The knocking went on and on and on, until Clint finally surrendered with poor grace and got to his feet. “OK, Jesus, I'm on my way, shut the fuck up.”
He opened the bedroom door, squinting at a mostly-naked Steve with a flip-phone pressed to his ear. “Steve? It's three in the morning, what the hell?”
Steve held out the phone, his face pale. “It's for you.”
For - him?
Still blinking on the sudden light of the corridor, Clint brought the phone to his ear. Fucking thing was so old it was a miracle it could still hold a signal. “Hello? Who's this?”
There was a hitched noise on the other end.
“Hello?” He tried again.
The person on the other end gave a single sob, an exhalation of pained relief, and Clint’s heart clenched. He knew that voice. “Laura?”
Another sob, hiccuping in his ear. “Clint,” Laura said, her voice heavy and wet. “Clint, you have to come home, please come home right now. Lila is sick.”
The flight back was interminable. Clint had dressed with inhuman haste, packing a meagre bag and giving the rest of the team a perfunctory goodbye before boarding the Kenya Airways flight. Eight hours to London Heathrow, a three hour stop-over, and another seven hours to New York in a Delta seat too small for a fully-grown adult.
He didn't even know if they'd let him in the country, or if he'd be arrested on arrival. He hoped to God they'd at least let him see his family if that was the case.
He rubbed the thin band on his ring finger, turning it over and over. He didn't usually wear it, of course, as a wedding ring tended to lead to questions he'd rather weren't asked. But - he'd missed Laura, he'd missed his kids. And it wasn't like he had anywhere to go on Wakanda, limited as they were to the palace grounds. So, yeah, when he'd left, he'd chosen to put on his wedding ring and to leave his weapons behind. He was arriving unarmed, praying he could reach the hospital before someone like Ross took notice.
Laura hadn't said much on the call, beyond asking him to come. Lila was in the hospital, having collapsed with a high fever and an unexplained rash. “You need to come back,” Laura had said, and that had been terror in her voice. “Clint, you have to come back home now.”
Please, God, he thought, a silent prayer to a deity he no longer believed in. Please keep my little girl safe.
He was waved through passport control with no issues. That… that was unexpected. This identity had been issued for Avengers-linked activities; he'd fully expected Stark to have handed it over to Ross. Maybe he'd forgotten about it.
“Welcome back, Mr Thomas,” the guy said, and handed back his passport.
“Thank you,” Clint managed, a little uncertain. He resisted the temptation to look back as he walked through.
He didn't have any checked luggage so it was a clear walk through baggage collection and out into the arrivals area, where -
Happy Hogan was waiting for him.
Clint tensed. He didn't want to hurt the guy, but… “I'm not here to cause trouble,” he said warily. “I just need to see my family.”
Hogan sighed. “I know,” he said. “I'm here to take you to the hospital.”
It could be a trap.
It was probably a trap.
It was almost certainly a trap.
Clint surrendered his bag without any further argument and followed Hogan back out to the car.
His hand immediately reached to pat the shape of the flip phone in his jacket pocket, reassuring himself that it was still there. He couldn't phone Laura, he knew, because she wouldn't have her phone turned on in the hospital. But if she stepped out to call him, she would be able to get through.
His eyes sought the familiar New York skyline, a sharp pang of regret hitting him deep in his belly. God, he'd missed this.
Hogan accompanied him as far as the children’s ward, stopping a discreet distance away as Clint broke into a run at the sight of Laura crying in Stark’s - Tony’s - arms.
Tony’s eyes widened as Clint bore down on them, throwing his arms up on the air and jerking back from Laura in a non-threatening gesture.
Clint couldn't spare him more than a second, wrapping his arms around Laura and burying his face against her neck. She smelled of hospitals and exhaustion, her eyes tired and her face pale. “Sweetheart? Laura, Laura -”
She took a deep, shuddering breath and tipped forward into his arms. “Clint, oh God, Clint!” She gripped his arms, fingers digging sharply into him. "You're here."
A cold, horrifying feeling uncoiled in Clint’s belly. No. “Lila,” he croaked, feeling his knees give out. “Is she -”
“She's alive,” Tony jumped in, seeing that Laura could barely form words. “She's alive, she's asleep, just in there.” He gestured to the brightly-decorated door to the side.
