

“Molly said she wanted to help you resolve something that's standing between you,” Natasha continues after a moment. She sighs, looking like she's trying to translate an alien language into something that can be approached with earth logic. “Whatever that means, she didn't say. Claimed she didn't know exactly. But once you did, the connection will stop, and you'll go back to normal.”




It could be something else entirely. Over the past months, there's been no small amount of things that went wrong between them, most of them his fault. Maybe they just need to clean the air a little. Say a few things out loud, deal with it all like adults.

And yet. Clint's got a feeling. One he's trying hard to suppress, because Kate is right here. Tony had them driven back at his place, and for some reason, the idea that now would probably be a good time for the Hawkeyes to go their separate ways for a little while doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone. Which is why Kate is currently bent over the phone book, on the lookout for a new place to order pizza, rambling on about how they need to switch it up, and also Tommy told her their usual place had animal control over twice this week. “And yes, Tommy can't be trusted with such sensitive information, but better safe than sorry, and –“

She freezes, and Clint knows that she's caught on to his train of thought. Might as well come out with it, then. “I think you should leave.”

“What? Why?” He feels her imploring, trying to read him more intensely, and bites his tongue, literally, in an effort to throw her for a loop. Not the most elegant diversion, but it works – she flinches and sits back, licking her lips. “God, sometimes I forget how much of an ass you can be.”

She narrows her eyes at him. He averts his. “Given our situation, we should try to see if a little distance helps make it less, I dunno, intense.”

But she doesn't let him get away. She reaches for his arm, turns him back in her direction, makes him look at her. “Or maybe we should get it over with and talk,” she says. “Solve this thing we're supposed to solve and go back to normal.”

He knows they'll have to do that eventually. It's inevitable, the only actual way out. Just... not right now. He needs more time before he can talk to her, forced to torpedo their partnership with the very bombshell he never wanted to get between them. Kate was supposed to be different.

He can feel her annoyance with him tip over into anger with every second he stays silent, lets it escalate until she forcefully closes the phone book and shoves it away. It almost swerves off the counter. “Fine. Have it your way. I'll go. Give me a call when you found your tongue, so we can get on with it.”

She stands, frowns at him one last time before she turns and marches towards the door, throws it shut with a bang loud enough to make Lucky wince.

At least the dog stays with him this time.




The thing is, if Kate would have had to choose anyone's head to get dropped into, Clint would've been quite high on the list. Not the first item, but definitely top five. He, on the other hand, seems to object to her presence in his head in particular, and he won't let her see why. He won't talk to her. She left and came back, a damn amateur inhuman witch saw there's something askew between them after five minutes of small talk, and he still can't just spit out what's bothering him.

Kate's wandering around aimlessly, for a little while. She pulls out her phone, scrolls to Cassie, but decides this is the kind of conversation she wants to have in person. Billy and Teddy it is then, although it's going to be weird, knowing Molly's upstairs, in her apartment. There's no sense in paying her a visit; if the Black Widow couldn't get the spell undone, Kate surely won't be any more successful.

With the physical distance, Clint's presence in her mind is more like an echo, less defined and not as sharp. She can't make out trains of thought anymore, but she's still in his head, knows how he's feeling, that he's miserable. It's almost worse like this, and a small part of her regrets that this is temporary. Very small. And sort of dumb. Less than twenty-four hours and they're already yelling at each other – if it were permanent, it would destroy them sooner or later.

It sure beats not knowing what's up with him at all, though, only that he was falling apart.

Kate shakes her head to sort her thoughts, tries to recall the subway lines she'll need to take to get from Bed Stuy to Billy and Teddy. Her days of just flagging a taxi and not thinking about the fee are over.




He can feel she's not alone, and he's glad. Billy and Teddy, most likely. Or America. He likes America, although he knows that's probably not mutual. But at least she doesn't try to hide it; get what you see, those are Clint's kind of people. The other kind is way too exhausting to parse.

She worries about him. Kate, that is. Hardly news, he's not oblivious enough to have looked past that even before this whole thing started. And she's not the only one – part of why he's trying so hard right now, to pick himself up and face all the aches and pains of becoming a person again, finally, after he'd forgotten how to be one for a while. He should be trying for himself, he knows that, but his own well-being isn't quite motivation enough to keep going yet.

