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A Step to the Left

Chapter Text

“I spy with my little eye-”

“The gray thread the guard picked off his cuff last walk through,” Barton answered, sounding bored enough that he just might be talking in his sleep. Scott smacked his hand against a bar on his cell in frustration.

“Seriously! You’re not even looking, man,” he groaned and pushed away to try and pace, which did nothing but amp up his agitation since there was no room in this fucking white box. He went back to the front of his box and glared at Barton across the way. The guy was still in a freestanding handstand in the middle of his cell, where he’d been for at least an hour. With his eyes closed. “You could at least pretend to be interested in the game.” Scott absolutely did not whine, noting that at least Barton’s arms were shaking, his face was red from the inversion, and he was sweating.

“You can at least pretend to be less predictable,” Barton answered with the dry tone he’d apparently adopted for the day. Scott pressed his lips together in an effort to prevent saying some pretty rude things to the asshole.

“How the hell did you even spot the thread? It’s in front of Wanda’s cell and, as she’s beside you, there’s no way you can see it.”

“I see everything,” Barton disagreed. Scott looked to Wanda, who glanced up from where she was huddled on her bed just in time to catch his eye. She had a knack for knowing exactly when to look up, which was creepy, but he’d take that weirdness over the active avoidance she’d engaged in almost exclusively their first week here. The worst had been right after Stark’s visit.

Now, she seemed amused. It was a muted look; even he could tell this despite only knowing her for about two hours before the power-sucking collar was slapped around her neck. Muted or not it was always a pleasure to see. Except…he narrowed his eyes suspiciously at her, and then looked at the wall to his left where he just knew Sam was looking all smug on the other side.

Scott turned his glare back on Barton, who was still shaking in his stance, but holding. He must be tired; it generally took a lot longer for the shakes to kick in. “You set me up,” he claimed, playing up his outrage just a bit and pretending he didn’t notice the momentary curl to Wanda’s lips. “What the hell? Sam, you are literally on my side here, metaphorically and physically. Is it too much to ask for a little solidarity?”

“Is it too much to ask for a little peace and quiet?” Sam’s sarcasm was heavy. After so many days of being holed up together Scott liked to think he had a pretty good read on the guy’s voice, even though he sometimes wished he had a better memory of his face. Sam was amused.

“I’m surrounded by liars and cheats,” Scott scoffed, throwing his hands up for dramatic effect because why the hell not? It’s not like there was anything else to entertain them in this fish tank of a prison.

“I didn’t realize they’d put that many mirrors up in your suite.” Barton’s raspy voice carried over, humour clear. Then the asshole began to do very slow dips while still in his handstand, lowering himself until his hair skimmed the ground and straightening his arms once more. Such an exhibitionist. Still, they’d all been exercising daily since they’d been shoved in these cells and Scott couldn’t recall Clint ever labouring this hard after only an hour. Sam had asked if he was sick after hearing his voice, but Barton apparently hadn’t heard him the three times he’d been asked. Still, guy was a show off, sick or not.

“I didn’t realize your face-” Scott’s amazingly witty retort was cut off as the doors to their contained cellblock slid open. A faint hydraulic hiss reached his ears and Scott moved to the right side of his cell and practically collapsed on his bolted down cot. It was the best vantage point to watch people enter their block and he’d never cared to stand at attention unless he wanted to. Generally it was a pair of guards arriving on their hourly walk through. Scott literally set his clock to them, seeing as he wasn’t allowed a watch. He could argue that having at least three guys on the other side of the wall watching them on live surveillance, at all times, made the walk-through overkill, but they broke up the monotony.

Sometimes it was the Warden stepping in to observe them, like an evil overlord surveying his prize possessions. He typically didn’t stay long, just came in to glare at them all self-importantly. Scott couldn’t decide if it was Wanda’s blank stare or Clint’s piercing glare that generally chased the guy out after only a minute. Frankly Scott knew his own glare kind of lacked that murderous edge the archer had and while Sam could look badass when angry he kind of just lacked the…inherently lethal vibe…or whatever.

This time, though, he watched as the Almighty Secretary of the State Ross himself walked through the doors. He was broad shouldered and oozed authority. Scott slouched a little further on his uncomfortable cot as he watched the man strut into the room; self-importance and pride clear in every step. He stopped in their four cells while three guards armed with stun batons spread out to the corners, like this would be the moment one of them made a break for it after almost three weeks of imprisonment. Scott looked to share an unimpressed look with Clint, but the guy was still doing his handstand exercises.

Ross set his focus on Sam first, his unnervingly cold eyes assessing him, before he shifted his hard stare to Scott. Scott had a lot of practice being stared at through bars, though these ones a bit less dingy and a lot more difficult to break free from than normal. He was just getting his own glare on when Ross turned his back on Scott and set his cold gaze on Wanda; Wanda who was collared, her hair limp and eyes dull from the drain of being contained down to her core.

Scott’s entire body tensed and he readied himself to slap the bars to try and divert the mans attention when Clint abruptly rolled out of his handstand and pulled to his feet at the front of his cell. The movement was effortless and he stayed exactly where he stood, still silent, and watching Ross. After what felt like a really pointed moment, Ross’s assessing stare turned away from Wanda and on to Clint.

Scott narrowed his eyes as Ross took a few steps to stand before the archer. Clint regarded Ross with such blatant contempt it almost made Scott feel defensive. Shit, he had never seen Barton pull out that look before. Not even when Stark came by, and they all knew how Clint felt about him at the moment.

“See something you like,” the archer asked, voice dry as the desert, sweaty patches saturating his shirt. He narrowed his slightly bruised and tired eyes at Ross.

“The infamous Hawkeye,” Ross said and Scott tensed right up. The one time this guy had stopped by for a visit, only an hour after Tony had left them here, he hadn’t spoken a word; just watched as they’d been transferred from the general cellblock to this more privatized version. Ross and Clint had had a bit of a stare down then, but as far as Scott knew nothing had come of it. “Rumour had it you’d retired before finding your way here.”

“Even retirees need vacations,” Clint said coolly.

“You’re awfully young to retire,” Ross tilted his head in assessment and Scott kind of wished he could see the guys face to get a read on him. “Barely a day over thirty and running off to become a farmer.” Ross waited for a reaction but Barton just stared with cold focus. “I have to say, I’d find it a bit more believable if you had a family to run to, maybe a dog or even a girlfriend. But you don’t, which makes me curious about how you spent your retirement…” he trailed off, false curiosity dripping from his tone.

“I like tractors.” Clint said plainly.

“What a delight,” Ross stretched the last word out, and turned to leave. He stopped after two steps and looked over his shoulder at Clint, his salt and pepper hair the one thing Scott could make out clearly. “Get some rest Mr. Barton, you’re looking a little tired.”

Clint grinned suddenly, wide and disconcertingly friendly.

“Could use an extra pillow” he hedged.

“I’ll see what can be arranged,” Ross sounded like he meant it too, and if Barton got an extra pillow out of this Scott was going to be so pissed. As soon as the doors closed after the last of the guards Scott was on his feet and at the front of the cell, slipping his arms through the bars for a better lean.

“What was that?” he asked, not bothering to lower his voice as he was pretty sure the audio recordings on this place could pick up a whisper.

“A pain in the ass,” Barton said as he began stretching his arms.

“Almost sounds like you two have a history,” Sam’s voice carried from beside Scott and Clint seemed unconcerned as he shrugged.

“Never met him before this thing with the Accords.” Clint rolled his shoulders a few times, and then he lay down on his bunk. That was as good as a conversation-door closing in the faces, because after three weeks here they all knew that when the archer lay down he stopped talking altogether.

“Pull the other one,” Scott muttered, and looked over to find Wanda had also curled up on her cot. “Hey Sam, Prime-not-prime?”

“You want to play another game you can’t win?” Sam asked, and it was on.

When the guards came by a little later to begin their daily “yard walk,” which was a fancy way of saying they took them one at a time for a thirty minute visit to a slightly larger room so they could walk in larger circles, Scott went first. Three guards flanked him, which was kind of flattering he guessed, except that Sam got four and Barton typically got around five or six. Wanda was never taken on these excursions, and since Scott overheard some muttering about special treatment he figured this kind of exercise was not standard procedure in this place. Yay for being special. Apparently now being an Avenger meant he got all the perks.

He spent his time basically sprinting back and forth, trying to stretch his legs and put a burn into them. When he was escorted back to his cell, still panting a bit, it was to find both Barton and Sam’s cells empty. This was new, because they’d only ever gone one at a time before. He frowned and looked at Wanda, who was sitting close to the front of her cell and watching him. He raised an eyebrow in question and she shrugged in response. She hadn’t said a word since they’d put the collar on her.

His internal clock said fifteen minutes had passed when they marched Sam back. He seemed fine as he and Scott did their traditional once over for the few seconds a day they could see each other. It was another half hour before Barton was brought back, two guards in front and three behind. His hands were locked in the serious-overkill cuffs: two-inch wide bands that locked hands in a cross at the wrist. Scott hadn’t seen the restraints in use since their first three days here. Barton sauntered into his cell and obediently waited for the door to close before he turned and stuck his arms through the horizontal bars. The bindings were quickly removed with a beep and a click.

Sam was on his feet, pressing up to the bars so he could see better; Scott could hear his efforts.

“What happened?” Sam asked in the quiet way he had. Barton looked out at Sam, his eyebrows raised in slight amusement.

“I went for a walk. Was yours more interesting than mine?” Scott didn’t know Barton all that well, even after all this time locked up together the guy didn’t let anything slip he wasn’t okay with sharing, so by tone and posture he couldn’t tell what was off in that statement. He just knew something wasn’t right.

“You were gone a long time,” Sam said, all casual and easy going and Barton smirked and pulled away from where he’d still been resting against the bars.

“Extra time for good behaviour,” the guy said and then walked the three steps to his cot. His movement was wrong. He was too stiff, his steps were a bit too short, and when he sat he did so smoothly and without any sign of pain, but he also did it slowly.

Shit. Scott had seriously hoped that being locked up in such a crazy, tightly run prison would be the only issue they’d have to deal with. Barton was moving like a man trying to hide the fact that he’d maybe had the shit kicked out of him.

“How bad is it?” Sam asked, and Barton cut him a quick, dismissive look.

“I’ve never had an issue with a bit more exercise,” Clint said, and lay down on his back, swinging his legs onto his cot in one swift, efficient move. He made a show of getting comfortable before going still.

“Don’t think I didn’t see the bruises around your wrists Clint. What happened?” Sam asked again, voice deeper than usual, most likely because he was feeling the same concern and anger that was coiling in Scott’s own chest. And worry. Let’s not ignore that.

“Clint?” Sam asked after a stretch of silence, but Clint didn’t shift from his place on the cot, and he didn’t answer. Shit. Scott sat down on his own cot and basically failed at not worrying about what this new turn of events meant.

+

When Scott was taken for his next round of exercise he was tense and ready. He waited for a surprise hit, or an unearned shock from the batons. He kept waiting throughout his sprinting routine and march back to his box, but they didn’t lay a hand on him unless they were working his restraints. When he was back in his cell he turned and looked first to Wanda, who seemed fine, and then to Clint, who had been taken first today. Instead of finding the guy doing a thousand burpies or one armed push-ups like usual, he found him on his side on his cot, almost curled up.

“Clint?” he asked softly, trying not to sound too alarmed. Clint was apparently not interested though, as he waved off Scott’s concern.

“Clint, what’s going on?” He tried again, but apparently the wave was all they were going to get from him right now.

Across the way Wanda’s eyes darkened, her hands clenched, and they all spent a quiet evening hating the fact that at this point there was nothing they could do.

+

Every breath he sucked in, deep and panting, made his mouth ache with dryness. It burned down his throat and sat heavy in his chest as he rolled his head from side to side. His head felt heavy, so heavy, it was hard to pick up, hard to see. He forced his mouth closed, forced his eyes open. He couldn’t be blind, he needed to know who was there.

“Wha-” his tongue was gummy, he swallowed, tried to lick his lips. There were people around him, surrounding him, tall and looming. He jerked back and didn’t get anywhere.

“Relax,” someone, a deep voiced male, said. He tried to lean away again, his wrists caught, his body hurting in so many places, he yanked at the restraints, feeling metal dig thickly into skin… “You’re okay, hey?” a large hand grabbed his jaw, forcing his head up and he got his eyes open all the way now, seeing a face way too close; square jawed, gray moustache, cold eyes.

“Fuck you” he snarled, because it felt like the right thing to do, and twisted his head sharply out his grasp. Pain radiated up his neck, into his head, making him dizzy. “Get away from me,” his words were slurring and his focus was swimming. “Get ‘way.” But the pain was too much and his awareness fled.

+

The following day Clint was silent in his cell. He sat on the floor in the back corner, arms around his knees, and apparently spent the time breathing calmly. Scott couldn’t see him properly at that angle, so he only knew what Sam told him. Apparently the archer was not interested in speaking, which wasn’t unusual but wasn’t usually this…all-consuming quiet. When they took him to wherever the hell they went with him now, because it was definitely not to the yard, he was gone for over an hour. When he came back the look he gave Scott before he was turned into his cell was…it wasn’t right. It was cold and assessing, and unfamiliar. Clint didn’t speak a word to them the entire evening, ignored every single demand to answer their questions, and sat back in the corner so that only Sam could see him completely. All Scott got were his feet.

It was, frankly, fucking unnerving.

Whatever was happening to him, it was not good and it was getting worse.

Fuck Stark for putting them in this position. This was bullshit. This was such utter bullshit, and all Scott could do was pace and talk, talk and pace, while across the way Barton shut them out and Wanda watched Scott and Sam with eyes that grew more hollow every day.

+

Chapter Text

“I think they’re taking him at night,” Sam said, his voice almost too quiet for Scott to hear from where he was pressed up against the cold wall of his cell and the bars. He knew Sam was pressed up similarly just on the other side of the cold metal that separated them. Across the way Clint slept on the cot, still and curled in on his side, his back to the wall and feet to the bars. He hadn’t awoken for breakfast and the guards hadn’t cared to push it.

“Yeah,” Scott agreed because it explained the dark circles under Clint’s eyes. Three nights had passed since Secretary Ross had graced them with his presence, and Clint was looking too worn down to only be disappearing for an hour during the day. It was only speculation, since Clint wasn’t telling them a damn thing the tight-lipped bastard. The rest of them didn’t have a chance to overhear the proceedings, as they were all provided with an atmospheric sleeping aid every night after dinner: “to ensure that they remained calm and received the quality rest prescribed every night,” as their Warden had politely explained when they’d first arrived.

“We need to get him out of here,” Sam said with all the conviction of a man very determined to wreck something. Across the way Wanda looked away from them.

They needed to get both of them out of here.

+

The mattress he was lying on was just thick enough to protect him from the metal bench’s chill. It might actually not be so bad to sleep on, if you were in decent condition.

He was not in decent condition.

That was the first thing he’d recognized when he’d woken up earlier, in that room bent face first over a table with his hands strapped down. He’d burned with the tenderness of bruising, his chest and back ached with some focused sharp points and his ribs pulled with each breath, but he knew they weren’t fractured.

He knew his ribs weren’t fractured, he knew all his injuries were superficial, designed to hurt and instil fear but not damage irreparably. They were beginning first stage interrogation tactics based on the location and vulnerable position he’d awoken in. He’d known all this as a fact the moment he’d regained awareness.

The problem was he didn’t know his own name. The problem was that he had absolutely no idea who he was, where he was, or what the fuck he was doing here and that was not okay. That was so beyond okay. That was fucked up and not good and the moment he’d realized this he did the only reasonable thing and launched right into survival mode: Evaluate, keep your mouth shut, and get out. Every person from that moment on was a potential enemy, a potential plant, and a plausible threat. The only one he could trust was himself and freaking out would not help. That knowledge settled in his chest like an old friend, familiar and heavy and, at the moment, the only thing he had. When he was safe, because he sure as fuck wasn’t safe here, he would regroup and get answers. That was the plan. It was a good plan.

Okay, so maybe he panicked a little bit outwardly. They’d dragged him off the metal table when he’d still been trying to get his bearings. He’d reacted strongly to the treatment, managing to rip his arm away from one guard and drive a knuckle strike into his throat. It was a good hit, but his limbs had been thick, slow, weak, and his attack ended with just a partial tracheal collapse, not a complete one. His vision had blurred white from the effort, his hearing muffled, and there was another guard trapping his wrists in monster handcuffs in seconds. Advanced Fore-cuff Model 2a Restraints specifically. They were designed for meta-strength containment but lacked the imbedded electric shock or tranquilizer upgrades for heavy hitters. How the hell did he know that and not his own name?

They’d stuck him in a chair, they’d used their shock sticks while he grit his teeth and kept his words inside. He memorized faces in a glance, catalogued the way they moved and the hierarchy in the room. Mr. Moustache wanted to know about someone very specific (he was the top dog in this place; retired military now holding a governmental position; likes his power trips. His questions are too personal, too driven; he is a man of habits and ego). Moustache had one very clear target in mind, and said this name again and again and again. Hearing it from this guy made something behind his eyes burn, like onion juice in his nerves. It hurt, it marked.

“Tell me where he is, Barton,” Moustache pressed close, his breath stank like sour cigars (there had been a speck of white ash on his shirt: quality brand smokes) and he ignored the demand and honed in on the name. His name must be Barton. Or they thought his name was Barton. The questions were rushed, fast and loud in his face, the pressure intense, and the demands felt like they were drilling beneath his skin, a weight locking deep within himself. They’d stuck a needle in him at some point. The bruising progression on his skin suggested they’d also worked him over within 10 hours. He couldn’t remember.

His name might be Barton.

The name seemed more plausible when the two guys in his cellblock had called him that when the guards had walked him there earlier. The redheaded girl had said nothing upon his arrival, just watched him with pained, desolate eyes as he’d been marched in. He could see the anger simmering within her, within all of them. They made him uneasy. Their scrutiny made him want more distance. He turned his back to them as soon as his restraints were removed through his cage bars, and he lay down on his cot. He made it a smooth motion, not letting on about his injuries. The idea of showing vulnerability was so appalling that when he lay still, let his muscles rest, he almost convinced himself he wasn’t hurt. He thought that might be messed up. Yeah, he was pretty sure he was messed up, and the fact that he wasn’t freaking out made him worry. It couldn’t be a normal reaction.

He was calm though, and on the cusp of hyper vigilance. He knew he needed to tone it down or he’d burn himself out too quickly. He needed to recover from whatever they’d done to him, and lying here on this cold, hard cot, was not providing any answers.

“Barton, tell us what happened man,” the man directly across from him demanded for what must be the fiftieth time. He stood about five feet eleven inches; was of African-American descent; very athletic; combat experienced; current military or recently discharged; well-balanced: special operations soldier. He was not to be underestimated. Barton didn’t answer his questions, and was almost amused by the frustration that had begun to creep into his otherwise very patient voice.

“Seriously man, we know something isn’t right. We can’t help if we don’t know what’s going on,” the other one, (Caucasian descent; five feet ten inches; athletic; graceful; recent combat training; currently favouring his right knee but not enough to hinder in a fight; no military history) sounded irritated and concerned.

Barton didn’t by it. They could be in on whatever the hell this was.

The woman said nothing. There was something different about her. The collar was an inhibitor, and while her hair had obstructed his quick glance earlier, he could still tell it was either class one or two. She was definitely dangerous. He would be sure to stay clear.

“This isn’t right-” military man started up again. Barton raised his arms and tucked his fingers beneath his head and pressed his palms over his ears just enough to muffle their words. He shut as many of the noises out as possible and tried to put facts together. The headache pounding behind his eyes wasn’t helping.

