Not With a Bang
Mostly he remembers the sound.
Kate asked him once, for his memories of what came before. A child of the Dust, she longs for her generation’s fairy stories.
But all Clint has to offer her is noise; the fury of the blast that took his left ear, and the roar of the chaos that followed.
Mostly he remembers the sound.
Clint is tightening a nut on the wheel axel when Kate yells from her perch on the car roof. “Sky’s looking real dark up ahead!”
Clint raises his head to see where Kate is pointing. A quick glance is all he needs to confirm the boiling clouds rolling in over the sandy plains, lightning flashing in their swollen bellies. It’s hard not to think of them as alive somehow, lurking, waiting to scrape out your eyes and burn your throat.
Kate slides off the car roof, nimble as a cat. She’s like most kids born in the Dust; scrawny, tough, resourceful, and completely unaware of any world other than this. She should be in a school, learning about spelling and worrying about whatever the hell kids her age used to worry about. Girlfriends. Boyfriends. Math.
Instead she’s fighting her way across the Dust like the rest of them, trying to stay one step ahead of the storms and the Buzzards in the hills who wait to pick off the weak and the dying. Kate’s only gotten tougher since Clint met her on the side of one of the ruined roads, starving and scared, but still determined to protect the small bundle of belongings in the back of her mother’s wrecked car. A voice in the back of Clint’s head, one that sounds suspiciously like Barney, tells him about all the strays he tried to save as a kid. Clint ignores the voice. Barney’s dead anyway.
“Best get in the car, girly-girl,” he shouts to Kate over the rising wind. He turns, and she’s already in the passenger seat, her bag on her lap. Of course she is.
Clint chucks the last of his tools onto the backseat and slides in behind the steering wheel. He jiggles the chisel rammed into the ignition and the car roars to life as he slams his foot down on the accelerator. The engine lowers down to a purr as he guides the car over the sand dunes. Some people in the Dust love to rev their engines to show off how much fuel they’ve scrounged or stolen, but Clint isn’t that idiotic.
“Do you know where we can wait out the storm?” Kate says after a while. Even though she’s putting on a brave face, Clint can see the impression from her teeth on her dry lips.
“Heard about a Hub not far from here,” he tells her, with far more confidence than he actually feels. “I know the name of the guy in charge. We can bargain for shelter.”
“Think that’ll work? You’re not exactly the best at making allies, old man.”
Clint grits his teeth and tightens his hands on the steering wheel. “It’s better than facing the storm.”
“Oh, great, no contradiction.”
Clint ignores her to focus on the dunes, looking out for any indication of the Hub. The storm growls behind them and Kate keeps glancing out of the rear window, but Clint tries to push the oncoming clouds out of his mind. If he can’t find shelter, they’re done for anyway.
He’s driving the car up over another dune when the left front wheel smashes into something hard. He has a second to shout out to Kate, and then the world is spinning in a flurry of smashed glass and sound.
Nothing but a high-pitched whine in his ears.
Something sucks at his feet, he is sinking, he is drowning—
No. That can’t be right.
Clint forces his teeth open and chokes on a mouthful of grit. Sand. He’s in the sand. He does a mental check of his body. Legs, all there. Arms, attached to his shoulders. His ribs burn like fire, but everything is still in place. Alive, then. Okay.
Clenching his teeth, Clint wills his arms and shoulders into lifting him up. Slowly. Inch by inch. Find Kate, check the car, find shelter. Storm’s coming. Inch by inch.
He’s almost on his knees when the hard edge of a revolver slams into his temple and forces him back down.
Clint’s entire body goes rigid, his fingers searching for traction on the sand and coming up empty. A woman’s voice shouts something over his head, the wind and his poor hearing turning her words into an unintelligible mess. He reaches out with his other senses and spots a black boot in the corner of his vision.
The woman says something again, too muffled to make out. “I can’t hear!” Clint manages to force between his teeth. “Let me turn.”
A hand grips the back of his jacket, pulling him over onto his back. He gets a brief flash of the woman’s red hair before she shoves the gun between his eyes.
“Where have you come from?” she says, and finally, enough sand clears from his ears to let him make out what she’s saying.
“The west,” he shouts. “Coming down from the rocks. We’re looking for a place to shelter.”
