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Silver Linings

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There were hostiles in the Tower.

It ran as a dull chant in the back of Clint’s head, a steady, metronome beat, matching rhythm with his heartbeat, his breathing, the flex of his arms as he drew down. It hummed through him, unobtrusive, undemanding, a simple, rational summary of the situation.

There were hostiles in the Tower.

Steve and Thor were two floors above, Thor basically on Hulk-containment duty, Steve at the conn (fucking Stark, the man was paranoid like you wouldn’t believe, the whole Tower was fed into a surveillance console in his penthouse) relaying positions to Clint and Natasha. Natasha … Clint had no idea, but there wasn’t a lot of time between the targets Steve was shooting her, so he was guessing she was wherever most of the enemy were, and they were getting significantly less in number the longer that situation continued.

And Tony himself … well. That was where Clint came in. Because apparently Stark had gotten himself pinned down in one of his workshops. Not one of the ones containing armours. Also apparently, the remote controlled armour was several floors and a not-inconsiderable amount of structural damage away from said workshop. And, to round the evening out, apparently the hostiles had somehow managed to deliberately arrange for this to be the case, because Stark’s pet AI had informed Steve in rapid order that, based on the clustering, he believed that the bulk of the enemy forces were to distract the other Avengers long enough for a surgical extraction, of Stark, from said workshop.

All of which pointed to something Clint was carefully not thinking about, something Clint shoved clinically under the steady metronome chant in his head, something he wasn’t going to think about until after the situation was contained.

Someone had given them that information. Someone had let them in. Someone, somewhere, in Stark/Avengers Tower, had opened the door to the enemy.

Someone, he thought, who had better make sure they were also surgically extracted before this night was out, or they would have a small infinity of time over which to regret it.

“Clint, what’s your ETA?” Steve’s voice came through, strained and aggravated. Steve had wanted to be hunting, too. JARVIS, for some reason none of them were sure of, had informed them that he would be incapable of adequately maintaining the conn, and advised that someone should stay at the helm. Steve, reluctantly, had agreed. But he obviously wasn’t happy about it.

“Two minutes away,” Clint said back, busy unclipping himself from harness. Elevator shafts were handy for quick floor access, but the Tower ventilation, in credit to Stark’s paranoia, wasn’t near big enough to support entry. He’d have to go in the hard way. “Something wrong?”

“JARVIS has cut off contact,” Steve said. Clipped and brief, rigidly controlled, but Clint felt the stagger in his gut regardless. “Something’s happening in that workshop, Clint. You need to be there yesterday.”

“No kidding,” Clint murmured. A little raggedly around the edges, his hands already in motion, his mind dropping back to that cold, clean beat. Scanning the environment, plotting arcs and trajectories and equipment deployment. He was trotting along the corridor, short bow at the ready and bolt in hand, before Steve had even finished talking.

If JARVIS was out, then someone was in. Someone with Stark, someone holding him, armourless and defenceless, not half a floor and some reinforced walls away from Clint.

Fine then. Showtime, boys and girls.

The workshop, which was actually still a floor below him, had an overlook balcony accessed from this floor. This was one of the main testing floors, and Stark had installed a number of glass-fronted (‘glass’ being something of a misnomer, but Stark had flat-out refused to call it ‘transparent aluminum’ when it had nothing to do with aluminum at all, keep your crappy sci-fi references to yourself, Barton) viewing galleries above some of the labs. At Clint and Natasha’s insistence, he’d also added in hatches, concealed at various places along the lengths, from which viewers (ie teammates) could access the testing floors from the galleries.

And it was from one of those galleries that he got his first look at the situation down in the workshop.

It wasn’t pretty. Stark had apparently managed to disable two of his opponents, one with what looked like a heavy-duty machine wrench, the other with the partially-cannibalised repulsor gauntlet he’d apparently found the time to stick onto his left hand and clumsily wire into the reactor. He must have been behind cover doing it, because there were any number of bullet-holes and ricochet marks scattered around the workshop.

There were also four other hostiles, all extremely angry looking, gathering in a loose, gun-pointing circle around where Stark was crouched, out in the fucking open, over the downed shape of one of his robots. The weird ones, with the arms, and the incredible kicked-puppy looks. Stark, his face and the back of one shoulder peppered with small cuts, was crouching defensively over the robot, the arm with the gauntlet raised and shifting between the four hostiles in a vain attempt to ward them off.

“Shit, Stark, what the hell were you thinking,” Clint muttered, viciously.

“Clint?” Steve responded, Natasha’s voice barely a half-second behind him, and Clint realised the comm was still on. “What’s the situation, soldier?”

Clint blinked, vaguely. Shit, Steve was worried, wasn’t he?

“Stark’s gotten himself pinned down in the open,” he relayed, soft and to the point. “It’s stand-off for now, but he’ll only get one, maybe two once they move, and then they’ll have him.” He grunted, easing himself carefully along the gallery, which was too fucking transparent for him to risk fast movement, towards one of the hatches and a firing position. “I’ll need a minute to get into position, even the odds.”

