Overload, says the too-calm synthetic voice around him, diagnostic panels flashing errors in the corners of his vision, bathing the cockpit in red light. Overload. Overload.
“I heard you, goddamn it,” Clint mutters, gripping the left arm control lever tighter, skin pulling white over his knuckles.
Outside the cockpit window, the enemy’s beam saber draws back from his mech’s right shoulder, fingers of its free hand wrenching the damaged arm away and sending a crunching sound through the rest of his armor. He can lose the arm, they’ll build another one—Right arm nonfunctional, the system informs him, Closing circuits. Re-routing power.
Hell, he thinks as he’s moving his right hand to the nearest panel to check the energy reserves, losing the arm might even buy him time.
“Re-route remaining power to stabilizers,” Clint tells the system.
“Bar — on,” Coulson says over the radio, crackling and garbled from too much damage to the communications system. It’s been offline for an hour now. Still, his perfect calm carries over just fine through the mess; if Clint had to get anyone from support staff, he’s glad it’s Coulson. “— believe — had — ders to report back.”
“Hey, bridge crew. Just doing some cleanup,” Clint says, and fires the thrusters on both feet, wincing at the hard stutter in the right throwing off his balance. That beam rifle really nailed his right side; there’s no way he’s going to win this head on. “How’s the mothership?”
He overcompensates on the left side boosters, dodges under the debris of one of the HYDRA suits he neutralized earlier The other five are scattered in a half mile radius around them, life support beacons flashing. Clint is efficient, but he draws a line. He has to.
“Lost pow — ectors three and five,” says Coulson, low and serious. “Sensors down — suspected hostiles — your status?”
“Fine,” Clint says, leveraging the left leg thrusters to dodge a slice of the beam saber. It’s messy, even more than expected of someone trying to coordinate movements for a three-story-tall, faintly human-shaped suit of armor.
The asshole in the HYDRA suit doesn’t even know what he’s doing. If Clint had enough reserves to materialize his own saber, he’d get one solid forward stab in and put it right through this guy’s power cells. As it stands, he doesn’t even have the maneuvering ability to keep steady.
But he’s spent enough time sparring and fencing with Coulson—always willing to train with him despite old war wounds, always answering knocks on the door of his quarters with a sleepy but patient smile and saying, “fine, fine”, always willing to give up his time for Clint when he could be doing anything else—to keep it together no matter how few resources he has at his disposal.
Plus, if he died out here in a one-on-one with some punk who can’t even handle his beam saber, that would be pretty pathetic, wouldn’t it?
And, Clint reminds himself before he can start getting too light, even a punk with bad technique can kill hundreds of people on an already damaged ship.
They’ll start with the bridge.
“Coulson, I think the comms are shot,” he says, voice easy as he makes another dodge, back towards the disembodied metal arm floating not far away. “Dropping out in case the line security’s taken a hit too.” There’s a pause before he can disengage the radio, preoccupied by the sudden flash of red on the heads-up display and the feeling of the right leg’s thrusters failing to fire altogether.
Total lateral failure, right side, the system’s voice tells him calmly.
“Barton,” Coulson says, quiet and cracking with fear instead of static, and Clint slams his hand on the panel to kill the comm system, swears under his breath.
Clint knows he can be kind of a dick, but the last thing he wants is for Coulson to worry.
“Disengage right leg,” he orders. “Re-route all power to left side.”
Disengaging, the system responds, and the mech’s right leg detaches, another acceptable loss. He smirks and maneuvers the left hand to grip the suit’s lost right arm.
“Better get ahold of myself, huh?” he says, ignoring the murmur of command not recognized from the computer. He knows he’s talking to a circuit board, but it’s better than nothing, he figures, as he grasps the fingers of the lost right arm and twists them off. Holding them tightly, he uses the auxiliary left side boosters to push himself as far from the enemy as possible. “Divert left side power to gauntlet repulsor array. Heat at 40%, output at 90%.”
Projected energy remaining: 0%, the system warns.
“Yeah, I thought you’d say that,” Clint sighs.
Life support minimal.
