Clint could think of a thousand places he’d like to be at the moment; back at SHIELD, for one. Ideally, he would be at his apartment, with his doofus of a dog and—well…
Heading west on a train at the ass-crack of dawn, surrounded by grubby looking people and headed to the one place he hated the most, was most definitely at the very bottom of the list.
“Take a break Barton,” Fury had said.
“Breathe in the fresh air,” Sitwell had said.
“Coulson’s dead,” Natasha had said.
He had gotten on the train.
The scenery outside was a blur of color, changing from grey to bright yellows and greens; from skyscrapers to corn. The sight of it made Clint want to be sick.
“The fairest state in all the west,” he sang mockingly under his breath. “Iowa, o Iowa…”
What a joke.
He ignored the faint, blurry-sounding murmur of people talking. Instead, his eyes caught at anything he remembered from before flashing by; a bright, chipping sign here, the wide expanse of a lake there. So intent was he on this self-imposed task, it took Clint several seconds to notice that someone was saying his name.
The speaker was an older woman with auburn hair that was streaked liberally with grey. She almost looked like someone he knew. He recognized her eyes, a sharp blue, but he didn’t know from where. She looked almost…excited?
“That’s me,” he said cautiously. “Who wants to know?”
The excited glimmer on her face dimmed some, but she was still smiling. “Debbie Weaver…I used to babysit you and your brother when you were young…” Her face drooped a little. “I can’t expect you to remember of course…”
“No, I remember!” And he does. Debbie had been a big seventeen to his six, and he had absolutely adored her. On the rare occasions when his parents had to have a sitter, Debbie had showed up like a guardian angel.
Yes, he remembered.
He stood to his feet in a scramble of limbs. Immediately, he gestured for her to take his seat. She shook her head, patting his arm fondly.
“Oh no dear, I’ll be getting off at the next stop.” She smiled at him in a way that was painfully familiar, like she knew what he was trying to do and thought it was sweet. He’d seen that smile a lot as a kid. “I only wanted to say hello.”
He smiled back at her a little hesitantly. “I get off at next stop too. You can go ahead and sit.” She inclined her head and sat. Her lips were quirked up in a grin.
“Hey, you wanna go eat somewhere after we get out?” he asked. “My treat. It’d be great to catch up.”
“Yes, we do have something’s to talk about,” she agreed. Oddly, she didn’t look altogether happy at the prospect. He tried not to read into that.
Waverly Iowa was a bright green speckled with buildings. There were more people than Clint remembered there being. Things had changed here, but he thought that was rather fitting. He’d changed too, after all.
The two of them sat down at a diner that he didn’t remember. That wasn’t a surprise though; any memory he might’ve had of the place was locked away with all the bad memories. It wasn’t a happy thought.
Debbie, it appeared, was a regular. A smiley waitress took his order but didn’t take Debbie’s, and was back at their table after little time with their drinks.
“I come here every Friday when I’m in town,” Debbie said, stirring her tea with a fond look on her face.
Clint took a gulp of his coffee. It tasted a cut well above the sludge he usually got. He observed his old friend with curiosity. “Still live in Waverly then?” She’d lived down the road from his pop’s farm when he was younger.
Debbie chuckled, smiling up at the waitress when she came back with two bowls of salad and an assortment of salad dressing. “Oh no dear, I live down in Des Moines. I only come down here to check up on something.” There was something significant about whatever it was she came down to Waverly for, because she shot him a serious look when she said it. The conversation moved away from the topic with some deliberateness.
They didn’t mention the accident that had send Clint away, or the circus, or Clint’s face splashed all over the news with the Avengers. For that, Clint was grateful. Instead, they drifted into casual conversation. Debbie talked about her job as a university professor, which Clint thought was fantastic and well worth someone like Debbie.
“You always were willing to sit down with me and explain my school stuff to me,” he said fondly. She’d been a sight better than any of his teachers, who had seen his bruises and ignored them. He’d always listened to her.
There was a pause, as the waitress came back once more with their food. And then Debbie came to the point she’d obviously been building since they’d got to the diner. The news was a bit of a shock to Clint’s system.
“E-excuse me?!” he burst out, as quietly as he could. Obviously he hadn’t heard her correctly.
“I would like to turn over the deed to your father’s farm to you,” Debbie repeated. She didn’t sound bothered by having to repeat herself. Instead, she was smiling softly like she'd expected his reaction.
Clint felt so confused. And that eight year old boy inside him was shaking in a small amount of fear. His pop’s farm? That nest of bad memories?
“Why do you have pop’s farm?” he asked. Debbie wasn’t related to his family, she wouldn’t have inherited it. Had she bought the damn thing?
“You and your brother didn’t have any living relatives to give the property over to,” Debbie said, sympathetic with his confusion. “Somehow the farm came under my dad’s care.” She shrugged. “It got passed to me when dad passed a couple years back.”
“Sorry about your dad,” he said automatically. Debbie’s dad had been a nice guy. He hadn’t put up with much of pop’s shit. His door had always been open for Clint.
“It’s fine. He lived a full life.” Debbie gave a sad smile. “Anyway, the place was supposed to go to your brother when he came of age, but no one could find either of you after you ran off.”
Clint grimaced. “Yeah, circus didn’t exactly have a landline to reach.”
“After dad passed, I took over caring the house. It’s in pretty bad shape. Dad had a lot of trouble keeping it livable as he got older. Eventually he stopped trying.” Debbie’s lips quirked up in a self-deprecating smile. “I haven’t had much luck with it either. I was trying to get the place livable enough to sell. Now I don’t have to sell it.” The thought made her face light up.
She reached down beside her and tugged a packet of papers out her bag. She handed them over to Clint, who took them somewhat numbly. They were deed papers, of course.
“I had my bits signed already,” she pointed out, “just in case I ran into you or your brother.” She suddenly frowned in confusion. “Speaking of, where is your brother?” she looked around curiously, as though Barney might simply be hiding behind a table.
Clint choked on a bite of food. “I actually lost contact with Barney a couple years ago.” It was sort of true. Barney was serving ten to life. Clint hadn’t spoken to him since he’d been arrested. He didn’t want to. It was a bit hard to deal with, what his brother had done. He might as well have put a knife in Clint’s back, it would’ve hurt less.