He tries to flick his eyes sideways and catch a look at Kate, but all he manages to see is her form lying next to him before the gun presses into his skin. The woman holding the gun has a cloth tied across the lower half of her face.
He looks to the side again and sees a fuzzy shadow of a second woman in a large coat bending over Kate.
His lungs burn as he tries to struggle against the gun in his face. “Old Peggy told me about a man named Nick Fury!” he bursts out desperately.
The woman’s blue eyes narrow at him over the cloth. Thunder growls overhead.
“Nat!” he hears the other woman call, Kate’s head lolling her arms. “We’ve got to get inside.”
“So go,” Gun Woman shouts back, blocking Clint’s vision.
“We can’t leave them!”
“We don’t know if we can trust them,” Gun Woman insists, still pushing the gun into Clint’s face. Clint tries to be as still and non-threatening as a rock lizard.
The other woman keeps yelling, and Clint can’t keep up with the exchange. Thunder fills his brain and he can smell the Dust on the wind, creeping up over the dunes. He closes his eyes. He’s had a good run, longer than most.
Clint’s just about resigned himself to his fate of being left out in the storm when a rough bag shoves down over his face. The hard edge of the gun barrel pushes into his temple and he feels the flutter of a woman’s lips near his ear.
“Try anything,” she breathes, “and I’ll slit your throat.”
He nods as much as the gun allows.
Someone pulls the bag from his head, and Clint eyes immediately sting with the harsh burst of electric light. He blinks a few times, willing himself to focus until he can see the outline of one of the women, who is shining a torch into his face. Battery powered, by the looks of it. Impressive. Clint can just make out the shadow of his bow and quiver in the far corner.
Gun Woman steps in front of the torch, blocking the light. It shines through her hair until it looks as red as the Dust outside. She pulls the cloth down from her face and she’s younger than he expected, with pale skin and chapped lips. “What’s your name?” she barks.
“Barton,” he manages, trying to swallow through the sand coating his throat. “Clint Barton. And yours?”
“Don’t push your luck,” Gun Woman starts, but the other woman pushes her out of the way. She’s darker and younger, maybe Kate’s age. Long, curly black hair spills over her ragged coat that looks far too big for her.
“Jesus, Nat, it’s just a name,” she says, her dark eyes flashing. “He’s already said he knows Fury, right? If you’re going to interrogate him, at least let me hit him.”
Gun Woman (Nat?) looks thoughtful, as if she’s considering the prospect. “A lot of people have heard of Fury.”
“Whatever. I’m America, and she’s Nat,” the girl says quickly, pushing him in Kate’s direction. “Tell me what your friend’s called.”
Nat actually rolls her eyes at that, muttering something under her breath.
Clint tries to slow his breathing as he darts his eyes around, trying to get a good look at Kate. He catches a glimpse of her slumped in a corner, her hair hiding her face. Concentrate, he tells himself. Focus. “Kate. Her name’s Kate. She’s from the factories."
This seems to make the woman called Nat pause, and Clint takes the opening, playing up the desperation for all it’s worth. “Please help her. I don’t care what you do to me, but please help her.”
Nat wrinkles her nose and shines the torch closer to his face. “No need for the martyr act,” she grumbles, but her eyes keep flicking to Kate. “Take her to Cho,” she says to the girl.
The girl nods briskly and walks over to Kate. Clint keeps an eye on her as she helps Kate stand. To Clint’s horror, Kate lets out a low groan of pain.
“Easy!” he exclaims.
“Yeah, yeah,” America replies. “I’ve got her.” She lets Kate lean on her shoulder as she opens a heavy door at the back of the room. Kate’s face is chalk white, but at least she’s walking, even if her feet drag loudly against the stone. America helps Kate through the doorway, letting watery light spill into the room. The door slams behind the two girls, and once again the only light comes from Nat’s torch.
With America and Kate gone, Nat turns her attention back to Clint. “You know Old Peggy?”
Clint nods hastily, licking his lips. “She told me about a friend of hers who ran a Hub in these parts.”
She shines the torch closer to his face until the light throws her face into shadow. “Stand up.”
Nat makes a noise of frustration. “Stand up!”
Slowly, Clint uses his hands to push himself up off the floor. The stone feels rough against his weathered palms.
“Spread your legs and arms,” Nat says.
