Jim was the first to notice, the change in the quality of light making him glance up at the television above Chris' shoulder. The New York City skyline had replaced the game, its robin's egg and steel split by an eerie pillar of lightning, a swirling pool of darkness above raining nightmares down.
"This is breaking news from--" Marquees scrolled across the bottom of the screen, news anchor barely audible over the lunch crowd.
Jim stood and whistled shrilly. "Turn it up!" he yelled as confused silence swept the bar, some turning toward him, others turning to the closest television as each switched from sports programming to whatever horror was going on.
"-appears to be an alien invasion going on in Manhattan-"
"Dear Mary, mother of god."
Video cut in and out, some clips professional, mostly at a distance, others shaky, grainy, slightly blurred, obviously filmed with cell phones by unknown passersby: Iron Man's red-and-gold form darted between skyscrapers, a terrestrial meteorite leading a swarm of darker forms; a rain of fireballs flipped cars, dug craters into asphalt, showered the streets with debris; civilians ran for cover, screaming in terror; a single military aircraft careened drunkenly into a crash, flying from clip to clip to clip, its passengers finally disgorged once it came to a halt.
Voices from multiple stations overlap, weaving together in a tangle.
"New York Police are out en force with no sign of any effect whatsoever-"
"-Tony Stark's Iron Man appears to be-"
"-turning their attention to evacuating civilians-"
"-handful of supposed costumed heroes-"
"-appears to be none other than the legendary Captain America himself-"
"He's dead!" Jim's hand shook, shoulder straining as he reached toward the television screen. The sight of his one-time friend, years dead by his own hand, now aged, weathered, and using a bow and arrows against an alien threat hit like a punch in the gut. "He's dead." The repetition was a hoarse whisper, ragged and shocky.
"Is that--" Chris looked away from the television for confirmation, but turned back to the television before Jim could answer.
"My partner." He sounded numb with disbelief.
"And you know he's dead because..." Deke prompted softly.
"I beat him to death with my bare hands."
"-apparently the creature known as the Hulk has joined the battle-"
The sound of a chair scraping the floor pulled her attention from the television screen, and she had to rush to throw a few bills on the table. "I guess we're going to New York City," she muttered, Deke smirking at her side as they following Jim out of the now quiet bar.
"Go to the basement! Do not go out on the street!" Ethan called down the stairs before turning to do one last sweep of the floor; the New York staff was down to stragglers, but there were still a handful of agents sweeping the building, making sure everyone got out, the few injured seen to. The lights were out, no hum of computers to cover the whine of alien vehicles buzzing down the street outside, the explosions down below or--
--on the roof, making the building tremble, and he bent his knees, riding it out and hoping the building wasn't about to come down. A shower of flaming debris caught his eye out the window, and then a dark blur and a window exploded inward; his gun was in hand, safety off, before he even thought about it, then deliberately put the safety back on and shoved it in the back of his jeans. Human, not alien, he berated himself.
Injured human, came the instant correction. He could see the guy arching his back in obvious pain, muscular arms, a...bow? before he got a good look at his face--
There was no answer, and Ethan couldn't be sure Brandt even heard him. "Brandt?" he tried again, getting closer, broken glass crunching beneath his shoes.
Brandt's eyes slit open to stare at him mid-roll. "Shit."
"Here." Ethan crouched down, holding both hands out.
Brandt's grip was strong, stronger than Ethan remembered as they pulled each other to their feet. "Shit that hurt," Brandt muttered, turning his arms over one at a time, frowning at the glittery shards embedded in his skin, the thin trails of blood beginning to ooze down his wrists. The way he held himself screamed of other injuries, stiff and lopsided; Brandt's quiver peeked accusingly over his shoulder, devoid of ammunition.
"Will," Ethan said, trying to get something besides cursing.
He got a one-fingered hold on; Brandt touched his ear with the other. "Hawkeye here, out of ammo and my perch got taken out, someone tell me this thing's still working."
Ethan grunted, leaving him to retrieve the bow only to have it snatched from him; Ethan put up his hands in surrender, backing away as Brandt ignored him, bloody hands instead running over the riser, down the arms. "I'm gonna find a first aid kit, start getting that glass out of your arms." That, at least, got a quick thumb's up and an absent-minded nod.
Removing the glass from Brandt's arms was more complicated than it seemed, even after Ethan found a fully-stocked-and-then-some first aid kit. He could tell when the news was good, bad, or just not coming by the way Brandt paled, flinched, fisted his hands around the bow (and who the hell uses a bow in an alien invasion?), and couldn't so much as ask questions he knew wouldn't be answered for the flashlight clenched in his teeth.
