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Worth Waiting For

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They’ve left Clint unsupervised at the train station and it’s the perfect time to disappear, but Clint’s lost all sense of direction and doesn’t even know which way the harbour is. Besides, he’s secretly hoping that whatever family has volunteered to take him in and force him to do slave labour on their potato farm or what the fuck ever will be old and senile and weak and rich and give him the chance to steal a bunch of their shit to sell on the black market so he can afford a ticket to wherever they’ve locked Barney up.

So. He waits.

Three other passengers disembarked at this station, and it had been a pleasant hum of activity for a few minutes as they’d greeted loved ones, gathered their luggage, and gone to find their wagons or carriages before disappearing down the heavily-treed lane.

Clint had used the opportunity to pick three pockets, so he’s got some money on him. He’d also stolen a piece of candy from a kid, but that kid’s parent’s’ll probably just give her another piece to shut her up, so he doesn’t feel bad about it as he sucks on the lollipop and glares down the road with single-minded belligerence.

Fuck this train station. Fuck these trees. Fuck the fact that whoever was picking him up is fucking late. And fuck the train station master for making him sit out in the fucking sun on a hot as fuck day, holding all his worldly goods in a bag on his lap.

The only thing that’s not pissing him off right now, is the candy.

It’s cherry flavoured and tastes nice against his tongue.

Clint is tired. He’s tired and sweaty and worried about his brother and worried about himself. It’s been two months since the cops had raided the circus, taking away his mentors, his brother, his only family, in chains. All the adults had been shipped off to prisons all over the country, but Clint, the only minor, had been shipped off to foster care -- some family in the middle of fucking nowhere wanted some free goddamn farm labour.

So here he is. Sitting alone on a bench outside a train station, sucking on stolen candy, staring down a pretty dirty road lined on both sides by flowering apple trees.

Too bad they didn’t have any apples on them just yet. He hasn’t eaten anything other than this candy in three days and his stomach is cramping up and furious at him for it.

They shoulda sent him to prison. Sure, he’s only 15, but he’d have done well in prison. Better than he’s doing here, where there’s nothing but a pleasant breeze and pleasant birds singing in pleasant trees.

Maybe he’s been forgotten. Maybe he can hop on the next train out of here, paying with the three stolen coins he’s got in his pocket, and find Barney. Maybe he --

A horse comes up the lane, pulling a cart and driven by a man in a stuffy-looking suit, and Clint’s instantly on the defensive. He glares at the man and pastes a fierce scowl in his face and tries to hide his shaking fingers by clutching his bag even more tightly.

He thinks, again, how much better this would be if the trees had fruit on them, because then, at least, he’d have something to throw. He’d knock that guy out and steal his horse and his cart and take off for the harbour, hop a ship, go to the mainland, and find Barney.

“Hey,” says the man, studying him. He doesn’t bother to get down from his cart. “You Clint Barton?”

Clint bares his teeth.

Rather than looking alarmed, the man just studies him patiently, and Clint finally lets his feral expression fall away and says, sullen, “No one else here, so I must be.”

“Well then,” says the man. “I’m Coulson. I’ve come to take you home.”

“Ain’t got a home,” Clint grumbles.

Coulson ignores him. “Toss your bag in the cart and climb on up. We’ve a few hours’ journey ahead of us.”

Clint looks down the lane. He thinks, if he dashes off the platform and around the cart, he can make it into the trees before Coulson can get off his cart. Clint is fast. If he gets enough of a head start, there’s no way he’ll be caught.

And then Coulson says, “You hungry? I brought you some food just in case.”

Clint’s stomach cramps up and growls and maybe he’ll get on the cart. For now. To lure Coulson into a false sense of security.

The buckle on his bag is delicate, and the bag’s got everything Clint owns in it. It isn’t a lot, but it’s his, so he doesn’t toss his bag anywhere. He slides it carefully into the back of the cart and then climbs into the front.

Coulson tries to shake his hand.

Clint just looks at him blankly until he stops, though he looks amused about it as he starts the horses up and wheels the cart around, heading back down the lane.

“Food’s in the bag,” Coulson tells him, nodding at a sack at Clint’s feet. He snatches it up and tugs it open.

There are three sandwiches, an apple, cheese, dried meat, and something that might be a pastry. Clint isn’t sure, because he’s never had a pastry before.

He shoots Coulson a quick, suspicious look and holds the bag closer to his chest before taking out half of one sandwich and taking a careful, small bite.

The bread is fresh and it’s filled with ham and cheese and tomato and it’s just about the best thing Clint’s ever eaten in his entire life -- even better than that stolen lollipop.

He closes his eyes and breathes and savours every bit of that first bite, and then he allows himself one more careful, measured bite before he wraps the sandwich up and puts it back in the bag.

His hands are still shaking. He wants to cram every inch of that sandwich into his mouth.

But who knows when he’ll get food next?

“We’ll be home by dinner,” Coulson says, studied and casual. “Fury’s making a roast to celebrate your arrival. There’ll be carrots and fresh-made biscuits, probably, and potatoes, of course, from the root cellar. I think he’s even planning to crack open a bottle of cordial for the occasion.”

He lets silence fall, like he’s comfortable with it, like he’s not judging Clint or even looking at him, like he has no stake in whether or not Clint eats more of his lunch or saves it until it’s stale and gross and not half as delicious.

That really would be a shame.

Clint waits three more minutes before slipping his hand back into the bag and grabbing that half a sandwich.

He eats it in small, careful bites, but he doesn’t stop until he’s licked every crumb off his fingers.

He sips some of the water and then eats the apple and his stomach has never been this full.

He shoots Coulson a quick look and then tips his head back to study the sky and the shape the branches make interlacing above them and says, reluctantly, “Do you want some.”

He feels Coulson look at him, studying him for a long moment, but Clint doesn’t look back. He’s fascinated by the sky and the apple blossoms and the clouds and not at all concerned with whatever Coulson might think.

Clint wasn’t raised by wolves. He knows how to share. He doesn’t like it, but he knows when to do it.

His mom would roll over in her grave if she knew he’d taken this much food from a stranger and hadn’t offered to share.

He wonders what she’d think of stealing candy from a kid or coins from a few pockets and he scowls.

“No, Clint,” Coulson says, quiet, after a long moment. “It’s all for you.”

He hugs the bag closer to his chest in case Coulson changes his mind.

*

Clint doesn’t know what to do with the pastry.

It’s got a dusting of sugar on it -- he knows it’s sugar because he touched the pastry and licked the few grains that came away on his fingers. It’s flaky, too, feels delicate and soft, and when Coulson catches him staring at it, he says, “I think that’s got raspberry preserves in it. Our neighbour baked it and brought it over this morning, insisted I bring one along for you.”

“Raspberry?” Clint asks, because he can remember having raspberries when he was a boy, picking them from a tangled bramble with his mother and Barney and shoving them into his mouth by the handful before his dad got home.

“They grow wild all through these woods,” Coulson tells him.

Clint takes a tiny bit of the very corner of the pastry and it melts in his mouth, sweeter than anything he’s ever tasted.

He hates it. He wants to throw it to the ground and stomp it into the dirt. He wants to rip it to pieces and feed it to the goddamn birds still singing in the goddamn trees.

He wants, more than anything, to tear it in half and share it with Barney.

He squeezes his eyes shut as tightly as he can and crams the entire pastry into his mouth until it feels like he’s going to choke on the sugar and the raspberries and when the taste makes his eyes sting, he bites his tongue viciously until the sting fades away.

*

The sun has just started setting when the arrive at Coulson’s house.

It’s a pretty little farm house in a pretty little patch of land with a pasture out behind it, a few cows grazing. There’s a well-kept barn and a tidy barnyard.

Clint wonders what it would all look like if he lit it on fire.

Fury is as terse and angry as Clint expected, given his name. He doesn’t bother to try shaking Clint’s hand, just jerks his chin at the table when he and Coulson walk in and says dinner’s ready and then he watches Clint over the table as Clint cases the place out, eyes lingering on the silverware, the candleholders, and anything else that might have any value.

He probably knows that Clint’s just gonna steal it and get out of here as soon as he can.

The food is delicious and there’s more of it than Clint’s ever seen, and the most disappointing part of the day is when he can’t eat half as much of it as he wants because his stomach starts cramping up.

“So, Clint,” Coulson says, still friendly and mild. “Tell us about yourself. Any hobbies, special interests, skills?”

“Picking pockets,” Clint grunts. “Pretty good at cheating at cards.”

Fury’s eyebrow goes up but he doesn’t say anything at all, which is irritating. Coulson says blandly, “Oh, was that your show at the circus? Picking pockets?”

“My act was none of your fuckin’ business,” Clint tells him, cramming a biscuit into his mouth.

He thinks he’s gonna puke. His stomach does not want more food but he just can’t seem to stop eating.

“You’ll watch your language,” Fury tells him, cold, and it’s the first thing he’s said since Clint walked in. It instantly makes Clint want to do something, anything, to piss him off and prove how very little Clint cares about Fury’s rules.

“Fuck you,” he mumbles.

Both of Fury’s eyebrows are up this time, and Clint knows what he’s risking here, he knows what happens to kids who can’t keep their mouths shut, he knows how grown ups react to having their authority questioned by asshole circus brat trash.

He braces himself for the blow because it’s just a matter of time anyway, and when Fury moves, he can’t help a flinch.

Everyone at the table goes very still, and he can hear Fury take a long, careful breath, before he says gruffly, “Aw, hell, kid.” He drops the dish of brussel sprouts beside Clint’s plate and Clint feels stupid and foolish because Fury wasn’t going to hit him at all. “Just thought you might want to fill your mouth with something a little more nutritious than bread if it’ll shut you up.”

And then he gets up and walks away.

Clint doesn’t know what the hell to do with that, so he shoots Coulson a quick look, hates the bland smile on his face somethin’ fierce, and takes a careful spoonful of brussel sprouts.

He eats them, one by one, because they’re smothered in butter and he’s never tasted anything like it.

“So,” Coulson says, when Clint gives up, when he finally realizes one more bite is gonna make him sick. “How about I show you to your room?”

Clint trips on his way up the stairs, still stunned.

His own room? He gets his own room? He’s never had his own room. He doesn’t know what to do with it, can’t even imagine it. How will he sleep without Barney’s weight in the bed, without his snores, without his kicking feet?

 

“Does it lock from the outside?” he asks blankly when Coulson leads him to a small, tidy room tucked under the gables. It’s got a bed, bigger than any he shared with Barney, made up with a hand stitched, soft quilt and a pillow. There is a closet and it’s so big, his one spare set of clothes are going to look ridiculous in it. There’s a bookshelf and it’s got three books on it. There’s a tiny desk.

It’s even got a window.

“No,” Coulson says, easy. “Doesn’t lock from the inside either, though. Fury and I get up around dawn to see to the cows and the chickens. Figured you’d want to sleep in a little later tomorrow, seeing as how you’ve been travelling all day. I’ll show you around tomorrow, introduce you to the cows, horses and goats, and we’ll see which chores might suit you.”

“What do you mean, suit me?” Clint demands, losing his patience. It’s too much and he’s too tired and he doesn’t understand what they want from him so he figures the sooner he figures out how bad it’s gonna be here, the sooner he can get the fuck out, but he’s been trying his best and no one’s hit him yet and he just wants to get it over with so he knows how hard they hit.

“I mean, if you’re awful at gathering eggs, there’s no use asking you to do it,” Coulson says with a shrug. “If you’re afraid of cows, we’re not going to make you milk them, are we? If you burn whatever you try to cook, we’re hardly likely to make you cook. You’ll have to pitch in, same as everyone, but we’ll figure it out together. Teach you what you might not know how to do. And then get you enrolled in school starting in the next week or so.”

“I--” Clint stares at him, eyes wide. He cannot breathe, cannot think, cannot find the words to explain exactly how bad an idea school would be. “I’ve never even seen a cow up close,” he says finally, faintly.

Coulson smiles. “I’ll take you ‘round to meet them tomorrow. The horses too. For now, get some rest. You’ve had a long day.” He turns to go and then hesitates in the doorway. “If you get hungry during the night, the leftovers will be in the ice box. See you in the morning?”

He makes it sound like a question.

“Sure,” Clint says, and Coulson nods. He closes the door behind him.

Clint clutches his bag to his chest -- it’s fuller now than it used to be, because he’s got a sandwich and some dried meat in it, as well as a bottle of water. His bag is practically bursting at the seams.

He should go. He should wait until it gets dark and quiet and then he should steal whatever he can carry.

But the bed looks soft and he’s not sure how far he’ll get when he’s this tired, so he thinks maybe he should have a quick nap first.

He stashes his bag under the bed to keep it safe and then gingerly crawls into the bed.

It feels like a cloud and he curls up against the wall, hugging his knees to his chest, and listens to the strange sounds in the strange house -- the breeze in the eaves -- the distant moos of the cows and the bird song.

He falls into a deep, dreamless sleep.

*

It’s mid-morning when Clint wakes up, slow and sleepy the way he never got to wake at the circus. No one is pounding on the side of the small trailer he shared with Barney, shouting at him to get his lazy ass out of bed and start taking down the big top or feeding the animals or cooking breakfast or tidying the fairgrounds or whatever other task everyone else was too hungover to do.

It’s strange and he doesn’t like it. It sits strangely on his shoulders, waking up because the sun is on his face. For a long moment, he doesn’t recognize where he is, and it comes back in a rush that has him scrambling off the bed and falling to his knees to make sure none of his stuff has gone missing while he slept.

It’s still there, even the stale sandwich, and he eats a quarter of it quickly, just in case Coulson and Fury have decided not to feed him today.

The house is empty when he creeps down the stairs, which means it’s the perfect opportunity to rummage in the kitchen and swipe a few pieces of silver that probably won’t be missed. He smuggles them up to the tiny gable room and shoves them in his bag, along with a crystal dish and a candlestick.

His shoes have holes in them and for the first time, Clint is angry about it as he shoves them on his feet. He’d left them by the door, kicked them off messily when Coulson had brought him inside, but now they’re lined up neatly next to a few other pairs.

None of Coulson or Fury’s shoes have holes in them, though most are well-worn and clearly well cared for.

Clint doesn’t care about the holes in his shoes, just as he doesn’t care about the holes in his trousers or the fraying seam along the shoulder of his shirt.

He goes outside, hesitating on the porch. It’s a brightly sunny day, and it’s just as idyllic outside as it had been the day before. There are blooming apple trees, gently rolling hills, cows wandering the pasture.

He’s not sure what he’s supposed to do or where he’s supposed to go, and Clint thinks this might be the perfect time to run, but he hasn’t stashed enough silverware away just yet, so he doesn’t. Instead, he makes his way to the barn, looking for anything else he might be able to steal.

He slips into the barn and runs his fingers over the horse tack, with its shiny silver buckles, and wonders how much he might get for them if he stole them. They’re all clearly older, but well-oiled and tidily kept.

He hears a horse stomp and snort farther into the shadowy barn, and Clint follows the sound. The only horses he’s ever been very close to were the ones that pulled the wagons for the circus, and they’d all been old and mean. He’d hated feeding them because they tended to lash out with their teeth and their hooves.

The horse that had pulled Coulson’s cart had been sleek and smooth in comparison, walking with a jaunty step, like the horses Clint saw in towns sometimes, well-loved and happy and probably friendly.

“Hey, horse,” Clint says, when he gets near her. She’s standing lazily in a shadowy stall, and she flicks her tail as she looks at him over her shoulder. “Nice horse,” Clint tells her, hopeful, like he’s thinking she might intend to be friends if he talks to her nicely enough. Barney had always called him an idiot for thinking animals might be inclined to be more friendly if he talked to them like that, especially orney animals at the circus, but Clint had always figured they’d like bein’ talked to sweetly, even if they never learned to trust him. It had to be a relief from all the yelling and whip cracking they usually got.

This horse is pretty. She’s dark brown and well-groomed and fatter than he’s used to seeing. He can’t count her ribs and her shoulders aren’t jutting sharply.

Clint edges into the stall and she doesn’t try to kick him, so he takes that as a win, sliding along the wall until he’s closer to her shoulder than her back hooves. “Hey, girl,” he croons, soft and sweet.

She doesn’t headbutt him or try to kick him, so he licks his lips nervously and reaches out to stroke her neck, fingers trembling at the idea that maybe she’ll let him.

She does. She shifts a little on her feet, even leans into his tentative stroke a little, watching him lazily.

“Always figured the best way to an animal’s heart is through their stomach,” Coulson says suddenly, and Clint jumps, heart pounding, as he cranes his neck and tries to see where he is before he can sneak any closer.

Barney would be so fucking pissed if he knew Clint let a threat get this close without even clocking which direction he was coming from.

Coulson is standing in the doorway of the stall, hands in his pockets, posture deliberately non-threatening.

Clint curls his hand into a fist, still pressed against the horse’s neck, and says stiffly, “Is that why you brought me lunch yesterday?”

“Nah,” Coulson says, wandering closer. “Brought you lunch because I figured you’d be hungry.” He pulls a chunk of carrot out of his pocket and holds it out to Clint. “Feed her this. Keep your hand flat. She won’t bite.”

Clint wants to take the carrot. He wants to hold it out and feel the horse take it carefully from the palm of his hand. He wants to feel her velvety nose and the huff of her breath against his hand.

He doesn’t, though; it’s just asking to get bit.

Coulson doesn’t offer again, just leans over obligingly and feeds the horse the carrot himself. “Her name’s Pumpkin,” he says. “You have anything to eat yet?”

“Yes,” Clint says, still defensive.

Coulson nods and rocks back on his heels and says, “How ‘bout I show you around? We’ll start trying out chores tomorrow, but I can introduce you to the cows, the goats, the other horses, the chickens, if you want. It’s not a big operation, but it makes enough for us to get by.”

Clint’s not gonna be here long enough to learn the names of all the goddamn chickens, but shit, he wants to try.

“We start each morning out gathering the eggs from the chicken coop, and then milking the cows. There’s three -- that one there’s Jersey, that one’s Bonnie, and she’s Parasol. Parasol’s a bit finicky and likes to cause trouble, but the other two are sweet as pie,” Coulson tells him, leading the way out of the barn. “We’ve got two more horses, they’re out in the pasture so you’ll have to meet them later. There’s Cloud and her foal, Kite. They need grooming each day, and exercising too. You ever rode a horse before?”

“Horses at the circus weren’t much for riding,” Clint says, rubbing the tip of his nose on his sleeve. He’s starting to feel dreadfully overwhelmed. “That’s what I gotta do to stay here? Fetch the eggs and milk the cows and groom the horses and shovel their shit and run them around? All before breakfast?”

