The Quinjet banks suddenly; a water bottle and a stray helmet roll out from behind Clint's feet and across the floor from one side of the plane to the other. Clutching at straps and hand holds, the team members in the back exchange mildly perturbed looks, which become less mild and more slightly wary as something explodes behind them.
Natasha turns around in the pilot's chair and raises an eyebrow. "Three minutes to target."
From the bench across from Clint, Steve looks up and nods at her. After holding a silent conversation with Steve, Natasha passes the controls to JARVIS, places her headset on her seat as she leaves it and takes a spot next to Clint. Steve leans forward and the team's attention focuses on him.
"Before we head into this I want to reiterate the importance of keeping this Cosmic Cube out of the hands of both HYDRA and A.I.M."
"We know, Cap -- it's a reality-changing device," Tony says, then with an awkward laugh amends, "Not that I think it's actually going to work! But if it does it would really suck to hail HYDRA, or whatever we'd end up doing in a Weird Science world created by a group who ludicrously calls itself the ~Advanced Idea Mechanics~."
Tony shares a smirk with Bruce, but really, Clint thinks, their team calls themselves the Avengers. Who are they to make fun of another group's name?
Steve shakes his head, staring down at his tightly clasped hands. "That's not my point, Tony." He looks up then, at the team, meeting everyone's eyes as if to lend them his steady confidence.
"What I mean is, if it comes down to it... If it comes to them or us? We grab the Cube."
Thor frowns. "Fury instructed us to retrieve it without allowing anyone to lay hands upon it."
"I know," Steve says quickly. "I know our orders. And ideally, it's what we should do." He pulls his hood on and takes up his shield. "But we're not likely to run into an ideal situation out there, are we?"
Tony closes his faceplate, Thor hefts Mjolnir, Bruce sighs as he undoes the buttons on his shirt, and Clint feels Natasha's body shift from 'alert' to 'ready to fight'. For his part, Clint dips his fingers through the open front zip of his costume, brushing his fingers against the edges of the small stack of cards hidden in there, for reassurance.
Natasha's knee brushes against his own, and he knows she saw the gesture. Though they've had a few excruciating conversations about Phil's death, they've never talked about this, how Clint carries Phil's well-loved cards with him on missions, keeping them close to his skin and next to his heart. It's not that he does it because it's like he's carrying a piece of Phil with him, exactly, but feeling them brush his collarbone when he draws an arrow is almost like having Phil in his ear, helping to keep him steady and focused when he needs it just with the sound of his voice.
Almost like. But nothing really compares, in the end.
"30 seconds to arrival, Captain Rogers."
"Thanks, JARVIS. All right, is everyone suited up?" Steve gets four nods and one awkward shrug from Bruce. "Or...suited down? Ready, I mean ready."
The back hatch slowly lowers and Clint sees rooftops race past beneath them. He slings his bow around his body in preparation for their...
"Hey, how are we getting off this thing anyway?" Clint asks. Tony opens his arms wide like he's waiting for a hug and Clint can feel Tony's smirk through the faceplate.
"Don't be shy. We're all friends here. Come give Tony a cuddle."
"Jesus, I don't know what's more disturbing -- the idea of cuddling with you, or you talking about yourself in the third person."
Natasha smirks. "Definitely the cuddling. Tony talks about himself in the third person all the time."
"That doesn't mean it's not disturbing," Clint argues.
Bruce coughs into his hand, covering a laugh, and Tony's glove lands heavily on Bruce's shoulder. "I'm glad you feel that way buddy. It makes this part a lot easier."
And without any warning, Tony shoves Bruce out the back hatch. Even over the sound of the wind Clint swears he hears Bruce's pants rip.
"Tony!" Steve scolds, and Tony holds out his hands and says, "What?"
"No wonder nobody wants to ride with you," Steve sighs. "Thor, can you --"
A giant bicep wraps itself around Clint's neck. "Come, friends! Let us travel to the ground together!" Clint has just enough time get a fistful of Thor's cape before he and Natasha are being dragged out the hatch. If Clint brings it up later, Natasha will deny all knowledge of the meep she gives when their feet hit open air. She'll gladly confirm Clint's whimper, though.
"JARVIS, make sure you park this thing somewhere it won't get towed," is the last thing Clint hears before everything is screaming wind.
From his perch in the rafters, Clint has an aerial view of the fight. To the left, Hulk is smashing HYDRA dreadnoughts over MODOK's supine...head...body; to the right, Cap and Natasha are warily battling the geriatric Baron von Strucker. His youth-stealing Satan Claw is on hand, so they're trying to get an advantage by backing him into a tower of burning crates.