It wasn't until Brandt's whispered litany of "Please please please let him--" that Ethan knew whatever was happening had come to a head, giving him the presence of mind to put the flashlight and gauze and tweezers aside for the moment when relief made Brandt go limp and all but fall off the desk. "Can you tell me what's going on? Alive, at least?" Brandt was leaning heavily against his chest, breathing hard through the adrenaline rush, quiver trapped between them pressing bruises into skin.
Brandt swallowed hard, tried to take his weight back. "Can't tell you other than, you know, alien invasion. Duh. Over now. My team survived, though. And I gotta get out there."
"Right. Okay. William Brandt actually your name?" Ethan tried to tamp down the irritation, the suspicion that it wasn't; he knew duty.
"No, but I'll answer to it."
Ethan paused, trying not to ask just how much Brandt had lied about, trying not to think about it. "Fair enough. Scoot forward."
Brandt did, leaning forward with a little help - landing on his quiver had not been kind, apparently - and brought his arms back again, waiting patiently as Ethan tweezed the last few splinters out, then cleaned the blood with gauze pads and alcohol.
"I'm going to assume you don't have time to get these seen to - I'm putting butterfly bandages on the ones that should be stitched," Ethan said, ripping open the packages one after another, running his thumbs over each to smooth them, feel the increased muscle mass.
"You done feeling me up?" The humor was worn thin and tired, more sarcasm than amusement.
"Just giving you time to catch your breath."
Brandt snorted, and pulled himself forward off the far side of the desk. "You coming?"
"You really think I'm going to let you out of my sight after this?" There was no way Ethan was going to leave him alone, not with the way Brandt was listing to one side, moving more as if he wasn't sure what he needed to favor than trying to hide that he was favoring anything at all.
Still, he was on his feet. Ethan had to give credit for that.
"You got transport here?" Brandt asked, gingerly hooking his bow over his shoulder.
Ethan snorted. "Think you can hang onto me? I brought my bike."
Brandt just gave him a little nod and a look that said "Try me" as he headed for the elevator.
The arms around his waist were as much a comfort as necessity as Ethan steered them through the wreckage of downtown Manhattan. Occasionally, he took one hand off the bike to salute the police and firemen guiding civilians away from the carnage, knowing they were being allowed through because of his passenger.
The SHIELD uniforms waiting at Stark Tower were an expected annoyance.
"You'll need to come with us, sir," some nameless suit said, a ghost of apology in his voice, while a stern-looking young woman in full tactical gear traded Brandt's empty quiver for a full one.
"Yeah, right." Ethan's eyes met Brandt's, but he didn't move, other than to turn off the engine.
"You know where to find me." Brandt jerked his head toward the building behind him, then glanced over at the suit. "Sitwell, be nice, okay? He's my kind of crazy."
"You aren't crazy, Brandt," Ethan shot back wryly; he didn't call Brandt on the hysterical note in the answering laugh.
"Wonderful. Now there are two of them," Sitwell muttered. "Sir? If you'll come with me, I'll try and make this as painless as possible. Is it safe to assume you won't be leaving through the ventilation shafts?"
Ethan blinked. "No, I prefer the door."
"Thank god for small favors."
'Maybe he is crazy,' Ethan thought to himself, watching Brandt warily as he jogged through the door, bow in hand, arrow nocked but loose.
Gunshots. Sirens. Screaming.
Sanborn shook his head, mentally beating back the lingering memories of Afghanistan, too-bright sun, canyons of narrow streets, and tried to focus. The sounds were localized, too much for reality--
There. News reports, television--
And every patron, every employee of the gym was staring at the screens overhead, the screens in the corners, watching the talking heads on CNN change over to New York City under attack.
Sanborn found himself moving, feet shuffling across industrial-grade carpet, to get a better look: a sea of whirling blue-and-red lights, sidearms pointed up at the stream of alien air-sleds; huge green Hulk dragging a flying robotic monster eel down to the ground, spinning it around in circles from his hold on its jaw; blur of red-and-gold metal slicing between buildings, twisting up and under and air-sleds tumbling behind; a woman in skin-tight black, an older man in dark purple holding a bow--
Shaking fingers flipped open a cellphone, blindly punched in a number. It rang twice, three times, and then a shocky "Damnit, Sanborn--"
"You're seeing him, too?"
"That fucker shot me!"
"That's what I thought."
"You going to New York?"
"And deal with his insanity? He's using a bow on these things."
Headquarters was a blur, the buzz of anger and disbelief in Jim's head drowning out the reactions to the news as he passed through, officers and support staff alike flinching away from the look in his eyes, the danger written in his posture, the steady beat of his footsteps. The anger balled his hand into a fist as he reaches his target, and he knocked on the open doorjamb. "Captain?"
"Yes, Street? What is it this time?"