Coulson blinks at him and then smiles, just a little. He’s lucky he doesn’t look too amused or Clint would punch the smile right off his face. “No, Clint, it’s like I said. We expect you to help out same as anyone, but we’ll find chores that suit you. I’ll teach you everything so you can help out in a pinch, but we’re not going to expect you to do everything. That’ll make things pretty boring for us, wouldn’t it? And we’re definitely not going to expect you to have everything done by breakfast. The chickens and the cows need to be done before then, but that’s all.”

Clint doesn’t know if he can trust Coulson, that’s the thing. And he doesn’t even know if he wants to.

“We’ve got a garden, too. Nothing too intense, just enough produce to put on the table, with excess to can and pickle for winter, or to sell at the market. We tend to the garden. And then there’s housekeeping, cooking, cleaning, mending, laundry, that sort of thing. Any idea what you’d be good at? What you’d like to learn?”

They’re standing in the middle of a vegetable patch now, and Clint can’t tell what any of the fucking plants are going to grow up to be. He’s never seen a vegetable that wasn’t bruised and twisted and tossed into a trash bin somewhere, not good enough for someone with money but perfect for a circus brat who hadn’t eaten in a while.

He puts his hands on his skinny hips and narrows his eyes and says, “I don’t know what the fuck you want with me.”

Coulson smiles, that same small, careful smile, and says, “Help around the house, Clint. It’s that simple. Help Fury and I keep the place running. Go to school. Do your best. That’s all we want from you.”

He screws up his face into something bitter and angry and says, “You two fucking?”

“I don’t see how that’s any of your business,” Coulson says mildly.

“It is if there ain’t a lock on my door,” Clint blusters, puffing out his chest and trying to hide his trembling hands by clenching them into fists. “I’d just like a heads up if I’m gonna hafta expect any of you two to come into my bed at night looking for --”

“No,” Coulson snaps. It’s so sharp, so sudden, that Clint braces himself and thinks, with no small amount of relief, that this is it. He’s finally pushed hard enough that someone’s gonna hit him and he’s finally going to have a baseline to start to judge how much they’re capable of hurting him.

Instead, though, Coulson just takes a deep, careful breath and says, more quietly, “No, Clint. I don’t care what happened wherever you were before you were here, but I can promise you that we don’t want that from you -- we will never want that from you. And no one here is ever going to demand that of you. Your body is your body and you share it with whoever you want to share it with when you are old enough to decide to share it at all. No one here will ever touch you without your consent and if anybody tries, you tell me and it will be dealt with. Do you understand me?”

Clint doesn’t. He doesn’t understand consent and he doesn’t understand the idea that he gets to grant it and he doesn’t understand how his scarred up, bruised, worthless body is anything worth protecting. People’ve always taken what they want from Clint and they didn’t stop until he got mean enough to warn them off with a snarl or a sharp word or the knife he’d kept in his shoe before the police officers confiscated it the night they raided the circus.

There’s a long pause and Coulson just waits, expectantly, and Clint doesn’t know what to do with that patience either.

“Okay,” he says finally, and Coulson nods once.

“Okay,” he agrees. “I know you haven’t had much luck with trust, and I know it’s something we’re going to have to earn from you, but I want you to know that both Fury and I intend to try our best. And if we do anything that makes you uncomfortable, that makes you anxious, I want you to tell us and we’ll do our best to change. Okay?”

Clint doesn’t like this conversation, he doesn’t like Coulson’s earnest honesty, but he worries that if he lashes out, if he gets mean, it’ll just prolong this -- it’ll just make Coulson more determined to talk to him about consent and boundaries and expectations and he’s not answering any of Clint’s actual questions.

Finally, overwhelmed, Clint throws his hands up, words exploding out of him. “Every fuckin’ thing makes me anxious!”

Coulson looks amused. “That’s understandable,” he says. “You’re in a new place. You’ve been through hell. We’re going to try our best to help you through it.”

Clint lets his hands fall and, a few moments later, confesses grudgingly, “Cows. Cows freak me out. Milking cows.” He shudders.

Coulson’s smile grows a tiny bit, like he’s pleased at the fact that Clint gave him that much. “We’ll see how you do learning to milk in the morning, but if it’s still a concern, we’ll find something else,” he says, and then he turns and continues on the tour.

They pass the laundry lines, with linen sheets already drifting in the breeze, and then head into the pasture, walking along the fence until they come to a small apple orchard. Coulson explains that they’re a special breed, rare for the area, that the jams and cordial and pies they make with those specific apples sell well at the market.

Clint hadn’t ever known apples had a type at all.

He listens with half an ear, overwhelmed and exhausted despite sleeping longer than he ever has the night before, and then a ratty, one-eyed dog wanders out of the orchard and he goes tense all over.

There were dogs in the circus and they were mean. Feral creatures that ran in packs, that nipped at children’s heels -- children like Clint. They bit and they fought and they were frequently torn and ragged, vicious and snarling.

When he was young, when Barney first brought him to the circus and Clint was desperately lonely for the family he’d lost in a tragic accident, when he needed some sort of companionship, he’d tried to befriend the dogs. He had hazy recollections of friends with family pets, spoiled lapdogs and hunting dogs that knew how to sit and roll over and play dead.

The circus dogs were not pets and Clint still has scars up and down his arms and his sides from when a pack of them had found him skipping along between the tents in the middle of the night and hunted him like prey. They’d dragged him to the ground and tore at him with teeth and claws and his screams brought Trickshot and Barney running.

They’d thought Clint needed a lesson so they’d let the attack drag on for a while before beating the dogs back with clubs and vicious kicks, landing a few on Clint as well, cracking a rib to make sure the lesson stuck.

It did.

Coulson notices Clint’s sudden fear, the way he hangs back, how carefully he is not to move or breathe or take his eyes off the golden dog, which is wagging its tail and bounding towards them.

He doesn’t comment on it, just says, “Lucky, stay.”

Lucky stops, cocks his head and looks puzzled but game enough, his tail still wagging.

“That’s Lucky,” Coulson says, casual. “Don’t rightly know where he came from but he’s here to stay. He’s not that useful, to tell you the truth, but he tries. Keeps the chickens safe, I guess.”

“Does he bite?” Clint asks, nervy and fighting the urge to run. If you run, they just hurt you faster.

“Nah,” Coulson says, dropping into a crouch and holding out a hand. “Here, boy.”

Lucky bounds over, tongue lolling happily, dropping to his back for a belly rub when Coulson starts rubbing his ears.

“Worst thing this mutt’ll do is give you fleas.”

Lucky tries to get up, to move towards Clint, and Coulson holds him back.

Clint shakes his head. “Dogs are mean,” he says, twisting his hands together to keep from chewing his nails. It’s a nervous habit that Barney beat out of him years ago.

“Way I see it,” Coulson says, stroking Lucky’s ears. Lucky licks at his face and Coulson smiles down at him. “Dogs are only mean when someone teaches them to be. Same as kids.”

Something catches and twists painfully in Clint’s chest.

*

They put Clint to work peeling potatoes for dinner. He’s good at it -- he’s known his way around a knife since he was seven years old. He peels the pile of potatoes neatly and, according to Coulson, in record time.

Fury shows up, dirty and scowling from the fields, in time to wash up and bake a fresh loaf of bread to go with the stew he’d thrown together from last night’s leftovers, and Clint hasn’t ever eaten this well.

He’ll stick it out for another day or two, until he’s got a good stash of food and silverware, until his stomach remembers what it’s like not to be hungry, and then he’ll go.

He helps with the dishes, trying his best. He’s not very good at that part and it worries him, the way Coulson keeps handing him back dishes and quietly saying, “Still some spots. Try again.”

How many tries does he get?

It’s a question that keeps him up at night, after Coulson sends him to bed. He slept too much the night before and he’s wired with anxiety, uncertainty. Now that he’s not exhausted from a day of travel, he just lays there, staring at the strange lacey pattern of tree shadows on the ceiling above. They move in the breeze and he doesn’t like it.

He misses hearing someone breathing in the room with him. He misses Barney’s weight under the blankets. He misses having to contort his body to allow for the space someone else takes up.

Sometime around midnight, he gives up and crawls out of bed. He grabs his bag from under the bed and creeps on silent feet down the stairs and out the front door. He keeps expecting someone to spring from the shadows, to catch him, but the house is silent and still.

He gets halfway to the lane when he freezes, because it’s a full moon and he can see Lucky curled up in a soft patch of grass near the chicken coop, sleeping. Even as he watches, Lucky blinks awake and lifts his head, tail already wagging. He gets to his feet, cocking his head, approaching far more cautiously than he’d approached Coulson that afternoon.

Clint wants to run but he can’t. He knows what running will lead to -- he can remember the pain, the blood, the snarling.

Instead, he takes a deep breath and says shakily, “Good boy, Lucky. Good boy.”

Lucky’s tail wags faster and he’s so close -- too close -- and Clint panics.

He drops his bag and the latch breaks, spilling all the stolen silverware and the stale food he’s stashed and Clint falls into a crouch, trying to shove it back inside.

Lucky just watches, like Clint is a creature he can’t understand, and Clint suddenly remembers Coulson telling him that a way to an animal’s heart is through its stomach.

He’d tried so hard to befriend those circus dogs, and they’d tall taken the food he offered from his hands, biting his fingers as they did.

Now, though, he screws up all that remains of his courage and picks up a piece of dried meat, holding it out to Lucky, who pads a little closer. He reaches out, careful, and takes the meat without even touching Clint’s fingers, and then, when he’s swallowed it without bothering to chew, he flicks a quick, affectionate lick against the palm of his hand.

Clint falls from where he’s crouching to land heavily on his butt and he starts to cry.

Apparently that’s all Lucky was waiting for, because he steps over the mess of Clint’s stolen goods, ignoring the food, and pushes himself up into Clint’s space to happily lick any bit of skin he can reach, tail wagging so hard, his body shakes with it.

“Good dog,” Clint tells him. “Good dog, good dog.” It’s barely understandable through his tears, but fuck. Dogs can’t speak English anyway.

Eventually, when he runs out of tears and hiccuppy sobs, Clint shoves all his stolen goods and his secret stash of food back in his bag and heads back to the house, Lucky following happily beside him.

Clint sneaks him up the stairs nearly as silently as he’d sneaked himself out, and Lucky is only too happy to hop up onto his bed.

The extra weight, the sound of Lucky’s doggy snores, the way Clint’s gotta contort himself to make room -- he falls asleep in moments, face still sticky with tears he’s never gonna admit to.

*

“I mentioned the fleas. I am pretty sure I mentioned the fleas.”

Clint wakes with a start, breath catching in a panic as he sits up, scrambling away from the voice until he’s wedged back into the corner. He’s fully awake, adrenaline rushing through his veins as he’s ready to run or fight or do whatever it takes to deal with whoever it is who woke him.

It’s Coulson standing in the doorway and looking a little amused. Lucky lazily thumps his tail against the mess of blankets.

“I -- I only -- I thought --” Clint stammers, but he’s too off-balance to think of a lie to explain how Lucky ended up in the house, curled up on the bed. He’d fallen asleep with hazy plans to sneak the dog out before morning.

“Get up,” Coulson says, instead of talking about it. “I’m going to teach you to milk a cow, and then, if you want Fury to go for this at all, you’re going to bathe the damned dog and ask him yourself.”

Fury makes Clint nervous. He doesn’t talk much, disappears before dawn and stays out working all day, coming home in time to finish up dinner. He insists Clint eat his veggies and use his manners, like Clint’s got any to use. He’s trying his best but sometimes he just wants to lash out, to push to see how far Fury’ll let him go.

He never lets him go very far, but instead of getting angry or violent the way Clint expects, he just walks away.

“He’ll say no,” Clint says, reluctant to even admit that he cares that much.

“You, asking for a favour?” Coulson says, rolling his eyes. “It’ll be the highlight of his week. C’mon.”

They go downstairs, Lucky following along happily enough, sticking close to Clint’s side, and it grounds him in a way that nothing ever has. He doesn’t know what he did to deserve Lucky’s acceptance, but it’s sweet and soft and simple in a way that makes Clint want to curl up and cry.

The three cows are waiting patiently by the barn, even though it’s only barely dawn, and when Coulson opens the door, they walk in easily enough.

“They’re not afraid?” Clint asks, as Coulson grabs a stool and a bucket. He’s half worried Coulson will laugh at him for the question.

“No,” Coulson says instead, setting up the stool and the bucket beside Bonnie. “It doesn’t hurt and if it isn’t done, they’ll be uncomfortable. Have a seat.”

Clint very much does not want to have a seat, but Coulson is looking at him with all that calm patience and he’s not all that sure it’ll last if he runs.

He doesn’t want to wonder when he stopped wanting to push Coulson and instead live up to whatever lofty expectations he seems to have.

Clint tries his best but he’s awful at milking cows. He’s worried he’ll hurt them or bruise them or do it wrong, he can’t get the grip right, he mumbles apologies the entire time, and though Coulson is patient and so is Bonnie, Clint just. Cannot do it.

Coulson gives up after Clint starts to grow frustrated, and says, “We’ll never have milk for breakfast at this rate.” He doesn’t sound angry, though, just nudges Clint out of the way and takes his place. “Grab that soap and go give Lucky a wash at the pump, I’ll finish up.”

Like it’s easy. Like it’s not just another lesson Clint needs beaten into him.

He hesitates for a long moment and then takes off for the pump at a run, Lucky bounding easily at his heels.

*

“There’s a dog in here,” Fury says, when he steps inside holding a basket of eggs, a scowl on his face. Lucky just wags his tail and slinks behind Clint like Clint’s gonna be the one keeping him from being punished here.

Coulson is in the kitchen, brewing coffee, and Clint hears him laugh. “Now’s your chance,” he calls, and Clint abruptly feels tossed to the wolves. It’s a strange feeling for him, an uncomfortable feeling, like he’s been betrayed. He’s not used to being taken off guard by that feeling.

“Uhm, this is Lucky,” Clint says.

Fury lifts an eyebrow. “I know,” he says. “What I don’t know is what he’s doing in the house.”

Clint looks down at Lucky, who is still damp from his bath, and he takes a deep breath, musters up a reassuring smile for the dog, and rests his hand on Lucky’s head. He looks back up at Fury and says, small and uncertain but trying to gather up whatever courage he’s got left, “I sleep better when he’s with me.”

“You get tired enough, you’ll sleep just fine,” Fury says, brusque. Clint can’t help taking a small, uncertain step back, screwing his face up into a scowl, but he can’t quite find the words to tell Fury how far he can fuck off.

There’s a beat of silence and then something loosens in Fury’s shoulders. “He makes a mess, you clean it up,” he says.

“Y-yes, sir,” Clint says, eyes wide. “He won’t. He’s a good dog -- he’s the best dog.”

Fury grunts skeptically but moves to the kitchen and Clint feels like he’s been given some sort of gift.

He’s not used to the feeling.

*

After breakfast, Coulson sets him to work on laundry.

At the circus, cleaning their laundry was rare and usually involved dunking it in a pail of scummy, cold water. They didn’t have much to clean and what they did have was usually stitched together out of leftover pieces of fabric.

Coulson has a system though, one which uses boiling hot water and actual soap and scrubbing.

Clint doesn’t mind it, not at all. The routine of it, the ritual, the sweet, clean scent of soap -- it’s not the worst way he’s spent a morning, and he feels pretty accomplished once he’s got all the clothing strung up to dry in the breeze.

Which is when Coulson says, “None of your stuff up there.”

Clint instantly feels defensive, wrapping his arms around his chest. “Didn’t have nothin’ to wash,” he mumbles.

Coulson is quiet for a moment and then he says, “We don’t have much here and what we do have, we work hard for. And we have enough to ensure that every member of the house has at least a few changes of clothes, Clint, and something nice for special occasions. Shoes without holes in them, too.”

“That’s -- that must be real nice for you,” Clint snaps, and Coulson sighs.

“You’re a member of the household, that’s what I’m saying. And if you’ll let me, I’d like to take you into town this afternoon to pick up some decent shoes and clothes that look like they’d survive a run through the wash bucket.”

“I don’t need --”

“The entire town is throwing a picnic on Sunday afternoon, it’s a flimsy excuse to welcome you to town.”

“I didn’t ask for that,” Clint snaps, and he doesn’t want it either. A flimsy excuse to gawk at him, more like.

“Well, you don’t have to go,” Coulson tells him, easy. “And if you do go, you can wear whatever you like. But I do have it on good authority that there is going to be cake, ice cream, and lemonade, so you might want to reconsider. And either way, I am going to go to down this afternoon to get you some boots because we can’t have you risking your toes on the farm. You’re welcome to tag along.”

He walks away, heading to the house to put something together for lunch, and Clint just glares at him until he’s out of sight.

He’s done the laundry and he hasn’t been given anything else to do and the circus always had stretches of boring monotony, but there had been rules there, things he was allowed to do and things he wasn’t and he knew where the lines were.

Now, he’s standing behind a tiny house in the middle of a rolling field surrounded by singing birds and lazy cows and flowering trees and a dog napping in a sun spot and he has the feeling he could just start walking and no one would stop him.

He doesn’t know what to do when he can do anything he wants to do.

There’s a gentle tug on the hem of his pant leg and even that gentle tug is enough to tear it. Clint blinks down at the baby goat that’s happily chomping away at the hem of his pants and can’t help but roll his eyes.

“Fine,” he tells the goat, who must’ve escaped from the pen. He bends down and scoops her up, holding her gingerly and at arms-length. “I’ll let him buy me new pants. But only because I want the ice cream.”

The goat doesn’t call him a liar.

*

The ride to down is beautiful, and now that Clint’s belly is full of a delicious lunch and he’s had a day and a half to gingerly relax into things, he can actually appreciate it. He’s laying on his back in the cart, Lucky stretched out beside him, staring up at the flowering branches arching over the narrow lane and the bright blue sky above, and it’s quiet and peaceful in a way nothing has been since Clint was very, very young.

He feels safe, knowing that if anybody gets too close, Lucky’ll notice and probably wake him, and if Lucky doesn’t, well.

Clint’s playing around with the fragile idea that maybe Coulson’s not gonna let a threat get too close. He doesn’t want to lean too heavily on that idea for fear that it’ll crumble.

He falls asleep. The rocking reminds him of the circus trailers moving from town to town, the air is fresh and clean, and Lucky is a warm weight at his side.

Later, he’ll scold himself soundly for trusting Coulson at all, but for now. For now, sleeping is the sweetest idea.

He wakes when the cart moves from the well-packed dirt road to cobblestone, jerking up and staring around him. They’ve made it to town, which appears to be a wide street lined with a few carefully maintained buildings -- a church, a general store, a store for fancy ladies’ hats, a tea shop, a tavern and hotel. There are a few houses too, all with carefully constructed gardens and flower beds, and laundry drifting in the breeze just like he’d left back at Coulson’s house.