“Do you have a minute?” Natasha asked, hard and near-angrily. Not at him. Clint knew that. At the situation.

“Should do,” Clint murmured, more than halfway into place. “Stark’s working the old silver tongue, looks like.” He frowned, suddenly, as whatever Stark said had them clustering together, moving closer. “Or not,” he started, and then: “What the …?”

He cut off, watching with something like liquid shock as panels opened noiselessly in the floor behind the now clustered group of hostiles. He watched, struck dumb, as Tony’s face hardened visibly, even from ten feet up and fifteen feet back, something black and cold and fucking deadly flowing over him, and then ...

Jesus,” Clint barked, reflexively recoiling, abandoning stealth altogether to hurl himself along the gallery, throwing himself down at the hatch. The hostiles didn’t notice. The two of them that were left to notice much of anything. “Jesus, fuck.”

“Clint!” Steve barked, something crunching over the channel behind him. Clint vaguely hoped he hadn’t broken Stark’s console. “Clint, report!”

“I’m on my way,” Natasha came in, clipped on Steve’s heels. “Four minutes, Barton. I’m coming.”

“No!” Clint managed, swinging down through the hatch, struggling to … to not be sick, really. “No, no, we got it, it’s fine, shit. Hostiles down. I repeat. Hostiles down. Stark …” He swallowed. “Stark has the field.”

He hoped. He fucking hoped Stark had it, that someone had it, because if that thing was in free-firing mode, they were in deep shit.

Stark paid him no attention, didn’t even look at him as Clint carefully picked his way across the workshop floor. Skirting the peppered worktables, the splayed machine remains of whatever Stark had been working on. And then … some other splayed remains altogether. Keeping away, keeping well away, from the gleaming mechanical arms reaching up from the floor to cluster around Stark, waving a bloodied drill-bit almost tentatively about the engineer’s head.

“Okay, buddy,” Stark was saying, his back to the slaughterhouse behind him, ignoring the evil tree of mechanical death hovering over his shoulder. He was focused on … on the fucking robot, the one he’d been crouched over, the one he’d gotten himself pinned trying to defend. “Easy, Dummy. Your sensors are out, okay, you’re running blind, but I’ve got you, okay? Me and JARVIS, we got you. You’re going to be a-okay, got it?”

“...Stark?” Clint whispered, hoarsely. Swallowing hard as he crept around the back wall, in behind the man. “Tony? You with me, man?”

He almost swallowed his tongue, reflexively, as Stark, apparently only belatedly realising he was there, snapped his head up to look at him. That wouldn’t have been a problem, even if the black, cold snarl on the man’s face was somewhat alarming, except that the whole … assembly array, Clint knew what it was … behind him flexed aggressively towards Clint in the same moment. JARVIS was apparently as trigger-happy as Tony right now, and also, there were apparently more panels. Sliding open around Clint before JARVIS registered him properly.

Clint did not wet himself. He blanched, throwing up a warding hand instinctively, but he didn’t wet himself.

And until you’d seen four men torn apart by machinery designed to remove something capable of standing up to tank shells without blinking, you had no idea how much of a triumph that was.

“Whoa, whoa, it’s me!” he said, rapid-fire and escalating in tone. “Stark, Tony, it is me, do not deploy that thing!”

Stark blinked at him, recognition, followed by blank confusion, as though wondering what the hell Clint had to be scared of, and then slow, blooming realisation, as JARVIS relaxed the mechanical arms around him. Almost sheepishly, and the idea that Stark’s AI could be sheepish was … honestly, not really helping the situation. Clint had watched ‘The Sphere’, thanks.

“Sorry,” Tony offered, a little blankly, still. “Shit. Right. Tower. You guys. Everyone okay?”

Clint stared at him. Distantly. In some mild form of horror, maybe.

“They’re fine,” he said. Mostly on autopilot. “Natasha’s on her way, Steve’s on the conn, Thor has Banner.” He stopped, blinked. Realising, distantly, that this was the reason JARVIS had given Steve the conn, that this was what had required the AI’s focus. Realising, also, that he had no idea what to do with that information.

Besides possibly gibber.

Tony grinned in relief, waving a hand cheerfully at Clint from his crouch, the other arm, still dressed in the remains of the repulsor gauntlet, braced underneath the robot’s head … arm ... thing. Almost cradling it, while Tony straddled the main body defensively.

“Awesome,” the man said. Utterly oblivious. “Sorry, got pinned down, JARVIS couldn’t get me the armour. And then, they shot Dummy, they fucking shot him, I got a little … distracted, yeah?” He shook his head, ruefully apology. “Sorry, yeah? I’ll fix it for next time, they will not catch me like that again. Okay?”

Clint nodded, faintly. Not saying anything, until Tony looked up from the robot in concern, eyes crinkling into a worried frown as he brushed blood and hair out of his eyes to look at Clint.

“Hey man. You okay?” Tony shifted in his crouch, looking like he was trying to work out a way to catch Clint if he keeled over while still keeping hold of the robot. “You’re not hit or anything, are you?”