The cool disdain and utter dismissal rankled, as did the way Fuller didn't even look up from his paperwork to address him. "I'm going to New York City. I'm going, or I quit."
That got both of their attention, and Jim pivoted on his heel, seeing the Chief of Police behind him.
"There's a Stark Industries plane leaving LAX for La Guardia day after tomorrow, oh-six-hundred hours. Be on it. We'll be here when you get back."
The buzz cleared, and Jim nodded, offering a respectful "Sir, yes, sir!" before going back the way he'd come, not even bothering to watch Captain Fuller's imitation of a tomato.
It took a minor miracle for SHIELD to get a couple of transports to the shawarma joint even hours after the battle had ended; how they managed to bring Pepper and actually wait for the Avengers to leave of their own volition was a much larger one. But Pepper was there, eyes red-rimmed and focused, briefcase clutched tightly in both hands as Tony stumbled through the door, holding it open for the others.
His head jerked up at the sound, and Bruce took over door-propping for the few seconds more it took Thor to drag himself through. The briefcase dropped almost unnoticed, sending up a small cloud of dust to swirl around Pepper's and Tony's legs as he swept her up in his arms.
"I'm so sorry," she murmured against his cheek, aware of and not caring that there were uniforms guiding Steve and Clint and Bruce to medical transports, accepting weapons and armor too heavy to be bothered with and suddenly unnecessary. "I missed your call, we were watching the news, and--"
"It's okay, it's okay, I know, shh," Tony mumbled back. "I got to see your face on the way out anyways. And hey." He dug up a smile, weary, but somehow real in a way that the public never got to see. "You're here. You're here and I don't know how they got you from the airport and--"
"I know that tone of voice, what'd I do now?" Tony asked, a little alarmed and sounding put-upon. "I mean, besides the saving the world, because that was a nuke I took through the portal and I didn't mean to, but there was nobody else--"
"Tony, I know, I've been with you the whole time, remember, you're mine and I'm not letting you go although we're going to talk and no I'm not breaking up with you so don't even start with me, it's just--"
Pepper reluctantly pulled back from the hug, makeup ruined by dust and sweat and grease and for once not caring as she stooped to pick up her briefcase. "I have some papers for you to sign. Come on, you're probably bruised and battered and as much as I'm not going to give you grief over saving New York--"
"Yes, yes, the world, I'd feel a lot better if you got a clean bill of no internal bleeding--"
Tony stole a kiss, as much to agree with her and reconnect as to just make the not-a-lecture stop. "Okay, okay. We're going back to Stark--no, Avengers Tower, we'll have to do something about that--and what papers do I need to sign?"
"Just some permission and access forms and transfer of funds--" Pepper nudged him toward the last of the vans, climbing in after him; she tucked herself awkwardly under his shoulder, unwilling to lose the comfort, and was silent until they reached SHIELD's New York City offices and the medical bays in the basement.
All of them - even Tony, exhausted as he was - were unprepared for the slow, standing ovation, the looks of respect, the small nod of job well done from Fury as he met them at the doors and ushered them through.
"No samples, nothing but necessary medical treatment for injuries received and you'll all go home afterwards. You have my word on that." There was warmth and pride in his eye, and it made alarm bells go off quietly in the back of Tony's mind, but he shunted it to the side, to deal with it tomorrow, nodding at the same time as he gave Fury a wary look.
The main area was set up for them, gurneys in easy sight of one another, sliding curtains in case more privacy was necessary.
"Come on, Tony." Pepper nudged him towards one of the beds, setting the briefcase on the floor to help him strip t-shirt off of stiff muscles. "I saw you out there, you know, all of you, I don't know how the news had half the footage--"
"Camera phones and youtube--" Tony hissed in mixed pleasure and pain as Pepper pressed a hot washcloth to the bruises rising across his ribcage, shaking his head at her immediate apologies. Ignoring the discomfort, he glanced up, around at the rest of the team. "Pepper."
"Tony?" She frowned at him.
"Go, I can manage this. Steve..." Tony could see him on the gurney, chest and abdomen bare and livid with bruising and half-healed burns. Alone, so alone, and Tony had-- "Pepper, go," he says again at her hesitation. He could barely hear the "Dear God" she muttered before dropping the washcloth in his lap, and marched her way over to gently touch Steve's unmarked shoulder.