Thor and Iron Man are outside somewhere helping the late night crews reach safety through the battle raging between A.I.M. and HYDRA. From the radio chatter it sounds like there are more Hydra-Bots on the ground than they'd expected, and there were enough drones and agents shooting energy weapons at each other to keep them busy as it was.
Clint's still searching for the Cosmic Cube. It looks a lot like the Tesseract -- blue, glowy, square -- and if Clint weren't so good at compartmentalizing he might have had some problems with that. Instead he can make comments about unimaginative bad guys as he climbs a little lower.
It shouldn't have been that hard to lose the Cube, but there's a lot of smoke in the room, and the fight below had been going on for a while; it's impossible to know how it had been knocked away, and where it might have gone. Clint blinks against tears from the smoke and heat. He's going to have to get even lower before he becomes completely unable to see.
"Moving to ground level," Clint announces, flipping from a rafter and shooting a cable arrow to catch him and slow his fall. There's a whole lot he would give to hear Phil's dry "Impressive," through the comm, and maybe it's fucked up that the brush of card stock against the skin of his chest allows him to pretend that Phil's voice is real, but fucked up is all he's got.
He just tries not to think too hard about it.
Clint's comm activates -- for real this time -- and Steve acknowledges. "Underst -- AGGGH!"
Clint's feet are barely steady before he turns, looking for Steve and Nat, but all he can see is smoke. "Hulk!" he calls, and after a snarl and a smash Hulk claps, the shock wave parting the smoke enough for Clint to see --
Steve down on all fours, Natasha furiously attacking a suspiciously spry Strucker, Strucker catching her fist mid-throw and forcing her to the ground. Steve gets to his feet long enough to aim his fall and tackles Natasha away from Strucker before his Satan Claw touches her face.
Clint nocks an arrow and draws. Make it count.
His net arrow only holds Strucker for a moment before the Baron's sliced it to pieces with his sword. But it's long enough for Natasha to pull Steve out of reach.
Another draw. Steady. The small explosion sends Strucker stumbling back, nearly toppling a wall of flaming crates on himself.
"I AM MODOK! I AM DESIGNED ONLY FOR CONQUEST!" Behind Clint, Hulk roars in indignant pain. In front of Clint, Strucker charges, sword in hand.
"Ah geez," Clint mutters. He releases two more arrows, but Strucker dodges them with superhuman speed. Then Strucker's on him, so quickly that Clint doesn't have time to switch weapons. The Baron's sword clangs against the riser of Clint's bow, again and again, until Clint manages to catch the sword at an angle and twist it out of Strucker's grip.
"You think you can defeat me?" Strucker snarls. One vicious kick breaks Clint's grip on his bow and it clatters to the floor. "I have the power of Captain America at my disposal! You will feel the wrath of HYDRA!"
Strucker grabs Clint by the throat with his human hand, digging in so hard he thinks there might be bruises later, but Clint grins with bared teeth. "Yeah?" he rasps, and chokes on his laugh. "Well, I don't think so, buddy."
A Widow's bite to the side of the head isn't pleasant -- Clint should know, Nat's given them to him before -- and Strucker jerks away, dropping Clint and turning to meet Natasha head on. Clint scrambles for his bow, readying an arrow and nocking it in place in seconds. Strucker sweeps Natasha's legs out from under her, crashing her to the ground. He pauses to deliver some stupid bad guy soliloquy that makes Clint roll his eyes, then raises his clawed hand above his head.
Wrong move. Clint's arrow flies right on target, piercing the metal case and frying the...magic, or technology, or whatever the hell it is that powers the glove. Purple sparks flare across it, then leap the few dozen feet to where Steve is dragging himself, shield sliding forward beneath one weakened hand, the other lagging behind.
When the sparks hit, Steve shudders, and Clint is horrified when Steve looks up and Clint sees his aged, lined face for the first time. Steve's skin begins to tighten, wrinkles and sags disappearing back into the face Clint's always known, and he doesn't realize he's been holding his breath until Steve gets shakily to his feet, shield in hand.
"No. No!" Strucker wrenches the broken glove free from his forearm and smashes it into the side of Natasha's head as she wobbles to her feet, sending her back down again. "You cannot take this from me!!"
Unhinged, he shoves past Clint and dives to the ground.
"The Cube!" Steve yells, and Clint stumbles after Strucker. When his knees hit the ground he sees the Cube's glow radiating out from under nearby smashed crates. Strucker crawls for it, and Clint crawls over him.
"It's mine!" Strucker yells. Their outstretched hands are inches away from the Cosmic Cube. One more lunge and one of them will have it.
