Some Things Aren't Funny
Thank you so much everyone, I've never had such an amazing response to a first chapter. I'm sorry I couldn't reply to every individual review; I've got exams coming up and I've been swamped with revision, but I really apprecite every single one of them. I really hope you enjoy the conclusion.
Disclaimer: I own nothing.
Clint had expected Tony to be pissed off. He had expected him to shout and swear, and he had already planned a number of places he could hide from Tony's inevitable revenge. He had expected all that, and it would have been fine. The billionaire couldn't be as bad as Fury, let alone Natasha, in a bad mood, and he was very familiar with that. But he hadn't planned for this.
It had become clear that something was wrong almost immediately. Clint had known that Tony would struggle, and had jumped on top of him to extend the joke, but instead of throwing him off, the genius had seemed to go berserk. His elbow smashed into the base of Clint's nose with an ominous crunch, sending the archer jumping back with a yell, but Tony had barely noticed. It had taken Steve and his super-strength to get the thrashing billionaire out of the water without anyone else getting hurt.
"Tony, stop it!" he snapped. "Calm down, will you, it was just a joke." Tony tore himself out his hands, and Steve fell back at the panic in his face. "Tony?"
Tony just stumbled back, his dark eyes wide with terror. He tripped and fell to the floor, but made no attempt to get back to his feet. Clint scrambled out after him, the pain in his nose forgotten at the fear in his face, but Natasha caught his arm.
"Stop! You'll make things worse."
Clint was taken aback by the venom in her voice, but all protests died in his throat at the sight of Tony, pale and shaking, backed up against the wall, his hands raised as if to fend off an incoming blow. Steve was talking, pleading, but Tony didn't answer, and looking at him, Clint wasn't even sure if he could. His eyes were wide and unfocused, transfixed by something that only he could see. Wherever he was, it wasn't in the garden with them.
Natasha stepped up beside Steve and began talking calmly and quietly, as if to a frightened child. For once, there Clint saw no humour in the comparison. Steve's face was pinched with concern, but he had the sense to stay quiet. For his part, Clint could only stand there. He had never meant for this to happen.
Whatever was going on, Natasha's efforts didn't seem to be having much of an effect. Tony's body was still wracked with shivers, and he still wasn't registering their presence. It was surprisingly painful to see the hyperactive genius in such a state, and Clint felt his stomach twist with guilt. How had he managed to provoke such a reaction? Nothing in Stark's early life would account for it. It had to have something to do with his time as Iron Man, but that didn't make sense either. Tony had been underwater plenty of times, Clint had seen him, and he had never had a reaction like this.
"What the hell is going on?" he muttered.
Steve shook his head, but Natasha glared at him over her shoulder. "Later," she snapped.
"Not now, Clint."
"No, he's my friend and I damn well want I know what I did to set him off like this!"
Both agents fell silent immediately. Steve rarely raised his voice, but they had learned that it was a very good idea to listen when he did. The super-soldier scowled at the pair of them.
"This is not helping." He looked pointedly at Tony, who was sitting hunched in on himself, a startling contrast to his usual exuberant behaviour.
Clint ran a hand through his hair in exasperation, but forced himself to lower his voice.
"Can you at least tell me what I can do to help?"
Natasha looked at him, but before she could say anything, Tony gave a low moan and Clint whirled round, just in time to meet the billionaire's tortured gaze.
For a moment, he stood petrified. Then Tony looked away, and he felt like someone had punched him in the stomach.
"Tony…" Steve began, but he fell silent as the genius forced himself to his feet. His face was bone grey and he was trembling like a leaf, but he barely even looked at the soldier's outstretched hand. Slowly, unsteadily, he turned and made his way back to the house. Clint opened his mouth to call after him, to apologise, but the words died on his lips at the memory of Tony's expression. The three heroes stood silent as Tony made his way into the house and disappeared from view.
Clint stood frozen, his mind a whirl of emotions. Chief among them, guilt and shame. He had wanted to give Tony a shock, to get him back for the jokes he had pulled, but he had never intended this. Never. But beneath the guilt was a deep, bubbling anger. Clint had seen that reaction before. He knew what could cause that.
Next to him, he felt Steve take a deep breath.
"What was all that about?"
Natasha scowled. "Barton made a joke. It wasn't funny."
Clint glared right back. "How was I supposed to know that that was a trigger?" His heart wasn't in it though; he knew it had been a mistake.
Natasha must have seen that, because some of the anger left her eyes. "Maybe." She sighed. "I forget that you didn't get to read the full file."
Clint closed his eyes. That confirmed it. Very few parts of Stark's file were classified. Natasha has been given full access to prepare her for working with him, but Fury hadn't seen the need for Clint to read the whole thing. He was beginning to wish he'd argued that decision.
Steve was glancing from one of them to the other, his face a mask of confusion. "What are you talking about? What was in the file?" His eyes narrowed as the agents exchanged glances. "I don't care if it's classified. If we're to be teammates, we need to know how to prevent things like that from happening. Now tell me what was in that file!"