“Override code alpha-six-one-six-zero-zero,” Clint says, raising the suit’s left hand with the fingers of the other still clutched in its grasp. “On my mark.”
Clint holds out his hand towards the now-advancing enemy suit, sucks air in between his teeth, and waits for the rising gauge on the display to green-light the power routing.
“C’mon, c’mon,” he grits out, and just as the enemy suit raises the saber, gets into range, the system flashes the all-clear. “Fire!”
The repulsor flares, propelling the fragments of the right hand’s fingers forward and piercing small holes clean through the suit’s armor. Kickback from the repulsor throws him backward out of the beam saber’s range, left side thrusters offline for good now, and he watches the enemy suit’s swing fall short.
Clint waits in the slow, blind drift backwards, dagnostic panels and critical warnings flickering on the display before fading out in the dimming power reserves, the system scrambling to keep its fundamental processes in check and choking off everything else.
And then the enemy suit’s saber shorts out, its limbs gone still, as it drifts with him.
“Enemy suit neutralized,” he says, because the system can’t.
The display on the cockpit window reads a grey-lettered, blinking LIFE SUPPORT ACTIVE. Beneath it, the countdown reads 30:00.
He sits back in his chair and releases the controls, sighs as he stares out the window at the abyss.
Faintly ahead of him, the opposite direction from the SHIELD ship, he sees advancing lights. The enemy suits—he counts five, always did have good eyes—are probably following the distress beacons from the HYDRA guys he left alive.
He has a feeling HYDRA won’t be so kind.
We’re better than that, he remembers Coulson telling him, passing him a cup of water in the sparring room when they finished a hard round, Clint still burning ragged and angry with loss at another casualty report. When this war is over, the people we spare will go home and live with the knowledge of the people they massacred. That’s worse than any death we could give them.
His eyes looked dead, and sad, and lost, and Clint understood enough not to ask, the same way he never asked about Coulson’s old scars, his locked files, the many honors and commendations that made Coulson flinch when someone spoke of them.
“Well,” Clint says now, and leans forward to watch the enemy suits stop, light gathering in small points in a straight line across the row of them. He swallows the fear in his throat, smiles crookedly out the window at them. “No regrets.”
The rifle bursts come in quick succession, punching through too many places in the outer armor at once. One of them skims the cockpit, damages the first layer of shielding, and with the inertial dampeners off, Clint’s suit doesn’t take well to impact.
The barrage loosens something in the cockpit structure and Clint hears the crumpling sound above him, just before pain and darkness for a long moment and blinking back to blood running into his right eye, a dull wet ache across his forehead.
Distantly, the enemy lines up for the second wave, and this time there’s no way they’ll miss the life support or the cockpit.
He rests his hand on the unlit radio panel and smooths bloodied fingers over it, doesn’t know when or how that got there, leaves a smudge behind. The panel blurs, his vision dimming.
“Sorry,” he says.
There’s a rush past the cockpit window from behind him, bright red and two short beam weapons flashing out into the enemy line, and Clint stares at them without really processing any of it.
He blinks, slow and heavy.
Everything goes dark.
He’s in and out for a while, catches flashes of things.
Someone pulls him from his chair, something presses over his mouth, air filtering into his lungs.
He’s weightless, drifting.
Someone’s voice—familiar, but he can’t sort it out—and then more voices, and pain in more places, not just his head, in his side and his hand and his leg, too.
He gets his eyes open again, just once, and he’s being rolled somewhere, someone walking beside him, silhouetted against too-bright lights. He catches sight of bright red hair, and smiles.
“Nice moves out there,” he breathes.
“I’d slap you for that stunt if you weren’t already injured,” Natasha says with a smirk, touches his cheek, and then she’s hanging back while they wheel him somewhere else, and he goes under again.
He wakes in the Medbay, knows without even opening his eyes, from the sterile smell, the static feeling in the air.
When he finally does blink his eyes open, he finds a slouched figure at his bedside, callused fingers flicking over a datapad screen, faint light catching in the hollows of familiar dark circles.
“Hey,” Clint says, and Coulson looks up in surprise, almost drops his datapad.
