The building shook with a boom, with a resounding crack that echoed down the deserted New York street where abandoned cars sat like freeze-frame traffic with ghost drivers.
“No, no—no.” Natasha’s voice, over the comm summarized Clint’s own disbelief.
He froze, arm cocked back to choose another arrow, doombots fleeing past beneath him untargeted, unheeded. The four-story building across from Clint’s own vantage gave a second deep, groaning boom, and there was the shiver of dozens of shattering windows. Smoke plumed out in black puffs—and the building began an almost gracefully slow inward collapse.
“What? What is it?” Tony’s question slashed across the frequency like a lash, irritated, harsh. Worried.
“Cap…Cap was in that building. The one that’s collapsing.” It had been on fire a few minutes ago, when Cap had gone in saying he’d seen some kid run into the otherwise evacuated building. But that had been when there was just the lick of flames, coming out of the windows in the upper story. It had seemed then that there would be plenty of time to get in and out. There’d been no reason to suspect that if Cap went in he might never…
Clint was already attaching his grapple as his thoughts whirled—scaling down the side of the building to land on the street below, breathing heavily, but not from exertion. He automatically tuned out the sound of Tony swearing like he had the ability to browbeat reality into aligning with his designs for it.
If the explosion was some kind of diversion to get the Avengers to let the last of the doombots escape, then it had done its job. Clint took out two of the ‘bots who tried to turn on him—shooting them distractedly, without thought—as he made long strides towards the shuddering, dying building.
Grey-brown dust billowed around him, forcing him to pause and shelter his face in the crook of his arm, eyes blinking away the feel of grit. There was the sound of Natasha, her coughing a static sound in his earpiece, and she demanded, “Are you sure, Clint? Did you see for sure?”
“Yes,” Clint grunted it between clenched teeth. She’d seen it too; she’d been fighting next to Cap before he’d taken off. He knew that what she was really asking him for was hope that Cap had survived.
“The Captain has fallen?” Thor demanded unexpectedly from behind Clint.
“I don’t know,” Clint snarled, partly because he hated it when people got the jump on him, and partly out of irritation at the way people kept looking to him for answers that he didn’t have.
Thor didn’t spare his frustration so much as a second look, striding past into the smoky air of the settling debris like Asgardians had figured out how to breathe dust the same as air. Clint was glad to follow, even if he did so with considerably more coughing.
Just as the air began to clear enough for Clint to make out some of the wreckage, a few yards ahead, Tony touched down directly in their path with a clank of metal on pavement.
“Scans show no signs of life inside,” Tony pronounced too flatly, too finally.
“Over here!” Clint called back to Natasha, whose question over the comm had come with a nearby in-person echo. She entered the scene at a sprint.
“Cap, come in. Answer me already, you overgrown boy scout. Time for all do-gooders to check in, so get your bleeding heart on over here,” Tony ramble-tirade-ordered over the comm. When there was no answer, he devolved again into cursing, and alternately trying to goad Steve’s “star spangled butt” into making an appearance ASAP, “…or, you know, as soon as convenient, Cap. That’d be awesome.”
“He can’t be…” Natasha panted, hands clenched at her sides. They could all have finished her sentence for themselves. A guy who survived both World War II and being frozen for seventy years (not to mention being thawed) didn’t just let himself get crushed by a building on a sunny, blue-skied day in May. It just didn’t happen that way.
Maybe they were all just closet idealists with invincibility issues and a belief in poetic justice. The mindset kind of came with the territory of being labeled “superheroes.” No matter how cynical you were, a little of the optimism inevitably encroached on your realism after you’d saved the world a few dozen times.
Clint would’ve been the first to admit he didn’t subscribe to putting a happy face on bad news. Blunt truth was more comfortable for all of them, he’d discovered. Even Cap, who he’d somehow expected to prefer sugarcoating news, he’d instead discovered to be a soldier who liked his orders as well defined as he liked to make his own reports.
So when it came down to these moments where there was no happy ending in sight, Clint certainly wasn’t about to be the one to pull out a fake grin and tell his teammates it would all be okay in the end.
But maybe, just maybe, his gut wanted to believe it would be okay. The odds were rarely-to-never in their favor, after all. Miracles were by nature storybook clichés, but storybook clichés weren’t half bad sometimes. Not so bad at all, if it meant the difference between going home with six Avengers instead of five.
Clint could hear Hulk somewhere behind them, and to the left, still smashing ‘bots from the sound of it. They were going to need him if they were going to do any halfway efficient dismantling of the wreckage. And they were going to, because Clint wasn’t about to take technology’s decree as the final word on this.