Tony watched Steve straighten reflexively, letting Pepper distract him from the attention of the medics hovering around him, spreading ointment and aloe over his skin, run an IV line for fluids and antibiotics that probably wouldn't do anything given the serum, but SHIELD wasn't taking chances; as soon as Tony managed to get the rest of his suit off, there were medics with him, too, wiping his back with another hot washcloth, and another. It wasn't the hot shower he needed, they all needed, badly, and it wasn't Pepper's caring touch, but it was better than nothing. Ribs were declared cracked, not broken beneath the bruising, and taped, and an IV for his own round of fluids and antibiotics and painkillers that barely dented the post-adrenaline numbness. The rest of the team was in similar shape, Bruce the only one given a clean bill of health because, seriously, Hulk: Thor took stitches in his hip, a stab wound gift from Loki that hadn't healed all the way; Clint disappeared for x-rays, reappearing to have ribs strapped and arms stitched; Natasha too, her vault to one of the alien sleds straining her shoulders and spine, but not enough to do serious damage.
They were all ridiculously lucky, but Steve took most of Tony's attention, Steve and Pepper, and he couldn't decide which to be jealous of and knew it was impossible almost before he pushed the thought away. It would have to be enough not to be enemies, not to be fighting each other as they had under the influence of Loki's staff.
Tony would take what he could get, and be grateful for it.
Steve tried to send Pepper back to him after while, Tony could understand the body language, Steve glancing in his direction as he picked idly at the tape holding the IV needle in his hand, Pepper shaking her head and pointing between the two of them, then crossing her arms over her breasts. Tony sighed to himself, hopping off the gurney and stooping painfully to pick up her briefcase, hooking the IV board over the stand and dragging it with him across the room.
"Happy now?" he asked, voice dull, but he was too tired to care. "Here." He held the briefcase out to Pepper, turning to lean against Steve's gurney, if only so he didn't have to look Captain America in the eye.
Pepper took the briefcase with a knowing look. "You need to sign some papers, Tony," she said, taking the opening. The briefcase opened with two loud pops, and she fished out a stack of official-looking forms and a pen, holding them out to Tony.
"What exactly am I signing, Miss Potts?" There was more life in Tony's voice now, all business, the familiar sickeningly comforting after this strange dance he'd been in with Steve the last few days. (All your life, some tiny voice whispered, but he refused to acknowledge it.)
Pepper started pulling apart the forms, fanning them out according to some organizational system only she was aware of. "Permission for expected incoming support personnel and displaced New York City residents to set up camp in the unused levels of Stark Tower and various related expenditures - we have teams of police and medical and fire protection personnel coming in from various major cities around the country over the next few days, and those are just the ones using Stark Industries planes, we need someplace to put them--"
Tony couldn't bring himself to be surprised; Pepper was nothing if not the queen of efficiency, that was why he put her in charge of his company, after all. "Here, give me that, why didn't you have this for me yesterday?" He managed to accept the papers and put them on the bed before they spilled across the floor. "And it's Avengers Tower, not Stark Tower, please get that taken care of, will you?" he added, ignoring Steve's grunt of surprise, and the way the half-relaxed supersoldier went rigid next to him.
"Because we weren't being attacked by the Chitauri until this afternoon, and of course, sir."
"Yes, well, it should automatically be assumed that any time aliens decide to trash New York City that Avengers Tower can and will be used as a staging ground for recovery efforts." He struggled a little between the board taped to his wrist and the way his hands were trembling, but he managed to sign in the places indicated, and put the cap back on the pen with his teeth. "Here. Will that be all?"
"Yes, Mr. Stark," she answered, her normal tone of brisk competence subdued as she gathered the papers and put them back in her briefcase. "Thank you." Business finished, she pressed a gentle kiss to the corner of his mouth. "We taking everyone home? The penthouse is a wreck, but the rest of the apartment's still usable." Pepper arched an eyebrow at him knowingly.
"I suppose we should ask. Hey, Avengers!" Tony followed up with a sharp whistle that had heads turning in his direction. "Avengers Tower has guest rooms and a stocked kitchen, not to mention bar, and you're all coming home with me and Pepper, so finish up with whatever you're still having done and let's go home."
Steve snorted a rueful laugh, followed it up with a groan of unexpected pain. "That wasn't exactly asking, Tony."
Tony shrugged, giving him an unrepentant grin. "What can I say, I'm used to getting what I want. Besides, do you really want to go back to whatever tiny excuse for an apartment SHIELD's stuck you in?"
Steve didn't have anything to say to that, and Tony accepted the quiet thanks and more-gentle-than-usual jibes from the others with a grace that would have been entirely out of character if he weren't half-dead with fatigue and hadn't just saved the world with the people offering them.
Aged scotch burned warm and smoky down Ethan's throat as he waited; the debrief had been long and tedious, but that wasn't unexpected. At least they'd let him into Stark Tower to wait for Clint. And wasn't that a shock - the agent he'd first met as an analyst was in actuality the world's best sniper.
The elevator hummed to a halt, doors sliding open quietly. Tony froze mid-step at the sight of him.