Coulson doesn’t comment on the fact that Clint had fallen asleep, even though he knows he snores -- Barney told him often enough. He just hitches the wagon to a hitching post and leads the way inside the general store.

Clint’s never bought new clothes before. Everything he ever owned had been worn by Barney or whoever he’d stolen it from before. He stands as still and as patient as he can while the kind woman at the shop measures him and sorts through fabrics and asks his opinion on muslin and linen, on different shades of blue and print vs. solid colours.

But he doesn’t fucking care.

Coulson must read his growing irritation on his face, because he finishes up the order with a smile, easily directing attention away from Clint and letting him hop down off the stool and sulk in the window, gathering up whatever remains of his dignity.

She was nice enough but she’d clucked over his torn up shoes and his ragged clothes and they were perfectly serviceable so he doesn’t know where she gets off feeling pity for him. His clothes are fine. He is fine.

Coulson orders four entire sets of clothes and when they walk out, he hands Clint a bundle and a pair of the softest boots he’s ever seen in his entire life.

Clint wants to throw them in the gutter and stomp on them, but instead, he cradles them against his chest and tries to keep breathing.

“She had a few pieces ready to go that should fit you well enough, and look alright for the picnic if you want to come. And those boots should do well for work.”

“There -- there’s mud on the farm,” Clint stammers, trying to scowl. “You can’t -- these aren’t boots for work these are -- these are --”

They’re just about the prettiest boots he’s ever seen and there’s no way he’s going to manage to pay Coulson back for these, not even if he sells off all the silverware he’s hidden under the bed they gave him.

“They should last a while,” Coulson tells him. “And I’ll show you how to clean the mud off them. We’ve got a few more stops and then we’ll head for home and --”

“But I can’t pay for this! For any of this!” he cries.

It’s too loud. People are staring. Lucky sits up in the back of the cart, wagging his tail and looking concerned.

“If you want,” Coulson says, dropping the back of the cart down so Clint can climb up into the back. “We can keep a ledger of everything we purchase for you and assign a value for it, and a value for every hour you work for us until it’s all balanced. We can figure out how much your help back at the farm is worth, and we can pay you a wage, if that’ll make you more comfortable. It won’t be much, we can’t afford much, but the money’ll be yours to do with it as you will. Will that help?”

Clint doesn’t know. He wants to cry. He wants to scream and shout and throw his new boots in the mud and walk away in his shoes with holes in them because no Barton has ever been too good to wear shoes with holes in them.

He wonders if whatever prison Barney got sent to cared about the holes in his shoes.

“Or,” Coulson says, quiet, as Clint climbs into the back of the cart. “You can let us ensure you have the proper things every kid needs -- clothes to stay warm in, shoes to keep your feet safe on the farm, food on the table and a warm place to sleep, with or without a flea-ridden dog -- and you can say ‘thank you’. It’s up to you. But all you need to know, Clint, is that we’re going to take care of you either way.”

Clint curls up in the corner of the cart. He’s still hugging the boots to his chest and he hates himself for it. He hates himself for Coulson’s generosity, for the bag of stolen silverware that he’s got stashed under the bed they gave him at home.

“It doesn’t matter,” he says, trying to make his voice sharp and vicious. “It doesn’t matter because you’ll send me away soon enough, and the next people’ll just -- they’ll just steal these boots right off my feet.”

Coulson jumps easily up onto the cart, gathering up the reins, and says, with entirely too much confidence, “Not going to happen, Barton. But you can keep trying if it makes you feel better.”

It doesn’t, though. That’s the thing.

*

Clint changes into the new clothes the next day and they feel altogether stiffer than he expected, and softer under his fingers. They’re clean, cleaner than anything he’s ever worn, and it makes him suddenly entirely too aware of how dirty his fingers are, how ragged his fingernails, how greasy his hair.

He stands there in his new room, in his new clothes, staring at himself in the mirror hung behind the door, and he half expects a stranger to be staring back at him, but it’s still Clint -- dirty and tired and poor as dirt, wearing clothes that are too clean for him.

Since he arrived, Coulson’s casually and blandly offered him full use of the bathtub -- with hot water piped right in! -- no less than four times, never with any judgement, and Clint had never understood the point.

It’s morning and he’s got to be downstairs in a minute to help Fury gather eggs and Clint doesn’t want to get his new things dirty, so he strips them off and sets them carefully on the bed before pulling his old things on.

No one comments that he’s still wearing them, though just the night before, Fury had made a big show of how pleased he’d be when Clint’s old clothes were torn into rags for the kitchen.

Gathering eggs is nearly as nerve-wracking as milking the cows. Chickens are anxious and prone to panic and so is Clint -- it’s a disaster no matter how he looks at it.

After breakfast, as Fury goes out to begin whatever it is he does during the days, Clint helps Coulson clear the table and says, “If it’s okay, I thought I might have a bath.”

Coulson looks entirely too pleased, but all he says is, “Next thing you’ll be asking for is a haircut.”

Clint frowns. What’s wrong with his hair? Barney’s been cutting it since he was a kid and it’s always looked fine, hasn’t it?

Coulson sees his expression and laughs as he ducks into the kitchen, and Clint just scowls and follows.

*

In the circus, a bath was a quick dunking under a stream of frigid water. He was lucky if he got to use soap and didn’t notice if he didn’t.

A hot bath with homemade soap is an entirely different matter entirely, and if it was up to him, Clint would spend the day floating in the steaming, scented water.

But there’s laundry to do, more chores to learn, and he never did insist Coulson make a ledger with his new things on it, but he’s still determined to work here just long enough to pay them off before he leaves to find Barney, so. He needs to get to work on that.

Once he’s clean and dressed in his new clothes, Clint looks in the mirror again, and this time, it is like a stranger staring back. It’s unnerving and he’s not sure he likes it -- but his hair is ragged and crooked and something Barney gave him, which is enough to keep his hands from shaking, if only barely.

It seems silly to go to work when he’s clean for the first time in so long, but Clint reminds himself that laundry is his chore now, so no one else’ll be cleaning up after him, as he takes the stairs two at a time on his way to find Coulson.

*

“I change my mind,” Clint whispers, staring, horrified, at the park filled with people in their best clothes, gathering for the picnic.

“That’s because you haven’t had the ice cream yet,” Fury says, sliding out of the cart.

There has to be nearly 100 people gathered in the park that slopes gently towards a lazily winding river. There are picnic tables and chairs for the elderly, brightly coloured blankets laid out for young families, and piles upon piles of food. There’s a fire started, something delicious cooking on it, and people are wandering around carrying plates of food.

Clint wants to run.

Instead, Coulson hitches the cart to the hitching post alongside dozens of others and hops to the ground. “Grab the potato salad from the back and we’ll go drop it off. Don’t worry, I’ll introduce you. It’ll be fine.”

“I wish we coulda brought Lucky,” Clint mumbles, as he grabs the food Fury prepared and follows Coulson numbly into the crowd.

People are already staring.

“I do have one favour to ask of you,” Coulson says, staying close. “I know you mentioned before that your talent for picking pockets is what made you so valuable to the circus, and I know you’ve stashed away at least half of our silverware at home. I respect that. If you could refrain from picking any of these pockets, however, it would make my life, and Fury’s life, so much easier.”

Clint blinks and looks around at all of Coulson and Fury’s neighbours who are staring at him and whispering behind their hands or offering bright and cheery grins. He thinks about that raspberry pastry someone had baked for him and sent along with Coulson to the train station and he wonders who had done it. He thinks about the fact that this is the first time in his entire life that someone is asking him not to steal something.

In the circus, Trickshot and Barney and all the rest had always gotten angry at him for not stealing enough.

“I…” he looks up at Coulson, who is watching him with that same kind, patient, vaguely amused look. “I’ll do my best,” he says, slow, and finds he means it.

He doesn’t want to let Coulson down.

It’s not something he wants to think about.

And then Coulson claps a hand on his shoulder and Clint goes still all over and holds his breath because in his experience, any physical contact is meant to hurt. Coulson just squeezes his shoulder and smiles at him like he’s proud and Clint wants to vomit all over his shoes and pick every pocket in this fucking park.

“Thank you,” Coulson says simply, before letting him go. “C’mon. We’ll drop the salad off and then make the rounds. Sooner we get it over with and prove you’re not a heathen, sooner they’ll stop their damned whispering.”

The ‘rounds’ are exhausting but Clint tries to keep his scowls to a minimum. He doesn’t bother trying to remember anyone’s name, ignores any attempt at a handshake, and does his best not to tear out his hair and run screaming into the distance.

Honestly, he tunes most of it out, staring instead at the plates of food and wishing he’d gotten to eat before he’d been paraded around like a showpony.

“Clint will enjoy that, I’m sure,” Coulson says, turning to him with a smile, and Clint abruptly realizes that he hasn’t been paying attention to an entire conversation, and now he has been introduced to someone new, and the entire cluster is looking at him waiting for a comment to some question he doesn’t recall being asked.

He clasps his hands behind his back and opens his mouth and he’s feeling caught off-guard and his instinct is always to lash out. Coulson must see it on his face.

“Let’s just leave them to it,” he says quickly, ushering away the majority of the group and leaving him alone with just one -- a girl, who’s probably around 15 like he is.

She’s tall and slender and the most beautiful person he’s ever seen, her red hair pulled back and braided down her back, her eyes bright and green and as sharp as her nose and her chin and her cheekbones.

She looks wholly unimpressed with him and he gets it, he does. He knows what he looks like, he knows what he is, and a girl like this would never give him the time of day.

And then she says, “They want us to be friends because I’m from an orphanage too.”

“I’m not from the orphanage,” he snaps.

She tips her head and her mouth twists up a little and she says, “You’re an orphan, same as I am. They think I’ll be a good influence on you.”

He rocks back on his feet and quells the anxiety that’s still coiling in his belly and says, “Will you?”

Her smile is slow and mischievous and she says, “Hell, I’m likely to be the worst influence of all.”

Her name is Natasha and she’s been tasked, she explains, with escorting him to get some ice cream.

They eat their ice cream sitting together on the bank of the river, where the grass has grown tall and thick. It’s far enough from the rest of the picnic that Clint doesn’t feel on display, and sitting in the tall grass helps the feeling that they’re alone and safe and no one is watching.

The ice cream melts on his tongue, a cold, sweet rush of sugar, and Fury was right. It was worth running the gauntlet of noisy neighbours to taste it.

“Good, right?” Natasha asks him, grinning. She’s sitting beside him with her heavy, pretty skirts hiked up, like she doesn’t even care if they get muddy.

“Never had anything like it,” he confesses.

When the ice cream is gone, Clint starts to worry that they’ll have to go back. Someone’s started to play music and children have broken out their kites, flying in a flock of brightly coloured paper in the sky.

Natasha makes no move to get up, however, just leans back on her elbows, tipping her face up to the sun and closing her eyes. Her neatly braided hair is coming undone, her perfect dress is a mess of mud and creases around her, and she doesn’t seem to care, not even if the sun gives her freckles. Even the girls at the circus had guarded their ragged bits of finery with more feral care than Natasha seems to.

“What was your trick?” Natasha hums eventually, still not looking at him. “At the circus?”

 

“It’s none of your business,” he tells her. He means to snap it, but he feels like his sharp edges are all slowly getting worn smooth. He’s not sure he likes it.

She opens her eyes and turns to look at him with a crooked, rueful grin. “I was a dancer,” she tells him. “Before my father died. Danced on the street corner for men and while they were distracted staring at whatever skin I showed them, he picked their pockets clean.”

Clint has been the distraction before, but never in anything like dancing. A certain sector of those who attend the circus have a preference for boys who look younger than they are, who look lost and alone, who might need to be saved. He’d learned to be good at playing it up, for just long enough, for Barney to pick them clean. Then they’d find out he wasn’t quite so harmless as he seemed.

But it was never his trick.

He settles back into the grass, breathing out and relaxing into it, staring up at the sky and wondering how he found a kindred spirit in the middle of a goddamn Sunday afternoon picnic filled with men and women who would need their smelling salts if they ever heard about what he’d done, what had been done to him, all for a coin or two from pockets like theirs.

“Archery,” he says finally, quietly. “That was my trick.”

She turns her head to look at him again, bemused. “Were you any good?” she asks him.

Clint shrugs and smiles a little, a vicious grin, and says, “Never miss.”

She looks impressed and it settles deeply into his chest, because no one’s ever been impressed with him before that he can tell.

“Teach me,” she says. It’s a demand, but he doesn’t mind it. “And I’ll teach you to dance. They’ll never see us coming.”

*

Clint’s still going to leave. Even if Coulson knows about the stash of silverware, he hasn’t demanded it back, which means Clint can still take it and run. He can take Lucky, too. He’s been secreting away food that won’t go bad, that’ll keep until he finds Barney.

He’s not all that sure where Barney is, though, which is a problem.

Another problem is that -- is that -- well. Clint kind of likes it.

He likes waking up in the dawn and drinking coffee with Coulson while Fury grunts about their chemical dependency. He likes gathering eggs from sleepy chickens that he knows Fury will turn into a delicious breakfast. He likes that his days don’t start off with hunger and hangovers and people kicking him awake. He likes cleaning up dishes, careful and sure and smelling sweetly of soap. He likes the laundry, and hanging it to dry. He likes Coulson taking time after lunch every day to teach him to stitch torn seams back together again, to repair broken things. He likes that after that, he and Lucky are free to explore -- he’s trying to befriend the cows, who don’t seem all that inclined to care about making friendships. He likes the bouncy, adorable foal that wanders in off the pasture with his mother every now and again. And he adores the pen of goats who spend their days hoping on and off platforms and chairs that Coulson made for them, headbutting each other with velvety horns. He likes learning to groom horses and one day, Coulson tells him, he can even learn to ride.

And he likes exploring, likes walking through the orchard and seeing the way the apple blossoms are changing.He wonders what it’ll be like to stay here long enough for the flowers to turn to fruit. He’s never stayed in one place long enough for anything like that.

But he’s been here a week and Barney is waiting and Clint knows he cannot stay forever.

He’s also got to start school in the morning, which means it’s the perfect time to leave, before Coulson and Fury find out how stupid he is and send him away.

The night before he’s due to start school, after he’s bathed and washed away the dirt behind his ears and between his toes and let Coulson finally trim his hair into something tidy, Clint sits on his bed and stares out the window that overlooks the gently rolling hills, and hugs his knees to his chest. Lucky is sitting beside him.

“It’s the perfect time,” Clint tells Lucky, who licks absently at his elbow and settles down to sleep. “No better time, really.”

He’s afraid of the stack of books waiting for him on the little bookshelf. He’s afraid of the one-room schoolhouse that will be filled with students of all ages. He’s afraid of the inevitable moment when everyone realizes that Clint is 15 years old and barely knows his alphabet.

He hums it to himself now, fumbling through the letters his mother taught him before she died. After she was gone, if his father found him looking through any of the few picture books his mom had left, trying to sound out the words, he’d beat him til his ears rung.

Reading was for better people than Clint and Barney. What, did he think he was going to go to school? To study? To be anything better than his father was?

Clint hadn’t thought any of that, not really, but god, in the middle of the night, when he was alone, he’d hoped to be better.

He’d given up hoping a long time ago.

“Perfect time to run,” Clint whispers, and he doesn’t.

*

Coulson offers to give him a ride to the school but Clint tells him he’d rather walk and enjoy the morning, cutting through the pasture and saying good morning to the goats and the horses and besides, if he walks, Lucky can walk with him.

It’s all bullshit.

He’s gonna take the lunch that Coulson packed for him and he’s gonna keep walking til he gets to the coast -- or at least, he wants to keep his options open.

So he sets off, clutching the three books Coulson told him the other students his age are studying. He traces their titles with his fingers as he walks and tries to sound out the words but by the time he passes the goats and the foal and hits the orchard, he still has no idea.

How important can reading be to school, though?

He keeps walking, grim and determined, and when he reaches the end of the pasture, he climbs the fence, hops down, and stands on the place where the road forks. Right will bring him to the school house and certain death. Left will bring him to the train station and, further on, the coast.

He needs to make a choice and his indecision paralyzes him. If he goes right -- if he goes to school -- then he’s choosing this. He’s choosing to try. He’s choosing Coulson and Fury and their house and their horses, cows, goats. He’s choosing to get to eat breakfast every single morning when Barney might not be fed at all. He’s choosing shoes without holes in them and learning to stitch together his own seams. He’s learning to dip candles and to ride horses and maybe, some day, to fly a kite.

If he goes left, he’s choosing pickpocketing and hunger and Barney. He’s choosing the life he had before Coulson showed him that maybe there could be more for him. He’s choosing a life of emptiness and cold and petty thievery, just the way his father knew he would.

Either way, Lucky’s coming with him, and that gives Clint a second’s hesitation, because Lucky deserves more than emptiness and cold and petty thievery, doesn’t he?

Clint traces the words on the cover of his books again and knows that the only way he’ll ever learn what they say is by choosing to try.

He takes a careful, deliberate step towards the right fork, towards the school, and it’s the hardest step he’s ever taken, but the second one is easier, and the third, easier still.

He’s walking like it’s easy by the time the school comes into sight, like he’s not leaving his brother and his old life behind, like it’s not a struggle just to breathe.

The school is small, one room with a pointed steeple that’s got a bell in it. There’s an old oak tree out front, and half the students have taken shelter in the shade beneath it. The other half are chasing a ball around the school yard, and even as far away as he is, Clint can hear their laughter.

His steps slow the closer he gets, and he’s almost come to a complete stop when Natasha falls into step with him.

“Best get it over with,” she tells him brightly, slipping her arm into the crook of his. “C’mon. It’s not so bad. Just stick with me. They’re all afraid of me.”

She drags him along and he is so relieved, he can’t even find words for it.

The chatter, the laughter, the game of kickball all come to a stop as Natasha tugs him into the schoolyard, and everyone’s staring.

Clint swallows hard and tips his chin up defiantly and clings to Natasha’s side as she kicks the gate shut behind them. All it takes is a quick, arched look from her before everyone slowly goes back to their games and their gossip and Clint lets out a tense breath.

“You’re going to be fine,” she tells him, before pointing to a group of girls under the tree. “That’s Sharon and Pepper, they’ll be kind to you no matter what, and if they say anything mean at all, they mean it as a joke. That’s Sitwell and Rumlow, they’re assholes and if they hurt you, tell me and I’ll make them regret it. Tony, there -- that’s Tony Stark. His parents own the entire town, but he’s nice enough, and gets the best grades in class. He’ll probably say shit he shouldn’t, but don’t take it personally. It’s his way of making friends. Wanda, Pietro, Peter, they’re all underclassmen. Peter’ll do anything you want him to if you flutter your eyelashes hard enough, and Pietro too, though he’ll be a little shit about it. Bruce is sweet but shy and nearly as smart as Tony, though Tony’ll say he’s smarter. Scott and Luis -- avoid. For the love of your sanity, don’t engage them in conversation. They’re troublemakers, the stupid sort.”