With an agonised look down at Laura, Clint carefully extracted himself from her arms. “I'm just - I just have to see her, I have to check on her - Laura, please -” because she was shaking her head, suddenly furious, holding tightly onto his wrists.
“You turn up now?” She demanded. Her fingernails dug into his skin. “You - how could you just -”
He had to see Lila. He had to make sure that she was alive, he had to see her with his own eyes. And Cooper? Nathaniel? Where were they?
Helplessly, he found himself looking to Tony for back-up. Tony, of all people, what the fuck.
“Cooper and Nate are in the Tower,” Tony said, having evidently chosen to use his new mind-reading powers for good. “Laura’s sister is with them. Laura, why don't you - let's just -” And he wrapped an arm around her shoulders and drew her away.
Tony fucking Stark, his arms around Laura as if -
Clint drew a shuddering breath and managed to nod tightly, leaving his wife to turn and sob against Tony’s neck, instead walking quickly to the brightly-patterned door.
Inside, his little girl, his Lila, was asleep in a child-sized bed. She had a main line in, and several monitors wired to various parts of her. A stuffed hippo was guarding her bedside. She was deathly pale, a purple rash up both of her exposed arms and across what he could see of her chest.
As Clint watched, she breathed out and gave a little snort in her sleep, her nose scrunching.
Clint’s hand was tight on the doorknob, a shooting pain lancing up his arm.
His little girl.
By the time he managed to convince himself to leave her bedside an hour later and go outside to face the music, Tony was nowhere to be seen.
Laura sat in one of the plush chairs at the far end of the visitors area, a blank look on her face. There was a tablet - a Starkpad? - left unattended on the chair beside her, with what looked to be the hospital's website open in a browser.
“Is she OK?” He asked hoarsely. A rash and a high fever, he'd been worried it had been -
“It's not meningitis,” Laura said hollowly, and Clint had one moment of pure relief before she went on, “they're still running tests, but. The doctor's are fairly sure it's leukemia.”
No. The doctors were wrong. The tests were wrong. When the result came back, they would - they would -
“They've already scheduled the chemotherapy,” Laura said in that same dead voice. All the rage seemed to have burned out of her. There were red tear-marks on her cheeks and baby spit-up on her shoulder.
She'd been feeding Nathaniel, he realised. She'd been feeding the baby, and then Lila must have collapsed, and she’d been at the hospital since. He'd been travelling for over twenty hours, and she'd been here the entire time.
“Laura,” he finally managed to say. His tongue was heavy and awkward in his mouth. “Sweetheart, are they sure?” He sat down next to her, wrapping an arm around her. “What did the doctors say? What happened?”
She looked at him steadily. “She fell,” she said after a moment. “I had the three of them at home, and I was feeding Nate, and Lila said she wasn't feeling feeling well. And she just fell, suddenly, and then she was convulsing. Her glands were swollen, and she was burning up and covered in this - this god-awful rash. So I left Cooper holding Nate, and I got in the ambulance, and I prayed and I prayed and I prayed.” She nodded to herself for a moment, a look of resolve coming over her face. “And when we arrived, when the doctors had her settled down and I was no longer thinking she'd die in my arms at any moment, I kissed her, and I stepped outside, and I phoned Tony Stark.” She looked away from the look on his face. “I phoned Tony Stark,” she repeated, and there was an odd note in her voice. “Because I didn't have a number for you.”
You left us, she did not say. You left us, and I had no one.
Clint closed his eyes. “I'm sorry,” he whispered. He swallowed past the urge to try to explain, the rage at how unfair it was that he'd been away for less than four months and one of his kids was in the hospital. This was his fault. It was on him. “There's… I screwed up. I'm so fucking sorry, Laura.”
His hand tightened over hers. Laura’s fingers were thin and cold in his grip. One of her nails was broken and ragged where it pressed against his skin.
They sat there in silence.
Tony came back an hour or so later, his tie askew and a phone clamped to his ear. “Well, I understand that, but have you considered - OK, yes, I do get that, Pep, but -” he sighed, rubbing at the bridge of his nose with a finger. “Listen, can I call you back real quick? Just - I have to take care of a couple of things. OK, loveyoubye,” and he hung up, tucking the phone away. “Sorry,” he said quietly, “Just wanted to check if you needed anything before I head off.”