His captors hadn’t bothered to block his vision as they’d walked him through the prison. There had been an actual floor map by an elevator door. It had been over ten feet away but a glimpse was all he’d needed. Was it sloppy security or overconfidence? Why was there a map in the first place? Were they walking him through sections not meant for prisoner transport?

With his eyes closed he pictured the floor plan he’d seen, and complicated blueprints began to emerge in his mind, clear and easy to follow. He had a feeling of warmth as he recalled them, as well as amusement that felt very out of place right now. Apparently he was familiar with the security tech of this place though; he understood the architecture as well. Crawl-ducts, stairwells, floors, and emergency hatch access points were tidy thin blue lines that looked flat and felt 3D in his mind. He had the distinct impression that they were underwater.

“Come on Barton,” the man across from his cell, voice muffled now but still loud enough to get his attention again for a moment. He wondered about him and felt uneasy. They seemed to think they knew something about him, they seemed concerned…but about him or about being the next ones strapped over a table? His skin crawled and chest tightened. They could all be plants, tricks, and enemies.

What if they weren’t?

Was he always this paranoid? Considering where he was right now suspicion was probably his safest bet.

He took deep breaths. Calm. He would remain calm. It was okay that he somehow had a basic working knowledge of this facility. It was okay he could call upon that knowledge as easy as breathing when he didn’t know his own hair colour. He would figure out the mundane shit later, for now he could afford one priority: get out, get safe. Okay, so maybe two priorities, but they kind of went hand-in-hand. He figured that was a pretty decent place to start.

+

Sam was not impressed with Barton’s cold glare or stubborn silence when he’d been delivered back to his cell. He was even less impressed when the guards came back for Clint what felt like an unreasonably short amount of time later.

“Hey,” he pushed to his feet and was at his own cells bars the moment the five men stopped in front of Clint. Clint stood slowly, rolled his shoulders, and stared at them. The guard in front wordlessly held out the thick cuffs, his intent clear. Clint didn’t seem inclined to follow instruction. “What, are they paying you guys overtime or something? You already took him out today.” Sam growled.

Apparently his words acted as a catalyst though, because of course Barton then stuck his arms out and allowed himself to be restrained.

“What the fuck!” Sam demanded as they collectively acted like marching the stony-faced archer away for the second time in the same day was standard operating procedure. Clint gave him one blank look as he was led away. There was nothing familiar in the gaze. Sam was not having it and he was done with being polite.

He started yelling every threat that came easily to his lips, and he had a lot of them saved up from these last few weeks. “This is fucked-up,” he snarled, because it was. He felt useless locked away like a misbehaving pet while his teammate had very clearly been damaged, and was potentially being hurt every minute he wasn’t in his cell: his cell with security cameras and witnesses and was apparently the only place Sam could get an honest read on what was happening to him.

“This is some shady shit,” he muttered, stomping back and forth, doing his best to ignore the ever-present anxiety that squeezed his chest from being caged. Sam had the very distinct feeling that something was definitely not right with Clint, hadn’t been for a few days but even more so since they’d brought him back the night before. Whatever had changed it was pinging all Sam’s instincts, but no matter what he’d tried over the last few hours to get Barton to even acknowledge him had fallen flat. It didn’t help that he hadn’t been able to keep on him for answers the night before, because these assholes gassed them into sleep whether they wanted it or not. Barton could be a dick, but he’d never turned such a cold shoulder on them like this, especially not in here. In here the guy was a loud distraction as often as he could be, mostly for Wanda but also because he apparently just liked to talk. Or sing. Or tell jokes so terrible they were more like horror stories.

“Bring him back here right the fuck now!” Sam yelled upwards, glaring at the small camera imbedded in the ceiling of his cell. There was no such thing as privacy in a super-supermax. The door to their wing slid open a moment later and he was on his feet, pressing to the front of his cell, noting Wanda was on her feet as well. It wasn’t Clint who came through with his security entourage and new bruises he was trying to pretend didn’t exist.

It was the familiar figure of the Warden. He was followed by four guards who stationed themselves throughout the room in standard protective detail while the stiff backed, suit clad man stopped in the middle of the space and turned his irritated gaze on Sam.

“What seems to be the problem Mr. Wilson,” he asked primly, like speaking to Sam put a bad taste in his mouth. He’d been by to visit every five days, like clockwork, and it was very clear every time the stopped by that he had nothing but contempt for them. It had been easily returned.

“Bring Barton back here.” Sam demanded as dangerously as he could manage from his cell. “Now.”

“Mr. Barton is currently engaging in his daily exercise rotation and he will remain there for his allotted time.”

“Exercise my ass,” Sam basically growled as he glared at the man. “You’re hurting him, and for what? Information? It won’t-”

“We are most certainly not hurting him,” the Warden snapped, his eyes flashing in irritation and Sam straightened his back. “This facility is for containment only. Interrogation is not sanctioned nor would I condone it without clear authority from my superiors. He is participating in his daily exercise, nothing more Mr. Wilson. I’d thank you to calm your yourself and not waste my time,” he finished, and stepped to leave.

“You’re kidding yourself if you believe that,” Scott mocked from where Sam couldn’t see, and his tone was pitched with just the right amount of condescension to draw the Warden’s attention back instead of chasing him out. The man did an about face and set a chilling look towards Scott.

“I do not kid, Mr. Lang. Mr. Barton is completely fine.”

“You’ve been entertaining Secretary Ross the last few days, right?” Sam said, recapturing his attention. “You sure he’s not going around your security measures?” He could tell instantly that he’d hit some kind of mark as the Warden stiffened imperceptibly and his already cool gaze chilled a few more degrees.

“He wants something from Barton,” Scott added.

“Is he the kind of man who would disregard protocol to get what he wants?” Sam finished. There was a beat of silence as the Warden looked between them, not acknowledging Wanda’s dark stare.

“Secretary Ross is an honourable man. I assure you all, your…associate is fine. I run a tight ship; there is no room for protocol breach or prisoner injury. You may be criminals, but while you are here you will have nothing to fear. I will not hear anymore of this. Good day.”

“Don’t be blind, Warden,” Scott called after him, anger and frustration clear as the man stormed out of the room, his guard following with their standard blank faces. “This is such bullshit.” Scott slammed his hand against the horizontal bars, the smack easily heard throughout their small block. “Just once I’d like to be locked up in a place that actually practices what they preach.”

There was a lot Sam could say in response to that, but he was derailed as the lights flickered throughout their cellblock. He looked up at the ceiling reflexively. He couldn’t recall that ever happening before.

“Huh,” Scott said, and then Sam felt a little weird, a light tug in his belly. It felt like he was in a moving elevator. They hadn’t experienced the sensation much since they’d been moved in here, but it was unmistakable. “We’re surfacing,” Scott said, unnecessarily as the three of them could all feel it, and he went quiet. Wanda pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them, her hands shaking slightly.

Shit. This could mean two things: someone was coming by for a visit, or Ross was leaving. Barton wasn’t back yet, and if Ross were leaving would he take him along? The uncertainty and the inability to do anything about it made Sam want to beat the shit out of something. Or someone, he wasn’t picky after so many weeks of inaction.

It wasn’t even a minute later when the doors that separated their block from the outside control room hissed open. A guard came flying through, backwards, uncontrolled and definitely unexpected. He hit the ground with a hard smack, the back of his head connecting to the metal flooring and he writhed there a moment, arms coming up around his head for belated protection.

“What the hell?” Scott yelped and Sam looked over to the still open door. He couldn’t see much beyond it; the angle was set up to limit visibility, but what he could see were a bunch of fast moving shadows, chased with the unmistakable sound effects of a fight. A very violent fight.

A flash of light sparked somewhere in the mass of bodies.

“Arggghhhhhhh” a staccato scream erupted, the pattern familiar from whenever Natasha used her widow-bite. Something pinged, metal off of metal, and the guard on the floor in front of them managed to stagger back to his feet. He stumbled through the door and out of sight. He came tripping back into view barely a moment later, twisting as he fell heavily to the ground where he remained, groaning. Another guard fell halfway out the door, landing with one arm trapped beneath him, and he did not get back up.

“Take him out!” Someone demanded, panic unmistakable. “Stop hi-” he cut off sharply and there was a dull thump of a body falling, and then Clint was backing hastily through the door as a guard swung a heavy baton at his head. Clint’s arms were still cuffed, wrists crossed over each other, the metal covering half his forearms and most of his palms, but it didn’t seem to restrict his ability to strike upwards and deflect the attack. Without missing a beat he stepped into the guard, driving a double fisted uppercut to his chin. He pulled it at the last moment, stunning the man instead of a knock out, and he twisted him so he tripped over the guys on the floor to land hard on his back. Clint followed him right down, somehow pinning the guard’s hands beneath his knees and holding the tip of the baton very close to the guy’s temple.

The guard froze, eyes wide and chest heaving as he fought to catch his breath.

“Do you know what happens when your brain is hit with a shock from one of these?” Barton asked, his voice hoarse but quiet and Sam realized that the baton also carried an electric charge. It was hard to miss when Barton triggered it for a fraction of a second in demonstration, the blue-white light and electric sizzle at its tip was loud in the room.

The guard glared and bared his teeth, but his eyes flicked to the baton held just within his line of sight.

“Seizures, concussion, loss of consciousness,” Barton listed with little inflection, his body rock still as he leaned over the guy. “I know these pack more than 900,000volts, so I’m also thinking you’ll need to worry about aneurism, brain damage, potential permanent cognitive and motor function disabilities.” He finished. The guard had stopped glaring and swallowed. His breathing hadn’t slowed. “Undo the cuffs.”

“I don’t have the-”

“Undo the cuffs,” Barton interrupted softly, “Or I will find someone who will after you no longer have the ability to give two-shits about it.”

Jesus, Sam thought. He was having trouble recalling Barton ever being this intense. It was…disturbing.

“Okay,” the guy croaked and then he carefully raised his hand to the small digital pad on the surface, let his fingerprint be scanned, and punched in the code. The familiar click sounded, and the cuffs fell from Barton’s wrists and smacked the guard in the chest. The guard barely had a moment to react before Barton cracked him across the face with the uncharged baton and knocked him out.

“Hooolllllllyyy shit,” Scott said, clearly as stunned by the turn of events as Sam was. It had barely been a minute. Barton looked at him sharply, his eyes shuttered, his demeanour icy. “Are we breaking out?”

Barton blinked at the question, his expression unchanging for a long moment, and then he stood and ran from the room.

“Barton?!” Sam called after him, wanting some answers because what the fuck? He figured the guy had gone to unlock their cell doors so he bit back his demand for an explanation, knowing it could wait.

Barton didn’t come back.

Sam looked at Wanda, who hadn’t moved from her hunched position on the cot the entire fight.

Barton didn’t come back, but not too much later Steve did.

Chapter Text

Finally free of the cuffs Barton left the cells with one goal in mind: get the hell out of there. He grabbed the security cards for the doors off three separate guards, grabbed a gun that carried actual bullets to supplement the baton he’d liberated, and he slipped out of the control room into the gray hallway.

“Barton!” one of the men back in the cellblock yelled, and he ignored it. He pressed the shimmer of guilt back down deep as well. He didn’t have time to deal with it.

The structure was still rising. He’d felt it the moment it began and, based on the reactions of the guards (a moment he had taken full advantage of), it was not a scheduled ascent. He didn’t know what it meant that they had been surprised, he just knew that he had to move now because he might not get another opportunity.

In the hall he found another guard, which he disarmed with ease now that his hands were free. With a twist and shove he put the guy in front of him and dug his weapon into his neck once, to make sure the guy understood that he was in charge.

“Move,” he growled, his throat scratchy, “to the landing pad.” The guard did as he was told, cautious, and it wasn’t difficult to figure out the right way to go. The thought that maybe he deserved to be in this place, maybe he shouldn’t leave, never crossed his mind. The second door they stopped at, one leading to a metal stairwell Barton had every intention of going up, the guard again balked at unlocking it. This was a problem and Barton was losing patience and time.

“I could just take your finger and leave you behind,” he snarled, not caring for the idea but knowing that, if it were necessary, he’d do it. Apparently the guard believed him because his hesitations stopped.

It didn’t take long before they approached a set of doors that opened to what he was certain was a hangar. He began to march the guard towards it when his sharp eyes caught a flicker of movement at the tiny window. He quickly shoved the guard behind a door that was just to their right. It was an empty closet, which was convenient as he pressed the guard face first against the wall and softly closed the door.

“Not a word,” he whispered and pressed his weapon warningly into his hostage’s neck to remind him why he shouldn’t argue. They’d gotten out of sight just in time as a moment later three people, who moved swift and silent, passed by, their shadows nearly unnoticeable at the base of the door. He made no move to sneak a peak once they’d passed, not willing to blow his cover by getting a glimpse of them. He waited a few tense moments, the guards breathing sounded unnecessarily harsh in the silence, and then he pushed the guy back into the hall and to the hangar doors.

“Open,” he ordered softly, and watched as the man quickly did as asked. The moment the door clicked open he knocked the guy out with the butt of the gun and supported his slump to the floor. The guy wasn’t light and the move pulled at his aching ribs; hell his whole body wasn’t fond of the movement. He should have let the guy fall, but he barely looked a day over twenty and probably didn’t deserve the rough treatment in the first place...Barton just had to keep moving.

Stepping outside felt like being slapped in the face; the air was cool, fresh, salty and sweet, and nothing like the recycled stuff pushed around inside the metal walls. He ignored it in favour of pressing his back to the wall beside the door, and looked searchingly through a large area that was roughly the size of a baseball field. He didn’t see anybody, guards or deck hands, moving about. The whole scene was weird. It looked like a lid had been lifted from a jar he was sitting at the bottom of: walls surrounded him, tall and strangely muffling, and above a wide-open sky of heavy gray clouds stretched with the swollen threat of rain. Water dripped heavily from the openings lip two stories above, indicating that the doors hadn’t been open long, and it soaked him as he ran out from the shelter of the giant metal outcropping that rimmed the entire structure. There was a Bell UH-1Y chopper parked fairly close to him, the rotor still spinning slowly. It must be the one the three people that had passed him came in on. The Huey was clearly military standard, max speed 170 KIAS with a 119 nautical mile combat radius and ten-person capacity. He could fly it, but he hesitated and looked to his right.

Another chopper. He switched direction on a dime and ran towards it instead, taking in the details. It was a Sword MT-9. Or it had been. He couldn’t see any visible weaponry, but he spotted a drop tank that wasn’t standard. Max speed 175 KIAS, 310 nautical mile linear flight distance, six-person capacity. With the drop tank he’d maybe be able to double the distance. This model, like the Bell-47, did not require keys for ignition; not the smartest choice for parking at a prison, but he wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth.

He could, apparently, also fly this.

Coming upon it he fluidly slid beneath the vehicles black underside and easily located the small, sealed compartment he wanted. The damp floor was hard and cold beneath him as he crunched up slightly to reach it’s belly. He pulled out the fork he’d liberated from the lunch a guard had been eating when he’d gone on the offensive. He jimmied the prongs between the metals thin gap, hit the end with the handle of his gun to squeeze it between the panels, and popped the metal casing off. He reached into the cavity, sneaking fingers around the coloured wires that filled it, and ripped out the rectangular transponder with a sharp tug. He dropped the small box and its connection wire on the floor as he slid out from beneath the aircraft and pushed to his feet. He swung its door open and practically leapt into the pilot seat. A quick scan told him he was familiar with the panels, which was heavy relief. He placed the gun in his lap for easy access and began flipping switches while checking that the most important systems were functioning. There was no time for a proper pre-flight check.

Fuel: both tanks full, throttles closed. He pressed the start button as he dragged the headphones over his ears. The chopper purred to life and he rolled the throttle to ramp up the engine rpm to 1350. He waited a tense moment, eyes scanning all around to spot potential complications but nobody showed up to stop him. He increased the throttle to 1500rpm, checked that the cyclic and collective sticks were functional, situated his feet on the rudder pedals, increased the throttle a final time and finally, finally, lifted the chopper to hover a few feet off the ground. He dipped the nose to move forward so he was clear of the overhead ledge, and smoothly lifted into the sky. He cleared the near black edges of the structure in seconds.

Holy shit.

It had worked.

His hands started to shake. He took a deep breath, then another. He couldn’t force them to calm, the adrenalin too fresh, but it wasn’t bad enough that he couldn’t fly, which was good because the only thing to land on at the moment was water.

Holy shit.

Holy shit.

He’d just taken out seven armed guards while handcuffed, broken out of what he was sure was some secret government prison base, and stolen a helicopter. A helicopter that couldn’t be tracked because he’d known to rip out the transponder. A helicopter he knew how to fly without needing to pay full attention to the controls.

He took another breath, which was shallower than he’d like due to his aching…everything, and he pushed the helicopter into a dive so he could travel closer to the waters surface. He’d eat up more fuel flying this altitude and would need to watch out for taller waves, but that was okay as it would make it more difficult to locate him if they tapped into overhead satellites or nearby ship radar. It would be difficult with the thick storm clouds interfering, but there could be breaks in the coverage and he couldn’t rule out their ability to track him that way. He checked the clock: 14:07. Somehow he didn’t think there were any US controlled satellites overhead at this particular moment, at least not registered ones. He inhaled slowly through his nose and exhaled through his mouth.

He had a destination in mind, and a need to find the person that he would make damn sure answered all his questions. He could get there with the fuel in his tanks if he wanted. He might not know a fucking thing about himself, but for some reason somebody else’s name and face were seared into his brain, along with their location, which was apparently a very coveted piece of information.

He was not going to panic. He was free. Whoever those asshats were they couldn’t get to him now and he had a plan to get some answers. There was no room for panic.

Slowly the adrenalin calmed and the pain began to settle in. It really, really sucked. He didn’t think anything was broken, but his right wrist was slightly swollen, his ribs were definitely bruised, and he was sure he would only feel worse as time progressed. He looked around for a distraction, automatically tracking all the dials and information set in the wall of blinking lights and readouts before him, and his eyes caught on the edge of a bag between the seats. A bag of chips.

It turned out that dill-pickle chips were fucking delicious: chalk one into the self-awareness column. Oh yeah, he was a rock star.

>>---->

“Steve!” Sam called out as Steve raced into the room and basically stopped him in his tracks. He looked over to see Sam standing pressed to his cells door, staring at him with a grin of surprise and relief. Beside him Scott Lang just looked…joyful.

“Hey Sam, wanna get a little fresh air?” he smirked as Bucky managed to trigger the door mechanisms without setting off the alarms, and Sam and Lang were instantly by his side. Wanda took a little more effort to get up and join them. She looked weak and exhausted in her puffed out blue and black prison jacket, and so miserable he just really, really wished the guards had been conscious when he’d arrived so he could teach them how to properly treat a human being.

“Like you wouldn’t believe. Did you pass Clint on the way in?” Sam asked and Steve took a look down at the men sprawled on the floor.

“No. He did this?” He asked, leading them back into the control room where three more guards were strewn about, unconscious and bruised.

“Yeah. One second he’s off being interrogated, next he’s making his move and then he up and leaves us without a word. Something is seriously messed up with him, Steve.” Sam said and T’Challa, who had agreed to come on this little rescue but not in his more obvious uniform, approached Wanda. She flinched back from him and he held his hands out calmly. Dressed in what amounted to a black ninja uniform he probably wasn’t the most comforting presence in an unknown situation, and Wanda had every right to be concerned right now.

“It’s okay,” Steve explained quickly, “he’s going to remove the collar. Please let him, it will be better to leave it here,” he said. Her demeanour abruptly changed; she straightened her shoulders, pulled her long straggly hair out of the way, and bared her throat to him. Steve turned back to Sam as he finished pulling the blue prison shirt over his head and tossed it on the nearest table. The shirts were imbedded with biosensors and who knew what else. “Messed up?” He questioned sharply, his internal clock ticking down and he noticed Scott’s shirt join the pile. They needed to get a move on.