Clint listens, he does, and he tries to remember who is who and who he’s meant to avoid and who Natasha thinks is safe, but it’s overwhelming and it’s worrying and he should’ve run and worst of all, someone is still staring, despite Natasha’s possessive grip on his arm.

He’s about Clint’s age, with dark hair and pretty eyes and something in the way he holds himself that tells Clint he knows just how pretty he is. There’s a lazy smile on his mouth and he’s been staring for too long to be polite and Clint’s gonna march over there and punch the smirk off his fucking mouth if he doesn’t cut out it.

Before he can, the guy’s taller, just-as-pretty blond friend elbows him in the side and whispers something that makes his cheeks turn pink even as he laughs and turns away.

Natasha rolls her eyes. “And that,” she says dryly. “Is Bucky Barnes and Steve Rogers. Pretty and popular and almost as much trouble as Scott and Luis. And that’s Sam Wilson. Also trouble.” Her voice sinks lower as she glares at Sam who flashes a lazy salute and a grin.

The bell rings and it’s chaos as everyone grabs their things and heads for the schoolhouse.

“Sit by me,” Natasha says, after they’ve stashed their jackets and their lunches in the coat room. There’s already someone in the seat beside hers, but she glares silently until they gulp and scramble out of the desk, and Clint only feels a little bad when he takes it.

It isn’t so bad, he tells himself. At least he’s got Natasha watching his back. And sure. He’s aware of the eyes on him, of the whispers, though he can’t tell what people are saying.

It doesn’t matter. He’s going to focus. He’s going to try his best. He’s going to learn things and prove to his father’s memory that he’s capable of it.

The teacher is a sour looking man who introduces himself as Mr. Pierce, scribbling what must be his name on the chalkboard. He has everyone take out their books, picking up on lessons from the week before, and Clint just sits there, petrified.

“And we have a new student,” Pierce says finally, blandly. “Clinton Barton, is it?”

“Yes, sir,” he says, and someone behind him snickers. “Clint.”

“Clinton. Well. Open your damned book, boy.”

Clint doesn’t know which book he’s meant to be opening but he casts Natasha a quick look and she’s got her blue one open about halfway through, so he does the same, sinking low in his chair and hoping to avoid any further attention.

There are so many words on this page, and he can hear everyone around him writing on their slates, and he’s got no idea what they’re learning, nevermind what they’re supposed to be doing.

And no one is talking so he’s afraid to ask.

He traces the first word of the first sentence with his finger, mouthing the letters as he does. E-v-e-r-y-d-a-y…

He’s concentrating so hard that at first, he doesn’t hear the voice behind him, hissing his name.

Clint’s hearing hasn’t been its best for a long time, ever since the night his father had too much whiskey and decided to blame him for his mother’s death, though Clint’s pretty sure it hadn’t been his fault. His dad had disagreed and Clint’s hearing had paid the price. He’s usually fine, functional. It’s just the left side that’s bad, and usually only when there are layers of sound, or when he’s so wholly involved in something else, that he’s not listening at all.

So he doesn’t hear it.

There’s a scuffle behind him and a, “Shut it, Stevie.” And then, again, “Hey. Hey, Clint.”

Clint’s on his second word now, sounding out the letters w-h-e-n, and that’s when Bucky reaches out, tugs a tendril of Clint’s hair from behind, and says, “Hey, circus brat.”

It’s instinct, born of his frustration, his anxiety, his terror at anyone thinking they’ve got a right to touch him.

Coulson told him he’d get to decide who got to touch him and when and Clint doesn’t know when he started trusting that the things Coulson tell him might be true, but it feels like a betrayal now, all the same.

He lashes out violently, growling as he stands up so quickly, his chair slides back and slams into the desk behind him, where Steve is sitting, looking stunned. Bucky, just to his left, is the one who’d reached out, the one who thought he got to touch, the one who called Clint circus brat, and he’s the one Clint targets when he swings his heavy blue book as hard as he can. It slams into the side of Bucky’s head, knocking him sideways and into Steve, who yelps and tries to catch him. They’re still sorting themselves out when Clint throws himself over Bucky’s desk and smashes his fist into Bucky’s nose.

There is so much blood, one of the younger kids starts to cry. Steve shouts but Bucky just lays where he’s fallen, looking stunned, as blood gushes from his nose and his split lip.

Someone grabs Clint from behind and pulls him off Bucky, and Clint struggles, snarling and thrashing against their grip.

It’s Sam Wilson, and he keeps saying, “Hey, hey, shh, Barton, calm down, before Pierce --”

Pierce shoves Sam out of the way and yanks Clint to his feet by the back of his shirt, the collar twisting around his throat and choking off his air supply.

“You’ll find we expect a certain level of decorum in my classroom,” Pierce sneers, still holding Clint by his shirt, his feet scrabbling for purchase on the floor. He can’t breathe and something in Pierce’s voice reminds him of the silky tone his dad’s voice used to get when he’d had too much to drink and was about to get violent.

Everyone around them is silent, shifting nervously on their feet, except for Bucky who scrambles off the ground, rubs at his bloody nose with his sleeve and says, “It was my fault, Mr. Pierce, sir.” His voice sounds nasally. “I shouldn’t have --”

“You’ll take your seat and mind your tongue,” Pierce tells him, vicious, before dragging Clint to the front of the room and letting him go with a shove. Clint catches his balance on the chalkboard, sucking in ragged gasps and clutching his burning throat, and Pierce holds out a piece of chalk.

Clint shoots a frantic look over his shoulder, but everyone is just staring, eyes wide, except for Bucky and Steve, who’ve gone off to the bathroom to deal with the bleeding.

“This is a dunce cap,” Pierce says, after Clint slowly takes the chalk from him. He slams a hat on Clint’s head and Clint flinches. “I am going to assume, Mr. Barton, that you haven’t had much experience with formal education, so please, allow me to educate you. The hat is to help the lesson stick, though in your case, I’m rather certain you’ve already proven yourself incapable of learning this one.”

Clint looks at him and swallows hard. “Wh-what’s the lesson?” he asks, because he decided to try and he’s going to do his best.

“The lesson is that you aren’t as smart as you’re supposed to be, as proven by your animalistic attack on Mr. Barnes. Now, in order to give you the best chance to absorb the lesson, I’m going to have you write lines on the board.” He smirks. “Do you think you can manage that, Barton?”

Clint’s hand is clammy around the chalk but he nods, slow. He can -- he has to. How hard can copying letters and words be? He doesn’t need to know what they say.

Pierce takes another piece of chalk and writes on the board, his letters looping and elegant, and Clint squints at them and tries to make out what they say, but he can’t.

“Well, Mr. Barton?” Pierce asks, mocking. “Read it out to your classmates.”

Clint plants his feet because it feels like the world is shifting under them. He’s growing dizzy and he can’t breathe and he’s wearing a stupid pointed hat to prove how stupid he is, does he need to do this to prove it too?

Pierce cracks a ruler against the side of the desk when Clint just stares blankly at the words he has no hope in reading.

“Read it,” he snaps.

“I-I,” Clint starts, stammering. “I w-w-will. N-n.” He swallows and blinks hard and behind him, someone starts to laugh.

Pierce loses his patience. He reads the sentence out loud, snapping the ruler below each word as he does. “I will not be offended by the truth.” He spins to face Clint when he’s done and sneers, “Can you not read, Mr. Barton?”

“I -- I --”

“There is no room in my class for a boy of your age who cannot even read a simple sentence,” he says, coming closer. “Especially one who is so sensitive when confronted with the truth. It is not Mr. Barnes’ fault that you are circus trash, nor should he be punished for it, but you, Mr. Barton, definitely deserve to have the error of your ways demonstrated before the class, and I simply cannot think of how to do that if you cannot even read nor write a simple sentence.”

“I didn’t -- I didn’t call him trash,” Bucky says, and Clint closes his eyes, face burning with fury and humiliation. Of course Bucky would be back to see this, of course he would. “I didn’t --”

“Take your seat,” Pierce snarls, and Clint jumps at his tone, eyes flying open just as the ruler flies up again.

He flinches but he’s not fast enough and it slams down on his hand, still clutching the chalk, cracking against his knuckles. He cries out, dropping the chalk, and the ruler snaps down again with another crack.

Clint’s had worse pain before, but never standing in front of a classroom of kids, most of whom are younger than him, some of whom are laughing at him. It’s like every single thing his father ever told him about how worthless he was, how stupid he was, is being proven true right here, and it makes a helpless sort of rage coil low in his stomach.

Pierce is still talking, lifting the ruler to hit him again, and Clint’s knuckles are already turning red from the blows, from hitting Bucky before.

And if this is school -- just another excuse to parade his stupidity in front of whoever might be watching, another excuse to prove how worthless he is, another excuse to hurt him -- well.

Clint’s never fucking coming back.

“Fuck you,” he says, voice shaking with the intensity of his fury.

Pierce stops mid-sentence and blinks at him, and even Sitwell’s snickering goes silent.

“Excuse me?” Pierce asks, dangerous and low.

“Fuck. You. Fuck all of you,” Clint snarls. He tears the hat off his head and throws it to the ground, stomping on it and twisting it beneath his heel. “Fuck you and fuck this place.”

He turns on his heel, nose lifted, eyes burning with furious tears, hands aching, and walks away, slow and deliberate.

“Don’t you dare walk away from me,” Pierce sneers, reaching for him again, twisting his hand in the back of Clint’s brand new shirt.

He hears a seam rip.

And fuck that.

He turns, lifting his fist and leaning into the momentum and Pierce’s nose breaks under the blow. He falls back with a high, reedy shriek, clutching at it, and Clint just watches for a moment before spinning on his heel and walking out like he doesn’t give a fuck.

Fuck school. His father never needed it and Barney never needed it and Clint doesn’t need it either.

He’s running by the time he hits the door, slamming it open without even slowing.

He doesn’t stop running until he gets to the fork in the road, and even when he slows, he doesn’t pause to consider heading to the coast.

He just hops the fence and heads for home.

*

Clint packs his things because he’s pretty sure Coulson and Fury are going to kick him out. He leaves all his new clothes in the closet because he doesn’t deserve to keep them, and he abandoned his fucking books at school, and he doesn’t even feel bad about that.

He’s going to take Lucky with him, he doesn’t care, and he thinks Lucky’ll probably come along either way. Clint’s been saving half his dinner every night and feeding it to Lucky before bed to try to get the dog to like him best and he thinks it’s working.

But he still feels like he has to wait, to ask for permission, to tell Coulson that he’s going.

It doesn’t make any sense and it’s half because he’s hoping somehow Coulson can fix the fact that he broke the teacher’s nose (and maybe Bucky’s too), but Clint also knows he doesn’t deserve for a fuck up this big to be fixed.

He sits in the living room, on the uncomfortable sofa that Coulson says they save for visiting neighbours they don’t want to stay too long, and he waits.

He wishes he brought home the lunch Coulson packed him, because he gets hungry and Fury and Coulson are both working out in the fields today and had told him he’d get home from school before they got back, and time moves so slowly when he’s waiting to get in trouble.

Finally, finally, he hears footsteps coming up the back porch, and he twists his fingers together and takes a breath and hopes with every part of him that it’s Coulson, not Fury, because Fury scares him.

It’s Fury who comes in, Clint can hear as soon as he gets inside, because his footsteps are heavier.

He should run. He should take off with his broken bag out the front door while Fury is still at the back, and not stop running til he hits the coast.

He doesn’t.

Fury stops in the doorway and studies him for a moment, and Clint just stares at his hands.

His knuckles still have blood on them. He rubs at it absently with his thumb and it doesn’t do a thing to hide it.

“Something you want to tell me?” Fury says finally.

He doesn’t talk much, but from what Clint has learned about him in the days since he came to their house, he’s decided that Fury lacks all of Coulson’s patience, all of his good humour, all of anything that makes Clint have a fragile sense of trust in Coulson. He’s a good cook, though, and the goats really like him.

Clint takes a slow, deep breath and says, “I’m not ever going back to school. I packed my stuff. I’ll leave before dinner. You won’t have to feed me. You--”

Fury’s eyebrows go up and he leans against the doorframe and says, “Something happen?”

Clint shoots him a quick look and then stares back down at his hands. “I broke Mr. Pierce’s nose,” he says finally, miserably.

There’s a muffled snort, almost like quickly muffled laughter, and he looks up again, startled. Fury’s face looks just as blank as before.

“I see,” he says, after the silence grows long and awkward. “Am I to suppose you did it without cause?”

Clint closes his eyes and says, “I did it because -- because he said I was stupid. Because I don’t know how to read. I did it because he hit me with a ruler and it hurt and Coulson said people don’t get to touch me or hurt me. I did it because he said I was trash. He wanted me to write lines on the chalkboard and made me stand up in front of everyone and got angry when I didn’t know what the lines said. And people were laughing. And he said there was…” His shoulders slump and his nose is running and his eyes are burning with furious tears, and he rubs at his wet cheeks with his sleeve and finishes miserably, “He said there was no room in his classroom for someone as stupid as me. And I did -- I tried to walk away and he tore my shirt and it’s new and you and Coulson just bought it for me and it’s the nicest shirt I ever had and he ripped it and I just. Got mad.”

There are two beats of silence, during which time Clint glares down at the dried blood on his knuckles and breathes and tells himself that he deserves whatever punishment Fury inflicts, that he won’t flinch, that he’ll be quiet and stoic the way Barney always was when their dad got angry and then he’ll take his things and he’ll go and he’ll figure things out.

And then he hears Fury walk away, slamming the door on his way out of the house and Clint… Clint doesn’t know what to do with that.

He turns around on the sofa, getting up on his knees and brushing the curtain aside, staring out the window as Fury walks to the barn, emerging a few minutes later with a saddled up horse.

After he’s out of sight, riding down the lane towards town, Clint still has no idea what’s happening.

He wonders if Fury’s going to fetch a police officer, if this is enough to get Clint thrown into jail when running with a criminal circus hadn’t been. He wonders if he’ll at least get shipped to the same jail holding Barney.

Fury doesn’t make it back for dinner.

*

When Clint repeats the same story for Coulson a little while later, Coulson’s jaw flexes and his eyes go dark but all he says is a mild, “Fury will be back soon enough. Are you injured? We can spare some ice for your hand if it hurts.” He’s in the kitchen, pulling out a pot.

Clint shakes his head and asks, “Is it okay if I leave in the morning? It’s just, it’s going to get dark soon, and I know you probably don’t want me here anymore, and I go, I promise, unless Fury’s getting the police and I should stay and wait -- do you think they’ll be very angry? Will they hurt me? I just --”

Coulson slams the pot down on the stove and it’s the first time Clint’s ever seen him come close to losing his temper. He freezes, wondering if he should run and once again trying his best to be brave and accept whatever sort of punishment Coulson and Fury give him.

Instead of shouting or lashing out, though, Coulson turns and says, eyes narrow, “I apologize, Clint. I didn’t realize you were thinking that way, and of course I ought to have known you would be. I need you to listen to me. Alexander Pierce had no right to pull you up in front of your classmates, mock you for not knowing how to read, hurt you when you had done nothing wrong, make you feel inferior in anyway for not having a skill you had not had the chance to learn. He was in the wrong, Clint. I was in the wrong. I didn’t realize you didn’t know how, and of course I should have. I should have asked. But Pierce’s job is to teach you those skills, not to mock you for not having already acquired them, and I’m quite sure, by the time Fury’s finished with him, he will realize his error in judgement.”

“But it was my fault,” Clint tells him, desperate to make Coulson understand. “Because I punched Bucky Barnes in the face.”

Coulson frowns a little. “Why?”

Clint’s frantic now, he needs to get the whole story out so Coulson realizes just how bad he is, how stupid, how violent, so Coulson understands why the best possible outcome here for him is if Clint leaves before he gets any more violent and destructive and ruins something that can’t be replaced.

“He was staring,” he says. “In the schoolyard. Everyone was staring and whispering too. And then when I was trying to figure out -- everyone was reading and doing a lesson from the book and I didn’t know which book or which lesson and I figured it out because I’m not stupid, I just can’t read. So I found the page and I was trying to figure out the letters because my mom taught me my letters before she died, and I thought, if I just concentrated hard enough, I could figure it out, and then.” He grimaces. “And then Bucky called me a circus brat and tugged on my hair and it was on my left side and I don’t hear too good on that side ever since my dad got angry and hit me and I fell and hit my head on the side of the table so he startled me and he touched me and I panicked and I was so frustrated and so angry and I hit him and he fell and then I growled a whole bunch and tried to hit him again and that’s why Pierce made me get up and wear the dunce cap and write lines on the board and I couldn’t even do that because I--”

“Clint,” Coulson says, firm, interrupting his progressively more frantic babbling. Clint stops and swallows and his shoulders slump because it’s all out now. Coulson knows everything, now, everything important there is to know about what a terrible person Clint is. “Clint,” he says again, stepping closer. “You know I told you that no one would get to touch you without your consent.”

“Yeah,” Clint says miserably.

“I wanted to know if you would mind very much if I touched you.”

Clint frowns at him, honestly confused, and says, “Coulson, you’re an adult. You get to do whatever you want to me.”

“Fuck,” Coulson says, quiet, and it’s the first time Clint’s ever heard him swear. He steps closer, careful, like he doesn’t want to startle Clint, and Clint’s not gonna flinch, he’s not going to run, he’s going to let Coulson hurt him if hurting him will make him feel better, he --

 

Instead, Coulson hugs him, careful and light, like he doesn’t want Clint to panic. Like he wants to make sure Clint knows he can step away whenever he wants.

It’s the weirdest fucking thing that’s ever happened to him, and Clint just goes very still and lets it happen and wonders what the hell he’s supposed to do with this and why Coulson thinks he needs it.

“I’m sorry,” Coulson tells him. He keeps the hug quick, moving away before Clint even has time to process whether he hates it or not, but keeps both hands on Clint’s shoulders. It’s… it’s nice. It makes him want to cry. He doesn’t understand why a slap to the face would’ve been fine but a hug makes him want to cry.

“What’ve you got to be sorry for?” Clint asks him, wide eyed.

“For not asking if you could read. For not knowing you can’t hear as well as you should be able to. For your father.”

“My father--” Clint starts, an automatic defense, but he doesn’t know how to finish it. Doesn’t know anything anymore. He just ducks his head and breathes and says, “Do you want me to leave? I don’t know what good a half deaf kid who can’t even read is gonna be on your farm.”