There was an uncomfortable silence. Laura looked at Clint, Clint looked at the ground, Tony looked at the ceiling. After a moment, Tony said with false cheer, “OK, well, I guess -”
“Wait!” Laura burst out, scrambling out of Clint’s arms and stepping up to wrap her arms around Tony’s chest. “Wait, wait,” she murmured.
Tony’s arms froze in a shape vaguely approximating an embrace, an inch or so away from her, as if afraid to close them and make contact. His eyes jumped to Clint’s by reflex.
Man up, for fuck’s sake, Clint thought, furious with himself, and got to his feet. “Wait,” he echoed. “I need to - we haven't - can you wait? Just - give me a chance to - just wait a little bit, yeah?” He kept his arms loose by his sides, trying to look as nonthreatening as possible.
Tony swallowed. “I - OK. Um, I'll take a couple of calls down the hall and then, uh, I'll come back. Or you can come to me? Yeah, you come to me when you're ready, I'll just be -” he gestured vaguely in the direction of the waiting room on the far side of the ward and wriggled free of Laura’s hold, escaping without another word.
Clint stayed exactly where he was, looking at the slumped lines of Laura’s shoulders. There was something else off. There was the stress from before, yes, but… Something else was badly wrong. “Laura?” He asked tentatively. “Honey?”
She didn't turn around. “Did you ever wonder,” she said, mostly to her feet, “what would happen when you left?” She rocked back on her heels and tossed her hair back, folding her arms and still facing away. “When you just - left us. When you left me, trying to run a farm and raise three kids. When you broke the law and when you broke your Avengers contract?”
She spun around to face him. “What did you think would happen?” Her eyes were hard, her mouth a thin line. “Did you just think that we’d still get your benefits? You're retired, and, what, they'd just keep coming indefinitely whatever you did? Because, newsflash! You left us, Clint, and the next month, the AETNA payments stopped!”
Clint stared at her pale face, the bottom falling out of his stomach. “We don't have health insurance?”
She laughed bitterly. “No, Clint. We don't have health insurance. I'm sure wherever you ended up, they had you well taken care of!”
That made no sense, how could… “But, the tests?” He asked weakly. “How can - oh.”
He looked back in the direction Tony had gone.
“Yeah,” Laura said, defeated. She covered her face with her hands. “Tony's paying,” she said quietly. “He - I phoned him, after we got to the ER. I didn't know what to do. I didn't have a way to reach you. He just, he arranged all of it, he, he,” her breath hitched. “I didn't know what to do,” Laura said again, exhaustion heavy in her voice.
She hadn't gone to Tony to ask for a phone she'd have no reason to suspect was there. (How could she have know that phone existed? For fuck's sake, Clint hadn't known.) She hadn't gone to Tony to ask for help contacting Clint. It hadn't been about Clint, not even a little bit, and his heart ached when that thought occurred. She hadn't been trying to contact him.
She'd gone to Tony because she didn't have a way to pay for Lila’s treatment. Because her daughter was unconscious in the ER and her sons were home alone and there was no insurance and no husband.
She hadn't gone to Tony because she was missing her husband. She'd gone to him because she was desperate.
Clint felt bile rising up rapidly to make him gag. Who paid the coverage for the Avengers? And why the fuck hadn't it occurred to him that it would stop after he took a stand against Tony? God, he couldn't even blame him. If he'd stayed a part of SHIELD, if he'd absconded into exile, carrying classified technology with him, and his family dependent on the benefits service provided… If he’d turned his back on SHIELD, would he have thought through what a dishonourable discharge would mean? Or would he have left anyway, leaving Laura to deal with it?
He didn't have to help them. If he'd broken with SHIELD, he would have known he was putting his family on the line. Why the fuck had he assumed that his stand against Tony wouldn't be the same fucking thing? He didn't have to help them, but he had, anyway. Tony could have turned Laura away.
He might have thought it poetic justice, he thought, horrified, thinking back to what he'd said on the Raft, shame scalding him.
He breathed past the lump in his throat with an effort, then stepped forward to wrap his arms around Laura and press his lips to the top of her head. “I'm sorry,” he said again. “I'm so fucking sorry, Laura. You did the right thing, and I am so sorry you had to do this alone.”
