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Slipping Through The Cracks

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He woke up with padded cuffs on his wrists and the urge to scream packed tightly into his throat. He didn’t let it loose; screaming wasn’t his thing, nor was self-pity, and he wasn’t going to give in now as his will finally came back to him. But he’d needed to try to explain, at least partly, what had happened, why he had done what he did. A betrayal without sense, because his sense had become nothing but a tool. He knew Nat would get it, now that he was free of Loki, and that was enough.

He always made sure that it was enough.

After he woke up from his thrall, though, SHIELD barely had time to deal with him. A brain scan and blood test and he was in the clear, despite everything. They were in crisis mode. It wasn’t an excuse, not in his case, not after he’d proven just how effective he could be when he wasn’t in complete control. He wondered if SHIELD’s doctors were slipping, but as he followed Rogers and Natasha from his isolated medical room he got a glimpse of the wounded, of the people still waiting for help, bandages pressed into wounds, slings and bruises and broken bones. Soldiers, agents, scientists, and support staff alike. They didn’t pass anyone suffering an arrow wound; this room of hopeful healing would never have been an option for his victims.

Most of the people ignored them as they left the medical wing, too busy with their own shit to care about three people that were walking away. Even their little trio, with Steve Rogers leading the charge, wasn’t enough to warrant concern. But a few looked up and stared, watched him as they silently passed. Pity, wariness, anger. Clint expected it. He brushed it off. He had a job to do.

After the battle though, with the debriefings and the clean-up and making sure the people he fought with were okay, after that it was easy to fall through the cracks.

Clint should have gotten a full medical work up after the battle with the Chitauri was done, one that was in depth to a distressing extent. He snagged a junior Doctor, one who had little patience and less sleep, and had him do a quick and dirty medical, signing off on him without really comprehending who he actually was. It was a small mercy as far as Clint was concerned, and he would take it. With both hands.

When it was done he retreated to the only safe place he could think of, though safe person was a more accurate description. (Clint was pretty sure Fury would be sleeping with his only eye open after admitting to Natasha that he had mislead her, mislead everyone, about Phil’s death. Clint quietly stepped off the hellicarrier’s bridge when this happened, leaving Tasha and Stark, Rogers and Banner, to vent their rage at the deception. Clint had been too numb to feel much of anything beyond relief at that point.) He quietly settled over Phil’s room, peering through the ventilation vent slats and watching the weak pulse on the bio-signs monitor as doctors and nurses came in every five minutes to check on him.

Phil had needed a new heart. He’d died two times on the operating table. He would be in a medically induced coma for another week to start the healing from such a heavy trauma.

Clint curled in on himself a little, where nobody could see, and stared.

He allowed himself that, at least. He figured it was all he really deserved.

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Days blurred into weeks. There were meetings, interrogations, more ‘meetings.’ There was strategy planning, contingency re-planning, retraining, psych evaluations, cold meals spent in cafeteria’s (hellicarrier or the New York office, it didn’t matter) alone, tucked into his corner so he could keep an eye on the room and ignore the stares sent his way. Nobody bothered being subtle.

They asked him what he remembered, he told them everything. Mostly everything. He and Selvig weren’t the only survivor’s of Loki’s staff; Clint couldn’t lie and say everything was a big blank in his mind. He could tell them that the edges blurred occasionally, that the order of things weren’t always clear, that he could give them as accurate a description his memories would allow, but beyond that, short of getting a telepath to probe his mind, that was all they were getting.

Psych balked at letting the council follow through on that idea. Apparently they cared enough about Clint’s well being (sanity[continued usefulness to SHIELD]) to not let someone break into his mind again ‘so soon after the trauma.’ He assumed Fury had a large hand in that decision, because Fury was neither an idiot nor willing to expend the energy and resources it would take to try and contain Clint when he decided to leave. And Clint would leave if they brought a mind-fucker into the equation. He was pretty sure Nat would follow.

He was well aware that his bitterness was now clouding his judgement towards telepaths in general. He knew it wasn’t fair or reasonable.

He didn’t care.

He listened to Selvig’s interviews after the fact, which were a great deal less invasive than Clint’s own interrogations had been. The scientist had gaps in his memory as well, but mostly psych wanted to know how he had managed to bypass Loki’s control (enough to place a failsafe into the tesseract-portal-things design) where Clint had failed to break his own control.

Clint thought about pointing out that Fury and Hill weren’t dead; that the hellicarrier was actually still afloat even though Clint had got the drop on SHIELD, he could have taken the hellicarrier out without ever stepping on board. Loki probably would have survived, and he had been well aware of that fact. He kept quiet, because Fury wasn’t dead, but a lot of other innocent people were. Also, keeping quiet about exactly how vast his knowledge of SHIELD was, was a matter of self-preservation. Period.

Thor came back sometime during these weeks with a magical potion that he all but shoved down Phil’s throat and pretty much raised the man from convalescence within hours.

Stark declared that he was moving all the Avengers in with him and that The Council could suck-it. Apparently Phil was the only acceptable liaison between the Avenger’s (Stark) and SHIELD and, naturally, needed to reside in the tower alongside the team to keep an eye on them. Phil hadn’t been as resistant to this as Clint would have guessed, until he remembered that Steve Rogers was a part of the equation. In normal circumstances this might have forced Clint to get a handle on potential jealousy issues. His relief that Phil was breathing put a pretty solid cap on that reaction.

Natasha packed Clint’s two bags of clothing and (in moments physically) dragged him to the tower. It was kind of sad how little effort it took to hide his blatant reluctance to move in from the rest of the team but, you know, spies.

It was nearly a month after this move that Clint began to notice that something was wrong. At least more wrong than it already was.