"No it isn't," Clint growls, and with one hand blinds Strucker with a flare arrow and with the other closes the distance and grasps the Cosmic Cube.
The right thing to do -- the thing any good SHIELD agent would do -- is not make a wish at all. But there's something Clint desperately wants that only the Cube can provide.
-- rough hands matching ties smile lines perfect coffee morning breath hidden knives paperwork snoring breakfast love --
Clint blinks his eyes open; he doesn't know when they'd closed. He looks down at his hand and considers how the Cosmic Cube doesn't feel at all like the Tesseract's cold, controlling aura, and it doesn't freeze his skin like he thinks it should. He pushes himself to his feet and looks around, but it's the same burning warehouse, the same weary team looking back at him.
"Clint?" Steve asks.
Clint wets his suddenly dry mouth. "I don't think it works," he reports, his voice unexpectedly raspy. Probably the smoke, he thinks, but the lump in his throat belies that. "Everything seems the same."
There's blood flowing down the side of Natasha's face and she looks more concerned for him than for herself. "Are you hurt?" Natasha asks. They all know she's really asking 'are you okay'.
"I'm fine. More fine than this guy, hey buddy?" He rolls Strucker over with his boot. Strucker's face is grey and through his glare, he looks shocked. Betrayed, almost. Clint rolls his eyes.
"That's what you get for trying to take over the world -- eternal disappointment. Hey, how do we put handcuffs on a guy with only one hand?"
He looks at Steve and Nat for a response. Steve's holding one of her hands in his own, helping her up like a gentleman. He doesn't let go once she's standing, keeping hold of her and trying to get a look at her head. But Natasha brushes him away, narrowing her eyes at Strucker with a contemptuous eagerness.
"Creatively," she replies to Clint, and pulls a handful of zip ties from who the hell knows where.
Clint leaves her to do her thing and joins Steve in approaching the demolished side of the warehouse. Hulk is sitting in a pile of HYDRA dreadnought pieces, A.I.M.'s leader defeated and lying brokenly next to him.
"Well this is a pretty good day," Clint comments. He tosses the Cosmic Cube from one hand to the other. MODOK's eyes follow the movement. "Not only did we save the world from being altered en masse, we also caught the leaders of both A.I.M. and HYDRA. Cap, I think we deserve ice cream for this."
"DEFEAT IS UNACCEPTABLE!" MODOK cries, and psionic beams lick out at Steve and Clint. Hulk grunts, annoyed, and thumps his fist on the top of MODOK's head. The psionic headband light flickers and dies.
Steve puts his hands on his hips, looking just like one of Phil's old Captain America figures. "You're going to have to accept it MODOK. We're taking you to The Cube."
"The jail cube," Clint clarifies. "Not the cosmic one. We really need to get more shapes around here, three cubes? Really? What's wrong with spheres or cylinders or pyramids, huh?"
"There does seem to be a bias," Steve agrees, mouth quirked.
"Hulk clean up," Hulk says, standing, and picks MODOK up by one of his stubby, flailing legs. "Too much trash."
Steve nods, and Hulk busts open a wall, dragging a villain and some robot bits behind him. With a sigh Steve surveys the broken wall, the burning crates, the hole in the ceiling from the crashed A.I.M. ship, and the Cosmic Cube.
"I think this went rather well."
Clint raises his eyebrows incredulously. "Well? You got turned into a nonagenarian!"
"I got turned back," Steve says defensively, then rubs a hand over the back of his head. "I do feel like taking a nap, though."
"Tony's always called you an old man," Clint jokes, and Steve ducks to hide his grin. "Yeah, I thought so. You always act so pissed about it but I knew it was an act."
"He likes to poke me," Steve shrugs. "It's not as fun for him if I play along." Clint hums and tries to find a way to change the subject, vowing to never make observations about Steve and Tony's weird friendship again.
"I'm going to find a SHIELD agent to give this to," Clint finally says, waggling the Cosmic Cube. He takes off for the Hulk-sized hole in the wall, but Steve's voice brings him up short.
"Hey, Clint?" He turns back to Steve, who gives him a serious nod. "You did good today."
Before things can get deeply emotionally awkward, Natasha calls to Steve to help her with Strucker. Clint seizes his chance to escape and heads out into the cool night where it's easier to breathe.
It's a few hours before they've helped clean up enough and Fury graciously allows them to go home. Clint climbs up the back ramp of the Quinjet, clenching his fists against the phantom feel of the Cosmic Cube. He'd wandered around for nearly thirty minutes before finally finding someone with a high enough rank that he could pass the damn thing off.