“They’ve been messing with him since Ross arrived, but he wouldn’t tell us what they were doing, and yesterday when they brought him back something wasn’t right.”

“Rogers, we need to move,” Bucky peaked around the corner from the corridor, the gun in his hand held up and ready to use. It had stun bullets, because they weren’t here to hurt anyone, but so far they hadn’t needed them. Apparently Clint had taken care of it all for them.

“Done,” T’Challa announced and the awful collar clicked open. Wanda ripped it from her neck and a coil of red energy immediately surrounded it. She didn’t just tear it apart, she crushed it into dust and inhaled like she hadn’t been able to breathe properly for far too long.

“Go,” Steve ordered, trying to figure out how the hell they were going to find Clint if he’d run off solo with their limited minutes. They had expected everyone to be in their cells, like the schedule had called for when they did their final security hack that morning. Wanda tried to move ahead of them, but with the hunted, angry look in her eyes he wasn’t sure any guards they came across would survive, and he gently manoeuvred her and Scott into the middle of the group. She didn’t argue, but she started undoing the straps on the bulky containment jacket.

“Woah, where’s your arm?” Scott hissed as he stepped behind Bucky, and Bucky glared at him.

“Donated it for scrap metal,” he muttered, falling flat on the sarcasm but the effort warmed Steve regardless.

“Move,” Steve ordered, and took up the rear.

“We can’t leave without him, Steve,” Sam muttered as he moved just a head of him.

“I don’t want to, but we have six minutes to get topside before this place sinks back down and we’re all stuck. If we see him on the way we’ll grab him, otherwise we’ll come back.”

“You’re going to break into the worlds most secure prison facility, twice,” Sam said.

“Why not, I need a hobby now that the Avengers are sidelined. Could be fun.” Steve forced a grin.

“There is nothing fun about this,” Sam muttered, looking around anxiously as they pressed into the stairwell and began a rushed climb to the top, T’Challa leading with his superior senses. They reached the top to find another guard slumped in an unconscious heap by the door they’d arrived through. T’Challa swiped the specialized card he’d created for this mission and they were outside and rushing to the helicopter they’d borrowed in moments. Bucky and T’Challa were already throwing themselves in the front seats, urging the propellers to turn faster as they primed for take-off.

“Steve,” Sam said, worry clear and Steve paused, because Clint, who always insisted he could take care of himself, was not popping out of the woodwork to join them and it was worrying. It was beyond worrying-

“Steve! We gotta go! The roofs starting to close!” Bucky hollered. Sam stopped hesitating and jumped into the back of their ride, Steve followed with a leap as the helicopter’s tracks pulled away from the floor. It was only when they were lifting out, just beating the roofs closure process and pulling into the cloud covered sky, that he realized what he’d seen.

“There was another helicopter!” He yelled over the wind coming in from the still open door. Scott shoved a pair of headphones at him and he jammed them onto his head. “There was another helicopter,” he repeated quickly. “It was there when we landed, but not anymore. Can anyone see it?” He’d bet his pension Clint had taken it, and he couldn’t have been far ahead of them, maybe six minutes and it sometimes took a few minutes to warm up an engine before one of these birds could be flown. They all pressed to the windows, and Steve leaned out the door, looking in every direction but-

“If he is flying low over the surface spotting him will be difficult.” T’Challa voiced Steve’s thought.

“How can we be sure he took the helicopter?” Wanda asked, her voice sounded off, rougher than he remembered.

“We can’t, but chances are if something is wrong and he’s not in his right mind than I’m betting he rabbited, and that was the only option other than this bird.” Steve said, even with his slightly enhanced eyesight all he could see were dark waves and dark clouds. No one else seemed to be having any better luck finding him.

“So what now?” Scott asked and Steve sat back from his lean out the door.

“Now we regroup, and we find him.”

+

Dallin stood in the middle of the cellblock that had housed the ex-Avengers and turned in a slow circle, taking it all in. There was a small smear of blood on the floor by his foot, barely the size of his thumbprint, but it was there. The empty cells looked as they always did, but without their occupants.

Anxiety and anger warred in his chest as he took it all in. He didn’t know what was going to win yet. Maybe both.

He’d been warden of this facility for seven months now, in charge of containing some of the most depraved individuals their planet had to offer, and yet he’d never felt concerned for his safety or those of his people. Not until now.

What a fucking mess.

At least nobody had died. Sure there’d been some broken bones, a few sprains and one or seven possible concussions, but in the end nobody had died despite the supposed ferocity of the fight. He had yet to witness it as, conveniently, right when Barton had attacked his armed escort the security systems had become dysfunctional. It had taken about thirteen minutes for the four prisoners to escape and Dallin was furious that it had happened. He ran a better operation than this. The professional slight was humiliating.

“Sir,” a voice interrupted his silence and he looked to his head of security as the dusky skinned man joined him, his posture ramrod and his face unreadable. He was not pleased.

“What have you found, Ganim?”

“The techs have gone over all the systems. There’s fourteen minutes where the monitor feeds for this level, as well as the ones leading to the hangar, were set to a playback loop and external door alarms were temporarily disabled.” Which meant that the guards at the head control room were oblivious to everything that had been happening. “The unscheduled ascent was triggered by the biohazard alarms,” which they’d known as soon as they had begun surfacing. Too late they realized there was no containment issue in the empty levels the threat had been triggered on.

Procedure dictated the Raft would rise to the surface but was to remain in lock down in case the threat needed to be contained within. Nobody had considered checking for intruders as their top of the line security systems had displayed situation normal. It was a massive oversight. “All prisoners and containment standards were upheld on every floor, except this cellblock, sir. There was no threat of other detainees escaping at any time.”

“Well, that’s a relief,” a deep, familiar voice drawled, the sarcasm was more cutting for its subtlety. Dallin schooled his features as best he could and nodded to Ganim, who turned and left the room without further prompting.

“Secretary Ross,” Dallin thought he kept his tone admirably unconcerned as he turned his attention to the taller, wide-shouldered man. You have a backbone of steel he ordered himself. Backbone of steel.

“Care to explain to me, Warden, exactly how not one but three individuals in level two containment and one in level one managed to escape this facility in less than fifteen minutes?” The gray-haired man snarled, his eyes flashing with a familiar anger.

“It would appear that our security systems are not as impenetrable as we believed.”

“Yet it wasn’t the systems that failed to keep a single prisoner contained.”

“I believe the systems breach is the potential catalyst to Barton’s-”

“He had four guards escorting him back to his cell, his arms were bound, and there were two more men in the control room,” Ross stabbed a finger towards the door that led to this block monitoring station. The only personnel in there right now were the techs going over the scene to try and piece together the fight. Dallin paused in his automatic defence of their security, because of course they would all be fired after this, but-

“Only four escorts? Barton is slated to have a minimum of five while in transport,” Dallin frowned, wondering exactly how Ross was aware of this number when he was purportedly in a locked conference call with people in Washington. “He was also slated to have been returned to his cell an hour beforehand, which is a variable Ganim will understand more of once he interviews all guards involved. Do you know something about this, Secretary?” He asked, the uneasy feeling in his chest sat uncomfortably and Ross’s eyes hardened as he stared down at him.

“What I know is a matter of national security, Warden,” he announced darkly, “and at the moment your incompetence is threatening it.”

“My incompetence?!” He couldn’t help the outrage the accusation triggered, whether it was warranted or not. “I’m not the one who flies a helicopter to a prison that doesn’t need keys to start it!” He had honestly never even thought that was something he’d need to check when the Secretary and his entourage had arrived days ago. Because what kind of idiot does that?

“A prison where it was unknown that the standard human criminal could escape unassisted?”

“There is nothing standard about Barton,” Dallin argued, because frankly it was true. Honestly if the man hadn’t turned out to be an enemy of their nation he might have even admired the guy.

“He is just a man,” Ross shot back, and he was gearing up to say more but Dallin cut in. Backbone of steel.

“Who gave you authorization to have the prisoner out of his containment unit at this time?” He asked. Ross narrowed his eyes at him, the familiar cold blue-gray pierced ice beneath his sternum.

“You would do well to remember your position here, Warden, and how you managed to achieve it in the first place,” Ross all but growled down at him and Dallin froze, shocked. “Consider yourself warned; this level of incompetence will not be looked upon kindly in the coming days,” the veiled unless you play along was very clear and Everett swallowed nervously. “Luckily for you I foresaw Barton being a problem and have taken countermeasures. So I suggest you tow the line and make sure this kind of breach is impossible from this moment forth, or you will be looking for a new career by the end of the week. Understood?” His voice was a rumbling cold and he’d moved further into Dallin’s space, towering over him. Dallin swallowed, and nodded.

“Rest assured this will never happen again,” Dallin said, cowed and wanting his personal space bubble back.

“Good.” Ross stepped back and Dallin felt his lungs expand just a smidge in relief. “I have a helicopter arriving within the hour. Prepare the station for ascent, and be sure to not keep me waiting,” he ordered and strode from the room.

Dallin exhaled slowly, and looked about once more, his gaze falling upon Sam Wilson’s cell. He stared at it a long moment, thinking hard, and then left to head to the main control room. An hour’s notice wasn’t a long time to prepare the station for another surfacing. He had work to do.

+

“Situation report,” Ross growled as soon as he entered what passed as the conference room in this place. John looked up from the computer he was monitoring over Ashley’s shoulder and straightened.

“Sir, the unexpected schedule change is causing some delays on the ground; we weren’t prepped to move until tomorrow morning. Given that, I believe we will be ready to deploy within a suitable timeframe.”

“Good,” Ross said, rolling his shoulders in satisfaction. “Prepare to leave in fifty minutes. I want to be Stateside again as soon as possible. We have a target to hunt.”

“Yes sir,” John nodded sharply and went back to work.

+

Chapter Text

The only goodbye the esteemed Secretary Ross deemed necessary was a cool glance towards Dallin after he’d boarded his transport. Dallin forced his features to remain impassive as he watched the helicopter rise up, before he dismissed Ganim, whom had insisted on accompanying him to the send off. It was dark out now, the Secretary’s helicopter had taken longer to arrive than anticipated, which had been one more annoyance Dallin had really not wanted to deal with this day. Now though, it was cresting the Raft’s roof and peeling off into the night sky. Dallin pulled a dark silver cellphone from his pocket and dialled a number from memory.

It only took one ring to answer.

“Yes?”

Dallin managed to not grin at the impatience laced in the question.

“Eve,” he greeted softly and there was a moment of silence followed by an exaggerated sigh.

“Must you insist on calling me that, Lin? I have an image to uphold here, if someone overheard-” he hinted in false exasperation and Dallin relaxed a bit at the familiarity of their game.

“Come now brother mine, if that’s all it takes to ruin your reputation than you’re not trying hard enough.”

“Whatever,” Everett grumbled, sounding tired over the line and Dallin realized that he currently had no idea what time zone he was in. He might have just woken him up. “What’s going on? This isn’t your usual number.”

“Burn phone,” Dallin agreed. He’d pulled it from his private rooms safe just before coming up here. It was not infallible to trace, but it allowed a sense of safety that he wanted for this call. “Have you heard about the situation here?”

“Yes,” Everett said. “On a scale of one to ten?”

“Probably about a seven. They’re not the worst to have escaped by a long shot, but the Secretary was none to pleased. He suggested my position was not as secure as I believed and there were some pointed comments that my placement here may have been less on my own merit than I had originally believed.”

“That son of a bitch!” Everett hissed immediately, years of irritation lending to his vehemence. “It’s not true Dallin, you more than earned your position there, don’t let him play you like that.”

“Oh, I’m not,” Dallin agreed, though he might have let it get to him a little bit and his brother knew it. He felt better now; Everett always managed that somehow, even though they haven’t seen each other in months. “I have some concerns regarding our departed guests.”

“What kind of concerns?” Everett asked, all energy now that he could sense there would be a task for him involved.

“The Secretary showed up four days ago for inspection, as he is wont to do from time to time,” Dallin explained, though two visits in two months had been above standard. “I’m no longer certain it was as above board as I had been led to believe.”

“How so?”

“Sam Wilson insisted that Secretary Ross has been interrogating Clint Barton. Vigorously. Of course I didn’t believe it at first, because why? Barton was retired before the situation that landed him here, what could he possibly know that Ross would want? Not to mention I heard nothing of any sanctions for interrogation. My security reported nothing either, so I’ve had Ganim going over security logs.” This was the bit that concerned him, perhaps even more than the prisoners escaping in the first place. “We’ve found that Barton has been removed from his cell for an inordinate length of time during the day, and we suspect that there have been a few nights as well but can’t find any proof.”

There was a moment of silence on the other end of the line.

“You think Ross is going off book,” Everett stated.

“I’m concerned that he’s used his position to influence my own people and has been conducting illegal interrogation within my wall, yes. However, I don’t have proof and at the moment the guards I believe are involved are keeping their mouths shut. He’s fourth in line for the Presidency. I need concrete answers in case the shit hits the fan.”

“Let me guess, you want me to contact Stark,” Everett said, no real question in his tone.

“There have been rumours that he had some part in the design of this place,” Dallin agreed, which was most likely putting it mildly but that information was classified above his pay grade. “And if those rumours hold true it is possible there are security measures in place that are not common knowledge. I would like solid answers before I decide if I need to bring this to the attention of the board.”

“Even if it could hurt Ross?”

“I don’t believe he’s done anything to warrant loyalty lately, do you?” Dallin asked.

“He didn’t even come to mum’s funeral. Fuck loyalty. We’ll do our jobs and let the cards fall where they will.”

“Thank you Eve, I knew I could count on you,” Dallin started to relax for the first time in hours. He may no longer hold his position here by weeks end, but he would at least have this one situation sorted out.

“You owe me a bottle of brandy, the good stuff,” Everett muttered over the line and Dallin snorted.

“For giving you a reason to investigate Ross?” he huffed, well aware that Everett rarely needed more than a case to investigate to make him happy, and this one would be interesting at least.

“For making me talk to Stark. He’s not as bad as the press makes out, but he’s draining.”

“You poor dear.”

“Shut up. We play this right we don’t need to be dragged into it at all, Stark will do the work for us. Go get some sleep. Is it okay to use regular routes of communication after this?”

“Play it by ear.”

“Good. I’ll be in touch, Lin.” He hung up and Dallin took a deep breath of sea air, before turning and heading back inside.

+

The incoming call light had stopped blinking on his desk phone a while ago and Tony had yet to move from his office chair. He found that his body felt as heavy as the Ironman suit. He kept thinking that any moment the chair would give out beneath him and he’d crash into a heap on the floor. Like he had when Steve had left him in Siberia, Bucky Barnes’ single arm draped over his shoulder and the Shield lying flat on the ice. It was symbolic in ways he didn’t want to think about. He didn’t know what to think anymore, and frankly he did not appreciate it.

Then there was “the phone.” It was just sitting there, on his table with the handwritten note. Fucking Steve. What the hell was he supposed to do with that? When had everything turned to such a heaping pile of infected BIOS?

“You trying to activate your laser beam contacts?” Rhodey asked from his wheelchair in the doorway. Tony snapped his head over to him, eyes automatically starting at his braced legs before quickly jerking up to his face.

“They didn’t pass stage one testing, people kept trying to put them in backwards,” Tony said, and then blinked. “Friday, how long has Rhodey been sitting there?”

“Ten minutes, sir” she responded smoothly.

“That from Steve?” Rhodes asked, nodding his chin at the phone and Tony looked at the tiny, clunky thing once more.

“Do you think he sent a Motorola flip phone to be insulting?” He pondered and contemplated poking it with a stylus.

“Probably wanted to make sure you knew which one was from him. You basically upgrade your own phones once a week.”

“Ahh haha,” Tony ground out the dry laugh with frustration and pressed his palms to his eyes, before running his fingers over his scalp and letting them flop over his stomach. “He broke them out,” he explained and Rhodey raised his eyebrow of inquiry. “Got the message about an hour ago. Probably means he got them out at least two hours ago.”

“He tell you this?”

“Basically.” He looked at the phone. “Ross wants me to find them.”

“Just you?” Rhodey asked and Tony shrugged, feeling heavier and heavier.

“Romanov’s in the wind. Not sure she’s coming back after the last fight. She’s not too happy her beau ended up in supermax.”

“They knew what they were getting into when they decided to show up at that airport.”

“Maybe,” Tony sighed and forced himself not to look at Rhodey’s legs again. It was like his eyes were tethered there; he’d never found himself staring in the direction of his best friends junk so much in his entire life. It was definitely the wrong kind of complex to be developing. It would be at least six months before Rhodes healed fully, before he could walk without assistance, but it could have been so much worse.

So much worse.

He’d been shot by his own teammate, fighting people who were supposed to be his teammates, fighting because Tony asked him to-

“Sir, you have an incoming phone call from Everett Ross.” Tony yanked himself out of his thoughts to see Rhodey staring at him, the familiar concerned look plastered all over his face and Tony sniffed in disdain at it. He was fine.

“I didn’t realize you guys were phone buddies now,” Rhodey said mildly and Tony shook his head.

“We’re not. We didn’t particularly agree on command tactics and decided to only contact each other never.”

“He related to the Secretary?”

“Nephew I think. Put him through, Friday,” Tony ordered and contemplated putting him on hold like he had Secretary Ross.

“Stark,” Ross said and then continued before Tony could cut him off. “I’ll cut to the chase. As you probably know my brother, Dallin Ross, is the Warden on the Raft. I believe you two have met.”

“Ah yes, imagine my surprise to realize you had an identical twin in such high places. Your uncle must be so proud.” Tony decided he wasn’t interested in the conversation and reached to put him on hold; maybe he’d make that a Ross tradition.

“Hear him out, Tony,” Rhodey’s quiet request froze his hand just before he punched the button and Tony looked over at his brother before leaning back in his chair and crossed his arms.

“You’ve heard about the escape?” Ross asked.

“At this point I’d be surprised if anyone hadn’t heard about it,” Tony spit out, glaring at the Motorola only a few feet away from him. All it would take was a little nudge to send it to the floor.

“Yes well, understand that what I am about to tell you did not come from me or my brother. Are we clear on this?” He asked and that drew Tony’s undivided attention. Rhodey leaned forward in his seat as well.

“We’re clear, an invisible non-existent bird tweeted in my ear. Tell me.”

“We have reason to suspect that Secretary Ross may have been…questioning one of your ex-teammates off book.”

“Explain,” Tony demanded, not liking the sound of this at all. His stomach tightened and chest felt cold and he could remember how Wanda had been all those weeks ago, life sucked from her skin and eyes hollowed. Vulnerable. He’d never wanted that. Never.

“Barton. There are several points the last few days where he was removed from his cell longer than expected. Maybe some nights as well. We don’t know what happened, Dallin was unaware of these events until Wilson and Lang pointed it out. An hour later Barton broke free of his guards and escaped, using Rogers’ breakout as a distraction.”

“Wait, you’re saying Clint broke out separately from the rest?” Rhodey asked, loud enough to be heard through the line.

“Who is that? Identify yourself,” Ross demanded and Tony rolled his eyes.

“It’s Iron Patriot, answer the question.” There was a long moment of silence, and then a sigh.

“Barton escaped in Secretary Ross’s helicopter, alone. We don’t know why and we don’t know what Ross was trying to get out of him. The Rafts digital surveillance did not pick up anything unusual the last few days, but Dallin suggested that you had a hand in designing the place-” he hedged and Tony felt a headache coming on.

“And you think I would imbed secret surveillance into the build in direct violation of our contractual agreements and create what amounts to a computed spy? How dare you Deputy Task Force Commander Ross. I would never!” He hung up on the man and stood from his chair in a hurry. Rhodes was straightening in his seat and his hands had moved to the wheels push rim’s as he eyed Tony.