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The pain woke him. Like ice picks driving slowly in his side, stealing his breath. He didn’t make a sound; he’d trained himself out of ever revealing his position, for any reason, years before SHIELD had ever been in the picture. But the pain was unexpected, and even sleeping he curled into himself to escape it. He was perched in the gym’s unfinished ceiling struts, and the unintentional reaction shifted his precarious perch on the crossing I-beams. He fell off. Fortunately he wasn’t so out of it that he didn’t manage to grab at the metal ledge, twisting to snag it beneath callused fingers before it slipped out of reach. The pain morphed, no longer stealing his breath, but shifting to a roar that was not unlike a healing burn deep in his gut. It was familiar, too familiar, and its memory…its memory made his chest feel tight and his limbs cold. His heart was pounding in his chest.

“Clint? You okay?” Clint quickly released his left grip, dropping to a one-arm dangle so he could rotate and look down at Rogers’ concerned face. Thor stood beside the soldier, eyeing Clint curiously despite Rogers’ clear unease. Clint dredged up one of his ever-ready grins and let go of the beam completely. It was only a seven foot fall from where his feet had been suspended, a joke really, and he landed with barely a sound. The deep, chilling throb in his side was easing now, thank fuck, because he wasn’t sure he would have been able to stand straight ten seconds before.

“Just fine Captain,” he took in the sparring clothes and the state of the gyms mats beneath their feet. The heavy rubber looked like it would probably need replacing again soon. “You guys didn’t notice me when you came in?” he asked, partly because he needed to know if he had to work on their spatial awareness, partly to misdirect any questions Rogers looked like he was getting ready to ask.

“You looked to be resting securely, and as we had no wish to disturb you we have been utilizing your presence to hone our stealth friend Hawk,” Thor informed him as grandly as he said anything, but his eyes, as always, were keen and assessing as he looked Clint over. Yeah, that wasn’t flying today, not with the throbbing ache still digging in his side.

It also concerned him that, stealth or not, Clint hadn’t awoken with two substantially sized men practicing combat right below him. He should have been aware the moment the door to the room slid open.

“Right, well, good luck with that,” he moved to the door with what he hoped was a cheerful wave and slipped out before either man could ask him to join them. By the time he reached his assigned quarters the pain in his side was gone.

He made it to the washroom just in time to expel the light lunch he’d managed earlier.

Jesus. Phantom pain flashed in his memory, excruciating, tearing, stealing his air until he was barely able to gasp for breath. He fought the pain now, wanted to fight the pain, struggled to fight it even though he was months too late. It was so fucking messed up. Gasping here into the toilet, forcing the threatening tears to stay in his eyes because he would not suffer that humiliation even in this dubious privacy. Whatever it was that he’d just felt in the gym, it was barely a pinch compared to the first time he’d suffered that, with Loki’s hand pressed into his skin, ripping and tearing and stealing everything he wanted. Just because he could. Collapsing like this now, it was weak. Clint knew it made him weak, but he honestly didn’t have the energy to give a fuck just then.

“Agent Barton, are you unwell?” Jarvis’s soothing tones filled the room, startling him, and abruptly the confused memory of agony disappeared, pulling Clint back to the here and now and he responsively pushed to his feet with ease. The toilet flushed automatically.

“We talked about this Jarvis,” Clint sighed at the room in general and twisted the tap on to scoop some water into his mouth. “It’s Clint, and I’m fine, thank you.”

“Are you certain Clint? It would appear that you were suffering some form of distress, severe enough to cause illness.”

“I’m fine,” he huffed and then gargled the water before spitting and repeating. “Don’t worry about it,” he ordered, and wondered if maybe a shower wasn’t in order. His skin felt like it was crawling.

“As you wish sir. Agent Coulson is on his way to the tower now, he will be arriving in fifteen minutes.”

Right, Clint had asked to be informed whenever Phil was…doing anything really. He swallowed compulsively again, the acrid taste of bile still heavy in his throat.

“Thanks Jarvis,” he cranked the shower on, hot, and nearly forgot to remove his clothes in his sudden urgency to get under the spray. He spent longer in the shower than he intended, and faked surprise when he entered the community kitchen to find his ex-handler leaning against the counter with Natasha, a coffee in hand and electronic report on the table.

He felt better the moment he laid eyes on Phil.

He refused to explore the reasoning.

He was fine.

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It’s been long enough to know that he couldn’t continue to ignore it. He’d never practiced self-denial before, not for long, and he wasn’t about to start now. It was too dangerous.

He knew what was wrong with him.

Every moment he wasn’t working, didn’t have a task that could distract him, he thought about it; it, and all the destruction, the death, that he was responsible for. Directly or indirectly he had been instrumental. When those thoughts had time to sneak in, the flashes of memory and numbness of disassociation, when he retreated to the hidden spaces between the Towers floors and pressed a hand to the aching cold burning beneath his skin, in those moments he thought maybe he deserved it.

All of it.

In more lucid moments he accepted that nobody deserved this. Not like this.

Fuck it all anyway.

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Darkness never truly fell in the city, the light pollution making it too easy to decide that it wasn’t truly night after all. Clint should be sleeping, but he’d never needed more than a few hours and he’d always been a fan of avoiding things that made him uncomfortable. His dreams made him uncomfortable, and sometimes being in the vicinity of his teammates (he couldn’t call them friends, he didn’t trust that) made him feel edgy and confined. So he watched them. He wasn’t blind, he could see the occasional cautious looks they gave him, the concern that he wasn’t dealing with Loki and his own hand in the Chituri devastation.

He appreciated it, appreciated the misplace concern behind their actions. Really, he just wished they’d all fuck off and let him deal with it alone.

Dealing with it alone meant breaking into the Chrysler building and climbing to an acceptable perch so he could watch his teammates from afar. It calmed his nerves. Across the massive gap between his position and Stark’s tower he could see Banner shuffling through the communal kitchen, rifling through the overstocked fridge for a long minute, and then snagging an apple from the bowl on the counter. Clint had picked them up at the farmers market that morning out of habit. It wasn’t until he paid that he remembered he’d been off of them for a few weeks now, his stomach revolting the last time he’d tried to eat one. Apples. He practically lived off the fruit.

