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Fallout Patterns

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Chapter Ten: Clear Your Conscience

            Sara moved around the kitchen, fussing over Clint, the length of his hair, the way he ‘filled out’ as she put it.

            “I think you’re calling me fat,” he told her, smiling a little bit. He sat in the same chair he sat in when he was a kid but these days, his feet reached the floor and his knees hit the leaf extension. He wrapped his hands around the cup of coffee she poured him.

            Sara gave him a look over her shoulder. “You look good. You were always too skinny as a kid.”

            He didn’t need to tell her why. Sara knew. Whenever things got bad at their house, they slipped out the back door, walked through the deer path behind their house in the woods, and ducked under the fence of Sara’s back pasture. They walked through the field, as silently as they could, dodging frozen mounds of manure and the mean Appaloosa that lived in the field (his name was Niko but Sara usually called him The Old Bastard), to knock on Sara’s back door.

If Clint closed his eyes, he could still remember the smell of cookies in her oven, the way he used to steal food from her fridge, desperately filling his stomach that went empty too many days in a row when his parents were on a drinking binge. Sara doted over them, but at the end of the day, his father would show up at her backdoor, demanding that the kids come home. When he was a teen in the circus, he had looked back on this time resentfully. Sara, he thought at the time, should have kept them. But he knew now the limits to even the kindest person’s involvement in another person’s personal failings. He and Barney were, of course, his father’s singular greatest accomplishment and greatest failing.

            “What are you doing back in town?” Sara asked to break the silence and the memories that were bearing down on the tiny kitchen.

            “Visiting you,” he said honestly, sipping the coffee. It was strong. “I’m on leave.”

            “In the army?”

            “Sort of. Private contractor.” It was as much as he was allowed to tell her, but Sara wasn’t typically a nosy person. True to form, she dropped the conversation. She made him a sandwich and put it in front of him, crossing her arms like she dared him not to eat it. He picked up. “Thanks.”

            “How long you staying?” she asked and added quickly, “It doesn’t bother me much, I’ll make you up a bed in the basement.”

            “A few days,” he said. “I just needed to get away for a bit.”

            “Well, as long as you’re here, I’m putting you to work,” she said firmly, sitting down and turning on the tv behind her. “The fence in the back field needs to be repaired and I want to build Happy a new shed.”

            “Who’s Happy?” he asked.

            It turned out that Happy was her new appaloosa and his name was not an accurate characterization of his personality. Happy the Appy seemed hellbent on making Clint’s tasks as difficult as possible. While Clint was bent over, fixing a fence, the horse tried to bite his ass. And when he was on a ladder, hammering, the horse spooked, bolting past him and knocking over the ladder, letting Clint drop with a yelp. The time after that, the horse deliberately nosed his box of tools off the stepladder. Clint sighed when he jumped down, collecting the tools.

            “I do not carry peppermints in my tools, Happy,” Clint told the horse seriously. The horse’s speckled ears flicked forward at the word peppermint. Clint paused, smiled a little bit, and reached into his back pocket. He unrolled the starlight mint and held it out on a flat palm. Happy’s lips caught it immediately and the horse crunched happily, his ears flopping side to side as he chewed. Clint rubbed the horse’s star.

            There was something steadying and reassuring about building things unrelated to destruction, death, war, international politics, and without taking orders from someone else (except Sara, but Clint didn’t mind listening to her advice and talking back to her). He didn’t mind nursing splintered hands, pulling the splinters out with tweezers, or the deep ache in his shoulders that came after nailing a thousand nails into a new run-in shed to provide Happy some comfort from the elements. Not once did he unpack his guns or his bow. He never felt like he needed them. He went out every morning with a cup of coffee, completely unarmed, and never thought twice about it until he saw his bags at night and mused over this small fact. He didn’t think about Natasha, much, or Coulson, much, and he tried not to think about what happened when he went back. He built things, and he drank coffee, and he ate homecooked food every night with Sara who brought him up to speed on all the gossip about people he didn’t remember.

            One night, Sara said to him, “Who was she?”

            Clint startled and sat up, staring at Sara. “Who was who?”

            “Whoever made you run back here,” Sara said, breaking a cookie in half and offering it to Clint. She said, watching Jeopardy, “It’s not like Waverly’s ever been home to you, Clinton.”

            She was right. Nothing good for Clint ever came from Waverly. He said with a shrug, “I spend most of my time with a gun in my hand, not a hammer. It’s nice to do something constructive instead of destructive for once.”

            She gave him a critical look.  “Destruction can also be construction.”

            It was the closest thing to philosophy he had ever heard out of Sara’s mouth and it made him a little uncomfortable. He said, “I’m not running.”

            She laughed and got up to get him more coffee. “You said it, kid, not me.”

            By the end of the fourth day, he had most of a frame to a new shed for the horse. Happy seemed to know what the frame was for as he continued to stand directly underneath it, making Clint increasingly paranoid about dropping nails. Sara was busy carding wool from her three sheep and yelling at Clint about his structural design choices.

            “That roof angle is too steep!” she called out. “Water’s going to roll off onto the poor horse, Clinton. I put in drainage stone twelve inches out from there. At least try to angle it correctly.”

            “You might not know this, Sara,” Clint called back. “But you live in Iowa and I’m more worried about the snow you get here.”

            “You got quite a mouth on you in the last twenty years.”

            “Yeah, they tried to beat it out of me but turns out I’m tougher than I look.”

            “Of course you are. You’re a Waverly boy,” Sara said with a distinct note of pride. She didn’t ask who tried to beat it out of him. Clint was grateful. He didn’t mean the army he was never in.

            But when he finished the shed at the end of the week, Sara walked around it, studied it, and gave him a smile and a nod of approval. “You did well. Happy will be happy.”

            Except that Happy wasn’t happy and was snorting and spooking from the shelter that now had three sides to it. Clint rolled his eyes and walked up to the horse, hands out and open like Sara had taught him twenty years ago so the horse wouldn’t be scared of him. Happy stood still though he rolled his eyes and his body was tense. Clint held his halter in one hand and pat his neck in the other.

            “Come on, boy,” he clucked to the horse and led the frightened horse into the dark of the shed, holding him still and rubbing his neck reassuringly. “See? Not so bad.”

            “You got a way with scared things,” said Sara approvingly.

            Clint frowned and shrugged. “He’s not scared. He just didn’t know it was still the same shed he’s been standing in. Just gotta show him that it’s not as bad as it seems and then –“

            He paused and looked up at Sara. He said quietly, “I have to go.”

            Sara didn’t seemed surprised in the least. She nodded. “Sure. Need a ride to the airport?”

            Clint said, “Please.”