Clint bites back his instinct to make a smartass comment and does so. It does not help, then, that Nat steps up to him and starts running her hands over his arms. “If you’re armed,” she tells him, right into his ear, “say it now.”
“Knife,” Clint manages. “Left boot.”
Nat bends and swiftly pulls up both his pant legs. Clint’s knife goes clattering to the floor and her hands run up his body.
“Huh,” she says after she’s finished frisking him. “You were telling the truth.”
Before Clint can react, she’s pulled the bag down over his face again. Clint tries not to react as the darkness swallows him whole.
Clint tries to keep his sense of direction as the woman leads him around, but she turns so many corners his mind can’t keep up, and his ears make out nothing but scraping footsteps. He feels light prick through the fabric just as Nat pulls the bag up over his head again.
He blinks a couple of times until his eyes get used to the brightness. He’s standing in a small, cramped concrete room, maybe part of one of those old bunkers left over from before. Most of the room is taken up by a metal table strewn with papers and old electrical equipment, and sitting behind that table is a middle aged man wrapped in a leather coat. He has a black eye patch where one of his eyes should be, just as Old Peggy said.
“You’re Nick Fury,” Clint concludes.
The man leans back in his chair, his gaze so penetrating Clint can feel it in his bones.
“Nat said Old Peggy mentioned me.”
“She said you ran a Hub in these parts. That you’re a fair man. I met her up in the hills with Old Angie. She said you’re likely to shelter a man from the storms.”
The man chuckles to himself. “Yeah, that sounds like Old Peggy all right.”
Nat shoves Clint forward and Clint tries his best to stand straight on his feet, his head up, but not too confrontational. He’s seen enough to know this is a man to take seriously.
Nat steps up to lean against the table, folding her arms. Her earlier aggression is replaced by a calm, practically relaxed demeanour, and Clint finds himself wondering which version is the act.
“Don’t worry about Nat,” Fury says wryly, his voice revealing that he has noticed Clint’s interest. “Her bite’s worse than her bark.”
Nat arches her eyebrow and gives Clint an appraising look. Clint manages not to shift uncomfortably, which is to his credit, really.
“You understand we don’t trust people much,” Fury continues, all business again. “This Hub is neutral territory, we’re not aligned with a Clan and we don’t answer to the factory towns. Which means we have people passing through who have good reason to stay hidden.”
“I’ve got no love for the Clans myself,” Clint replies, as calmly as he can. His life could depend on this, and Kate’s too. “The kid who travels with me escaped from the factories. Sounds like we’re a perfect fit.”
Nick spreads his hands. “We’ll see about that when the storm passes.”
With that, Clint realises he’s been accepted, for now, at least. He opens his mouth to say something—thank you? You won’t regret it? Some other forgotten pleasantry. It’s been a while since Clint was accepted someplace.
Before he can decide, Nat pushes herself up from her leaning position at the desk. “Don’t get too comfortable,” she warns, sauntering past him. “Everyone has a job here. We’ll put you to work.”
She slides the door open and Clint follows her out, throwing a quick nod of thanks to Fury as he goes. He laughs when he recognises the open room to his left, the room where he was first brought in. She was walking him in circles.
The Hub glows with electric lights that hang from the ceiling like little suns. Clint tries to think back on the last time he saw so much electric light in one place, but he can’t pin point it. Maybe back when he was still travelling with Laura.
“You can bunk with Sam,” Nat says over her shoulder. “He’s passing through on a supply run. He’s a funny person, tells lots of jokes.” She laughs, shaking her head. “It’s kind of a nice change, actually.”
Clint grunts something in acknowledgement, but Nat ignores him. Eventually she points to the entrance of a tiny alcove. “In there.”
Clint nods at her already retreating back, and ducks under the low doorway. Inside, a handsome man is pulling on his shirt.
“Uh, sorry,” Clint says awkwardly, turning.
“No need to be,” the man replies, holding out his hand with a grin. “I’m Sam. You’re Clint, right? Maria told me you’d be coming.”
Clint takes Sam’s hand, still cautious. “You stay here often?”
“A couple of times. Wasn’t planning on staying overnight this time, but hey, storms happen, what are you going to do?”
“Right,” Clint mutters, keeping close to the walls. There are two large pieces of crumbling cardboard on the cold floor, and a bedroll lies spread out on one of them. Clint hesitates, unsure whether to claim the other piece of cardboard for his own use, when the clatter of metal on concrete sends him ducking into a defensive stance.