After all that had happened, after living at the tower for these past few months, it was this reminder of his inability to eat an apple that tore through his chest and made his rage boil up inside. He controlled it. He always did. But this time it was more, it was too much. So he retreated, and when the night sky fell he found a high perch to safely keep an eye on his team.

It calmed him in ways that were still foreign outside of Phil and Nat.

The wind was sharp tonight, whipping around more than usual, loud and distracting and he could sense the rain that was probably going to start falling in the next hour or so. He also sensed the presence that joined him on his (admittedly ridiculous) roost. He remained still, watching as Bruce crunched into the apple and considered the merits of flopping onto the ridiculously large and comfortable couch versus going back to his lab. He was so easy to read sometimes.

Unlike the man who had silently padded up behind, joining him without invitation and without clear intent. If he was amused by the fact that Clint had chosen to settle on the tip of the buildings massive eagle gargoyle he said nothing. If he was nervous about Clint being there, with the threat of rain, where it was already slick and kind of insane, he didn’t say anything. Clint figured the man knew any input from him at this point would be disregarded. The Black Panther had only been with them for a few weeks, his continued presence at the Tower was still undecided. A new member to the team when the team was still too knew itself. He knew Clint didn’t trust him yet. He didn’t know Clint.

Then again, aside from Nat and Phil, none of them did.

The bird and the cat. Tony had already made and grown bored of the jokes the first ten minutes after the Panther had been invited back to join them.

They watched Bruce fall asleep on the couch. They watched him jerk awake twenty minutes later when Thor and Jane came in for a late night snack. They watched as the room emptied and lights dimmed and Tony crept in and poured himself a drink and then proceeded to stand by the glass, staring out at the city misty with the threat of rain.

“How did you spot me?” Clint finally broke the silence, glancing over his shoulder to see the guy decked out in full field costume, black as night and framed sharply by the buildings dark lights. Clint had his hoodie up, masking his face in case someone with binoculars happened to take note. The Panther tilted his covered head, one claw scratching lightly at the steel beneath them, leaving a near invisible scratch.

“I looked out the window. My night vision is above average and you are not trying to hide.” His voice was deep enough that it damn near rumbled, resonating around them. It was unexpectedly soothing. He didn’t trust it. “At least not directly.” Clint’s lips twitched humorously. He kept his eyes on Tony and every other sense focused on the Panther.

“I’m not feeling particularly patient this morning, so why don’t you just tell me why you decided to track me out here.”

“Your smell is off,” he informed Clint, no hostility present, no hesitation. Maybe a hint of concern. Clint didn’t flinch, didn’t change his body language at all, but he knew the Panther had extra keen senses. Knew he had probably heard Clint’s heartbeat spike.

Clint didn’t point out that he took a minimum of three showers a day lately, careful to spread them between the tower and the downtown headquarters. Water never hot enough to burn the way he wanted because his flushed skin would be too obvious. Clint shouldn’t smell anything other than squeaky clean.

“Rude,” he tutted, wishing he’d brought his bow along with his sidearm and knife before discarding the thought as pointless. “I know you’re not from around here, but I’m pretty sure manners are a fairly established custom in Wakanda, if memory serves.”

“You ask me to be straight with you and yet you deflect without hesitation.”

“Why don’t you tell me why you think I stink,” Clint ignored the accusation altogether, but the Panther didn’t seem bothered by this.

“I have no answer for this. You simply smell off, changed, unbalanced, not right for a normal man.”

“Do you think I’m a threat?” Clint hadn’t come out here prepared for a fight, but he was always ready to defend. More so these days than ever.

“Do you?” Fury would probably love this guy, answering questions with questions. Clint was tired of questions. Clint didn’t need to take this shit from a stranger who had dropped into their lives explicitly to drag them off to Africa for a fight that had a high chance of ending in death. T’Challa did it to save his people. Clint respected that, respected him enough in general. Didn’t mean he wanted this conversation.

“I’m not compromised,” he growled out instead, and was satisfied when the Panther shifted beside him, hearing the conviction. “I’m not a threat and the problem is being dealt with.”

“Not a threat to them, but what about yourself? Are you safe?”

“I think this is the point where I politely inform you that it is none of your business,” Clint forced his voice to remain even, unaffected.

“Is it wrong to have concern for a man who, two weeks ago, fought by my side, for my people, without hesitation?”

“Helping people is kind of our club motto,” Clint hardened his voice, making it clear he was done with this conversation, and if the Panther knew what was good for him he would drop it. Across the way Stark grew tired of city gazing and shifted his gaze from the horizon and focusing on Clint. Or at least in Clint’s vicinity as he probably couldn’t make out more than a darkened blur on the metal eagles nose, like a wart. He raised his glass at him before tossing the last of the amber liquid back and retreating from the darkened room. Clint figured the genius didn’t need the lights as the reactors glow through his thin shirt was bright enough to light the way.

“They worry about you,” his unwanted companion informed him gravely, like maybe Clint was blind. The Panther might have all the herbal induced fancy extra senses, but Clint was a natural observer, and he could see just fine.

“It’s not their place,” this time he allowed some snap in his tone, warning.

“I don’t think they feel the same.”

“That’s their problem, not mine.”

The man didn’t say anything else, and Clint didn’t relax even after he had silently slunk away to leave him to his vigilance. When the rain finally came it was cold and soaked though his clothes in minutes, but it was nothing compared to the icy ache that now throbbed constantly in his side, and it didn’t do anything to make him feel clean.

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Clint got in touch with his contacts the next day, and that evening the SHIELD agents assigned to watch him within the city saw him meeting up with a platinum blonde bombshell at a slightly less than reputable bar. They didn’t think anything of it when he slipped into the backrooms with her twenty minutes and a few drinks later.

He stripped on her orders, and lay down on the cold table without complaint, lacing his fingers together behind the back of his head as a makeshift pillow and tracked her with lazy eyes.

