Syn's Gratuitously Long Author's Notes: I will readily admit that I don't want to post this epilogue. Posting this last bit means that the story is finally over, and that's a really sad thought! I can't thank enough the readers who have taken the time to read, review, suggest, critique: you've made this story better in so many ways. Thank you. Readers who have left the comfortable world of lurking to leave a review, thank you. And readers who took a minute to answer my random questions (I should add more whump? Okay! Bring Natasha back? Done! Not dragging too much? Hooray! ;), thank you, thank you, thank you.
When I started Slipping I wasn't sure if I could write an Avengers fic, so I truly appreciate all the feedback that turned an angsty little one-shot about not-zombies into an angst-riddled thirty-chapter plus h/c about characters looking for redemption and maybe finding at least a little of it along the way. Your comments have made me smile, laugh, sniffle, and just be proud of this fic. Thank you. Writing it has been my genuine pleasure. ;)
I'm always nervous about ending a story, because generally readers are either going to love or despise where you've left the characters. Fingers crossed it's the former! Also, this feels more like a prologue to me than an epilogue, but there you go. ;)
Something wakes Clint out of a dead sleep.
He jolts up in bed, his fingers scrabbling across the sheets. Sometimes he still reaches for a knife no longer kept under his pillow, and this is one of those times. As he listens cautiously, his left hand unconsciously curls into a fist that he presses against the bullet scar on his left thigh, kneading against the rough skin gently to try and ease out some of the bone-deep ache his little adventure with SHIELD vigilantes and Loki has left him with.
The hawk slides out from under the covers, careful not to jostle Natasha. His ex-partner has her own room, but between his nightmares and her nightmares and his frustration with his slow healing progress and her innate restlessness, they just find it easier at the end of the day to crawl into the big bed in Clint's room, back to back like they're in some shithole gutter like they've done a hundred times before, and fall asleep to the other's steady, reassuring presence.
Clint slips his jeans over his lean hips and fishes his handgun from the nightstand table by his side of the bed. Nat's got her own weaponry on her side: her bracers and knives are within easy reach. They might be effectively retired from active duty - at least for now - but the pair of assassins certainly don't let their guard down just because they aren't out hunting down baddies every single day.
Clint doesn't think his limp will ever quite go away despite Nat's quiet encouragement, or the ache in his right shoulder where his arrow tore coming back out. Some days when it's really bad he hurts everywhere; he grits his teeth and does the exercises his therapists taught him and tries not to show Natasha how much pain he's actually in because those are the days he doesn't know if he can do this and he doesn't want to worry her any more than she already does.
The hawk still manages to pad to the kitchen almost noiselessly, using a doorframe here and a table there for support. Clint hears the whine of familiar repulsors on the porch and immediately a grin breaks across his face; he unlocks and opens the front door just as Tony's lifting his hand to knock.
"S'up?" he asks casually, his smile widening at Tony's look of surprise.
"Nice reflexes, Feathers," Tony shoots back as he raises his eyebrow at the half-naked archer. "Am I interrupting something with the little lady?" he leers suggestively.
"Nope, Pepper already left," Clint retorts with a smirk and Tony chortles in that way he does when he's surprised someone's actually managed to outplay him.
"Don't let Romanoff hear you," Iron Man advises, "I'm getting too old to come rescue you again."
The still night air is raising goosebumps across his exposed flesh, but Clint enjoys the quiet calm of the desert night. "Please," he pshaws graciously, "You're barely a day over seventy. And as I've already told you a hundred times, I rescued you."
"Agree to disagree, birdbrain," Tony compromises sweetly without waiting for Clint to agree at all. "Are you going to leave me standing out here freezing my thrusters off or what?" he snarks in mock-irritation.
"Sorry," Clint mutters, not apologetic in the least as he hops back a little and gestures Tony to enter. Tony's sharp eyes dart around the large, clean kitchen of the ranch-style home: everything is simple and efficient - except for the crazy-expensive security system - like the people who inhabit this space. Without getting too mushy, Tony's glad these crazy kids to have found a little happiness somehow in their messed-up lives.
But right now they have work to do.
"I need a couple of highly skilled master assassins, and yours were the first names on Google," Tony proclaims, and Clint hopes that last part is a joke even as he decides to check: SHIELD isn't out scrubbing their identities any longer.