Coulson frowns, breathes in like he’s going to reprimand him, but it all goes out in a sigh that drags his shoulders down until he’s resting his arms on Clint’s bedside.
“You could have called for help,” Coulson says quietly. “I was... I could have sent someone.”
“You guys had your hands full,” Clint says, shrugging.
Coulson doesn’t deny it, but he doesn’t say anything else, either. He leans on the Medbay bed and stares at the wall, breathing slowly.
“They followed life support beacons,” Coulson says, like Clint doesn’t already know. “You left them alive.”
Clint knows what’s coming. I shouldn’t have asked that of you, Coulson has told him once before. It’s not my choice to make for anyone else.
“Yeah, and isn’t that just gonna drive ‘em crazy?” Clint says, grinning.
“The shrapnel damage was bad,” says Coulson, throwing off Clint’s levity like a mis-aimed punch. “You’ll be in recovery for weeks before you can walk on your right leg again.”
A chill runs down Clint’s spine at that, but he doesn’t let it show. He’s fine. He’ll do the work and he doesn’t need his leg to pilot, anyway.
He didn’t even know he’d been hit. When did that happen?
“Shame I didn’t lose the whole thing,” Clint says. “Could have gotten a metal one like Bucky.”
“Clint,” Coulson says quietly, not Barton.
“Y’know, one of those guys is probably in a HYDRA Medbay,” Clint says, smiling a little. “Probably has a friend with him.”
“Don’t,” Coulson says, resting his forehead in the palm of his hand.
“No. You were right.” Clint isn’t backing down from this. And he’s not letting Coulson backslide, either.
He’s seen the way Coulson looks when people remind him how many soldiers he’s killed.
“It’s worth an extra scrape or two,” Clint says.
“It’s not worth—” Coulson starts, and shuts his mouth, runs a hand through his receding hair. He’s lost a lot of his calm, and Clint can feel himself slipping a little with it. Coulson’s supposed to be the one holding it together, here. Coulson’s voice is barely audible, pointed to his hands. “If it were your life, or theirs, I would have slaughtered them.”
He’s always understood what this is, doesn’t soften the words at all, and that’s how Clint knows.
“No, you wouldn’t have,” Clint says. He reaches out and nudges Coulson’s shoulder with his bandaged fingers, suppresses a wince at the nudge of something probably-broken in his hand. “C’mon. You and me, right?”
You and me, Coulson said to him ages ago, with Clint’s head on his shoulder, his shirt damp with Clint’s shameful, helpless tears. He stayed up with a warm washcloth and helped Clint clean the blood from his hands from dying enemies and dying civilians alike, the last remnants of Colony Epsilon-Three hanging in fragments outside the ship windows behind them, blown to hell by HYDRA command’s weapons with their own people still on the ground. Either we die in this war, Coulson said softly, Or we come out the other side of it as human beings.
At Clint’s words, Coulson looks up at him from the side of the bed, eyes tired and afraid like his last transmission over the comm.
“I just,” Coulson says, and never does finish the thought.
What he does is move his chair closer and set his datapad on the table nearby, clasp Clint’s hand between his where it’s not bandaged. His hands are rough, worn from decades in school and training and flight controls and datapads.
Coulson sits there for a long time, stares down at Clint’s hand and touches the calluses below his fingers, and Clint lets the stroking motion of Coulson’s thumb—and no small amount of painkillers—soothe him into sleep.
When he’s released from the Medbay a week later with the pills all gone from his system and his leg giving him hell, Coulson offers to help him walk to his quarters, stretches out his left arm as if to hold him up around the shoulders.
“Uh,” Clint says, not really sure how to tactfully say, Coulson, isn’t your left leg, like, held together with tape and string at this point?
But he leans, and Coulson’s bad side bears his weight, walks him steadily down the hall. Coulson winces every step of the way.
Clint lets him.
It’s weeks before Clint can run again, but when he’s better, he’s a hundred percent. He was right that he didn’t need his leg to pilot, but his mech needed heavy repairs anyway; after spending most of his recovery in the flight simulator and convincing Stark to program higher and higher difficulty levels in, he’s feeling pretty ready when they clear him for duty again.