“You care to tell me why you’re not having SHIELD’s medical staff examine you?” She asked coolly, pulling out some small medical devices not unlike SHIELD’s and fiddling with them. Clint didn’t answer, and she didn’t seem disappointed as she worked, her hands quick and sure. “Well? Where’s the problem?” He was expecting the question, it was why he called her, but he hesitated a fraction of a second in answering and she narrowed her eyes. She wasn’t one of the best in her field for nothing. He didn’t bother unlacing his hands, just nodded down at his side. Aside from a few old and faded scars there was nothing indicating anything was wrong. She scanned him without hesitating. He idly wondered if his demand that she meet him had forced her to postpone a date.

She scanned him carefully with two odd looking tools that beeped and blinked and looked to her computer to read the results.

He’d never seen her freeze before, her eyes widening in genuine shock for a fraction of a second before the cool, business like façade slammed back in place. She turned away from the screen and stared at him.

“You going to congratulate me Doc?” she was good enough that she picked up on his unease, despite his attempts to hide it. He was off his game here, out of his element of control, and he hated it.

“How long has it been growing?” She asked instead.

“About five months.”

She rooted in her bag and pulled out a handful of leads that she began sticking to his entire torso before connecting it to the computer and looking over her first scan results again.

“Five months,” she muttered to herself. She wanted to ask why he hadn’t searched her out sooner, he could see it in the sudden tension of her body, but she refrained. “I’d classify it as an embryo still, judging by the level of development. You’re certain it’s been five months? Looks more like it’s around two, maybe two-an-a-half.”

“Five months,” he confirmed and then, with a dark smirk, “the donor isn’t exactly human.” She would assume he meant mutant, but she was smart and might link it to the Chitauri invasion; she knew who Clint worked for after all. She looked at him, searching, and he stared back as blankly as he could manage. He went to her for help because she owed him, big time, but more than that because confidentiality was guaranteed. He didn’t need his teammates knowing about this. Didn’t want Phil to know. The thought of it made his chest tight and feel as sharply cold as the thing currently growing inside him. He must have given something away though, because her face softened for a moment, only a moment, before she turned back to her computer and connected the leads now scattered over his torso.

“It’s about the equivalent of about two months along,” she confirmed after a few minutes of silence, business-like once again. “The womb that it’s developing in is” her breath skips a bit here, horror or fascination he’s unsure, “obviously not natural. At this point I’d say it’s hostile to the carrier.” She turned back to him, her hands hovering over the right side of his abdomen and she looked at him inquiringly. He nodded, giving permission, and her fingers pressed lightly over where it was growing.

He flinched violently, sharp needle-like pain radiated all around the area, stealing his breath a moment and she pulled back quickly. He took a steadying breath, his hands no longer resting easily behind his head but clenched at his side.

“Tickles” he ground out, digging deep for composure. She didn’t put her hands back on him, and didn’t comment. She turned back to her scans and he stared at the back of her head, at the fall of her perfectly straight hair that stopped just below her shoulders. He let her work, her hands fast over her tools, her head twitching back and forth as she examined and re-examined her readings, until she turned back to him.

“You won’t be able to keep it,” she informed him blatantly, “whoever did this, they either didn’t have a decent concept of human anatomy, or didn’t care too much about your survival.” He snorted at that, to hide the flinch at the memory of exactly how much Loki hadn’t cared. The way his gut had felt like it was being shredded, how he had felt the internal tearing and shifting, how Loki had told him between grunts that it was a gift for his excellent work, an honour, as he held his thrall in place and took what he wanted.

“Wasn’t planning on keeping it Doc. I’m not a fan of parasite’s.”

“You should know that it does carry fifty percent of your own DNA, along with the- foreign DNA.”

“Doesn’t matter. Even if it wouldn’t kill me in the two years of development I want it out.”

“The surgery could kill you. You want a rundown of the risks?”

“No. I want it out.”

“I’ll need two weeks to set up the equipment and sterilize a location. You allergic to any medications? Anaesthetics?”

“I’m not going under,” he vetoed that idea immediately and she narrowed her eyes argumentatively. “No offence to your skills, but I’m bringing in an extra hand to work with you on this. He’ll take care of the pain control.” Her eyes narrowed even more.

“I work alone.”

“Not this time.” He began pulling off the leads and sat up, hunching over a moment as the pain spiked. He could feel her unease at the new directive, and frankly didn’t care. “You will work with him, and only him,” and then your debt will be paid. She understood the silent promise, but it didn’t ease her stance. “And you’ll be ready in one week.”

“A hundred grand will cover the costs.”

“Done,” he agreed to the payment, because her debt was her skills and, more importantly, her silence. He had more than enough money to cover expenses. “Contact me tomorrow with the details.”

He left her alone to pack away her equipment, slapping his cheeks to bring a rosier colour to them and was still shrugging his shirt into place as he stepped back into the bar. He winked at the agents that were attempting to entertain themselves at the pool table and strutted out of the place like he couldn’t be more satisfied with how his night had gone. Keeping a careful eye on his babysitters he was sure they bought the act.

He spent the rest of the night slowly, meticulously, lining up shots on the range Tony had developed for all the Avengers needs. He had to wait for his hands to steady enough to make each shot. He didn’t acknowledge Phil when the man entered the range at three in the morning and casually dropped onto the couch along the back wall. He pretended not to notice him pulling out a worn paperback and crack it open somewhere in the middle.

Despite knowing that Phil was just using the book as an excuse/cover to be there, Clint relaxed. At least for a little while, knowing the man had his back.

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He bypassed the bowl of apples that were prominently displayed on the kitchens table, and snagged a banana that still carried a hint of green. It was more difficult to bypass Natasha where she leaned against the counter, hip cocked out and arms crossed challengingly as she watched him.

“You haven’t eaten an apple in weeks,” she observed, deceptively calm and he responded by taking a huge bite out of his banana and grinning obnoxiously. Her eyes narrowed.

“You’re going to tell me what’s wrong,” she said with certainty and Clint raised a near mocking eyebrow in response, because he clearly liked to invite trouble. “I’m asking nicely now,” she continued with a sweet smile, “because Phil threatened to put me in charge of Stark’s next protection detail if I didn’t at least try being polite about it first.” Her warning was clear, her worry was clear, the banana felt like a sour, slimy lump as he swallowed. Out of the corner of his eye he could see the large, shiny apples in the ridiculously expensive blown-glass fruit bowl, and his stomach flipped at the thought of eating one.

