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After Nathaniel Pietro Barton’s birth, it takes Clint approximately seven weeks, three days, four hours and twenty-two minutes to come out of retirement.

Granted, he doesn’t go back to fight. He doesn’t even pick up his bow. He just wanders downstairs during breakfast one Saturday morning in November and kisses Lila and Cooper on the head, then kisses Laura for good measure, before leaning down and finishing his displays of affection with Nathaniel, who is fussing in Laura’s arms.

“I’m heading to New York for a few days,” he says with a nod towards the door. “Gonna check in with everyone and see how Wanda’s doing.”

“But daddy!” Lila looks up with an impudent glare.

“You promised the zoo!” Cooper adds mournfully, his spoon splashing loudly as he drops it in his bowl of milk.

“You did promise the zoo,” Laura confirms nonchalantly with an eyebrow raise, and Clint sighs.

“I know I did. But I also promised Wanda and Nat I’d check in. And if I don’t go now, according to the calendar, I won’t be able to go for another few weeks.”

“I’m very sorry we have so many family commitments that you have to be a dad for,” Laura says sarcastically, but with a hint of amusement. “Are you sure you need to go now?”

“It’s just for a few days,” Clint says, looking at the baby and making a face until he giggles, spitting up all over his clothes. “Besides, I wanna check out the new facility and stuff. I’ll be back in less than a week. I won’t even stop for bagels.”

“Oh, no.” Laura gets up carefully, adjusting Nate with all the practice of someone who has birthed three kids and lived to tell about it. “If you’re going all the way to New York and staying there for more than two days, you’re definitely bringing home bagels.”

“And cookies!” Lila interjects, looking up from pancakes that are dripping in syrup.

“Can you get me those cool colors of M&Ms from the big M&M store?” Cooper asks excitedly.

Clint sighs, rubbing a hand across his face, staring around the table. “You’re all fired from this family.”

“You can’t fire me!” Lila yells with a grin, as Laura raises an eyebrow.

“Indoor voice, Lila. Please. Mommy has a headache and didn’t sleep.”

“I mean it!” Lila continues loudly, ignoring her mother’s request. “Auntie Nat said it’s illegal!”

“Auntie Nat’s broken too many rules to be telling you that with a straight face,” Clint mutters under his breath. “Alright.” He regards his children carefully. “Bagels, cookies and M&Ms.”

“And tell Wanda we say hi,” Laura adds, nodding towards Nathaniel, who is fussing in her arms.

“Of course.” He kisses her again as Lila’s voice rises once more.

“Daddy! Cooper took my fork!”

“She wasn’t using it, I didn’t wanna get up!”

Clint uses the moment to escape from the commotion, heading upstairs to pack his bag, leaving his family arguing loudly against a backdrop of sunlight and warmth. He grabs a few shirts and an old pair of jeans from the dresser, then walks to the bathroom to gather toiletry items.

“What’s wrong?”

“Huh?” He catches Laura’s reflection in the mirror when he leans over the sink to splash water on his face. “Nothing.”

Laura gives him a look as he grabs for a towel. “Nothing, but you’ve been unable to sleep for the past few nights and you’re having late night talks with Natasha.”

“What --” Clint groans, knowing he’s made sure to leave the house when making phone calls after everyone has gone to sleep, for multiple reasons. “I’m gonna kill her.”

Clint,” Laura says warningly, her voice bordering on dangerous. He slumps against the bathroom wall.

“I don’t know,” he admits after a long pause. “Something’s off. I don’t know if I’ve been home too long, or if I’m just restless, or…”

“Or?” Laura prompts.

Clint sighs. “Or if I’m thinking about things again. You know. Those things.”

“He’s not Voldemort, and we can say his name in this house,” Laura says curtly.

Clint flinches at her words. “I’m not having nightmares,” he says, running a hand through hair that he knows needs to be cut. “Not really. But I’m unsettled. I’m...I don’t know, Laura. My anxiety’s back, and my thoughts are all out of whack.” He drags a palm down his face. “I really do want to go back and see Wanda, though. Natasha’s told me everything she’s working on.”

“I’m not doubting that you want to go back for Wanda,” Laura says gently. “But I don’t want you to run away from your family because you think you need to get through something alone.”

Clint tries to smile. “I can still go to New York, right? I mean, if you know I’m gonna see Natasha and if I promise to try to take care of myself?”

Laura smiles back sadly. “Yes,” she says, putting a palm against his face. “Finish packing. I’ll be downstairs.” She kisses him and then walks out of the bathroom, heading back to the kitchen. Clint stays stationary a moment longer, and then gathers his travel bag and makes his way into the bedroom. He figures he has about ten minutes before Laura calls up to the bedroom angrily, insisting he come back and deal with the children he helped her create so many years ago, before he tries to get out of parenting duties altogether.

 

***

 

Clint lands at Laguardia International Airport just after six at night, curses the terrible cab lines due to construction and the red lines of traffic on Google Maps, and rents a small Saturn from Hertz that he puts on the brand new credit card Natasha had conveniently left him the last time she had visited.

“I’m not even supposed to give you this. You’re retired,” she said, before sliding it stealthily into his pocket. “But I really don’t want anyone asking questions when you inevitably get bored, and Laura’s gotta pay for another kid, now.”

(He loved when Natasha broke the rules. It reminded him of the old days, before Laura got too worried about both of them getting killed to find humor in their near brushes with death.)

By the time he drives up the long road that leads to the New Avengers Facility, it’s approaching dark, and faint silver stars are starting to poke holes in the vast canvas of sky that stretches over the large, sprawling building. He turns off the engine and sits for a moment, letting the tiredness of his travel day spread through his body, and then gets out of the car. He gets about five steps towards the building before a dark figure attacks him out of nowhere, darting in front of him and pushing him to the ground.

“OW!” Clint bites down on his tongue so hard that he tastes blood, and immediately recognizes the weight and shape of the body pinning him to the ground. “Jesus, Natasha!”

“Oh.” Natasha straightens up, not quite apologizing for the ambush. “It’s you.”

“Of course it’s me. Who did you think it was?” Clint asks in frustration, before a flash of red catches his eye from somewhere in the distance.

“Hello, Clint.” Wanda carefully lowers herself down from where she’s been levitating near him, her feet touching the ground with a softness that Clint finds both surprising and impressive.

“You can fly now.”

“I can do a lot of things now,” Wanda says with a small, proud smile. “Natasha has been training me. She is a good teacher.”

“I’m only half her teacher,” Natasha offers. “Cap’s been my other half since you abandoned me to retire.”

“I didn’t abandon you,” Clint protests and Natasha gives him a half-smirk, leaning over to kiss him gently on the cheek.

“I know.” She squeezes his hand. “I missed you.”

“Missed you too.” Clint holds out an arm and Wanda smiles tentatively, walking forward so he can hug her. “How are you doing?”

Natasha glances at Wanda, who nods. “Okay,” she says slowly when she turns back to Clint. “I think. Some days are harder than others.”

“Yeah,” Clint says, not bothering to ask what she means, because he doesn’t have to. He knows what it feels like to wake up from nightmares of killing people by your own hands, unable to stop yourself as you watch your own actions. He knows what it means to see the faces of people you loved in your dreams, after they’ve died.

“How is Laura?”

“Good,” Clint says as they start to walk towards the compound together. “Really good, actually. A little stressed and sleep deprived, but three kids kind of dull you after awhile. Just don’t call her a superhero. She hates when you make her out to be some sort of impressive mom. And Nate’s starting to smile and everything. I can’t wait to show you pictures.” He stops at the front entrance, waiting while Natasha types in an access code on a keypad. After a brief pause, the door opens with a loud whoosh and a metallic female voice fills his ears.

“Security confirmation complete. Welcome back, Miss Romanoff.”

Clint eyes the walls as Wanda shrugs off her jacket. “Stark got his AI in here, too? Why am I not surprised.”

“Believe it or not, it’s less about Tony’s ego than you might think,” Natasha replies as she leads him down the walkway. “Apparently, over the summer, some new powered guy managed to breach the facility. He got into a fight with Sam and basically took him down, so Tony put double security on everything.”

“Man, I’m kind of sorry I missed that,” Clint says as he takes in the crisp chrome walls and multiple rooms of computers and offices.

“Yes, I know you’d never pass up a chance to be snarky at someone else’s expense,” Natasha says dryly. “You want a grand tour while you’re here? Otherwise, I’m sure Wanda and I would love to beat you up.”

“Did I ever tell you I missed my two favorite girls?” Clint asks sarcastically.

Natasha turns around and raises an eyebrow. “I thought Laura and Lila were your two favorite girls.”