“You totally did, didn’t you,” he stated, not sounding surprised, and Tony tried to look innocent a moment, and then gave it up with a smirk.

“Of course I did. I hack the hellicarrier on a regular basis, like hell I’m not building a back door into anything I have a part in designing. Friday, get me the video Deputy Ross was alluding to and send it to my private lab. Once we’re there lock it down.”

“Of course,” she agreed and Tony slowed his steps slightly so that Rhodey didn’t have to struggle too hard to keep up. In the elevator he handed Tony the phone Rogers had mailed him.

“It’s not your fault, whatever happened to Barton,” Rhodes said and Tony snorted.

“Isn’t it? Isn’t everything my fault? I forced the issue with the Accords, I forced the issue with Barnes, I put them in there, and now they’ve been hurt. They were supposed to be treated well and Barton has been hurt-”

“That is not on you, Tony!” Rhodey hissed and followed him out of the elevator with a glare. Tony didn’t slow down this time but Rhodey kept up with no complaint. Fortunately Friday had the first video keyed to play by the time they pushed into the lab. Tony glared as Rhodes came very close to ramming him with his foot supports, but promptly forgot all about it as the screen began playing after the door closed. It was queued just in time to show Clint being shoved into a chair with the aid of a shock baton. It didn’t get any better from there.

+

“Tony?” Steve answered his call on the sixth ring, tone cautious and distracted. For a moment Tony had absolutely no idea what to say. Like at all. Seriously, he could imagine Barnes pressed up beside Steve, leaning in to listen to everything Tony might say and- He took a breath and shoved the hate, the anger and the confusion away. Now was not the time, and Barnes was not why he was calling.

“Have you found Clint yet?” he demanded hoping the stall wasn’t noticed. Rhodes shook his head at him but Tony had no idea why; Clint was why he was calling. There was a definite pause as Steve thought about what to say. What was there to think about? It was: yes, no, or we’re working on it.

“No.”

“Hey, don’t overwhelm me with the details,” he snapped, irritation already rising so easily.

“We don’t have any details, Tony. We have no idea where he went, what happened to him, or why. Check in later and we might have more-”

“Oh no, no no no. Don’t give me the check in later talk. I’m checking in now and I am helping.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Steve’s tone was very flat.

“Please, when have you ever had a good idea? I’m not offering, I’m telling you I’m helping whether you like it or not.”

“That’s not the way this works Tony. We’ll deal with it, so stay out of it, please.”

“Hey, you gave me the cellphone, you don’t get to take back the proverbial olive branch.”

“It was in case you needed us Tony, not the other way around,” Steve snapped right back and Tony froze, actually froze as he took that in. It hurt a lot more than he expected it too. “Look,” Steve sighed through the phone, “I’m sorry Tony, but we’ve got to keep it separate on this one. I can’t let you help just to drag Clint and the rest of them back to that place. Do you have any idea what Clint would do to me, let alone Sam and Scott, if I let them get their hands on Wanda again? We’re staying separate on this one. I can’t risk-”

“Fuck you, Steve!” Tony hissed, anger and frustration and guilt warring inside and he had no idea what to do with it, but this? This- “Fuck you. They’re my friends too. You think I wanted them to be locked away like that? You think I wanted Wanda collared? You think I wanted Clint to be fucking tortured, to be turned into a target and used like that? You think this is me setting a trap when he’s out there with his mind scrambled? Alone and injured?”

“Tony-”

“No!” He yelled, throwing his arm out like the gesture would shut Steve up. “No, this is not what I wanted, this is the way it turned out. I am not calling you right now because I want to bring you in. I’m calling because Clint is in serious trouble and you need my help to get him back.”

“And I can’t accept, Tony. I’m sorry. You are bound by international law to turn us in, and you are bound by that law to not make your own decision on the matter. I know this isn’t what you wanted, but I don’t want you to join us on the most wanted list. You can’t be here, and you can’t help. We’ll figure it out.”

“They fucked with his mind.” Tony hissed, anger and rage and so many things were clogging his throat and Rhodey was watching him with a very blank face. “His mind, Steve. They beat him, water boarded him, stuck him with electricity again and again and then they held him down and did something to his head. This is not what I agreed to when I signed the Accords.”

“It will always come to agenda’s, Tony. Theirs, yours, we gave them that power and they took it from us. You want to help? Send us what you have through this phone and then leave it alone.”

“Steve-”

“No, Tony, not now. If you need help you can call us, anytime, but I’m sorry; we just can’t…” he sounded tired but he had the steely tone that said his mind was made up. It was his ‘Captain America’s will of iron’ tone. Tony did not like it in this context. “I’ll send you a new phone in the mail when this is over.” And Steve hung up. He hung up. What a fucking asshole. Tony took a deep breath. The remembered image of Clint’s shirt being cut off while he struggled to get away, his body weak from the shocks, was the only reason he didn’t shatter the phone immediately. He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly.

“Friday, transfer all the files we discovered to Rogers’ phone and let me know when it’s complete. Then, try to locate Bruce.” He looked up to see Rhodey still watching him from where he sat in Tony’s chair. It was difficult to read what he was thinking and Tony turned away.

“Transfer complete,” she announced and he threw the phone as hard as he could at the wall.

+

 

“Might have been useful to have his help,” Sam said, not loudly enough to be heard by the others, aside from T’Challa, and Steve looked like he really didn’t want to talk about it. He took a deep breath and Sam took a bite of the pizza they’d picked up on their way to this secret hideout. He wished he could enjoy the food more, but considering the circumstances he was just happy it was hot.

“We have as much as we can risk,” Steve sighed, his hand squeezing the phone tighter than was probably safe for it. “It will have to be enough. I don’t want us ending up in another situation where he has to make a choice that could hurt us; he won’t handle it well and it’s not fair to him.”

“He’s a big boy,” Sam pointed out. “He made plenty of decisions regarding us recently.”

“Yeah well, it’s Tony. He’s basically in full panic and doesn’t know what he wants right now. His methods are…not always that great, but his intentions are in the right place.”

“Intentions or not, he needs a good kick to the head,” Sam muttered and at Steve’s tired huff of laughter he passed over the pizza slice he’d grabbed for him. “Scott’s like a freaking hoover, I thought I’d save you a slice.”

“Thanks,” Steve took the greasy food just as his phone chirped. He looked at it. “Looks like a video file,” he said.

“Please bring it here,” T’Challa called from across the room and they obediently walked through what amounted to a mostly finished basement in an old house in the countryside of Main. It had belonged to Peggy. Sharon had pressed the keys and address into Steve’s hand just before they’d split up, two months ago now, before the showdown at the airport. This was a good base of operations: there was a large landing platform for the helicopter that had retreated on a very fancy, camouflaged, rail system into the barn outside. Well hidden and apparently invisible from satellite scans due to some kind of special paint. The note on the kitchen table had explained it but Sam hadn’t read it beyond the words ‘safe’ and ‘careful with the plumbing.’

T’Challa, no longer wearing his ninja disguise, took the phone and set it upon a thin, flat piece of plastic barely larger than the phone itself. On the large screen before them a series of files popped up.

“There appear to be several video files.” T’Challa explained the obvious as Wanda and Scott joined them.

“Open one,” Wanda ordered, and T’Challa clicked the first in the list. The screen flicked to life.

“Aw c’mon guys,” Clint was directed into a fairly barren room by several guards, his wrists cuffed before him. He didn’t seem surprised to be there, but that didn’t mean much from him. “I’m a pretty friendly guy. If you wanted to talk all you had to do was-” he broke off as he was shoved into a metal chair bolted into the floor, two guards flanking to stand over his shoulders while one quickly wrapped a thick strap over his chest and arms and secured it behind him. Clint raised his eyebrow in apparent amusement and made a show of looking around. “Cozy.” He said to one of the two guards that stood at the door. The guard gave him a dark little look but didn’t respond.

“Seriously, how long is Ross going to make me wait here?” Clint sounded exasperated and bored even though he’d barely been sitting ten seconds. It was clear he didn’t miss the surprised look from both guards that stood in his sight lines.

“If I’d known you were so eager to see me I would have stopped in sooner,” Secretary Ross announced as he entered the scene through the rooms only door.

“I knew it!” Sam hissed, and then pressed his lips together, because being proven correct in this sense was nowhere close to satisfying. Ross stopped before Clint, crossed his arms, and looked down at him. Clint watched him back with wide eyes.

“Did you bring me a gift? Usually guests bring some kind of gift. Cookies maybe? You look like a stress baker.”

“Why do you never stop talking?” Wanda muttered, so quietly Sam had trouble hearing her. He, along with everyone else, chose to ignore the comment.

“Yes, I brought you a gift,” Ross said after just staring at Clint for a long moment. He held out his hand and a guard obediently handed him a shock baton. Ross studied it a moment, and then jabbed it quickly at Clint’s stomach. It was a short contact, but Clint curled in and jerked back from the force of the attack. The chair halted his retreat.

“I don’t like your gifts,” Clint said with a grin after he had sucked in a deep breath. Ross jabbed him again.

“Ahh ha haaaaaaoowwww. I’m beginning to think I’d rather be in a drug induced sleep at the moment,” he took a deep breath and looked up at Ross again. “Take me back to my cell?”

Ross jabbed once more.

Scott turned around and walked away. Sam kept his eyes on the screen.

“Do you know why I’m here?” Ross asked, eyeing Clint like he was a bug, and not a particularly interesting one.

“Probably. I know a lot of things,” Clint bragged, but he was twitching a bit and was definitely uncomfortable and not caring too much to hide it.

“You could save us both a lot of effort and tell me where he is,” Ross said and Clint snorted.

“Yeah, right. What’s your schedule like? You here for one or three days? Secretary of the State probably shouldn’t be missing from the spotlight much longer than that.”

Ross smiled blandly and jabbed him with the baton. He let it linger a moment this time. Clint jerked so hard his cuffed wrists bent up and he smacked himself in the chest. It took a long moment before he gasped and sucked in deep gulps of air. He was sagging more in his seat now, letting the strap hold him.

“Did that jog your memory?”

“No memory to jog,” Clint snapped. “He’s not exactly sending me postcards here.”

Ross stood back and eyed him, then shook his head and nodded at the guard on his left. He was a big bruiser kind of guy who looked back at Ross, almost in hesitation, before he stepped forth and hit Clint in the stomach with his baton. Clint curled forward, air forced from his lungs. They waited in silence until after a minute Clint coughed and sat up, only to be hit again. It looked to Sam like the guard was pulling his knocks a bit, but they were still a far cry from a love tap.

“Seriously?” Clint’s voice was a bit raspy as he tried to regain his breath. He glared at Ross.

“We both know that I will leave here with the information I want, willing cooperation or no,” Ross said mildly. “The question is how far we escalate.”

“Let’s pretend for a second that I think you’re actually sanctioned to do this,” Clint didn’t bother to uncurl from where he leaned against the strap. “Rogers is not dumb enough to stay in one place; there’s no way I know where the hell he is. This fishing expedition will get you exactly nothing.” He glared up at Ross. Ross’s mild look narrowed to distinct disdain and he inhaled deeply through his nose.

“It would behove you to not act like a simpleton,” he glowered down at Clint.

“What? Act?” Clint blinked, wide-eyed and confused.

“Bruce Banner,” Ross snarled, “He is the one I want. Tell me where he is.”

Clint looked at him for a long moment, the wide-eyes still present but now they were more incredulous than anything, and frankly a lot more believable. Then he started laughing.

“You think I know where Banner is?” he fit the words between huffs of amusement. “You think I know where Banner is,” he shook his head and the chuckles died down. He took a deep breath and let it out on a sigh. “Ohhhhhh I needed that, ah hehh heh,” he couldn’t seem to help the last chortle.

“You will tell me where he is-”

“Aw come on. The only person who knows where Banner is, is Banner,” Clint shook his head, looking like he did when he wanted to do something with his hands: twirl a drumstick, run a coin between his knuckles, pick apart some lint. Things he did when he had nothing to hide, when he was bored. It was in his psych profile too, one that Sam knows Ross has probably read. If Sam figured Ross had read it, than Clint would have as well.

“Aw shit, Clint knows where Banner is?” Sam asked, because this was news to him.

“No,” Steve said. “Bruce didn’t tell anybody where he was going when he left. Nobody knows where he is.”

“Well it looks like the Secretary guy thinks Barton knows,” Scott said, coming back to watch the screen as Clint was unstrapped and pulled to his feet. He needed the guards help for the first few steps before he regained his balance and shrugged them off. They didn’t take kindly to that. “Why would he think that if Clint doesn’t know?”

“I have no idea,” Steve said. “But at least we know what Ross wanted,” he was glaring at the screen. T’Challa had opened up another file, further in the list, and Clint was once again in that chair, but this time his arms were locked behind it. On the metal table that sat in the middle of the room were three large jugs of water and a towel. “He never asked you guys anything about Bruce?” Steve asked the group at large.

“No,” Sam said, and Scott shook his head. Sam glanced at Wanda, but it was pretty common knowledge that of all of them she would be the least likely to know where Bruce was, and anybody with a line into their group was aware of this. Including Ross. “Only reason we even knew the Secretary was there was because he stopped in on his first day to say hi, make sure that we were comfortable.” Sam snorted at the memory.

“He watched me for a long time,” Wanda said, softly, her eyes on the screen where nothing was happening yet. “He may have been using us to control Clint. Perhaps this is why he said nothing to us of his treatment.”

“Okay.” Steve said after a heavy moment where they watched Clint and Ross engage in a fierce staring contest. “We need to get eyes on Ross, see if we can figure out what his next play is. We need to get a hold of Natasha and tell her the situation; she might know where Clint will hole up, and we need to see if we can track down Bruce. He needs to be warned that Ross is looking for him.”

“Do you think Tony-” Sam started to ask and, frown deepening at the screen Steve answered.

“I wouldn’t doubt he started looking for Bruce right away, but just in case we’re going to as well.”

Right. Sam watched the screen as the hood from the table was dragged over a struggling Clint’s head. Despite the fact they had T’Challa’s help (which had to be limited for the protection of his own country), it was going to be a lot more difficult than usual to get the information they needed without their customary sources. The small fact that they were currently considered wanted fugitives by at least one hundred and twelve countries, and none of them had their gear, would also be a bit problematic.

“Piece of cake,” Sam said and turned to walk away from the video where a jug of water was slowly being poured out.

Chapter Text

By the time he landed it was nearing midnight. He’d figured it would be difficult to spot a clearing large enough to put the bird down, but with the moon almost full he found it fairly easy to locate a break in the trees.

There were a lot of trees. But that happened when you flew to the northern end of Ontario: trees and more trees and some rocks and lakes, and not a lot of power lines to be concerned with hitting.

He powered down his ride, anxiety sitting in his chest, and hopped to the ground with the rotors still spinning overhead. He remained there for a tense moment, checking for danger in the shadowed surroundings. The clearing hadn’t been very big or flat, but it had worked and he was hard pressed to give a shit about ideal landing pads. He checked his weapons, and then ran to the nearest tree to take a piss. Okay, he more hobbled to the tree after hours sitting in a cramped cabin with his body in the shape it was meant everything tried to freeze up. He forced himself to ignore it, and told himself not to groan in relief as he watered some scrub bushes.

He took off as soon as he was tucked back in, moving slowly as his eyes adjusted and his limbs loosened. Apparently he was pretty confident about his destination and definitely confused beyond reason as to how he knew where to go. His target had better have answers, because he was so over this shit.

Running through the forest at night, moonlight or not, was a pain in the ass. It took a while for his body to warm up to the movement and the sheer amount of undergrowth meant that he had to keep his forearm ahead of his face to protect his eyes from being gouged out by branches. He pushed past the annoying burn in his lungs, controlled the occasional urge to cough, and after about forty minutes he stopped at the edge of another small clearing.

Target acquired.

A small house perched in the center of the open patch of land. The light on the main floor made it easy to see straight through the uncovered windows, and he easily made out the shoulder of a man as he stood still inside. To his left an old pickup truck sat on a gravel driveway that disappeared into the forest. He knew the driveway was just over a mile long, connecting to another dirt road, which eventually linked up with a paved highway that was riddled with potholes. He focused on steadying his breath, and snapped his gaze back to the house when something moved.

The guy had stepped into view and he was running a hand through his dark hair in clear frustration. Barton’s breath caught in his chest a moment, a heavy feeling of uncertainty and a rush of familiarity colliding and he didn’t understand it! He didn’t understand why this person, this one guy was so damned familiar yet he had no real clue about who the hell he was. He’d been hoping clarity would strike as soon as he saw him in person, but there was no epiphany, no light bulb blinking on; he still had no clue.

He was about to approach the house when his target shifted towards the window. Barton slinked behind a tree and out of view just in time, wishing he’d thought to at least grab one of the guard’s uniform shirts on his escape. He’d tossed the weird blue prison shirt with the built in bio monitors out over the water after his escape, but the long-sleeved gray undershirt was too bright for comfort. It looked like a beacon in the dark forest to him, so he probably stood out easily to anyone looking in his direction. He looked down at it. Maybe he should have found some mud to roll in? He had a feeling it wouldn’t have been the first time. When he risked a look around the tree the guy had turned to stare at whatever held his attention once more. Barton moved.

It took seconds to clear the overgrown yard, and he bypassed three different trip wires that were stretched through the grass, nearly stumbling as he spotted the third one at the last moment and was forced to execute a swift shoulder roll in his tumble over it. The house wasn’t large; a standard one story, three bedroom set up. He seriously contemplated knocking on the door for a moment, but ultimately decided surprise was a better option and jimmied a bedroom window open. He’d apparently used up his allotment of grace with his somersault and was less agile than he would have liked as he pulled himself through the frame. His body kept fluctuating between being one giant ache and a bunch of small sharp pains and he knew that it was the adrenalin keeping him moving at this point.

He’d chosen this room because its door had been left open which made it easier to move quickly into the narrow hallway that branched into the open area of the kitchen, living room, and dining room. His target noticed him the moment he stepped within visual range, his head turning sharply and body tensing in clear surprise and a readiness to react. Barton did a quick assessment: He wasn’t a fighter, but he had some minor training, and he wasn’t a stranger to surprises. Glasses indicated a visual impairment but it was doubtful it would give Barton any advantage if he knocked them off. He’d braced his feet, ready to run; he was used to running and exercise but he wasn’t hard-core about it. He was a flight risk and, judging by the contents of the room, some kind of doctor or scientist. He shifted uneasily under the scrutiny.

“I’d suggest you don’t move,” Barton said, the gun in his hand just as comfortable as it had been when he’d first snatched it from the guard, and it was pointed right at his target. He considered shooting him in the arm as a warning if he didn’t follow the order. Just a graze, nothing a stitch or three wouldn’t fix, but the guy did as told and froze. It looked slightly awkward as he had one arm braced across his stomach and the elbow of his other arm flung slightly to the side in his surprise. There was a moment of silence as the guy stared at him, glasses slightly crooked on his nose, and Barton stared back, trying to think as he scanned him from head to toe and didn’t notice any obvious weapons.

“Okay,” the guy said carefully, “I’m not moving,” he agreed. “But I am a little bit…confused.”

“Oh yeah?” Barton asked, forcing his arm steady despite the ache digging into his side and the painfully tight muscles in his shoulders. “How so?”

“Well for one, I heard you were kind of…in prison,” he finished with a shrug that barely shifted his arms. He was a man used to containing his movements to seem less threatening. Barton narrowed his eyes, trying to suss out exactly where the threat lay but he couldn’t see it in his submissive posture. He really didn’t like that. Maybe he should have spent more time on surveillance instead of running in here right away. Dummy.