And now he was facing going back to his childhood home. Where Barney had been his protector, someone he’d looked up to. Safe. The comparison was going to drive him crazy.
“That’s too bad,” Debbie said. She sounded sincere. It was something of surprise, since Barney hadn’t been anything but nasty to her growing up. He hadn’t liked the idea of a stranger encroaching on their business, or attempting anything close to discipline.
Clint looked back down at the papers. They were smooth and crisp, but old. He felt odd holding them. Here was material proof that his childhood had existed. Here was proof that his life had never been very happy.
“If you’ll just sign those lines there, the place’ll be yours.” Debbie had misread the look on his face as nostalgia, obviously. Or maybe she was just in a hurry to get rid of it.
Numb, he pulled out his wallet. “You want me to—”
Debbie shook her head. “No, no the place belongs to you! It wouldn’t be right for me to ask you to pay.” She was already pulling out her own wallet. “I’ll pay for lunch too. Honestly you’ll be doing me a favor; my children never let me pay anymore.” He noticed the ring on her finger for the first time, a worn, well loved thing. Obviously, he was losing his touch to not have seen.
She put money on the table and was flagging down the waitress with a look before Clint could as much as blink. Before he could even speak, she had stood to her feet, stooped to give him a tight hug, and headed towards the door. “Call me if you need anything,” she said over her shoulder.
Finally his mouth caught up with his brain. “But I don’t know how to take care of a farm!” he called. But Debbie was already out the door. Clint stared down at the papers in his hands.
“Aw, Debbie no…”
Debbie obviously hadn’t spent a lot of time worrying about the house. The paint was chipping, the windows were either broken or a foggy mess of dirt. The grounds weren’t much better. They were an absolute chaos of weeds and overgrown grass.
Clint observed the place with a sigh. The thought of living here, where so many bad memories lived, left a bad taste in his mouth. But, the alternative was to go back to DC or New York and deal with all those agents looking at him like he was some sort of monster, or with so much pity he wanted to vomit. He hated both, so maybe it was a good thing Fury had forced him to go away. There was less of a chance he would snap and attack one of the offenders.
The steps creaked horribly as he climbed up them. He pulled out the key that had been hidden among the papers Debbie gave him (along with the names of his new neighbors, and her cell number. He was beginning to have a feeling she’d been planning their meeting). It scraped against the lock and the door opened heavily.
He was immediately enveloped in a cloud of dust. Coughing, Clint pushed past the door into the hall. It was dark and Clint found himself tripping over the rug in the hall.
It was a familiar quirk that he’d done a thousand times, in another life. The rug, an ugly maroon thing, had been a thorn in his six year old side. A faintly hysterical laugh escaped his throat.
Clint groped for the light switch and he cursed when no lights came on. He grabbed his phone out of his pocket. The flashlight revealed that, yep, there were no light bulbs in any of the sockets he could see.
“Dammit Debbie,” he grumbled. He shoved the phone back in his pocket and stalked over to the nearest window, its shades down. Opening it up allowed a flood of light into the room, tinting the room in a stark relief of color.
And revealing what Clint had been dreading. His childhood home was familiar, even with the thick layer of dust that had always been absent under his mother’s eye. He felt of thrill of something like fear go through him. It was irrational and he scowled at the thought of being scared of a goddamn building.
And that was when the memory hit him like a freight train. His pops, looming over him like a vulture, drink in one hand, the other curled into a fist. Him, curled into a ball, too terrified to fight back at the moment. Please stop, please, please!
Clint stumbled into the wall. He had to get out, right now. He shouldered his way past the door, slumping onto the steps.
He’d known his experience with Loki had messed with his head. He’d known that the moment his head had cleared. But he hadn’t expected it to dredge up long forgotten memories. But ever since New York, he kept remember things he’d thought he’d gotten past years ago. The damn bastard was still getting his last laugh, even though he was tucked away in a cell, light-years away.
And it definitely didn’t help that that damn house was chock full of bad memories. It was a flashback goldmine. The idea of staying made him want to curl in on himself.
Clint felt like vomiting.
He fumbled for his phone. He needed to hear a familiar voice, a good voice. He thumbed at the keypad shakily.
Natasha listened in relative silence as words spilled out of Clint. It felt good to get it out into the air. Talking to her, while sometimes a hit to his self-esteem—she never was afraid to say what she wanted to him, always filled him with some form of relief. She was his best friend for a very good reason.
“Clint Barton, if I have to drive to Iowa to picked you up by the scruff of your neck, I’m gonna be pissed.” Her voice softened. “Listen, they say living well is the best revenge, right? So, if you fix up the place, make it livable, turn it into something other than bad memories, maybe you could let yourself be happy there.”
He turned the idea over in his head. It made a little sense, he guessed. “But…”
“And,” she said over him. “If need be, at the end of the process, if you’re still not happy, sell the place and wash your hands of the whole thing.” Natasha sighed. “I’m not going to tell you how to live your life Clint. You do what you think is best. If that means you want to just forget the whole thing, you know I’ll be there in a heartbeat. ”
Clint chewed his lip. From his perch on the stairs of the porch, he could see the sun high overhead. It cast a bright look on the fields that surrounded the house. Something like a weight in his heart lifted. “Thanks Tash, think I’ll stick it out for now.”
He heard the smile in her voice. “Always welcome. Gotta go, I’ll text you.” She hung up, leaving Clint with his thoughts to keep him company.
Finally he sucked in a breath and got to his feet. He turned his eyes away from the nice looking view, back towards the uninviting darkness of the house. He sighed. “Well Barton, time to assess the damage.”
None of the lights worked. Four of the windows in the house were completely smashed. Dust caked every surface. And to top it all off, several infestations of rats had decided to make the place a home. And he hadn’t even looked around outside yet.
This was going to be hell to deal with—specifically, because his idea of fixing something usually involved duct tape. That wouldn’t cut it this time. He had no clue where he was supposed to start.