“Jesus, you’re as bad as my daughter,” Clint mutters. “No wonder she gets all her sass from you.” He nods towards Wanda. “After dinner sparring session, then? You can show me everything you’ve learned while I’ve been away.”

Wanda’s face brightens. “After dinner sparring session,” she agrees before she heads down the hall, towards what Clint supposes is her room at the facility. Finally alone for the moment, he grabs Natasha’s wrist and pulls her close to him, leaning against the cold wall.

“Hey, you good?”

Banner? Me leaving and going into retirement? Training a team with someone who was just as volatile as you once were? Clint searches her face in a way he hasn’t been able to when they’ve talked over Skype or over the phone.

“I think so,” Natasha says, meeting his eyes. “Like I said, there’s only so much I can do when you abandon me.” She smiles tightly. “The kids are good?”

“Yeah,” Clint replies. “I kinda disappointed them by coming out here randomly; we had plans to go to the zoo this weekend. But if I didn’t come now, it might be another month or so before I can make it back, with all the holiday stuff.”

“It might not be the first time you disappoint them, if you plan to keep yourself retired,” Natasha says ominously. “But I’m glad you’re here.”

“What, Cap’s not good enough as a back-up partner?”

“I’d prefer to use the word teammate,” a deep voice replies from behind him, and Clint turns to see Steve striding forward. “Barton.”

“Cap.” He shakes his hand. “Good to see you.”

“You, too. How’s the new baby?”

“Eating. Sleeping. Occasionally throwing up. Basically, he’s doing everything I do, but it’s cuter because he can’t talk yet, so Laura doesn’t yell about it.” He ignores Natasha’s eye roll and gestures to the building walls. “Seems like you guys are getting along pretty well here.”

“They’re learning,” says Steve. “We’re far from being a team, but like I told Natasha, we’ve got some hitters. And Wanda’s really grown into her powers.”

“Yeah?” Clint tries not to let himself smile too widely, and Steve looks at him suspiciously.

“Yeah. What?”

“Nothing,” Clint says, shooting a quick glance at Natasha, because he knows she had been thinking the same thing. “Just kinda proud. I knew she had it in her.”

 

***

 

After making himself a quick dinner of leftover hamburgers and some limp french fries (the remnants of Natasha’s lunch and Sam’s snack, he learns) Clint heads to the guest room he’s been given and changes into workout clothes. When he finally makes his way down to the large gym on the bottom floor of Avengers Compound, Wanda’s waiting for him, sitting in the middle of the floor. She gets to her feet when he walks in.

“Ready for some ass kicking?” Clint asks as he heads to the large cabinet near the door, opening it up and taking stock of the items inside. Among the barbells and boxing gloves and wooden staffs, there’s also spare recurve, just as he’s expected. (Natasha had insisted they keep one for training purposes, despite Clint not being there all the time). There are also a couple of arrows that look slightly worn but Clint figures they’ll do for now, especially since he’s not exactly looking to shoot anything in a real serious way.

“You are mocking me,” Wanda says flatly as he emerges holding the bow, trying out the string. It stretches back easily, pulling itself taut, and he clicks his tongue in satisfaction.

“Never.” Clint raises the bow, nocking an arrow easily and pointing it towards the ceiling. “But I am curious to see what you’ve got for me. On three.” He aims his bow, purposefully giving her little warning. “One...two…”

Clint lets the arrow fly, and Wanda immediately raises her hand, deflecting the arrow with a burst of red energy. She twists her palm expertly and forces the arrow to veer to the left, where it embeds itself into one of the foam walls. He wastes no time in releasing another arrow, which Wanda also manages to deflect, and then he spins around in the other direction, letting a third arrow loose at the wall. When he spins back again, he points the last arrow straight at her forehead, pausing briefly to let her understand what he’s doing. Wanda uses both arms to gather a floating bubble of red energy that bands itself together like a shield and when he lets go of the bowstring, the arrow stops short just before it hits Wanda’s face. It drops harmlessly to the ground in front of her feet.

“Good job, kid,” Clint says approvingly as the last of the red sparks disappear into thin air. He lowers his bow.

“I am not your kid.”

“Not yet.” Clint winks. “You haven’t been given the full Barton family adoption treatment yet with Laura’s cooking. Anyway, you’re controlling your powers a lot better than you were a few months ago. It’s impressive.”

Wanda looks down at her feet. “Not all the time,” she admits quietly. “You think I have made progress and that I have changed. But it is better when I am training. I am in an enclosed space here. I sometimes do not know how hard I am attacking and I am worried that when it matters, I will not be able to control that part of my powers.”

“Did I ever tell you why I shoot with arrows?” Clint asks, putting the bow down.

Wanda shakes her head curiously.

“I shoot with arrows because I can control myself. I can shoot with the speed I want. I can make my shots deadly, or I can choose to barely hurt someone. I can defend myself, but it doesn’t mean I’m defending to kill.” He pauses. “When I was in the military, I used to shoot with a lot of guns. When I started handling a bow after SHIELD recruited me, it was a whole different thing I had to get used to. Guns are powerful. Arrows are, too, but you’re exerting a different kind of force and you have a different type of responsibility. Get it?”

“I think so,” Wanda says slowly. “So you are saying that once I get used to my powers, I will hopefully feel better about how I use them?”

“Basically,” Clint says, and Wanda glares.

“That is not exactly comforting advice, Clint.”

“No,” he agrees. “But neither was me forcing you to hide or fight in the middle of a battle. Tough love, Wanda. I gave it to Natasha, and now I’m giving it to you.” Clint picks up his bow again and Wanda deftly snatches it out of his hand with a flick of her wrist, causing it to soar across the room with a burst of energy. Clint looks up in surprise.

“And then maybe if you are a good enough teacher, I will control you,” Wanda teases, arching her fingers so that red tendrils of energy float towards his head in a slightly menacing manner. Clint’s chest seizes suddenly, the air becoming thick and hot, and before his vision clouds over he at least manages to sidestep her magic clumsily.

“Clint?” Wanda drops her hands, and the red disappears along with her teasing tone. She walks over as he rights himself, correcting his balance. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” Clint lies, letting out a shaky breath. “Sorry. Just, uh. Long day. Didn’t realize how tired I was. I was up all night with Lila and Nate yesterday, and it must’ve just hit me.”

Wanda looks concerned and a little suspicious, but she nods anyway. “We can do more tomorrow morning, if you want, after you have slept. There is a training session after breakfast that Natasha had been leading for me and Sam. I think you might like to watch.”

“Yeah,” Clint repeats, trying to smile. “Yeah, okay. Let’s do that.” The pain in his chest is lessening but he realizes he’s sweating profusely, the back of his neck feeling damp and hot, his skin prickling uneasily and his heart still hammering loudly. He quickly retrieves the bow Wanda’s taken from him and returns the rest of the gear to the closet, then walks out of the gym, hugging Wanda once they get to the elevator that will take them back to the floor that their rooms are located on.

Memories, he thinks grimly as the elevator rises, knowing exactly what had triggered his reaction to Wanda’s words. He’s both unnerved and annoyed; getting attacks every so often isn’t exactly a new issue but he’s also felt fine for years.

So why the hell is Loki’s shit rearing its head now, after everything I’ve already gone through?

It made no damn sense.

When they get off the elevator, he hugs Wanda once more before she walks off to her room. He’s halfway towards his own room when a female voice stops him in his tracks. He turns around to meet the eyes of a tall woman walking towards him briskly.

“Maria?”

“I see we’re on a first name basis now,” she says, her smile warm despite the sharpness of her voice. Clint laughs under his breath.

“That tends to happen when you see a guy get brainwashed, and then you pay his wife a visit for cookies and whiskey.”

“Anyway, I heard you were paying us a visit,” Hill continues, crossing her arms. “How’s paternity leave?”

“Great,” Clint confirms, immediately reaching for his phone, desperate to get his mind off of his recent shake-up. “Wanna see pics?”

She probably doesn’t, Clint realizes, but aside from the anxiety mishap, he’s also still in proud parent mode and he hasn’t seen anyone but people around his town for the past few weeks. Thankfully, Hill seems to humor him, taking the iPhone and scrolling through a roll of photos.

“That is absolutely a Natasha face,” Hill says as she swipes over a photo of Nate smirking with crushed carrots all over his face. “Well done.”

“I’m sure she’ll be happy to hear that.” Clint takes the phone back and shoves it deep into his pockets. “Training seems to be going well.”

Hill glances around, as if she’s trying to make sure no one is watching her talk. “They’re getting there. They’re nowhere near ready for real missions, but thankfully, the world seems to be holding itself together for now. And they’re learning how to work together, which is important.”

“You don’t wanna put me to work, right?” Clint asks, suddenly wondering about the nature of their random interaction. “Because I got news for you. I only signed up for dad bonding and a three day trip, and maybe some bagels.”