“Paroled for good behaviour,” Barton explained as dryly as he could manage and the guy blinked, clearly not believing him. “You responsible for putting me there?” he asked, and got the largest response yet as they guys eyes widened and he shook his head slowly in denial.

“Ohhhhh no, I had nothing to do with that. That was one party I was not invited to and, frankly, I would have been a no show if I had been. But you knew this, you were the one that warned me about it.” He didn’t ask Barton to put down the gun. He didn’t seem interested in it at all as he stared at him. Barton was missing something. This was not a surprise. He checked the reflections around the room to make sure no one was going to sneak up on him but saw nothing.

“Funny, because the way I see it you play a pretty vital role, Bruce,” he let the name roll out a little deeper than he’d planned. “So maybe you’d like to explain it to me before I lodge a bullet somewhere you don’t want.”

“Clint?” The guy asked, “what’s going on?” and something inside him, the control he’d been holding onto, snapped.

+

“Clint? That’s my name?” Clint demanded as soon as Bruce finished his question, and Bruce’s body tightened in reaction to the forceful demand. Clint’s cold, focused eyes were so intense Bruce actually backed up a step, shifting to hold his hands out in the universal ‘calm down’ gesture, before he remembered that Clint had told him not to move earlier. Clint also never responded well to that particular gesture and, whatever the hell was happening now, that fact was still true.

Clint didn’t calm down, not at all. Instead he stormed up to Bruce, shoved the cold nozzle of the gun beneath his chin, and backed him up until his back slammed into the wall that had all his research pinned up. A pushpin dug into his shoulder, a sharp little bite of pain.

“Answer me,” Clint said in the flat tone he used when he was seriously pissed, and his free hand gripped into Bruce’s plaid button-up and twisted the fabric into his fist to emphasize his warning. Bruce took his own calming breath, making no move to break free. He considered the fist holding his shirt, taking a closer look at the ring of bruising he’d noticed on the knuckles and around his wrist as soon as Clint had raised the gun on him. He very carefully looked Clint in the eye.

“Yes, that is your name: Clint Barton.” He answered as steadily as he could and the distrust being levelled at him from those familiar blue eyes was making his heart race. He’d known something was wrong the moment he’d spotted Clint in the house; ignoring the fact Clint generally banged a couple quick raps onto the door before he came barging in, without fail, the gun had been a bit of a give away. It was obviously not a real concern but the fact that he’d pulled it at all, let alone directed it at Bruce was... bad. Clint’s stance had been threatening; threatening in the ‘about to go into battle’ threatening, but with more anger and suspicion thrown in. It was not a look he’d ever sent in Bruce’s direction and it made him deeply uncomfortable. And even more worried.

“Explain to me,” Clint said as he stared at Bruce without blinking, “why ¬you are so important.”

“I’m not…sure? A little context might help?”

“My guess-” Natasha cut in, finally reappearing from wherever she had gone; Bruce would feel relieved at no longer being alone with Clint when there was something so clearly wrong, but Clint didn’t give him time. Of course he didn’t, because the archer never gave anyone time when he had a plan in sight that didn’t include other people’s agendas. So instead Clint twisted away from Bruce the moment Natasha spoke, whipping his arm with the gun around so fast that she didn’t have time to finish her comment. She kicked the gun out of Clint’s hand just as he squeezed the trigger and the bullet was forced wide, sinking into the wall just over her shoulder. Bruce was then apparently forgotten as the two erupted into motion.

Violent motion.

Clint followed the direction his arm had been kicked in and tucked into a shoulder roll without hesitation. He sprung back to his feet just as smoothly and came up swinging his left arm at Natasha’s throat. She snapped out a quick forearm block and stepped into his space, thrusting her elbow at Clint’s face. He leaned back to avoid the blow, and blocked two more in quick succession before driving a knee towards her side. She let it connect, wrapped an arm around it and shoved him so hard he had no chance to regain his balance on one leg. She pushed him back towards the green reclining chair, the only furniture in the area aside from a small card table that sat in the middle of what might have been the dining room. Clint had to hop quickly on one leg to not collapse from her momentum but right before he crashed into the chair he leaned back and kicked up with his free leg, launching himself off the ground completely. His foot connected solidly with Natasha’s chin, carrying enough force she loosened her grip and he fell into the cushioned seat with enough momentum to send it toppling backwards. He back-rolled out of it and when he came to his feet he had something that looked alarmingly like a stun baton held loosely in his left hand. Bruce hadn’t noticed him carrying it before.

“You’re not going to pull your punches?” Natasha asked coyly, but there was nothing playful in the way she watched Clint, her sharp eyes cataloguing every move, no doubt reading far more than Bruce could. What Bruce could see was a sliver of skin Clint’s gray shirt failed to cover after he regained his feet; it was a colour that it should not be and he felt anger stir deep in his gut. He took a breath and controlled it.

“Doesn’t seem polite,” Clint said without inflection, facing her in a way that kept Bruce in his sights. “So why are you pulling yours?” he asked.

“Because I don’t want to fight you, Clint.”

“Okay,” Clint said and threw his baton at her so hard and fast she barely ducked in time, and they were off again. The card table was the next casualty as Clint somehow did a one-arm handspring over it, avoiding knocking down the ancient ceiling fan with his feet, and with a solid front kick he sent the table flying across the floor with a loud scrape. Natasha slid beneath it and popped back up, twisting to her right just in time to avoid the sparking end of another baton and sweeping her leg out to catch Clint at the knees. He jumped over the attack but landed slightly unsteadily and the exhaustion he was clearly suffering before this fight had even begun was starting to take its toll.

She took full advantage of it, because pulling her punches or not, she’d never been one to extend a fight unnecessarily and as far as she and Bruce were concerned this entire fight was unnecessary. Clint obviously did not agree as he threw himself back at her. She moved at the last moment, just avoiding the electric weapon, and twisted up into a spin that ended with her legs wrapped around Clint’s neck. She took him to the ground in a hard crash and finished with his arms pinned beneath her knees as she straddled his chest. He bucked and strained beneath her, but was eerily silent considering the effort. He nearly managed to pull his right knee up high enough to wrap his calf across her front to throw her off. She leaned forward a bit more so he couldn’t quite manage with how she’d pinned him and he stilled when she pressed the baton across his throat, gently for her, and said “Stop.”

Clint breathed heavily through his nose, pressed his lips together, and glared up at her coldly. Bruce finally pulled himself away from the wall, because moving anywhere during that fight, where their positions had changed so quickly they must have circled and criss-crossed the space at least three times, was dangerous. He’d had no desire to get in their way, but now Clint was pinned in place so Bruce went and picked up the gun. Clint’s attention diverted to him but he still said nothing as Bruce flipped the safety on and then contemplated shoving it in his pocket for safekeeping. His pockets weren’t that big though, and it would probably fall out when he walked, so maybe he should remove the bullets just in case? Guns weren’t really his thing.

He hastened to the other side of the living room and collected the first baton Clint had tried to introduce to Natasha, before he finally approached them. Clint shifted uneasily beneath her, his eyes tracking to the baton, to him, to the baton, and back to Natasha. He looked like he was preparing for his second wind, and Bruce, really not liking any of this, walked quickly passed them into the kitchen and shoved both weapons in the fridge’s half empty freezer. He slammed the door closed and went back to find Clint and Natasha in a staring contest, their faces just about a foot apart. He controlled his breathing and very carefully did not focus on the damages he could see from where Clint’s shirt had dragged up his stomach.

“You going to calm down if I let you up?” She asked.

“Absolutely,” Clint agreed, a little hesitation in the answer but still a bit too quick. She didn’t shift and Clint continued to breathe heavily.

“Bruce, why don’t you get that chair from my bedroom and the things in the side pocket of my bag.” She suggested.

“Uhhhh, sure, yeah. Okay,” he said, really intelligently, and hurried to do what she asked. He heard a commotion moments later, but it settled quickly so he didn’t rush right back to them. He rummaged in her bag as she’d ordered and came up with a bunch of reinforced, rubber-like blue zip-ties. He was not surprised by their presence, which he supposed came from spending too much time with spies these last few years. He grabbed the rolling chair, a heavy black and silver thing that had a light layer of dust pressed in where the seat and back met, and shoved it ahead of him all the way to the living area. Natasha had Clint pinned on his stomach now, the baton still resting over the back of his neck with one hand while the other had twisted his hands up over his back in a grip that looked painful. Clint was remaining very still. He glared at Bruce from where the side of his face was pressed into the floor and Bruce felt his stomach twist at the anger there.

This was messed up. Whatever the hell this was, it was just wrong. Clint wasn’t supposed to look at him, at them, like that. Ever. This was not how Bruce had imagined their reunion.

Between the two of them they secured Clint’s hands, ankles, and knees at Natasha’s insistence (which had been a glare when Bruce had balked), and they carefully hauled him up and set him in the chair with his arms looped out behind the chairs back. He didn’t fight them, clearly knowing which battles to pick, but he went dead limp to make it more difficult and Bruce had never properly realized how heavy Clint could make himself. Not in this sense. Bruce spotted a slight smile on Natasha’s lips at the token resistance as she stood behind Clint and secured his confined hands to the back of the chairs spine. The amusement was a brief flutter, a barely there reprieve, and then she was back beside Bruce as they both looked down at Clint. He was glaring up at them like they were solely responsible for world hunger.

“Do you want a drink of water?” Bruce asked, because Clint was looking decidedly pale under the light of the ceiling fan, the bags under his eyes more pronounced now he had a moment to properly look him over. There was the pale red shade of a bruise cropping up at his neck from beneath his gray shirt. Clint glared at him and didn’t respond. “I’m going to get you a glass. When’s the last time you had something to drink, Clint?” The answer he’d been hoping for was not forthcoming. He filled a glass and then ran the dishtowel under the water before he hurried back. He offered the towel to Natasha, who promptly swiped at the glistening blood that had trailed from her nose and a cut on her eyebrow. She got it all with a couple wipes and tossed the towel away as he offered the glass to Clint, who pulled his head back to avoid it. Natasha neatly plucked the water from his hand and promptly drank half the glass before giving it back to Bruce. Clint had watched her drink and then they commenced in the most uncomfortable, completely silent, staring match that Bruce had maybe ever witnessed. This seemed to be a night of first’s Bruce had never intended. Just when he was beginning to get seriously antsy standing there, holding himself back from reaching out to Clint, Clint gave a tight nod and looked back to him. He got the hint and somehow managed to get the rest of the water into Clint without spilling any.

“Clint Barton,” Natasha said softly and he glared at her. “Who are you?”

His eyes narrowed suspiciously and Bruce’s uneasiness just kept tightening his chest. He tried not to show it but he was pretty sure he was failing miserably at hiding anything he was feeling. Clint was the one who was good at hiding his emotions, not him.

“Do you know who you are?” She asked, and Clint remained tight-lipped, his features falling into that blank murder-face he sometimes entertained to freak Tony out. It was not nearly as amusing here. “Do you know who we are?” Silence. “We are not your enemies, Clint.” Clint didn’t even twitch. Natasha cocked her head, and sat on the floor before him. Bruce immediately followed suit, crossing his legs and clutching the empty glass in his lap, trying to figure out how long he could stare at Clint without getting creepy about it.

“There are strange marks on the back of your neck, and needle marks on your arm. You were in a prison facility before you came here. We know this because we are your friends, allies, and whatever was done to you there is not okay. My name is Natasha Romanov. This is Bruce Banner, but you already knew that.” Clint eyed Bruce a moment before resettling on a spot on the floor between them.

“You and I have worked together for years. We were allies before we were friends, and we were enemies before we were allies. You and Bruce have also worked together, though not as long. You are also friends,” Bruce gripped his glass a little too tight at that descriptive and there was a faint cracking sound. He quickly and carefully set it aside, thankful it hadn’t shattered. Clint was watching him.

“We worked for an organization that was supposed to help the world against aggression. We are highly trained operatives,” Clint looked at her more carefully now, showing that he was listening. “We joined a group called The Avengers; a team of very specialized skillsets that help with Security on a more global scale. Is any of this familiar?”

“Yes,” Clint answered after a moment, a blanket statement that told them little, but it was better than a no.

“Which part?” She asked and Clint smiled, small and fake with a tint of blood on his teeth, and didn’t answer. She studied him a moment. “Do you know what you look like?” She asked and, after another tense silence Clint shrugged, indifferent. Bruce got up and went to put the glass in the garbage and take a breath. He turned and watched from the kitchen sink as Natasha pulled out her phone, set the camera so it would record from the screen side, and held it up to Clint so he could watch himself in real time. Clint stared at the screen, unable to hide the hunger in his gaze as he took himself in, making a few small facial movements to make sure he was not watching a recording.

“You memorize it?” she asked and he nodded. His chair rolled slightly as he leaned back. Maybe they should have put some kind of wheel block in place. “Okay, here is a picture of the three of us from five months ago.” She held out her phone once more, and once more Clint took it in hungrily.

“Could be altered,” he said.

“Why?” she asked.

“You could be in on it, on what they were doing in that place. This could be a set up.”

“How could we know that you were going to come here after you escaped? You had a whole world to disappear in, but you came here. Clint, we had nothing to do with whatever is going on right now.” She didn’t sound insistent, just sure.

“I don’t believe you.” He snarled.

“I don’t blame you, bolvan.”

“Krasnaya ved’ma,” Clint spit back, blinked, and looked visibly wary. He flipped to his thinking face, which was just another of his bland looks but with more eye movement, before he looked back at Natasha. “What is that? Russian?”

“Da,” she said and he inhaled through his nose. “You speak Russian as well as a third rate sailor.”

“Ya otlitchno govoryu po russkiy.”

“I stand corrected,” she said with a slight twitch of her lips.

“You speak Russian?” Bruce said, a bit belatedly and shrugged defensively when they both looked at him. “What, he always stares at you like he has no idea what you’re saying when you start speaking Russian.”

“Yes, he does the same thing when people speak Spanish, Japanese, Farsi, and Arabic as well.” She explained and Clint glared at her.

“Stop making things up,” he snapped, dismissive and she shook her head in mock dismay.

“Even when you don’t remember who you are you hide yourself.” There was pride in her tone, and Bruce took a breath. He knew Clint played things close to the vest, that he liked to be underestimated to the point that it was second nature, but it still bothered him every time he was introduced to something he’d never suspected. He sometimes thought that Clint believed his lies before he remembered his truths.

“You said you know why I was in prison. Did you put me there?” He asked her darkly.

“I am partly responsible, yes. The team we were a part of had some differences of opinion.” She explained and Bruce snorted; irritation, disappointment and anger all bubbled beneath his skin every time he thought about the situation. “There was a conflict that grew out of hand…mistakes were made and our alliances were broken. We ended up fighting in-house, and some of us were detained in the aftermath.”

“You say us, but I never saw you in those cages.”

“No, we were on opposite sides,” she said calmly, “but I still consider you and I friends.”

“So this fracture in whatever team you’re talking about, this means the side I wasn’t on set me up for what they did to me in there?” He asked with little inflection.

“No.” Natasha said instantly. “You were being held in detention until a solution could be created-”

“It was a pretty fucking secure prison for detention,” Clint snapped.

“We couldn’t trust anywhere else to be able to keep you safely. It was not my decision.”

“But you agreed with it, otherwise I wouldn’t have been there, and they wouldn’t have-” he cut himself off and his glare turned colder. Bruce could feel genuine tension coming from Natasha, tension and fury that she was barely masking, and it made him even more uneasy than he’d been since they’d learned Clint had broken out. She had been here with Bruce the last few days, but he was absolutely positive that if she’d known they were hurting her brother she would have permanently drowned the Raft herself and happily gone right back onto the worlds most wanted list.

Bruce would have gone with her.

“The Raft is a secure prison that in no way condones mistreatment of its prisoners. I vetted the warden myself; he’s an asshole but he has never strayed from his code of conduct and-”

“There were other people in there with me. Were they my team?” Clint cut her off.

“Yes,” she said.

“The guys didn’t look particularly dangerous. They knew how to fight, but supermax? I’m not buying it. And the girl, I only got a couple quick looks at her and you know what I saw? A kid wearing a collar like a goddamned dog having the life slowly choked out of her. The Warden might not be the guy who did this to me, but he sure as fuck didn’t stop it, and there are still three targets now that I’m gone, because I left them there without a seconds hesitation. They were my teammates and they meant nothing to me. Nothing. Just like you. Care to explain that?” He asked.

“I have no answers about what happened to you. Not yet,” she said darkly, “but the others are not in danger. They escaped when you did. You were meant to be a part of that, but you decided we were taking too long and made your own exit.” She said. “You have always been impatient in personal matters.”

“When I was leaving some people arrived. They triggered the prison to rise…” he trailed off, the corners of his eyes crinkling, a headache clearly bothering him. “I didn’t get a look at them.”

“That would have been Steve and,” she hesitated a moment, “his friend Barnes.”

“Barney?” Clint frowned and she shook her head.

“No, Barnes. They may have had a third person with them, but I wasn’t in on that part of the planning.”

“So you’re on the side against me but you still helped organize our prison break,” he said sceptically. This was the first time Bruce had heard that she had any part in it, but he wasn’t surprised by it or that she’d been in touch with Steve.

“We may have been in an… acrimonious state, but I never agreed to open conflict between us or to them locking you up. As long as I am alive you will never rot away in a prison,” she was vehement. “Whatever they were doing to you in there, whatever they did, no matter which side of this fight we stood on, not a single one of us would have allowed it had we known.” She held his steady gaze for a long moment. “I will look into this and ensure it does not happen again.” Coming from her it sounded like a promise to commit mass murder, but Clint clearly wasn’t bothered by the threat. Instead he finally relaxed a little and took a deep, fortifying, breath.

“I can’t remember anything personal.” Clint said, softly, wilting a little like he was finally acknowledging his exhaustion. “I can’t remember you, or myself. I can’t recall anyone’s face or think of a family members name or figure out what my favourite food it. But I can recall the exact schematics for the White House, Pentagon, and a large number of other facilities that I know are classified. I could fly a helicopter without thinking about it and take out a group of armed guards while cuffed, but I had no idea who the three people you say are allies were when they were directly in front of me. The only person I know is you,” he looked at Bruce, eyes blue-gray in the overhead light. “I know your name, face, and I knew exactly where and how to find you. Just you.”

“Okay,” Bruce said after they all let that truth simmer a moment, “That’s weird.” Clint snorted, a sign of amusement or maybe delirium at this point and Bruce looked at Natasha. “Can we untie him now? I want to take a look at his injuries.”

“I’m fine,” Clint said which they both ignored and Natasha produced an unnecessarily large knife from behind her back. She was decked out in jeans and her own flannel so Bruce wasn’t entirely sure how she’d been storing it, but that didn’t matter. What mattered is that she cut the ties around Clint’s knees, ankles, and wrists, and Bruce reached out to stop him from tilting out of the seat as he pulled his arms to his front. Clint grimaced when his hands landed on his chest, but he didn’t flinch away or attack, so: progress.

“Do you know what they injected you with?” Natasha asked and Bruce’s gaze drifted to Clint’s arm where there was a tiny bruise in the crook of his elbow.

“No. Hurt a bit, but didn’t seem to do anything.”

“How else did they hurt you?” Bruce asked as Clint leaned back in his seat and Bruce felt himself floundering for what to do with his hands now that he was just kneeling on front of Clint.

“I’m fine,” Clint said again. “Should probably eat though. Don’t remember my last full meal.”

“Do you remember how you got the marks on your neck?” Natasha asked and Clint did twitch reactively at this, his hand reaching up but stalling before he made contact.

“No idea. Didn’t realize they were there until you pointed it out.”