Hesitation crosses Clint's face but he resolutely hits the button to start the coffee maker, already primed for morning.
"I'll get Nat," he says.
Steve Rogers is waiting for them when they arrive at Stark's tower the next evening.
It was nice of Tony, Clint decides, to at least let them agree to help before telling them he already had a private plane waiting for them at the little county airport. He and Nat actually hadn't had to debate much at all: they'd adjusted to a temporarily private life with no small amount of trepidation and no clear idea of what they were doing, although Clint had to admit there's a certain amount of peace in their quiet routine.
The hawk's afraid, though, that it might be too quiet, too dull, for the fiery redhead who has never had a day of quiet domesticity in her life unless it was undercover. Clint can't help but wonder if the day is coming where the Black Widow will decide she just can't do quiet, so maybe a little time back in the field is what they need, and Clint's resolved to watch Natasha as carefully as possible in case she decides she's missed this life too much to leave it any longer and he needs to just let her go for her own sake.
But that's her decision, not his, and Clint simply and sadly steels himself to be ready for it if it comes.
Steve greets them with a smile and Clint's glad to see the soldier. His memories of the weeks post-rescue (his rescue, of Tony) are hazy and painful, but he does remember bits and pieces and he knows Steve was there for a lot of it. Natasha had told him that Cap and Tony'd had a falling out over SHIELD, but Tony greets Steve with a firm handshake and a guarded nod.
Steve inquires after Clint's health and Natasha's wellbeing, and Clint waves a hello to Bruce, but it's really, really difficult to look at the scientist with any semblance of dignity as soon as Clint thinks of the ass picture from Tony so he warbles a choked-sounding hello to Bruce that has a concerned Natasha asking him if he forgot his pain meds. Clint ducks his head in a "no" and promptly sits himself down to exaggeratedly scrutinize the briefing documents Steve's laid out so he doesn't have to look at Bruce.
Don't think green, Barton, don't think green…
"Go over the briefing again," Tony instructs Steve, and Steve, being the modest and unassuming Captain America, immediately starts off with an almost-apology.
"I'm here unofficially," he says, his blue eyes somber, "because I agree with Tony that this team works, and that's what we need right now."
Clint listens as Steve explains; he's rubbing his thigh absently, brow furrowing as Steve goes on. It turns out that the guy Fury was having trouble with several months back - some asshole calling himself Kane who's messing around with time displacement - is still at it, but now SHIELD has a lead because the guy's started targeting past SHIELD employees. Clearly he's looking for specific people since his victims don't appear to be as random now; Steve's discovered the most recently displaced men and women were all involved in the early stages of the Avengers Initiative. Apparently there's even speculation that this is what happened to Hill, that maybe she was one of the people pulled into the timeline instead of out like most of the others, but Steve doesn't bring this up until later because the second he utters Hill's name he gets shut down immediately by Natasha and the conversation is skillfully redirected before he even realizes what's happened.
Clint almost smiles at the five of them clustered around the coffee table in the commons. If Thor were here it'd actually be like an Avengers planning session as they stay up late into the night drinking Tony's expensive coffee and strategizing. Clint's eyelids are starting to feel heavy as the hours roll by and he's a little angry and embarrassed at the betrayal from his healing body, but Natasha, as ever, is in tune with him and gently suggests they call it a night. Tony stretches and yawns and proclaims loudly that that's a good idea and they can pick this up in the morning, but as Clint and Natasha head toward Nat's old rooms Clint notes that Tony, Steve, and Bruce are trading in Tony's expensive coffee for Tony's expensive alcohol, and that the tension hanging in the air at the start of the night has lessened considerably.
Tony watches Clint leave, clinging to Natasha unobtrusively to keep his tired feet moving. The inventor's proud of his friend; he's not ashamed to admit it. Clint has come a hell of a long way - and Tony didn't miss how the archer had studiously avoided looking at Banner all night; he knows that picture's to blame, the one he was going to save in case he ever needed to blackmail Bruce but seemed to have a much better home with Clint.
Tony allows his smile to fade as he settles a dark gaze on the solider sitting across from him; Steve's a curious mixture of relaxed and tense, and Tony gets the feeling he's waiting for the other shoe to drop.
He's happy to oblige.