When he gets inside Bruce is hovering in front of a bench and frowning down at his now ill-fitting pants. "Hey, Bruce," he greets, and gets a distracted smile.
Clint's too jazzed to sit down so he paces the length of the jet up and down, up and down, peering out the hatch every other trip to see if the team was coming yet. Bruce watches him warily, head ducked down as if he's still trying to fix his zipper.
"Is something wrong?" he asks, and Clint is too off-kilter to hold back the question he's been wondering about each of them ever since they'd received their mission.
"If you could change reality, what would you wish for?"
Bruce blinks at him, tilting his head. "I'd think that would be obvious."
Clint wants to snap that it isn't and demand a fucking explanation, but there's Bruce's shirt on the bench and he's holding up his pants with two hands and he left his girlfriend behind and never talks about her any more and --
"...Yeah, I guess it is. Sorry."
Nodding, Bruce accepts his apology with a rueful smile. Feeling like an asshole, Clint finally takes a seat on the other bench.
After a while of silence, Bruce says to his navel, "If you wanted to talk, I like to think I'm a pretty good listener."
That was...really nice of him, and unexpected. But there's only one person now that he can trust with this kind of thing. "Thanks, but no thanks."
Bruce nods again, this time in a way that makes Clint think he hadn't been expecting any other answer. "Well if not me, then, someone? You look like you could use it."
Natasha steps in then through the back hatch, stopping abruptly when she sees both men have frozen in place. "What," she asks suspiciously, and Clint gestures at Bruce's half-naked body.
"Just talking about how much clothes Bruce goes through," Clint lies. "Don't you think he should ask Tony to make him some kind of Hulk-proof pants or something?"
Bruce grimaces, awkwardly fiddling with his loose waistband. Natasha cocks her head and eyes Bruce's body, which shifts uncomfortably under her scrutiny.
"Maybe we can talk to Mister Fantastic. He already has clothes that stretch."
"Ohhh no, you don't want to ask Reed Richards," Bruce argues, shaking his head. "Tony hates him. He thinks Reed's smarter than him and wastes it on...well, whatever weird stuff Reed gets up to in that tower."
"Really?" Natasha sounds thoughtful. "Because that sounds like we should definitely ask Richards."
Bruce grins at her, a little surprised. "You like making his life miserable, don't you."
"Don't we all?" she smirks, and Bruce can't deny it.
Metal and leather boots clank and scuff up the ramp. "Thor's gonna meet us at the Tower, so we. Are. Out of here. Who's flying this bucket, you, Nat? Cap?"
"I will," Clint says. Natasha shoots him a look that tells him he can't run away forever, but Clint only wants to run away for a few hours. Days, at most.
He needs a bit of quiet to deal with his crushing disappointment.
"Let's get going! Who wants to help me out of the suit. Anyone? No? Oh come on you guys..."
The silence afforded by the headset is more than welcome.
"Destination, Master Barton?"
"Home, JARVIS." And after a long hot shower and a dozen hours of sleep, maybe he'll finally be able to call it that in his heart.
Sunlight. Clint blinks against it and throws an arm over his eyes.
"Five more minutes," he mumbles, but the universe doesn't listen. Morning creeps between the gaps in his shield, stabbing him awake like nature's vicious alarm.
Clint switches tactics, grabbing the other pillow and stuffing it over his face. This is more comfortable and effective. It smells better too, like ink and cordite and aftershave, and a little like Phil's cologne --
Something smashes satisfyingly to the ground when Clint hurls the pillow across the room. He doesn't check what it is when he gets out of bed, just throws the covers aside and storms to the closet.
The only things in this room that have ever smelled like Phil are the few sweatshirts of his that had migrated into Clint's possession. Everything else Clint might have claimed had been packed up by SHIELD in swift order after Phil's death and put into storage somewhere he wasn't cleared to know about.
There are only a few pieces of Clint's clothing hanging in the closet: a couple of suits, his spare uniforms, the single dry clean only shirt he owns, all of which were at one point or another costumes SHIELD asked him to wear. And then there are Phil's sweatshirts, lovingly worn and broken down by time and use, hanging in the back like old forgotten friends.
Clint takes one out now, the grey-blue one that's so worn the text had long ago peeled off. He doesn't know where Phil got it, or why, and the loss of that history aches. So does the familiar way the sweater rests on his shoulders and the way the elastic on the cuffs are blown so wide there's room for two hands and wrists inside it.
(But not anymore, because that was something Phil did, his way of grounding them both in Phil's steady and predictable past, the memories that only Phil knew and Clint didn't need to know because Phil had them, and he trusted Phil with them. He trusted Phil with everything.)
