Natasha has blinked four times. Three minutes and forty-eight seconds have gone by. Wanda has scrolled through fifteen of Kylie Jenner’s Instagram posts. Clint knows this because he can see her phone reflected in the window behind her.
This is the same window in which Tony Stark leapt out of. His only goodbye was vague, nondescript garbage about “his kid” being in danger.
Three minutes and forty-eight seconds.
That’s how long it takes before Tony abandons the single most important conference of the year.
This is not the first time that Clint has been abandoned.
He and Laura are still technically “separated.” And yes, according to her, they’re “going through a rough patch” and he’s “not allowed to see the kids until he attends all sixty hours of court mandated therapy” after “daring a three-year-old to shoot a bottle of aerosol spray whipped cream” with a “semi-automatic weapon.” Her words, not his.
(“It’s not like I gave him an automatic weapon, Laura,” Clint had yelled as she’d thrown a couple of tee-shirts into a bag and insisted, he leave. “I could’ve, you know. I have thirteen automatic weapons stashed around the house. But I didn’t dare Nathaniel to shoot the whipped cream with any of them, because I’m a responsible dad.”)
Yeah. Maybe Hallway Girl is right. Maybe he does have some shit he needs to work through. But the whole “60 hours of court mandated therapy” thing is bullshit. Clint is confident that if Laura could only understand how insufferable it is to have Neil the therapist try to get him to “talk” about his “trauma,” she would understand how unreasonable she’s being.
Evidently, though, Clint isn’t the only one whose mental health has hit a tiny snag. As soon as Tony’s watch flashes red and blue, Tony completely blanches, and he’s thrown himself off the roof before any of them can stop him.
It doesn’t matter that they’re discussing whether or not the rogues are still, you know, war criminals. Fuck the fact that it’s the first time Tony and Steve have sat down together since shit hit the fan. Tony abandons them three minutes and forty-eight seconds after the meeting begins.
The worst part is that no one except for Clint seems angry about it.
“It’s bullshit,” Clint snarls, pacing the room. No one is even looking at him. Wanda is glued to her phone, ogling Kylie Jenner as if she’s more interesting than Clint. Nat is polishing her knives, her eyebrows creasing like they always do when she’s trying to hide how worried she is.
“It must be urgent,” says Steve. He sounds worried, too. He isn’t pacing, but he’s tapping one of his fingers on the table, which must be as close as Golden Boy gets to expressing anxiety.
“It is urgent,” says Rhodey. He looks the calmest of everyone. He leans back and eyes the group. Rhodey’s not distrustful, exactly, but Clint sees the way he looks at Vision. “Don’t worry, though. Tony has it handled. If he didn’t, he’d call us in.”
“He realizes that, until he actually bestows a morsel of his time upon us, we’re still war criminals?” Clint asks. “He knows I’m not allowed to see my beautiful wife and kids until we get our shit together?”
“I thought that was unrelated,” says Natasha calmly.
“He doesn’t know that!” Clint yells. “What if he doesn’t come back, huh? What if he’s just using that kid as an excuse to—,”
“You need to calm down,” growls Wanda, finally looking up from her phone. “Do not talk about things that you do not understand.”
“Or what, you’ll post me losing my cool on your Snapchat feed?” demands Clint. “You’ll tag me in all of Kim K’s ass pics and force me to scroll through them? You’ll retweet me?”
“I do not think you understand the intricacies of social media,” says Wanda. Her accent has faded slightly, but she still emphasizes her t’s and c’s a bit too much.
“Stop using air quotes when you talk, C,” says Sam. “It makes you seem like a college frat-boy.”
“It’s his new thing,” says Nat, casually carving her name into the table with her knife. “You know how he used to make lists? He does air quotes now.”
“You guys need to focus!” Clint yells. “Tony’s just . . . he’s gone, alright? He’s left us. And we need to prepare for the statistically probable fact that a police man will be knocking on the door of the tower at any minute to tell us that they’ve found his body in central park.”
“Woah. Calm down, Legolas,” says Rhodey. “He left five minutes ago. He’ll be back soon, and then we can finish negotiations.”
Clint clenches his fists and resumes his pacing.
“Man, go take a walk,” says Sam. “Calm down. Go call your therapist or something. This level of freakout is disproportional.”