The cost of the tests alone… God, the fucking chemotherapy. They were in the right place for it - the hospital was exclusive, well-stocked, with some of the best doctors in the country - and on the plane over he'd had the ridiculous thought that, well, whatever it is, she's getting the best care possible. At least I can have confidence in that.
(He hadn't even managed to get that right.)
It was on the tip of his tongue to ask whether Tony had asked for anything in return. Whether Laura had promised him anything. But he couldn't think of a way to say it without it sounding accusing, ungrateful.
(And he'd pay it, of course. Whatever Tony wanted, whatever he asked for, Clint would do it without hesitation. For this? He'd sign the Accords, hand over everything he had on Steve and the others, break his own fingers so he would never hold a bow again, anything Tony wanted. To keep his baby safe, to make sure she got treatment? If Tony was willing to pay his baby’s medical costs, despite everything, Clint would crawl on his hands and knees in gratitude if that's what it took.)
“I need to thank him,” he said after a moment. He might not have, if it was a new bow. If it was new, exciting arrows. He might not have if it was -
God, he hadn't thanked him for the coverage to begin with. Stark Industries footed the bill for the Avengers, and the fully inclusive insurance had been one of the better perks. “For the… for everything. Is there… are there other things I need to say?” He couldn't think of another way to say it. What do I owe him, Laura? What promise did you make that I need to honour?
Laura shook her head, her cheek pressed against his. “He didn't ask for anything,” she whispered. “He was so - he didn't ask for anything.”
Clint nodded, his hold on her tightening for a moment. “I'll be right back,” he promised.
He found Tony tapping away on his phone in the empty waiting room, a cup of coffee by his side. When Clint walked in, Tony got to his feet warily, putting the phone away. “Is Laura OK?”
Clint looked at him for a long moment, taking note of the new lines around Tony’s eyes. He looked older than the last time they had met. Tired. There was a small scar close to his eye socket, faint but still visible. From a subsequent fight, or from the one at the airport? Clint wasn't sure.
“She's fine,” he said slowly. “She's grateful. As am I.”
Tony's eyes widened in surprise. “What?”
Clint paused again. The direct approach, then. “Thank you,” he said. He swallowed thickly, the sour taste in his mouth almost painful. You helped. You didn't have to. You helped, and I wasn't there. You helped, when it should have been my job. You did what I should have done. You looked after my family when I didn't. How was it possible to feel so much gratitude and so much bitterness at the same time?
“I didn't say it often enough, before,” Clint made himself say. “So, thank you. You didn't owe me anything, and we parted on bad terms, and - and I know I can't ever pay you back the cost of this, not if I worked a dozen lifetimes.”
I may have to. And if I have to, I will. For Lila, he would. Oh, God, his baby. If Tony had been the Red Skull himself, Clint would still want to wrap his arms around him in gratitude. My baby girl.
Tony shrugged, looking immensely uncomfortable. “It's your kid’s health,” he said hesitantly. “Whatever happened between us, your kids shouldn't have to suffer because of it.” He looked away for a moment, his throat working. “It wasn't intentional,” he blurted. “I didn't realise they'd terminated the coverage, it's handled by the subsidiary payroll staff and no one mentioned it at all. I hadn't - I didn't know any of that had happened until Laura phoned me, it wasn't, I wouldn't -” His eyes were pleading when he met Clint’s. “I wouldn't do that.”
Clint closed his eyes for a moment. The subsidiary payroll staff. “OK,” he said. He couldn't tell if that was relief or something else in his voice. “Thank you.” The subsidiary payroll staff. Some fucker in a little cubicle somewhere had ticked the appropriate box, and his family had been left to hang.
Tony hadn't set out to hurt them. He hadn't known. And when he'd found out, he'd come here and -
(Would Clint have phoned him? Would he have swallowed his pride, his distrust? He doesn't know, and all he can do is offer up a prayer that Laura had been the one to decide. That she had decided that Tony could be trusted.)
“I believe you,” Clint said finally, and Tony’s shoulders sagged in relief. “And I'm grateful.” It almost made it worse, in some respects. There was no price tag attached.