Screw Fury. Steve was right. Clint looked the soldier in the eye.
"You're a soldier. You served with soldiers." Steve looked bemused at the topic, but he nodded. "Ever notice how everyday things can trigger bad memories?"
Steve shivered. "Like the fireworks?" That had not been pleasant. "You're saying Tony nearly drowned once?"
Clint gave a humourless snort. "You could put it that way." He felt Natasha glance at him, but he shook his head. "Sorry." He took a deep breath. "You ever have to deal with interrogation victims, Cap?"
Steve's eyes narrowed. "Yes. Several times." Clint could see him putting the pieces together. From the way his hands clenched into fists, he liked the result as much as Clint did. "Afghanistan?"
Clint glanced at Natasha and she nodded. "They wanted missiles. Stark refused."
Fury had replaced the concern in Steve's grey eyes. "So they…"
"A form of waterboarding," Natasha supplied quietly. "It's where-"
"I know what it is. I've freed prisoners who experienced it."
Clint found himself trembling with rage. He was no stranger to torture, in his line of work, it was inevitable, but Stark was a civilian. Civilians weren't trained to deal with that. "Did anyone ever talk to him about it?" He was quite proud of the fact that he kept his voice even.
Natasha knew him too well to be fooled. "It was offered. He refused."
Clint gave a bitter laugh. "Of course he did."
"Don't say it!"
"It wasn't your fault."
"Oh, so the invisible fairies dumped him in the water and sat on him?"
"You know what I mean. You didn't know."
He turned away. "Doesn't make it better." He began to make his way towards the house.
"Where are you going?" Steve called.
He didn't bother to look back. "To fix this."
He was glad that neither of them tried to follow him.
Upon entering, he was met by an almost frantic JARVIS.
"Agent Barton, Mr. Stark-"
"I know." Normally he tried to be polite to the AI, but this was no time for chatting. "I'll see to it. Where is he?"
"In his workshop sir, but I'm afraid he has locked the door. Dr. Banner has been trying to enter for the past five minutes, without success."
Clint broke into a run. Bruce and Tony had formed a strong friendship since the first battle, and the last thing they needed now was a worried Hulk. Although if Tony wouldn't open the door…
A few minutes later, he slid to a panting halt outside the door. Sure enough, Bruce was there, and he whirled on the archer.
"What the hell happened?"
Clint froze. Bruce's eyes were tinged green. "You need to calm down."
"I am calm."
Well, that was debatable, but arguing about it might not be the best idea. "I made a mistake."
Bruce took a deep breath. "Explain."
"I played a joke, and it triggered a flashback," Clint snapped. He checked his temper with an effort. "I need to get in there."
"A flashback of what?"
Clint swallowed. The green was getting brighter. "Afghanistan." A low growl escaped the scientist, and he continued quickly. "It was an accident!" He quickly explained the events of the afternoon and Natasha's explanation.
Bruce listened in silence, his expression carefully impassive, but he could do nothing about the green tinge that was now spreading across his skin as he heard about his friend's treatment. He held up a hand when Clint finished, and closed his eyes. Clint restrained his impatience with an effort; he was desperate to see Tony, but he had no desire to have the Hulk demolish the floor. And the dozen above it. He could see how close to the surface the beast was and Bruce certainly didn't need any distractions.
Fortunately, when Bruce turned back to him, there was only the faintest jade glimmer visible in the whites.
"You didn't know?"
"No! I would never have done it if I'd known."
Bruce held his gaze for a moment, then grunted. "Good." He turned back to the door. "I can't get in. He's overridden my access codes, and JARVIS says he's locked out."
Clint gritted his teeth. Can't you hack it, or something?"
Bruce shot him a withering glance. "I'm a nuclear physicist, not an engineer. It would take all the professors at MIT to break Tony's codes."
"Then can't we break in? Natasha's got some explosives." Technically they were his, but no one was supposed to know about that.
Bruce shook his head. "He made the room Hulk-proof. Said his suits were too expensive to be smashed every time Thor finished the pop tarts." There was an almost fond look in his eye, but Clint just stared at him.
"You mean even you can't get in there?"
"Not unless he lets me." He glanced back into the room. The back of Tony's dark head could just be seen behind a pile of half-finished gadgets.
Clint took a step back, a scowl on his battered face. He had been counting on the Hulk as a last resort. He slammed his hand against the panel in a fit of frustration.
"Damnit, Tony, let us in!" There was no reply and he set his jaw. "Fine." He turned and began to walk up the stairs.
Bruce stared after him. "You're just going to walk away?"
Clint paused and glanced back. "I'm getting in there."
"And how exactly do you plan to do that? This place could keep the other guy out, what do you think you'll be able to do?"
Clint smirked. "You're thinking too big. I'm doing this my way." He turned away without waiting for a response, leaving Bruce staring helplessly after him.