“I have to stay in here,” growls Clint. “What if Tony tries to call us for help?”
Clint knows Sam. He likes Sam. But Tony is Clint’s friend, and has been his unofficial landlord since Laura kicked him out. If Tony’s body is found in central park, then Pepper will own Avengers Tower. She’ll kick Clint out and he will be forced to sell his beautiful body on the streets so he can afford a building to live in.
For a brief second, he considers straddling Sam and beating him to death for suggesting such a stupid idea. Then he realizes what he’s daydreaming about, and a shudder runs through his entire body. It’s nothing major, just a nervous tick brought on by stress and sleep-deprivation and separation anxiety.
Clint hasn’t seen his kids in two months, four days, six hours, and about twelve minutes.
Clint’s not exactly sure what expression his face is making, but it can’t be good. Steve seems to realize just how much Clint is freaking out, because he stands up quickly and places his body between Sam and Clint.
“Okay,” Steve says in his most official, I’m-the-boss-and-everything-is-under-control voice. Clint feels the tension beginning to ease out of his shoulders. “Okay, Clint. It’s going to be alright. You stay here and call Neil, and I’ll go after Tony and make sure he’s alright.”
“That’s not a good idea,” says Rhodey. Steve shoots him a cautious glare.
Clint is breathing heavily. “What if you die too?”
“I won’t,” promises Steve. He makes air quotes with his hands, and Clint finds himself relaxing unconsciously. “I’ll go find Tony, and make sure he’s okay, and when we get back, we’ll go through three-hundred pages of bureaucratic bullshit—,”
“Language,” chorus half the people around the table.
“—and in the meantime, you’ll be on the phone with Neil. And by the time we get back, you’ll be so calm that all of this will seem much better,” says Steve. “Deal?”
Tony is Clint’s friend. Tony and Steve are fighting. Clint searches for something to get angry about in this well thought-out, reasonable plan.
“I don’t like talking to Neil on the phone,” says Clint. “I can’t understand him.”
“Why not?” asks Steve, like they can fix the problem by turning up the volume on Clint’s StarkPhone.
“Because when I talk to him, I always take my hearing aids out so I don’t have to listen to him,” says Clint.
In the end, despite Rhodey’s protests, Steve does go after Tony.
Clint hoists himself up into the vents and crawls into one of his nests. He huddles in a blanket, presses his ear to one of the ducts, and listens to the voices from the other Avengers drift up and comfort him.
He shakes a little and breathes heavily. Normally when he has panic attacks, he can calm himself down. Usually it’s just him dry heaving and throwing shit until he feels better. But tonight, he feels different. Maybe it’s the anxiety about the accords, or the stress of having Steve and Tony face off. Maybe it’s the fact that it only took Tony three minutes and forty-eight seconds to bail on them
(Three minutes and forty-eight seconds is not a long time. Natasha only has to blink four times. Wanda can get through fifteen of Kylie’s pictures on Instagram . . .)
Clint thinks about calling Neil. Maybe Neil could help. Despite all 624 of his flaws, Neil has been seeing him for six weeks, the longest any one of Clint’s therapists have lasted.
Clint’s fingers hover over the contact.
He doesn’t call Neil.
He calls Hallway Girl instead.
Hallway Girl picks up on the second ring. “Hi, Nathaniel Clinasha,” she says.
Hi, Hallway Girl, Clint tries to say, but all that comes out of his mouth is a sort of dry, pinched sob.
“Are you okay, loser?” asks Hallway Girl. “Flash choked on a chicken nugget from the cafeteria the other day, and he made almost exactly that same sound. It was hilarious, and the fucker totally deserved it for eating processed, tortured chicken carcasses. When Peter gave him the Heimlich he barfed all over Abe’s shoes, it was pathetic . . .”
Hallway Girl drones on and on. She can’t possibly know how much her ridiculous, teenage nonsense is helping him, but it is. He closes his eyes and listens to her words wash over him, and slowly his body begins to relax. It’s only then that he realizes how tightly every muscle has been clenched.
Hallway Girl pauses for a second, and Clint opens his eyes.
“You ready to talk?” she asks. “How’s the vent repair business going?”
It’s doing great, Clint wants to say. I’m actually doing really well. How are you?
Instead, he says, “Every time my coworkers leave the room, I imagine them dying.”
