It takes Clint a full minute to realize something’s terribly, truly wrong, after Lisa and the kids vanish.
I’m slipping, he thinks numbly.
Then he calls Nat.
She answers on the fifth ring and his fear solidifies in the pit of his stomach. She always picks up before that.
“Hey, Clint,” the Black Widow says, her voice cracking slightly, and he closes his eyes.
Natasha doesn’t break. Ever.
“Thanos. He got all the stones.”
Clint feels the words like a physical blow to the head.
“Who’s dead, Nat?” He can barely manage to say it out loud.
Slipping, Loki whispers, and he forcefully shoves the foreign voice away.
“Half of everybody. We’re not sure if--”
“Who’s dead that matters?” Clint clarifies, turning over possibilities in his mind.
Cap would probably disapprove, but Clint doesn’t really care. One family is dead and he let his other family walk into a fight without him.
“Bucky,” Natasha says lowly. “T’Challa and what looks like most of Wakanda. Sam. We can’t get in contact with Fury or Maria.”
She pauses and Clint knows what she’s going to say before she says the name out loud.
He swallows hard. Natasha knows his next question.
“Bruce, Thor, and Steve are fine. Well. They’re alive.”
“Tony?” Both of them are going into mission mode, analyzing the situation and pushing aside emotion to deal with later.
“Unknown. He and the kid-- Spiderman-- are somewhere off planet with Strange.”
The sound of Nat’s steady breathing comes through the line and he holds onto it hard.
“Laura and the kids are gone,” Clint says abruptly. “Vanished. There was some dust floating around.”
“Oh, yastreb,” Nat says*. Then she is silent.
Clint doesn’t say anything for a minute or two.
“So what happens now?” His voice must tell Nat something of what he’s planning because she takes a fraction of a second too long to answer.
“I’m going to try and deal with… with all of this. A few of the others will probably come with me. I… Give me a couple days, Clint, and I’ll have a plan.”
He smiles, despite everything. She always has a plan.
“You already know what you’re going to do, don’t you?”
Clint knows Natasha is only asking to confirm what she already knows.
“Yeah,” he says.
She doesn’t offer and he doesn’t ask.
“Be careful,” she says.
“Let me know if Tony made it,” he responds.
He hangs up.
Natasha texts him a few weeks later. It’s short and to the point.
Tony in bad shape but alive. Will recover.
He reads it in a Shanghai airport and doesn’t respond.
He doesn’t know what he would say. By now she has to know how much fresh blood he has on his hands.
Ronin is back and the criminals are running.
He gets the tattoo as a reminder to himself. He can’t get their names, can’t bring himself to expose that weakness, but for every scale, he concentrates on their memory.
Wanda is the hardest, somehow.
Loki hisses in satisfaction in the back of his mind when the tattoo is finished. Clint doesn't know whose decision the green snake was, but it's done.
He shaves his head as a dare-- to the cops, to the world, to Rhodey and Nat and everyone who thought they could find him.
He cuts it as a dare to himself, too. A mocking reminder of everything he was capable of.
He cuts his hair as a warning sign. As a war cry.
You can’t find me, even if I quit trying to hide. Even if I make myself noticeable, I'm five steps ahead of you.
Come find me if you can. Come stop me and put me down like I deserve to be.
I dare you to.
He sees how people look at him when he’s in street clothes. They think he’s a little or a lot too old to pull off a mohawk, to even have one.
The few who bother to look closer see his eyes and look away fast. Even if they don’t realize it, they recognize a raptor’s gaze when they see it.
Nat finds him because of course she does. She’s the only one who could.
Standing in the Tokyo rain as his other half tries to bring him in, he remembers a wary, lost assassin in Lisbon a lifetime ago and he knows why she’s winning when no one else could.
Nat would have gone with him, once. If he’d asked, she probably would have had his back, through Chicago and Shanghai and Rio and Mexico City and everything else.
If he’d asked her, he thinks she still would have said yes.
But he didn’t. And he knows he never would have.