“Nothing’s wrong Tasha,” he said sincerely, because in four days it wouldn’t be a problem anymore. He would be able to stomach all the damn apples he wanted.

“You’ve gotten better at lying,” she stepped forward and gently cupped his cheek, her hands were always so warm. He leaned into, for a moment, and smiled gently before pulling away and snagging an apple. He took a large, pointed bite and winked at her, before retreating from the common area altogether. He ignored her gaze as it burned into his back.

Ignored the narrow-eyed glare Tony gave him from the couch as he passed him on his way out of the room. It was Tony’s ‘concerned’ look, masquerading as general assholery.

Clint didn’t make it to his rooms toilet in time. Fortunately his kitchen sink happened to be on the way to the bathroom and was more than willing to act as a receptacle when his stomach revolted.

Fucking apples.

He might have to be a pear man from now on.

Sinking down on the warmed tile (because of course the floors were heated in this place), arms resting loose on his bent knees as he waited for the nausea to go the fuck away, he very carefully thought about nothing.

Funny how impossible that sometimes was.

 

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There was a mission for SHIELD. A small one that Clint could have handled in his sleep. Natasha was assigned to it even though he knew he’d been Hill’s first choice. She didn’t mention this fact to him, but the cool, penetrating look she gave him before getting on the Quinjet spoke volumes: she was out of patience, and when she got back he would be her next target.

Clint wasn’t worried. When she got back it would be over.

T’Challa peeked out from the back of the jet, for once not in his panther suit, his dark brown eyes focusing unerringly on Clint and his nose twitching in a creepy, invasive way that Clint knew meant the guy was investigating his sent again. Clint shook his head subtly in warning, and the mans concerned gaze hardened and he slipped back inside as Steve leapt into the jet and slapped the button to close the ramp. First stop: drop of Natasha. Second stop: Africa, or more specifically Wakanda. Steve had been getting restless without a mission the last few weeks and had jumped on the opportunity to play chauffer and log some more flying hours.

The wind whipped around roughly on the Towers jutting landing pad, icy and cold and threatening snow. He barely noticed the chill on his skin, because compared to thing growing inside him it was almost warm.

“Thought we’d never get rid of the overgrown cat,” Stark’s insincere taunt greeted him the moment he walked back into the large, glass walled common room. Clint spotted him by the bar, making himself a coffee as Bruce perched on one of the stools Stark had designed to specifically take the weight of the Hulk. In case Bruce ever decided to let their green teammate out for a casual cocktail hour. Clint figured that for the wrathful green giant to actually fit on the stool he’d need one for each ass cheek.

“Don’t worry Stark, he’s not gone forever and you can always skype him when you’re feeling lonely.”

“Do they even have internet in Wakanda? Telephones? Electricity? Maybe I should have set him up with a Stark phone after all,” the billionaire pondered thoughtfully as he wrapped his hand around his coffee. As if he hadn’t sent the Panther home with a Radio Shack’s worth of tech despite the fact that the mans home was fairly advanced. “Then again he’d probably just stab through it whenever he tried to dial with his claws out. Claws…Jarvis, make a note to send a manicure kit to T’Challa for Christmas.”

“Very good sir,” Jarvis indulged and Clint snorted softly and moved to the exit once more.

“Hey,” Stark piped up before he’d made it even half way across the room, “What’s the rush? Hot date?” Clint looked back to find both Stark and Bruce watching him, almost too intently.

“I have plans,” Clint drawled, not knowing why he bothered. It was none of their business. He wasn’t surprised by Tony’s dismissive wave of a hand.

“Yeah you do, with us. We haven’t hit the town in a while-” nobody in the room needed to point out that Clint had avoided going anywhere with the team unless it was mission related “-figured we’d grab a couple pie’s at Lombardi’s, head on over to the Four Freedom’s Plaza and convince Bruce to let Big, Green and Angry scale it a la King Kong in all his tragic glory.”

“Not happening Tony,” Bruce sounded bored with the idea, which meant it was definitely not the first time Stark had pitched it.

“Oh come on!” Stark groaned, a little over dramatic, a little too forced while he kept the majority of his attention on Clint. “Hulk versus the Thing! It will be epic and educational. Back me up Barton,” he demanded, nearly sloshing coffee over the rim of his mug in his apparent enthusiasm.

Clint stared at him a long moment, blankly (because he’d long ago learned that lack of response made Stark the most uncomfortable), before turning to leave again.

“Don’t wait up,” he called over his shoulder, throwing in a hint of cocky-smugness, and moved straight to the elevator. He didn’t like Stark’s insistence that they ‘hit the town,’ especially not with Banner in on it. The timing was suspicious and he couldn’t afford to be waylaid, not this night.

When the elevator hit the ground floor the doors didn’t open right away.

He didn’t know if it was Jarvis, or Tony, or someone else keeping him in there, but after twenty seconds he looked up to the ceiling and prepared to leave through the emergency hatch.

The doors slid open.

He froze on the threshold.

The thought crossed his mind that maybe he would prefer to go back upstairs and call Phil. Maybe he would rather corner Bruce somewhere quiet and ask him for advice. Maybe get him to help with the procedure.

It was a fleeting thought.

He didn’t look back as he stepped outside.

CcCcCcC

She set up her illicit operating room in the basement of a catholic church. In the windowless kitchen. He’d never been much for religion (never been much for believing in anything beyond himself, whether it exists or not), but he’d never been one to scoff at it either. He took in the kitchen table that had been draped with large sterilized sheets, the bright lights that had been rigged around it, the sterile operating tray parked beside it, and wasn’t sure if he should be feeling sacrilegious or darkly amused at the whole situation.

The amusement won, because this was and always would be about survival.