Bruce grabbed the seat of the chair and tried to spin it around so he could see the marks they were talking about, but Clint kept his feet planted and raised an eyebrow at Bruce, clearly not intending to make this easy. Bruce refused to let it frustrate him and shuffled around on his knees to the back of the chair. He gently pulled the shirts collar away from Clint’s neck, thankful that he didn’t flinch away, and looked at the angry little red square with four tiny dots burned into Clint’s skin at the base of his hairline. He couldn’t think of anything good that would make this kind of mark so close to his spine and cerebrum. He could feel Natasha’s gaze on him and shook his head slightly. He wasn’t sure, but “considering the condition of your memory it must be some sort of neural device, but without seeing it directly I don’t know what it’s purpose is or if it worked as intended.”

Natasha pulled her phone from her pocket and began typing, but Bruce was distracted by several pine needles and a small twig imbedded in Clint’s dirty hair. There was some kind of yellowish sap on his shoulder as well, and Bruce made to pluck the twig out when Clint pushed out of his chair and took a few steps, shaking out his legs. Bruce stood as well.

“Can I take a look at your chest and back?” He asked and Clint looked at him, clearly uneasy.

“It’s just a few bruises. Don’t worry about it.” He dismissed again and Natasha narrowed her eyes at him. Bruce was well aware of Clint’s special skills when it came to correctly understanding the severity of his injuries.

“Let me see please.” He insisted, worried. Clint frowned at him, clearly uncertain of what to do with this level of care from virtual strangers. Bruce held his gaze calmly; he was just a doctor, nothing else to see here, he thought bitterly. Clint didn’t look any closer to exposing his injuries to them.

“The person who did this to you,” Natasha asked when the silence dragged a moment, most likely getting ready to distract Clint into letting Bruce help him, “did you get any Intel about them?” Clint snorted like it was the most ridiculous thing he’d been asked all night.

“Male, Caucasian, stands around six feet, military trained, high-rank, gray hair, has an albino-beaver stuck under his nose and goes by the name of Ross. Familiar?” he asked. Bruce sucked in a heavy breath, his chest suddenly tight and heart banging like a drum as old fear and the familiar need to run thrummed to life in his blood. Clint was instantly staring at him, wary and alert, his back straightening like he was preparing to attack or defend again and Bruce forced himself to get control of his breathing, knowing the Big Guy was just a little too close to the surface.

Shit.

Bruce looked back to the injection site on Clint’s arm, but Natasha beat him to the punch line.

“They may have put some kind of tracer in-”

The living room and kitchen windows exploded inwards, a shower of glass crashing to the floor and something sharp and deep buried itself into Bruce’s throat, and then wrapped right around his neck, cold and tight and just shy of chocking him. He fell to his knees, a gurgled cry of shock escaped his lips as he reached up to tear the thing off, and promptly lost consciousness.

+

Natasha dove for cover the moment the window spit a shower of glass missiles in their direction. Clint, she knew, had done the same, but as she dove she saw something wrap around Bruce’s neck, and by the time she rolled to a half crouch, braced to launch herself in any direction, Bruce was out for the count.

“Okay,” Clint yelled from where he’d thrown himself into the kitchen, somehow managing to be heard even over the sound of artillery hitting high on the house walls, “this looks fucking baaad.”

“Are you dead?” she snapped, pushing into a sprint and launching herself at the rolling chair, landing with her stomach on the seat with enough force that she sent it speeding into the kitchen. She rolled off right where she wanted and threw open the broom cupboard.

“No!”

“Then this is a party, try to have some fun,” she pulled out the handgun she’d taped to the inside of the door, right at handle height.

“You and I have a very different idea of fun,” he said, clearly focused on his surroundings more than what he was saying. He had the knife block from the counter next to his knees and eight steak knives gripped four to a hand, loose and ready for deployment. She relaxed a bit, focused through the smoke that was filling the entire space, and began firing at the armed soldiers that came storming through the doors and windows.

“Here,” she yelled, snagging the quiver Clint had started storing there months ago with her free hand, and tossed it to him as soon as his right hand was empty of knives. She took out another soldier by hitting both his thighs, knowing his thrashing body would block that pathway for a brief moment, which gave her enough time to throw the bow as well.

“What the hell am I supposed to do with this?!” Clint yelled, and her chest tightened as a larger wave of soldiers began approaching, and they were getting closer to where Bruce lay, spread eagle and clearly out for the count in the middle of the destroyed living room. Shit, she’d failed to anticipate that Clint wouldn’t know how to use his bow when he was clearly confident with other weapons, and she only had one gun. They’d need to offload the soldiers closest to them, which wouldn’t be too difficult but Clint was injured and running on fumes… Clint pulled an arrow from the quiver and flung it across the room with such force and accuracy it pinned his target to the wall, right through his upper arm where the Kevlar didn’t protect. “Never mind,” Clint said around the screaming, “I figured it out”.

The lights went out.

In the dark she smiled.

+

 

Notes:
(most important: I do not speak Russian and am a terrible linguist…so we’ll say that this is what I was going for and hope it was right.)

Bolvan: Russian for male person who is an idiot
Krasnaya ved’ma: red witch
Ya otlitchno govoryu po russkiy: My Russian is excellent

Chapter Text

“Everett Ross has been assigned the duty of tracking us down,” Sam said from where he and T’Challa were bent over a computer on the wooden dining room table. Bucky didn’t bother looking up from the other side of the table, they were talking to Steve not to him, and that wasn’t his job anyway. Of everyone here he knew Barton the least, with the exception of T’Challa, so he had volunteered, or more specifically taken the laptop with the interrogation videos out from in front of Wakanda’s King, and set it down in front of himself. The Ant guy had sat on the same side of the large table as him, near enough to see the screen if he wanted to, but just far enough to be able to pretend he was mostly tinkering away with some small pieces of computer bits he’d pulled from T’Challa’s supplies.

“Secretary Ross is keeping updated, but he’s not actively involved in the search. We’ve got to assume he’s focusing on Clint, so if we figure out how he plans to track him maybe we could use it ourselves.” Sam sounded frustrated and Steve hovered by his shoulder. Bucky ignored them.

“There are waaaaay too many Ross’s involved in this thing,” Scott muttered from beside him. “It’s confusing as fuck.” Bucky could tell from the way his words were formed that he held a tiny screwdriver between his lips like cigarette. The image on the screen encompassed most of the room, but it was set high on the wall in the corner, and while the archer faced the camera he was at a slight angle. Barton was strapped to the chair again, wearing nothing but underwear that was still damp from the waterboarding. His hair stuck up in spikes and his pale body was a patchwork of bruises in different stages of colour. He had a great deal more scars than Bucky had been expecting. Scott had gone silent when he’d looked over after they’d stripped his teammate. Bucky knew Scott had only met Barton during their fight against Stark and the Accords, so he probably knew only a fraction more about him than Bucky did. Way he told it the entire time they were locked up Barton barely shut-up, but rarely said anything personal. He hadn’t spoken a word in interrogation since the first video. Bucky jiggled the earphone in his left ear to sit more securely.

“Can’t we just call them Evil Overlord, Thing One, and Thing Two?” Scott continued to mutter. On the screen two guards held Clint in place as the medical person who had been witnessing all the interrogations stepped forward and stuck a needle in Barton’s arm. Barton fought, but there wasn’t much he could do tied down, sleep deprived and weakened after several nights and days of this. The sessions weren’t long, but they didn’t have to be.

“They injected him with something,” Bucky said flatly and everyone turned sharply to stare at him but made no move to see the screen. “If it’s not an inhibition reducer than my guess it’s some kind of nano-tracer in the blood stream meant for short term tracking, a week tops.” On the screen Barton did not appear impressed, or influenced by drugs, and his lips were still pressed closed. It was notable how little noise he made when they were hurting him, though judging by the scars he’d been through worse and this was a fairly mild interrogation so far. Painful but superficial. Barton would know that.

“Tell me where Bruce Banner is,” Ross hissed and Barton closed his eyes, like he was preparing for a nap. Maybe he was. The tightness in the Secretary’s shoulders told Bucky that he did not like Barton, and it was clear be cared nothing for him beyond the information he wanted. Bucky was pretty certain at this point that Barton did know where Banner was. “You know we’re aware of how much time you were spending training with both his halves before he left after the Ultron disaster,” Ross sat on the chair across from Barton, elbows braced on his knees as he watched him closely. “My source thinks you helped set up his current safe house. Apparently that is an area you excel at: disappearing. Being nobody.”

Bucky swallowed thickly, forcing his face to remain blank and breathing even while Steve kept discussing plans with Sam and T’Challa. They’d figured out by now that it had always been the Secretary’s intent to get Barton to escape, to lead him to Bruce, but Barton was smart enough to figure that out. He wouldn’t just play into their hands like that, so he must be leading them somewhere else.

Beside Bucky, Scott had mostly stilled, no doubt picking up on his tension since he was sitting so close. On the screen the Secretary sighed and sat back, gazing at Barton like he pitied him. “No matter. Even nobodies have their usefulness, otherwise SHIELD would have cut you loose years ago. Is it ready?” He asked over his shoulder, and Barton’s eyes opened, unerringly focused on Ross.

“Sir, it is, but I don’t think it’s wise to use it under these conditions. It wasn’t meant for-”

“Your objections are noted,” Ross cut the medic off and the skinny man actually looked affronted, standing a bit straighter.

“Sir, he has a history of head injuries and being influenced by otherworldly sources. There are no previous test cases that we can compare to, this could cause more harm than it is meant to,” he insisted. Bucky felt chilled all over, a familiar fear bubbling in his chest that he could see mirrored in the stillness of Barton on the screen. The archer paid very close attention to the conversation. Bucky startled when a hand landed on his shoulder, and he just managed to curtail the reflex to lash out and instead found Steve watching him with concern. The rest of them had moved around and he hadn’t noticed. Sam plucked the headphones from the laptop port so they could all hear the conversation now. Barton was being dragged from his seat to the table.

“Fuck no,” Barton growled and he did not make it easy for them, but they were prepared. In the end they’d needed four guards to get him there, after a quick baton shock to both his legs. One large guard draped himself heavily over Barton’s back as they bent him over the table, pinning him with his weight and forearms across his shoulders. They awkwardly uncuffed his arms and pulled them straight out from his sides. Metal brackets, shaped like stocky, short U’s, were pressed over his wrists and magnetised in place before a larger one was laid over his back; it tightened until he stopped squirming, exhausted and clearly trapped. The guards all pulled back, Barton’s head was twisted away from the camera but his breathing was laboured and his hands rhythmically clenched and unclenched.

You could have just told us where he is. Last chance Barton, live up to the promise you made to this country and help us protect it. Tell me where Banner is.” Ross requested quietly. On the other side of the room the large guard that had been ordered to hit Barton on the first day looked away.

Fuck you, you piece of shit. Protect the country my ass.” Clint jerked in his restraints but was unable to get any traction. “I see right through you Ross, I know what you’re really after, and you’re going to get fuck all from me. Do this, and you’ll be in my sights.”

“Jesus,” Scott got up and walked away. Bucky wanted to as well, but his mission had been to figure out what had happened to Barton, and he wouldn’t abandon it now. Steve’s warm hand flexed on his shoulder, grounding him, and the medic placed some kind of device on the back of Barton’s neck. Special glasses that Bucky recognized played images on the inside, were pressed over his face and held in place by a guard as Barton tried to pull away and went nowhere.

He didn’t scream when the device was activated, but his legs stopped trying to push him free and his hands went slack while his spine seemed to tighten. Ross went to the other side of the table, braced his hands near Barton’s head and leaned over him.

“Bruce Banner. Where is Bruce Banner,” he asked with a calm, demanding tone. “You will tell us where Bruce Banner is. Where is Bruce Banner. What is Bruce Banner’s current location? Bruce Banner, where is he?”

Yeah, fuck this. Bucky pushed up from his seat and left. He went outside. It was dark but the clouds were gone so he didn’t step beyond the extended overhang that covered the entire wrap around porch. A sound had him whipping about so see Wanda and Scott, sitting fairly close together on small wicker couch with floral cushions. They watched him, and Bucky looked away, back out to the moderately manicured yard. Beyond Peggy’s country home was a fenced in field that he imagined had once kept horses. The nearest neighbours were beyond a copse of distant trees, a fifteen-minute walk away. He took a deep breath, turned, and moved cautiously towards the wicker couch and its occupants.

“Pull up a seat,” Scott said, but didn’t bother with a smile. Bucky lowered himself to the deck a few feet from them and leaned back against the houses wooden siding. It was not comfortable, more awkward than anything as the layered panels were at just the height to press an edge into his back; it helped ground him. He breathed, synching up with them, and they waited in silence.

It was maybe fifteen minutes later when Steve cautiously poked his head out the door and took the three of them in, his gaze lingering longest on Bucky, as it always did.

“We got a text from Natasha. She’s with Bruce and Clint. Apparently he really did know where Bruce was,” Steve scratched the back of his neck, like he didn’t know what to think about that, and Bucky wasn’t going to point out the obvious answer, because he didn’t know any of these people enough to make assumptions. “We let her know about the suspected tracers, but she hasn’t gotten back to us. She did send us an address though; they’re up in Canada, north of a place called Sudbury. Wheels up in five, we’re taking T’Challa’s stealth plane,” which meant that T’Challa was sticking around for whatever rescue mission they were about to embark on this time around.

When Wanda passed him on her way to follow Steve back into the building, her eyes were glowing red.

+

Bruce woke up. He kind of regretted it before he’d even cracked his eyes open. The pain in his head was probably the worst he’d had in a while, not since Wanda had messed with it and sent Hulk on a rampage the year before. The sharp ache was almost balanced out by the weakness in the rest of his body, which concerned him more. He felt like he was coming out of a three-day fever, shaky and devoid of energy. It was an awful sensation. He felt disconnected from himself. He felt disconnected from the Big Guy. The shock of that realization gave him the energy to open his eyes, which were gummed together, and he swallowed. His throat felt three sizes to large.

Something inside him twitched, his entire body jerked in reaction similar to when he was coming out of a nightmare, and he dragged a heavy arm up to prod at his temple. Relieved that the movement didn’t cause any more pain he finally managed to focus his slightly blurry gaze enough to make out his surroundings. Fear spiked and he sat up so quickly his head spun. He was on a low bed of some kind. As his feet touched the floor his fingers brushed a hard object resting up closer to his pillow, and he recognized the familiar shape of glasses. Gripping them in one hand he bent forward, rested his elbows on his knees, and breathed deeply and slowly. It took a moment for the near overwhelming dizziness to dispel and the nausea to settle, he fumbled his glasses on and opened his eyes again.

He was in some kind of observation cell, which was also what appeared to be a science lab. The place was filled with stainless steel tables and gleaming glass and expensive looking equipment all within easy reach. Above him glass windows that slanted more towards the center of his enclosure than standing vertical surrounded three walls. There was nobody up there to stare down at him like a caged zoo exhibit at the moment, which was a minor mercy as he gathered his bearings, but it made his skin crawl with unease and he swallowed thickly.

Something pulled in his neck, the memory of a sudden sharp and squeezing pain came back to him and he reached up to grasp a thick collar wrapped around his throat. He didn’t need to see it to know it was the cause of his weakness and his separation from his other half. His stomach roiled and he began to prod at it carefully.

“Welcome back,” a familiar but raspy voice greeted and he twisted sharply on his perch at the edge of his cot, looking left to the side of the room he’d apparently failed to notice in his panicked awakening. His breath caught in his throat the moment his eyes fell on Clint, relief nearly overwhelming as memory of imploding windows and what might have been gunfire reasserted itself in his mind.

Clint was alive. He also looked worse than he had after his fight with Natasha. A lot worse.

“Shit,” Bruce said, or tried to say, as the words seemed to catch in his throat and trigger a coughing fit that took a moment to subside. He swallowed thickly, hoping to lubricate with his saliva but knowing what he really needed was water.

“Yeah, that about sums it up,” Clint agreed with a hooded gaze. He was sitting on a bare mattress that looked like it came off an old army bunk. It was pressed right up against the dark metal that made up the walls of their prison. He wasn’t wearing the dirt covered gray shirt anymore, and his feet were bare. Bruce focused on his toes a moment; they looked really pale and vulnerable. He blinked and dragged his gaze back up Clint’s body, taking in the black scrub pants and tank-top, he took in all the bruises exposed under the harsh light. Fingerprint bruises, restraint bruises; there were two lines that looked like the skin had been rubbed away on his upper arms, the fibrin net that had formed over the shredded skin was already a darker scab. Most of the bruises were to old to have been from his fight with Natasha, darker and deeper than she would have allowed herself to make. There were a lot of tiny dark lines that must have been small cuts but he’d need to be closer to be sure. Clint had two bandages taped to his right forearm and another over his right clavicle, partially hidden by his shirt.

Bruce inhaled slowly and looked down at his own sock covered feet. A pair of black slip-on shoes rested neatly by the foot of his bed. He clenched his fists, slowly relaxed them, and was so frustrated that he couldn’t reach Hulk to get them out of this place that he was sure his face was turning red. He looked back up at Clint to find himself being watched with his usual unflinching intensity.

“Sit-rep,” Clint requested and Bruce couldn’t help the bark of bitter laughter that escaped, his throat burning and tight. He shook his head at himself. The concern was clear in Clint’s tone, and while they’d never been in this particular kind of situation before he was grateful that Clint didn’t ask if he was okay. Clint could clearly read the situation well enough to not bother with pointless questions.

“Dizzy, nauseas, tired and feeling weak. You?” He looked over in time to see Clint shrug, and then wince at the action.

“I’m good. Just a couple minor cuts and bruises; looks worse than it is.”

He was such a fucking liar. Bruce didn’t call him on it. They had promised not to lie about these things after they’d begun training together and with Hulk, but since Clint couldn’t remember his own damned name at the moment Bruce would let this one slide. What he really wanted to do was go over there and examine him. He wanted to see every bruise and cut they’d given him, every visible injury to add to the already unforgivable mental-alteration. Bruce would remember it all. He let a bitter smile lift one corner of his mouth and finally took in the space Clint had been locked in.

It was virtually a box: thick glass in roughly a ten by ten foot space with an equally thick glass ceiling about eight feet above him. It was sealed with metal wrapped around the joining edges, and Bruce could see the vents imbedded in the wall above where Clint sat. The seal of a door was also visible on the right side, just within the cages parameters. Shit. Shit shit shit. This was not good. Judging by the grimly amused look Clint was now giving him his thoughts were pretty easy to read.

Another thing to consider was Natasha, who wasn’t in there with Clint. Bruce looked around quickly to make sure he hadn’t missed another glass box containing someone he cared about, but no: Clint was it. He didn’t know if her not being here was a good thing or not and a nervous chill swept over his body as he calculated what could have happened to her. If she was…gone, he’d go with gone, would Clint tell him? Bruce wanted to ask, but he didn’t know if that would give something away to Ross and his people. They must know she was at the cabin, but maybe they had only been aware of a third person and not their identity. He hated spy strategy. He wouldn’t say anything then, and if Clint brought her up then he would deal with it.

She had better be okay. He felt ill.

“So, is there a point in asking what you did to piss of the Moustache Man? Because, and maybe I’m just confused from my complete lack of knowing anything, it’s pretty clear this was never about me,” Clint said. It just about crushed Bruce, because Clint was right, and instead of sounding accusatory he said the words lightly. It was just…the levity was such a Clint thing to do and he didn’t even know who Bruce was.

“Your observational powers are awe inspiring,” a woman’s voice filtered throughout the room and Bruce jumped to his feet in reaction, looking up sharply and ignoring the slight tug in his neck at the movement. He couldn’t see her clearly, she wasn’t close to the window, but he could tell she was fairly short in stature and had darker hair that fell about shoulder height. The glasses she wore had black lenses, and while it made it impossible to see her eyes he could feel her gaze settle on him.