He's startled by Lucky rolling over next to him on the couch, tail brushing his thigh, jolting to a stand a couple of moments before the knock on the door comes. Clint gets up reluctantly, pauses the movie he wasn't paying attention to in the first place. It won't be Kate; for one, she's got a key, and also Lucky would be halfway across the room by now if it were her, tail wagging, instead of just sort of sniffing in the general direction of the door.

When he opens it, he's met with a once over and an inquisitive, disapproving-yet-worried stare from Bobbi. For much too long, that has been her default now, with him.

“Natasha called me,” she says by the way of a hello, pushing past him. Not for the first time, Clint mourns the fact that all his exes are on the same team and talk to each other just as often as they talk to him. She looks around the apartment. “Where's Bishop?”

“Not here,” Clint replies, shrugs his shoulder. He knows how Bobbi Morse looks when she's surprised by something and this isn't it. “But I guess if you figured she was, you wouldn't be.”

Bobbi smiles, warm and disarming and somewhat relieved. “Yeah, you got me there.”

“So,” he says, pointing to the couch. “Say your piece.”

It comes out more harshly than he intended it to, and her smile melts away. “I can't imagine how freaked out you must be. Hell, I would be too. It's an invasion, and...” She doesn't finish that sentence, doesn't have to. “But you do realize that your usual approach to conflict won't get you through this, right?”

He could play dumb, make her explain what she means, but Bobbi, of all people, doesn't deserve that. She understands him so well because they're the same in that regard, running from an honest conversation even when they know it's the best they could do at least half of the time. He doesn't say anything, and she takes the cue.

“Look, you won't talk to me. I don't expect you to. That's not why I'm here.” She finally moves away from the door, walks up to the couch but doesn't sit. Takes a breath. Looks him straight in the eye, and it's still like she can see what's going on inside him as if it's printed on his forehead. “You'll need to talk to her, fix whatever went awry between the two of you. There's literally no other way out of this. I'm here to make sure you do so before you've run far enough that it won't matter anymore.”

Momentarily, he wonders if she's aware what the core of the issue is here. Whether she'd come to set his head on straight if she did. He suspects she would have; they're past the point of no return anyway, and she's neither the type to deny him another shot with someone else nor the one who'd judge his choice.

Bobbi nods to herself, absentmindedly scratching Lucky's head. She smiles again, and there's some part of him that will always miss how it used to make him feel, that smile, turned his way. “Don't blow it, Barton.”

“Thanks,” he says, smiling back as best as he can, and follows her when she turns to leave. They stare dumbly at each other for a few moments, fumbling for a goodbye, until Bobbi seems to decide they don't need one and walks down the hallway without another word.

He closes the door, digs out his phone, and thumbs a message.




The day Teddy found the karaoke app for his TV was the day the general standard of entertainment at their get-togethers went to shit once and for all. Right now he's walking barefoot over the couch, microphone in hand and trying to drag Billy up to join him, belting out (They Long To Be) Close To You in a scratchy singing voice that's too loud and hopelessly off-key. Billy's trying to twist away, stay where he is, but he has the biggest, most besotted grin on his face.

She loves these two, she does, but every so often the amount of happy they are is downright disgusting.

America rolls her eyes so hard they threaten to disappear into her skull. She nudges Kate with her elbow, leans in to whisper, “Just how cruel of me would it be to delete that thing when he's not looking?”

“I think Billy tried that,” Kate whispers back. “He had it reinstalled within ten minutes.”

The heavy sigh America gives in reply is almost comical. She flops back, throws her arms up in resignation. “Great. So we're trapped.”

“Looks like it,” Kate says. Teddy's done with his song, waving the microphone in their direction, and she glares at him, slowly shaking her head.

He sticks his tongue out at her and scrolls down the list for his next serenade. Her taste in friends really does leave a lot to be desired. On the one hand, Romeo and Romeo over here, and on the other Clint and his bullshit. The thought gives her a twinge, and not only because she's still pissed. It makes their connection spark up, like they're on different ends of a speakerphone and someone dialed up the volume after she'd put it on mute. He'd gone silent, and she'd tried to forget about it all, exist in the moment, but now... He's impatient, waiting for something, all but vibrating with it. He's waiting for her. Heart beating in her throat, Kate reaches for her bag and pulls out her phone. There's a message blinking on the screen, short, all small caps, informing her that he's ready to talk.