“No,” Hill says in exasperation. “Don’t worry. I heard you were around and I just wanted to say hi.” She inclines her head, eyeing him carefully. “Is everything okay?”

“Fine,” Clint says quickly, almost shocked at how easily she’s been able to read him -- or maybe he’s just more transparent than he realized, given that his feelings had come out of nowhere. “Tired. I had a long flight.”

Hill looks like she wants to say something else, but when she speaks, there’s only neutrality in her voice. “I’m sure Natasha will be glad to see you.”

“Yeah.” Clint nods quickly. “Yeah, she will be. Anyway, good to see you.”

Hill reaches out and squeezes his arm gently. “Good to have you back, Barton.”

Clint watches his former supervisor walk away and then continues on to his room, trying to ignore the fact that he still feels unsettled in a way he can’t quite describe. He stops at his door, fingering the handle and brushing his fingers over the keypad, and then walks a few doors down to Natasha’s room. Clint keys in the code she’s given him, opening the door slowly, partially because it’s Natasha and even now, after all of these years, the odds of him getting a knife thrown at his head when shows up in her space unannounced isn’t out of the question.

There’s no one in the room, though; the lights are off and when Clint switches them on, he finds a neatly made bed and shoes missing from the rack by the door, indicating she hasn’t been back to her room for awhile. He knows it’s not technically out of the ordinary for him to show up like this -- they lived together in close quarters during missions, and being partners and best friends for over ten years in a job where they were constantly forced to watch each other’s backs afforded them the kind of comfortable relationship that Laura never questioned and would never fault them for having.

Clint looks around and sighs again, before stripping out of his clothes, leaving them in a pile on the floor. He closes the door to the bathroom and starts to run a stream of hot water, letting the steam fill the small room, inhaling the heavy heat into his lungs. When the bath is almost full, he switches off the water and gets in the tub, stretching out his legs and leaning back against the cold rim. It’s about ten minutes after he’s gotten himself settled that his ears pick up on the sound of a door opening and closing; he doesn’t bother to worry about if she’ll notice he’s here because he knows he’s made his mark already simply by leaving his clothes out in the open. Truth be told, whenever Clint felt even a little bit unsettled on the road or at SHIELD, he always found himself in Natasha’s room -- largely because he hated being alone with his thoughts, and it felt better to know he had a little bit of security in the form of someone who wouldn’t ask too many questions about his state of mind.

“Don’t shoot me,” he mutters with his eyes closed when he hears the bathroom door open. “I just needed a break.”

“Okay,” Natasha says, her voice dubious. “And you’re in my room, why?”

“Because we’re partners? Because you’re my best friend forever? Because I named my baby after you since you’re practically family?” When he opens his eyes, Natasha is looking at him skeptically. She’s wearing a pink t-shirt that says ASK ME ABOUT MY FEMINIST AGENDA and running shorts, and the hair she’s beginning to grow out is pulled back into a high ponytail. She’s also holding a glass of what he recognizes as whiskey from the smell mingling with the bath steam, and the image is one that is so much the quintessential picture of his partner, it almost calms him.

“Bucharest.”

“What?” Natasha asks curiously. Clint nods towards her.

“Bucharest. That’s what this reminds me of. You, standing in the bathroom like this, looking all casual and drinking whiskey. The cheap shit we just picked up at the nearest liquor store, because we couldn’t stay in there too long without leaving trails of blood. And me in the bathtub, except the motel was crappy and I hurt a lot more.”

“Well, you had just taken a bullet out of your own arm,” Natasha points out. “What’s wrong?”

Clint shifts in the bath as Natasha sits down on the floor, continuing to drink. “I was sparring with Wanda. She said something about controlling me -- she was kidding and stuff -- and then she used her powers on me.”

“She used her powers on you?” Natasha asks sharply, her voice veering into protective territory.

“Not, like...no, she didn’t do what she did to you,” Clint says hastily, recognizing the tone. “She would never do that, now. It’s Wanda. She just moved some things around without my consent. Like my bow. And pretended to read my mind.”

“Oh,” Natasha says quietly, and Clint knows she gets it without him having to say more. He’s grateful, because between Natasha and Laura, there are things that he knows he doesn’t have to worry about admitting, and it always makes him feel better to know he has that trust in the two people he cares about the most.

“Clint.”

Clint looks up to find Natasha narrowing her eyes, her face showing overwhelming concern. “You didn’t lose control, did you?”

“What?” Clint moves harshly in the bath, splashing water onto the floor. “No! Christ, Nat, no! I haven’t -- I’ve been clean ever since I started therapy, I swear. Talked to Hill afterwards and then came up here...I’m not being self-destructive or anything!”

“Just checking,” Natasha says evenly. “You also were pretty messed up after Sokovia. There’s a reason you’ve been keeping me up at night.”

“You should talk,” Clint mutters. “Thanks for tattling on me, by the way.”

Natasha shoots him a death glare. “I thought we agreed that was my duty as your partner and surrogate wife. Besides, if I didn’t tattle on you half the time, you’d be dead.” She holds out her glass of whiskey and sighs. “Here. I feel like you need this more than I do.”

Clint knows he probably shouldn’t, but he also knows Natasha wouldn’t offer if she didn’t really mean it, and so he reaches for the glass and takes a long drink. “I’ve been having trouble sleeping at home. I thought it was just a thing, you know? Nightmares are one thing, anxiety shit...that’s normal. It’s normal, right? I’ve had that before. And I didn’t think I was still affected by it, and then Wanda said that stuff to me during training, and I totally lost it, and…” He swallows down a gulp of alcohol that burns his insides. “It’s been so long.”

“You know that’s not how it works,” Natasha says, her voice softening. “You’re not cured just because you’ve had 794 good days and 3 bad ones. Brainwashing...being inside someone else’s head, taking orders from someone and living out their horrible requests without being able to stop it...it’s a lifetime sentence, Clint.”

“I know. I do know that,” he says miserably, because he does. “But I haven’t felt like this in awhile. It makes me…” He swallows, trying to work up the courage to push the words out. “I don’t know. What if I’m never really okay with anything ever again?”

Natasha scoots forward on the floor and puts a hand on his arm, fingers curling around his bicep “You really believe that? Clint Barton, America’s fifth favorite Avenger --”

“Sixth. Sixth favorite,” Clint interrupts bitterly. “Now that Sam’s here, I’ve been demoted, apparently.”

“Fine,” Natasha says in exasperation. “Sixth, seventh, whatever -- Clint, you brought yourself out of Loki with more fight than most people would have expected. The fact that you were even okay to fight the way you did after I hit you on the head is proof of how strong you are. And I don’t just mean physically, because I’ve definitely hit you enough times that I’m pretty sure I’ve broken your brain.”

“Yeah, well. I should thank you for that.”

Natasha gives him a more serious look. “Clint, I’m going to ask you again -- as your partner, as your best friend, as your wife’s best friend, as someone that knows you better than anyone else on this team, so don’t lie to me -- do you really believe that you’re never going to be okay again?”

“Yes,” Clint says before biting his tongue, realizing he’s just being self-deprecating. “No. I don’t know, Nat.”

Natasha stares at him for a long time, stretching out on the floor until she’s leaning back on her elbows. “Maybe you should stay here for awhile.”

“Here?” Clint glances around the bathroom uncertainly. “No offense, Nat, but are you sure being in a place where I’m constantly reminded of my triggers is going to help me?”

“No,” Natasha says, shaking her head. “I’m not talking about staying here. I mean, maybe you should take some time and get away to the city. You used to live here, right?”

“Yeah, in like, the 90’s,” Clint says pointedly. “I’m sure half the places I used to frequent, not to mention my old apartment, are long gone. Not to mention expensive.” He takes another long drink. “Besides, I promised Laura I’d be home in less than three days. It’s already been one.”

“Not the point,” Natasha says diplomatically. “If you’re here, you’re worried about being triggered. If you go home, you’re pulling back and worried about being set off around the people you love. Being on your own for a little bit might be a good change of pace for you. Maybe it’ll even help you figure out how you really feel.” She pauses, giving him a sad smile. “And if you want to come back and see everyone, even if you just want to laugh at Steve while he tries not to be upset that Sam beats him in running sprints, we’re not that far away.”

“Maybe,” Clint contemplates. The whiskey’s beginning to make his limbs tingle, the warmth spreading through his bones a stark reminder that he’s barely eaten and done a lot more travel and activity than he’d planned for on an empty stomach and only four hours of sleep. Natasha seems to sense it, in that strange sixth sense way that they’ve established in their partnership, because she gets up, sighing quietly as she takes the whiskey from his hand.

