Clint’s weaving in and out of New York traffic on a motorbike with his gear hidden in a food delivery cooler-backpack thing when it happens, because of a message from Hill that included aliens and NY and check in.
A quick skim read of news feeds and social media showed it’s not an invasion - yet. But a coded message from Natasha with a bit more detail had him concerned enough to wrap up the Inhumans recruitment roadtrip he’s been on - his latest Secret Avengers mission as Scott calls them - and to make plans for that check-in with Hill to be in person. He doesn't need a repeat of the Hydra-undercover-in-SHIELD debacle, thanks, being out in the cold when shit hits the fan.
A taxi on his left suddenly slams on the breaks for no goddamn reason. The teenage pizza deliverer with the shitty scooter and dumb uniform jacket, who’s been keeping pace and playing a fun kind of tag with Clint for the last three blocks, smacks straight into the back of it. She's going fast enough to be thrown forward off her bike and hit the car hard before crashing to the floor; thankfully slow enough not to go flying over the car’s roof or to be flung into any other lane of still-moving traffic. It still looks bad.
Clint swings around in front of the taxi, U-turning back to the scene. He cuts his engine, knocks his kickstand into place, yanks off his helmet and drops it on the floor. He’s at the kid’s side in under a minute, crouching down and running his eyes over her in an initial damage assessment.
Hit the car, then slid down and landed on her back. No visible big bleeds. Arms and legs all attached and mostly at the appropriate angles, the exception being her right arm.
“Someone call 911 please,” he says to the handful of rubbernecking pedestrians who have their mobile phones out. Hopefully they’re already dialing emergency services and not snapping photos of the accident for whatever asshole reason people feel the need to do that, but best to make sure.
Her helmet took the brunt of the impact and did its job. Clint leaves it in place, not wanting to move her head or neck, but he pushes up the fractured visor to reveal her face, pale and eyes wide in shock. There’s some bleeding, but the wounds are superficial.
“Hi,” he says, smiling. “You know you don't win if you crash, right?”
“Totally - totally had you.” She manages a weak smile in return and seems able to focus on him okay.
Her right shoulder is definitely broken, or at the very least dislocated. He can't see anything else of note, but he’d like to do a pat-down just to make sure he’s not missing anything else that’s serious. Then he’ll keep her still until an ambulance arrives, in case there’s a spinal injury or an internal bleed.
“Lucky for you I’m pretty good at the first aid thing, so i’m just gonna do a quick hands-on check, if that's okay?”
“Yeah. I - ” She drags a deep breath in through her nose. “Yeah, okay.”
As Clint leans in she lifts a shaking hand to grab for his sleeve, then freezes.
Both of them stare at her fingers as they just… disintegrate. Flake away into ash. She makes a choked noise, face full of panic, as it travels up her hand, her wrist, her arm -
Clint reaches past what he can't understand to gently squeeze her uninjured shoulder.
“Hey.” He pins his eyes on hers and makes his expression as calm and reassuring as he can, because that’s all he’s got. Because sometimes all a person can do is be there. “Hey,” he says again, softly, and gives her a smile.
And she's gone. In seconds. The ashes of her remains disappear into nothingness before they can even complete their fall to earth.
Clint gets to his feet and looks up, searching for an attacker or some kind of explanation - and it’s everywhere. The taxi cab is empty. Three of the gawking pedestrians crumble. Another drops their phone and starts to run, but it doesn't help. There’s no one in the driver’s seat of the car stopped behind. Or the child’s seat in the back.
This isn’t the kind of alien attack he’d imagined. People turning to dust in the wind, with nothing left behind and no way for anyone to know what happened to them. To their friends, their families.
Fear punches Clint in the heart, because what if this isn't limited to the city, and he pulls out his phone, enters the password and hits the first number in his contacts list. He fights to control his breathing as he listens to it ring, even as his brain starts chanting pick up pick up pick up in rapid rhythm and his heart races to follow.
Lila’s voice, followed by a sob.
She hasn't called him that in ages, says she's too old.
Clint swallows down the lump in his throat.
“Hi sweetie, is your mom there?”
She starts crying and he knows. He knows. He’d already known when Laura didn't answer the phone, but.
But Lila’s there, she’s okay, and the sound of her in pain is breaking his heart.
“Hey,” he says, choking on it despite his best efforts, eyes wet and spilling over.
“Clint?” Maggie cuts in - Scott Lang’s ex - taking the phone from his daughter.
He can still hear Lila crying in the background and, god, he wants to do something about it but he's not there, he needs to talk to an adult, and he knows all too well there's no cure for grief.