“Come on,” Clint said gruffly, unnecessarily. “Let’s find the Cap.”
Thor was already leading the way again, looking ready to take on the job single-handedly. Natasha was beside him instantly.
Clint glanced at Iron Man’s impassive face, and the two of them wordlessly fell in.
They should’ve waited for the building to finish collapsing—waited for the series of reactionary quakes to stop shivering the ground and stirring up dust as fast as it settled. They should’ve waited for the sirens in the distance to arrive, and begun their search systematically.
They developed a system, alright, but they didn’t wait. They set to work, Tony’s continued diatribe against an unforthcoming Cap forming a vaguely amusing soundtrack. It was, at least, for a minute or two, after which time it began to grate. For the first five minutes they all let it go. After that, Clint’s sharp, “Done Cap-calling already, Stark?” shut him up—for the space of five seconds, i.e. the amount time required for him to come up with a dignified, “No. And there’s a reason I’m in charge of the one-liners on this team, bird-boy.” Then he started up again, with the renewed energy of the habitually advice-resistant.
After that, they were swallowed up in the hubbub of aid in the form of police and firemen. Several asked where the Cap was, and get their answer, if with somewhat less etiquette than the Cap’s sometimes eye-roll-worthy PR-mindedness.
More importantly, Hulk arrived, and Natasha convinced him to start lifting beams under her administrative direction.
All of them just wanted to see a glimpse of blue. But they were beginning to become resigned to the fact that when they did, it might not mark the beginnings of a rescue so much as that of a recovery.
They were grimy, and bruised—metaphorically and physically—and beginning to feel the downswing of loss instead of the usual upswing of victory. It put lead in their limbs, and a sense of futility into their mindset.
Unconsciously or not, they must’ve been beginning to be addicted to happy endings after all. Clint can read it on Thor’s ever expressive features, and in the way Tony’s voice on the comm begins to crack with more than static interference. His threats became more and more far-fetched, with an edge of pleading to them. Even Hulk seemed subdued: focused and active, but almost gentle in the way he went about shifting the wreckage. Natasha, taut with adrenaline, gave instruction after instruction, putting her own shoulder into moving the (relatively speaking) smaller pieces wreckage along with the rest of them.
Clint could read the consensus of emotion on his teammates better than he could unravel the sick feeling in his own gut.
They’d all lost friends and comrades, but never a fellow Avenger.
Once they moved on to the more central damage that formed the true corpse of the building, instead of the outskirts of flung debris, they’d have to tread much more carefully, whether or not they had the patience for it. It was going to take days to, literally, get to the bottom of this mess.
“Hey, guys?” Cap called from behind them, striding up sans cowl, and running fingers through dust-greyed hair. “Don’t worry, I got the kid out in time. He’ll be fine. But my comm’s officially a casualty.” He frowned at their lack of a response, still brushing small puffs of dust from his hair. “Um, is there something…”
Peripherally, Clint could see Natasha, Thor, and Tony all capitulating to the same impulse at the same time, converging along with him on Steve like a pack of football players experiencing the thrill of an ultimate Hail Mary win. Only instead of back-slaps, rousing cheers, or the act of lifting their teammate on their shoulders, they were all just focused on reassuring themselves that Steve was really standing there, in the flesh.
There was a comical moment where Steve’s eyes went wide, and he lifted a hand as if to ward off an attack. Or maybe the prospect of an unexpected four-way hug was alarming enough.
Clint automatically went for a chest-bump-back-slapping-manly-pseudo-hug that essentially evolved into his arms grabbing Steve fully around the shoulders and not letting go. Natasha was right behind him, one arm going around Clint, the other around Steve’s right shoulder and back, chin settling on Steve’s shoulder. On the other side, Thor coerced an indecisive Tony—who was standing, visor up, with one hand on Steve’s left shoulder, patting it—into volunteering to be the mashed center of a hug-sandwich. Clint was pretty sure he could hear the tortured metal sound of Tony’s suit straining not to be crushed like a pop can. Iron Man was going to need to look into getting that thing overly-happy-Asgard-proofed.
In Clint’s admittedly limited experience (mostly as a wary spectator), Thor had never done “embraces” or back-thumps by halves, and that moment was no exception. He was the first to make a sound of sheer, gleeful triumph, blending it into a sort of supernova of joy that burst forth in a noise that resembled an: “Aha! ” and to which he added, deafeningly close to all of their ears, “My Brothers and Sister are all well and whole! This is true happiness!”