“Barton,” Maarten greeted softly and Clint looked to the short Spaniard who was waiting unobtrusively in the rooms far corner. Avoiding the Doc as she bustled around. She paused when Maarten spoke and looked over to Clint, her hair pulled back into a severe braid that was already covered with a surgical cap.

Clint nodded at them both and moved into the brightly lit room, stopping once he reached the edge of the sterilized area. Maarten didn’t move from his corner, slouched against it in his plaid button-up and watching Clint with dark, solemn eyes. Clint stared back coolly.

“You ready?” Clint asked him, his voice rougher than he’d intended, which just seemed to make Maarten even more solemn as he nodded in confirmation. He was ready. Clint looked at the Doc, who was practically scrubbing her skin off at the sink, her back to him and shoulders tense. “Doc?” he needed to confirm that she was still good for this, because he wanted it done; wanted the chunk of living-cold that burned constantly in his side gone. Now. But if she wasn’t ready-

“Strip and get on the table Barton, I have plans tonight and don’t want to be late,” her clipped words cut through the sudden heavy silence in the room and her shoulders relaxed minutely. Barton fronted an amused snort, but he didn’t have the energy to put on an unconcerned show tonight. Not here. Maarten and the Doc were well aware of why he was here, it would be hard not to guess the how’s, if not the specifics, of how Clint had managed to get knocked up. He didn’t need to pretend things were fine.

His hands, which had been shaking slightly since he stepped out of the Tower, stilled as he reached to the small of his back and pulled his gun. It made a satisfying clunk as he laid it on the table and he ignored the icy glare the Doc gave him for contaminating the area. He was going to contaminate it just as much when he hopped up there, and besides, he had Maarten here for a reason. Contamination wasn’t going to be a problem.

Maarten paused in rolling up his shirtsleeves and eyed the weapon, nervous. Clint decided to leave the rest of them concealed in his clothes.

“You expecting company?” he asked, his accent almost undetectable, faint traces of his childhood in Spain. His dark eyes darted to the door.

“No, I’m not,” Clint always expected company, “but I’m not taking any chances. That’s why you’re here.” He shrugged out of his jacket and then shirt, tossing them on the chair that had been placed against the wall five feet away. Stripping down in front of other people had never bothered him, and it still didn’t, despite Loki, despite life in general. Mostly. The difference nowadays, though, was that he needed the extra layering of clothes to try and keep him warm. Thumbs sliding under the waist line of his black cargos and boxer-briefs and he raised a questioning eye, and the Doc blinked, before frowning to herself even more.

“You can keep your pants on, just undo them,” she ordered, and he relaxed minutely. Yeah, he had no problems disrobing, he just needed to make sure he could make a quick non-naked getaway if he needed to.

He slid onto the table, open belt buckle thunking loudly in the tensely quiet room, and rolled to prop himself up on his side, facing the door.

It was an unorthodox position for surgery, but this was an unorthodox surgery and how it was going to be. He looked over his shoulder at his Doc and watched her hesitate before not bothering to lay the sterile surgical blanket in her hands over him. There wasn’t much of a point. She had a mask in place, gloves that went up to her elbows, and had rolled the surgery tray right up beside her, along with a near silent machine that he recognized was for suction.

“You should let me put you out,” she requested softly, one final time, and Clint looked pointedly to where Maarten stood just off to her right, sleeves rolled up past his elbows and hands raised, waiting. He hadn’t bothered with gloves or masks or a gown. Clint couldn’t be certain he’d even washed his hands, and he was probably driving the Doc to an ulcer with his refusal to follow basic contamination procedures. She was hiding it well though; a debt paid and a hundred grand went a long way in buying compliance. “Or at least let me use a local anaesthetic,” she finished.

“Maarten’s here for a reason Doc. He’ll uphold his end of the deal, you just do your part and cut this thing out of me,” he ordered sharply, done with the waiting. It was hard enough just lying here, exposed, with nothing but a single gun in easy reach, two barely-acquaintances with knives at his back, staring at a wall covered with children’s paintings of crosses and floating ark’s and fucking rainbows.

Maarten’s hands, suddenly on his skin, burned hot and he flinched at the first touch, before it transformed into a gentle warmth that just pooled around his waist, battling the cold inside. Numbing everything. Clint relaxed from the lack of pain, slightly, and watched the clock above the door. With his head pillowed on his left arm, his right hand resting lightly over his gun, each second felt like a year. He focused on that as warm hands pressed over that spot in his side where the child grew, barbed shards of ice stealing his breath as fingers pressed in, before it too became nothing but numbness.

He felt ill, nausea creeping up on him sharply, mouth flooding with saliva and fear that he was forcing down, like he forced away so many other things. Maarten breathed above him, shifting and whimpering slightly, and the nausea abruptly disappeared. His skin began to feel stretched and he felt nearly overwhelmingly weak. He knew the sweat was beginning to gather on his forehead, at the base of his neck. He listened to their soft conferring, discussion of his vitals, warnings from the Doc that Maarten had better be the real deal.

Maarten was as real as mutants with healing abilities get. He’d keep Clint alive, he’d heal Clint when this was over. He would never speak anything of it and Clint would probably never see him again. He could live with that.

“We’re ready to begin,” the Doc warned after what felt like a lifetime. Clint wanted to tell her to start already, but he needed to take a steadying breath first. Needed to calm the fuck down as he felt his heartbeat elevate. After a moment Maarten helped him calm down, levelling him out. It would be embarrassing, but at the moment Clint just needed this to be done.

“Do it.” He ordered, leaving no room for doubt.

“You’ll feel a slight tugging and I may rock your body a bit during surgery. Don’t worry about it. Let me know if anything feels –wrong.” Doc ordered and Clint just closed his eyes for a moment, waiting for them to cross the threshold. He knew when the first cut was made. He imagined he could smell his blood in the air. He didn’t open his eyes again, waiting patiently, feeling the tugging she’d warned about as time passed. Every time a sharp coldness began to stab into him, it quickly disappeared and Maarten wouldn’t be able to maintain silence, letting out puffing breaths, the occasional pitiful grunt. Clint didn’t know why Maarten did this, and didn’t want to know. He focused on his own breathing, falling into a light meditation. The world grew muffled and sharper at the same time.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Doc murmured quietly to Maarten, “it makes no sense-”

“The embryo is struggling to remain,” Maarten spoke softly back.