She'd assumed it would take him at least a day to get there, and suddenly she's nervous. But she's the one who pressed him to grow up and tackle this like a goddamn adult. Now that he's offering to do exactly that, she can hardly turn around and back out herself.

She pockets the phone, grabs her bag and says her goodbyes, and then she's on her way back to his place.




For the first half an hour, he was fine. He gave himself pep talks – not unlike the voice inside his own head that regularly informed him how much of a nuisance he is, but rather more cheerful – and challenged Lucky to a game of tug-of-war with an old towel. He's no teenager. He didn't expect her to text back immediately.

After an hour, he started to go in circles. She probably hasn't read it yet, he told himself. She's been relaxed and amused and not thinking about him much at all, and that's how it should be. He wouldn't want her to run off just to spend every single minute poring over their fight anyway. That's not who she is.

He knows it, the exact moment their connection snaps back into focus, feels her surprise tip over into nerves and then solidify into determination. That's Kate Bishop for you – no take-backs, no second thoughts. He does his best to keep his mind carefully blank while she's on her way, instead of sorting through what he'll have to say and how he's going to say it and give her fragments that might freak her out in advance.

She's got her key in hand, motion aborted midair, when he opens the door to let her in.




“Alright,” Kate says, hands on her hips, trying to look determined. “So. Let's talk.”

She can feel the quippy comeback forming in his head, but he doesn't say it. He scratches the back of his neck, steps aside, and leaves it to Lucky to give her a proper welcome. Lucky rises to the task with fervor, running around her legs, tail wagging on speed. One could think she'd been gone for a few days, not for a couple of hours. Kate suspects he picked up on the tension between them, poor thing. She bends down, let's him have at it, only putting a stop to his enthusiasm when he tries to lick her face.

Clint seizes the opportunity and flees to the kitchen, while Kate's still busy reassuringly scratching her way through an armful of fur. His mind is whirling with a million thoughts at once, and Kate can't tell if he's honestly worked up or just trying to keep her from reading him. He's gotten the hang of this fast. All it takes is ample motivation, she supposes, and keeping his problems to himself is what Clint Barton excels at anyway.

He turns at that thought, eyes darting across the room, looking caught. “I'm not trying to keep you out. Not really, not right now. I'm just... I'd rather say this out loud than have it flash up in your brain.”

“Then say it, for Christ’s sake.” She gives Lucky one last pat on the head, then wrenches free. He trails after her when she joins Clint in the kitchen, taking the cup he's offering, but placing it on the counter behind her. She's nervous enough as it is, and although Clint will probably beg to differ, there are situations in which coffee does more harm than good.

He smiles, proceeds to chug down what must be half of his own cup in one go as if to make a point. “I do beg to differ. But, suit yourself.”

Kate wants to banter right back, lighten this up, allow him – and herself, let's be honest – to beat around the bush some more. Whatever it is, he's afraid of saying it out loud and it's catching, making her anxious as well.

“C'mon,” she says, sidling up to Clint, nudging him with her hip. “Out with it.”

He twists away, staring at his hands, the simple gesture accompanied by a much larger flare of nerves on his end than she would have expected. Wrong move, then.

He looks up. Takes in a breath. Shakes his head a little. It would be kinda cute, if it weren't for the war he's waging against himself, inside his head. Kate keeps herself as still as she can, body and mind, doesn't say another word while she waits for him to find his words.

“I think I might be falling in love with you,” he says – whispers it, really – and it sounds like he's admitting to a crime.

“You think? Might?” Kate asks, because it's easier to get hung up on his word choices than process what he actually said. Without the echo that floats between them, the words and the emotion behind it repeated again and again, she wouldn't even be sure she heard him right.

She’s never thought about him like that. About them. He said he wasn't interested, and she put it out of her mind. Discarded the mere possibility, if you will. It wasn't going to happen, and that was that. No need to contemplate it, if it won't happen anyway. He's waiting for her to reply, for a reaction, but she...

“I don't know what to say. Which, I'm sorry, isn't enough and maybe kinda mean and probably not what you were hoping for, but that's all I got right now. I really don't know. I'm –“

“Katie. Hey. Calm down.” Oddly enough, he is. He's perfectly calm, not upset with her, not nervous anymore, just sort of resigned. Like that's exactly what he suspected, and all she did was confirm a belief he's held anyway. “You don't have to be sorry, and I wasn't hoping for anything. Why do you think I didn't want to talk about it? It's okay. Doesn't matter. I had no plans to ever tell you.”