When the alarms blare, he steps out of the simulator to find Coulson waiting for him.
“Here to wish me luck?” he asks.
Coulson presses something into the palm of his hand, and Clint finds a transmitter in the curve of his palm, just right to press into his ear.
“Stark threw it together,” Coulson says. “Experimental, but it should allow for communication even if the systems on the ship or the suit lose connection. You’re the test subject and you’re holding the alpha version.” He straightens himself up, as if it’s all business when he says: “So you’d better come back alive with it.”
Clint smiles and closes his fingers over it, says: “I will.”
In the hall, they pause at the branching hallways towards the hangar and the bridge, and Coulson turns, touches Clint’s arm, soft and not at all like an old war buddy, fingertips pressing gently at the inside curve of his elbow.
“You’re not alone out there, Barton,” he promises, voice low and confidential between them.
“Yeah,” Clint says, and leans a little closer. “You and me, right?”
Coulson smiles, just slightly, and it doesn’t look so tired.
Clint’s return to duty gets his mech a shiny new long-range rifle, and he blows out the main power sources on four suits before they even get in range.
In the other cluster of enemy suits, Natasha thrusts her sabers through windows and into bodies without a second thought, and Clint can’t judge her for a second. She’s lost a lot of people to this war, and these—a lot of these are her own people, from before she came to SHIELD’s side. He doesn’t hold her to his standards; she doesn’t kill anyone he’s spared.
“How’s the suit handling?” Coulson asks over the comm.
“Like a dream,” says Clint.
“It had better.” He swears there’s a smirk in Coulson’s voice. Coulson isn’t just obsessive about running suit diagnostics before missions, he’s probably also responsible for the rifle. The fact that he trusts Clint with things like this, the warm feeling of knowing Coulson thinks he can do some good out here, never really wears off for Clint.
“We’ve got this set wrapped up,” Tony says over the regular frequency, sounding slightly out of breath. “Second wave incoming. I know we need to get hands on that escape pod, but they’re aiming pretty close to home base.”
“Shields still good on the ship?” Clint asks.
“They’ll hold,” Sitwell promises from the bridge. “Get the Ambassador first.”
“I’ll get the pod.” Clint checks his energy reserves; he can manage a cloak long enough to get to the Ambassador and back. “I’ve got firepower to take out patrols before I’m in radar range. Tony, Natasha. You guys are my first call if this gets dicey, but stay within range to help the ship unless you hear from me.”
“Sounds good,” Tony says.
Natasha, already headed back towards the ship, asks: “You sure you want to go out there alone?”
Clint smiles, pressing a fingertip to the comm in his ear, and says: “I think I’ll be all right.”
Coulson doesn’t say anything, but Clint can picture him smiling.
The thought of seeing it for real is what keeps his pace slow and careful behind the enemy’s front line, sniping power sources in distant suits and moving cautiously forward. He’s on radio silence with the ship, the others, Coulson’s comm, and the escape pod radio frequency just to be safe, and hopes he’s not delivering too much of a shock when he clasps the Ambassador’s escape pod in the mech’s hands, heavy gauntlets curved around it as he carries it back.
The instant he emerges into the SHELD forces’ perimeter, he re-activates the communication lines and the comm in his ear.
On the other end, from every side, there’s only a roar of sound and static and screaming.
“Hey—somebody, status report!” he says, and gets nothing. “Tony. Tasha, Bridge, what’s going on?”
His radar turns up very distant blips that might be the others’ suits, and he runs a high-sensitivity scan, swallows hard, breathes too fast.
Report: high content of debris in ship perimeter, the system tells him.
“Life signs?” he asks.
Estimate: two hundred fewer life signs than present during departure from ship perimeter.
They must have attacked the ship directly.
“Shit.” Clint tries to think. “Shit.”
He needs to keep the Ambassador safe, but if there’s still a threat out there, he needs to help, he has to, god, he doesn’t know what to do.
“Barton,” thready and quiet in his ear.
“Coulson,” he almost yelps, “I got him, I got—what’s going on, give me something.”