Hallway Girl goes silent for a second, and then she makes a sound like she’s hacking up a hairball.
“That’s fucked up,” she says.
Clint clenches his teeth.
“You know, Neil the therapist would say something cliché and supportive right about now,” he snaps. “Telling me I’m fucked up is kind of a dickish thing to say.”
“News flash, Nathaniel,” says Hallway Girl. “I’m kind of a dick.”
“You’re being a bad friend,” says Clint.
“I’m not your friend,” says Hallway Girl. “I’m a fifteen-year-old girl you met while trying to infiltrate a high school’s ventilation system.”
“Fine, be that way,” says Clint, and he goes to hang up the phone.
“No wait, I’m sorry,” says Hallway Girl, and she sighs. It’s a long sigh, too, the kind Nat makes when Clint gets himself shot. “That was a shitty thing to say to you. I don’t have a lot of friends.”
Clint doesn’t respond.
“You can call me MJ,” says Hallway Girl.
“I shouldn’t have called you at all,” says Clint. “But when we met . . . when you met Nathaniel Clinasha, Vent Repair Man . . .”
“Before you crashed through my ceiling and destroyed my calc classroom,” finishes MJ.
“Yeah,” says Clint. “It’s just . . . you gave me some advice that didn’t suck. And you seemed really cool.”
“I am really cool,” agrees MJ.
“So I thought you might be able to give me advice,” says Clint. “I’ve been having kind of a tough time lately.”
“What kind of tough time are we talking?” asks MJ. “Are you only confident while wearing hats? Are you so obsessed with male genitalia that you give your enemy a nickname that includes the word ‘penis?’”
“What?” says Clint.
“Did you ditch your girlfriend at a school dance and then put her supervillain dad in prison, and indirectly ruin her life?”
“I’m married,” says Clint. “Plus, what kind of psychopath ditches a girl at a dance?”
“You’d be surprised,” says MJ.
“Was she hot?”
“Hella,” says MJ. “But she’s also seventeen, so don’t go getting any ideas.”
“Again, I’m married,” says Clint. “And . . . no offence, but those situations aren’t really applicable to my life. I can’t imagine those situations being applicable to anyone’s life, ever.”
“Like I said, you’d be surprised,” said MJ. “I deal with a lot of people with problems.”
“Well, I do have problems,” agrees Clint. “I’m terrified of fish. I can’t use toilet paper when it’s hanging on the side closer to me. I hate my therapist. My best friend is an assassin, and I once watched her murder six clones who looked exactly like me without batting an eye—,”
“Are we talking about the black widow? Because if so, that’s hot,” says MJ.
“And Tony left tonight and I just . . . it really freaked me out. Something happened with his kid, and if I worry about the kid I’ll go down the rabbit hole of helplessness, so instead I freaked out,” Clint says. He’s breathing heavily again, and he buries his face in his hands.
“Hang on,” says MJ. “Wait. How many kids does Stark have? Are we talking about Peter?”
Clint looks up sharply. He feels incredibly stupid. He wants to yell, or scream, or break his phone in half with his bare hands.
“You’re Peter’s friend!” he yells. “I should’ve . . . fuck, I should’ve called you hours ago. Is he okay? Is he dead? Why didn’t Tony let me come with him?”
“Friend is a strong word. And Peter’s fine,” says MJ. “We’re at a party. I mean, he’s completely wasted and he just stumbled off into the night, but the dude is highkey jacked. Have you seen those biceps? He’s going to be fine, Nathaniel. Don’t worry.”
Clint lets out a noise somewhere between a sob and a laugh and buries his face in his hands.
“Is that what all this was about?” demands MJ. “You didn’t want to worry about Peter, so you projected it on everyone else?”
“No,” Clint says. “I’m . . . I wasn’t joking about having a difficult time, Hallway Girl. I gave my four-year-old a semi-automatic gun. You were right, that day in the hallway. There is some serious shit I need to work through.”
MJ goes silent for a moment. “At least it wasn’t an automatic,” she says.
“That’s what I said!” Clint exclaims. “Hey, listen, MJ. I’ve got to go. But . . . thanks. Seriously.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ve been the unofficial campaign manager of Peter’s life for months. I think . . .” Hallway Girl pauses. “I think we just have to accept our lots in life, you know? I used to think I would be super badass, like the Black Widow or something. I thought I would strangle guys to death with my thighs and lead feminism marches and kill white supremacists and all that shit.”