“You can sleep in my bed as long as you keep your clothes on,” she says as she walks out, closing the door behind her. Clint leans back in the tub again, suddenly grateful that even though he’s not at home, he’s somewhere that he can have the comfort of something close to it. He stays in the bath for another fifteen minutes until the pads of his fingers start to resemble the prunes Laura likes to buy at the grocery store, and then hauls himself out and towels off, wrapping the soft cloth around his waist as he exits.

“I could sleep for a week,” he admits as he reaches for his clothes again, re-dressing despite the fact he’s brought a bunch of different shirts and boxers. Natasha looks up from where she’s reading on the bed once he’s put his boxers back on, and Clint catches her looking a little too closely at his chest. “What?”

“Nothing,” Natasha says conversationally, going back to her book. “Just been awhile.” One half of her mouth lifts in a smirk, that you know you’re my best friend; you may be married but there’s nothing I haven’t seen in the past ten years of saving your ass look that he’s come to recognize like the back of his hand. Clint runs his fingers through wet hair as he sinks down onto the bed and very nearly dissolves into the thick covers, the softness of the sheets enveloping his body like a well-worn blanket.

“Holy. Shit.”

“Stark issued,” Natasha says without looking up again, turning a page. “You like it now, but just wait til you sleep on it.”

“Damn.” Clint shifts on the mattress and closes his eyes; it’s like falling into a cloud except somewhat more firm. “I’m calling Laura tomorrow and getting her to change our shitty mattress.”

“I thought you liked your shitty mattress,” Natasha says. “You told me your bed was your favorite thing about the farm because it was more comfortable than the road.”

“Oh, shut up.”

Natasha grins, glancing at him out of the corner of her eye. “Glad to have you back too, Hawkeye.”

 

***

 

By the time Clint wakes up the next morning, Natasha’s gone from her spot next to him, the pillow cold and the space less dented than usual. Clint’s not worried, especially when he sees that it’s past eight -- Natasha being up and around before he’s able to drag himself out of bed is a common occurrence and has been for years, long before she started visiting the farm. He brushes his teeth, washes his face, and tries to make himself look slightly presentable by the time he wanders downstairs.

“You are leaving already?”

He looks up as he drops his re-packed bag near the recreational area. Natasha is still nowhere to be found, but Wanda is sitting at the table, eating a banana.

“Not really leaving,” Clint says as he walks into the kitchen, grabbing a mug from the cupboard and shoving it under the Keurig drip. “Just going to take care of a few things since I’m in the area. I’ll be back. I promise.” He focuses on the way the coffee is dripping steadily into his cup, savoring the smell of caffeine, while Wanda silently chews on more of her banana.

“I am sorry if I made you mad yesterday,” she says finally, embarrassment and depression coloring her words.

“You --” Clint stops with the cup halfway to his lips and puts it down, guilt washing over him. “You didn’t make me mad, Wanda.”

“Yes, I did.” Wanda looks down at the table. “I said something about controlling you. You were upset. I could tell.” The sadness in her voice settles into her eyes, making its way over her face. “I think I am still learning what I can say and do to not make people afraid of me. I am afraid of myself, sometimes. I did not mean to hurt you.”

Clint takes a large gulp of hot coffee, grimacing as it stains his insides with warmth and alertness. “Listen, Wanda. You didn’t do anything. I promise. I’ve got some...issues, I guess, that I need to work through, and it’s part of this whole Avengers thing. It’s complicated, but I promise you that you had nothing to do with it. Okay?”

Wanda looks unsure, and Clint walks to the table, putting a hand on her shoulder.

“Come on,” he says. “Trust me. Have I ever given you a reason not to trust me?”

“I guess not,” Wanda says softly. “Then when you return, Natasha and I are both going to spar with you. Two against one. Whoever wins buys breakfast before you leave.”

“Deal,” Clint says, putting his cup down and holding his arms out. Wanda gets up and hugs him tightly.

“Try not to get in too much trouble while I’m gone,” Clint says as he strokes her head gently.

“Tell that to Vision,” Wanda says with a small sigh as she breaks away. “I cannot seem to stop him from appearing in my room when I do not need him there.”

Clint leaves a note for Steve and a voicemail for Natasha on her personal cell phone, though he knows he doesn’t really need to -- another perk of Natasha knowing him better than he knows himself; if she told him to do something and left him to his own devices, he was most likely going to listen to her unless he was compromised for some reason. Then he gets back into his rental car and starts driving towards New York City.

It’s not a bad trip, all things considered. The facility, which Clint knows was designed from an old Stark Industries warehouse that Tony’s father had owned, is located in the outskirts of Peekskill, what the GPS tells him is a roughly three hour drive from Manhattan. Clint, who never actually follows the rules of speed limits unless he’s with Laura or has his kids in the car, makes the trip in about two, rolling through the New York Thruway toll booth and into Manhattan’s streets to the background music of The Beatles.

From the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, it’s not too bad of a drive down to the neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, so long as Clint doesn’t allow himself to get antsy and frustrated with the pedestrians that dart in front of him like wild deer, and the many stoplights that line the residential streets of downtown Brooklyn. In a way, he finds the trip a bit nostalgic; he’d been back to the city multiple times since the Chitauri attack, but it was mostly to help with city clean-up or for small missions. He hadn’t actually been back in his old neighborhood for what he figures has to be at least ten years.

When Clint turns onto Quincy Street and hits the intersection between Marcy Avenue and Tompkins Avenue, he’s vaguely surprised to find the building is still standing. He figured he had either two options: that the building would still be as decrepit as he remembered, or it would be mowed down in favor of new industrial establishments. He manages to find an available spot a few blocks away that he crookedly parallel parks into, and starts wandering the streets.

If he’s being honest (and over the years, that’s something he’s learned to try to do when it came to his own mind), he doesn’t know why he ended up here, at his old building. It was a place from before SHIELD, before Natasha, before Laura, even; though he was still living in the building when they had met and she had seen more than her fair share of cockroaches, dusty floors, and spiders before moving to the farm. Natasha had simply told him to leave, and he knows he could have gone anywhere.

And yet…

Clint can’t help but smile to himself as he walks up the steps, entering thanks to the good fortune of a tenant who happens to be exiting at the same time. He finds it comforting that the inside of the building also looks the same, the creaky steps and the peeling walls almost welcoming him home, and stops outside of Apartment H, raising his hand to knock.

He doesn’t, because something catches his eye -- the fact that the door is unhinged, indicating it’s already open. Clint figures anyone who isn’t programmed to look for booby traps and kill switches on a daily basis probably wouldn’t have noticed it, but it doesn’t stop him from pushing tentatively on the door, which opens slowly at his touch. If the door was unlocked, it meant that someone was inside, or that someone was waiting to attack -- which, Clint knows, in New York could be either option.

The apartment, however, looks relatively clean and somewhat lived in. There’s modern day furniture, and even a few cups in the cupboard along with some instant coffee, Clint notices upon inspection. He’s about to move into the bedroom when a soft noise catches his attention, forcing his guard up again as he moves quietly into the shadows. He doesn’t have his bow or his gun, but, well, there was a perk of the apartment once being his -- and Clint figures that even if whoever is hiding in here is good at attacking, he can still outwit them by knowing how to move around the space.

So when Frank Castle steps out of the bedroom with his gun drawn, eyes as hard and as solid as Clint remembers from so many years ago, he damn near walks right into his line of fire in surprise.

“What…” Clint trails off, trying to work his brain around the sight of his old friend. “Jesus, Frank. What the fuck are you doing here?”

Frank doesn’t lower his gun and his voice, when he speaks, is as coarse as the lines on his face. “Good to see you too, Hawk.”

“I mean it.” Clint manages to recover enough to swallow down his surprise. “Is this your place? Have you been living here since I moved out?”

“Don’t fool yourself.” Frank gestures towards the windows with his gun. “I was practically a regular here when you were still payin’ rent.”

“Yeah, while I was paying rent,” Clint reminds him. “But you were getting a place with Maria over in Hell’s Kitchen, when Laura and I moved out.”

“Yeah, well.” Frank’s stance is still rigid and defensive. “When you moved out for good, I eventually decided to buy it with some money I had leftover from the army. Kept it as a bolthole for myself when I needed someplace to go if things got tough. Good thing, too, since everything went to shit, and the government don’t play nice when your family gets murdered.” He pauses. “You come to take it back?”

Clint chokes down a laugh that hurts his windpipe. “No. Laura and I have a place in Waverly. The rest of the time, I’m with the Avengers.”

“Ah, yeah. I heard about you. Shootin’ up New York with those arrows, swinging around the city in all that spandex. No offense, but I liked you better in camouflage.”

“It’s a lot more comfortable than it looks,” Clint offers, but he can see the barest hint of a smile making its way over Frank’s face -- a peace offering, of sorts. Frank could want to kill you and protect you at the same time, and Clint knew that’s what made him damn good at his job. “Good to see you too, Frank.”