There hadn't even been any malice. Not from Tony, and not from the subsidiary payroll clerk, who had probably processed his paperwork without even reading it or recognising him. It would have been a ‘change in circumstance’.
For all he knew, it might have automatically processed, without anyone noticing. Just one line among thousands.
‘Change in circumstance.’ Now there was a euphemism.
(There was no one else to blame but himself.)
“If - if there's anything I can, if you need me to do anything -” He couldn't think of the right way to put it. “I'm in your debt,” he said at last, frustrated. Tony’s eyes widened again and Clint put up a hand. “You might not count it that way, but I do. So if you need anything…” He didn't even have anything to offer, for God’s sake. If Tony had that phone, if he'd had a way to contact them whenever he wanted, what information did Clint have to offer? What use would Tony have for him?
“I don't need anything from you,” Tony said abruptly, then winced. “That's - I didn't mean that the way it sounded. But I'm serious, Barton. You don't owe me anything, there isn't a price attached. The coverage shouldn't have stopped, this isn't - there's no price tag. Just - spend time with them, OK?” He looked past Clint, in the direction of Lila’s room. (Her private room, with bright patterns on the walls and top-of-the-line medical equipment, and the emergency appointments with the oncologist and the pediatrics specialist.) “And let me know how she's doing?” He asked quietly. “I'd like to know about her recovery.” He put his hands in his pockets and looked away. “I don't know if you've made alternative arrangements, but I - I took the liberty. Had your rooms at the Tower made up. It's close by the hospital, so you could stay there and visit daily, I mean…”
Clint nodded. He didn't really know what else to say.
He watched Tony gather up his coffee cup and the folded newspaper from the nearby chair and turn to leave.
Something did occur to him, then. Something in the way Tony had looked towards Lila’s room, in the careful way he'd had his arm around Laura’s shoulders earlier.
The way that Clint’s fake papers had worked at passport control.
(The way he'd made up the rooms at the Tower for them.)
“Wait,” Clint said, and reached out. He rested his hand on Tony’s sleeve, feeling the tension under his fingers. “Listen. I know you're probably busy. And I appreciate the offer, all of it, OK, and will accept because I don't have any plans in place and Laura, I mean, we all need to be near Lila. And right now things are a bit shit.” He bit his lip. “But later. Once we get them settled in, and Lila's a bit better. Uh. Do you want to come over for dinner? We could talk, and stuff.”
Tony turned his head, surprised.
“I make a mean meatloaf,” Clint said, trying for a lightness in his voice. His eyes stung and he blinked, once, twice. Please say yes.
Tony scoffed a little, but there was a strange look on his face. “I've had your cooking before, Barton, I'd be lucky to survive,” and oh, the sudden spasm of panic on his face, as he realised what he'd said. “But, uh,” he hurriedly appended, “I mean I guess I could risk it. For meatloaf.”
Clint was willing to bet that Tony had never eaten meatloaf in his entire fucking life. “It's a deal,” he said, trying to inject all he meant into his voice. Thank you for looking after my family. I’m sorry for all the bad blood between us, for my part in it. I want us to try again.
Tony nodded slowly.
Back on the other end of the corridor, Laura had the tablet back in her lap, murmuring quietly into it. When she saw him approach, she whispered something into it and brought it up in a kiss. “I'll see you in a little bit, baby. Be good and listen to your auntie, OK?”
She turned off the FaceTime before Clint could speak. “I want to know what's happening first,” she said defensively. “Before they see you. It'd be hard, if it was just for a few days. I'd rather they not have to go through that again.”
Clint nodded. “I understand. It's - it's not just a visit, Laura. I'm here. I'm back.”
“And - everything else? Is it OK?” Between him and Tony, she meant, because that had been the only thing to sort out. Because Laura had been here when he hadn't, and had sorted out everything else herself. She'd fed and clothed his children, she'd found help and medical care for them when they were sick, she'd found protection for them when they were threatened. She'd done all of that, and all Clint had had to do was offer a home-cooked meal to someone he'd once called a friend.
Clint wrapped an arm around Laura and pressed his lips to the top of her head, his stomach heavy with guilt. He wasn't going to leave again. Whatever it took, whatever it cost him, he was staying. This was where he belonged.
“Yeah,” he whispered. “Yeah, baby, it will be. I promise.”