“Outnumbered.” His voice is thick with something, dazed. “Romanoff and Stark fought them off, but.” He coughs at the edge of it, and it’s wet-sounding, rasping.
“Okay. Okay, I’m setting course,” Clint says. “Coulson, I’m not liking these life sign readings. Did the ship take a hit?”
The comm line is silent.
Clint is alone.
He wraps the mech’s arms closer around the Ambassador’s escape pod, uselessly protective at this point, and slowly flies through the dark and quiet until he’s within range of the ship again.
Clint stares at the free-floating debris, metal and bodies and personal effects, all clustered around a space where a chunk of the lower deck should be, doors sealed halfway into hallways and jagged sections twisting out as if it were torn away.
“They ripped into living quarters with their suits’ hands,” Natasha says over the radio. “Saw one of them crush an escape pod. They were screaming.”
There’s nothing Clint can say as he flies carefully past the remains towards the docking bay. Half of the maintenance and landing crews are dead. He dons his spacesuit and takes a spare, walks down to the Ambassador’s pod, guides him into the ship itself.
Alarms scream, bared wiring sparks, and there are fires in the hangar.
“My god,” Ambassador Selvig murmurs, looking heartbroken at all of it.
Clint leads him through the safest paths he can find to the bridge, and Commander Fury—bleeding from a head wound and all the more intimidating for it—escorts Selvig away to a secure room, leaving the bridge to Hill. She, in turn, apparently sees Clint looking around the bridge in a half panic and puts a hand on his shoulder.
“You’ve done all you can,” she says, looking straight into his eyes so he can’t mistake it. “We’re in retreat and we have the Ambassador.”
“Coulson,” he says helplessly. He can’t think of anything else.
“Guess,” she says, sighing. She points down the tiered sections of the bridge, and Clint spots him slumped at a terminal, one hand braced against it, a schematic for one of the lower decks onscreen as he talks to someone on the other side of a comm line.
Clint resists the urge to leap over the workstations and instead stumbles around them so fast he almost falls at least twice. He sees it before he even reaches Coulson—blood, and a hell of a lot of it, all over his uniform.
“Coulson,” he says hesitantly, drawing closer.
“Keep going,” Coulson says into the headset he’s wearing. He’s talking to someone else. “Get through that door on your right and you’ll hit the emergency temporary medbay.”
“Life signs are all in the designated areas,” Sitwell says from his terminal nearby, his bloodied sleeve pressed to his forehead. “Closing bulkheads.” A keystroke, a pause. “Lower deck secure.”
“Good,” Coulson says, and takes off his headset. Quieter: “Good.”
He falls, and Clint is there to catch him, pull him close with one arm and press the other to the bleeding wound in Coulson’s side.
“Gonna get you to the Medbay,” Clint promises, and picks him up, wincing at the weight on his right leg where it’s just slightly still tender. He doesn’t care. “Talk to me, Coulson. C’mon.”
“Ambassador safe?” Coulson asks, his head heavy on Clint’s shoulder.
“Yeah,” Clint says. “I got him.”
“Knew you would,” Coulson says. “Knew you,” and trails off.
They pass a window, and outside, he finds the red and gold of Tony’s mech floating in the cloud of debris, stretching out its fingers to gently gather a long-dead body into its palms, cradle it there.
Clint stops and leans on the wall with his knees shaking under him, presses his tightly-closed eyes to the softness of Coulson’s hair, and wishes he could just make all of this stop.
“Fuck,” Clint says, small and raw.
Bloodied fingers touch his cheek, and Coulson’s breathing stutters, like it might stop. Before Coulson can do something like start talking and waste his energy, Clint forces himself to move, gets down the rest of the hall to the Medbay.
Inside, he lays Coulson on a bed and keeps his hands pressed to the wound, waits for one of the med techs to find a moment away from people much further gone. Pale and still, Coulson coughs, blood trickling from his mouth.
“You and me, Coulson,” Clint says shakily. “You and me, right?”
Coulson smiles faintly, rests a hand over Clint’s fingers, and nods.