 

***

 

“So, when did you buy the place?”

They’ve left Clint’s apartment and have made their way into Manhattan via the G train to the L to the A, which has taken them to a park at in Hell’s Kitchen, around 45th Street and 11th Avenue.

“‘Round ‘99,” Frank says, leaning forward and rubbing his hands together. “Figured it was just easier to buy than to rent, and I knew there was no way in hell you were gonna come back here when you found that farm.”

“God bless New York,” Clint mutters, glancing around, taking in the people wandering past them. “So you’ve been good, then?”

Frank turns to him, raising an eyebrow. “Really, Barton?”

“What?”

Frank snorts loudly. “You know how I’ve been.”

Clint finds himself unable to answer, the same guilt that he had felt during his conversation with Wanda surfacing again. “I know. I mean, I know what happened to the family. I just mean...I want to know if you’ve been okay.”

Frank side-eyes him. “You seriously haven’t heard a damn thing about what I’ve done lately?”

“No,” Clint admits. “I know we lost touch after Maria died, and I’m sorry about that. I just haven’t really been keeping track of old army pals.”

“Course you haven’t,” Frank mutters under his breath. Clint hesitates and then pulls a photo out of his jacket pocket. Frank gives him a look, then takes it curiously, and his eyes widen as he stares at the gloss.

“Shit. That Laura?”

“Yeah,” Clint says with just a little bit of pride, and Frank whistles softly.

“Looks the same as she did fifteen years ago,” Frank says with a bit of awe. “And Coop?”

“And Lila,” Clint says, pointing out the two kids smiling in the photo of the family situated against a backdrop of trees, a family vacation a few years ago that Clint had surprised them with after being away for too long. He takes out his phone. “And the newest one,” he says, hitting a button and showing Frank a picture of just-born Nathaniel, swathed in blankets and propped against Laura’s body. Frank laughs, handing the photo back.

“Well. Guess you have been busy while I’ve been out here on the streets.”

“You could say that,” Clint says, thinking of Sokovia and Loki. “Anyway, you gonna tell me why I should’ve heard about you and the things you’ve done?”

“Not now,” Frank says, standing up. “I gotta go take care of some stuff. You wanna meet me back at your place later tonight?”

“Not like I have anything else to do,” Clint says, watching Frank get up. He nods and then walks off, wrapping his long coat around his body, leaving Clint to stare at the swirl of leaves in the park, with shrieks of children playing next to him. He sits for awhile longer and then gets up, finding his way uptown towards Central Park. When he realizes his stomach is growling, he stops in Carnegie Deli on 57th Street for an overstuffed sandwich that he doesn’t come close to finishing, and then he wanders back downtown towards 42nd Street to take the subway back to Brooklyn.

He honestly doesn’t know why he stops in front of the Broadway Restaurant and Coffee Shop -- maybe it’s the writing on the flyer that catches his eye, the purple that Clint associates with his own uniform, or the fact that it advertises a support group, which Clint isn’t used to seeing. Kilgrave Victim Support Group, it says on the sign, with smaller writing underneath: Understand, Rebuild, Move Forward.

Kilgrave. The name sounds vaguely familiar, but he’s honestly not sure if it’s because he’s heard it thrown around in SHIELD, or because he’d known a case where he’d been involved. He tries to forget about it as he turns to walk away from the restaurant, and realizes he can’t stop himself from thinking about the flyer. Kilgrave. Kilgrave. He walks in circles, scrolling through his mental rolodex, trying to remember anything that might jog his memory. When he finds something to latch onto, he stops short.

Kilgrave.

The name was familiar because, Clint realizes as his stomach rolls, he had read about him -- in the cases about manipulation and brainwashing that Natasha had curated for him after Loki. He hadn’t paid too much attention to the details at the time, electing instead to comfort himself with the fact that there were other supernatural-type cases where people could use mind control, and this one had been one Jessica Jones, conveniently located in -- Clint’s brain suddenly snaps the rest of the pieces together -- Hell’s Kitchen.

He pulls out his phone and then hits speed dial. He had time to kill before meeting Frank. And, well, he owed Laura a phone call anyway, since he clearly wasn’t going to be home in 48 hours.

“Clint?” She picks up after two rings with a faint yawn. “What’s wrong?”

“What makes you think something’s wrong?” Clint asks, slightly defensive. “Nothing’s wrong. I could be calling to say I love you.”

“You’re not calling to say I love you,” Laura says with a groan. “You’re an asshole, but you’re an asshole who does let me sleep every once in awhile when you know our baby’s current habits.”

“Yeah.” Clint chews on the inside of his cheek. “You’re right. Look, I’m gonna be in New York for a little bit longer than I planned.”

“Is everything okay?” Laura sounds more awake now, her voice dripping with worry.

“Fine.” Clint glances back at the restaurant. “Just, uh. I ran into some old friends here and found out I have some unfinished business I need to take care of.” He feels bad not telling Laura the whole truth but, well, it wasn’t a total lie, all things considered

“What kind of unfinished business?” Laura asks suspiciously.

“Nothing that will leave me in a dumpster or in a cast. I promise.”

Laura sighs. “I believe the cast part,” she says after a long pause. “I don’t believe the dumpster part.”

“Well, I love you, too.” He smiles over the phone. “Tell the kids I got held up with Nat and Wanda, and that I’m bringing home extra bagels.”

“You owe me,” Laura mumbles sleepily. “I hate you.”

“Miss you more.” He hangs up the phone and then lingers on the street corner, staring back at the brightly lit diner. Through the large glass window, he can see the restaurant starting to fill up, people casually wandering in and taking their seats. He checks his watch, and then walks to the convenience store across the street, paying for an overpriced Yankees baseball cap. Fitting the cap on his head, he waits a considerable amount of time until it seems like the group is deep in conversation, before finally walking inside.

A few people look up as he enters, but no one does more than give him a curious look. He takes a seat in the back and tries to make himself look inconspicuous while also not looking threatening; it’s surprisingly easy but also nerve wracking. He knows he’s not exactly coming here to air his own dirty laundry, but something about hearing other people talk about being manipulated against their will intrigues him, even if he knows no one has experienced anything like he had. He laughs inwardly, because compared to aliens and gods and robots, random psychopaths -- however superpowered -- were about as boring as paperwork.

And when had that realization happened? Probably around the same time that an Asgardian brainwashed you, he thinks wryly, before he realizes he’s barely taking in any of the conversation, too lost in his own mind.

“Hey, man. You new here?”

Clint looks up quickly, realizing that the group is quietly talking amongst themselves. He meets the eyes of the dark-skinned bearded male that’s spoken to him from underneath the rim of his baseball cap and his heart beats faster in his chest, wondering if he’s been recognized. But the man is staring at him blankly, with no recognition dawning in his features, and Clint breathes more easily once he notices that.

“Yeah,” he says after a moment, once he’s sure he’s not being singled out. He’s used to not being noticed easily; he may be a recognizable face but he also spends more time as a civilian than anyone else, even Natasha. And unlike Stark’s goatee or Natasha’s red hair or Thor and Cap’s build, he has the ability to hide in plain sight better than most people on the team, save for maybe Sam and Wanda.

“Sorry to hear it. I mean, welcome to the group and all, but brainwashing isn’t exactly something that you’re happy to hear other people share, you know?” He says the last words with a self-deprecating tone that Clint recognizes as every bit deflecting still-healing guilt, because he knows he’s used that exact tone more than once. “So Kilgrave got you too, huh?”

“Uh, yeah. Something like that,” Clint mutters, looking past him. “So this is a support group kinda thing?”

“More or less,” says the man, shrugging loosely. “I mean, we don’t make anyone talk if they don’t want to. A lot of us...well, we don’t really wanna admit or talk about what we’ve been through. But this is kind of a safe space for us to even sit around in silence if we want, you know?” He holds out his hand. “By the way, I’m Malcolm Ducasse.”

Clint thinks quickly, knowing that while his face isn’t that recognizable, his name is unique enough that giving it away would also give away his identity. “Barney,” he says finally, hoping Malcolm won’t care to ask for a last name. Thankfully, he doesn’t.

“Cool. Good to meet you.” He hands Clint a flyer, the same one that Clint had seen posted on the diner window. “Hope you come back, Barney, even if it’s just to listen. Sometimes just like, letting people talk can be helpful. You know?”

“I’m well aware,” Clint mutters to himself as he pushes the flyer into his pocket, crumpling it between his fingers. He pushes his cap lower over his head and walks out the door, trying not to look behind him.