Clint left the house. Outside, he found himself following a familiar path into a large patch of trees. There was one more thing he wanted to check out.
He remembered these trees. They were walnut trees. They were a good memory among bad. He was filled with a painful emotion that was almost nostalgia.
Every October, he, Barney, and their mother would go and rake the walnuts from under the trees. It had been hard work, but rewarding. And it’d been a bit of time without the shadow of his pops hanging over their heads. Those were the only times he could remember his mother smiling.
But the patch of trees was overrun with weeds; and they crowded each other. It was horrific. He resolved to fix up the trees, if he did nothing else with the farm.
Of course, once again, he ran into the problem that he didn’t know how to fix them. When he was little, his mother dealt with the pruning and the weeding. The extent of his knowledge was how to gather and shell the walnuts.
“Hell, I’m going to have to go back into town, aren’t I?”
Thankfully, the trees didn’t answer him.
He hadn’t thought this trip through, to be honest.
Clint was downtown, a bag of cleaning supplies in one hand, a bag of bedding in the other. He was staring blankly at a long row of books that proclaimed themselves to be nonfiction. He had no clue where he was supposed to be looking.
When he’d got into town by taxi, nearly two hours ago, he’d headed straight to the nearest store he could find, which had been a Walmart. He’d come out with two bags and no taxi. That wasn’t a problem, he could walk.
Nearly an hour later, he’d finally made his way to the cheerful looking building. It was another five minutes before he’d actually gone inside. He’d gotten used to ordering books online. The last time he’d been in an actual library, he’d barely been thirty. And it’d been for a mission.
To make matters more difficult, he’d been in this particular library before. His memories of the place were extremely vague, since he’d been eight the last time. More hard memories, awesome.
It was smaller than he remembered, a fact that could also be attributed to the age difference.
Clint had given the librarian at the front a half smile and a nod, and headed straight for the nonfiction. Since he had fuck all clue how he was supposed to read the identifying signs that told what the books were, Clint just started combing through the titles, picking out books that seemed relevant.
This, of course, was little help at all. In half an hour, this had yielded him three books and two aching arms. And half of his mind was on how he was planning to get back to the farm with this crap. He was a little short on cash at the moment, having used the last of his twenties to buy what he needed. He didn’t know where the bank was and he avoided using his credit but for emergencies.
In short, he was a bit fucked.
“That’s not Clint Barton?!”
Oh saving grace, thy name is irony.
Clint looked up from where he’d been looking at a fascinating book (read: boring) called The Lives of a Cell. The speaker was a tall, handsome man with dark brown skin and dark eyes. And just as had happened that morning, Clint could have sworn he knew the man. “Do I know you?”
If he didn’t, well—
He definitely wanted to.
“It’s Charlie,” the man said cheerfully. “Charlie Madison.”
Oh. Charlie Madison, a relic from his late circus days. The last real good memory from that time, before things had turned sour. Affection welled up in Clint’s chest and he grinned so widely his face hurt. Charlie returned the smile and pulled him into a hug.
Clint stiffened and dropped his bags in surprise. No one really hugged him anymore, no one but Natasha and—well, just Natasha now. But slowly, he relaxed enough to return the hug.
Charlie had always smelled of pine and fresh air. The scent was so achingly nostalgic that something in Clint relaxed. Safe, it said, happy, it soothed.
They released each other from the hug, and Clint scrambled to pick up the bags, their contents spread out on the floor like an open fan. Charlie chucked and crouched down to help him. “How’ve you been Clint?” he asked kindly.
Not good. Horrible, actually. But Clint couldn’t say that. He couldn’t wipe that smile from Charlie’s face. It’d be almost as bad as kicking a puppy.
Clint pasted on a convincing smile. “Things’ve been a bit crazy lately, y’know?”
Charlie nodded vigorously, his eyes going wide. “I know, man! The aliens in New York. ‘S been a bit scary.” But he was still smiling. “Good thing we have the Avengers, huh?”
Clint was imagining the knowing in Charlie’s tone. He was, really. Charlie had seen the footage just like everyone else and—
“It was a bit of a trip to see the Amazing Hawkeye for the first time in twenty five years.” There was something like a twinkle in his eyes.
Okay, obviously he knew. Charlie had never been stupid. And he’d been Hawkeye’s proclaimed number one fan. At least, that’s what he’d said, back when they’d been dating.
Charlie must have noticed the pinched look that had overtaken Clint’s face. He changed the subject, that beautiful smile still on his face. His third favorite smile in the world.
“You looked like you were having a bit of trouble with the books,” he observed. “I can help, if you want?”
Clint gave him a wry smile. He was a little relieved at the change to the easier subject matter. Even if it was annoying that he was having trouble with this. Books should have been easy. He should be great at books.
“I was, so kindly, gifted my old family home. I don’t have an idea how to farm, or even how to clean the damn place…”
Charlie’s face clouded in sympathy. He knew what going home would mean to Clint. He’d been there when Barney had left the first time. The fallout hadn’t been pretty. “Well,” he said. “I’m a bit of book junkie lately, so I have this place pretty well mapped.”
Charlie took Clint around the library, pointing out books that would probably be useful to him. Books like The Complete Guide to Renovating Older Homes went into a basket Charlie picked up, while The Real Man's Guide to Fixin' Stuff was scoffed at and returned. The whole thing was done with a casual awareness that Clint’s life had lacked since he’d joined SHIELD.
“What were you planning on doing, once you were ready to go?” Charlie asked the question with a measure of fond amusement. They were standing outside the library. Clint was three bags heavier than he’d been going in. Charlie was holding two himself.
Clint shrugged with self-depreciation. “Took a taxi on the way up to town. Just assumed I’d take one back.” He grinned shiftily. “Then I spend all my remaining money on clean bed sheets.” Bed sheets were expensive, dammit!
“You probably need a lift then?” Charlie held up his keys.
“Please, yes,” groaned Clint.
Clint was surrounded on all sides. He eyed them with a grimace. They covered him on all corners. There was no hope for escape.
There were books everywhere.