“No, Clint,” Coulson says, hands still on Clint’s shoulders. “I want you to stay. Fury wants you to stay. And if you don’t mind it -- and only if you don’t mind -- I’d like to be able to hug you whenever you seem to need it, until you actually get used to being hugged. Is that okay?”

Clint feels lost. “I guess so? If it makes you feel better.”

Coulson laughs, but it sounds a little shaky. “Jesus, Clint. Yeah, it makes me feel better.”

Fury gets back after dark and all he says, when he finds Clint and Coulson in the living room, working on stitching up the tear in Clint’s new shirt, is, “Pierce has decided to resign. No idea why.”

“Good,” Coulson says mildly.

Clint just stares at is partially stitched shirt and doesn’t say anything at all.

*

He doesn’t go to school the next day, and Coulson doesn’t even mention it, just sets him to work after breakfast, mending a fence that’s come loose in the pasture.

Clint’s always been good with his hands, even though they’re stiff and sore today, and he likes being outside with the birdsong and the gentle breeze and the curious goats who keep escaping their pen and following him around.

He’s learning to bake bread, which is why he’s alone in the house that afternoon when a knock comes on the door, and for a moment, Clint considers ignoring it, but it might be important.

He’s nervous when he opens it, and then confused when he sees Natasha standing there, beside someone from school whose name he cannot recall.

“You didn’t come to school today,” Natasha states, like she doesn’t understand why Clint would possibly want to avoid school. “So I brought you something.”

The something, apparently, is the guy, who flashes a crooked, friendly grin as Natasha tugs him into the house, stepping into the formal parlour and looking around with interest.

“This is Scott Lang,” she says. “He’s going to teach you to read.”

“Scott,” Clint echoes, remembering what she’d said the day before. “You said to avoid him because he’s the stupid sort of trouble.”

“That’s what you said about me?” Scott asks her, but he’s grinning. “Rude, Tasha.”

She rolls her eyes. “He is the stupid sort of trouble, but he’s also one of the smartest people in class. He just hides it really well. He’s also an expert on exceeding low expectations --”

Scott laughs. “Hey,” he says. “So mean.”

She ignores him. “And he’s also the one who taught me to read when I first got here four years ago.”

Scott offers an awkward wave before slinging a bag off his back and pulling Clint’s forgotten books out of it. “I ate your lunch, sorry,” he says, before grabbing another book, this one slim and clearly well-loved. He hands it to Clint who takes it with a numb feeling of inevitability because he knows this book.

“My mom had this book,” he says.

Scott shrugs. “Figured we could start there. It’s for kids, yeah, but it’s better to start with easier books than it is to try jumping into the shit Pierce has us reading.”

Clint’s hands are shaking and he shoves the book at Scott, opening his mouth to say something that’ll probably be rude and dismissive. Before he can, though, the door swings open and Coulson steps into the house, eyebrows shooting up when he sees Clint standing there awkwardly with Natasha and Scott, and Scott clutching the stack of books.

“Hello, Natasha, Scott,” he says, endlessly polite. He’d probably been horrified to step into the house as Clint told them both where they could shove their reading lessons. “What brings you so far out of town?”

“Clint wasn’t in class,” Natasha says, and even she sounds much more polite than she usually did. She offers Coulson a sweet smile. “So we thought we’d bring his books to him and offer to help him catch up so when he comes back, he’ll be able to jump right into lessons. Maybe in the fall, when the new teacher starts.”

“New teacher?” Clint asks, uncertain.

She turns her smile on him and it becomes a little sharper. “Oh, yes, didn’t you hear? Somehow Mr. Pierce decided last night that teaching children isn’t really the proper career path for him and he’s put in his notice. It’s for the best, really. I cannot count on my fingers how many times he made pretty much every one of us regret ever showing up at school in the first place.”

Clint doesn’t know if he feels better at all, knowing that Pierce wasn’t singling him out any more than he singled out everyone else. He’s still struggling with the idea, still pretty sure he never intends to go back to school at all, no matter who the teacher is.

But Coulson looks pleased. “Helping Clint is an excellent idea, thank you for volunteering, both of you.”

“Natasha told me she’d make my life hell if I didn’t,” Scott says, sounding happy enough.

Coulson laughs. “Excellent. Clint, why don’t you three go down to the orchard and get started? It’s peaceful there, and I’ll put together some cookies and lemonade and bring them down for you.”

“Cookies?” Scott breathes, eyes dancing. “Lemonade? Tasha, you didn’t tell me there would be snacks.” He bounces out of the house, and Clint feels like he’s been steamrollered.

“I don’t want to go back to school in the fall,” he says, and Coulson claps a hand on his shoulder while Natasha purses her lips and looks like she’s biting her tongue.

“Why don’t you see how reading goes?” Coulson says. “Maybe you’ll like it. And if you don’t, feel free to ditch lessons and get up to whatever shenanigans kids get up to these days, I promise not to be too disappointed.”

He smiles and Clint doesn’t have the heart to tell him that the only childish shenanigans he’s ever known were picking pockets and petty thievery.

But Coulson looks so pleased by this development, so Clint just sighs and leads Natasha out of the house, Lucky following happily behind.

Scott’s already off in the distance, calling out, “Hey, goats! Tasha, he’s got goats,” and trying to scale over the goat pen wall.

“I promise you,” Natasha says, watching Scott as he slips and falls on his ass in the mud. “He’s one of the smartest at school.”

“It’s just. Reading isn’t for me. School isn’t for me. How can you stand it?” Clint bursts, scowling down at his feet. “Sitting in a tiny room with all those people and doing lessons, how can anybody stand it? It’s not for me -- learning isn’t for me. None of this is. Chores and dinner time and washing behind my ears and earning my spending money, what’s the point when it’s so much easier to steal it?”

“Was it better, though?” she asks. “Never knowing where your next meal would come from, or what it would be. Knowing that every penny you had was taken from someone else. Worrying that, because you took it from someone, their kids wouldn’t get to eat instead of you?” Her eyes are wide and sympathetic. “I know it’s different here, and it’s because people here are kind -- most of them. And Clint, we deserve to have people in our lives who are kind. I know it’s hard to believe, and it took me a long time to believe I deserved more than what I was before I came here. But I do, and so do you. And it’s okay to want to stay here. And to want to learn to be better. Just give us a chance, okay?”

“Hey, hey Clint!” Scott calls, and he’s in the goat pen now, holding up a baby goat. “I think this one looks just like me, what do you think?”

Clint looks at Scott and then back at Natasha, skeptical. “He’s the best you could do?” he asks.

She laughs. “Trust me,” she says, linking arms with him and dragging him to the goat pen to collect Scott and his books and make their way down to the orchard.

*

It becomes routine after that. Clint spends his morning working on his chores -- laundry and mending, grooming the horses, learning to bake -- and then Natasha and Scott come by most afternoons after school. If it’s nice out, they take their reading lessons to the orchard or, on more adventurous days, into the woods. If it’s raining, they find a quiet place in the loft of the barn or Clint’s bedroom.

Scott’s got a bunch of younger siblings and access to almost a dozen children’s books, and he brings different ones each time. He’s far more patient than Clint would have given him credit for, and his easy humour makes the lessons lighter, less frustrating than they might have been.

Natasha brings along books of her own to read while they study or, if she gets bored, dances lazy pirouettes under the apple blossoms or in the dusty sunbeams spilling through the cracks in the barn walls, heavy with dust motes.

And each night, Clint works his way through the books Scott loaned him on his own, practicing, and then falls asleep, worn straight through but with a soft sort of feeling in his gut that it takes him a while to recognize as happiness.

*

The apple blossoms are gone and the trees are starting to grow tiny, sour apples when school lets out for the summer, but Natasha and Scott keep coming by to help Clint practice his reading. He’s not sure he needs it anymore, he can read Scott’s children’s books okay and he figures it’s just a matter of practice until he can tackle the bigger books the other students his age are reading, but he’s not going to turn them away.

He’s never really had friends before. In the circus, he’d had people he looked up to, people who he had wanted to impress, and he’d had Barney, but there’d been no one his age and no time to make friends even if there had been.

It’s nice. It’s simple. It’s fucking terrifying, and at first, he’s petrified that he’ll do something or say something that’ll make Scott and Natasha realize that he’s not worth spending time with, but as the days turn to weeks, it doesn’t happen, and that knot of anxiety starts to ease.

And then, a week after school lets out, while they’re stretched out in the pasture under the apple trees pretending to practice reading, Scott rolls over onto his stomach, points an accusing finger at Natasha, and says, “Sam Wilson wants me to pass along a message.”

There’s something sly and amused in his eyes and Clint’s instantly a little uncomfortable. He’d prefer to forgot any of the other people from that fucking school exist at all, and doesn’t like being reminded of them.

“Sam Wilson can shove his message up his ass,” Natasha says mildly, fluffing her skirt. A few beats of silence pass and then she shoots him a look. “Why? What did he say?”

“Just wanted me to let you know that he’ll be spending the entire day at the fair on Saturday on the off chance that you’d be there as well, and in the mood to dance.”

“Even if I was at the fair,” she says. “I’d hardly be inclined to dance with him.”

Scott grins. “Sure,” he says. “I’ll let him know.”

She scowls and Scott’s grin grows even wider and Clint says, “What fair?”

They blink at him. “Oh,” Natasha says. “Oh of course. I’ve gotten so used to hanging out with you that I forgot you’ve only been here a little while. Every summer, there’s a carnival that comes to town. There are games and pony rides and music and dancing. Pie baking contest, too. Last year there was even a ferris wheel, which was amazing --”

“-- Pretty sure I saw you puking, Tasha,” Scott says, yelping when she smacks him.

“Which was amazing and not at all terrifying,” she says firmly. “Anyway, the whole town goes, makes themselves sick on cotton candy, dances until well into the night. You’ll come, of course.”

“I won’t,” he says. He remembers the picnic to welcome him to town and there were too many people, and they’d all stared, and that was before he’d broken Mr. Pierce’s nose.

“You have to,” she says sweetly. “I’m going to need you to fill up my dance card before Sam Wilson gets a chance.”

“I can’t dance,” he tells her, growing desperate. “You know that. Besides, I’m starting to think maybe you want Sam to ask you to dance, and I’d hate to get in the way --”

“I’ll teach you,” she says, stubborn.

“Just give in,” Scott laughs. “It’s easier. Besides, I’ve also got some gossip for you, if you’re interested.”

He’s not. He’s not, he’s not, he’s not --

“Ooh,” Natasha says, eyes brightening. “What is it?”

“I don’t care--”

“Bucky Barnes has been looking to talk to you,” he says with a smirk.

Clint shrinks into the ground as best he can, eyes wide. Bucky Barnes probably wants to drag him out behind the general store and beat him senseless for punching him in the face. Probably wants to tell him how stupid he was for that shit show at the chalkboard. Probably wants to rub his face in the mud and kick him in the ribs and spit on him for messing up his perfect, pretty face.

There’s no fucking way he’s going to the fair.

*

He goes to the fair.

It’s Coulson’s fault. Coulson with his proud grin as he tastes Clint’s latest pie creation and declares it’ll win the pie baking contest for sure. Coulson who is so proud of Clint for making friends, for doing so well learning to read, for not having any violent episodes since Mr. Pierce’s nose met its tragic fate beneath Clint’s fist.

The thing is, though, the lack of violent outbursts is probably because Clint has stayed home where it’s safe and the only visitors he’s had are Natasha and Scott.

But he can’t say that to Coulson, who is so pleased that Clint is adjusting so well.

And when he thinks that, Clint wonders if it’s true. Is he adjusting well?

And he goes to the fair.

All of main street is closed down for the fair, booths lining the street and selling baked goods and candy, treats of all sorts, as well as jams, jellies and preserves. There are kittens and puppies looking for new homes, games offering prizes of all sorts, and, at the end of the street, a ferris wheel and a stage where a band is playing an upbeat polka. The air is thick with the scent of cotton candy and popcorn and it makes him suddenly, sharply miss the circus.

“I’ll drop your pie off at the booth,” Coulson tells him, handing him a few coins. “Why don’t you go get yourself some cotton candy and find your friends?”

Clint takes the coins and stashes them in his pocket and walks away like he’s obeying, though he’s got every intention of ducking behind the general store and hiding out until it’s time to go home.

Natasha finds him before he can, almost as if she’s waiting for him, and she takes his arm firmly and says, “C’mon. Win me a prize with those coins.”

He was planning to smuggle them home and stash them away in case he’s got to run, but that sounds fun too.

*

By the time dusk falls, Clint has eaten more than his fair share of cotton candy, popcorn, and other treats. His stomach feels vaguely unwell and he’s thinking he ought to find somewhere quiet to rest, but Natasha has found Scott and between the two of them, they seem intent on making Clint play every single game that involves any sort of aim until he runs the entire carnival out of prizes.

Finally, finally, they let him rest, wandering over to the stage and the dancefloor, finding an empty table for their loot and fetching him a drink of lemonade. He’s entirely grateful for it and for the moment of quiet, where all he’s got to care about is the polka music and the couples dancing. He’s hidden in the shadows here and it’s nice. A break. Maybe now’s his chance to sneak off and find somewhere to hide.

Scott comes back before he can quite commit to giving up on the fun just yet, because despite his misgivings, Clint has had fun. These gatherings are entirely different when he’s got a few friends to laugh with, to distract him if anyone starts to whisper or stare.

“Where’s Natasha?” he asks.

“Dancing,” Scott says with a smirk, and Clint looks over at the dance floor to see her keeping Sam at a careful distance. They’re moving awkwardly and Sam is grinning despite how miserable Natasha’s trying to make herself seem.

“Oh god,” Clint says. “She’s going to blame me, isn’t she?”

“Most likely,” Scott says, laughing.

Clint looks around, studied and casual, to make sure Steve or Bucky aren’t lurking, because he knows they hang around with Sam, and he’s been on the lookout for Bucky all day. Saw him three times, too, only to spin around on his heel and march the other way before Bucky can drag him off for whatever sort of vengeance he’s planning for being punched in the face.

Clint’s willing to make a scene if it means he gets to avoid being in Bucky’s vicinity, but so far, he hasn’t had to.

He doesn’t see Bucky lurking, so he sips his lemonade and lets himself relax.

“I think she likes him,” he says, looking back at Natasha and Sam.

“Of course she likes him,” Scott says, slumping in his chair and draining his drink. “That’s why she makes such a show of not liking him. That’s the point.” He drags a few coins out of his pocket and says, “Hey, you ever been on a Ferris wheel? I got just enough money left.”

“No,” Clint says, and he’s not all that sure he wants to go on one. He always likes being high up, likes being able to see at a distance, but only if the higher ground is stable. Moving is just asking for trouble, and he’s pretty sure whatever nuts and bolts are keeping the chairs on the Ferris wheel turning aren’t stable enough to be trusted.

But Scott hops up, bouncing on his toes, and Clint is clearly a sucker for peer pressure, because the next thing he knows, he’s climbing into one of the swinging death traps and the operator is buckling him in

“Listen,” Scott says. “Okay, just. Listen, Clint. Don’t hate me, okay?”

“What?” Clint asks, starting to panic and struggle with the safety belt. “What do you mean don’t hate you? Where are you going?”

“Me and heights,” Scott says with a grin. “Totally don’t get along.”

And then he’s walking away, waving sheepishly.

And Bucky Barnes hops up and takes his spot beside Clint in the cart.

Clint freezes up. He can’t breathe, can’t force his fingers to undo the safety belt, can’t wiggle free. He’s trapped in a tiny cart beside Bucky, who flashes a quick grin at the guy running the Ferris wheel and does his own safety belt up and then lowers the bar that’s allegedly going to keep Clint from falling to his death.

Falling to his death is beginning to look like a better option here.

“Don’t freak out,” Bucky says when the cart starts moving, turning to face Clint as best he can with the safety harness on.

“Don’t freak out?” Clint echoes, but his voice is decidedly higher-pitched.

Bucky tries a version of that same charming grin but Clint is immune to it, especially as the wheel stops turning so another couple can climb onto the next cart, and theirs starts swinging with the halted momentum.

He clutches the safety bar and gulps. If he’s gonna jump, now would be the time, but as if he senses Clint’s desperation to get free, Bucky reaches out and grabs his wrist, and Clint goes cold all over.

“You’ve been avoiding me,” Bucky says, like Clint wasn’t aware he was doing it.

“Of course I’ve been avoiding you,” Clint snaps. “I’m not really in the mood for you to kick the crap out of me because I punched you in the face. Are you going to kill me? Is Scott in on some weird plot to get me to the top of the Ferris wheel and throw me off of it, because I gotta tell you, I’ll probably fight, we’ll probably both fall, and we’ll both die, and Coulson’ll probably be pissed, not to mention Fury, because they just bought me this outfit a little while ago and it would get all bloody.”

“Clint, calm down, I’m not going to kill you,” Bucky says, looking alarmed. “Fuck, I just wanted to talk to you and Scott said if I tried to get you to dance with me, you’d probably just punch me in the face again.”

“I probably would,” he says, growing more hysterical as the wheel starts to turn again.

“I just wanted to apologize,” Bucky says, a little desperate. “Are you -- you’re afraid of heights?”

“I have a perfectly reasonable fear of moving death traps,” Clint tells him. “Heights are fine. Heights are --” He blinks, distracted, even as the wheel lurches into motion again and they go higher, cart swaying in the breeze. “Apologize?” he echoes. “To me? For what?” He studies Bucky’s face for a moment, looking for some sign that this is a cruel joke and any lingering evidence of the bruising his fist must have left. Whatever damage was done is healed now and Bucky just looks earnest.

His hand is still on Clint’s wrist though, and they’re still on the death trap wheel, and he did call Clint a circus brat.

Clint is a circus brat. But still.

“For pulling your hair. And calling you a circus brat. And getting you in trouble.” Bucky slides closer, tightening his grip on Clint’s wrist. “Pierce was an asshole to you and it was my fault and I’m so fuckin’ glad he’s gone.” He looks a little rueful. “My ma grounded me for a week after my sister told her what happened. And Stevie still won’t stop makin’ fun of me for my really shitty attempt at flirting with you, just ‘cause he knew I thought you were just about the cutest thing.”

Clint cocks his head and blinks some more and says, “You didn’t get me in trouble. Me punching you in the face got me in trouble. Which happened because I was startled and you touched me without permission.” He looks pointedly down at where Bucky’s hand is still on his wrist and Bucky pulls it away with an apologetic grimace.

“Right,” he says. “Sorry.”

And then he pauses, like he’s waiting for something, some kind of response from Clint, but Clint doesn’t really have any to give.