"Don't mind me," Ethan said, raising his glass in toast. "Thanks for the drink."
"Ah." He seemed too exhausted to give much of an answer, just got out of the way and let everyone else off the elevator. "Seeing as I don't know you other than that you're not SHIELD, I suppose you're here to talk to--" and left it open-ended, questioning.
"Me," Clint finished wearily. "You guys go on, get some rest."
Ethan watched him run shaking hands through sweat-stiff hair, watched every one of the man's teammates look at him in askance, passing silent a "You sure? I'll stay if you want. I don't know this guy." before nodding and moving off down the hall.
All of them except the shorter of the two women, Black Widow, who rested a hand on Clint's shoulder, then moved to pull a bottle of vodka from behind the bar and poured herself a more than healthy glass.
"I was hoping I could talk to him alone."
The look she gave him was plainly, "Over my dead body."
"Be grateful it's just Tasha and not the whole team."
Ethan glanced between them, back and forth, then nodded, resigned. It didn't matter if he was a threat or not; he knew the post-fucked-op mindset of every stranger's a threat intimately. He wouldn't have let a stranger be alone with one of his team members after that kind of op, either. "So," he started. "You want to explain to me how you retired after a year and now you're crashing through windows during alien invasions?"
"Just the one, Hunt."
"Ethan," he put in before Clint could continue.
Clint winced and looked away. "Ethan, then." He took a deep breath, pinching the bridge of his nose as if warding off a headache. After the day he'd had, and Ethan would bet a great deal he didn't know the half of it, it probably made migraines seem pleasant. "I needed to get out of IMF and you didn't exactly give me another out. I already had a day job when I was given that op. It's not like SHIELD was going to let me jump ship." He snorted, rolling his eyes wildly and shaking his head. "Not like I'd want to leave SHIELD." Laughter filled the next pause, sick and humorless. "Not like the IMF has room for an archer."
"They'd make room for an agent like you." Ethan held up his glass of scotch in a salute.
"Good thing I already have a day job then." More of that sick laughter. "At least I hit my target instead of my head."
A chuckle wormed its way out of Ethan's throat at that, the memories of Dubai pleasant in the face of today's clusterfuck of a success story. And he wasn't even involved. "You cut up your arms. I think I healed faster from the bump on the head than you will from that. And if I'm not missing my guess, cracked ribs. At least bruised."
"Good thing my armor actually supports my ribs then, isn't it?" Clint shot back, running one hand down the purple tunic. The quiver was gone, as was the bow, taken for repair and cleaning maybe, but the purple sleeveless tunic was still in evidence, as were the glove and wristguard.
"Mmm." There was nothing to be said to that, and without the distraction of conversation, Ethan's mind turned to their shared past, piecing together fragments of things that he hadn't realized didn't quite add up. "Croatia."
"What about it?" The words were tired, bored, almost covered by the sound of Tasha slamming down a tumbler of some unlabeled rich gold drink and sliding it across the bar. Clint caught it, hunching over the counter like he wanted to curl up and sleep, one knee tucked up on a stool.
"It was a lie, wasn't it, Brandt?" It hadn't happened, he hadn't lost Julia, hadn't been responsible for her death because it hadn't happened, but to have Clint play him like that--
"I was undercover. I did my job. The only thing--" He had to stop to laugh, cover the dying sound with a drink before starting over. "The only thing I didn't tell you was I already knew it was a cover-up."
"Spot the cover-up is one of our favorite games, Agent Hunt," Tasha put in, then slammed back the last of her vodka and poured another. She raised an eyebrow at Ethan's look of surprise. "I am Russian; I would not suggest attempting to outdrink me."
"How." Rage coiled in Ethan's gut, a slow-burning knot readying itself for...what, he didn't know.
"The guards were sedated. A real execution would have left them dead." He started to take another drink, paused with the glass halfway to his lips, and lowered it again with a shake of his head.
"So why the guilt? Why lie to me like that?" Ethan couldn't keep the anger out of his voice. "To twist the knife? Was it so important to you to be the better agent?"
Clint actually looked at him, back over his shoulder, warning and bruised. "Because I trusted you."
"Because you trusted me? What the hell kind of answer is that, Brandt? Oh, excuse me, Barton? Or whatever you're calling yourself now," he added, tone razor sharp, and even the sight of Tasha putting the vodka aside, hoisting herself up on the bar wasn't enough to back him down.
"Tasha. Don't." Clint put a hand on her arm, fingers digging into muscle. "Because yeah, I knew it was a cover-up. But I could never be sure unless you told me, and me trusting someone doesn't mean a damn thing unless they trust me back. Tasha."