Cyndi Lauper’s voice echoed around the house, explaining the merit of fun. Clint could feel the vibrations of Charlie in the background, sweeping away nearly thirty five years of dust. The man had stuck around after he’d driven Clint back. He’d been helpful enough to insist on staying to help with the cleaning. He was clearly a saint—and Clint was cursing him in his head.
No dating, he’d promised. Not after he’d had the misfortune to fall for someone like Coulson. That had turned out swell, of course. And that had just been an unrequited crush. The track record for actual relationships included an ex-wife to the second power, a whole lotta one night stands, and a woman who was so much better as his friend. So, no dating.
But then Charlie had shown up, with his smile and his kindness, and his, his gorgeousness, and the damn nostalgia. And with him came a long forgotten flare for his ex. He was still painfully in love with a dead man, but…
It was two in the afternoon, but Clint so desperately wanted to go to bed.
He forced his attention back to the books. He was attempting to sort them by necessity; need now, and need later. He put Roofing the Right Way into the—alarmingly tall—need now pile. All the cookbooks went into need later.
Sorry Martha Stewart, there were more important things to worry about than which rolling pin to use.
Clint was still surrounded in books. He was locked in his little space of clean floor and he was getting antsy. He needed a break.
“I’m gonna go work on thinning the trees a bit,” he called behind him. Charlie said something that sounded like an affirmation. The sun as Clint walked outside was bright and warm. It felt good on his skin.
It felt a bit rude to leave Charlie with the sweeping. But aside from the feelings issue, he’d begun to feel claustrophobic with the box of books inside a bigger four walled box. Fresh air and some exertion would help. He hoped.
As he walked down the path to the grove, ax swinging in his hand, Clint felt his phone buzz with a text.
Keeping Lucky with me until you get settled. You’re welcome☺
His dog would be in good hands then. That was one problem in a million solved. Clint sighed. With any luck soon the trees would be dealt with in a similar swiftness.
The crowded look of the trees was pathetic. Hopefully, they’d look a bit better once they’d been thinned out. And, as an added bonus, he could use the wood for the fireplace. This would be especially useful, given that looking around had yielded exactly zero electric heaters in the place. Strange, since he thought he could remember one from when he was kid. Huh…
Chopping wood was strangely therapeutic. He found every feeling he’d had over the past month, every bit of anger and grief, every nightmare and side eyed glance, being released with every swing.
Loki’s face, smile almost friendly. Staff like ice against his chest. “You have heart.”
“Coulson was killed in action, Clint.”
“Do you see him? I heard Loki got into his head.”
“He killed eighteen agents, didn’t you hear?”
“I heard he was the one who killed Agent Coulson.”
The tree came down with a crack. He huffed. One down, about fifty to go.
“Tree do something to offend you son?”
Clint jumped and turned, ax raised in defense of a sneak attack. The man was an older fellow with bright eyes and sun darkened skin. His face was incredibly narrow. His lips were curled into a smile, apparently unconcerned at the prospect of getting axed. Clint put the ax down.
“Who are you?” he wondered. He’d never seen this man before. It was a refreshing change in a day full of hey-nice-to-see-you-again’s.
“Name’s Jones. Jeffery Jones.” Jeffery held out a hand and Clint shook it. “Heard from your friend back at the house that you’re the new neighbor.”
Clint smiled and added, a little guiltily, “It’s a bit short notice, but…” He shrugged.
Jeffery patted him on the shoulder. “Always looking for more farmers to represent Waverly in the State fair.”
Clint went a little wide eyed. “Oh, no, I—”
Jeffery carried on speaking. “You need any assistance starting out, you just come over to our’s. My family is always willing to give a helping hand.” He grinned. “And, if I’m honest, it looks like you need it.”
Clint’s shoulders slumped and he gave a tired smile. “I’m gonna take you up on that, I have feeling I’d regret if I didn’t.” Sighing, he turned back to chopping wood.
Lucy Jones was a pallid woman older than Clint, with bright eyes and a permanent worry line on her forehead. He was pulled into his second hug of the day upon meeting her.
(Too many people. Too many people.)
Their daughter, Jennifer, was taller than him and had long musician’s hands. She had looked him up and down, and said, “You have very nice arms.” Clint had choked down his laughter and thanked her.
They quickly took over direction of cleanup. Clint was only too happy to turn it over to people who knew more than him. He simply stuck to one room and cleaned. The place wouldn’t be fixed done in a day, or a week. But hopefully it wouldn't be dirty at the very least, or at least livable. Just enough that he'd be able to go without worrying of dust smothering him in his sleep. That would be bad (and a really sad way to go).
The Jones's were incredibly nice people. But they were also extremely chatty. It wasn't a bad thing, but he thought it might one day get them into trouble. It was while they took a break, sitting in the breeze outside, that Clint was “caught up on the goings on of town.”
“That vandal's been at it again,” Lucy told Jeffery. “Completely destroyed Owen Tyler's potato crops.”
Her husband sighed and shook his head in disbelief. “'S a damn travesty.”
Clint leaned on his knees to look at the two of them better. “You guy's got a vandal problem?” That sounded bad.
Lucy reached over to pat him on the hand. She smiled sweetly. “It's nothing to worry about dear.”
Oh yeah, it was bad. Bad enough that the locals were telling the newcomers to keep their noses out of it. Hmm...
He'd have to do some investigating.
Clint had become reacquainted with Waverly in the month he'd been there. It was different from how it'd been when he was a kid, but that was good thing. He didn't hate the place anymore. It was so removed from the setting of his childhood, it was impossible to.
And there were the people too. They were pretty great.
“Thanks Claire,” Clint called to the cashier. She smiled at him brightly.
“Have a nice day Clint.”
He left the general store in a good mood. The sun outside was warm on his neck. It felt nice. Clint waved to a couple people he knew well enough; there was the owner of the farm supply store he went to. Across the street, Jennifer was laughing with her friends as they walked out of Dairy Queen, ice cream in hand. Oddly enough, Clint felt generally content by this mundane routine he'd fallen into. It made him...happy.
Of course, that was the moment he ran into a woman with a hot cup of coffee. It spilled over his front and fell from the woman's hands, leaking into his shoes as well. Well...
So much for a good mood.