 

***

 

Frank’s not at the apartment when Clint finally gets back to Brooklyn, so he takes advantage of the time alone and uses his phone to search for general information on Kilgrave. It doesn’t take him long, and it also doesn’t take him long to put his phone down and find the few cans of Heineken that Frank has stocked his apartment with.

Mind control. And not mind control like Loki. No, this was a person who walked around like someone Clint might run into at Starbucks while running errands, someone who could touch people and say one word and make them his slave, someone who didn’t need a glowstick and a cape to get into their head and make them do terrible things. Clint knew he had controlled people unwillingly; that had been part of what he had read, but there were newer, recent cases and reports now -- a girl shooting her own parents in an elevator, a group of people hanging themselves without question. He shudders and downs the rest of his beer so fast that his head starts to spin, and in the absence of being able to silence his mind, he finds himself immediately reaching for another one.

“Jesus, man.” Frank returns roughly half an hour later, finding Clint sitting at the table, nursing a third drink. He turns on the light and eyes his friend. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost or somethin’.”

“You should talk,” Clint returns, because Frank’s face is slightly bruised, and he can see a large cut on the back of his hand. Frank shrugs and puts his gun on the table.

“I had my own stuff to take care of.”

“Yeah, I bet,” Clint says, leaning back in his chair. “So when do I get to find out what the hell you’ve been up to since leaving the army?”

“Soon as I get to find out why the hell you showed up after all these years and busted your way into my apartment,” Frank returns. Clint narrows his eyes.

My apartment.”

“Sure.” Frank smirks, and Clint rolls his eyes.

“Got bored of Iowa. You know how it is.” He casts his gaze downward, suddenly feeling like he’s unable to lie. “I, uh. I guess I needed a break. It was hard being out of the fight, so I came out here to see my team, and I wanted to take some time to myself before going home. I mean, things happened. I guess I’m still recovering from them, even if I think I’m not.” He realizes he’s talking in circles, but Frank doesn’t seem to notice.

“Yeah. Aliens fell from the sky. Or somethin’.”

“Or something,” Clint muses, forcing out a laugh. “I got out of the military and thought whatever I was doing at SHIELD would be ten times safer than what we did together. Somehow, I ended up in a job where I fight robots, aliens and then I watched the organization that recruited me get revealed as a Nazi breeding ground. Sometimes I wish I would’ve stayed with you and the Marine Corps Force Recon after all. Maybe it would have been different.”

“Yeah, then we could’ve blown up the world together,” Frank says roughly. “You never could stay in one place too long, Barton.”

“Neither could you,” Clint trades. “But you seemed to stay in New York okay.”

“Yeah, well.” Frank snorts out a quiet laugh. “Maria had a lot to do with that. Still does, actually, even though she's dead.” He walks into the bedroom, and Clint hears him opening drawers and rustling around. He’s about to get up and follow when Frank walks back towards him, tossing some printed out news articles in his face. Clint leans forward, his eyes widening as he takes in the writing.

“Christ, Frank.”

“Don’t give me that shit.”

“The Kitchen Irish, the Dogs of Hell, the Mexican Cartel -- christ, Frank!”

“Oh, get over yourself, Barton. You know I’m no saint. I ain’t been a saint ever since they sent us over to Iraq.”

“I’m --” Clint stops, trying to wrap his brain around the headlines he’s just read. “I never said you were perfect. Hell, you know I’m not. But you’re not a killer, either. And, I mean...fuck, all those people?”

Frank stares at the ground, nodding slowly. “You think I’m a bad man?” he asks with just a hint of danger in his voice.

Clint opens his mouth and then closes it, choosing his words carefully. “No worse than me,” he says slowly. “I’ve killed people, too. Even without being controlled by a demigod. And I didn’t even have a reason for it.”

Frank snorts. “You don’t need a reason to get angry, Barton. It’s in our blood. Don’t need a reason to act out, either, if they hurt the people you love.”

And, well. Clint figures he can’t really disagree with that, given that he knows his need to protect the world comes from an inherent need to protect his family. And he realizes he can’t say that he wouldn’t shoot up the entire universe for them if anything ever happened, knowing how violent he could be when he let his anger get the best of him. So he doesn’t say anything else, and instead sits in silence with his friend while finishing his beer, trying to remember the days of shooting in the trenches, the days of playing poker at midnight while sharing stashes of cigarettes from the latest ration, scoffing at photos of women that they never thought would pay them the time of day, a time when the world was going to shit around them but nothing seemed quite as serious.

 

***

 

Frank’s gone when Clint gets up the next morning, so he goes about his business as well as he can. He thinks about checking with Laura and Natasha, before he realizes he doesn’t really need to, and spends the morning walking around his old neighborhood with the city winds pushing at his back.

It feels good to wander without having any responsibility, without having to wonder if he’s going to run into Natasha or Wanda or Tony, or someone who will ask him what’s wrong, without having to worry that he’s been away from the house for too long. He finds out the Kilgrave Support Group is meeting for the second time in a week and this time, he arrives right when the group is gathering, sans baseball hat. He makes minimal small talk but takes a seat near the center of the table, listening and taking in the stories, and tries to pay attention to how candid everyone is being. He’d never done any kind of group therapy sessions; all his therapy after New York had been with a therapist at home that Natasha and Laura had vetted for him, and she didn’t have a clue about how fucked up his situation really was.

“Anyone else want to share?”

Clint looks up and finds the guy who had previously introduced himself as Malcolm staring at him.

“Me?”

Malcolm nods. “Yeah. I mean, you don’t have to. But we’re here, if you want to say something.”

Clint stays silent, wondering if he should say something. Besides, isn’t that why he was here in the first place? He certainly hadn’t wanted to sit in with all these people because he was bored and needed company. Clint casts a gaze around the table, figuring that if he’s here -- and if he plans on staying -- he should at least do them the courtesy of letting them know his issues weren’t because of a killer in a purple suit.

“I, uh...I didn’t actually come here because of Kilgrave,” Clint admits, trying to ignore the curious faces that stare back at him. “I was brainwashed, though. And I still live with it, every day. It’s been a few years, but I still have nightmares.” He pauses, cracking his knuckles. “The other day, I got triggered without realizing it by someone who I consider a friend. Someone powerful, who I know would never hurt me. But it made me scared of myself, because I remembered what he could make me do, and how helpless I was when I was in his control.”

“What kind of stuff did he make you do?” Malcolm asks in a low voice, leaning forward on the table.

“He…” Clint trails off, wondering how to continue, before he realizes he can probably air most of his dirty laundry right here, and no one would be any the wiser. It wasn’t like anyone knew who he was. No one was going to judge him knowing what he had done to Natasha, or to his friends. No one was going to give him a sympathetic look and tell Laura about how weak her husband was. This was the literal definition of a safe space, and he almost laughs at the realization.

“He made me hurt people,” Clint says finally, sitting up a little straighter in his chair. “People I cared about. I didn’t even know I was doing it. But afterwards, I felt so guilty. Like my mind had been violated. It’s…I don’t know if I can ever feel like I’m safe again. I know he’s not there, but it feels like he could be. It’s like a curse.” He looks down at the table. “It’s hard to talk about with my partner. She’s my closest friend, but she’s also one of the people I tried to hurt. It took me a long time to get over that worry that I would hurt her when we were together. I couldn’t even sleep in the same room as her, because I was worried I’d wake up and start strangling her.” He stops talking and realizes the room is deadly quiet, and that everyone around the table is staring at him.

“Who was he?” asks a dark-skinned woman with a massive head of hair, who had introduced herself earlier as Betty. “Was he like Kilgrave? Do we know him?”

“He, uh. No. He wasn’t from around here,” Clint says, tripping over his words but hoping the bite in his voice will stave off more questions. He certainly wasn’t going to namedrop Loki after all of this; the last thing he needed was for people to figure out who he was, after he had told them he was still triggered by someone’s memories. Someone who was technically still out there, even if he was supposedly locked away in an Asgardian prison.

“Thanks for sharing, Barney,” Malcolm says quietly, and Clint nods.

“Yeah. Welcome.”

The rest of the meeting passes fairly quickly, and for Clint, it feels like the confession has opened something up inside of him -- he’s even able to listen to the rest of the people talk about their experiences without feeling too out of place. As he’s getting up to leave, Malcolm stops him by clapping a hand down on his shoulder.

“Hey, Barney. You got plans?”

“Uh…” Clint falters, because he doesn’t, because Frank is off doing god knows what god knows where, and the only plans he had were to have dinner later. “No?”

Malcolm smiles. “Cool. Wanna come back to my place for a bit? I got coffee, and I don’t live too far.”

Clint finds he doesn’t know how to respond. “I’d hate to turn down coffee,” he says finally, figuring it can’t hurt to be friendly. Malcolm runs a hand through his mess of unruly thick hair, and Clint catches the faint red marks on his arm as his shirt sleeves ride up his wrists. He averts his eyes, trying to not pay attention.