The rest of what Bucky said, well. It just doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t fit into any sort of context that makes sense, so he dismisses it and leans over the side of the cart, trying to judge how high up they are. They’re at the top of the wheel now, and this is as bad as it’s going to get.

Clint breathes out carefully and then leans back, closing his eyes. It’s almost over. He’s almost back on the ground and then he can find Scott and kill him.

“Uh, Clint?” Clint opens one eye, peering at Bucky, who smiles, slow, and says, “You wanna maybe dance after this?”

Clint frowns. “With you?”

“Yeah.”

“No.”

There’s an awkward beat of silence and Bucky’s smile turn rueful, his cheeks a little pink. “You need me to try apologizing again?” he asks.

Clint’s frown turns into a scowl. “No,” he says. “I don’t think that’ll help.”

Bucky laughs, looking charmed. “You’re not easy, are you, Barton?”

“Who told you I was easy?” Clint snaps, hands clenching into fists. “I’m not -- I’ve never -- I don’t know what you heard, but I -”

Bucky rolls his eyes, smile turning a little softer, and he leans back in the far corner of the cart, watching Clint like a lazy cat. “Relax, Barton,” he says, slow and warm. “No one’s sayin’ your easy. Not even for takin’ a ride on the Ferris wheel with me.”

Clint studies him for a few moments, suspicious, but Bucky seems to be going out of his way to look harmless, so Clint finds himself relaxing in slow degrees.

“I’m sorry,” he says, because Coulson would probably want him to. “For punching you in the face. That was an overreaction.”

Bucky shrugs like it doesn’t matter and the ground swings by. The wheel doesn’t stop, just starts climbing again, and Clint clenches his eyes shut and just tries to breathe.

“You’re doing great,” Bucky says, soft, and Clint shoots him a glare, ready to get furious if he’s being patronizing, but he’s not. “Maybe after, you’ll let me buy you a candy apple, to celebrate surviving this death trap.”

“No,” Clint says.

Bucky laughs again. “Can’t blame a guy for tryin’,” he teases.

The wheel goes around three entire times and by the time it stops to let Clint off, his legs are shaking from terror and adrenaline and he stumbles. Bucky catches him before he falls and lets him go as soon as he catches his balance, standing close but not close enough to touch.

“If you ever change your mind,” he says, shifting on his feet, a little awkward now that Clint’s not belted into a cart and forced to accept his company.

“I won’t,” Clint says, sure. He’s already eaten half a dozen candy apples today, and Natasha hasn’t yet taught him to dance.

“Alright,” Bucky says, soft. “My loss, I guess. See you around, Barton. Thanks for the ride.”

He’s gone before Clint can think of what to say, so he just hugs his arms over his chest and glares after him, shivering in the suddenly cool evening.

“So,” Scott says, stepping out of the shadows and solemnly handing Clint a cone of cotton candy, obviously an apology gift.

He’s just lucky Clint is feeling a little confused by Bucky Barnes and magnanimous enough to take it, cramming half the cone into his mouth and sucking it into liquid sugar while glaring furiously.

Scott lifts both hands in surrender and says, “My bad, I know, but he paid me a whole bunch of money.”

“How… how much money?” Clint asks, and Scott grins, sharklike.

“Want me to buy you a candy apple with all my winnings?” he asks, and Clint decides that, yeah. He could really use one.

*

Three days later, Clint wakes up, stares at the ceiling, and thinks, fuck. I’m sixteen.

His birthday has never been cause for celebration before, at least after his mom died. His dad usually drank the day straight through and Clint was lucky if he passed out before he found something to get angry about. Barney was usually too busy following in his father’s footsteps to remember.

He’d spent most of his birthdays practising being as small and as quiet as possible, but here, he’s slowly learning that it’s alright to take up space.

He’s not sure what that means for birthdays, though. It feels the same as any other day.

So he gets out of bed as the sun rises, gets dressed, gives Lucky some scratches, and looks at his face in the bathroom mirror for a while. He still looks the same, though his face is brown and freckled from the sun and his hair is lighter too. It’s growing unkempt again, curling at his collar, and he wonders if he should cut it.

He brushes his hands over his chin and his jaw where he’s got some blond hair growing and wonders if he’s supposed to start shaving and if Coulson will help him with it and if he’s brave enough to ask.

Downstairs, he finds Coulson and Fury are already out, milking the cows and gathering the eggs, so he busies himself lighting the stove and toasting some of yesterday’s stale bread to go with breakfast.

He hears the backdoor open and he’s expecting Coulson and Fury to come inside, to get started on breakfast, but instead, Coulson calls, “Clint! Come here for a minute.”

He does, perplexed, slipping out the backdoor and finding Coulson and Fury around the side of the barn, just outside the barnyard. They’re standing in the middle of a staggered line of hay bales, all with targets painted on the front.

“Happy birthday,” Coulson says, beaming.

“Is that - why would you --” Clint says, staring.

“It’s an archery range,” Fury tells him. “For that bow you keep hidden under your bed.”

“You’ve been through my things?” Clint gasps. There’s still a pile of stolen silverware under there.

“No,” Coulson says, smacking Fury’s shoulder. “We assumed. And if you weren’t able to keep the bow from your circus days, we’ll get you another. Just thought maybe you missed it, if it was as important to you as it seemed to be, judging by the newspaper clippings your case worker sent us.”

“Newspaper--”

“The Amazing Hawkeye,” Coulson says, quiet. “Right? We wanted you to know that part of you is welcome here too, if you want it.”

Clint has both hands pressed to his mouth and he can feel the way he’s shaking but he doesn’t know how to stop. “Okay,” he says. “Okay, okay, I’ll try.”

“And maybe put the goddamn silverware back,” Fury grumbles, and Coulson smacks him again.

*
The summer days get hot, and it’s a different kind of heat than he’s used to in the city, where the sun beat down on the concrete and turned everything into an oven, where his trailer caught and held the heat in a humid, disgusting mess of sweat and dirt.

It’s a better heat, but it’s still hot and sweaty, working with Coulson and Fury on the farm. Clint likes it -- likes getting his hands dirty in the garden with soil rather than dirty with blood and whatever he’s taken from someone’s pocket.

Clint puts the silverware back, a little at a time, and lies to himself and says it doesn’t mean he wants to stay.

Each afternoon, when his chores are done, Natasha and Scott meet up with him in the woods, halfway between Coulson’s farm and the town where both of them live. Sometimes they study -- Scott’s teaching Clint math basics, Natasha’s teaching them both ballet, and sometimes they wander the woods while Scott catches them up on all the gossip from their schoolmates. Apparently his best friend, Luis, always finds out the best stories, and Scott is only too happy to share.

They spend a lot of time at the river, tossing rocks and sticks off the bridge and into the water, fishing when the mood strikes, or exploring.

When the weather gets really hot, Natasha, who hadn’t seemed bothered by it up until now, declares that the only thing they can possibly do to survive the afternoon heat is to go swimming.

“But I don’t know how to swim,” Clint tells her.

“You’ll be fine,” she says, leading him and Scott deeper into the woods, along the river. “Just stay off the rope and stay in the shallows. Easy.”

He’s nervous but he trusts her more than he thinks he should.

The woods are thick this far in, with deeper shadows and a cooler breeze through the trees, and it feels so nice on his sweaty face and neck. He wishes he could strip his shirt off here, but Coulson had said it was only polite on the farm when he was sure no one else would come along, especially no young ladies like Natasha.

Clint wanted to ask why it mattered if it was a young lady or a young man who saw him shirtless, but he hadn’t quite found the courage.

“Hopefully no one else is at the swimming hole,” Scott says brightly as they climb down an embankment towards the river.

“If they are,” Natasha says, dark and threatening. “They won’t be there long.”

The swimming hole is a large pool on the side of the river, blocked from the current by a buildup of fallen trees, and it’s empty when they get there, which is a relief. Clint’s still entirely more comfortable avoiding strangers and sticking with Coulson, Fury, Natasha and Scott for company. At least now, he doesn’t have to worry about drowning and being uncomfortable --

And then Natasha starts unlacing her dress.

“What are you doing?” Clint yelps as she tugs it off over her head.

“You can’t expect me to swim in that,” Natasha says, rolling her eyes as she tosses her dress over a low hanging branch. She’s only wearing a shift, white linen that comes down to her knees, and then her legs are bare as she slides off her stockings.

“Oh my god,” he says.

“It’s fine,” Natasha says, dismissive. “Just don’t look.”

“Yeah, Clint,” Scott laughs. “Don’t look.”

Clint looks - and Scott’s stripped down to his underthings too.

“You’re lucky we’re respecting your modesty,” Natasha tells him, and when he peeks back at her, she’s climbing a sturdy oak that leans out over the water. “Usually we don’t bother.”

Scott scrambles up the tree after her, and they disappear into the branches, leaves blocking his view until a few moments later when Natasha appears, clinging to a thick rope suspended from the tree and swinging out over the water with a whoop. She drops into the water with a large, unladylike splash, and the rope swings back into the tree. Scott must catch it, because he follows her out over the water a moment later.

“Come in!” Natasha calls, treading water and waving to him. “It’s lovely. I’ll meet you in the shallows.”

Clint looks down at his clothes, all carefully cleaned and dried on the line, all tears and hems perfectly stitched. He looks at his shoes, without any holes in them at all.

And he takes a deep breath and strips off his shirt and his trousers, leaving his underthings on, just like Scott had done.

Clint doesn’t think he’s the bravest sort, but he’s been working on his courage.

Walking into the pool, even as calm and protected from the current as it is, takes up just about all the courage he’s got.

But the water is cool and lovely and, when Natasha splashes him in the face when he’s barely waded in up to his knees, he forgets his trepidation and launches himself at her, laughing.

“We should come here every day,” he says dreamily, hours later as they lay together in the soft grass along the embankment, the sun and the warm breeze drying their underclothes.

“Sure,” Natasha laughs, sleepy. “Maybe next time, we’ll get you naked.”

Clint’s pretty sure no one’s ever going to get him naked, no matter how hard they try.

*

A few days later, Natasha shows up without Scott, who is causing some sort of terror with Luis in town. They head to the swimming hole together, absently rambling off multiplication tables to pretend they’re studying.

When they approach the swimming hole, however, they can hear voices, laughter, splashing, and Natasha’s eyes narrow.

“Shit,” she whispers. “Stay quiet. This way.”

She leads him along a different route, creeping through the shadows and trying to stay silent, until they emerge from the trees at a rise overlooking the swimming hole, commando-crawling to the edge and peering down.

Natasha growls under her breath and for a moment, Clint’s not sure why, and then he realizes what he’s seeing.

Sam Wilson, not wearing a stitch of clothing, is swinging out over the pool, head tipped back, laughing, and skin shining wet, and even Clint has to admit that he’s goddamn beautiful.

“We should go,” he says, nervous, scanning the water and the embankment, as Sam lets go of the rope and tumbles into the river with a flash of more of his skin than Clint ever thought he’d get to see. “We should go before --”

The rope swings out again and Clint’s breath catches in a strangled whine, but it’s not Bucky, thank god it’s not Bucky. But it’s Steve, which is almost as bad. He’s all muscle and tanned skin -- no tan lines at all and Clint has to wonder how often they swim here like this. His hair is wet and shoved back off his face, his biceps and shoulders are flexing as he holds onto the rope with his hands and his thighs and he’s unfairly beautiful and he’s not Bucky, thank god --

And then Steve lets go of the rope, arms windmilling as he falls with a splash, but Clint isn’t even watching anymore because Bucky’s walking out of the river, water running down his bare chest as he does, stepping out of the shallows and onto the embankment and he’s wet and shining in the sunlight and completely, entirely naked, running his fingers through his hair to get it out of his eyes, and -- and --

“Close your mouth,” Natasha says, grim. “You’re drooling.”

“Oh crap,” Clint says. “Oh crap, Nat, they’re naked. Bucky’s naked. He’s -- he’s wet and he’s naked.”

“C’mon,” she says, crawling away from the overlook. Clint lingers, only for a few seconds -- long enough to confirm that Bucky hasn’t got any tan lines either, and then he forces himself to look away, following Natasha back into the trees.

“Stay here,” she tells him, before stalking towards the river on silent feet. Clint hesitates, frowning and confused, and then thirty seconds later, she reappears with a bundle under her arms and a smirk on her face.

“Run,” she says, and then she’s dashing down the path just as Steve starts shouting her name, furious, from the river.

Clint freezes just long enough to see him come storming out of the trees, naked and dripping and unfairly beautiful, and then he realizes that Natasha stole their clothes.

“Oh god,” he says, eyes wide. He sounds stupidly breathless and hopes Steve’s too angry to notice. “I am so, so sorry.”

He takes off after Natasha, Steve’s furious shouts just making him run faster.

*

The next day, no one’s at the swimming hole and they get to swim in peace, but not before Natasha carefully buries a box with spare clothes for herself, for Clint, and for Scott, who laughs himself sick while telling them how Steve, Bucky and Sam had been stuck in the river, naked, until Bucky’s sister had been sent to find them.

It takes Clint too long to gather up his courage to pull his bow out of the bag that’s been carefully stashed under his bed since he first came here, but one day, when it’s overcast and looks like rain, he finally does it.

His fingers are shaking, but Coulson always tells him that trembling fingers just means that whatever he’s doing, he cares about it so much, that his body starts to vibrate with it. It happens sometimes when he’s mending a torn seam in his new shirts and he’s worried he’ll do it wrong.

His bow is just like he remembers it, smooth and familiar under his fingers, though they’ve lost the calluses that made shooting every night in front of an audience as easy as breathing.

Coulson and Fury are out in the pasture when Clint grabs the three arrows that survived the police raid and makes his way downstairs to his shooting range.

There are three targets, all staggered at different distances, and Clint adjusts his stance so he’s ready to shoot, though it takes a little while longer before he’s brave enough to lift his bow, to pull back on the string and aim the arrow at the farthest target.

He stands there, muscles tense and aching because the stance doesn’t feel as familiar anymore, for a long time, before he finally exhales long and slow and releases the arrow.

It slams into the exact centre of the farthest target and when it does, he starts to cry.

*

Scott is a mess at ballet, but he tries his best. Clint’s half convinced that Scott hasn’t finished growing into his shoulders yet, his arms are too long, he wouldn’t know grace if it bit him in the ass.

Clint is only a little better. It’s harder for him because a few months of regular, nutritious meals and he’s shot up like a bean sprout, tall and lean with tightly packed muscle from working on the farm. He’s taller than his father ever was, and taller than Barney too, and it sits strangely on his shoulders.

He’s still learning where he begins and where he ends, which makes it hard to do a pirouette to Natasha’s standards, but he’s pretty sure she’d find a fault in his technique even if he did the moves perfectly.

He doesn’t mind trying and trying and trying again, until his muscles are as familiar with the movement as they are with aiming his bow. It helps him get to know his body again, even taller now, and more broad.

Sometimes it feels like his body isn’t his anymore, like now that life isn’t all about surviving and being as small as he can be or as invisible, now that he’s allowed to -- encouraged to -- take up space, he doesn’t know how.

Now that there is room in his brain for more than just making it through the days without more bruises or scars to add to his collection, other things crowd in there.

Things like remembering what Bucky Barnes looked like stepping out of the river without any clothes on.

Clint doesn’t want to think about that, but sometimes he lays awake at night in his bed and it’s all he can do to clench his hands into fists and swallow down the urge to reach out and to touch.

Touching has never been something he wanted, but now, he wants it so badly, he can taste it, and he hates it. Before -- before touching was something that happened without his consent, until he got strong enough and mean enough to lash out when it did. The shame of all the times he let it happen, though, in exchange for a meal or a place to hide when his father was particularly drunk -- that shame just dirtied him up like the rest of what he’d done to survive.

Sometimes, he can’t help but reach out and touch himself and his face burns with the shame of it and he’s desperately grateful that laundry is his chore and no one else is ever going to know that in the night, sometimes Clint likes to imagine that he’s worth being touched.

He doesn’t tell Coulson about it, not even on the mornings when Coulson teaches him to shave, endlessly patient and kind and forgiving.

*

It’s nearly the end of summer and Clint is teaching Natasha to shoot his bow when Scott, lounging on a spare hay bale and watching, says, “You’ve got pretty nice arms, Barton.”

Clint shoots him a look and blinks at him. “Do I?” he asks, trying to figure out where Scott is going with this.

“Uh huh. Objectively speaking, I mean. I don’t want to lick them or anything, I’m just noticing. Summer’s been good to you. You’re taller too. Strong.”

Clint shifts awkwardly on his feet and wonders why the hell would want to lick anybody’s arms and then has a quick flash of Bucky’s, naked and shining in the sun. He sucks in a startled breath and represses the hell out of it and says, “Thanks for not licking me?”

Natasha snorts and shoots a nearly perfect bullseye.

“I’m just sayin’. You ever piloted a barge before?”

“Ooh,” Natasha says, spinning on her heel to look at Clint, eyes bright. “That’s a fantastic idea.”

“A barge?” he echoes.

“Yeah.” Scott sits up, beaming. “We have a Harvest Faire each September --”

“Of course you do,” Clint says, rolling his eyes.

Scott ignores him. “And the best part of it is the barge race down the river. Teams of two work all summer on their boats, trying to customize them to get an advantage, taking practice runs. And I’m out a partner seeing as my older brother’s gone away for college. You’ve got the muscles for it, and we’ve got a few weeks left if you want to team up. I could train you.”

“It’s a boat race,” Clint says dryly. “And I can’t swim. That doesn’t seem the best idea.”

“You’re doing great at learning,” Scott says brightly, and Clint thinks that’s overselling it a little bit. He’s barely capable of floating. “All you gotta do is make sure you don’t fall out of the boat.”

*

They start training the next afternoon, carrying Scott’s barge over their shoulders through the woods, up to the soft beach used for launching. No one else is there, but the muddy beach is marked up with footprints and slide marks where other barges have been pushed into the river.

“You’ll be in the front,” Scott tells him, handing him an oar. “All you’ve got to do is sit and paddle for power and speed. All the navigation and maneuvering happens in the back, and I’ll handle it. Okay?”

“Sure,” Clint says, but he’s thinking more than ever that this is a terrible idea. It’s been rainy off and on for days and the river is higher than usual and running faster.

“You’ll be fine,” Scott tells him, holding the barge as it floats in the shallows. “Climb in, you won’t get wet at all.”

Clint isn’t used to arguing, even when his personal safety is at risk, so he swallows down his misgivings and climbs into the boat, clutching his oar. He can feel the power of the river tearing at the boat despite Scott’s grip on it, but Scott just takes a few quick steps, shoving the boat into the current, and hops inside. It rocks violently but rights itself soon enough, and then they’re off.