“Oh futz,” the woman—actually more of a girl now that Clint got a good look at her—said. She looked about twelve. “I am so sorry, I just have this thing I need to be at and—” She looked up at him and her eyes went wide. “—Holy crap, you're an Avenger.”
Shit. Clint hoped she hadn't said that too loudly. “Shh,” he hissed, grabbing her by the arm and pulling her out the way of pedestrians. “Don't say it out loud!”
Clint thought he should be commended. He had successfully kept the number of people who knew he was involved with the shit that had gone down in New York and, more importantly, the superhero group down to just Charlie. Until now, at least.
The girl didn't seem to appreciate his manhandling. She wrenched her arm from his grip. “No touchie!”
Clint sighed heavily. “Sorry.”
She shoved a hand in his face for a handshake. “Kate Bishop, I'm investigating the case with the vandal.”
Clint took the hand warily and gave it two shakes before dropping it. “Really?” he said, unconvinced. “You look pretty young to be working with the police.”
She stuck out her bottom lip in what was, very distinctly, a pout. “I'm twenty, thank you very much! And,” she added, looking very guilty. “I'm not exactly working with the police...”
Clint wasn't very impressed. Which was, maybe, a little hypocritical of him, since he was, technically, investigating the case as well. “Investigating without a license can get you into trouble.”
Kate didn't look the least bit deterred. “Then I'll just say you're my partner. I can't get into trouble if I'm working with an Avenger, now can I?”
“It doesn't exactly work that—”
She grabbed Clint by the arm. Dragging him to who knows where. “Come Watson, we have investigating to do!”
Kate Bishop's idea of investigating was to go up to random locals and ask invasive questions. It...didn't work very well. All it did was make Clint wish, very desperately, that he'd stayed in bed that morning.
Kate was a force of nature. She was only 5'5, but she walked like she was seven feet tall. She got right up and personal with who she was talking to, and she didn't seem to notice (or care) if that made the person uncomfortable. And she strutted. In her (what Clint assumed; because what did he know?) designer clothes, she was a menace.
And she was pretty great.
While half the time she made him want to bury himself (or her, to be honest) in the ground, the other half, he had to hold back on laughing his ass off.
Kate had just cornered Jennifer and one of her friends. Jason Kennedy stood at six foot even, but he cowered under the force of her personality. Next to him, Jen looked like she was doing her best not to burst into a hysterical fit of laughter. Clint felt he maybe should intervene.
Clint walked up behind Kate, just as she was saying the most cliché thing to ever cliché. “Where were you last Tuesday at eight-thirty PM?”
Jen sniggered a little and replied, good-naturedly. “I was home in bed, eating chips and watching Breaking Bad.” She thought a moment. “And I was texting Jason.”
Jason raised his arm. “I can confirm.” He shrugged with a small smile. “Don't know why you think—” He broke off, eyes catching on something across the street. His brow furrowed unhappily.
Clint turned. A street away, Alexander Kennedy was walking away from a boy not much older than the two teens beside him. The man was looking distinctly angry. He reached the four of them and visibly tried to relax his face. It didn't do it any favors.
“Hello Barton,” Alex said politely. He nodded to Kate shortly and turned to Jason and Jen. “Hello Jennifer, how are your parents doing?”
Jennifer shrugged. “They're fine. They've been helping out the Tyler's to salvage what they can of their crops...Mom's seriously pissed at this vandal, she keeps threatening to go to the police in Des Moines. ”
Clint watched the exchange and saw the way that Alex's frown deepened, as though he were about to speak. He decided to take hold of the conversation. “Who was that boy you were just talking to, Kennedy?”
The frown evolved into something ugly. Disgust. “Ivan Avdonin, he's on exchange from Russia.” He scoffed. “Vandalism's didn't start til he showed up. All the signs that he's the vandal are there, but the police won't seen reason.”
Jen looked immensely uncomfortable. Jason just looked pissed. Clint looked back across the road, where Ivan had sat down on a bench in front of a store and begun to read. He didn't look like a vandal to Clint. “I don't think—”
“—We'll definitely look into that sir,” Kate interjected forcefully, jamming a bony elbow in Clint's side. Alex said his goodbyes and was gone.
Once his father was out of sight, Jen turned to her friend. “Your dad's a douche Jason.”
Jason shrugged and grimaced, but didn't disagree. He looked down at his watch and then back up at them. “We need to get going,” he said. “We've got a study date with some friends.”
Kate grinned at them. “That's okay. The deputy and I have got to get back to our base of operations.”
The teens waved and left. Kate turned to Clint. “Where is our base of operations, by the way?”
And Clint was back to wishing he hadn't gotten out of bed.
“Hey Charlie,” Clint called. “I've brought home a stray.” Kate shot him a venomous look.
“Oh no,” Charlie said, stepping out of the kitchen with a grin and an apron on. Amusement was clear in his voice. “Is this one house-trained at least?”
Clint laughed. “One time with that damn goat, and you never let me forget it!”
The older man pressed a kiss to the top of Clint's head. He accepted it with minor grumbling and reached around to tug on Kate's arm.
“Charlie Madison,” Charlie said, reaching out to shake Kate's hand. “It's nice to finally meet you Kate. Clint's been whining all day.”
Clint opened his mouth to protest. But, yeah, he'd been complaining to Charlie. Kate was a lot to put up with when he wasn't good with people in general.
Kate grinned brightly. “I have a feeling you and I are going to get along swell.” She gave him a shifty look. “You gotta tell me the story about the goat.”
“Do not tell the story about the goat.”
Charlie shrugged at Kate. “Sorry, this is technically his house, I just stay over sometimes. So, his rules for now.”
His house. Clint's house. The thought didn't fill him with negative emotions like it would have a month ago. Before, he'd found himself flinching at every bad memory the dark dusty corners would bring. Now though, the place was bright, airy. It was filling with a few good memories now, to displace the bad ones. They were mainly due to Charlie's influence.
Charlie had drifted back into his life the same day he'd moved here. He'd sat through every silence, every nightmare, even—just the once—held him as he'd cried. There was...an uplifting feeling every time he thought about it.