“Natasha is awesome,” Clint agrees.
“But now . . . I don’t know,” says MJ. “Now I own the crisis line that keeps traumatized, guilt ridden, superpowered idiots from fucking up their lives. And I have to admit, it’s kind of a power trip.”
“You’re a terrible therapist,” says Clint.
“I’m not a therapist,” says MJ.
“Bye, Hallway Girl,” says Clint. “I won’t call again. Don’t worry.”
“Yeah, you will,” sighs MJ. “Bye, loser.”
Tony’s body isn’t found in central park. He stumbles in at 12 am, puts Peter to bed, and comes into the conference room looking like his birthday has come early.
“All of you need to meet me in the home movie theater,” he says. His grin is so wide that he looks manic, and his entire body is shaking.
Steve slouches down in his chair.
Natasha is on her feet in seconds. “How’s Peter?” she demands. Wanda looks up from her phone, worry in her eyes.
Tony waves his hand at her, completely ignoring the question. He makes eye contact with Clint, then throws his head back and cackles.
Steve is sitting so low in his chair that Clint can barely see his head over the table. “They said it would boost American morale,” he says, which makes absolutely no sense.
“Tony, I hate to ruin what appears to be the best mood you’ve been in since Peter won the science bowl, but we have actual work to do,” says Rhodey. “We have a 300 paged document we need to go through with a fine-tooth comb—,”
“Fine, we’ll watch it here. FRIDAY, pull up one of the Cap videos on the big screen,” says Tony. “Put on the drug one. No, the detention one. No, no, no. Let’s start with ‘Your Changing Body.’”
It’s like old times.
Sam is laughing so hard he’s fallen out of his chair. Literal tears of mirth are streaming down Rhodey’s face. Even Nat is smiling. Hell, Wanda has actually put down her phone.
“They said it would boost American morale!” Steve insists for what feels like the one-hundredth time. Clint wonders distantly if Steve’s face will ever be a normal color again. Right now, it’s the same shade of red as the uniform he wears in the videos.
“It’s boosting my morale,” Sam howls.
“Steve, can you please explain to me again about my changing body? I’m not sure what’s going on ‘below the belt,’” quotes Clint. “I need a 90-year-old man to tell me all about my sexual health.”
“You guys are being dramatic,” says Natasha. “I was expecting that a video had surfaced of him starring in hardcore porn or something. This is a bit of a letdown.”
“Thank you,” says Steve, in a pitiful attempt at a dignified voice.
“Oh, that wasn’t a complement,” says Natasha. “This is pathetic. I would so much rather be in porn then this crap.”
Steve lets out a choked laugh.
“So. You’re friends have discovered an embarrassing video of you on the internet,” says Sam, placing his hands on his hips and smiling widely.
Clint leans over and taps Steve on the shoulder. Steve turns to look at him, smiling slightly.
“Kill me,” Steve says, only half joking. “Please, Clint.”
“If you’re feeling suicidal, I have the number of a great therapist,” says Clint.
Steve raises his eyebrows. “You called Neil after all?”
“Oh hell no,” says Clint. “Neil the therapist is a pitiful excuse for a medical professional. Just because he went to Harvard, and then Princeton, and then Yale, and then Princeton again doesn’t mean he has any idea what he’s talking about.”
“You’re seeing a new therapist?” asks Steve.
“Yup,” says Clint. He lowers his voice. “Seriously, though. She’s the best in the business. If you ever need to talk about anything . . . she can really help you out. I know you’ve had a tough year. We all have. Want me to give you her number?”
Steve hesitates. “I don’t really do therapy,” he says.
“Yeah, I know,” says Clint. “You eat lightning and thunder for breakfast. You’re more emotionless then a baby boomer. You show no weakness and feel no pain. But . . . seriously, bro. She can help you work through all that.”
Clint lowers his voice even further. “I think she might have magic mind-healing powers.”
Steve tilts his head to the side, looking thoughtful. He looks around the room, from Sam to the screen to Rhodey to the empty chairs on each side of Natasha. His gaze settles on Tony, and his eyes become sad.
“Okay, Clint,” Steve says. “Give me her number.”