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blood beside the river

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They’re missing an Avenger.

Tony is sitting by the bar, morosely and steadily drinking his weight in scotch, only slowing down when Bruce throws him hesitant looks. He hasn’t been this down since the aftermath of Ultron and Bruce hasn’t been this shifty since… Ultron.

But Ultron was almost two years ago and after the team found each other again, expanded and fixed some long overdue shit, well. Things are good, generally speaking. Case in point, Steve, Sam and Bucky tangled up on the couch like a bunch of frat boys, except for the bruises and the glassy gazes.

Natasha sits close by, pretending she isn’t going to give up on having restraint and start braiding Wanda’s hair in the next two minutes. Thor took off right after the battle to visit Jane and Vision has taken up the god’s usual job of patrolling the tower, making sure they’re all safe in the aftermath of a really, really shitty mission.

That’s almost everyone accounted for, except one. Like Clint said, they’re missing an Avenger. He doesn’t know if the others have noticed that she snuck off sometime between landing and them splitting to clean up and unwind a bit before meeting back up. But he did. It’s his job. Clint is the one who sees these things.

He decides to give her a few more minutes to show up, and when she doesn’t, he slips off his perch close to Tony and quietly pads across the room toward the elevator. Natasha looks up from Wanda’s hair, and the witch herself gives him a raised eyebrow, but he just shrugs and points toward the elevator. He could explain, but no-one’s said a word in almost half an hour and he doesn’t want to break the silence.

After a day like the one they just had (and night and day again), sometimes just being close to someone is as much as they can all take. Tony will undoubtedly disappear into his lab soon, followed shortly by Bruce locking himself into his bedroom. Vision will go flying, Steve will hit the gym. It’s how they work.

But.

The women both look around notice their third missing. Natasha nods at Clint and that’s the end of that.

He steps into the elevator and requests, “Buffy’s level, please, Friday.”

“Of course, sir,” the AI answers and it’s still jarring to hear a female voice, polite to a fault, where once there was only sass and snark thinly covered by a mild-mannered British voice. Sometimes Clint thinks Tony still wants to break into tears every time Visio says something particularly JARVIS-y.

“Thanks,” he returns and hopes she doesn’t notice how they all dislike her, just a little, for not being JARVIS. Then he frowns, because Friday isn’t sophisticated enough to notice something like that, much less emote over it. She isn’t JARVIS. That’s the damn point.

Buffy isn’t in her living room, or in the meditation room Tony put in for her, so that only leaves the bedroom.

Clint hesitates for a moment before deciding, screw it, and entering with a cursory knock. She knows he’s there anyway. It’s not like he’s been quiet.

At first, the room looks empty. Only closer inspection reveals the blonde slayer sitting on the floor, back to the nightstand, arms around her knees. Her hair is damp and she looks like she showered, dressed and then simply sat down and stopped moving.

Clint plops himself down next to her, leans against the few inches of nightstand left and nudges their shoulders together.

“Tough shit today, huh?”

There was a rogue mutant that turned out to be fifteen-year-old girl who’d just escaped from a slave ring specialized in mutant children. She’d randomly blown shit up just to attract attention so they wouldn’t be able to make her disappear again. In the end, she saved the lives of dozens of kids, but the fight itself, against those slavers –

“I never killed a human before today,” Buffy whispers, suddenly. “I’ve been doing this job, fighting evil, for almost twenty years, and today was the first time I ever took a human life.”

Oh.

Oh, crap.

“Those assholes were selling kids to the highest bidder,” he reasons, still feeling sick. The youngest kid was barely older than Nathaniel, all plump cheeks and tired hiccups, too exhausted to scream anymore. Sold into slavery just because his skin happened to be a fetching shade of mauve. Sometimes Clint just wants to burn civilization down.

“They were still human,” she counters, not looking at him, hugging her knees a bit tighter. “That’s the line. I was always told that’s the line.”

“The line between what?” He knows. But he thinks she needs to say it.

“Between right and wrong. Good and evil. Being a hero and being… a killer.”

Some part of the archer just wants to roll his eyes at such a stupid, arbitrary notion. Everyone on the team, from the former assassins to the poster boy for all things good and American, has killed. Humans, monsters. Anything in between.

And here the slayer is, making a drama out of finally sinking to the same level as the rest of them? High and mighty warrior of the light, looking down on them here, in the muck, stumbling through.

But he knows the chick too well by now to hate her for it. For all that she keeps telling everyone she escaped the Council indoctrination, she really didn’t. She started later, but Giles and her friends imposed their high morals on her as surely as the Council would have.

Buffy’s been wielded for most of her life and still doesn’t know it.

“I think it’s bullshit.”

She shoots him an angry look.

“The difference between killing monsters and killing humans, I mean. It’s a technicality. Is a mutant human or not? Where does it end? It’s all just rhetoric. It’s the act of killing that matters, not what you kill.”

“Yeah?” she asks, “then thanks, I guess. That makes me, what, Queen of the Monsters? Thor can be King.”

How many times has she killed in her life? How many existences has she ended? Clint’s count is impressive, Natasha has him beat, but Buffy is out of both their leagues. He’s seen that woman mow down a dozen demons in a night and instead of taking a week off, like they do, she went out again the next and the next and the next.

“Tony might argue with you that he has a higher kill count.”

“Tony can kiss my ass. That’s like the guy who makes my swords claiming my kills. He built those bombs, but he didn’t use them.”

He rolls his eyes. “What I was trying to say,” he cuts in, before this becomes a one-sided pissing contest over who is the bigger monster, “is that we’re all killers here. None of us are lily white and none of us think less of you for taking down a man who was trading children and, at the time, had a gun to Sam’s head. You had a call to make. You made it.”

As a matter of fact, Sam is probably waiting upstairs to thank her for the timely homicide, but Clint’s not gonna say that now.

“What if it was the wrong one?”

“What choices did you have? Letting Sam die?”

She presses her lips in a thin line and doesn’t say he’s right. Someday, Clint will meet a woman willing to let herself be comforted. Even Tony takes comfort better than the women in Clint’s life.

Still, he throws his arm over her shoulders and hauls her in, ignoring her grunt of protest. “We’re the good guys. It says so on all the merch. It’s just that – “

That sometimes, alien gods take you over, or you’re taken from your family at five years old to train in Red Room, or you’re orphaned too quickly, or your parents don’t care about you, or they beat you blue. It’s just that sometimes you put a monster under your own skin while searching for a hero, or build bombs and look away, or think entitlement is a good thing.

It’s just that sometimes, good means meek and none of them are that.

Buffy snorts a little and relaxes into his side, poking him in the ribs in retaliation for toppling her over. “That we’re not really?”

“Oh, we are.” His kids keep telling him, so it must be true. “We’re just, maybe, a little less good than everyone thinks. But then, our lives are also a little less normal than other people’s, so we get leeway.”

“Still feels like cheating.” Like doing something wrong.

Clint wants to tell her that it gets easier, watching humans bleed out under your arrows, until, at some point, it doesn’t hurt at all, anymore. She probably doesn’t want to hear it, though.

“Yeah,” he agrees instead.

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