Watching Clint stare down his partner made Ethan want to say "fuck this" and leave the rest for tomorrow, but he was the one who opened the can of worms. Clint probably wouldn't say a damn thing once he had some rest and his mental filter managed to reset. "I'm not going to hurt him."
"Don't lie to yourself, Agent Hunt," and her tone made Ethan wonder just how long ago the "I'm Russian" was. But she brushed her hand over Clint's shoulder, slid it up to scratch gently at the back of his neck, and retreated to the other side of the bar.
"Why?" Ethan finally asked, little more than a whisper. "You threw yourself out the window for me. Why wouldn't I trust you after that? Why the test?"
Clint was silent so long Ethan thought he wasn't going to answer at all. Then, quietly, he said, "Jane and Benji didn't know. They didn't know, and they were a lot closer to you than I was."
Clint shrugged, turning to look at him with dull eyes. "That's up to you, I guess. I'm the one that lied." He sighed. "Not like I wanted to, but this is the job I do. It's not like SHIELD gives me any other choice."
The last few swallows of scotch circled the glass as Ethan swirled it in his hand. "Tell me something."
"If I can."
Ethan couldn't blame him for being wary. "The saving the world thing. It wasn't--" He stopped, unable to find words that wouldn't make him sound like an idiot.
Clint smirked, amusement lighting his eyes for the first time since he'd crashed through the window at IMF. "It's the day job. It has been for a long time."
That small spark of humor drained the tension in the room, let them talk of other things, inconsequential things. Tasha finished her vodka, the second glass, and put the bottle back in the freezer. "Since you boys aren't going to kill each other, I'm going to go check in with medical," she said as she rinsed the glass out and put it on the drying rack.
Clint's glass slid through numb fingers, hitting the bar hard enough for the alcohol to splash over the sides. "What happened."
Ethan carefully, quietly got to his feet, his own glass left balanced on leather couch cushions; he was all too aware of the sudden resurgence of tension, only this time it was Clint at risk of exploding, not himself, and he didn't know why.
"Tasha," Clint prompted when an answer wasn't forthcoming.
"Phil was injured in the battle." Ethan couldn't tell if she was just that cold, or she was trying to stay calm for Clint's sake. "Loki stabbed him in the back with that staff he--"
"Damnit!" Clint snarled; his snifter was snatched and hurled at the wall behind her.
To her credit, Tasha neither ducked nor turned to see the impact. "Clint. Lublmaya moy. Phil will be fine."
This time when she slid over the bar, it was because Clint had her by the arms and pulled. "Truth."
"He will be fine," she said again, expression oddly caring.
Ethan could see Clint's knuckles whiten, knew Tasha would have finger-shaped bruises, and maybe welts from blunt fingernails.
Clint just breathed. Then, he managed to choke out, "No sugar-coating."
"He flatlined twice. Punctured lung, torn pericardium." Tasha stopped as Clint's whine of pain nearly drowned her out, and brought both hands up to cup his hips in her hands, fingers threading through beltloops. "Fury has our healer working on him."
"He'll be fine," Clint repeated, voice devoid of the reassurance and certainty that hers had had.
Insecurity was one of the last things Ethan had expected from Brandt, or Barton.
Tasha let go of Clint's hips only to work her arms up, framing his face with her hands. "I swear. He'll be in the infirmary for a week or so, but he will be fine, I swear." Thumbs swept over his eyebrows, cheekbones soothingly. "Do I ever lie to you?"
Me trusting someone doesn't mean a damn thing unless they trust me back. Ethan found himself frozen, unable to move, to risk interrupting, and so jealous it was downright painful that Clint did trust that way, let himself be stripped bare and vulnerable.
Clint had let go, red-and-white marks glaringly obvious in Tasha's skin, only to lean forward and wrap her in his arms with a wounded animal sound; she took his weight, easing them both to the floor and rocking him like a child.
There were more words, the kind Ethan knew would be meaningless comfort to the distraught, a polyglot tangle of English and Russian and German, other languages he couldn't identify over the sounds of choking sobs and fists pounding the floor in helpless frustration. His own hands clenched in sympathy, itching to do something, anything, and knowing that whatever he could offer would undoubtedly be rebuffed, their so-short (too short!) working relationship not strong enough to weather this particular storm.
Still, Clint felt safe enough to let go in his presence. Or maybe he was just too battered, too raw to do anything else.
It still hurt: that they'd spent a year watching each other's backs, pulling off stunt after death defying stunt, and he didn't even know who this Phil was, didn't know who the real Clint Barton was after all this, except for the superficial things and the bits and pieces he could extrapolate from William Brandt.
There was a pause in the flow of words, a cessation of the hiccuping, soul-rending sobs, and then Tasha murmured something in Russian, a dialect Ethan couldn't quite understand, something from a border he hadn't been to, and Clint nodded wearily, arms loosening, flopping gracelessly on the slate floor. "I'm going to go keep Phil company. You need to rest, milyi."
