When The Hulk pauses his giant green fists mid-smash with a contorted look of pain and then collapses to the ground in a Bruce Banner-sized heap, that's when you know everything is not going to be alright.
There's destruction as far as the eye can see, even farther than that according to the scans JARVIS keeps running. There's no one around you now, even in the thick of it, mostly dead bodies and a few souls probably trapped in their homes, just lambs for the slaughter. Hundreds upon thousands of people dead, buildings now unrecognizable piles of rubble, and Manhattan is certainly never going to resemble its former self again, no matter how much money you or anyone decides to throw into the cleanup, you're sure of that.
You’ve all been in tricky situations before, though, doomsday scenarios and no-win situations with no way out. That's what The Avengers are for, isn't it? Things look grim, so hey, call The Avengers, and they'll fix everything right up? You always thought it was a bit of a joke, some sort of tagline so the government stiffs could claim to have a handle on things, appearances and all that. Then again, it'd worked out pretty well so far, at least until now.
Bruce Banner is an unconscious lump in the middle of an ever-increasing horde of ugly creatures, arms and legs and blood a smeared pathway all around them. JARVIS informs you there’s no way you can make it to him in time, but you try anyway, suit beat-up and dinged in dozens of places, each one causing a little bit more power drain, a little more exertion on your part.
“The Hulk is down,” you mumble into the comms, and you don’t expect anyone to respond, everyone’s probably in the thick of it worse than you.
“Oh shit,” comes a stressed reply, and you want to laugh at just hearing someone’s voice other than JARVIS, but you’re all out of laughter on this day.
“Elegant as usual, Agent Barton,” you say, but there’s no humor in this situation and you regret the comment the moment it’s made. You’re certain wherever Captain America is, he’s holding back a reprimand for swearing on comms. If he can still hear you, that is.
The Hulk is down and JARVIS is still running his scans, always with the scans. You designed him to never give up looking for a way out, and it's a sound strategy, keeps you going in most fights when things look grim. And things certainly look grim. According to all the scans, the creatures were able to defeat the Hulk using some sort of virus specifically designed for his invincibility, and isn't that just the biggest problem of all.
It's been forever since you've all had a real Christmas, one holiday mishap after another - battles, illness, break-ups of epic proportions, even death. Not to mention everything in between. You're still impressed Pepper managed to pull off the decorations and the tree in less than twenty-four hours, always impressed at the way Pepper succeeds in pulling off things in a way no one could ever dare to compare. This time, you’re slightly convinced she somehow blackmailed Nick Fury, maybe with some secret stash of candy or some sort of compromising photos, and you must remember to ask JARVIS to look into that more. You've tried finding the dirt to blackmail Nick Fury with multiple times, to no avail. Pepper simply says it's just her good looks and charm that got the job done. You're not convinced.
It’s a true Christmas party like you’ve only seen in the movies, eggnog and presents and a giant tree that fills up half the common room of the tower. At first you’re against it, hate the idea of forcing the holidays on people, too many childhood Christmas days spent being dragged to one party with boring adults after another, hiding forgotten in corners with stolen wine glasses. Thor of all people convinces you it’s a good plan, cheerful and bombast as usual, and you laugh right along with everyone else when he breaks into a rendition of Jingle Bells using all the wrong words.
Presents aren’t really a big thing, ‘what do you get the superhero who can buy himself everything’, that sort of thing, but there’s a small exchange with Pepper-approved gifts – ornaments for the Christmas tree. It’s cheesy and you say as much, but the look on Steve’s face when he hangs his shiny little shield on one of the higher branches makes the whole hullabaloo seem worth it. Maybe giving everyone a Christmas like they’ve never had really is the best medicine.
Nearing the end of the day and Clint's almost gotten Natasha to laugh at the ridiculous Santa outfit he's pulled out of thin air, hearty ho-ho-ho-ing in his white beard and fake fat belly until she cracks a smile. You and Bruce are still practically rolling on the floor in amusement when the tower-wide priority alert goes off.
“No one ruins Christmas,” Clint practically shouts, yanking off his Santa hat.
You want to agree, but there’s this feeling in the pit of your stomach that everything is not going to be alright.
Captain America falls rescuing a dozen civilians out of a burning building. You can’t help but think it’s the perfect ending for him, and you get lost in maudlin thoughts for a span of three seconds before JARVIS reminds you that civilians are involved and you should try to help.
Thor is near Steve, Mjolnir's familiar hum providing steady background noise over the comms as you listen to Steve bark orders to the civilians. They’re not listening well, of course, panic and questions flying at him a mile a minute, and you do your best to answer the ones you can hear, listen as he and Thor relay your answers about the technical stuff, give their own at the spiritual stuff. Steve’s always been good at calming people in a crisis. There’s still uncontrollable panic all around, and you can’t blame them, the sight of their world overtaken by things that look like zombies not exactly anyone’s idea of a good time and well, people are kind of idiots anyway, it’s a fact you’ve known since you were old enough to string together quadratic equations, none of which seem relevant anymore.
They’re only a few blocks south of you but you can't get to their location in time, RTs barely coughing along, left one then right one but never at the same time, boots already long mucked up with blood and chunks of things you'd rather not think about, so you get to be a third party witness but only in high definition audio.