She’s trying to be good, to balance out some of the red in her ledger. Just because he’s choosing a different path to damnation doesn’t mean he’ll ask Nat to follow him.
But she's asking him to follow her, to trust her, to have her back on one last mission, and he'll follow her into Hell if she needs him to.
He'd heard Tony say once, arguing with Steve, that love shows us who we want to be, but war shows us who we are.
This is war, and love is for children.
He owes her a debt.
Ronin starts to fade, but not entirely.
Next chapter should be out in two weeks or so. This fic got about four times longer than it was supposed to be...
Hope you enjoy!
Ronin leaves with Natasha and Clint starts to come back. The armor changes into a set of Clint’s clothes Natasha had been holding onto, the swords get put away, the dead-eyed conviction of a killer fades a little in favor of snark.
(Not much, though, because Clint Barton was a killer long before Ronin came back.
He just hides it better.)
Steve greets him gratefully. Tony makes cracks about midlife crises. Thor doesn’t care about anything, including Clint’s haircut, although the god’s eyes do linger on the tattoo. Clint even gets a (gentle) hug from Bruce.
But they know, Clint realizes, seeing the way they look at him. Cap’s eyes have an appraisal in then that hasn’t been directed at Clint since Loki. Rhodey’s hand isn’t on his gun, exactly, but Clint can tell that if Nat wasn’t in the room, it probably would be. Bruce’s eyes aren’t as warm as they used to be. Tony’s frantic, absentminded gestures falter when the two of them make eye contact before the billionaire inevitably turns away a little too casually, a little too fast.
Nat doesn’t flinch away when he looks at her. He thinks that might be the only reason he doesn’t leave the room and head for the roof. He has to have her back. She has his.
Tony tosses a bow at Clint’s face two minutes after he and Natasha enter the compound. Clint catches it deftly and resists his instinctive dive for a knife.
Just Tony, Clint reminds himself, feeling his hand tremble.
“Think fast, Legolas,” Stark says, sauntering into the room and tossing a quiver of arrows.
“Thanks for the warning, Stark,” Clint mutters as he catches the quiver, the familiarity of the back and forth sapping some of the tension from the room.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m giving you shiny presents, don’t be a smartass. Color-coding is the same as it… well. As it used to be. Purple is grappling hook. You’ve only got three of those, so be careful. I figured you’d want more of the combat ones, considering what--”
“Tony. They’re great. Thank you.”
Clint notices that the bags under Tony’s eyes haven’t gotten lighter since the last time they’d seen each other, which is odd considering that had been at the airport, back before Thanos.
Tony sags slightly in relief. “Yeah. Yeah, you’re welcome.” He hesitates, his eyes skittering away from Clint’s. “Take the bow if this madness works, okay? Don’t take the swords.”
Tony is looking at him with something like understanding and Clint is reminded that they used to call this man the Merchant of Death.
“All right,” Clint says, slinging the quiver over his shoulder. “Hawkeye and Iron Man. Just like old times.”
“Less Chitauri, thankfully,” Tony says, but his face exhibits relief.
Clint snorts, and a little more of Ronin slips away.
(He keeps the swords, though. Ronin is nothing if not careful.)
When Tony needs a guinea pig, Clint volunteers without much of a second thought. If it means he can see Laura, that he can see Cooper and Lila and Nathaniel--
If this experiment gives him that, he doesn’t care what else it does to him.
(Even if the universe doesn’t give him that much, if this goes wrong, he might finally be able to just stop.)
He gets thrown through time like a forgotten penny in the dryer, cursing Tony mentally and inarticulately yelling out loud.
(Ronin is a silent, terrifying force of nature. Clint Barton is afraid and has no witnesses.)
Clint survives because Tony is a goddamn genius and he lands in the time and the place that used to be his home. He hears Laura, hears the voices of the kids, and suddenly he doesn’t give a damn about the future, all he wants is right here, he can find Nat and--
--He’s back at the facility, on his knees and gasping, and he looks to Nat before anyone else.
“I saw them,” Clint chokes out. “It worked.”
And for the first time in five years, Clint feels something like hope.