“It’s not the only thing awe-inspiring about me,” Clint sounded like he was grinning as he said this, but Bruce could hear the weary edge in his tone.

“And you would know this how?” She asked stiffly, not looking away from Bruce but clearly aiming to injure. “Your memory should be returning by now.” Or maybe she just wanted data.

“Sure, I remember lot’s of things.” Clint drawled. “How are you Dr. Ferch? Keeping well?” She turned sharply to Clint and Bruce internally cheered at the obvious hit. Clint was doing a kind of smirk-glare up at her, which caused the butterfly bandage at the corner of his eye to crinkle. She didn’t respond, and after a moment turned her head back to Bruce.

“You’ve awoken earlier than predicted. The Secretary has asked me to explain the situation to you in his stead and then you will be allowed a few more hours rest to…acclimate to your situation.” She explained in clipped tones. He couldn’t tell if Clint knowing who she was flustered her, but he was absolutely certain he would not like where this was going. He looked pointedly around the room, eyes lingering on the lab equipment that rested on all the tables’ surfaces, on the empty spaces that would probably contain some kind of computer in a few hours, and he looked back up at her.

“I understand the situation,” he said flatly, and managed to not touch the collar around his neck, the one he could feel pumping the chemicals that were somehow keeping the Hulk subdued. Ross was so obviously imbedded in this situation that Bruce wouldn’t have needed Clint or this Dr. Ferch to point it out now that he was here. He felt icy in his chest, heat in his stomach, and he was pretty sure his fingers were shaking so he kept them curled in fists. He could feel Clint watching him but he didn’t look over.

“It has been mentioned that you were the intelligent one in what was once your team, but I was asked to ensure that you truly understand what is required of you here. I’m afraid this will require a demonstration,” she said.

“No,” Bruce objected, taking a step further into the room as if to warn her before he changed direction towards Clint in a panic. Clint was maintaining the cold, blank face he wore so often in battle, but he’d untangled his legs while Bruce had been staring at Ferch and now he was braced on his knees, one hand pressed into the pale mattress, his fingers digging in and their tips disappeared into the fabric. His other hand pressed over his chest, flexing, grabbing. He couldn’t breath. There was no air.

“Stop this,” Bruce demanded, dread hit him first, but was quickly swept away by absolute fury as he watched, helpless and separated by glass as Clint gaped uselessly, mouth opening and closing, his face now flushed from the effort. It felt like it took forever, time passing in slow motion, Bruce’s chest tightening in sympathy, in panic, and when Clint began to inhale deep lungful’s of air, coughing between gasps, the relief was nearly overwhelming. Clint dropped both hands to the mattress and leaned forward, pressed his sweaty forehead to the back of his knuckles, and then he pushed up and sat against the back wall once more, like nothing had happened.

“You understand?” She asked again, and Bruce had to unclench his jaw before he could speak. He turned and looked up at her, knowing he was doing a piss-poor job of hiding his rage and helplessness, and not seeing an ounce of sympathy in her distant features.

“I understand.”

“Good. Get some rest Dr. Banner, you have a busy few days ahead of you.” She was out of sight before her words stopped filtering into his prison. He looked around the lab helplessly, and then back to Clint. He wanted to ask if he was okay, but he knew he’d just get a lie in return. He ended up leaning against the glass that separated them, but Clint made no move to come meet him and Bruce exhaled slowly through his nose. He would no doubt be getting a lot of use out of his deep breathing exercises for the foreseeable future.

“So,” Clint’s voice was raspy again, “it must suck to be the smart one on the team. Is using friends as leverage a common tactical offense against you?”

“No,” Bruce shook his head, crossed his arms briefly before dropping them and meeting Clint’s look. “Not against me,” he shrugged. There was nothing he could do for Clint on the wrong side of the glass and he was feeling more drained by the minute. He went back to his cot, feeling nearly overwhelmingly guilty when he took in the pillow and white fleece blanket that were still tucked in.

“Give yourself some credit, Doc,” Clint drawled and Bruce looked over to see him gingerly moving to lie down on his back. He pulled his arms up to lace his fingers behind his head. “You’re probably more likeable than you think.” He turned his head as he said this, meeting Bruce’s eye with a tiny grin, before he set his sights on the ceiling.

Bruce lay down on his cot, curled on his side to face the room, then he had to pull off his glasses and resettle. He took a breath and did his best to forget about the confusion Clint was both living and hiding, and tried not focus on his worries over what exactly Ross wanted from him. He had an idea he already knew.

He closed his eyes and tried to sleep.

+

They flew with the cloak engaged, everyone edgy and quiet as they passed over a seemingly never ending carpet of trees and lakes scattered with dirt roads and the occasional groupings of civilization.

When they arrived at their destination, North of Sudbury in Ontario, they hovered in the air over Bruce’s supposed address for a long, silent moment.

“Well, shit.” Sam said, tired and wishing he’d taken the pain meds Steve had offered earlier for his ever-growing headache. Looking out the wide viewscreen the remains of what had probably been a halfway decent house was exposed in the early light of dawn. Wood and debris lay scattered across the clearing, and had been flung into trees at the edges of the space. Burnt patches scarred a section of the yard which appeared to be a large slab of rock imbedded in the ground; small boulders pressed around its edge with scraggly pine trees growing from cracks in the stone. About half the house was still standing, but that was probably only because there was no breeze to knock it down. The entire area looked scorched and dead.

The tension on the plane was high as they took in the scene.

“Scans indicate approximately eight heavily armed vehicles were in this vicinity over two hours ago. Tracks on the ground calculate to a minimum of thirty people having been here at the same time. There are two sections that look like a helicopter landed near the edge of the house as well.” T’Challa explained with his cool, professional tone that Sam could totally respect but also kind of wanted to give him a shove for.

“Signs of life?” Steve asked, voice flat, and Sam took a deep breath.

“Scanning,” T’Challa explained. “The entire area has been sprayed with a chemical similar to sodium hydroxide,” he frowned and Sam knew what that meant. He snorted in disgust, hoping it masked the worry that was really digging in his chest now.

“That’s probably a sod-wipe: an engineered agent based heavily on sodium hydroxide that can be sprayed in large quantities to destroy biological evidence. I’ve seen it used before,” and his headache just kept getting worse as several eyes turned to him while Scott just nodded in understanding.

“Means there was probably a lot of DNA evidence down there,” Scott indicated the area with a wave of his hand, like it wasn’t obvious where he meant.

“A lot of blood, you mean,” Wanda just had to be blatant about it, her voice still husky from disuse and anger. Sam shifted to his left a little and let his elbow unobtrusively brush her arm. She didn’t move away for a few long moments, which was more than he thought she’d accept.

“Yeah,” Scott agreed.

“There is a life-sign,” T’Challa announced and the tension shifted flavours to anticipation as he turned the plane to their right, heading beyond the ruined property and over the forest. About three miles away he dropped down level with the trees, a rectangular access hatch that was built in the planes floor slid aside silently. Sam just held off pointing out that someone could have been standing there when a hand reached up through the space expectantly. Steve was there in a moment and he wrapped his much large paw around the wrist. He hauled Natasha-fucking-Romanov right up into the plane. The floor closed and they were all silent as they took her in: blood splattered, a large swath of plaid cloth was tied around her right thigh, which had dried blood altering the colour of her jeans from hip to knee. A small cut was carved over her eyebrow with a trace of red that had been wiped away; dirt covered her shoulder, half her back, and one knee. Her eyes were sharp with banked fury as she took them all in, before something flipped and her stance relaxed slightly. Where she had been unapproachable only moments before she was now the woman Sam was more familiar with.

“Going my way?” she asked, her voice soft and cool, and the giant k-bar in her left hand was flipped and handed hilt first to Barnes, who took it with his one hand and the blankest face Sam had witnessed yet.

Then, predictably, the plane erupted in questions. The gist of the answers was that Clint and Bruce had been taken, and Ross was behind it all.

+

Bruce had been awoken when a breakfast tray was delivered by a guard who looked about eighteen and ready to accidently shoot first he was so nervous. Bruce watched him from his spot on the cot, making no move towards him as he placed it on the only empty metal table in the room. A slot opened in Clint’s cell at the base of the door, and a bottle of water and a tray slid into his box as well. Bruce watched as Clint moved stiffly to the edge of his mattress and snatched up the water. He examined the bottle for tampering, and then shrugged his shoulders at Bruce and cracked it open anyway. He finished half of it in seconds.

Bruce rubbed the bridge of his nose and pinched between his eyes before focusing on the mug filled with steaming black coffee that sat on his own tray.

“Eat up, Doc” Clint ordered, focused on his own meal as he poked at what looked like rubbery scrambled eggs parked beside a single piece of toast. Bruce eyed his own plate and kept his face as blank as he could. It held two eggs over-easy, sliced tomatoes, a small pile of fried potato’s, and sausage. A classic breakfast with all the trimmings, even the whole-wheat toast was buttered and gleaming. Disgust filled his throat and went to push it away. “Eat,” Clint ordered again, softly, but he sounded closer, which was ridiculous because their conversation was controlled by a speaker system that was no doubt decibel-regulated. Bruce looked over to find calm gray eyes were carefully watching him. “You need it.”

Bruce was going to remind Clint of this moment, when he had his memories back, the next time he fell into one of his ‘I’m not really a good person, I don’t really care about others’ funks. He was going to remind Clint of how he’d been making sure that a virtual stranger, who held his safety in the palm of his hand (who was apparently responsible for his torture and imprisonment), was taking care of their self. Yeah, Bruce gazed in irritation at the hearty meal before him, he’d remind Clint of this when the archer tried (again) to convince him that he wasn’t really great at people, and he’d hope that Clint might finally listen. For now he picked up a slice of tomato and shoved it in his mouth.

He managed half the meal and went so sit against the glass that separated him from Clint, leaving the coffee untouched out of habit. Clint’s tray was clean; his water bottle was still half full and tucked between the mattress and wall. He didn’t seem to be feeling the effects of any narcotics, which Bruce supposed was a small mercy, though why they’d need to drug Clint at this point he didn’t know.

Bruce still felt tired, wiped out, and he scratched at the collar that sat so smugly at his neck.

“Things a bitch,” Clint said, and Bruce realized he’d moved to lean against the glass as well, only a few feet away. The angle was awkward to look at him through, so Bruce focused on the sterile lab that spread out before him and sighed. “What are the chemicals doing to you?” Clint asked and Bruce held off a dark chuckle, because he was pretty sure it would come across as more broken than he wanted.

“Keeping a monster at bay,” he sighed and he could feel the dissatisfied glare burning into his cheek so he defaulted to rubbing at his eyes again. He didn’t know how to explain something he had been working towards accepting about himself to the man who was nearly solely responsible for all the progress he’d made the last few years. “I took an experimental serum a long time ago and it altered my…well, it altered me. It changed something inside me, and now when I lose control of my anger I transform into a large green rage monster that likes to break things and basically can’t be stopped.”

There was a heavy moment of silence and Bruce waited.

“Like a Jekyll and Hyde scenario?” Clint asked with a very flat tone, and Bruce found himself nodding slightly, the food in his stomach feeling heavy. He wasn’t expecting the fresh pain from learning Clint could recall fictional characters but nothing about himself.

“Yes, in the sense that Dr. Jekyll let his ego rule him and it resulted in Mr. Hyde literally tearing down buildings when he has a temper tantrum.” A new voice answered. Bruce was on his feet in a flash, glaring across the space where Ross stood by the door. The man was as straight backed and broad shouldered as Bruce remembered, and the familiar look of condescending derision was doing just as poor a job to hide his envy as always. Bruce was instantly transported back through time, back to the pain, humiliation, fear, and hurt this man had caused him. It filled his chest and froze him in place. He’d suffered years of running only to be dug out of the crevices he’d hid himself in again and again. His remembered agony over the loss of Betty, Ross’s daughter whom had once been the love of Bruce’s life, made it difficult to breathe. Loathing chased his panic. Memories of all the people who had been hurt because Hulk had been ripped to the surface in his fear of this man, of being contained like this before, drugged and locked up under the guise of national safety in order to be used to create more of him-

“Somehow I don’t think you’re giving me the whole story,” Clint sounded annoyed. Just annoyed. Bruce yanked himself back to the present, forcing the memories and fear away and looked over to see Clint standing as well, leaning with the side of his arm pressed to the glass and his head turned just enough to keep Ross in his sights while he watched Bruce. His gaze didn’t look annoyed: it looked violent.

“Yes well, you don’t warrant that kind of time,” Ross said and walked further into the room, no guard accompanying him. Bruce looked up to see several people watching from above, mostly scientists but also at least one man that looked like security. “Banner,“ Ross greeted with narrowed eyes, “this would have been much easier if you’d just agreed to work with us years ago. It has taken a great deal of effort to get you here,” he stopped behind a table and a metallic cylinder began to rise theatrically from its center. “Unnecessary effort.”

“I really hope you’re not about to tell me you created the Accords just so you could trap me.”

“That would be rather short-sighted,” Ross said, still watching the cylinder and Bruce glanced at it as the object tilted back with a hiss and a door slid open to reveal a glass vile filled with a murky red-brown liquid. Bruce refused to let his agitation show as he stared at the vile. “Of course with the Avengers and SHIELD protecting you it was rather difficult to get anywhere close, despite my position within the government. Naturally, after your attack on Africa,” Bruce flinched and Ross looked triumphant as he considered him, “it was much easier to convince the President that the Accords were necessary. It was pretty obvious to anyone who knows the Avengers,” he said the title with distaste, “that there would be mixed responses. I have to admit I wasn’t expecting a complete meltdown of the team, but I can’t complain about the results. Which just left finding you.”

“I was cleared of charges, you don’t have the authority to keep me here, especially not after Hulks help in New York and against Ultron. Let’s not pretend this is sanctioned.” Bruce felt ill.

“But it is sanctioned,” Ross said calmly. “By me. Secretary of the State, in case you hadn’t heard about my promotion. Of course the problem remained that you’ve been completely off the grid for the better part of eight months. My people in SHIELD were adamant that nobody knew where you were so I needed a little help finding you when it became clear that you hadn’t shared your destination with anyone. Well, almost anyone,” his gaze flicked briefly to Clint but Bruce refused to turn as well. He focused on keeping his breaths calm and even. “Of course we suspected Widow knew, but she allied with the Accords and her history makes her useless as a source: she’s unbreakable, or so they say.” Bruce swallowed thickly and Ross plucked the glass vile from the metallic cooling unit.

“My people have come very close to creating the serum you designed, Dr. Banner, but it still needs some fine-tuning which, I’m sure you’ve figured out, is why you’re here.”

“I’m not going to finish it,” Bruce just managed the refusal without choking. His skin felt icy hot and he was shaking with anger and disgust. “It’s always been about power to you, control, a weapon.”

“A weapon for the betterment of our country,” Ross snarled and placed the vile back in its protective case. “A weapon to help, which would be controlled and used to its fullest and most positive potential. Something you never understood. You lack control, but where you lack we will create something better and we will all be safer for it.”

“You’re insane. This isn’t the answer, there are unknown variables that I don’t understand; I’ve been working on it for years and it won’t work,” Bruce argued, the conviction in his tone. “I was a fluke, an anomaly, a one in a trillion chance and even then it didn’t work the way it was supposed to. It won’t work.”

“Well it had better work,” Ross said calmly, “because your deadline is two days, at which point we will be performing a trial run on your very dear friend.” Ross said “friend” with a level of disgust that didn’t surprise Bruce in the slightest, but he flinched all the same. There was a heavy moment of silence as Bruce calculated the odds of Natasha and Steve getting them out of here in two days, of him being able to make whatever serum they had work in that amount of time, or what would happen if Ross actually injected Clint with it, whether it worked or not. Bruce was coming up with no conclusive answer. He turned and looked at Clint, who was standing ramrod straight behind the glass, barefoot, in a tank-top with bruises and cuts all over, his dark blonde hair spiked from not being washed for several days, and somehow looking as intimidating as he did in full combat armour as he stared at Ross with a look on his face that Bruce couldn’t decipher.

“Reverse what you did to Barton,” Bruce demanded, because at the very least if he could return Clint’s sense of self than one solution would come to this awful fucking situation. But Ross just raised an eyebrow at him, like he was amused.

“Why would we do that? If reports of his memory loss are accurate he’s just as effective a tool as he’s always been, and now we can shape him more readily with the serum. My suggestion, Bruce, is that you put that massive brain of yours to good use if you want him to come out of this with any of his mind intact.”

Bruce lost it.

He lunged at Ross, weak kneed and unsteady and so, so angry. He swung up with the intent of breaking Ross’s jaw, to hell with passivism now that Hulk couldn’t come out to play, and his fist went right through Ross’s face. Bruce stumbled from the momentum and caught himself on the table. He looked up to see Ross’s entire body flicker and then the hologram resettled with the tall man looking stern and unimpressed.

“You think I’d risk myself with a monster like you?” He said softly to Bruce, looking him up and down. “Get to work,” he ordered, and then he was gone. Bruce sagged.

“So…I’m guessing he’s not on your Christmas card list,” Clint drawled, and it was so ridiculous that Bruce blinked and turned to look at him incredulously, catching his breath.

“He was nearly my father-in-law,” Bruce huffed, which was something he’d never shared with anyone before, and the absurdity of this entire situation had him biting back a laugh.

“This would have made for some awkward family dinners I’m guessing,” Clint decided in his usual flat tone and Bruce let out a few short, sharp, barks of laughter before he took a breath and composed himself. The door to the room opened and three wary looking people in pristine white lab coats entered and stood by the security guard where they proceeded to stare at him. “Oh look, minions.” Clint said.

“Clint-”

“Relax, Doc,” Clint cut him off. “Just do what you have to, I’ll back you one hundred percent.”

“You don’t even know me,” Bruce sighed.

“I’ve figured out enough,” Clint said with his firm ‘resolved leader’ tone that didn’t get used much but which always packed a punch. Bruce took a breath, looked at the nervous people crowded at the other side of the room. He rubbed at the collar that was pumping poison into his body, and reached for the vile of red liquid.

+

Sir,” Friday’s soothing voice filtered into the earpiece he’d chosen to wear in place of her using public speakers to get his attention. It wasn’t that he was concerned with being overheard: there weren’t exactly a lot of people at headquarters right now, especially not at the mid-morning hour when most had jobs or duties to attend to. Sometimes he just preferred to be the only one who heard her.

He’d put the entire gym into privacy mode, not caring for any of SHIELD’s people to wander in and interrupt his time in the ring with Happy. Their boxing sessions had always been private affairs as far as Tony was concerned, at first because he didn’t care to have random Stark employee’s see him getting his ass handed to him by his bodyguard, and eventually because Happy had become more of a friend and it was just nice to have a moment’s peace. They’d only started boxing again six months before, Happy finally recovering fully from his injuries after Extremis and Tony finally having time. Or making the time, as Pepper had suggested with very imploring eyebrows. According to Steve, Tony had lots of free time right now.

Tony ducked to the side to avoid a right jab aimed at his face, and then ducked quickly again just before the second jab could connect. He bounced back on his toes, creating space between them and raised his eyebrows at Happy, who grinned back unrepentant and bounced on his own toes.

”Sir,” Friday said again when Tony apparently took too long to answer.

“Yes Dear?” he asked aloud, and then tried a left double jab right hook combo that Happy blocked and responded with a somewhat slower set of punches than he’d been throwing moments before.

There are reports of a house in Northern Ontario being destroyed in the early hours of this morning,” she informed and he frowned, bounced back and considered throwing a kick into the routine because he hated it when Happy went easy on him, so cheating would absolutely be fair play.

“Okay, so Canada lost one of the hundred houses they have in their oversized country, so what?”