Thor yells, "Look out!" and it feedbacks into your earbud, echoes around in your head for a moment before Captain America’s voice pierces through.
"I see ‘em. I’ve got it,” he says, and there’s some frantic screams and the sound of his shield colliding with a lesser metal, telephone pole or car frame or something.
You don't hear any more from Captain America after that. You don’t know what happens to the people he was trying to rescue, either.
JARVIS is tuned into all the news stations, though at this point they're mostly broadcasting that people stay in their houses and board up everything. Natasha makes the comment that it’s the beginnings of a very bad horror movie, and it’s only then you notice her face is already streaked with ash from nearby looter fires.
“It’s the end of the world as we know it,” Bruce hums, in between Hulk phases for the moment. He’s far too cheerful for the situation, but you suppose having a break from being a giant green rage monster probably allows for a temporary rise in the doom and gloom factor.
“So much for Christmas,” Natasha says.
“You never were one for it anyway,” Clint replies, but a cloud settles over Natasha's expression and you think you can guess what it means, guess how she feels, like maybe it takes the right time and place to grow to like something and maybe Christmas would’ve had a chance to become likeable if only with a little more time. You’ve still got the image of Clint as Santa Claus seared into your brain, and you hope it stays there forever like a bouncer at a bar, blocking all the bad memories surely soon to come out.
You've never been sure if Thor is invincible or not, but put enough combatants on one target and even someone as powerful as a demi-god will have a hard time backing out of that corner.
There’s no sign of him when you finally, finally get to the source of his last transmission.
It sounds like a SyFy original movie at first, a giant cosmic joke that of course could only happen to The Avengers, 'Zombies from outer space' and of course they'd have to commence their take-over of Earth on Christmas Day. So much for that Mayan apocalypse, here you go, have some hideous creature from outer space that happens to enjoy proliferating by injecting toxic venom into their opponents by guess what, biting them. They’re not really zombies themselves, not in the Romero sense, though they are the ugliest things you've ever seen, like a mangled Chitauri in a radioactive explosion. Then again, your mental gallery of aliens from outer space is rather limited at this point.
By New Year’s Day JARVIS reports that the CDC has a cure, apparently, though that doesn't seem very useful to you now, hundreds of people already fallen victim and dozens of city blocks decimated beyond recognition. They don’t even have ships, not in the strictest ‘all your earth are belong to us’ way, though you suppose they had to get here somewhere. You wonder if maybe their ships have cloaking devices and you just can’t see them. Intelligent zombies, why stop there, right? What do you know, though, safe in your very expensive flying tin can.
Clint's scream over the fuzzy comms is the next on a growing list of things that could not be more wrong.
When you find him he's fighting ugly dead things off Natasha's body, bleeding from too many wounds himself, streaked in red and black. Natasha’s neck is broken and it is clear they’ve both fought to their very last, tear-streaked faces of ‘never give up’ still written in blood like a ‘until death do us part’ pact. They’ve always had that and you’ve never questioned it.
"It's not supposed to be like this," Clint says, and you've never agreed with anyone more in your life. He’s fading fast, and you struggle your sluggish body down to his level, wrap metal-clad arms around his body as the last moments of his life pass you both by, his quiet stuttering breaths the only thing you have left in a world engulfed in cacophony.
That's the moment you give up any hope you have left.
You don't have a lot of first times left in your life, myriad of one night stands, bad decisions, and general disgrace in your ever-growing history, so you don't want to come across as an over-romantic sap, but the passenger seat of his classic GTO is not where you pictured your first time with Clint Barton.
"Are you intentionally trying to be douchebag Danny from high school or do you treat all your ladies to this Clint Barton special?"
Clint snickers. "I mean, I could carry you over the threshold and make love to you in a real bed, if that's what you want."
You smash your lips into his, rough and unyielding, and he responds almost instantly, tongues sliding around together in a furious dance. "This works fine."
It's far less than warm outside, New York winter in full swing, and the windows are already a bit steamy from your combined body heat, and the whole thing just makes you laugh. Clint Barton, with the car, in the driveway. You can already see in your future a cold hard stare from Nick Fury that screams "if you fuck up my team I will fuck you up," and a shy knowing smile from Bruce as you and Clint stumble your way back into the tower. You can also see disapproving stares from Steve over Tuesday breakfast and no this really isn't the best of ideas, but you’re really fond of letting the worst ideas become better, so you slide your hands up Clint’s shirt and start taking mental notes at what he likes best.
"Does your brain ever shut up and just let you enjoy things?" Clint comments, callous fingertips returning the caress, brushing across the skin of your stomach.
You shiver, and not from the cold. "Nope. Can't stop, won't stop. That's how it is."
"Just like its owner, I hope."
"Dear Mr. Barton, is that a pick-up line? I'm flattered."
"Shut up," he says, hand around your cock. There's too much friction and not enough moisture, but it doesn't stop him, hand in a rhythm almost perfect for you, and maybe the passenger seat isn't such a bad idea after all.
When you fall, you're expecting it, waiting for it, even. The power can only last so long, and you are, after all, only human. The suit, the only thing protecting you this far, the last defense you or anyone has, gives one final chug. The arc reactor in your chest flickers. Your legs only have a few steps left in them after that. You fall, nothing left to do but watch the light in your chest slowly dim away.
Intelligent space zombies, who would've thunk it?