It takes Clint a full minute to realize something’s terribly, truly wrong, after Lisa and the kids vanish.
I’m slipping, he thinks numbly.
Then he calls Nat.
She answers on the fifth ring and his fear solidifies in the pit of his stomach. She always picks up before that.
“Hey, Clint,” the Black Widow says, her voice cracking slightly, and he closes his eyes.
Natasha doesn’t break. Ever.
“Thanos. He got all the stones.”
Clint feels the words like a physical blow to the head.
“Who’s dead, Nat?” He can barely manage to say it out loud.
Slipping, Loki whispers, and he forcefully shoves the foreign voice away.
“Half of everybody. We’re not sure if--”
“Who’s dead that matters?” Clint clarifies, turning over possibilities in his mind.
Cap would probably disapprove, but Clint doesn’t really care. One family is dead and he let his other family walk into a fight without him.
“Bucky,” Natasha says lowly. “T’Challa and what looks like most of Wakanda. Sam. We can’t get in contact with Fury or Maria.”
She pauses and Clint knows what she’s going to say before she says the name out loud.
He swallows hard. Natasha knows his next question.
“Bruce, Thor, and Steve are fine. Well. They’re alive.”
“Tony?” Both of them are going into mission mode, analyzing the situation and pushing aside emotion to deal with later.
“Unknown. He and the kid-- Spiderman-- are somewhere off planet with Strange.”
The sound of Nat’s steady breathing comes through the line and he holds onto it hard.
“Laura and the kids are gone,” Clint says abruptly. “Vanished. There was some dust floating around.”
“Oh, yastreb,” Nat says*. Then she is silent.
Clint doesn’t say anything for a minute or two.
“So what happens now?” His voice must tell Nat something of what he’s planning because she takes a fraction of a second too long to answer.
“I’m going to try and deal with… with all of this. A few of the others will probably come with me. I… Give me a couple days, Clint, and I’ll have a plan.”
He smiles, despite everything. She always has a plan.
“You already know what you’re going to do, don’t you?”
Clint knows Natasha is only asking to confirm what she already knows.
“Yeah,” he says.
She doesn’t offer and he doesn’t ask.
“Be careful,” she says.
“Let me know if Tony made it,” he responds.
He hangs up.
Natasha texts him a few weeks later. It’s short and to the point.
Tony in bad shape but alive. Will recover.
He reads it in a Shanghai airport and doesn’t respond.
He doesn’t know what he would say. By now she has to know how much fresh blood he has on his hands.
Ronin is back and the criminals are running.
He gets the tattoo as a reminder to himself. He can’t get their names, can’t bring himself to expose that weakness, but for every scale, he concentrates on their memory.
Wanda is the hardest, somehow.
Loki hisses in satisfaction in the back of his mind when the tattoo is finished. Clint doesn't know whose decision the green snake was, but it's done.
He shaves his head as a dare-- to the cops, to the world, to Rhodey and Nat and everyone who thought they could find him.
He cuts it as a dare to himself, too. A mocking reminder of everything he was capable of.
He cuts his hair as a warning sign. As a war cry.
You can’t find me, even if I quit trying to hide. Even if I make myself noticeable, I'm five steps ahead of you.
Come find me if you can. Come stop me and put me down like I deserve to be.
I dare you to.
He sees how people look at him when he’s in street clothes. They think he’s a little or a lot too old to pull off a mohawk, to even have one.
The few who bother to look closer see his eyes and look away fast. Even if they don’t realize it, they recognize a raptor’s gaze when they see it.
Nat finds him because of course she does. She’s the only one who could.
Standing in the Tokyo rain as his other half tries to bring him in, he remembers a wary, lost assassin in Lisbon a lifetime ago and he knows why she’s winning when no one else could.
Nat would have gone with him, once. If he’d asked, she probably would have had his back, through Chicago and Shanghai and Rio and Mexico City and everything else.
If he’d asked her, he thinks she still would have said yes.
But he didn’t. And he knows he never would have.
She’s trying to be good, to balance out some of the red in her ledger. Just because he’s choosing a different path to damnation doesn’t mean he’ll ask Nat to follow him.
But she's asking him to follow her, to trust her, to have her back on one last mission, and he'll follow her into Hell if she needs him to.
He'd heard Tony say once, arguing with Steve, that love shows us who we want to be, but war shows us who we are.
This is war, and love is for children.
He owes her a debt.