“Whoa, it’s okay, it’s okay,” Sam explains, holding up his hands. “I just dropped a chisel. No weapons in here.”
Clint stares at Sam for a second, then takes deep breaths, trying to calm the rush of adrenaline in his chest. “I’m not used to being inside,” he admits softly.
Sam keeps his distance and lowers his hands. He doesn’t look away, but he slowly bends into a sitting position on his sleeping bag. “Yeah, I get that. When Steve and I first settled, we kept crawling out to sleep on the rocks. Couldn’t find rest with a roof over my head.”
“Do you sleep better now?” Clint asks, not willing to sit just yet.
Sam shrugs. “Sometimes.”
Clint tries to tell himself that it’s okay to spread out his bed roll on the cardboard, that the ceilings are reinforced and they won’t bury him in rubble, but his knees refuse to bend.
Sam sighs as if he can hear every thought in Clint’s head. “I know it’s hard to believe, but you’ve got a space here until the storm stops. I’ve never seen Fury throw anyone into the cold who didn’t give him a good reason.”
Sam’s right, Clint doesn’t believe it. Everyone has good reasons.
Eventually Clint does try to get some sleep in the alcove. The cardboard provides little protection from the cold concrete floor, but Clint has to admit it, it’s still the best ‘bed’ he’s had in a while. Years ago you still had a chance of finding a mattress in one of the abandoned farms if you were lucky, but the Dust swallowed them all eventually, and car seats and caves became the best places to lay your head. Clint hopes Kate is getting some rest.
He doesn’t know how long it’s been when Sam shakes him awake.
“Sorry, man,” Sam says from the door. “But there’s food, and I figured you wouldn’t want to miss out.”
Clint grunts a thank you as he tries to stretch the stiffness out of his muscles. Sam nods at him and leaves. In his absence a piss-weak light trickles in from the passageway.
Clint takes a moment to breathe before rubbing his hands over his face and rolling to his feet so he can drag himself out of the alcove, only to come face to face with Nat.
She’s standing with her arms folded across her chest, wearing a faded black hoodie to compensate for the cool air underground. Clint can’t help noticing that the loose fitting hoodie fails to disguise her figure underneath, so he keeps his eyes firmly fixed on her face because first, checking people out like that is rude and he believes basic decency should still be a thing, and second, he suspects Nat could kill him with her pinky.
“Uh, hi,” he mumbles stupidly.
“Hey,” she replies, a smile playing at the corner of her mouth. “Sleep well?”
“Uh, yeah,” he manages in a probably failed attempt to save face. “How’s the sky?”
“You’re not getting out there any time soon, Dust-boy.”
Right. There goes his hope of this not being one of the storms that settles in for days and devours the landscape he tried so hard to map in his mind.
The disgust must have shown in his face, because Nat laughs at him. “Relax. You’ll see it soon enough.” She turns away and starts down the passage, her incredible hair glowing as she passes under one of the lights. “This way,” she calls back at him.
Clint follows her down some narrow passages until she pushes open a heavy metal door. Behind it is a large, poorly lit cavern that looks as though it might once have been a bunker that got widened by hacking into the rock. About two dozen people are scattered in small groups around overturned boxes or leaning against the walls, talking in low voices so Clint can’t make out any of the words. A thin bar attached to the ceiling and some lamps standing on the boxes give off a weak light, and the air has a thick smell of concrete dust.
Sam is chatting to a slim brunette woman in the corner, and Nat goes over to join them, leaving Clint hovering around the entrance until the door slides open again and he has to jump to the side to make way for a woman carrying a steaming pot. His natural instinct against standing in crowds of people makes him hesitate, but the promise of food, hot food, is too much to ignore.
The food is lukewarm bran mush served in mismatched containers, but Clint eats every scrap from the bowl someone hands to him. He’s still licking the bowl for whatever trace could be left when Kate steps into his eye line. She’s got some sticking plasters to cover the cuts on her face and her left arm in a sling, but she’s standing tall and she’s breathing, and Clint can’t help the grin of relief that spreads across his face. “Hey, Katie-Kate.”
“Hey, old man.” She grins back. “Miss me?”
He fixes her with a mock frown. “You wish, you little brat.”
