When Clint first gets off the plane and officially sets foot into his birth country for the first time in over half a year, he isn’t as happy as he has envisioned himself being during his exile in Wakanda. He’s dreamed many times of this moment, has imagined the way it would feel to finally be back, to be home. Has played through different scenarios and outcomes more times than he can count—not like he has had much else to do after all. But now that it is actually happening, that the moment has finally come, it is nothing like he has imagined it to be.
There is no relief. No excitement. Only—he is not sure what it is exactly, nor how to call it, but it feels empty.
Seeing his family again goes not at all and exactly like he thought it would. Laura slaps him, though she’s crying to hard for the hit to hurt. (He should consider himself lucky, knows for a fact that his wife is a lot stronger than she looks to be, yet for some reason luck is the furthest thing from his mind.) Unlike when she twists, angles her body away from him, avoids his touch like it physically pains her. Because that. That won’t ever not hurt.
His daughter Lila smiles at him, a tiny, hesitant thing, like she knows she isn't supposed to but just can’t help herself. She’s clinging to Cooper’s hand. His eldest is glaring darkly in a not at all encouraging way. Turns his head away when Clint finds he can't think of anything to say. And then there is Nathaniel, the son who doesn’t even know him, just pats his mother’s cheek uncoordinatedly in an attempt to stop her tears and—
Clint is ashamed to say he flees.
He doesn’t know what to do or say to make this better. To fix this mess of wrong choices, excuses falling flat and second chances none of them can bring themselves to take. And he just—takes the easy way out.
Clint moves back into the compound, away from the family he doesn’t quite know anymore, only it is not the same.The compound has always been his home away from home—sometimes perhaps more so than it should have been. Now though it feels different, hasn’t been the same since their return.
At first Clint assumes he is simply remembering things better, brighter, than they actually were. With how often he has been lying in Wakanda’s ridiculously idyllic gardens, dreaming of this place, rebuilding it inside his head, it’s entirely possible after all.
Besides a lot of the things he notices in the beginning are small, easily forgotten. They just begin to pile up after a while.
Like the way Clint can’t remember the water in the shower ever having turned cold on him before—but maybe he has just never showered long enough? Or the way their fridge ends up being empty more often than not. And how their laundry just keeps piling up until Sam snaps and declares Saturday laundry day—and you better be there or else.
Then there is their battle gear. It’s starts with the clothes, which are made of good quality and certainly in the right size. But. They aren’t great quality and they aren’t tailored. Clint is aware that he wouldn’t have noticed the difference a few short years back, but now he does. Now he knows how it could be. Knows that the material doesn’t have to stick to his skin quite as uncomfortably, doesn’t have to limit his mobility just a slightest bit.
The same goes for his weapons. The knifes that are decent but not perfectly designed for the moves and grips he prefers. The arrows are just arrows now. Missing ones are replaced after every fight, but they don’t suddenly appear out of thin air—and that is something Clint remembers well, the excitement when he tried a specially modified arrow out for the first time, unsure what to expect. The thrill of all the new possibilities once he had figured out their purpose—and he misses that.
The first time they’re out in the field again, they almost get killed. Sam is in the hospital for three weeks, Clint only barely escapes with a broken arm and a concussion. It’s not because they’ve forgotten how to fight, it’s because they’ve made a terrible, idiotic mistake that Clint wants to hit himself for even months later.
Because for some inexplicable reason it hadn’t occurred to any of them that Iron Man wouldn’t join them.
(He hadn’t been called on, they later learn, because the threat hadn’t been deemed that dangerous—and it wouldn’t have been, if only they had adjusted their strategy accordingly.)
The training Steve puts them through after that is rigorous but nobody dares to complain. And they don't fail again, not on that grade, but Clint is a decent agent, he recognises that their efficiency isn’t what it was. What it could be. He recognises what—who—is missing.
There is no point in commenting on it though. So he doesn't.
Clint finds himself watching Stark on TV sometimes now, during reports on attacks they haven’t been called in to handle—Stark’s not fighting alone, Clint notices, and can’t put his finger on why that bothers him—interviews, even gossip channels. He doesn’t know why. Doesn’t know when he has stopped hurling insults designed to hurt at the screen, just that he has.
It takes Clint three months of being back in the States to admit to himself that he misses Tony Stark.
He doesn’t say it out loud, isn’t sure he ever will. He never asks the others about their thoughts on the billionaire either, though it’s no secret that Steve has been trying to patch things up—and has been insistently rebuffed with a polite distance Clint wouldn’t have believed Stark capable of if he hadn’t witnessed it with his own eyes.
He doesn’t reach out, doesn’t call the man. He could, he supposes, though the thought of having to apologise for some of the things he’s said in anger leaves a stale taste on his tongue. Clint has never been good at apologies. He’s much preferred the silent understanding he used to share with Tony, one that didn't require either of them to voice their thoughts—and maybe that is part of the problem.
Either way it doesn’t matter because Stark is so far removed from them now, it’s hard to imagine they will ever be reunited again. He is there occasionally, during battles, but they never even hear his voice. It’s always just FRIDAY on the comms—and nobody is fooled into believing that the utter lack of emotional inflection in her voice is there because she is an AI.
Contrary to Steve though Clint can take a fucking hint. Stark has changed his number seven times for god's sake. Clint isn’t going to run after him when he is so clearly unwanted. He doesn’t even want to.
And if he occasionally finds himself glaring at the TV where Stark and a masked Spiderman exchange comfortable jokes and companionable banter with each other in front of the excited reporters, well, it’s not like he is jealous or something. That would just be pathetic.
It takes another thirteen weeks for Clint to admit to himself that what he misses the most about Stark isn't the nice things he gave them, the money or the way he always seemed to know how to redirect the presses’ attention in a way that benefitted them.
It’s the way Stark used to join him in the kitchen at ass crack in the morning sometimes, hand him a cup of hot chocolate and stare silently into the nothingness, just to keep Clint company. It’s the way they used to watch Gilmore Girls in the common room and make it a habit to use references to the show as often as possible, just to confuse Steve and piss him off. It’s the way Stark used to nod off against Clint’s shoulder sometimes, after a particularly exhausting day, like he hadn’t been mind-controlled by a psychotic alien mere weeks ago.
Not that it matters anymore, now.
Staring unblinkingly at the ringing phone, showcasing Laura’s number, that Clint can’t bring himself to answer, he bitterly wonders to himself if maybe that’s why he was always going to follow Steve’s call at the drop of a hat—because he’s always been better at running rather than staying.