“Yeah,” he manages. He scrubs his free hand across his face and swallows and swallows and tries to pull himself together.
“Scott,” she says, sharp and rushed. “Is Scott with you?”
“Oh god, Clint…”
Her voice cracks as she breaks down and now both of them are a mess, which is no use to anyone.
He stares down road. Vehicles as far as he can see have come to a stop, some more violently than others. People are dragging the injured out of smashed up cars, trying to help pedestrians who were crossing the road at the wrong time, a guy hit by a van that mounted the sidewalk. Others are running, panicking, sitting on the sidewalk crying, holding each other, standing still with phones clutched to their ears like him.
There’s screaming in a small restaurant to his right. Smoke rises from a few blocks away and beyond that a helicopter spirals downwards to crash somewhere in the forest of skyscrapers. A siren wails in the distance; the promise of emergency services when it’s clear they aren’t going to be able to cope.
Clint closes his eyes, just for a moment, and reaches for the calm state of draw-and-release that he’s trained himself to sink into whenever he needs to make a shot, even when everything’s going to hell around him. Later. There’ll be time to fall apart later. If he’s still alive, and if not then at least he won't have wasted the time he has left.
First: “Maggie. Tell me what happened.”
“Laura, Cooper, Nate, they're… gone. They just…”
This. This is the stuff of Clint’s nightmares.
He fights tooth and nail to hold onto professional detachment. Some small part of him wonders if it’s unhealthy or the denial stage of grief, but fuck it. He just needs to be able to function. He can’t break down in a crisis. He’s a goddamn Avenger, even if he’s currently a secret one. He’s a parent with a little girl who still needs him.
“It’s all over the news. People are just...turning to dust. All over the world. What’s happening?” Maggie begs, like he’s someone that has answers. “Clint?”
He takes a breath.
“Okay. What about Cassie? Jim?”
Clint feels a sudden rush of irrational anger-jealousy-hate because she gets to keep - No. The only person to go after for this is whoever’s responsible for doing it. And Clint wants a piece of that; might make it easier to look his kid in the eye.
“And the safehouse isn't compromised?” he checks.
He’s pretty confident that it isn't though. When Clint and Scott had been offered the safehouse deal by the government, to retire and not sue or go public with the Raft shit in exchange for protection for their families, Nick Fury had appeared with a counter offer: pretend to take the deal, but do a few ‘favours’ for him and he’d make sure their families would disappear. Then he would sort a safehouse for them where even the government wouldn’t be able to find them. Clint hadn't hesitated and the Secret Avengers were born. He trusts Nick with this; no one ever found out about the farm.
It was Clint’s fault in bringing Stark there, and Stark mentioning Clint’s family on camera on the Raft, that had lost them the farm.
“No.” Maggie sounds calmer now, having straightforward questions put to her that she can answer and someone else taking point.
“You have enough food and water for a while?”
“Yes. We had a delivery yesterday.”
It’ll help that they’ll be able to stretch supplies further without… With three less… Fuck, just, they’ll be able to stretch supplies further if they need to.
That's the most Clint can do for them for now without knowing what the situation is. He needs more intel.
Which means he can't go to Lila right now, however much he aches to wrap his arms around her. To comfort her as much as he can and also, selfishly, to reassure himself that she’s still here. Not until he's done everything he can to make sure she's going to be safe. And, maybe, if there’s anything that can be done...
Maybe, in a world where aliens and magic are a reality, disintegrating doesn't have to mean dead. Or maybe this is the denial stage of grief kicking in.
“I need to do some digging.” He picks up his discarded helmet one-handed by the chin strap and walks over to his bike. “Can you look after Lila for me?”
“Of course.” Maggie sniffs. “We’re okay, aren't we Lila?”
“Thank you,” he tells her. “I'll be in touch when I can. Stay put. Stay safe.”
“Wait, hang on.”
There's the sound of the phone being moved, Maggie’s muffled voice saying, “Do you want to say goodbye, yeah?” and a pause.
“Dad? You’re not coming?”
Lila doesn’t sound surprised. She sounds sad and disappointed, and this is yet another one of those times Clint feels like a contender in the Worst Parenting Championships.
“Not just yet, sweetie.”
Laura - Laura always said looking after the big picture was still also looking after them and that didn’t make him a bad father. Somehow it always feels more true when she says it than when he tells himself that though, and now - Now there’s no one to -
He smacks the bike helmet against the side of his leg, hard, not enough to bruise but enough to make his brain focus on something outside of itself. Almost.