“I’ll need to remove part of his intestine along with it.”

“I can heal it, and help force it out. Do what you must,” Maarten assured her. Assured them both. Long moments stretched, and Clint began to feel antsy, the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end. Warning him.

“Clint?” Maarten asked as Clint opened his eyes, focusing on the doorway across the room. Clint gently grasped his gun, finger resting on the trigger as he flicked the safety off.

“Keep working,” he ordered, voice low and rough and Clint looked over his shoulder just in time to see the Doc pull a mass of…to pull ‘it’ from the hole in his side. Maarten’s hand was inside him. Fuck. He looked back to the door instinctively, heard the distant, and familiar whine of weapons charging, the clunk of heavy footsteps that would never, ever, be silent no matter how good the technology.

For a moment, a brief second, he felt the need to laugh hysterically. Because of course, of course this would happen. He wasn’t surprised. He buried the urge with well practiced ease.

He wasn’t at all surprised when Phil stepped through the door first, weapon drawn and suit jacket flapping with the movement. His face was as stone cold as Clint ever saw it. Stark was right behind him, hands held up with his palms glowing threateningly, covering his back, prepared for a fight.

“What. The. Fuck.”

Clearly, he hadn’t been prepared for this.

Clint didn’t bother trying to find the humour this time.

“Back away from him. Now.” Stark ordered and Clint had never imagined he’d hear that tone coming from Stark. Not in association with him. Behind him he knew Maarten and the Doc had frozen completely. He didn’t blame them. Tony Stark was a pretty formidable sight when he was angry, and right now he was angry and suited up. Clint wasn’t concerned about him though. He kept his eyes on Phil.

Phil, who was silent and still, body relaxed and eyes so very hard. Phil’s weapon was trained unwaveringly on Maarten.

“Keep working,” Clint countered Starks order softly, steel in his tone. “Finish it.”

“Clint-” Tony growled, and only then seemed to realize that Clint had his gun levelled on him. Then he just seemed stunned, and confused, and distressingly betrayed. He was too easy to read, especially as his face was still covered. Clint chose Tony as his target because he couldn’t really hurt him in the suit, not unless he aimed for that one spot that he knew was weak, and because he couldn’t point his weapon at Phil. His body jerked gently but his gaze didn’t waver. Behind Phil and Tony, Bruce popped his head around the corner, checking to see if the Hulk was needed. He took in the scene at a glance, and seemed to instantly understand what was really going on here. He put a warning hand on Tony’s shoulder. Clint wondered if Jarvis would tell Tony it was there, or if Tony would just somehow know.

Fucking Bruce.

“It’s out,” Doc spoke softly, the words meant for Clint but impossible to conceal in the silence. Clint nodded, still holding his weapon on Tony, but his arm was starting to get tired. His arm never got tired. He could blame it on his awkward angle, his head still resting on his other arm, trying not to move because he wasn’t messing this up now. “Maarten?”

“Almost done,” his soft, accented voice carried through the room and Clint could only imagine what this must look like to his team. Maarten’s fingers were still digging around inside, shifting and touching places, bare and stained to his wrists in red.

Phil’s gun didn’t waver, but Maarten didn’t either. The Doc was acting unconcerned, which she probably was considering what Clint knew of her, efficiently removing her protective clothes. She was wearing a dark blue dress underneath; clearly she hadn’t been joking about having plans.

Long moments later something shifted inside Clint. An awareness coming back to his body, the numbness and unnatural warmth leaving him as Maarten finally stepped back, his hands no longer touching. Clint waited another long moment for the icy chill and stabbing pains to return.

There was nothing. He felt…fine. Fine.

“Make sure it’s dead,” he ordered Maarten, and would feel guilty as the man behind him hesitated, but they had a deal and he stepped forward and reached out for the mass the Doc had taken out of Clint. Clint imagined it was as cold as ice beneath the healers hand. A moment later then man shuddered, looked at Clint with eyes that seemed to ache, and nodded. Dead. Clint very carefully did not breathe out in relief. Maarten backed away and went to wash his hands in the sink.

Clint lowered his weapon and twisted to sit up, legs dangling off the edge of the table that rocked slightly beneath him, and looked at Phil.

“Let them pass,” he ordered softly and Phil finally lowered his own weapon. Stark lowered his hands, but the tiny guns on his shoulders were still engaged, ready for use, and Clint’s gut clenched in a nearly unfamiliar way at the protective sight. He pretended not to notice. Maarten (hands scrubbed clean) and the Doc walked through the door without another word, leaving Clint to this mess.

Tony powered down, his faceplate shifting back so he could stare at Clint with his own, dark eyes. Bruce moved into the room and stood between the two men, framed by hopeful children’s paintings filled with beaming smiles and bright yellow suns chasing dark clouds away. Waiting. Clint got off the table, doing his pants back up, and then looked away from them to the dead fetus displayed unceremoniously on a stainless steel tray.

He felt…fuck if he knew how he felt then. He felt their collective gazes burning into him.

“People like to say,” he found himself clarifying, without conscious thought, “that blood smells like iron, but it doesn’t. Blood smells like blood, and sometimes there’s no way around it and no room to regret it.”

Phil looked at Clint, carefully placing his weapon back in its holster, devastation clear on his face for a fraction of a second, which was an eternity for Phil. Devastation for what Clint had done, or devastation for what he’d suffered, he wasn’t sure. The look of understanding that immediately followed, the unquestioning support, was enough for Clint. It was enough.