“Cool. Gimmie a moment to wrap things up, okay?”

Clint waits dutifully, scuffing his feet against the floor while Malcolm finishes saying goodbye to another group of people, and then he gathers his messenger bag and a bunch of flyers. Clint follows him down the street until they’ve reached the grittier parts of Hell’s Kitchen -- the parts that make Clint feel just a little bit uncomfortable. (Sometimes, he thinks about how much a dad he’s become over the years, and it makes him shake his head.)

“So, you founded the group,” Clint says as they walk in silence, searching for something to break the ice with. Malcolm nods.

“Yeah. Being brainwashed really screwed with me. I didn’t realize how much I was being used until I came out of it...then I realized I wasn’t alone, and I could help people who were going through the same thing when it came to this psycho. Gave me a reason to get back in the game.”

“You can get pretty fucked up when someone is in your head,” Clint says, and Malcolm laughs cynically.

“Yeah. You can. This way.”

He opens a door to a building that looks like it’s seen better days, and leads Clint up a flight of stairs that seems just as decrepit as his Brooklyn apartment. Malcolm opens the door, ushering Clint inside, and when he turns around he finds Malcolm staring at him with his arms crossed, his eyes hard and judgemental.

“Your name’s not Barney, is it?”

Clint’s caught off guard. For a brief moment, he wonders whether he should even try to keep his cover, given that the accusation has come so out of the blue, it had to be founded in some sort of confirmation. He sighs, holding up his hands. “Nope. It’s not.”

“I knew it,” Malcolm said coldly. “Why’d you lie?”

Clint raises an eyebrow. “Really, kid? You’re going to ask that question if you know who I am? Unless you don’t know who I am.” He holds his gaze, challenging him silently the way he might challenge Natasha when she refused to back down from a decision he didn’t like, or the way he might challenge Cooper when he tried to lie about something.

“You’re Hawkeye. The Avengers archer. Right?”

So what? Clint wants to ask. Instead, he asks the question he’s really curious about. “How’d you find out?”

Malcolm chokes on a laugh. “Come on. After your little story, I looked you up on my phone, especially when you wouldn’t name the person who had controlled you. Recognized your face from the Battle of New York, put two and two together.”

Clint swallows, and nods slowly. “Well, I didn’t lie about why I was there. I really was brainwashed. Just not by a man in a purple suit.”

“Yeah, well. You also had a big group of superheroes to help you through it,” Malcolm says, his voice becoming rough. “I had no one. Do you know that it got so bad, he was giving me drugs so I would help him? I was so messed up, I was fucking up my own life. When I finally got out of his head, I went through withdrawal alone from all the shit he put me through. I mean, if Jess…” He trails off, his voice shaking. “Look, I get you’ve been through something, okay? But don’t think you know what it means to be someone like me or anyone else in this group who had to deal with someone like Kilgrave when you’re a big damn hero.”

“I’m not a big damn hero,” Clint snaps tiredly, annoyed and frustrated. “I’m the only one on this goddamn team with no powers or special abilities aside from my own skills. And that made me pretty useless when it came to an Asgardian psychopath who wanted to use me to kill my friends and a bunch of random innocent people. It wasn’t Kilgrave, but I wasn’t in control of my own mind, either. And it sucks. And I’ve had the same goddamn nightmares that you’ve probably had, and I’ve had the same worries, and it’s made me scared to be a father, and a friend, and a teammate. That enough for you?”

Malcolm seems shocked into silence, possibly having not expected Clint’s strong rebuttal, and Clint sighs.

“Look, kid. I didn’t come here looking for therapy. I didn’t even know I had anything left from that asshole. I thought I was over it, and I was just coming to the city to get away from everything and take some time to myself. But then I stumbled into your little group, and maybe it was meant to be. Maybe it was a better way for me to get my anger out than running or helping with construction clean-up in all of Manhattan. Which isn’t as glamorous as it looks, by the way.”

Malcolm looks a little less defensive, his posture relaxing as his arms drop. “So you...you got through it, then?”

“I’m getting through it,” says Clint gruffly, feeling like he’s talking to Wanda all over again. “It’s not like it gets easier.” He thinks of Natasha’s words -- you’re not cured just because you’ve had 794 good days and 3 bad ones -- and shrugs. “Sometimes, you just forget that the monster is there. Know what I mean?”

“Yeah,” Malcolm says, looking at the floor, and Clint nods towards his arm.

“Those track marks. I saw them at the diner. Are they from Kilgrave?”

Malcolm pulls down his sleeves self-consciously. “I told you. I was pretty messed up for awhile. Not my finest hour.”

“You’re preaching to the choir, kid.” Clint moves to one of the chairs in the small kitchen and sits down. “If I told you I didn’t do some messed up things after Loki, I’d be lying.”

“But it’s not just that,” Malcolm says, his voice wavering as his eyes start to shine. “I mean, I was an okay person. I was a good person. I was social worker. I helped people. And then I got caught up in this...I didn’t ask for it. I didn’t want any of it. I was addicted to cocaine for months, and the worst part...you wanna know what the worst part was?”

Clint leans back in the chair. “Lemme guess. You weren’t aware Kilgrave was a controlling asshole, and you thought your addiction was your own fault.”

“I --” Malcolm stops, his forehead creasing. “Yeah, actually.”

Clint smiles wryly. “When Loki controlled me, I didn’t know I was doing anything under his control. I mean, I kind of knew...I was aware that I was helping him. But everything I did, it was under my own hands. I told him information about my team that led to him being able to attack them. I fought my best friend, and I almost killed her. I can say those things weren’t me, because he made me do them. But at the same time…” Clint tries to find the rest of his words. “I couldn’t separate that, for awhile -- the person I was, and the person Loki made me become when he brainwashed me. I couldn’t trust myself. Because the thing was, he wasn’t making me angry, or smart, or calculated. He didn’t use magic to give me special powers that went away when I got him out of my head. Those were all bad parts of me that he amplified.”

Malcolm moves closer to Clint, sitting down at the table with him. “So is that why he brainwashed me? Because he knew I was weak and could become an addict? That I’d be easy to convince?”

“No,” Clint says instantly. “You were smart, Malcolm. You were really smart and really intuitive. You were loyal. Kilgrave knew all of that, and it’s why he took your mind. It’s why Loki took my mind, too.”

Malcolm glances at the floor, then back at Clint. “When you put it that way, it doesn't sound like I'm that bad a person."

"You put things in perspective," Clint says, realizing how easy it is for him to talk, watching Malcolm scratch at a scar on his wrist.

"Then you got it all together, I guess.”

Clint laughs, unable to stop the sound from escaping from his throat. “Not really. I wouldn’t be at this group, if I did. I used to hate myself for feeling this way. I still do. But, I don’t know...maybe it’s a good thing I don’t have it all together."

"How can that be a good thing?" Malcolm asks curiously. "I mean, you're still screwed up. You said yourself that you're not okay."

"Yeah," Clint agrees. "I don't think I am okay. But I get to find out that it’s not so bad to still have some issues, and that I’m not alone.”

Malcolm smiling tentatively, then offers out his hand. “Hey, look, I'm sorry that I outed you before and got angry about you lying to me.”

“Hey, don’t apologize.” Clint shakes his hand easily. “It was my own decision to lie, because I didn't want people to know who I was. And I was scared of what they would think of me if they knew I was there."

"But you're an Avenger," Malcolm says in confusion. "People will still think you're a hero. It doesn't matter."

"It matters to me," Clint says. "Because to my family and my partner and my friends, I'm not an Avenger. I'm just a guy who shoots a bow and arrow and sometimes makes grocery runs and falls asleep on the couch at eight at night. And believe it or not, I understand what it means to jump to conclusions and get frustrated without thinking about it.”

Malcolm’s smile grows a little wider. “I, uh. I know I promised you coffee. I swear I still have some, if you want it.”

“Yeah.” Clint nods, for the first time noticing how much lighter he feels since he walked into the apartment. “Yeah, Malcolm. That’d be great.”

 

***

 

By the time Clint finally leaves Malcolm’s apartment, he’s running late enough that Frank has coffee and an order of french fries already sitting on the table when he arrives.

“Where were you?” Frank asks.

Clint sits down and takes a french fry. “Would you believe me if I said I went to a support group?”

Frank raises an eyebrow that disappears into the creases of his forehead. “You’re kidding.” He pauses, waiting for Clint to say something, and then takes a drink of coffee in the silence. “You’re not kidding. What kind of support group?”

“People who were brainwashed,” Clint says, as if he’s telling Frank the daily weather. To his surprise, Frank doesn’t look too shocked.