Why had he been hesitant to date him again? Well, besides the obvious still-not-over-Coulson thing. That didn't count. Especially since it hadn't even been an actual thing (he ignored the part of himself that was screaming in denial of this claim).
Clint shook his head and forced his mind back to the present. Charlie was, thankfully, not telling Kate about the goat (never mention the goat). Instead he was telling her an anecdote about Clint's new chickens. She sat on a bar stool overlooking the kitchen while he cooked lunch.
Clint leaned on the bar, listening.
“So Clint just goes straight up to that damn rooster, and it just looks at him for a while.” Charlie grinned, gearing up for what was clearly his favorite part. “And then it just jumps in his arms and sits there, perfectly content.”
Kate snorts loudly, choking on her laugh. “Clint Barton—Chicken Whisperer.”
“You wanna see them?” Clint asked suddenly, excited at the idea. He did love his chickens. About as much as the dog waiting for him in New York.
There were three chickens in all. Clint hadn't wanted a whole lot of livestock to deal with, given his job and magnetic attraction to trouble. So three.
The hen house was hidden away behind the barn. It hadn't been there when he'd moved in, but he'd had it commissioned when he'd decided he wanted animals.
Kate went wide eyed as she stared at it. “It's...purple.”
Clint guffawed. “I know, isn't it great?”
He gently picked through the little house until he came out with a fluffy white hen. The black speckles around her head looked like a hat. He held her up against his chest to show her off. “This is Miss Poppins,” he said. Miss Poppins clucked something that was like disapproval, and Clint put her back.
Next he pulled out a bright red hen. She squawked angrily at him but didn't attempt to bite him as she normally did. Huh, she must've been in a good mood. “This is Talia.”
Charlie shook his head at him. He was still in disbelief over the name. “Please never tell Natasha you named a chicken after her; she'll kill you. I like you much better alive.”
Clint grinned at him innocently. “Noted.”
Talia was put back in the house. The three of them stood around in silence for about a minute before Kate cocks her head. “What about the rooster?”
Clint's eyes lit up; he'd been waiting for her to ask. He went back into the hen house. When he came out, he was holding a completely silent, jet black rooster. It looked at Kate and Charlie for a good long moment, before it preened in Clint's arms. “This is Agent.” He said the name like it was the secret it really was. But Kate didn't know, neither did Charlie, not really.
Tentatively, Kate reached out a hand, slowly, to pet Agent. He preened again.
Charlie smiled at them and gestured towards the front. “I'm really sorry, but it's getting pretty late and I'm worried my landlord might kick me out if I don't ever go home.” He maneuvered around the rooster to peck Clint on the cheek.
He left the two of them behind. Clint and Kate admired Agent for a little while longer, before he too went back into the hen house. They were just beginning to walk back to the house when they saw it. There were words sprayed in bright red, right across the side of the house.
“Положите свой нос из чужие дела...”
“This totally proves that the Ivan kid is the vandal.” Kate stated matter-of-factly.
Clint scoffed. “It doesn't.” His face went very serious. “I don't think it's him Kate.”
She looked at him curiously. It wasn't hard to forget that she'd only met him that morning. She had successfully inserted herself into Clint's life with no problem. So, it was odd to be reminded that she didn't have a clue about him—didn't know one single facet.
Clint got hunches. And they were very rarely wrong.
Kate crossed her arms. “Alright, smart guy, prove me wrong.”
He took it for the challenge that it was. He pointed up at the letters. “For one, that Russian has come straight out of Google Translate. It literally says 'put your nose out of other people's business'.” He worried his lip. “Also, I highly doubt he would write in Russian if he was trying to avoid being found out.”
Kate huffed and gave up. Instead she pulled out her phone and snapped a couple of photos. Clint couldn't help but nod a little approvingly. As little as she actually knew, Kate was actually pretty good at this kind of stuff.
Clint looked back up at the words scrawled over his nice clean looking wall. He sighed heavily and turned away from it, continuing his walk to the door. “I am too tired to deal with this shit anymore tonight. Stay or leave, I don't care, but I'm going to bed.”
And he did.
Well, actually, he got about twenty minutes of actual sleep before he was woken up by his cell phone. He pawed it out from under his pillow and held it to his face, squinting in the bright light of the screen.
It was Natasha. Which could mean there was a mission. Futz. Of course he picked up.
“Barton,” he muttered.
“I'm coming tomorrow,” she said without preamble. “And I'm bringing two big puppies with me.”
“Aw Nat no,” Clint groaned. “Where's my warning? You said you'd give me a warning. That means, like, two mon—what do you mean, two big puppies? Did you, like, set Lucky up with a girlfriend or something?”
“This is my warning,” she said in reply to the first part. “And, no, Lucky has just been hanging with us boring humans.”
“Please, for the love of god, tell me you didn't invite one of the Avengers over to my house.” Clint threw an arm over his eyes. He was entirely too tired for this.
“I didn't invite one of the Avengers over to your house,” she said in a deadpan.
Which, of course, meant she had.
“I can't help that Steve has that forever alone look permanently on his face. He looked like he could use the break.” She sighed. “Look Clint, if this is about—”
He hung up.
Way too tired to deal with that new tidbit of news.
He managed an entire two hours of sleep before his phone rang again. This time the news was enough to jolt him into awareness.
“Mom's in the hospital.” The phone number was unfamiliar, but the voice on the line was very clearly Jen. She sounded choked up. “Someone's attacked her.”
“Jesus, I'm on my way.” He felt himself snap into mission mode. It took any personal feeling (She mothers him like crazy, showing up out of nowhere with a pie in hand. She always has a story to tell, but listens when he wants to talk. She takes far too much on her plate but is always willing for more if it will help someone.) and pushed them behind a wall. (Don't think about the agents you've killed. Worry about it later. Don't think about Coulson. Don't think about Loki. Think only of the mission.) His only focus was on finding out who attacked Lucy Jones and fixing a mistake.
He woke up Kate, crashed on the couch, on the way out. She tagged along like an anxious puppy. Clint drove them over to the urgent care in a silence Kate didn't attempt to fill. There was that, at least.