“Shut up, you can’t live without me and you know it.” She sticks her tongue out at him just as America appears beside her, carrying two steaming bowls. “I got us a seat by the corner, Princess,” America says.
Kate throws a look Clint’s way, and he waves her off. It’s about time she met someone her age. He watches her go over to a far corner, then turns his attention back to his bowl.
For a few minutes almost total silence reigns throughout the Hub as people try to eat their fill. Clint breathes deep, relaxing a little without ambient noises to trip him up.
He’s enjoying the quiet and the feeling of food in his belly when Nat appears in front of him again.
“Fury wants to assign you a job,” she announces when Clint looks up at her. “I’ll take you there now.”
“You mean to the place you walked me in circles to get to?”
The corner of her lips quirk without a trace of embarrassment. “Better safe than sorry.”
Her small smile is infectious and Clint finds himself grinning back. It’s not an unwelcome feeling. “Yeah, I get it.”
He dusts off his pants as he stands, throwing another look towards Kate to make sure she’s okay. Kate is chatting animatedly with America, waving her hands. Oh well, as long as she’s having fun.
“So, it’s Nat, huh?” Clint says as he and Nat leave the hall. “Can’t say our previous meetings count as an introduction.”
He gives her an exaggerated wink and she rolls her eyes at him. “It’s Natasha, actually.”
“You live here?” he asks. He’s not sure why he wants to strike up a conversation, as he’s normally not the most chatty guy himself (a natural consequence of travelling the Dust). He puts it down to spending too much time with Kate.
“Sometimes,” Natasha answers, to Clint’s surprise. “I trade in the Dust most days, I don’t like staying in one place too long. But these are my allies.” Her shoulders rise and fall in a shrug so fluid Clint can only describe it as feline. “It’s good to have a place to come back to, when you need it.”
Now that they’ve begun talking, Clint finds he doesn’t want to stop. “You must’ve known Fury for a while.”
“Yes,” she says simply. “I owe him a great deal.”
Her voice trails off as they walk, and Clint resists the urge to ask her for more. He knows about debt.
Fury puts Clint to work repairing old tools and Clint is grateful for the distraction. He offers some of the tools to Kate, but Kate stutters, then tells him she’s helping America update some maps. Clint lets her go, and finds a ledge in one of the caverns to work in. The roof is so low he has to hunch over to sit, but there’s a strange comfort in the feel of solid stone above his head and against his back.
After a while a flash of red appears at the edge of the ledge, and Clint sits back quickly as Natasha hauls herself up onto the ledge. Once she’s pulled up her long legs, she holds her finger up to him in a clear sign to wait while she moves over to sit on his right. Clint never told her which ear works better. He wonders how closely she’s been observing him.
Natasha motions towards the small pile of tools and Clint hands her a hammer. Taking it carefully, she pulls out a small roll of electrical tape and tears off a strip.
“Where did you get that?” Clint asks in surprise. It’s hard to get plastic-based goods these days, most of them degrade.
“Traded it for a glass bottle down near a factory town,” Natasha replies, winding the tape around the hammer’s broken handle. “Guy preferred to have another weapon. Moron.”
“Are the factory towns here good for trading?”
She shrugs, looking down at the hammer. “Some. At the edges it’s mostly all small fish looking for scraps, you want ammunition or something, you’ve got to go further in.”
“S’why I’ve got my bow,” Clint says. “Don’t have to scrounge for bullets.”
“And bows are silent,” Natasha says with a wry smile.
Clint laughs, and gives her a little salute. “They are that.”
Natasha’s smile broadens, but she turns her attention back to the hammer in her hand. Her red hair swings forward, casting a shadow on her cheek.
It’s foolish, but once again, Clint can’t help wanting to know what makes her tick. “Did you come from the factories?” he asks, casually.
Natasha pauses over her work. “Something like that,” she offers. “Did you?”
Cryptic. Clint can appreciate a deflection when he sees one. “Something like that,” he offers in return. He can’t blame her when he doesn’t like talking about the past either.
She sighs heavily, looking out over the empty room. “I was born into a factory town,” she starts. “At least, I think I was. I never met my parents. It was me and a lot of little kids, they were training us, for security forces, or--.” She breaks off, casting her head down.