“Just paddle!” Scott calls, so Clint does his best, slowly relaxing as they zip down the river. “The race route runs down past the bridge, around the bend,” he says. “The river picks up speed in a little bit, so brace yourself for that. It’s gonna be fun.”

Clint looks back at him to see him smiling with a manic sort of energy.

It’s easy at first. He paddles and helps pick up the necessary speed for when Scott needs to swing the boat around a rock or fallen tree, and they work well together.

And then the river picks up speed, growing rougher as the water navigates through a bunch of bigger rocks approaching the bridge.

“This is the hard part,” Scott shouts. “Get on your knees if you need leverage.”

It’s a stupid idea but Clint does it, kneeling in the pointed prow of the little boat, clutching his oar and doing his best, but his centre of gravity is off now, his balance is compromised, and he can’t quite keep himself steady.

He can see the calm part of the river just ahead, they’re almost through the rapids, he just needs to hold on --

They hit a swell without any warning, tipping the boat at a sharp angle, and Clint hasn’t got anything to hold onto except his oar. There’s a breathless moment, the world tips sideways, and then he hits the water hard, pushing all the breath from his lungs in a rush. The water tosses him, flipping him until he can’t remember which way is up, and when he finally surfaces long enough to breathe, Scott and the boat have already been swept downstream, past the bridge.

He’s swirling out of the rapids and into the calm area before the bridge, and Clint flails his arms, trying desperately to sort through the panic and remember Natasha’s lessons on how to float. He sucks in burning breaths and wonders if this is how he dies.

“Hold onto something!” Scott shouts. Any other helpful advice is lost when the river sweeps him around the bend.

Clint lost his oar in the river and he blinks water out of his eyes, looking for something to cling to. There’s a fallen tree nearby but when he tries to reach it, it pulls free from the bank.

Before he can panic too much, he slams into the support pillar of the bridge, the water pinning him there just long enough for him to grab onto the rusted metal brackets that run up to the bridge. He tries to pull himself up them, but they’re slick and sharp and he can’t get a strong enough grip.

He holds onto them as best he can, trying not to panic. Worst case scenario, Scott runs back up the river and comes to get him. The water here is calm enough that he should be able to paddle straight over to the bridge and pull him out of the water.

All he needs to do is wait.

The waiting is a bitch.

The water is cold and swirling around him, plastering his clothes to his body. His fingers grow numb from his grip on the bracket. Every now and again a stick pulls loose from the bank and smacks into his back or his shoulder.

He’s regretting every agreeing to this ridiculous boat race in the first place.

And then, from behind him, he hears a careful, concerned voice. “Clint Barton, what on earth are you doing?”

He cranes his neck to look behind him, and of course it’s Bucky Barnes in his own little barge, standing up at the back with an oar, with a younger girl perched in the prow. They’re both staring at him like they can’t figure out how on earth he came to be clinging to the underside of a bridge in the middle of the forest on this particularly overcast late summer day.

Clint turns away and squeezes his eyes shut and says, “Fuck. Nothing. It’s fine.”

There’s a moment of silence, and then Bucky gives the girl some quiet instructions to turn the boat out of the current. “It doesn’t look fine,” Bucky says, once they’ve prevented the boat from sweeping past. “It looks like you’re trapped in the middle of the river.”

“That’s what it looks like,” Clint agrees, adjusting his grip on the bracket. “But that’s not what’s happening at all. I’m just. I’m waiting for Scott.”

“Clint. Did you fall out of a barge?”

Resting his forehead against the slimy stone holding the bridge up, Clint mumbles a few more curse words and wonders what’s worse, floating to his death down the river, clinging to the bridge and hoping Scott remembers to come back and get him, or admitting the truth.

“Yes,” he says finally, with a scowl.

The girl giggles. “Why didn’t you just swim to the bank?” she asks. “There’s barely a current here.”

Clint doesn’t answer, not for a long moment, and then finally, because no one seems to be offering a convenient subject change, he says, “Because I can’t swim.”

“You’re a disaster,” Bucky says, but he sounds fond. “What are you doing in a barge if you can’t swim? Here, take my hand.”

Clint risks another look over his shoulder and the girl, who must be Bucky’s sister Becca, is bracing the boat on the next pillar, holding into a metal bracket, while Bucky reaches out for him.

And really, Clint wonders if letting go and floating away wouldn’t be the best option. It has to be better than admitting he needs help, from Bucky Barnes of all people. Why couldn’t it have been anyone else coming down the river right now? Anyone at all. He’d even take Sitwell and Rumlow, for all that they’d probably leave him to drown.

“C’mon,” Bucky coaxes. “All you have to do is hold on. I’ll pull you in, and I won’t let you sink. Promise.”

“I know how to float,” he grumbles, and then, taking a deep, bracing breath in case he sinks under the surface again, Clint adjusts his grip so he’s balanced on one hand and then lets go with the other, reaching out desperately for Bucky.

For a moment, he doesn’t think Bucky’s going to catch his hand -- they’re too far apart or Clint’s misjudged his reach -- but then Bucky’s hand is warm and firm around his wrist.

“Now let go and I’ll pull you in,” Bucky says, in that same tone, coaxing and soft the way Scott talks to goats he’s trying to convince to climb up on the roof with him.

Clint rolls his eyes and mumbles another choice curse word and lets go.

The river doesn’t sweep him away. It’s a deeper pool here at the base of the bridge and the water moves more slowly, but he can still feel it tugging at his clothes, his hair, and he panics, reaching out with his other hand to cling to Bucky’s.

“You’re fine,” Bucky says, pulling him to the boat. “Just breathe, it’s fine, I got you.”

He pulls Clint in like Clint doesn’t have nearly a foot of height on him, but Clint remembers the tightly packed muscles he’d seen in Bucky’s arms and shoulders at the swimming hole that day, so maybe he shouldn’t be so surprised when he’s unceremoniously hauled into the boat and dropped onto the wooden bottom in a puddle of river water.

“Okay?” Bucky asks, as Becca lets go of the brace and the boat swings around, sliding under the bridge and out the other side.

Clint’s teeth are chattering too hard to answer. It’s a cooler day, but most of it’s from the lingering anxiety, the growing certainty that his grip would give out before Scott got back for him.

“He’s cold,” Becca says. “Bucky, give him your jacket.”

“I don’t need --”

Bucky drops his jacket around Clint’s shoulders and it’s heavy and warm and steadily growing damp because of how wet Clint’s clothes are.

Still, he can’t help but snuggle into it, ducking his cold face against the collar, and mumbling, “Thanks.”

Boating down the river is a lot more soothing when he hasn’t got an oar or paddling to worry about, and Clint closes his eyes, letting the tension bleed out of his shoulders. He’s safe. He’s not going to drown.

Bucky saved him.

He scowls, hiding it in the collar of the jacket, but maybe Bucky sees it.

“Brave choice, entering the barge race when you can’t swim,” he says mildly.

“I told Scott it was a bad idea,” Clint tells him, defensive. “But he said -- he said I had nice arms, so.”

He peeks up at Bucky, just in time to see him hide a grin before agreeing, solemn, “You do, Clint. I can’t fault him for that.”

Clint snuggles more deeply into the jacket and if his cheeks are burning, it’s from the cool breeze.

“So,” Bucky says, as they round a bend in the river. “You and Scott, you, uh.”

Clint looks at him, perplexed. “Are we what?”

“Dating,” Becca giggles. “He wants to know if you and Scott are in love because he--”

The boat makes a sharp left, sending a splash of water up over the prow, splashing her right in the face, and Bucky says mildly, “Oh, wow, sorry, Becca. Better watch what you’re doing up there.”

She manages to laugh while sputtering and spitting out the river water she’d swallowed, and she rolls her eyes at Bucky, amused. “Sure, sure, big brother,” she says, all sweet sarcasm. “I’ll do my best.”

Bucky grins.

And Clint just wonders if that’s what having a sibling is supposed to be like -- all gentle teasing and sarcasm and inside jokes he doesn’t understand, because he and Barney had never been like that. It had always been rougher, sharper with Barney.

“No,” Clint says, and it’s long enough after the question to seem awkward, but he doesn’t care. Bucky looks at him, eyebrow raised, and he clarifies, “Scott and I, we’re not. We’re not anything. Just friends. ‘Cept he left me in the river to die, so maybe I oughta rethink the friends part.”

Bucky laughs and Clint manages a weak smile at him, and then he ducks his head and rubs at his burning cheeks.

*

They pull the barge ashore at a soft, marshy beach, where Scott’s barge lies abandoned. Bucky hopped out once they got close, wading in the shallows to pull them in, so now he’s going to have wet pants to go with his wet jacket when Clint finally gives it back.

He makes no move to give it back.

Bucky helps Becca out first, making sure she’s safely on dry ground before holding a hand out for Clint, who only hesitates for a moment before taking it. Bucky lets go as soon as Clint catches his balance, and then he finishes hauling the barge up onto the bank and turns to face Clint, rubbing awkwardly at the back of his neck.

“So Scott’s probably panicking,” Bucky says. “He’s probably run all the way to your house, or to town, and told everyone that you drowned. You should probably head home before Coulson and Fury panic.”

“Oh!” Clint says, eyes going wide. “Oh, shit, yeah, I don’t want them to worry, I should…” He trails off, looking around, because he has no idea which way home is from here. He’s got a bad sense of direction at the best of times. “I’ll just… go… That way?”

Bucky laughs and Becca bounces on her toes. “Or,” she says, with a crooked grin that looks a whole lot like her brother’s. “Or, me an’ Bucky’ll walk you home. You’ve been through an ordeal and I know Bucky’s gonna wanna make sure you get home safe, right, Buck?”

Bucky shoots her a narrow-eyed look, one she meets with an unrepentant grin, and he gives up with an eye roll, turning to Clint. “Of course I want to make sure you get home safe,” he says. “C’mon, it’s not far.”

Clint should tell him that he’s fine, should find his own way home. Bucky’s already helped him out more than he needs to and he can’t quite figure out why he and his sister would want to waste any more time than they already have with him.

But for all that he wants to send them away, he can’t quite find the words. He blames it on the fact that he’s still shivering from the cold.

Becca leads the way, humming softly and hopping up the embankment, onto a well-beaten path that winds its way through the forest. Sticking close to Clint, Bucky helps him over any loose patches of path or any fallen logs because his boots -- his beautiful, brand new boots without holes in the toes -- are soaking wet and slippery.

He makes sure to let go of Clint as quickly as he can, and Clint appreciates it, he does.

Except he starts wondering what it would be like if Bucky let his touch linger, and that’s. It’s just not helpful at all.

“I’m sure you did great before you fell out of the boat,” Bucky says, after their silence has grown long and awkward.

“No,” Clint confesses. “I was pretty bad at it.”

Bucky grins. “Still going to try the race?”

“I think my boating days are over, at least until I learn how to swim.”

“Good,” Bucky says, smug. “Because you and Scott wouldn’t have a chance against me and Becca, no matter how nice your arms are. We’d have beaten you so badly, I’d hate for your self-confidence to take a hit like that.”

Clint surprises himself when he laughs, and from the sideways look Bucky shoots him, he hadn’t expected it either. “You never know,” Clint says. “Between my fantastic arms and Scott’s casual disregard for safety, we coulda won. If we’d even made it to the end of the course.”

“Sure, of course,” Bucky says, but he’s just humouring him, Clint can tell. “If you need to tell yourself that. Hey, you’re still gonna come to the Faire, right? My mother bought your pie at the summer festival and it was just about the sweetest thing I ever tasted, and we’ve been waiting for a chance to buy another.”

“That’s… ridiculous,” Clint tells him, but he ducks his head to hide a small, pleased smile as he scrambles over a fallen log. “All you gotta do is ask, I can make you a pie any time.”

He slips as he slides down the otherside of the log and Bucky catches him, a bracing grip on his wrist, and this time, the touch lingers long enough for Clint to look up at him. “Would you?” Bucky asks, eyes wide and dark and it feels like it isn’t a question about pies at all.

Clint licks his lips and carefully pulls his arm out of Bucky’s grip and says, “Sure I would.” Bucky grins and his cheeks are pink and Clint shoves past him, adding casually, “Coulson keeps talking about the special apples in his orchard, so we’re planning to make some jams and jellies to sell at the Faire too, if your mom would be interested in those, or cordial, or preserves. Apparently those apples are super sweet, so if she liked the last pie, she’ll probably love them.”

He keeps babbling about apples and baked and canned goods as he marches up the path to catch up with Becca, and when Bucky laughs softly behind him, he ignores it.

*

The Harvest Faire is just like the summer festival, except there’s no Ferris wheel, a whole lot more produce for sale, and an entire display setup for oddly shaped vegetables. There are contests for who has grown the biggest pumpkin, carrot and cauliflower, and rows upon rows of preserves for sale. Clint makes a pie, wondering as he does if Bucky’s ma’ll buy it, even as he tells himself he doesn’t care one way or the other.

The barge race runs first thing in the morning and, despite his claims of being the best barge racer in the county, Bucky and his sister come in fourth, with Tony and Steve given first place.

There’s a small ceremony in the afternoon and Steve and Tony are awarded a shiny blue ribbon, and Bucky cheers more loudly than anyone.

After, Clint makes his way over to him and says, “Gotta work on your arms, I guess, if you want to win next year.”

“Maybe I just need a better partner,” Bucky laughs with a wink, even as Becca squawks in outrage and smacks him on the shoulder.

Steve and Tony hop down from the stage, still examining their ribbons and beaming, and Tony says, “We’ll have to celebrate later, Rogers. Me and you, on the dance floor.”

Steve laughs and says, “We’ll see, Stark.”

Before Tony can say anything else, his father, who owns most of the coal mines in the area, comes over, leading a beautiful, smartly dressed woman with a bright red hat. “Boys,” he says. “Congratulations on the barge race, happy to see your boat modifications paid off, Tony. I wanted to introduce you to your new school teacher, Ms. Peggy Carter.”

“Bucky Barnes. Pleasure, ma’m,” Bucky says, all smooth and charming, as Tony trips over himself to kiss her hand and give his name. Clint just hangs back, not quite trusting that she won’t take one look at him and realize how stupid he is, just like Pierce had.

And Steve’s face turns beet red and he loses any and all ability to form a complete sentence, which is a novel experience. Bucky elbows him in the side and Steve just blinks at Ms. Carter, eyes wide and doey.

She smiles at him anyway, shaking his hand, and then smiles warmly at Clint before she’s pulled off for more introductions.

“Wipe that drool off your face,” Bucky laughs, shoving Steve. “Please tell me you don’t intend to pine after our new teacher, Rogers, it’s an embarrassment.”

“Oh,” Steve says, rolling his eyes bit grinning reluctantly. “You wanna talk about pining, Barnes? Maybe we should --”

And then Bucky’s dragging him off, one hand clapped over Steve’s mouth, shouting a quick goodbye to Clint, who just stands there, at a complete loss.

Natasha finds him and drags him off for candied apples, and he eats enough to make him sick.

The band eventually launches into some livelier music and people start dancing off all the sugar they’ve eaten, spinning around the makeshift dance floor in front of the little stage with a giddy sort of energy that is a little infectious. Clint remembers the dance at the beginning of summer, remembers hovering at the edge of the crowd, unsure of how to move and trying to fade into the background as best he can.

Now, Natasha takes him by the hand and pulls him into the middle of the mess of dancers, and he knows enough about dancing to recognize that not all of them know the steps nor even have a grasp of rhythm, which helps him feel less awkward as Natasha pulls him through the movements she spent the summer teaching him.

He dances with her and then with Scott and then with Natasha again, spinning and spinning as the band plays a dizzying reel, and when the music ends, she lets him go, and Clint trips off the dancefloor and into the growing shadows, laughing.

He almost falls, would have fallen, but he trips into Bucky instead, who laughs even as he grabs him by both arms and steadies him.

“This is getting to be a habit,” Bucky says, as Clint finds his balance and blinks down at him and feels like he’s still spinning -- there’s a strange, light feeling in his chest and he’s not sure he likes it. It feels like an anxiety attack, but softer somehow, and stranger, and it wasn’t there until he’d somehow ended up in Bucky’s arms.

He doesn’t want to think about it, but Bucky hasn’t let him go, and the lingering touch is doing something to Clint’s sense of balance, to the strength in his knees, that Natasha and her wild dancing had never managed to do.

“What is?” he asks, because keeping up with conversation is a bit beyond his skill set at the moment.

“Me, coming to your rescue,” Bucky says. He’s still smiling, soft and sweet and almost secret in the thickening shadows, a little more honest than Clint has gotten used to, seeing him around town with his friends and his siblings, all bravado and charm.

The band picks up another tune, something smoother, slower, and Clint looks over his shoulder as the dancers pair up and wonders if Bucky’s going to ask him to dance and what he’d say if Bucky did.

“I don’t tend to fall over my feet nearly as often when you’re not around,” Clint tells him, vague and distracted and looking back at him as he licks his lips, still trying to decide if he wants to dance and if he does, should he ask or will Bucky ask -- surely Bucky will ask, after everything he’d said on the Ferris wheel before.

There’s a hesitation, an awkward pause, and Clint knows his mouth is open unattractively as he scrambles for something to say, he knows what he should say (“thanks for not letting me fall on my face, you’re a pal”) and what he wants to say, (“We should dance, remember when I saw you naked this summer, because I can’t seem to forget”) but no words are coming.

And then Steve appears and says, “Bucky, hey, dance with me, Sharon’s after me again, did you know Ms. Carter is her aunt, I am doomed,” and Clint is shouldered out of the way without so much as an apology.

He stands alone in the shadows, uncomfortable and awkward and not all that sure if he should feel disappointed, and watches Bucky and Steve step on each other’s toes and laugh until Natasha finds him and drags him off to drink Scott’s moonshine behind the barn.

Fury isn’t pleased when he has to practically carry Clint to the carriage later that night, but Coulson just sighs and listens patiently as Clint moans melodramatically about the perils of a clumsily broken heart all the way home.

*

Clint doesn’t want to go to school, but Natasha made him promise he’d give it another shot, and his reading has gotten a lot better thanks to Scott’s tutoring. He’s nowhere near the other students his age, but he’s confident that he can read a line on the board if he’s called up to be punished again, and that’s really all that matters.

So on the first day of school, he dresses in the new outfit Coulson and Fury bought him, he picks up his stack of books and the lunch Coulson made him, and he walks slowly to the school house. Every step feels like one step closer to certain death, but when he tells Natasha that after she joins him halfway, she rolls her eyes and tells him to stop being such an idiot.

The school yard is even more boisterous than it was the one other time Clint was here, as everyone caught up on the summer gossip, exclaimed over who’d hit a growth spurt (there were a few curious looks tossed Clint’s way, because he’d grown half a foot over the summer), and who knew anything at all about their new teacher, besides the lucky few who got a brief introduction to her at the Harvest Faire.