The look Clint gave her was heartbreaking, all naked pain and shiny-striped cheeks. "Call me if--"
"I won't let anyone else."
tell you if the worst-- and Ethan couldn't bring himself to finish that sentence, and had to wonder just who this Phil person was again, to garner this kind of reaction.
But Clint only nodded as Tasha rolled to her feet, her hand gentle on his shoulder.
"Who's Phil?" Ethan asked, finally finding his voice, and regretted it as Clint flinched and angled his head away so he couldn't see his face.
Tasha faced him squarely, stepping close, closer, until he could smell the sweat and ozone and concrete dust on her, the blood and adrenaline she hadn't had the chance to wash off yet. "Phil's our handler." She leaned even closer, lips brushing his ear, and whispered, "He trusts you. I have to go - don't abuse the privilege."
Ethan could read the "Or you'll pay for it in blood" in her eyes when she pulled back, and then she was gone, leaving him alone with Brandt, with Clint, and he had no idea what to do.
"Clint?" He waited for an answer, and got a half-hearted grunt. "Phil's your handler?"
Clint's shoulders stiffen and his hands twitched, reaching for a weapon that wasn't there. "He's my partner," he whispered finally, voice rough, hoarse with abuse.
But Tasha-- Ethan managed to keep himself from saying anything; they'd acted like long-term partners, too in-tune with each other--Oh. Oh. "SHIELD doesn't have anti-frat regs?"
Clint snorted, finally looking up at him with an expression that plainly read "You're an idiot." "Does the IMF? SHIELD isn't interested in messing with what works. As long as your relationship doesn't fuck up ops, they'll leave you alone." He shook his head again, wrapping his arms across his chest as if trying to comfort himself.
This, Ethan knew how to do, sitting down next to Clint and scooting closer, levering him upright enough to slide under Clint's shoulder. Clint didn't so much as protest, just let out a ragged sigh and lolled his head in the curve of Ethan's collarbone. "How long have you been together?" He wrapped his arms around Clint's torso, feeling hard muscle under the neoprene armor, and turned the phantom almost-hug into a real one, tightening his hold until Clint gave a small grunt of pain as his own arms overlapped and squeezed. Jesus fuck, that bow makes you strong, he thought to himself, still waiting for an answer.
"Tenth anniversary was...two months ago?" There was confusion there, either an op so long days slipped by without notice issue, or...something Ethan didn't want to contemplate, and was almost positive was the truth. "Ten years," and he choked out a sob, drawing his knees up, folding himself in half.
Ethan curled himself around Clint, shifting his hold until the sounds of pain quieted, until he could pretend he could hold Clint together through sheer strength of arm, force of will, and Clint relaxed little by little, the cloth of Ethan's t-shirt damp beneath Clint's cheek.
The word was whispered, and it made Ethan flinch, just a little, thinking Clint had fallen asleep. "What is?" he asked, rubbing small circles over Clint's hip. He trusts you, he's letting you touch him, forget about the rest-- and he shoved things like propriety and you've seen him naked, you idiot, a little touch is nothing out of his head.
"It was all blue, everything, Fury made me leave my nest, I could have shot him, I--" Clint cut himself off, swallowing hard, fingers curling against Ethan's forearms. "Got too close, Loki touched me with that staff of his, and all I could do was scream and everything was blue."
Knew it, Ethan thought to himself. "Mind control?"
"All my fault, killed...so many, people I knew, gave him an army, wrecked the 'carrier," and the words came out in a rush, as if Clint couldn't stop himself. "All my fault, he wouldn't have hurt Phil--"
"It wasn't you," Ethan murmured when Clint ground to a halt. "You said it yourself, all you could do was scream, right? It wasn't you who did any of it."
"I should have stayed in my nest."
And Ethan knew why Clint could talk to him, that Clint trusted him with this much, as much because he wasn't SHIELD as because he trusted him; even more, that he trusted Ethan not to betray that. And no matter what had happened between them, the one-upmanship, the lies and testing one another, Ethan wouldn't rat him out to SHIELD. Had to help, to push as much as Clint would let him. "Were you given orders?" He could only hope Clint heard the "Not your call" in the question.
"Fury," Clint whispered, but Ethan already knew that, Clint had already said Fury made me leave my nest and cost him the shot.
"See? It wasn't your fault."
"Yeah. Right." Clint's words were weak, sarcastic, and Ethan could feel his body jerk with the punctuating snort, but there was also an underlying sense of something, an underlying kernel of truth, of maybe belief.
I knew...but I could never be sure until you told me.