The Avengers who survived Thanos stand around the circle and Clint realizes idly that from above their gloved hands look like Tony’s arc reactor.
If a billionaire’s guilt-tainted love for this family and a mouthy high-schooler gets Clint’s other family back, Clint doesn’t care about the implications of that.
He takes one last look at these people, all of them except Nebula the only ones left alive who he gives a fuck about, what’s left of the family he’d held onto despite aliens and wars and each other, and Clint thinks that even if he finally manages to die doing this he won’t regret this moment.
He and Nat peel off down their tunnel and they’re on Vormir.
For all that it’s a freezing, dead, planet, Vormir is beautiful. Nat’s hair, died white-blonde, glows in the light of the dying red sun, and for a fraction of a thought Clint can almost pretend that the two of them are still Strike Team Delta, that it’s still just the two of them and Coulson against the world, that his hair is still inconspicuous and hers is still flaming red and half of everything isn’t gone.
Then they head into the mountains and Clint can’t hold onto the illusion anymore. They’re both different now, older and even more scarred, and he has swords now alongside his arrows. He killed Coulson and Loki tore him apart and Nat’s not who she used to be either.
But still, he has her back, she has his, and they’re walking into this together.
Clint swears silently as they climb that Natasha, at least, will walk back out.
Strike Team Delta, one last time.
This chapter is shorter just because it felt like it should be, given the importance of what happens on Vormir to Clint.
I've only seen Endgame once, because I want to keep the few shreds of my heart I have left after the first time around. Please forgive any inaccuracies.
The funny thing is, Clint thinks, leaning against a freezing rock wall, the three of them never even had to question what the ultimate sacrifice would be for him and Nat. It’s not really amusing, but he tries to make it that way so he doesn’t have to think too hard about what he’s about to do.
“I guess we both know,” Clint starts, and there’s a flash in her eyes that reminds him that even now she won’t let go of him. He’s fucked up, broken, a murderer, and she still won’t just let him die.
His life isn’t worth saving any more, and even though Clint hates knowing how this will break Nat, he can’t bring himself to regret what he’s about to do.
“Yeah, I guess so,” she says, and then they’re both scrambling for the edge of the cliff.
“Tell my family that I love them,” Clint gasps, knowing that this is the only truth left to him. He’ll die, he won’t see them again, but he’ll die knowing they’ll be okay.
“Tell them yourself.”
He spares a thought to Tony’s grappling hook arrows as he’s clutching onto Nat hard enough that she’ll have bruises when she goes back.
“ Don’t, ” Clint pleads, feeling tears prickle in his eyes from more than just the winds battering them as they dangle from the cliff’s edge.
Ronin doesn’t beg, would never consider it. Ronin doesn’t have a reason to live.
Clint still has Natasha.
She smiles at him, softly.
Clint can feel himself screaming but the winds whip the sound away from him.
Clint wakes up in a pool of cool water, sees the glowing orange stone in his hand, and cries, the salt of his tears drying in the calm, warm air.
No more inside jokes about Budapest. No more sparring sessions. No more sitting up past midnight with a bottle of vodka swapping stories. No more visiting Coulson’s grave with her warm, silent presence at his back. No more smirking insults, no more silent arguments in sign language, no more laughing at his Russian accent and his clumsy Hebrew, no more mocking her atrocious Arabic. No more curling up on couches in Avengers Tower and watching movies when dreams wake either of them up. No more knife throwing competitions.
No more safety. No more reason to keep going.
No more Nat.
Natasha with her blazing hair and calloused hands and her ability to kill him in a hundred different ways. Natasha, who likes cinnamon and can’t stand avocado, who taught Clint how to make curry spicy enough to make Bruce blink, who he showed how to make chocolate chip pancakes at three in the morning three nights after they met. Natasha, who likes Steinbeck and laughs at James Patterson, who stayed up all night to read Clint The Prisoner of Azkaban when he was laid up with a pierced lung, who likes to read Stephen King with her feet propped up on the back of his couch and her head dangling from the cushions.