The bell rings and everyone rushed into the school room, quiet now and curious as they put their things away in the coat room and filed into the classroom, a few scuffles breaking out as everyone fought to claim a seat by their best friend.

Natasha and Clint end up by the window which overlooks the lazily winding river, and Clint is relieved that at least he’s got a nice view to keep him company during the torture of formal education.

Clint does his best to stay quiet and small and out of Ms. Carter’s way, anxious and pretty certain that it’s just a matter of time before he fucks up again.

She’s got the older students working on reading while she helps the younger ones get started on their own lesson, and Clint’s finger is shaking as he carefully traces it along under the line, reading slow and careful like Scott taught him.

There are so many words he doesn’t know, but he figures them out through context as best he can and does his best. He tries not to worry about how much faster everyone else is going, and whenever his breathing starts to hitch as panic threatens, Natasha nudges his foot with hers and, when he looks up, flashes an encouraging smile.

“If Scott can learn a decent fouette, you can read the first chapter of Great Expectations,” she tells him.

He’s not sure it’s true, and Scott never did manage a decent fouette, despite all of Natasha’s impatient teaching.

And then, before the teacher finishes up with the little ones, someone kicks Clint’s chair, hard, from behind. He jerks, startled, looks over his shoulder, and Sitwell hisses, “Whatcha doing, circus trash? Pretending to read? We all know you can’t read a word.”

His cheeks burn and Clint feels an embarrassing wave of dizziness as the panic he’d been trying so hard to keep at bay rushes over him in a wave. He opens his mouth to snarl something back, but before he can, Natasha’s growling under her breath, slamming her book shut, and getting to her feet.

It’s going to get violent. Natasha’s gonna hurt him and make him cry and she’s gonna get in so much trouble and Clint can’t let that happen. The idea of Natasha being dragged to the front of the room and forced to write lines or be laughed at, it’s so much worse than the idea of being punished himself, so Clint scrambles to his feet to do something drastic.

He doesn’t know what just yet, but breaking his slate over Sitwell’s head seems a good idea.

Before he can, though, Ms. Carter snaps from the front of the room, “Jasper Sitwell, is it? You’ll find that I’m much less tolerant of bullying than my predecessor might have been, and if you cannot resist the urge to be an ass, might I suggest staying home until you’ve reached the emotional maturity I’d expect from someone of your age?”

A few of the students giggle, and it only takes a sharp look from Ms. Carter to shut them up, and yet she doesn’t call anybody to the front of the room, doesn’t grab her ruler to rap anybody on the knuckles, doesn’t lash out or even shout.

Sitwell sinks as small as he can get in his seat and mumbles, “Sorry, Ms. Carter,” and she nods like that’s the end of it and goes back to helping the little ones figure out how to sharpen their pencils.

And Natasha breathes out, nice and slow, a few times, and it’s only on the third exhale that Clint realizes he hasn’t breathed at all and she’s doing it for his benefit.

So he goes back to reading.

It isn’t easy to keep up. One summer of tutoring was never going to get him to catch up to his peers and he hadn’t expected it to, but the classroom is quiet and Ms. Carter doesn’t call on him or point out his failings, and by lunch time, he’s started to relax, just a little.

As they pack up to grab their lunches and head outside, Ms. Carter says, “Mr. Barton, would you mind staying behind for just a moment?”

Clint goes still. He knew the tentative peace couldn’t last, knew eventually the new teacher would figure out just how behind he was, and Pierce hadn’t wanted an idiot like Clint in his classroom so why would Ms. Carter?

He stays in his seat, barely breathing, until everyone else is gone, and then, when Ms. Carter smiles at him, he forces himself to his feet and to the front of the classroom.

“Sorry,” he says, before she can speak. “Sorry, I’m not very good at reading or math or anything at all, really, but Scott was teaching me all summer and I’m so much better than I was and I swear, I’m trying, and I know I’m too stupid to--”

“Mr. Barton,” she says, much more gently than she’d spoken to anybody in class. “I couldn’t help but notice that you are a little behind in certain areas.”

His shoulders slump and he looks at his boots -- they’re dirty and not half as nice as they were when Coulson first bought them for him, but they still haven’t got holes in them.

“I’ve been trying,” he says, quiet and defeated. “But if you don’t want to teach me--”

“That seems the very opposite of what a teacher is supposed to want,” she tells him, with an amused smile. “Of course I want to teach you, Mr. Barton. I was just going to suggest that, if you were interested, perhaps some tutoring would help, after class. I’m sure Mr. Lang did his best, but I’m sure together we can make some progress, and perhaps, with some hard work on your part, we can have you ready to graduate with your peers. If you’re willing to do the work, that is.”

His eyes are big and shining and he’s still not sure if he can trust it -- teachers, in his experience aren’t all that willing to work with students who need any extra work at all, because he knows it means more work for them too.

His only experience, however, had been Mr. Pierce, so perhaps that wasn’t an adequate measure to set all future schooling up against.

“I can work real hard when I want to,” he tells her. “I promise.”

She smiles at him, and she’s so fucking pretty -- no wonder Steve Rogers has been blushing and hiding behind his text book all morning. “I have no doubt, Mr. Barton,” she says.

She sends him out to the school yard after promising to work out a tutoring schedule with Coulson, and Natasha is hovering by the door when he steps out into the early autumn sunshine.

She’s got a nervous scowl on her face and she’s furiously eating an apple.

“I’ll kill her if you want me to,” she says. “What did she want?”

Clint beams at her. “She’s gonna teach me everything I don’t already know,” he says. “She says she can help me catch up before graduation.”

Natasha’s eyes are still narrow but she takes a giant, vicious bite of her apple and says, “I’ll let her live, then.”

Clint almost feels like he can fly -- the contrast between his first miserable day at school last year and this day is so stark, and it’s all because, for the first time in his life, someone thinks he can do this. He can get better at reading and arithmetic and he can’t help but think that Barney wouldn’t be in prison if he’d ever had anyone look at him and offer to teach him.

Other students are still standing around in knots, talking excitedly, as Clint gathers his stuff and prepares to head off with Natasha. He’s humming to himself, excited and bouncy and pleased with just about everything, and he doesn’t even care when his enthusiasm and energy causes him to trip over his own goddamn feet and almost fall flat on his face.

He just catches himself and laughs, stumbling after Natasha, and he’s almost through the gate and at the road when he accidentally makes eye contact with Bucky, who’s standing by the apple tree in the school yard with his friends, though he barely seems aware of them. He’s watching Clint with a silly, fond, stupid look on his face and it just makes Clint laugh harder, even as his cheeks go pink and start to ache from the size of his crooked smile.

He waves a little, feeling stupid and shy but too happy to muster his customary scowl, and Bucky’s answering grin is slow and warm and sweet.

The gate swings shut and catches him in the gut and Natasha’s gonna hurt herself if she rolls her eyes any harder as she tugs it open for him again.

“You’re so stupid,” she tells him, slipping her arm through his and leading him down the lane.

“Yeah?” Clint asks, barely listening, craning his neck to look over his shoulder to see if Bucky caught that embarrassment with the gate.

He’s still watching so, yeah, he probably did.

“Yes,” Natasha tells him.

Clint shoots her a grin and says, “You wanna talk about Sam Wilson, then, Tasha?” he says. “Because I saw him slip you that apple at lunch time.”

She throws the apple core into the ditch with far more violence than it warrants, and her cheeks are nearly as pink as Clint’s.

*

The last of summer fades into fall and the leaves grow bright and colourful, the air a little sharp with cold. Clint spends his weekdays in school, staying late to work with Ms. Carter on his reading, writing and math skills, and Lucky’s always waiting outside the school to walk home with him. Sometimes Natasha sticks around too, if she doesn’t have somewhere else to be, walking halfway with him before the lane splits and she goes right while he goes left.

When he’s not at school, he helps Coulson and Fury harvest their small garden and take care of the cows and the goats. He does his chores and mends his clothes and keeps his room tidy and only wonders about Barney and everyone else from the circus every now and again, when his feet gets restless and he starts counting the miles between his new home and the prison they’re being kept in.

It’s a strange sort of homesickness and it doesn’t fit as comfortably as it had before, when he’d first arrived here and all he could think of was the circus and the fucked up family he found there, because he didn’t know of any other type of family until he met this one.

He doesn’t like to think about it.

So instead, he thinks about letters and numbers and teaching Natasha to shoot a perfect bullseye and teasing Scott about his new girlfriend.

And sometimes he thinks about Bucky Barnes, especially on the day when he leaves the school house after a tutoring session and finds him playing fetch with Lucky in the school yard, Natasha nowhere to be seen.

He straightens up when Clint steps out of the school, runs fingers through his hair to tidy it, and smiles. “Hey,” he says, like this is normal, like Clint isn’t frozen on the steps leading into the school.

“Where’s Natasha?”

Bucky shrugs. “I just thought I’d wait for you, see if maybe it would be alright if I walked you home.”

Clint squints at him, suspicious. “My home is in the complete opposite direction from yours,” he says.

“But it’s a real nice day for a walk.”

It’s true -- the sky is bright and blue and filled with white, cotton candy clouds.

“Uhm,” Clint says, blinking at him and trying to figure out what to say -- something smooth and charming would do, but his tongue feels tied in knots. “Okay.”

Bucky takes his books and Clint lets him, too startled to argue, and then they fall into step together and Bucky starts up an easy conversation about the book they’re studying in class, like this is easy and normal and not at all something to be petrified of. Leaves crunch under their feet and Lucky bounds ahead of them and Clint takes a deep breath and relaxes tentatively into the idea that Bucky Barnes wants to walk him home, and Clint wants to let him.

After that, it becomes something of a habit -- not everyday, but more often than not.

*

On a Saturday, the sky is dark and threatening rain, thunder rumbling in the distance, and Clint’s waiting for Natasha at their typical meeting place along the northern perimeter of Coulson’s pasture, just along the woods near where they’ve taken to shooting targets that are more challenging than the ones at the range Coulson and Fury made him. They’ve hung a bunch of bits of metal and glass from the trees and are in the middle of a cutthroat tournament to see who’s the better shot -- Clint takes his shot with a blindfold on in an attempt to level the playing field.

She’s late today, which isn’t altogether too unusual, and Clint is amusing himself by balancing on the fence posts, hopping from one to the next, arms spread for balance. He spins as he hops, practicing the waltz steps Natasha’s been teaching him, humming under his breath. He stops on one fence post and stands on his toes as best as he can, trying a pirouette, which Natasha spent hours drilling him on over the summer.

It’s not too hard -- it reminds him of his circus days, of the tightrope walkers and acrobats, and he closes his eyes as he spins and pretends he can hear the roar of the crowds, the cries of the ringleader, can smell the greasepaint and burned popcorn. He’d always wanted to be an acrobat.

In an effort to make it harder, he tips over, gripping the next fence post with both hands, holds his breath, and kicks his feet up into the air, balancing in a handstand.

Still too easy, so he steadies himself as best he can, breathes, and then lifts one hand, wobbling a little but catching his balance, one-handed on the fence post.

He grins, slow, and says, in his best ringmaster voice, “Ladies and gentlemen, the Amazing Hawkeye!”

And then he sees Bucky watching from nearby, leaning casually against the trunk of a tree, bits of metal and glass twinkling in the branches above, his arms crossed over his chest and a soft grin on his face.

“Hey, circus brat,” he says, and Clint crashes to the ground with a yelp.

He lays there, stunned, in the bright leaves, blinking up at the moody sky, for the three seconds it takes Bucky to scramble to his side.

“Shit, Clint,” he says, eyes wide as he falls to his knees. “Are you okay? Can you move? Don’t try to move, you might’ve broken something!”

“You keep showing up where you’re not supposed to be,” Clint tells him.

Bucky’s hands are hovering like he wants to touch, to search for evidence of broken bones. “Natasha sent me,” he says. “Where does it hurt?”

Clint sits up, slow, wincing a little at the ache in his bones, but nothing’s broken. He’s broken enough bones to know what that feels like. “I’m okay,” he says. “You startled me.”

“To be fair,” Bucky tells him. “I was trying not to startle you, which is why I didn’t call out.”

“So instead you decided to stare at me like a creep from the trees,” Clint says, rolling his eyes. “Sure.”

“Well. No. I was staring at you like a creep from the woods because you looked really, really good,” Bucky says with a shrug, like that sort of confession is easy for him. Clint scowls at him and he smiles a little ruefully and says, “I mean, you always look good, but usually you’re not upside down on a fence post like an acrobat, I couldn’t help it.”

Clint’s cheeks are burning, so he distracts himself rubbing at a sore elbow, and says, a little desperate to change the subject, “Why would Natasha send you?”

Bucky gets to his feet, his smile growing bright and pleased. “To tell you she’s not coming because she’s going for ice cream with Sam in the village.” He holds out a hand to help Clint up, and Clint stares at it and hesitates for a long, long time, because reaching out to take his hand somehow seems like an admission, like crossing a line he’s not sure if he should cross. It’s willfully reaching out to touch him and Clint -- Clint wants to, he really fucking wants to, but his hands are dirty from the fall and from the fence post and he’ll get Bucky’s hand dirty if he touches him and that somehow seems more important than it should.

“Ice cream?” he echoes, a bit lost and not at all thinking about ice cream. He can get up on his own -- he’s not even hurt.

“Finally,” Bucky says. “She didn’t even make him work too hard for it.”

“She’s been pretending not to like him for nearly a year,” Clint says, and then he gathers up all that remains of his courage and his bruised pride and reaches out and takes Bucky’s hand.

Bucky pulls him up easily, gently, his grin growing soft, and he says, “Some things are worth being patient for, Clint.”

And maybe he’s not talking about Sam and Natasha at all, maybe he’s talking about how long it took Clint to reach out for his hand just now, or maybe he’s talking about how long it’s been since they first saw each other in the schoolyard, the day Bucky first tried to get his attention and ended up with a bloodied nose for his trouble.

Clint isn’t sure though, because he doesn’t think he’s worth waiting for at all.

There’s a breathless moment, where they’re standing too close and Clint’s a little off balance and Bucky’s holding him steady, and their hands are clasped and Clint’s is getting Bucky’s a little dirty but neither of them seem to notice, too busy looking at each other, Clint wondering if Bucky’s thinking what Clint’s thinking and Bucky, maybe, wondering the same.

And then the clouds above finally give up, the sky cracking open with a flash of lightning and a sudden, thick, cold rush of rain.

Clint swears and Bucky laughs and they’re running for shelter in the trees and it’s only after they make it into the woods and out of the worst of the rain that Clint realizes that Bucky never let go of his hand.

He trips over his own feet when he realizes it, and nearly pulls Bucky over too, but they manage to catch their balance on the slick ground. Bucky tugs him underneath the shelter of an oak tree which keeps most of the rain off them, but it’s too late. Clint’s already soaked through and Bucky’s the same.

“You’re not wearing a jacket,” Bucky tells him, blinking rain out of his eyes and looking up at Clint. “And you got so much taller than me over the summer.”

Bucky’s hair is slicked back and wet like a seal’s, his eyelashes are spiked with it, it’s dripping off the end of his nose and his chin and his clothes are plastered to his body and Clint just. He doesn’t stand a chance here.

“You didn’t ask me to dance at the Harvest Faire,” Clint says, like he can’t help it.

Bucky rubs the rain out of his eyes with the back of his hand and says, with a twist of his lips, “I wasn’t sure you’d want to.”

“I spent the whole summer learning how to dance.”

Bucky bites his lip, trying to hide a smile, but Clint can see it anyway in the way his eyes light up. And they’re still holding hands and everything feels off balance, but he doesn’t mind so much in the hush of the woods, heavy with shadows and the falling rain and thunder.

“There’s a Christmas pageant, in just a few months,” Bucky says, because of course there is. Clint’s already resigned himself to the fact that the pace of life out in the country is so much slower than the circus ever was, that they make up reasons to celebrate whenever they can, with summer festivals and Harvest Faires and Christmas pageants, he shouldn’t be surprised.

“A few months is a long time to wait,” Clint tells him, and Bucky laughs.

“Is it?” he asks. “Because I’ve already --”

Clint’s hands tremble a little when he smoothes Bucky’s hair back, tucking it behind his ear so it stops falling in his eyes, which go wide at the touch.

“Clint,” he says, suddenly uncertain, searching Clint’s face for something, and Clint’s got no idea if he finds it. His grip on Clint’s hand tightens, the other one slipping up, around to the back of Clint’s neck. “Can I,” he says, licking his lips, and Clint’s not scared anymore, because this feels easy. “Can I kiss you?”

Clint’s been kissed before, but no one has ever asked permission for it. They took whatever they wanted from him and left behind a lingering taste of the grease paint they left smudged on his hands and his face.

But this kiss is gentle and careful and Bucky licks the rain off his lips, cradling Clint’s face like he’s something precious and worth waiting for, and Coulson said he’d get to choose when and who touched him from now on, and as he melts into Bucky’s kiss, Clint decides that he’d choose this, over and over again.

They kiss until they’re both breathless and grinning against each other’s mouths, until they can’t help smothering laughter, hands twisted and clinging in wet clothing, pressed close like now they’ve started touching, they’re not sure they can stop.

They kiss until the rain stops and the storm fades away and they hear Natasha and Sam calling from the safety of a carriage on the lane nearby, coming to bring them home.

“Worth waiting for,” Bucky says, sounding just as confident and sure as Clint feels, all the way down to the tips of his toes, as Bucky takes his hand and tugs him out of the trees towards the lane.

*

Winter brings with it it’s own sort of hush, as things slow down at the farm. Darkness comes sooner and Clint spends most of his time inside, huddled around fires and stoves to protect against the brutal cold he’s not used to. The circus always used to head south for winter.

Natasha and Bucky coax him outside sometimes to go ice skating or build snowmen, or to let him destroy them with snowballs.

The day before school lets out for Christmas break, Ms. Carter hands him a gift of parchment and envelops and his very own ballpoint pen.

“Don’t get too excited,” she says, when he stammers over how to thank her. “It’s for your homework over the break. I thought you might want to work on your penmanship.”

They use slates in the classroom, which make it easy to wipe away his mistakes, so he hesitates and she smiles, gentle. “I thought you might have someone you’d want to write a letter to, Clint. If you like.”

A letter. Because he’s learned to read and to write, now he can write a letter.

It’s more than he ever imagined he’d be able to do, and he clutches her gift with shaking hands and thanks her though words will never be able to repay her for what she’s taught him.

That night, after he comes home from the Christmas Pageant, breathless and still feeling the excitement and the music and the dancing down to his bones, he lights a candle and sits at the little desk in his attic room, and starts to write.

Dear Barney, he begins. I miss you, I love you, and I’m doing okay.

The End.