He brings a sleeve up to his nose, then turns his head and presses his face to the shoulder, breathing deep to find those traces of Phil that had been left behind by time. This one smells a little like beer and musty library books. Clint calls it the 'College Phil' sweatshirt, and the worn out words probably used to spell the name of that college, but Clint's never asked and Phil never told.
There's plenty of time to regret that now.
"Fuck my life," Clint says, and he pretends his voice sounds fucked because he's just woken up.
The lights in the den area slowly come up to quarter power. "Sir?" JARVIS asks, and Clint says, "That wasn't an order you know."
"I didn't think it was, sir," JARVIS replies, wry and amused as an AI can be. "I was merely here to suggest breakfast."
Clint scrubs his hands back through his hair. He's not really up to company right now, but on the other hand if he mopes about in bed all morning Natasha will know and she has ways of getting things out of people. Painful ways. So it's probably better to go downstairs and face
everyone her now and get it over with.
"Is the team cooking breakfast?"
"The team has not yet emerged from their rooms. However there are waffles ready in the main kitchen, if you would like."
"Waffles, huh?" Clint pulls on the first pair of clean-looking sweats he can find. "I like waffles."
"I had a feeling you might, sir." JARVIS sounds indulgent, like they're sharing a secret just between them. What a weird computer.
"Thanks for keeping me informed, man," Clint says, patting the door frame as he walks out of the room.
Okay, so maybe they're both weird.
When he gets off the elevator there's a delicious, warm smell coming from the kitchen, something like what Clint supposes a grandma's home smells like, and which Clint has only experienced on the rare times when he and Phil both had the day off and Clint had woken to pancakes and eggs, bacon and fresh fruit, coffee and lazy kisses against the counter.
He hesitates at the edge of the room. He should go back, deal with all of his shit in private. No good can possibly come of rubbing elbows with his friends and putting on his best smile while he feels like this, like a raw wound and everything he looks at is salt.
But the team isn't here yet, he reminds himself. He can take a plate and retreat to his room and maybe in a few hours he'll feel ready to joke and spar. Putting one foot in front of the other he takes the last few steps into the kitchen. He'll just grab some of these waffles, and some fruit, and some of these perfectly shredded hash browns, and everyone will think he just got up really early --
-- someone is in the kitchen. They're facing away, standing in front of the coffee maker and pouring water into it.
Clint's not sure what exactly he's seeing here. There's one of Clint's work out shirts, okay, and bed head that one doesn't expect, right, but he doesn't believe any of it because a) it's impossible, and b) ghosts can't make coffee.
He wants to believe it, though.
The someone turns and jesus christ it's Phil's jaw and Phil's ear and Phil's beautiful fucking smile. Clint stumbles forward and grabs the island with both hands.
"Hey," Phil frowns. He comes over, bare feet almost silent on the floor, and his hand hovers just over Clint's elbow. "What is it?"
Clint swallows but he can't unstick his tongue, though he isn't sure what he'd say if he could. He shakes his head, and Phil's eyes tick over him, taking in his unbrushed hair and the sweater he's wearing and coming to some kind of conclusion, judging by the careful hand that guides Clint's mouth to Phil's by the back of his neck.
It feels like the first time, and the last time, and all the times Clint thought were gone forever. It tastes like morning breath and stolen bacon and Clint will never ever get enough of it.
Eventually Phil pulls back, though, and Clint fists the collar of the shirt Phil's wearing to keep him from moving away. To keep him from disappearing.
"Bad morning." There are some things Phil never has to ask.
Phil strokes Clint's cheek, then kisses it. "I'm sorry," he murmurs into Clint's skin, "you looked so peaceful. I didn't want to wake you."
"It's okay," Clint reassures, as much for Phil as for himself. "It's okay. You couldn't know. But, uh, for the record..."
Clint compulsively puts a hand over the spot on Phil's back that may or may not be scarred. "I'd rather wake up with you than alone." There's a pause, and then Phil kisses him again, intent, for long enough that when it finally breaks they're both short of breath.
"I'll keep that in mind." Phil doesn't look surprised, exactly, more like something he thought was true has been proven, but he's definitely pleased by it. Clint should tell him all his feelings every day if that's how Phil will look when he does.
And...he can do that, now. He will do that. But what Clint doesn't know is how he's going to tell Phil -- about his wish, or about Phil's death. There's a moment here he's unwilling to shatter, though, and he figures the past can wait, at least until after coffee.
"Breakfast?" Phil asks, and Clint promises, "I fucking love you."