“You gonna go back?”

“I dunno.” Clint reaches for Frank’s cup, taking a sip of his coffee. “Maybe. I could always go home, right?”

Frank takes a french fry and drags it around in ketchup slowly, creating red swirls that remind Clint of smeared blood. “Look, Barton. Would’ve said years ago that those dumb support groups are all hokey shit. But god knows it got me through some stuff when I came out Afghanistan, after you left with Laura.”

Clint looks down at the table as the waitress brings a second coffee and waits until she walks away before he speaks again.

“Listen, I’m really sorry. About Maria, and Lisa, and Frank Jr...I’m sorry I didn’t come.”

“You apologized before,” Frank says dismissively.

“No,” Clint says. “I didn’t. Not really. I heard about it on the news. Laura wanted to send a card...Lila wanted to send a picture.”

“Yeah, well.” Frank smiles tightly. “Don’t really matter now. We can’t all be saints and superheroes.”

“I messed up,” Clint continues. “I should’ve been there for you.”

“And what would you have done, Barton?” Frank looks tired and run-down, a portrait of a man who might terrify the world but underneath his masks, knows he’s lost everything. “You think it would’ve done me any good to see you, knowing you had a wife and family and a dangerous as shit job, but hey, it’s all good. Your damn work made sure no one would ever put a hit on your own family.”

Clint finds himself at a loss for words as Frank’s voice cuts through the air, slicing the tension that’s built up between them.

“You asked where I’ve been going,” Frank says after a long pause. “Maria was friends with this girl she’d known since before I met her in the army. Callie. Childhood friend. They got two kids of their own, they played all the time with Lisa and Frank Jr. Became my own family, almost. So that’s where I’ve been. Every day I go see her family. I watch the kids. I watch ‘em after school, I watch ‘em walk home. I show up at their games and stuff. Sometimes I just go to their house and stake it out all night. And if anyone so much as tries to lay a finger on any of ‘em, I’ll shoot ‘em.”

Clint can’t help but smile, despite the fact that Frank’s words make him feel even worse about his distance over the years. “Laura was messed up for awhile about the whole thing. She really was. Maria was her friend, too.”

“What are you gonna do,” Frank says in a low voice. “I lost ‘em, and I can’t do anything about that. So maybe I killed a bunch of people to get my anger out, I avenged my family the only way I knew how. Maybe it doesn’t make me a proud father, maybe I’m not a saint who gets medals and gets a news story about how I saved the world. But that don’t matter, because I saved myself. And one day, I’m gonna get to tell ‘em that I made it all up to them. Even if I gotta go to hell for it.”

Clint’s quiet for a long time, going over the words in his mind before he says them out loud. “I want you to take care of the kids,” he says finally.

“Huh?”

“You heard me.” Clint waits until Frank meets his eyes again. “We’re not just dealing with aliens anymore. Sokovia was...it was something different. And things are changing for us. Not just for me and Laura, but for the Avengers…” He sighs. “I’m retiring, kind of. I’m not really on active duty anymore after the whole shitshow in Sokovia, and yeah, it was my choice, because I needed to just get out of the fight. I needed to be with my family. But I probably won’t be able to avoid doing my job forever. And if things ever go south and I don’t have Natasha, I need someone I can trust to take care of Laura. And Lila and Coop and Nate.”

Frank runs his fingers over the porcelain rim of his coffee cup. “You trust me?”

“I do,” Clint says firmly. “I trust the Frank Castle I knew when I joined him in the military. The one who was smart enough to know how to defend himself and his friends, who cared about his own kids and wife, who knew what it meant to owe a debt. Who helped me through panic attacks, who threw himself into the line of fire to protect someone who didn’t deserve to die, who damn near got himself killed on a daily basis because of his big heart.”

Frank rubs his eyes as Clint talks. “Why are you doing this, Barton?”

Clint furrows his brow. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, if you think you’re doin’ this cause you owe me something, you don’t. Maria’s gone. Lisa and Frank Jr. are gone, and they ain’t ever comin’ back, and I don’t want pity after all these years. I don’t want you to do this because it’s gonna make you feel better and check off some box on a therapy worksheet.”

“I don’t owe you,” Clint says. “But I do trust you. And there aren’t many people I can trust with my family that don’t work with me, and even that list is small. And you’re a lot better equipped to keep them safe than someone who’s never handled a firearm before.”

Frank nods slowly, leaning forward on the table as Clint talks. “Well. So long as you don’t get yourself killed or something, I guess I can try to do that.”

“Oh, and one more thing.” Clint eyes the waitress as she comes back with a notepad, intent on taking their order. “When you come see them, whenever or however you have to make the visit -- even if it’s not for awhile -- make sure you read Penny and Dime. Lila really likes that one.”

Frank’s head snaps up at his words, and Clint smiles.

Frank’s eyes become bright, and he smiles back.

 

***

 

He doesn’t say goodbye to Frank. He gets up the next morning to find his friend already gone, and instead buys a new coffee maker at CVS and also two pounds of Folgers.

He gets in his car and drives into Manhattan instead of away from it, and idles the car dangerously in the street while he runs up the stairs to Malcolm’s apartment. No one answers, but Clint slides the card with his personal number on it under the door before leaving.

“Hey,” he says when he calls Laura from the car, putting her on speakerphone so he can’t get yelled at, however mentally, for bad driving habits. “I’m coming home tomorrow.”

“Oh, really?” Laura teases. “I forgot what my husband looked like.”

“Funny.” Clint pauses as a loud cry breaks through his thoughts. “I have your bagels, by the way.”

“Throw in some lox, and I might let you live,” Laura says before she hangs up, and Clint laughs alone in the car.

“Yes, ma’am.”

The drive back to Avengers Compound is easier than his initial drive into the city, and as such, he makes good enough time that he’s back well before it hits early afternoon. He’s not thinking as he slings his bag over his shoulder and starts walking towards the building, letting out a loud string of curses when he goes to open the door and pulls at dead weight.

“Fuck,” he mutters under his breath as he reaches for the keypad. He tries to remember what he had seen Natasha punch in last time; it wasn’t that long ago but for some reason, he can’t seem to remember the sequence of numbers.

4-8-3-5...7?

“I am sorry. That is incorrect.”

“Yeah, I know --”

4-8-3-7...5?

“I am sorry. That is incorrect.”

“Goddammit!”

“Jesus, Barton.” Natasha’s voice makes him jump, and he turns around to find her staring at him in amusement. “For someone who’s good at being a spy, you’re terrible at getting into your own building.”

“I couldn't remember the damn code,” Clint grumbles as Natasha pushes past him, flashing him a smirk.

4-8-7-3-5. Of course. Well, at least he had been close.

“I didn’t expect you back so soon,” Natasha comments as she leads him through the building and towards the elevator. “I thought you’d go straight home.”

“Tomorrow,” Clint says. “I wanted to come back here and see you before I left. That’s okay, right?”

The elevator doors open, and Natasha squeezes his arm. “Yeah. That’s okay.”

Clint walks behind her in silence as she lets him into her room, where he drops his bag. It feels good to be back in her space, even though he knows it’s only temporary. There was something about being with Natasha that made him feel safe, and he had forgotten how much he appreciated it in the absence of being in the field so often.

“So, what’d you do in New York?”

“Um.” Clint stretches as he takes off his boots. “Saw some old friends, drank a lot of coffee, stayed in my old apartment, went to a support group.” He sits down on the bed and Natasha rolls her eyes.

“I believe all of that except for part about the support group,” she says with a toss of her head. “The day I can make you excited to sit in front of anyone so they can dissect your brain is the day pigs fly.”

“Well, maybe pigs did fly,” Clint says as Natasha joins him on the bed, placing her hand over his knee. “No different than aliens and robots, right?”

Natasha stays silent, rubbing her fingers over the fabric of his jeans. “Did it help?”

Being away from here? Accepting your issues? Thinking about feelings you haven’t had in years?

“I think so,” Clint says slowly, thinking of Malcolm and Frank. “I mean, you’re not cured just because you’ve had 794 good days and 3 bad ones, right?”

Natasha scoots closer to him and puts an arm around his shoulder, leaning in and resting her head underneath his chin.

“Right.”

 

***

 

“...and then maybe one day, I will control you,” Wanda says later that afternoon as she prepares to spar in the gym, Natasha standing to her left and Clint standing in front of her. Clint lifts his bow and swallows past the inevitable feeling that bubbles up in his chest at the words, threatening to overwhelm him.

One batch. Two batch. Penny and dime.

He takes a deep, slow breath and lets his heart beat settle. The feeling passes in another moment, retreating back into the edges of his brain, and he looks at both Natasha and Wanda.

He smiles encouragingly.

“Maybe one day, Wanda, you will.”