She looks away from him, so Clint isn’t able to hear if she says anything more. Her hands stiffen in her lap, and Clint feels an ache rise in his chest. There were rumours of children being trained in the factory towns for years; something about early indoctrination making them better killers or some such. He slides his hand down across the concrete ledge towards her, then thinks better of it and pulls back. His hand rests on the ledge and he grounds himself in the feel of cold, rough concrete under his skin.
“What made you decide to come out into the Dust?” he says, trying to break the chill that has settled over them.
Natasha looks at him askance. “What made you?”
“Point taken.” Clint pulls away, and for a second Natasha seems to open her lips to say something, but she goes back to repairing the tools.
Silence sets in over them again, a shade warmer than before.
The quiet is broken when America walks in below the ledge, followed closely by Kate. America is balancing a stack of heavy boxes and Kate keeps trying to help support the boxes with her uninjured hand, without much success. America says something Clint cannot make out, and Kate giggles. Actually giggles. Clint would make a mental note to tease her about it, but really, he’s just happy to see her smile.
Natasha slides closer to him, until their knees gently touch. “Sometimes I think it’s easier for them,” she says, nodding down towards America and Kate.
She sighs, long and deep, and Clint’s ears just pick up the faint rattle in her chest. “They’ll be the ones who figure out how to build a life out of this mess. The rest of us are just… waiting to be irrelevant.” Her hand rests on her knee, so close to his own it makes his head rush. “I hate the storms,” she says. “They give you too much time to think.”
The storm rages for four more days. Clint spends most of the time doing jobs around the Hub, sometimes with Natasha or Sam. He manages to talk to Kate on the odd occasion, but she works more with America and some other younger people. At first he sits on his own at mealtimes, and then Natasha slowly invites him to eat with her. They sit side by side on overturned boxes, and sometimes their hands brush each other’s, quiet and out of sight.
On the fifth day the storm clouds finally stop growling above, leaving another layer of sand in its wake. Clint isn’t thrilled about navigating his way around the newly born dunes, but that’s the price of living in the Dust.
Kate comes to him after the morning meal. “America knows a settlement of women not too far from here,” she begins; so hesitant he can feel it in her voice. “They could use a sharpshooter.”
She tries to say more, but Clint agrees to her leaving before she can finish. “That’s great,” he says, trying to swallow the lump growing in his throat. “I’m happy for you.”
Kate throws her arms around his waist and sobs into his shirt. Clint pets her hair and keeps his eyes fixed on the ceiling. “Just breathe, Katie-Kate. Just breathe.”
She leaves, and Clint turns away before he can watch her go.
He walks to Natasha’s alcove, because he can’t seem to think of anywhere else to go.
“Storm’s over,” Natasha says, as a welcome.
She reaches for him, slips her hands under his shirt and presses her face to his neck, and Clint loses himself in her legs and lips and hair.
The sun singes Clint’s eyes when he emerges from the ground. The dunes have rearranged themselves into scraggy peaks, thrusting up to a sharp edge and then plunging down into deep valleys, turning the Dust into a boiling sea. What are you going to do now, old man, says the voice in his head, and now the voice sounds like Kate. Another ghost to add to the collection of people who stayed behind.
He tries to tell himself it’s better this way. Kate deserves whatever scrap of happiness she can dig up from the Dust. It’s good for her, and good for him too—Clint prefers to travel alone, really. Kate was always going to leave eventually.
Natasha pulls up next to him on the rocks. “Kid not traveling with you?”
Clint tries to play it off. “Nah, she’s staying on ground.”
He can almost feel Natasha’s eyes studying him as she fixes a shawl around her head. “Where are you off to now?”
Clint shrugs, looking down at his hands. “Sam asked me to come by his settlement, teach some archery in exchange for fuel. And you?”
She finishes fixing the shawl and pushes her goggles up onto her forehead. “West.”
“Could be a long while,” he says.
She grins at him for a moment, and Clint can’t make out the meaning, even as it pushes at his mind. Her hair is fire in the burning sun. “You never know, Barton,” she says over her shoulder. “There are stranger paths in the Dust.”
She climbs on her motorbike and kicks the engine into life. She throws a sarcastic salute in his direction and pulls the goggles down over her eyes. “Watch the dunes in that rust bucket of yours.”
She speeds off in a roar of sand and smoke, and Clint can’t help but smile.