Repairs on the ship are hard, and memorial services are impossible. They recruit new maintenance and medical staff at a SHIELD-allied colony, but nothing is really the same.
Clint and Coulson spar, but no one’s heart is in it; Clint avoids Coulson’s side, Coulson avoids Clint’s right leg, and they just wind up lying still on the mats next to each other, staring up at the ceiling.
“I just don’t understand it sometimes,” Coulson says.
“My brother’s in HYDRA,” Clint says conversationally, because everything’s all kind of blank and it seems like as good a time as any to bring it up.
Coulson is quiet for a moment, and then says: “My relatives all lived on Epsilon-Three.”
Clint hauls him up from the floor and pulls him into a hug, strong and tight and reckless because he just needs to know Coulson’s alive, and Coulson’s fingers tangle in the front of Clint’s loose sparring clothes, tugging like it could possibly pull him any closer.
The moment passes, Clint patting Coulson on the back like this was all just camaraderie and Coulson letting go like his hand was never there, and they get back to not really sparring at all.
After the SHIELD fleet loses two more major battles, the security council outfits all SHIELD mechs with self-destruct switches and enough explosives to take down an entire enemy ship.
None of the pilots have any illusions about their roles anymore.
Coulson shows up at Clint’s quarters the night after the meeting, and Clint smiles weakly and says, “If something goes bad, you can have my stuff.”
Instead of smiling, Coulson sits next to Clint on the edge of the bed and says nothing at all. Clint sets aside the datapad with his end-stage requests on it, and when he starts to lie down to sleep, he curls his fingers in Coulson’s shirt the way he grabbed Clint’s in sparring, and Coulson lies down next to him.
He falls asleep with Coulson’s arms around his waist, Coulson’s forehead pressed to the back of his neck, and they’re woken by the screech of the alarms.
Coulson goes to the bridge, Clint goes to the hangar, and a council representative watching the suits launch holds a remote in his hand that Clint doesn’t have to wonder about.
They confiscate Clint’s comm before he gets into the cockpit.
Clint and Natasha are both in close combat with the enemy near the HYDRA flagship when Clint hears a sudden harsh beeping in his cockpit, diagnostic panels all flashing red and locking him out.
4:00, says the display. 3:59.
“It’s me,” Clint says, fingers shaking against the radio panel, praying it still works. “Tasha, get clear, it’s,” he stammers, and his mouth goes dry.
“Suit up,” she says, and he doesn’t stop to consider, just scrambles for the spacesuit, thinks of Phil’s fingers clasped over his sternum and Phil’s forehead pressed against the knob of Clint’s vertebra and he’s so fucking scared he can’t breathe.
He pulls at the escape hatch door to the ejection vestibule, laughs a little hysterically when the handle won’t budge.
“They,” he says, swallows. “It locks the hatch. Tasha, it locks the escape hatch.”
“Make yourself very, very small behind your chair,” she says, icy calm, and outside the window he watches her knife rip blindly through an enemy suit attempting to sneak up on her from behind.
The cockpit window squeals and crumples and shatters under the squeeze of her mech’s fingers, and Clint clutches the seat for dear life, engulfed in silence and pull and emptiness, and then massive sheets of red metal push in to rest inside either end of the exposed cockpit.
He trusts Natasha more than he’s trusted just about anyone in his life, so he lunges out to grab one of the fingers of her gauntlet and clings with arms and legs, is wrapped up in darkness and quiet and metal that could crush him into a very fine sludge as her suit’s hands clasp around him.
They’re moving, for he doesn’t know how long, and he breathes the minimal life support resources in the spacesuit until he hears docking doors closing, shouting, and Natasha’s hands lay him very gently on the floor of the hangar, curled in a ball and trembling violently with terror and lack of quality oxygen.
He looks up to find the councilman speaking, and then uneven steps carrying Coulson into view before his fist swings right into the councilman’s jaw. There is no pause to watch him fall.
In the middle of the crowded hangar, Coulson kneels next to Clint, gathers Clint’s shivering form up to half-rest in his lap, and folds himself down over Clint like a shelter, whispering escape hatch and jesus christ and Clint.