He trusts you. Don't abuse the privilege.
If this was what Ethan had, a fading ghost of the team leader-senior agent bond, he'd take it. Natasha, as an equal partner, and Phil, as handler-slash-lover, weren't going to get not your fault through Clint's thick skull; Ethan had had enough trouble doing it himself. Better him than his current teammates.
"Call me Bruce, please, JARVIS." Bruce slipped a scrap of paper between the pages of his book to mark his place and glanced up at the wall.
"Of course, sir. I believe Agent Hunt could use your assistance."
"Is--" He couldn't finish the question.
"It seems Agent Barton has fallen asleep."
"Ah, yes, thank you." If any of them were to simply pass out from exertion, it would be Clint. "I'll take care of it, JARVIS."
"Thank you, Bruce."
"You're welcome." Not for the first time, Bruce wondered how Tony had managed to program his AI with such...exquisite manners.
The scene that met him wasn't exactly unexpected, but he hadn't counted on Clint having passed out on the floor, Agent Hunt curled around him and holding on like he was trying to escape.
Agent Hunt barely granted him an eye-flicker. "He's asleep." The words were all but inaudible.
Bruce sighed. "He's one of SHIELD's best agents. If he's not awake now, he's either comfortable enough in our presence to trust us with his back, or he's too exhausted to defend himself. JARVIS thought you'd like some help getting him to bed," he continued, ignoring the evidence of tears, the tight twist of fingers in Agent Hunt's t-shirt.
"Ethan," he muttered after a moment.
"Bruce, please," he returned the courtesy. "Want some help getting him to bed? You're both going to be stiff as hell in the morning if you stay there."
"Tell me something I don't know, I'm getting too old for this." Ethan shifted, trying to maintain his support of Clint's head and shoulders as he struggled to his knees.
"Here." Bruce bent and took Clint from him, propping him in a half-sitting position as Ethan stood up and stretched quickly.
The two of them managed to get Clint to an empty guest room halfway down the hall, glove, guard, and boots off, tunic carefully unfastened and peeled off sweat-shiny skin.
Clint didn't so much as twitch under the attention, disturbing enough to make Bruce ask Jarvis if his vitals were normal (at least for someone suffering severe exhaustion) and breathe a sigh of relief at the affirmative reply.
"Tomorrow's going to be hell," Bruce muttered under his breath.
"And today wasn't?" Ethan asked with a bland, wry humor.
"Different kind of hell. They'll blame him." Bruce jerked his head back towards Clint's sleeping form, ushering Ethan out the door and shutting it behind him.
Ethan shrugged. "Best thing we can do is make sure he doesn't blame himself."
Bruce just laughed and shook his head. "I don't know how you're going to manage that, because I know I won't."
"I worked with him for a year, I have a few tricks up my sleeve. Better me than your team, I'm betting. He won't have to look at me every day."
"Aha! Here you are." Tony sounded half-gleeful, half-asleep as he limped down the hall from his own bedroom. "Hawkeye's been--"
"Clint's asleep, we just put him to bed."
"Awww, like a good mom and dad. Listen, listen. You--" And he pointed to Ethan, almost poking him square in the chest. "You're a friend of Clint's - don't argue, Natasha left you alone with him, I know, JARVIS told me, so I really don't care, if you weren't okay here you'd be a bloody smear on the floor. Where are you staying--wait, no, JARVIS, find out where he's staying and have his things packed up and brought here, settle the tab, you know. Pick a guest room, this one, that one, the one two doors down are all free, just. Stay. JARVIS, he doesn't leave the building. Good night." He took a step back and tried to turn, only to have Pepper stop him with a firm hand on his shoulder; she wound her free arm around his waist as he stumbled.
"Tony, stop tormenting the man." Pepper turned her attention to Ethan. "Don't mind him, he really does mean well. Hi, I'm Pepper, I think we kind of forgot to handle introductions earlier." Smiling, she held out a hand for Ethan to shake. "You really will have to excuse him, he's usually not this scatterbrained."
"I'm not scatterbrained at all--"
"Saving the city from a nuke does tend to buy a lot of excusing," Ethan said with a laugh, shaking Pepper's hand firmly.
"Yes, it does, Agent Hunt--"
"Of course, and you--" She poked Tony in the side, getting an undignified squeak. "Shush."
"Bruce Banner, but you knew that already." He leaned enough to brush shoulders with Ethan. "If I'm not needed any more, I'm going to sleep. I expect I'll see you in the morning."
"I imagine so." Ethan smiled. "Especially since I didn't exactly hear anyone countermand Tony's orders."
Pepper just smiled and wished him a good night, then half-dragged Tony back to bed; Bruce watched Ethan disappear into the room across from Clint's before finding his own.