He almost wished now, standing here with a table soaked in his blood and the dead, barely formed fetus; with Phil and Bruce and Tony fucking Stark before him, that he could make a move for the dramatic and pass out. He almost wished he could fall to the floor, unconscious, and have ten minutes of oblivion. Ten minutes where he wasn’t anything. Wasn’t trapped in his mind, wasn’t a tool, wasn’t a weapon, wasn’t himself, wasn’t capable of making decisions, wasn’t capable of doing what he choose. He wanted a break, he wanted a numbness that nobody had ever been able to give him, even in his worst moments. Even when he wasn’t himself. He wanted, just for a little while, to be nothing.

But that wasn’t how the world worked, and that wasn’t how he worked.

He was fine, and he was more than capable of squaring his shoulders and finishing this day. This entire five months. He snagged his shirt from the chair at the side of the room, well aware of the eyes tracking the still wet blood smeared all over his side until the soft material hid it from horrified, confused eyes.

When he walked out, he didn’t look back at what he was leaving behind. He couldn’t afford regret.

CcCcCcC

Clint didn’t ask what happened with clean up, didn’t want to know about any remains or be asked about how he wanted to deal with it. He trusted Phil, now that Phil had barged his way in, guns blazing, to take care of it for him. Phil was good like that, good at cleaning up after Clint, and Natasha and now the Avengers.

When he left the Church he walked silently along the street, Bruce a solid, quiet presence at his side, until Tony pulled up in his Limo, sans suit, and swung the door wide in invitation. Clint did not like the idea of sitting in an enclosed space right now, but his energy was waning and he enjoyed the thought of the long walk back even less. He slid into the seat by the opposite door, forcing himself to sprawl, unconcerned, instead of curling up tightly with a knife gripped comfortingly in his hand. He watched the streets and people slip past, choosing to pretend his teammates weren’t there, carefully watching him. He heard the unmistakable clink of glass and the chug-glug of liquid pouring, and wasn’t surprised when Tony suddenly broke the silence by leaning across the space, holding out a glass.

Clint eyed it warily, the amber sloshing inside.

“If you ever deserve a drink, now would be it.”

Clint took it, and watched as Tony picked up his own, throwing it back with long practice, and followed suit. It burned as it went down, heat and warmth pooling. It didn’t help, booze never really did, but he appreciated the solidarity Tony was aiming for.

“Who?” Tony asked as Clint handed the glass back, shaking his head at the offer of a refill, and Clint snorted darkly at the question, because really. Who? It didn’t take long for them to get it, they were genius’s after all. “We should have let you put that arrow right into his fucking skull,” was the near inaudible response a long moment later. Quiet enough that it was clear Tony was talking to himself, glaring out the window as he flopped his sunglasses into place. Beside him, Bruce breathed deeply, and Clint watched as his tightly clenched fist creaked from the strain, knuckles stark a protruding a long moment before he got his apparent emotions under control. Clint was feeling numb again.

“I would appreciate it,” he broke his silence, throat burning from what must have been the booze, “if we could keep this from the rest of the team.” He wasn’t asking, not really, but at Tony’s uncertain, mutinous look Clint hardened his glare and stared. “Aside from it being nobody’s business,” he stated pointedly, gut churning unpleasantly, “Thor would not take it well.”

“Thor will understand why you chose to terminate-”

“Thor doesn’t need his opinions of his brother deteriorating anymore because of this.” Because Loki deserved more pain than Clint thought he was capable of causing, but Thor didn’t. And Clint understood brothers, and how they could get their hold into you, and how they could hurt. “Thor doesn’t deserve it,” he finished, and Tony sank back in his seat, arms crossed over his chest, petulant (angry, afraid, confused) but compliant. Beside him Bruce swallowed thickly, hesitating a moment, before taking a breath.

“Would you let me take a look at you? Please? To make sure they didn’t- to make sure everything’s okay?”

Fuck if Clint could deny him that, so he nodded, and followed Bruce, with Tony as an insistent tag along, to his lab when they got back to the tower. Jarvis was suspiciously quiet. Clint suspected he and Jarvis were going to need to have a talk in the future about respecting privacy and personal boundaries, but right now he was too tired. So goddamn tired of it all.

He let Bruce do his tests, flinching instinctively the first time he reached out to touch his side. Tony swore and stormed off, which was fine because Clint didn’t know why he was even there in the first place. The tests were clear. Clint was fine, as he knew he would be. He had ensured it for himself, after all. But Bruce seemed to relax a little as he looked at the scans, at the near instant blood results, at the lack of any complications. Clint dressed and went to leave, pausing by the door when he felt, rather than heard, Bruce ask for his attention. He turned back to find the man, shoulders slightly hunched, safe and unimposing (It was a trait Clint also, personally, associated with Hulk, but the one time he’d brought it up it had made Bruce so uncomfortable he’d dropped it then and there.).

“I hope- in the future, if there’s ever anything that you…that you don’t feel comfortable going to SHIELD for, I hope you know you can come to me. Always.”

Clint stared for a moment, assessing and, as usual, Bruce was not found wanting. He nodded at the scientist, minutely.

“Thanks Doc,” he grumbled, and then, finally, made his escape.

Back in his quarters, curled up on the floor of his bathrooms too large, too fancy shower, surrounded by water spraying down from the walls and ceiling, he began to shake.

He wasn’t surprised when Phil slowly sat down behind him, still wearing his briefs and a white undershirt. Maybe he should have been, but he wasn’t, just like he hadn’t been when he’d shown up in the church basement ready to dole out pain and destruction on Clint’s behalf. Phil didn’t hesitate to curl over Clint’s back, wrap his hands around Clint’s hunched shoulders, bracketing him on both sides with his legs. Trapping Clint in place, supporting him, his breaths steady and calming in his ear as he gently hooked his chin on Clint’s shoulder, saying nothing. Just being there.

Clint couldn’t stop the shaking, couldn’t hide it, but in that moment he decided that, for a little while, he didn’t need to try anymore. The heat of the water couldn’t burn away the memory of ice that had scalded him on the inside. That was okay.

For the first time in a long time, he thought that maybe it would be okay.

He leaned back into Phil, and remembered how to breathe.

End.