“Are the Avengers….” Lila trails off, her small voice fading away. Then starts over, stronger, and that’s their girl. “Can you get them back? Mom and Nate and Coop?”
The tears well up again without his permission.
“The news said that they're dead but they could be just gone, right?”
“I don't know.”
The words cut deep as they slice their way out of his mouth.
They have an honesty policy in the Barton family. If there's something they can't talk about or don’t know, then they say that they can't talk about it or don't know. Laura always insisted on that.
Clint’s a realist. He’s seen death and delivered it with his own hands. If he’s honest with himself, really honest, then the only reason he can’t accept turning to ash without cremation means dying, can’t believe that he’s just held a girl who died in his arms, is because he can’t handle that happening to his family.
But it isn’t a lie to say he doesn’t know for sure. Lila could be right, which means he doesn’t need to snuff out her hope; can’t bring himself to even if hoping now means worse pain later.
“I don't really know what's happened yet, but I’m going to find out, okay? And if there's anything that I can do to help then I’m going to do that, and then I’m coming to you.”
“Love you.” Her voice is sure about that so he must be doing something right.
“Love you too, sweetie. Be good for Maggie, okay?”
It turns out he can in fact maintain a steady voice while tears are rolling down his face, as long as he can get through this before his nose and throat get clogged up again and give him away.
“Love you,” Clint says again and then forces himself to end the call.
The phone screen is blurry, smudged with tears. Attempting to wipe it with the cuff of his leather jacket really doesn't help.
He hangs the helmet on the nearest handle of his motorbike and digs through his stuff, coming up with a metal polishing cloth that isn't the best solution but is better than nothing. He finishes ruining it by also using it to wipe his face and blow his nose.
He takes another minute and a swig from his water bottle, then he tries calling Hill.
She doesn't pick up.
This is Hill’s emergency number, the one that changes monthly for security and is only issued to select people. The Gold Command mission line, for the need-to-know Ops she's running for Fury who’s still technically dead. The parachute cord in case the sky starts falling.
She always picks up.
“Guess the meeting’s cancelled,” Clint tells her voicemail, aiming for funny and falling short. Hill could be ash and never hear it. “Right, if anyone checks this, be advised Ronin is still in play. New York City at this time stamp.”
And that’s it. He’s on his own. It’s eerily similar to the Hydra incident. Except instead of ‘anyone could be evil’ it’s ‘anyone could be dead’.
It makes him scared to try the next number.
It rings once, twice, three times, four -
Hearing Natasha’s voice is such a fucking relief.
He leans against the motorbike to steady himself as she snaps out, “Where are you? Are you safe?” Words coming sharp and fast like thrown blades, because she needs answers and needs them now more than she values her fabled self control.
Clint doesn’t make her wait for them: “Yeah. New York. You?”
“I’m visiting the cat shelter with our geriatric friend,” she says, deliberately much slower so that he won’t start worrying about her.
Wakanda with Steve then. Trust Nat to speak in code even on a secure line, and even when aliens are involved. Aliens probably have much more sophisticated technology, or telepathy, or something that makes secure lines a joke to them anyway.
“What the hell’s going on?”
“Unfortunately there were some other, less welcome visitors.” She hesitates. “We... lost.”
“Lost who?” Clint asks impatiently.
“A lot of people, but no, I mean. We lost.”
“Nat.” Clint braces himself with one hand on the bike’s seat. “This is as secure a line as I can get right now and, honestly, I think we have bigger problems. Spit it out.”
She makes him wait while she thinks. He can hear trees rustling on her end of the line and Steve, sounding quiet and spaced out, telling someone, “It’s Clint.”
“We lost the fight. Against… an alien who wanted to wipe out half of the universe. He succeeded.”
Clint tries to wrap his head around that, the scale of it, and fails; would fail even if his personal loss didn't shrink everything else into insignificance.
“Wanda’s gone,” she says and that brings it home. Names, not numbers. Friends, not people he’s never heard of, and maybe he should care more about those strangers, but how can he when Wanda...
“Sam, Vision, Barnes,” she lists. “T’Challa. I don't know who else yet.”
Half of the universe. Half of everyone they know. Gone.
“Laura’s gone,” he tells her and her breathing catches. “And Nate and Cooper.”
“Clint - ”
“Lila’s okay. She’s with Scott’s family still. Not heard from Scott or Hope though.”
They both go quiet for a moment, not saying anything. Clint listens to her breathing. To her just being there.
“Tasha. Just tell me, yes or no.”
He closes his eyes to shut out the world and swallows the ash in his mouth.
“Do we have a plan?”