"So, why are you still working for these guys after what they did?" Tony demands, tone steady and firm. "Do you remember what they did to Barton?"
"I remember." Steve returns Tony's glare with steely resolve and leans forward earnestly. "I remember what some of them did, and that what they did was wrong and should never happen again."
"And you think you can fix it?" Tony challenges. "You think you can make it better?"
"I know I can try," Steve says.
In the next week, Steve's "solid lead" turns into a sure thing and off they go, to a bunker in the middle of Wisconsin somewhere that Clint doesn't bother to remember the name of. He's thrilled that he's able to contribute in some small way to the Avengers' takedown of Kane, even if he's limited to scouting and directing. It's still something.
He tries to keep a straight face when he sets eyes on Kane, a struggling, blue-skinned humanoid wriggling in Iron Man's grip because Tony's ignoring the patented bad guy "I'll be back and you'll be sorry!" speech Kane is spitting out; Tony rolls his eyes and gives Kane a little shake in his iron grip like a wet dog.
"The Avengers are like Mounties!" Tony crows in satisfaction, clearly delighted at the cohesiveness with which their little team had functioned; he deserved to be proud. "We always get our man!"
Clint doesn't bother to point out that one, that's not actually the RCMP motto, and two, they're not actually Avengers any more - because it certainly feels like they are, and it feels damn good. Hell, he even helped on this mission, and that in itself is cause for celebration - which Nat promises him slyly as she saunters by that they will celebrate later on, even as she sighs pointedly at the hawk's amused but also proud declaration of "Hey, I wasn't useless!"
Now the cleanup starts, and Clint wonders what they hell they're going to do with all these people who don't belong in this timeline. Tony thinks he can fix the machines Kane used to mess with the timestream and subsequently destroyed when the Avengers stormed the bunker; given enough time, Tony thinks he and Bruce can put them all back where they're supposed to go, them and all the other displaced people SHIELD's been housing since this mess with Kane first started.
Steve's doing the Captain America thing and making sure people are okay; they've been clustered in this bunkers for days, weeks, months even, though apparently they've been provided food and water and only asked minimal questions so Clint's admittedly curious as to what Kane's plan actually was.
He'll find out eventually when Kane makes good on his threat to make them all regret their intrusion into his plan, but for now they're trying to account for everyone here. Cap and Bruce are checking one wing, Clint and Natasha are checking the other, and Tony's hanging on to Kane til Fury himself shows up.
Clint finds himself really wishing he had his cane, his bow, something to lean on even though he hasn't really used either in awhile. Nat grabs his arm and he's grateful for the support, but something about the quiet quality of her voice tells him something's off.
"Clint," she says softly, gestures with her chin to a spot over his shoulder, the next room to check once he clears this one. People are spilling out of various doors, chattering excitedly, pressing for information; there's a lot of noise and motion and the hawk's feeling a little unsteady even before he turns and follow's Natasha's gaze. Clint freezes, feels the blood drain from his face in a wash that leaves him weak at the knees.
"Whoah, easy there, Barton," says a familiar voice laced with amusement. A reassuringly strong hand latches onto his bicep as he stumbles, and Clint finds himself bumping gracelessly into the man who'd come up behind him.
An achingly familiar, smiling man in an immaculate three-piece suit.
Now. This could be the end. It absolutely could be and was supposed to be. But then I asked readers for their thoughts on some synops for fics that are rattling around my brain (The Screams All Sound the Same garnered the most votes, check it out if you're interested in some angsty Clint and Natasha action!) and discordchick noted that one of the synops could make a sequel to Slipping. And it's true! The question is, then, does anyone even want a sequel to this story? Because here's the synop:
My Kingdom Come
"I think I've made my terms quite clear. Deliver Agent Barton to me or the others die." The demigod smiles fondly. "I find that I miss my feisty little hawk."
Teamfic, slightly angsty but also BAMF!Clint and twisted!Loki.
And I've added Coulson, Protective!Tony and PissedOff!Natasha XD
Soooooooooo … you guys tell me. Yes? No? I'm working on Screams right now so it'll be a little while before I'd start posting it, but that gives you plenty of time to decide. ;)
Thanks again for reading! If you have a minute, please please drop me a note or review and let me know if you've enjoyed this fic! It totally brightens my day and inspires the Muse for future fic. :D