“No,” Clint murmured. No. And then … “You realise your AI just ate them, right?” He couldn’t help himself. “I mean, you noticed that? The whole … the rending and tearing part? You know that happened?”

Tony blinked at him, for a second. And then cooled, suddenly and terrifyingly, went blank and emotionless as any machine (well, any normal machine), and Clint realised, for maybe the first time, that this was the man who’d carved his way out of a terrorist compound all those years ago, and burned their world down around their ears for having taken him.

“They shot Dummy,” Stark answered, cold and remote, the assembly arms settling deliberately behind him under JARVIS’ control. “They came here, and they hurt my people, they assaulted my home, they put you guys in danger, and they shot Dummy.” He shook his head, free hand clenching into a fist. “I don’t give a fuck what happened to them. They earned it.”

“They also threatened you, sir,” JARVIS murmured, his voice as cool and even-tempered as always. “They meant to remove you, I believe. This was meant to be an extraction.”

And that, the AI seemed to say, the mechanical, tool-laden arms of his physical extension lax and calm around Tony’s crouched figure, would not be permitted. Not now. Not ever again.

“Ri-ight,” Clint murmured. His voice dropping automatically, and stupidly, into the calm-the-crazy-person tone that he hated when someone pointed it at him, or Natasha. Or Phil. Or, fuck, any of them. Anyone who had to look at the things they looked at, and do the things they did, and find some fucking way of coping with it at the end of the day. Clint heard his voice drop into that register and, suddenly, he wanted to slap himself.

Tony smiled, instead. Casual, blank, the I’m-an-eccentric-billionaire, I-don’t-care-what-you-think grin that masked … oh, so many things. They were, all of them, far too intimately acquainted with that fucking smile.

“I’m sorry,” Clint said, suddenly and earnestly, stepping forward from his defensive position by the wall. Stepping, with only a faint twinge of terror, into the reach of the assembly array, into JARVIS’ arms, and holding his hand out to Tony. “Caught me off guard, is all.” He grinned, let a little bit of the residual terror show. “Shit, Stark, something like a nightmare of HR Giger comes up out of the floor and kills some people, you gotta give a guy time to adjust, yeah?”

Tony blinked at him. Honestly shocked, staring up at Clint in surprise, blood dripping softly into his eye and the robot twitching worriedly in his arms, plucking agitatedly at Stark the way a child plucks at its mother. Tony blinked at him, and then, cautiously, like he half expected this to be some sort of prank, reached up to grip Clint’s hand, firm and cautious, and smile carefully.

“Next time, I’ll have JARVIS page you a warning, huh?” he asked, tentatively, and Clint … just sort of grinned at him. At the fucking psychopath crouched like a papa wolf over his downed robot, covered in oil and blood and holding onto Clint’s hand like he hadn’t a clue what to do with it.

“You do that,” he said, quietly, and for some reason, remembered Natasha. Remembered holding out his hand to her, cautious and deadly, and asking her to come with him, out of the cold. For some reason, looking down at Stark, he remembered her. “Right. Anyway. I gotta go report up. Steve’s going to be frantic by now.” And Natasha had to be lurking somewhere close, too, but maybe he shouldn’t mention that yet. “You coming?”

Stark blinked, and shook his head, grinning ruefully. “Nah. Can you relay up for me? I gotta put Dummy back together.” He ducked his head, tucking the robot close to his chest. “He’s lost most of his sensors, except for some basic pressure registers, so he’s kinda panicking a bit. JARVIS is hooked in wirelessly, keeping him calm, but … I kinda need to get him back up and running, you know?”

And it was on the tip of Clint’s tongue to point out that, you know, Tony was injured. The Tower was a mess. Steve was probably tearing his hair out. There were bodies to clear up. That Dummy was a machine, and probably didn’t rate above Tony’s own injuries, seriously.

It was on the tip of his tongue. And went no further. Because any man who would face down four gunmen while armourless for that machine, any man whose machines, in response, would casually tear four men to pieces to protect him … well. It probably wasn’t a good idea, to get between that man and them, was it?

“You should probably show your face inside the hour,” he said instead, carefully not showing any of the previous thoughts. “Steve, and probably Bruce, will want to make sure you’re okay, you know?”

Tony blinked, and smiled. Softly, almost shyly, and shit. Knowing that the robots got their cute-adorable-puppy talents from their creator was right up there with AIs being sheepish in terms of things Clint hadn’t needed to know. Tony smiled up at him, and Clint decided that now, right now, was the time to make a strategic withdrawal. For the sake of his sanity, if nothing else.

“See you up there,” he muttered, waving a hand at Tony’s already distracted back, muttering a farewell at the head already bowed back over the robot, and the machine arms that were carefully, very carefully, helping him to lift it. “Talk later, Stark.”

Right. It was official. Sometime in the past few months, one of two things had happened. Either Clint had stepped, somehow, into the Twilight Zone, or the world had gotten one whole hell of a lot stranger on him. You know. One or the other.

Shit. He needed a drink. On the bright side, that was the one persistent silver lining to the great big cloud of Stark-shaped insanity he was currently living in.

The good stuff was never in short supply.