The councilman is yelling, calling for disciplinary action, and no one moves.
Natasha’s suit curls two massive hands in a circle around them so no one could pull them apart even if they wanted to.
Clint winds up in the Medbay because he’s shaking too hard to stand, and Coulson spends the night in a holding cell.
Commander Fury himself comes to visit Clint, and he doesn’t apologize or explain that he didn’t know about the escape hatch lockout, he just sighs and says: “Fucking horrific.”
“Yeah,” Clint says, and Fury pats him on the back when he throws up again.
At three in the morning, Natasha helps Clint get to his quarters, and Coulson is waiting at the door.
They don’t say a word, just crawl into Clint’s bed together and lock into place, Coulson’s arms hooked around him and his breathing soft on the back of Clint’s neck.
When Clint rolls over, it doesn’t really matter who leans in first. Clint presses his mouth to Coulson’s, wraps a hand around the back of Coulson’s neck to lick into the warmth of his mouth, and Coulson strokes Clint’s hair and touches his jaw, soft and coaxing.
“Phil,” Clint says, because he doesn’t know if he’ll get another chance to say his name.
Phil’s arms wind around his shoulders, pull him in to burrow into Phil’s chest like he could ever get away from all this.
“You and me,” Phil says into Clint’s hair, thumbs at the point of his spine, and it’s the only thing that keeps him from curling into a ball and screaming.
Clint has nightmares about suffocating in a small locked space, every few nights, for the rest of his life.
The security council reconsiders and recalls the self-destruct sequences after a leak on Fury’s ship discloses the truth of the plan to a press outlet. The media frenzy destroys the head councilman’s career, and he makes his resignation press conference with a bruise still darkening his jaw from Phil’s fist.
The budget for the self-destructs goes to shielding for the ships instead, and the battles carry on, while the flagships quietly escort political figures for conversations. No one can seem to agree on a resolution, according to official statements.
Clint takes out a suit’s power supply during a skirmish, and the HYDRA soldier radios him directly with his reserves.
“You let me live,” the soldier says.
“Yeah,” Clint replies, shrugs though he can’t see it.
“I pulled off your suit’s arm once,” says the HYDRA soldier, and before Clint can make a snarky comment about his beam saber technique, the HYDRA soldier goes on, hollowly: “I don’t know why I’m here.”
Clint reaches out and pats the guy’s mech on the shoulder with his gauntleted hand, and he sighs over the radio, says: “Yeah, buddy. Me neither.”
The negotiations in the capitol cities drag on.
An entire HYDRA ship defects from their fleet and surrenders to SHIELD.
Years ago, it would have been cause for celebration; for people in SHIELD-protected colonies, it’s almost a story.
As it stands, the security forces take the HYDRA soldiers into custody, and everyone on Fury’s ship who hears the news sort of shrugs.
When the bulletin about the ship comes in over the speakers, Clint just pulls the blankets up over himself and Phil to block out the noise.
Later, Phil comes back with a few cross-checked records, and talks about his last ever fight in a mech, the focused projectile attack that left him in physical therapy for a year and disqualified him from piloting again. He shows Clint timeframes and matching ID numbers from the incident and from the surrendered ship’s logs, and then shows Clint a picture of a red-haired man with faintly familiar features, stamped, DECEASED.
He also shows Clint a message he just got from a colony saying that one of Phil’s sisters survived the destruction of Epsilon-Three and lives with a husband and young daughter on a high-priority SHIELD-protected colony now.
“We’ll visit sometime,” Clint says, and doesn’t know what to say about his own brother’s death.
Years of negotiations manage to bring about a ceasefire.
For the first week after the news breaks, the crew of Fury’s ship have an unwritten rule not to talk about it, or be excited about it, or even acknowledge it.
It stretches into a month, spent hovering in SHIELD space and not fighting HYDRA.
Two months pass behind their own lines, and then SHIELD starts funneling personnel into psychological evaluations, talking about debriefing and civilian life, and transitions, and everyone walks out of the eval room looking confused.
“Can’t I just keep living here?” Clint asks, and doesn’t know if he’s kidding or not.