Tony, from inside the sandwich, made a noise of protest that was hijacked into becoming an honest-to-God squeak halfway through when Thor tightened his hold—hugging Steve-at-the-center by constricting the arm he has slung across Clint’s back, and in the process also further mashing Tony between himself and Steve.
Clint could feel the rim of Steve’s shield bruising his ribs, and all the love was definitely starting to hurt a bit. But it didn’t hurt nearly as much as it felt…well, possibly like true happiness.
Of course, one of them hadn’t been riding the same emotional rollercoaster as the rest of them, and was clearly beginning to wonder what affection-starved demon had collectively possessed his teammates.
“Guys? Uh…guys?” Steve’s confusion was a half-smothered sounding request from their midst. “The building was cleared, but we should really be making sure there aren’t any civilians who were caught in the blast radius, or go finish—”
“—We believed you to be a casualty until this very moment,” Thor informed him, not about to let anyone escape yet.
Tony was still trying to cut in with a wise-crack-cum-squawk of indignation that, originally, had probably been something about being allergic to being hugged to within an inch of his life. He finally managed a strained, “If you ever go off and get yourself squished for real, I swear I’ll say something nice at your funeral. So nice, you’ll wish you’d lived to hear it in person.”
“We really thought you were dead, Cap,” Natasha added reproachfully, head resting against Steve’s shoulder.
“Yeah,” Clint added, less eloquently. He could feel it too: the leaching away of adrenaline to make room for fuzzy-headed, giddy relief. It was as pleasant as it was exhausting.
All the radiator warmth of being one of five sweaty warriors crushed together was a bit like being stuck in a tightly packed sauna, which didn’t help to combat the sudden drowsy post-battle fatigue, either.
Clint wondered rather disinterestedly if they’d be seeing a picture of this in the newspaper tomorrow. His brain cramped up trying to imagine the accompanying headline.
“Just don’t do that again,” he warned Steve on impulse, trying to wriggle enough beneath the iron band of Thor’s arm look to look up and have this conversation with Steve’s face, and instead winding up talking to Steve’s neck.
“Oh.” Steve was obviously still emerging from the first stages of comprehension. “Sorry?”
It was such an utterly stupid, lame, correct Steve thing to say by way of a recovery blanket-statement after having been dead.
It was actually pretty hysterical just how lame it was.
Clint felt a laugh bubbling up, and he could tell he wasn’t the only one who clung more tightly—if only by an emphatic tightening of the muscles—for a moment. Tony didn’t even squeak. It was ridiculous, turning Steve into some kind of human security blanket like they were. It was also absolutely, one-hundred-percent an appropriate demonstration of how much some happy endings were clichés they could all live with, and even grin stupidly over.
The imperative “Let Me Go” clicked in all their brains at the same time, much like “Must Hug” had clicked a few minutes ago. They began to disband with the weak chuckles that were universal non-speak for, “Well that wasn’t awkward at all.” Thor being the exception to the rule. He was chuckling, because the guy’s apparently become a chasm of unbounded delight, and there was an unembarrassed smile in his eyes, lurking eagerly like he was ready for round two of Team Hugging.
But before they could do more than start to loosen cramped muscles, Hulk’s steps shook the ground. The great, green lug—Miss Tardy To the Party—wasn’t about to be left out of things.
Green arms captured them all in one swoop, plucking them up like a Hulk-sized bouquet of flowers. Ripe-smelling, squirming, outraged flowers. Regardless, they were gently if firmly squeezed into one giant, compulsory hug.
“Team,” Hulk rumbled simply, and possibly putting it the most eloquently yet.
Actually, Clint noted then, Tony was really the only bothering with indignation, and even his indignation had become battered down to a sort of feeble resistance that was evident in the lack of force behind his insults. None of them really wanted to mess with Hulk’s apparent need to contribute some tangible affection to the moment, no matter how much they’re going to hurt tomorrow morning. Clint supposed it was Bruce’s right, too. They could always embarrass him with it later while they were busy nursing bruises caused by said affection.
Steve, once more crunched into the epicenter of the hug, grunted in a pained and strangled voice, “Hi, buddy—hi there. Yeah, I’m glad you’re okay, too.” Natasha gave a breathless “oof,” and flailed one arm free to alternately pat and paw at Hulk’s arm, a gesture with debatable meaning: returned affection, or possibly the need to be allowed to breathe. Tony was reduced to friendly chuckle-whimpering, like a man overcoming many phobias at once, while putting an almost brave face on it. Thor threw back his head and laughed like a six-year-old riding a roller coaster for the first time.
And Clint? Clint gasped for air, and groaned as his ribs all but creaked in protest. But, ultimately, he could only grin.