Jennifer, her father, and the Tylers all sat in a clump together inside the waiting room. The teen immediately stood when she saw Clint. He and Kate made it over to the little group. They were silent for a long moment.
“Mom'll be fine,” Jen said sofly. “She's just been knocked out. That's what the doctors said.”
“Thank you for calling us,” Clint said, resting a supportive hand on her shoulder. Jen gave a weak smile.
“Thank you for coming when I did.”
Kate took Jen's hand. “We'll find out who did this, I promise.”
She shook her head. “It's the same person who's been messing things up all month. Mom had been trying to figure out who it was. Guess she got a little too close to the answer...”
Kate stomped down the sidewalk toward Clint's car. She was pissed, incredibly so. It wouldn't do her any good in the long run. But he'd be a hypocrite to tell her to calm down.
“I still think it's that Ivan guy,” she muttered harshly, tugging at the door handle in a silent demand for him to unlock it.
“I don't think—”
She suddenly pulled on his arm. She pointed down the road, where a car stopped next an empty lot and a familiar boy stepped out.
“It's Ivan,” Kate hissed. “Let's go follow him!”
“Kate, no we—”
But she was already dragging him by the arm down the road. Clint sighed and let himself be tugged along. Heck, maybe she was right and they could just catch the bad guy and call it a night. And get some sleep. He really, really wanted some sleep.
Ivan hadn't been going far. They caught up with him within minutes and hid behind a tree to watch him. He sat on a tree stump, apparently waiting for someone. He wasn't waiting long.
Jason Kennedy appeared in the tree line, looking rather tearful. Ivan rose to his feet and the younger boy ran into his arms. They embraced.
Clint and Kate shared a surprised look. Did you know about this? Kate's face seemed to say. Clint shrugged. He certainly hadn't known.
The shifting in his weight made him snap a twig. The two boys immediately jumped from their embrace and went on the defensive. Clint stepped out from behind the tree, hands held up in harmlessness. Kate followed after him reluctantly. Jason relaxed only minimally.
“What are you guys doing here?” he asked. He looked near terrified. Ivan curled a protective arm around his shoulders.
“Well, Kate thought,” Clint began, but then he stopped. He sighed. He couldn't put all this on Kate. “I thought—”
“They think I'm the one who hurt Lucy Jones,” Ivan muttered. He didn't look upset, just resigned. Jason's mouth twisted in anger. He slid out of Ivan's grip but kept a hand in his.
“Ivan's no more a criminal than I am an Avenger!” he snapped. Clint's eyes went a little wide.
Maybe he hadn't been as sneaky as he'd thought about that whole identity thing.
Jason glared at the two of the them harshly. “The shadiest thing Ivan's been doing is dating me!”
It actually made sense to Clint. He had seen the way Jason had bristled when his father had implied that Ivan was the vandal. With a dad like Alex's (With a dad like pops), he would've kept it under wraps too.
Kate crossed her arms. “He could be doing both.”
“No,” a voice said from behind Clint. “I don't think he'll be doing either in a moment.”
They all turned to face Alex Kennedy, who was holding a gun. Of course he was. Futz.
“I did not see that coming,” Kate said.
Alex's face was an ugly maroon color, darkening in anger as he took in his son holding hands with Ivan. The gun in his hands was pointed at the older boy, but as Clint shifted—trying to shield the civilians in his care, what else could he do?—the gun pointed to him. Clint held up his hands in a placating gesture.
“Hey man, whatever you think you're doing, you don't actually want to.” He didn't dare move, worry for the three kids behind him cementing his feet. “You know you'll regret using that thing.”
Alex barked out a laugh. “Bit funny to hear ya say that Barton, considering you handed out those arrows to those aliens like they were candy.”
“Aww come on,” Clint said, latching onto nonchalance because it was familiar and easy, and would hopefully make the man underestimate him. “Am I really that bad at keeping my identity secret?” Keep him talking, he commanded himself. He had to keep him talking until Clint could come up with a plan.
Clearly, Alex didn't much care for that plan. “Shut up!” The gun wavered very slightly. “You're just as bad as him.” He jerked his head towards Ivan with a hateful look.
“Seriously?” Jason had tugged his hand from Ivan and walked towards his father. The gun, thankfully, didn't move towards him. “Why do you buy into that crap that Ivan's the one who's been doing that stuff?”
His father's face resembled a piece of stone. He said nothing, but kept his gun trained on Clint. Clint scoffed.
“He's not buying into it, he's the one who started it.”
They all stared at him. Alex's gun drooped a little in his shock. Kate put her hands on her hips. “What the hell is that supposed to mean Clint?”
“He's the vandalist,” Clint said. “And the person who attacked Lucy.” He looked at the man, honestly curious (if appalled beyond belief). “How close did she get to finding out before you jumped her? I know you took the juvenile rout of putting graffiti on my nice clean wall just for poking my nose around.”
Alex's hands convulsed around the gun slightly. “Not my fault Lucy's an annoying little busy body who can't stay out of anyone's business.”
Jason gaped in horror. “Dad, you didn't—”
“He did.” Clint's fists clenched in anger.
“I did. I'd do anything if it meant getting this sonovabitch out of my town.” He pointed with his gun back at Ivan. It stayed there. “People wouldn't want some foreigner to mess up our town, I showed them that there was.” His face darkened in anger. “Didn't expect him to be messing up my son.”
Clint had to get the gun pointed back at him. However, just as he opened his mouth to say something idiotic enough to get the man pissed at him, there was another voice from beside him.
“Hey Jackass.” Kate glared at the man, small and defiant. She was holding up her phone. It was recording. “Do you think the police will like this conversation half as much as I do?”
Aw Katie, no.
And the gun was pointed on Kate. She didn't so much as flinch. She just stared down the nozzle defiantly.
“I was only gonna kill the boy,” Alex said softly. “But I can't risk that getting to the police.” He almost sounded sorry that he was about to kill her. Almost.
The safety gave a soft click as it came off. Clint watch in fear. He couldn't let the man shoot her. He would die before he let these kids die on his watch. He would protect them. But—
Alex was suddenly on the ground, out.