Nathasha, who’s held his intestines together with her bare hands, who’s stitched Clint up with floss and a fishing hook, who’s dragged him out of firefights more times than he can count, who was the best man at his wedding.
Natasha is gone.
Clint wishes he could hate her.
Eventually he staggers to his feet and forces his fingers to the buttons on Tony’s contraption.
Even if all Clint wants to do is join Natasha, even if all he wants is for everything to just stop--
He still has a job to do.
Clint doesn’t even notice the trip back. He blinks and he’s on his knees still clutching the Soul Stone everyone staring at him, someone asks him where Natasha is--
And he doesn’t give a fuck, not about any of it, because Nat’s gone .
I made myself sad writing this. Be forewarned.
Trigger warning: suicidal thoughts/ideation.
Bruce snaps and there’s birds again.
Bruce snaps and Laura is calling Clint even though he thought he’d deleted her number sometime around Panama.
Bruce snaps and Clint has his family back, but half of himself has been ripped away and he doesn’t know how he’s going to keep going.
Then there’s Thanos again, and at least when Clint’s running for his life and the future of the universe he doesn’t have to think.
Tony snaps and it’s all over.
Clint is standing with Wanda at Tony’s funeral, looking out over the water, when he feels her fingers comb through his hair.
You’ll be all right, yastreb , Nat whispers in his ear, and Clint doesn’t know how to tell her that he’ll never be all right again.
Wanda says Tony and Nat know that they’ve won. Clint wants to believe her.
Wanda ends up coming back to the farm with Clint. It’s a little awkward at first, his three kids not sure how to deal with her and his wife worried about what Wanda means for the two of them, but it gets easier. Clint won’t lose Wanda again, can’t stand the thought of failing her again, and he tells Laura that. The next morning over breakfast Laura pulls a bemused Wanda into a hug and asks her if she wants to go shopping or hunting or something. Wanda says that she would love to go shoe shopping. Laura and Wanda come back after seven hours with a trunk full of bags and an easy friendliness that hadn’t been there before.
“I like her,” Laura tells him that night as they’re going to bed. “She’s really smart, really kind. She can stay as long as she wants to.”
Clint kisses her cheek.
Laura talks about going back to school and getting her nursing degree and eventually enrolls in a program at the local community college. Clint lets his hair grow out and wears long sleeves, stays home and takes care of the kids, doesn’t answer his phone for anyone but his wife and Wanda, doesn’t touch his swords. Wanda helps Clint take care of the kids-- she and Lila get along the best, but she’s great with Cooper and Nathaniel, too-- and she and Clint practice shooting sometimes when one or both of them can’t sleep. She uses her magic occasionally, because it’s a part of her, but it never holds the raw violence it had for so long.
She tells Clint after four months of staying silent about Vision that she still thinks she can hear him sometimes. Clint tells her that’s normal, that it’ll be okay, hugs her as she sobs, doesn’t say I still see Natasha every time I turn around. They’re on the front porch, sitting on the swinging bench as the crickets chirp, and he can feel Natasha hooking her chin over his shoulder.
Clint goes to the store for chicken soup ingredients one day when Cooper gets sick. When the checkout clerk asks how many kids Clint has, Clint says four without even thinking about it.
Sometimes Clint sees a woman with red hair and almost yells Natasha . Sometimes he sees a kid with a Black Widow shirt on when he’s dropping his kids off at school and has to drive around for a few hours. Sometimes he forgets. Sometimes he turns to hand something to Nat, or mutters something to her, or gets halfway through dialing her number, before he remembers.
Clint dreams about watching her fall and he dreams that he let go too. Usually he wakes up and he wonders if putting a bullet through his brain would take him to her, would make this stop; occasionally he looks a little too hard at the full bottle of sleeping pills Laura made him get a prescription for.
Sometimes, with his kids running around with nerf guns and his wife at his side and Natasha’s ghost at his back and enough strength of will, Clint can almost convince himself he’s okay.
Sometimes, when he wakes up screaming for her and then remembers everything, Clint knows he won’t ever be.