Clint gritted his teeth as he worked his way round a tight corner. Tony Stark was a genius in mechanical and electrical engineering, and had applied his talents liberally when designing the tower. While many aspects of that were for the better, Clint had not been happy to discover that the air vents were half the size of the SHIELD ones. It had taken several nights' practise to learn to traverse the building by his favoured method easily, but it had paid off. Tony might be able to keep out the Hulk, but he hadn't done anything about more surreptitious intruders.
A few more minutes crawling found him catching his breath right above Tony's workbench. The inventor was hunched over a tablet, and while his fingers were moving rapidly, he still looked shaken by his flashback. Given everything he had learned since, Clint couldn't say that he blamed him, and a fresh surge of guilt swelled up. Enough was enough. He kicked open the hatch and dropped down in front of him.
"We need to talk."
Tony had jumped to his feet at the sound, the remote for his armour in his hand. He didn't relax when he recognised his teammate and that more than anything else showed Clint just how badly the experience had affected him.
"Remind me to booby-trap those later. Now get out."
Clint stood his ground. "Not yet."
The billionaire glared at him. "Clint-"
"Tony, I'm not leaving until you hear me out."
Tony turned away. "I don't want to talk about it."
"Damnit Tony, I came to apologise!"
Tony paused but didn't turn. "It's fine. Now get out."
Clint clenched his fists. "I don't think its fine."
"Well I do, and this is my head and my lab, and I want you out of it."
"No." Clint felt Bruce's burning glare on him and checked his anger. He wasn't here to fight. "Tony, we know about Afghanistan."
The genius stiffened. "What does that have to do with it?"
"You know damn well what," Clint growled. "I know PTSD when I see it, Tony."
Tony's head whipped round, and Clint took a step back at the ferocity in his expression. "So you're going to play psychologist? Try to fix me?" He gave a bitter laugh. "I don't need your help."
"I'm not here to pity you," Clint snapped. "You've got doctors for that. Or would if you weren't so pig-headed."
Tony glared at him. "Then what do you want?"
Clint met his gaze steadily. "To help."
The billionaire snorted. "I doubt it."
Clint took a deep breath. Time to try a different tack.
"I can't watch bonfires."
Tony blinked. "What?"
Clint shook his head. "You think you're the only one with memories?" Tony began to argue, but he didn't give him the chance. "Natasha can't listen to Pavarotti. Steve freaks at fireworks. Thor can't stand the cold. Bruce-"
Tony's cut him off. "So you're saying I should just get over it? Yeah, I'm trying, thanks."
"Oh, for… I'm saying you don't have to deal with it alone you idiot."
Tony's mouth opened and closed for a moment. "Huh."
At least he wasn't shouting any more. Clint decided to take advantage of the opportunity. "Tony, what we do is dangerous by definition. We've all been in situations where we wished we were dead." He shivered as a memory of heat and flames and burning rose involuntarily, before forcing it aside. "You really think none of that affected us?"
"It never seems to," Tony shot back. "I've never seen you act like… that."
"Well I have, and so have all the others." His voice softened. "I've been there Tony. Believe me, I never would have played that joke if I'd known what had happened."
Tony sighed and looked away, his anger fading. "I know."
"I mean it. I went too far. I'm sorry."
Tony was silent for so long that Clint began to wonder if he was still there. The billionaire's face was closed, expressionless, but Clint could read body language like few other people. Tony wasn't angry, not anymore, but he certainly wasn't all right.
"I thought I was over it."
Clint started. Tony had spoken without warning. Even now, he was staring fixedly at his tablet rather than the archer, but Clint understood. He leant against a bench and waited.
"It was two years ago. There were some… episodes when I got back, but they stopped about six months ago. I thought…" He broke off with a shiver. Clint said nothing, but his sharp gaze was fixed on Tony's.
"I dreamed last night. Of the cave. Of them. Then when you jumped me…"
Clint nodded grimly. "I know the feeling." All too well in fact.
Tony glanced at him and sighed. "Yeah. I guess you do." He took a deep breath. "I just couldn't deal with the pity. With everyone looking at me like I'm about to fall apart."
"As if they've forgotten everything you've done and only see someone weak," Clint murmured. "Yeah. Sucks, doesn't it?"
Tony snorted. "Just a bit. Sorry if I worried you."
Clint shrugged. "Understandable."
They sat in companionable silence for a few minutes before Tony stirred.
"Did Bruce really come close to Hulking out?"
"He went green, started shaking… yeah. He was just about ready to smash his way in."
"Wouldn't have worked. I didn't think of the air vents though."
Clint smirked. "No one does." After a beat, he added. "They were all worried, you know."
"Or just good actors," Tony muttered, but the pain in his brown eyes seemed to lessen slightly at the news.
"Maybe," Clint agreed. "Any other jokes I should avoid?"
Tony raised an eyebrow when he realised the archer was deadly serious. "I'll let you know."
Clint nodded back. It was a start, and some of the guilt finally began to ebb away. Maybe this would work out after all.
"Sorry about your nose."
Clint shrugged. "Eh. I've had worse."
"Guess so. At least it won't spoil your looks."
Tony laughed, and Clint couldn't help it. He laughed too.
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