No one really knows what to think.
SHIELD repurposes Fury’s battleship into a peacekeeping monitor and aid transport ship along the SHIELD-HYDRA territory border, and most of the crew asks to be kept on. Fury approves them all.
Clint and Phil move into shared quarters in the ship overhaul. Natasha takes the room next door, and Tony across the hall.
“Nice neighborhood,” Fury says dryly, visiting their little block of rooms, and then he offers to make Natasha his first officer. She accepts.
Everyone knows he’s just waiting for the day someone in the security council shoves him out a back door; he just wants to make sure when they do, they have to contend with someone even more stubborn and unwilling to take their bullshit than he is.
Clint still has nightmares.
When he wakes, Phil sleepily draws him closer under the blankets, kisses the years-faded scar on Clint’s forehead from a fallen cockpit component, tells him he’s all right.
Their ship gets a HYDRA liaison after a few months of working, and Clint bumps into the new guy at orientation, gets a horrified look when he says, “oh, my bad.”
“You,” says the HYDRA liaison miserably, and Clint recognizes his voice.
“Hey, buddy,” he says cheerfully, clapping the liaison on the shoulder. “How’s that saber technique coming?”
Tensions between HYDRA and SHIELD staff on the border ship run low, after that.
Vacations are rare.
The colony of Alpha-Six is nice and quiet; Clint meets Phil’s oldest sister Jeannie, and the three of them sit and watch her husband play with their daughter in the small backyard. Clint looks at himself and Phil in their uniforms and points out the window, and says, “You know, it’s kinda nice that the kids around here probably won't to have to consider wearing one of these.”
Jeannie laughs, and Phil looks immeasurably happy.
That night, when Jeannie and her family have gone to sleep, Clint feels lost and sits down in the corner of the largest room in the house, and Phil sits down next to him, rests his head on Clint’s shoulder.
“I never actually thought there would be an ‘other side’,” he confides quietly to Clint.
“Yeah,” is all Clint says.
They stare out the window, up at the distant ceiling of the colony’s protective dome, through to the stars.
They do a week’s worth of paperwork to free up the mech for just an hour, and then run to the hangar like excited kids.
Clint rocks back and forth on his heels on the boarding platform, Natasha and Tony run the launch sequence with a few maintenance staff who didn’t mind helping out, and Phil hesitates, looking up at the mech uneasily as Clint climbs in.
Smiling, Clint holds out his hand, and Phil smiles back and takes it. Clint helps him up, in, and the sequence runs.
They launch into space, and Clint relaxes into the controls, knows it all like second nature after so long. Phil sits in the copilot chair, standard for the kind of rescue and retrieval operations the mechs are used for now, and brushes his fingers over diagnostic panels like something precious long since lost to him. The weapons panels are inactive, systems offlined and ordinance removed, but everything else responds to the touch of his fingertips, lighting and coloring for him.
“Ready?” Clint asks, grinning, and Phil gestures vaguely for him to do as he pleases.
Three neatly executed spirals and a few delicate thruster-alternating darts through the empty space later, Clint leans the mech backward to stare up at the infinite stretch of stars. He glances over and finds Phil smiling, big and bright and crinkling the corners of his eyes, in a way Clint’s never seen before.
“I missed this,” Phil breathes, awestruck, and Clint unbuckles from the piloting chair, drifts out, waves invitingly at the empty seat. “I couldn’t,” Phil says, shakes his head.
“Aww, but I even got the liaison to come play,” Clint says, pointing out the window at a HYDRA mech drifting out from the ship to meet them. “Remember, Phil. This is the guy I had to shoot part of my own hand at.”
Phil looks thoughtful, then smirks and slides over into the piloting chair. He straps in, hands settling on the controls, fingers darting out to hit the proper switches without so much as a glance.
If this is the other side of the war, rematches and small happiness and not changing very much at all, Clint thinks he can learn how to live in it, maybe.
Clint takes copilot, and doesn’t watch the sparring match itself at all; he just watches Phil move through old sequences and command structures like he was made for this, like he’s never understood anything so perfectly in his life, and lets everything else fall away.