Kate put away her phone, grinning smugly. In her other hand, she was holding up a small taser. “Always be prepared.” The others gaped at her. She frowned. “What, did you think I was going to call attention to me without a plan?”
Clint's face crumpled in relief. Safe. The three kids were safe. He dragged a hand across his face, coming away with a cold sweat.
A part of him was disappointed at himself. He hadn't come up with a plan in time. If Kate hadn't—well, Kate had, but that wasn't the point. He'd been useless (Why hadn't he brought his bow? What had he been thinking?).
He sighed, looking down at the prone body of Alex Kennedy. Well, there was one thing he could do. He cracked his knuckles.
“Bars are a good look for him,” Kate observed. Clint nodded his agreement.
The two of them were standing at the front of the police station. The sun was just beginning to rise in the horizon. They were waiting for Jason and Ivan to finish giving their statements. Just inside, Jason's mother, Grace, sat with her head in her hands. He would have thought she was upset, except he'd seen the stark relief on her face when they had hauled her husband away.
“That was quick thinking of you back there,” Clint said. “I didn't even see you pull the taser.”
Kate grinned at him. “I got skills man.”
Clint looked at her shrewdly. She did have some skills. SHIELD could probably use someone like her. She'd be a good asset.
Except he didn't want to expose her to that kind of world.
Except she was still innocent.
Except he didn't exactly trust everyone in SHIELD.
Except he didn't want to lose her the same way he'd lost Coulson.
Clint grinned at her lightly. “You ever thought about using a bow?”
He'd keep her out of things for now.
Kate gaped at him. “What, seriously? I taser a dude and now I'm, like, your protege?”
He shook his head. “Nah, you said it yourself didn't you?” He looked back inside the station, where Jason and Ivan had come out. Grace had stood and thrown herself at them both. They stood in a group, hugging tightly. “We're partners.” Kate stared at him in shock.
Clint's phone buzzed.
Two puppies and I are at the airport. Come get us.
Oh hell, he'd forgotten about that. Clint heaved a heavy sigh and looked up at Kate. She still seemed to be in a little bit of shock over what he'd said. “Are you okay getting back to the house by yourself?”
“Sure, but where are you going?” Kate shook off the shock and look up at him in concern. As though he were the twenty year old kid who needed taken care of.
“I've got something I have to do.”
“Hey Tasha.” Clint pulled the woman into a hug.
They were standing in the baggage claim. Through the window, sunshine poured over them. It made his eyes hurt.
“You look like shit.” Natasha eyed Clint over critically. “Did you get any sleep last night?”
Clint wanted to laugh. Between Natasha calling, Lucy getting hurt, following Ivan, and catching Alex, he'd gotten next to no sleep at all. He grinned at her tiredly. “People calling in the middle of the night, it's not too good for my sleeping habits.”
She didn't even pretend to look sorry. Instead she turned as Steve approached, two bags over one shoulder and a dog kennel in his other hand. He was smiling for the first time Clint had seen him. It made it easier to see just how young he was.
“It's good to see you Barton,” Steve said. It was said friendily enough, but with the stiffness of a person having only spoken to him four times before.
Clint took a bag from him. “You too Rogers.”
From inside the kennel, there was an excited bark from Lucky upon hearing the familiar voice. Clint grinned and crouched down in front of Lucky's face. “Heya boy, did'ya miss me?”
Lucky's kennel was closed for all of two seconds after they got outside, then Clint opened the door and watched the giant dog run circles around his legs. He had missed his dog. A lot. He watched Lucky for a few moments before he looked back up at his companions.
Natasha was grinning smugly at the contented look on his face. “Was I right?” she wondered, obviously knowing the answer already. “You look good. Happy.”
Clint shrugged. “It hasn't been as bad here as I thought it was going to be. There's been a few issues—I had to have someone arrested this morning, but other than that, things are...okay.”
And they really were.
Things were not okay.
There were about a billion people in his house. He wasn't sure where they had all come from, though he recognized most of them from town. But he could tell who was responsible, because she had a ridiculously guilty look on her face.
“Katie,” Clint groaned. He dropped the bag he was holding on the couch.“What the actual hell?”
“I'm sorry!” She wrung her hands. “I seriously have no idea how this happened!”
Clint crossed his arms and shot a long-suffering look at Natasha, who grinned at him from across the room. She was having a very involved conversation with Jennifer that Clint knew he would probably regret later. For now though, he turned back to Kate, trying to look stern, but failing at the look on her face. She was looking almost harried.
Clint sighed, pressing his hand against his face. “Just—try to explain to me.”
Kate gnawed at her lip. She was still clasping her hands together. “Okay, um...I called Charlie when I got back to the house, because I figured he'd want to know what happened, since he's your boyfriend and all—so he came over. Then Jason called because his mom was getting upset being in their house, so I invited them over. Then your neighbors, from down the road I think, came over because they'd finally heard what happened and wanted to make sure we were okay. Then Jen called to say her mom was out of the hospital and I figured that—”
Clint cut her off. “Okay, I get it,” he sighed. So much for that nap he'd been hoping to get.
He wasn't all too upset, he supposed. It made it less likely that he'd have to force himself to have a conversation with Steve. The man was engaged in a conversation with Ivan and Jason. All three of them were smiling, so Clint figured they were good.
“Where's Charlie?” he asked instead.
Kate's face brightened. “He's in the kitchen I think. He said something about breakfast.”
Breakfast sounded good.
Charlie was alone in the kitchen when Clint got there. The man's back was to him, mixing something, so Clint walked up behind and put a chin on Charlie's shoulder. The tension in his back relaxed after a moment.
“You're back,” Charlie observed softly.
Charlie smelled like pancake batter. Clint wanted to bury his face in the man's neck, but he didn't.
“You all right?” Charlie asked, turning to put his arms around Clint.
Clint clutched at his shirt. He considered the question seriously and sighed. “You know, I think I am.”
He still had a lot of things to work through before his life got back to normal. Or, maybe it never would. Maybe tomorrow he'd wake up just as unhappy as he had been when he'd gotten here. But right at this moment, Clint didn't care. He was good.
And that was enough for now.