And hey, no, that wasn't what she meant at all. “Wait. Hold up. Don't just... discard this. Give me some time.”

She knows even before she's done talking that she's lost him again. He's stonewalling her, and it makes her livid that he discovered how to that before she did, that she's still sitting here in front of him with her mind an open book while he found yet another way to shut her out.

“I'm telling you, it's fine. It'd be a bad idea anyway, it'll pass, let's forget about it.” He drones on, like it's a practiced speech with no effect on him whatsoever, when she can sense that's not the case at all. He's deflecting. Not a defense mechanism he's been using sparsely in the past, but now he's using it to talk about something that's happening between them and that makes it worse. “I didn't expect anything.”

“No. You didn't expect anything. You expected to be disappointed. You always do. Are you seriously trying to tell me you don't know how wrong that is?” She steps closer, brings herself up to her full height. Still means she's basically yelling at his clavicle, but doesn't stop her from getting into his face, complete with stabbing a finger at him. She can be short-tempered sometimes, and he usually doesn’t shy away or get thrown by it, but right now Kate can feel him retreat. He doesn't like being yelled at – which, yeah, well, who does, but there's more to it, irritation and an aimless, almost instinctive kind of fear. She closes her eyes, at the same time in an attempt to simmer down and avoid chasing after his emotions to end up somewhere he wouldn't want her to digging around. “I'm not saying I'm not interested, I'm just saying I don't know. Just that. You dropped a bombshell that directly negates what you told me last year, and I need time to figure out how I feel about it.”

He blinks, shakes his head. “And I'm saying, forget it. I would, if I could. We're only going to screw it up, or I will, and that's the last thing I wanted.” He turns away, then, and that's a new habit she only noticed on him since she got back – utilizing his impaired hearing to effectively end a conversation. Can't hear you, won't bother trying, go away.

She has no intention to let him get away with it, follows him, and stays in his line of sight. “What makes you think that? How could you know?”

“Because it's what I do,” he says, avoiding her eyes, staring at his hands, “and I don't wanna do it to you.”

The argument she was gonna bring in return dies on her tongue when a series of relationship-themed memories flashes between them, all of them his and none of them happy, and she's not sure if he let them slip through or if she unintentionally went looking.

She's so, so ready for this to be over.

“Look at me.” She reaches out to tip his chin up, gently but firm. “I know your relationship history is kind of a battlefield. But if you’d pull your head out of your ass for once, you’d realize that each and every one of them is still here. No matter what happened to end those relationships, they still love you and they're still with you and they wouldn’t hesitate for a second to drag your ass out of the fire. So yeah, you screwed up. A lot. But there must be something about you that makes people stick around, right? And so will I. Whatever happens or doesn’t happen between us, I can promise you that much. I’ll stick around.”

Clint narrows his eyes. “You already left once.”

It sounds casual, like he's just making an observation, but it comes with a wave of emotion that's stronger than anything Kate felt by proxy since they became connected. Abandonment, even if it's merely perceived, is a slight Clint doesn't seem to forgive, no matter how much he claims it's not a big deal.

“You wouldn't let me help. I couldn't stand to watch you run yourself into the ground. I...” Love you too much is what she wants to say, but given what he just told her, she reconsiders. “You're too important to me.”

He looks away at her hesitation, but it's briefly this time, a momentary escape from everything that passes between them. But he lets it. He lets her see that he was hurt, let's her apologize without words – not for running in the first place, she doesn't regret that, but for not realizing how deeply it would cut.

“I didn't want to leave you,” she continues when he turns to look at her again, because this is important and communicating like that, it's too easy. A cop-out. She understands why he needed to say what he had to say out loud, earlier. “But I couldn't bear to stay. Leaving wasn't so much about you, it was about me. I needed to get away. From you, yeah, but also from everything else. From all that happened. I lost friends here, and I thought I might lose you too. I'm –“

She doesn't see it coming when he hauls her into a hug, both arms wrapping around her waist, his chin coming to rest on top of her head.

“I get it,” he mumbles into her hair. “Shh, I get it.”

She clings to him in return, face pressed into his shoulder. And just like that, as sudden as it came, she finds their connection severed, the spell broken, her head filled with nothing but her own thoughts.




Kate doesn't run from him. Not entirely. She stays away from his place for a week, says she needs to think, but she calls and they text and it's weird but not as weird as he feared. They're good. It's fine. Whatever the outcome, they'll be okay.

He's dug out the Christmas lights he got last year – a pathetic attempt to make this apartment a living space that got abandoned when people started to get hurt – and when he hears the faint click of a key being turned in his front door, he's sitting cross-legged on the kitchen floor, trying to disentangle them. Lucky runs to greet her, as per usual, dances around her as she's strutting over with the determined expression that means she's got something to say and won't leave until the message has been delivered and received.

So there they are. She made up her mind, and he'll get his verdict. He swallows. “Hey there, Hawkeye. Haven't seen you around these parts for a few days.”

“Well yeah,” she says, plopping down on the floor next to him. She folds her legs underneath herself and picks up the chain of lights, examines it scornfully. “Christmas decorations, already? It's only just November.”

“Figured I'd get an early start. Gives me enough time to get out and replace these if they're not salvageable.” She looks at him like he's been replaced by a skrull, and not a very sneaky one at that. “We both know I might forget to go out and buy the new ones for like a month,” he amends.

She grins. “Yeah, see, now that sounds more like you.”

He lets go of the lights, leans back against the kitchen counter and drops his hands in his lap. “So, should I ask? Do I wanna know?”

Kate cocks her head at him, and for a moment he misses being able to peek into her head. He wasn't on edge about this, not until now, but knowing she's moments away from telling him yes or no and not having any idea which it will be... slow torture, is what it is. And he has been tortured, on occasion. He's got a basis for comparison.

“See, Clint, I've thought about it all week.” She sighs, stretches out, like she's preparing for a fight. An argument. Or just something she's nervous about saying. Either way, it doesn't exactly fill him with hope. “I talked to Cassie and to Billy and Teddy and America.”

“I'm sure America's opinion really swayed you in my favor,” he interjects, but falls silent and holds his hands up when she glares and signs something at him that's not quite right, but probably supposed to be an insult. “Sorry. Go on.”

“You mean a lot to me. I hope you know that.” She holds his eyes, and it takes him a second to figure out that audience participation is required. He nods, and she sucks in a breath. “And I'm... I'm not not into you?”

Ever since he realized where his heart's been heading he'd tried to avoid hoping for anything at all, but even so, it's hard not to be disappointed. “That's ambiguous.”

Another sigh, and this time her signing is quite on point. Idiot. “For years now, you kept telling me nothing's going to happen between us, and now you changed your tune. Which, okay. Feelings happen. But you can't expect me to reply to that by, like, chanting love poems off the roofs within a week.” She pinches her nose. “Fuck, I'm not explaining this well.”

He's thoroughly confused, so she may indeed do an abysmal job of getting her point across. But then again, if she thinks she needs to be fumbling around like this, so did he. “I told you, I'm not expecting anything. I don't want to lose you, but that's it. I don't care whether we'll stay friends or go in for more.”

Kate rolls her eyes. “But that's just what I'm getting at. I do want to go in for more. I'm not saying I'm in love, not yet, but I think I could be? I want to try. See where it leads us.”

“No,” he says, quickly, before taking the time to formulate a more elaborated reply, and she blinks at him. He leans forward, unsure if touching her would be too much, unwelcome, counterproductive. “What if that screws us up? If it doesn't work? That's the last thing I want.”

“You really are the biggest moron I ever had to deal with,” she says, but she somehow manages to make it sound downright affectionate. “If I thought that was an option, I wouldn't suggest this. You're not getting rid of me, one way or another.”

There's still some part of him that doesn't want to run the risk, that's trying to convince him of course it won't work and of course he's going to lose her if he agrees. But frankly, that voice in his head hasn't always given him stellar advice in the past. Might be about time to tell it to shove it. “Okay. Say we try. What does that mean?”

“It means...” She grins, mischievous, reaches out to grab him by the neck of his t-shirt and pull him towards her. “This. It means this.”

Kate Bishop kisses like she does everything else: with conviction, passion, and just a little bit too forward. But as first kisses go, it's a great one, and he chooses to take that as a good omen.