“I thought Canada had at least three hundred houses,” Happy said, and then he kicked at Tony. That mother-fu-”

Sir, the circumstances are highly unusual, and there was an abandoned helicopter that matched the description of Secretary Ross’s stolen helicopter located approximately nine miles from this property. Secretary Ross has dispatched a team to recover it and investigate.”

Tony stopped himself just before launching into a series of uppercuts and jabs at Happy, and dropped back completely. Happy lowered his guard and stilled as well.

“Is this pubic knowledge?”

No. This information is being handled over secure servers between Secretary Ross and Deputy Task Force Commander Everett Ross. Commander Ross may have accidentally dialled your office when he was organizing a retrieval team. I’ve taken the liberty of removing traces of this unfortunate mistake from all systems.”

“I see. Situation at the house?” He looked over to find Happy using his teeth to begin peeling off the tape that held his gloves in place.

The house is destroyed sir. Local authorities are investigating but there are no deceased or injured parties at the location. The owner says the home was rented to a single man named Francis Aldridge, whom he met once approximately nine months ago. He paid a years rent in cash, stating that he was going through a rough divorce and needed a change of pace in his life while he worked on writing a novel. He was not to be disturbed unless there was an emergency. The entire property surrounding the building has been cleansed with an unfamiliar variable of sodium-hydroxide dousing mist; traces of blood found on the scene will be impossible to identify.”

“Statistical chances that’s where Bruce was hiding out and Clint led Ross right to him?”

Ninety-eight percent certainty, sir.” She informed him solemnly.

“Shit,” he bowed his head a moment and stared at the ground. “Did Hulk destroy the house?”

Preliminary investigations suggest a great deal of unidentified ordinance and the ignition of the propane gas supply is the main cause of destruction,” his AI said. He didn’t know what to think about that, because Hulk making an unexpected appearance was never a great thing, but Hulk not making an appearance when apparently under a violent assault was equally not good.

“How the hell would Clint know where Bruce was when we didn’t, Friday?” He huffed out in frustration. He tugged his hand loose from the glove Happy had unwound for him and went to work on freeing his other hand. Happy snorted, and Tony turned to narrow his eyes at him. “Something to say?” He snapped, and Happy raised an eyebrow, unimpressed.

“Clint’s the one that kept dragging your science buddy out on field trips so he could let the Hulk out to exercise, or whatever he called it.” He said as he picked up the glove Tony had dropped on the ground and walked through the boxing rings holographic lines.

“Yeah, for training,” Tony explained, and then froze because… “Nooooooo.” He denied, to which Happy just shrugged. “No, because that started almost two years ago, and we’d go with them,” he defended, thinking back on the team outings into the forest to train with Hulk, and how easily Clint had been working with Hulk on missions since that started. But Clint and Bruce had butted heads a lot at first, they’d barely acknowledged each other on the days they were being all moody.

“Okay,” Happy agreed, now at the wall and wiping the back of his neck with the towel he’d left on the bench.

“Then the thing with Utron happened and Bruce left…” and Clint began disappearing between missions as well. Never for very long and he’d always been in touch as far as Tony knew, but Bruce had actually disappeared and Tony had respected the one request he’d sent to be given some time so… “Shit, really?” He had absolutely not seen that coming. Like at all. “I thought Bruce and Natasha were…not…Clint? Seriously? That guy is such an asshole,” Tony exclaimed and he couldn’t believe it because how the hell had he not noticed? It seemed so obvious now that he was thinking about it in this new light.

“Takes one,” Happy said and took a swig of water. Tony ignored being called an asshole by his friend.

“You’re fired,” he snapped, “for not telling me.” He paused though, because Happy hadn’t actually said anything except that Clint and Bruce trained together, and Tony doubted Happy would have ever cared enough to look into it further. But if this was true…

“Friday, explain to me Ross’s connection to Bruce Banner,” he said slowly, because he remembered something about Bruce’s file now, from when he’d glanced at it briefly during the Loki invasion. He remembered Ross’s name as a footnote, but had never really looked into it beyond that, and when the Accords had been brought to his attention he’d been dealing with Sokovia and…well, he always felt like he had a cloud of guilt trying to press him into the ground.

A moment,” she requested, which immediately told him that this particular information was buried deep at some point, but his girl dug it up after only a few seconds. “General Ross was once in charge of a military task force who’s mission was to detain and secure Dr. Bruce Banner and Hulk. The ultimate goal was to secure his knowledge of gamma radiation and the serum he created to become Hulk, as well as to contain Hulk to protect society. He spent several years tracking and attempting to contain Dr. Banner before SHIELD stepped in and began making it nearly impossible for Banner to be located. General Ross was promoted and began to work his way towards becoming Secretary of State and has not expressed public interest in Dr. Banner or Hulk since his appointment to Secretary.”

“That son of bitch,” Tony hissed, a heavy, intense feeling of rage, disgust and light headedness overtook him and he grabbed at the boxing ring corner post, which Friday fortunately solidified for him so he could lean against it.

“Tony?” Happy asked, watching him carefully now and Tony shook his head slowly.

“SHIELD fell, Ultron happened, the Accords opened up a governing body that he could control and manipulate…he could control us, and he used it to divide us, used me to expose Bruce. Used Clint to expose Bruce…” it was coming together now, and how did Ross know about Clint? Was there even anything to know? Then again, if Happy suspected something than it wasn’t like they were trying very hard to hide their possible relationship. He felt like he was going crazy. Again.

“We have a mole, either in Stark industries or the new SHIELD, reporting on Avengers personal lives to Secretary Ross. I want you and Friday to find them.” Tony ordered, straightening up. “Friday, how is Canada feeling about this house explosion thing?”

Canada is not happy, Sir.”

“I bet. I bet they also have no idea that Ross sent a fully armed military force over their borders in order to remove an unknown citizen from their soil.”

“I do believe they might be upset to learn of this, sir.” She agreed. “In fact, I believe I will start investigating how something like this could have happened and if anyone across the border is aware of it.”

“Good idea. While you’re at it see if you can figure out if the President knows about this, and I want to know who sanctioned Clint’s torture and his and Bruce’s abduction. Prepare my suits and a jet, get to work on locating Bruce and Clint, and start tracking Rogers. Nobody uses me like this and nobody hurts my people.” He noticed Happy look away at that, and he turned and glared at him, silently demanding an explanation. Happy, like Rhodey, had never really been one to back down, even though he was generally the nicer of the two about it.

“Just be careful? Everyone’s pretty intense right now, so don’t get hurt any more, okay?”

Tony deflated a bit, because yeah, he was going in there with not much of a leg to stand on, and things between him, Steve, and Steve’s best bud were not over by a long-shot. But-

“We’ll deal.” Because until he knew Clint and Bruce were safe again he wasn’t letting anything else get in the way.

Chapter Text

They brought lunch to Bruce and removed Clint from his cage through the door in the back wall. Bruce was not particularly proud of how he reacted, but he also didn’t particularly care as he’d refused to work until Clint was back in his sight. It took twenty minutes of supremely nervous scientists very carefully not saying anything to him as they watched him pace angrily, or at least pace as much as he could before he grew winded and weak and needed to sit to regain his strength so he could do it again. Whatever poison they were pumping into him made picking up the lab stool and throwing it at the wall of Clint’s cage a monumental effort that left him shaking and the glass undamaged. He ran his fingers through his hair, considered ruining the serum he’d been given to work with, and basically had difficulty concentrating.

When they brought Clint back he walked in on his own steam, his hair was damp, he was wearing slip on foam clogs over his sockless feet, and he raised an eyebrow at Bruce in question when Bruce practically rushed the glass.

“What happened?” he asked Clint, trying to find new marks amongst all the marred skin.

“Shower time. Apparently they have hygiene standards,” Clint answered with a raised eyebrow that clearly demonstrated he thought Bruce was overreacting. Bruce took a deep breath, stepped back from the glass, and tried to remember what he’d been doing at his table. Clint wouldn’t tell him what happened anyway, not with any audience, and especially not surrounded by enemies.

Five minutes later, with Ferch parked as overseer in the observation booth above, a series of blood samples arrived for testing. The vials were still warm and Clint avoided looking at Bruce in favour of a nap on the naked mattress. Bruce swallowed thickly, his mouth suddenly dry, and went back to work.

+

“Secretary Ross is back in the United States,” T’Challa said with a frown as he walked beside Steve while Natasha followed one step behind and to his right. She was listening intently to every word as they left the small, abandoned airfield hanger, which was their current safe house, and began crossing the cracked cement ground. “But I can not trace him,” he stopped and turned to face them both. “My technology is highly advanced, but not wide spread. We have kept most to ourselves and in this case I regret the limited access outside my homeland. I am sorry, but I do not believe I will be able to do much more. If I could stay to continue the search, I would.” His remorse was easy to read, and the frustration at having to abandon the search was palpable, and Steve immediately shook his head.

“You have already done more than we could ever expect. You have a country to run and it would be suspicious if you’re out of the public eye for much longer.” He reached out and shook T’Challa’s hand when the man proffered it a moment later. Behind them a sleek silver plane de-cloaked from where it was parked on the crumbling gray tarmac. The hatch on the back already lowered and two strong looking women in dark suits stood on either side of the ramp, eyeing them distrustfully. The aircraft reflected the faint reds and gold of the nearly faded sunset.

“The plane I’m leaving you will not be traced or its border crossing recorded should you decide to return to Wakanda. You and your people are always welcome, and any assistance I can provide once you have regained Barton and Banner will be at your disposal.” Steve took a breath and they released the handshake. T’Challa had helped them so much these last months, helped in ways that could greatly damage his countries standing with the rest of the world considering Wakanda was one of the leading forces behind the Accords.

“We’ll keep you updated,” Steve said.

“Please do, quietly,” T’Challa let a slight grin curl his dark lips and Steve grinned back. Less than a minute later he was gone.

Ten seconds after the plane disappeared from view Ironman dropped from the sky and landed with a dramatic crash on the already damaged ground, sending puffs of dust up around his feet. Steve took a deep breath, let it fill his chest, and forced his posture to remain relaxed.

I thought he’d never leave,” Tony said as he stood straight. He kept his faceshield in place and his legs braced, like he was prepared for an attack. Steve’s chest tightened and he felt as if something large and hot had lodged itself in his throat as he scanned the armour for signs of the damage he’d left the last time he’d seen Tony in person. He had not actually expected Tony to show up. He had no doubt it would be a lot more difficult to deny Tony’s help now that he was here in person. At least Steve hoped he was here to help, and not to take them in. He hoped he hadn’t lost his ability to understand Tony that much.

“Are you kidding me!!” Scott’s voice carried loud and clear from the hangar behind them. Natasha sighed.

“Well, this should be interesting,” she muttered as the sounds of many feet rushing towards them filled the otherwise silent air.

+

Bruce doesn’t sleep and the scientists work through the night with him on rotation. Every time he checks on Clint the man is lying down with his eyes closed, dead to the world. Whenever he’s not focused completely on the advanced serum he feels eyes on his back that aren’t coming from the observation room above. It makes his body feel heavy and hollowed.

He’s gone over to Clint a few times to try and explain what he’s doing, to give the man an inkling of why he’s working so hard to make this work, to explain that if he doesn’t and they inject Clint with it anyway…or if it does work… But he has difficulty figuring out how to tell Clint that he’s going to turn him into something entirely unknown, and Ferch doesn’t like it when Bruce tries to speak with Clint for anything more than basic small talk. The third time she pulled the air out from Clint’s room Bruce stopped trying. It was beginning to take Clint a bit longer to get his breath back after the deprivations, and the slight cough he’d been hiding since they got here was getting worse.

The deadline was close. The serum had truly been in final stages though, and Bruce was pretty sure the sample he was working on was the only one they had. At least he hoped it was.

Sometime in the early hours of the morning two guards had entered Clint’s cage, both of them remaining on opposite sides of the space, and both of them aiming steady guns at him. Clint looked at one, then slowly turned to take in the other, and made no attempt to move from where he sat leaning against the wall on the center of his mattress.

“I’m sorry, sir,” one of the scientists that had spent the day working with him brandished a thick syringe with a plastic nodule at its tip. It was filled with a bright yellow liquid that had little beige specks floating throughout it. Bruce sat, his eyes on Clint as the guards kept steady aim and Clint watched him back with a shuttered gaze. There was apparently a port on the side of the collar and the liquid was squeezed in, refilling the reserves. The scientist stepped back hurriedly when he was done, and the guards left Clint’s cell.

“Back to work,” another scientist, one who’d grown braver over the course of the day and now night that they’d been working together. Clint closed his eyes. Bruce went back to work.

+

“This is fun,” Scott muttered and Sam resisted rubbing at his temple as he took in the scene in the hangar. Mid-morning sunlight filtered in through several holes in the side that were clearly from bullets, but most likely from some bored locals taking pot shots than any kind of fight.

“I need coffee,” Sam answered.

“By the bucket,” Scott agreed.

Everyone was spread throughout the hangar. Bucky was sticking to the far end of the metal enclosure, close to the rear door in the guise of guarding it but mainly to put distance between he and Tony. Wanda was sticking close to the cluster of tables on the other end of the hangar, the ones that held all the computers and therefore all the information. It also held Tony, who was still in his suit though he’d finally retracted the faceplate and helmet so they could at least see his face. His very tired face. Natasha stood over his shoulder, watching him work at the series of machines, and Steve sat perched at the edge of the table, close, but still far enough away to be clearly separate from Tony. If you were looking for it you could spot the way Tony flinched, almost undetectably, every time Steve moved.

“This is fucking ridiculous,” Scott muttered from where he was slouched on the old, dusty, probably bug ridden couch that he and Sam were sprawled on, watching the entire hangar. “Do they always gravitate around each other like this?” he asked and Sam shrugged. “It’s painful to watch,” Scott decided after a long minute. “Like, I know the guy put us in prison and is sort of responsible for this shitstorm-”

“We all had a hand in it,” Sam pointed out, chest heavy like it always was when he flashed back to their fight; to Rhodey’s crash. Then again, Rhodey was hit because Sam ducked from an attack from Vision and his own chest still twinged occasionally after taking a full repulsor blast basically point-blank. It had taken a few weeks before his ribs stopped protesting every movement.

“Yeah, whatever. Clearly I don’t know the whole story, which is great considering how I’ve completely fucked-up my life for it, but seriously: I’m almost rooting for them to kiss and make-up. The levels of passive-aggressive hurt in this hangar is going to drive me to drink.”

“Beer,” Sam agreed. A nice cold one, he didn’t even care what brand right now, just something that had condensation dripping from the bottle and enough bubbles to burn as it went down.

“We should get a keg when this is all done. Hey,” Scott rolled his head across the back of the couch to look at Sam, “we should lock them in a room with a keg, get them really drunk so they can talk about…stuff. That’s a viable therapy technique, right?”

Sam wanted to agree, but Steve would probably need a keg of whisky for that to work and Sam wasn’t sure the world was ready for a plastered Ironman and Captain America duking out their feelings in a closet. Still, the idea had merit.

“Shit, I thought we were trying to take a nap. Shut-up already,” Sam said and Scott snorted, but he didn’t say anything else. Sam let the exhaustion overwhelm him, and he was just drifting to that headspace that stopped jerking awake at every sound when a loud metallic bang shot through the room.

“Got you, you son of a bitch!” Stark crowed and Sam was on his feet in an instant, arms up and ready to defend as he looked around for the danger.

“Hey, relax Sam,” Scott said quietly from where he was still sprawled on the couch, looking up with a hooded gaze. “It’s just Stark, situation normal.”

“All fucked up,” Sam muttered automatically, and then took a deep breath and went to join the group at the table, now that something seemed to be happening. There was a dent in the metal surface where Tony had slammed his fist in victory. “What’s up?”

“Ross has been in DC since he left the Raft, but once I knew I needed to keep an eye on him I’ve been looking into his communications,” Stark began.

“Yeah? Did Ross give you permission to do that?” Scott asked as he stepped up beside Wanda. Tony’s hand clenched.

“Give it a rest, Lang.” Natasha ordered, sharply. Scott eyed her warily and didn’t say anything else, because it was clear she was done with everyone’s bullshit. She wanted her partner back and now that things seemed to be happening again she was not in the mood to delay. Sam understood how that felt.

“I had to piggy back a tracer onto the cellphone he uses to contact the president and other members of cabinet so I could pinpoint his location consistently. Then I tracked down every single point-source of communication that’s taken place within twenty feet of his vicinity-” he trailed off and shook his head at himself. “Plot point: he specifically used holographic communication yesterday morning, and while I am taking an educated guess here, I can’t imagine who he would want to talk to in person like that unless it’s for Bruce.”

“How can you know this?” Wanda asked, speaking at him for the first time and Tony cut quick eyes to her, intense and searching and just as quick to flit away as they had been since he’d first seen her.

“He’s right,” Natasha said with little inflection. “He’s been trying to get Bruce under his control for years, and he’s failed for years. Now that he has him he’ll want to assert his dominance, and if he can’t be there in person he’ll do the next best thing to make his presence known. Where does the holo-com lead?”

“Virginia,” Tony said, and shook his head. “The Marines have a reserve up there in Quantico, for training. The signal leads into the reserve, not too far west from the Prince William Forest Park border. A hop skip and a jump from DC,” he turned from where he’d been standing before the monitors to look at Steve.

“I’ve been to the Quantico training ground,” Sam said, thinking back to a few years before when they’d borrowed the airspace for specialized night training. “There are a lot of trees, a few roads and not much else in about fifty-thousand acres of land.”

“Perfect place for a secret lab,” Tony said, still watching Steve. “We can be there in just under an hour and I’ll have the location triangulated by then.” Clearly he was waiting on Steve to give him some kind of permission to join them, and Steve was still hesitating, his eyes cutting to where Bucky had silently joined the edge of the group.

“Good, let’s go,” Natasha snapped, and Sam turned on a dime and followed her to the plane, because as important as it was that Steve and Tony sort their issues out and this whole fucked up situation with the Accords got settled, it was more important that they get to their friends. Sam wasn’t interested in wasting anymore time, and normally Steve wouldn’t be either, but clearly where Tony and Bucky were concerned his head wasn’t on quite straight. Fortunately he was never slow on the uptake and Steve practically beat Sam onto the plane, heading straight for the cockpit to sit co-pilot for Natasha.

That left Sam in the back with a silent Bucky, angry Wanda, a wary Scott, and a suited up Tony Stark who was most likely not flying solo because he was using the stealth capabilities of the shuttle, and because he knew they wouldn’t be impressed if he approached their destination without them.

This wasn’t awkward at all.

“Soooo,” Tony looked around at them all faux-casual. “Did anyone other than the lovely Widow know Bruce and Clint have been knocking boots?”

Sam closed his eyes and pretended to sleep.

+

It was around lunch, and Bruce was beginning to grow clumsy with his coordination, refusing to stop and rest because he had to get this done and get it right and he was too nauseous to stomach the sandwich that had been delivered to his table. The exhaustion was a constant, roiling companion swamping his entire body but he didn’t have the time to stop and close his eyes. There was so much work to do, so many tests to run, to make sure this serum wouldn’t kill Clint. Every time he stopped to consider that the option was death or becoming a monster Bruce had to swallow down bile. There were no guarantees here, no outcome he could predict beyond the terminal conclusion. He was reaching the point where even the science wasn’t making sense, which wasn’t a surprise considering this was the area of his expertise that he’d been struggling to understand for years. He rubbed at his eyes when his vision blurred, and drank the coffee that was placed in front of him, and resolutely did not look at Clint.

Except for when he couldn’t help it. Which was far more often than his concentration should be allowing. Clint kept watching him back with a variety of looks, ranging from encouraging to intense, to completely blank.

Bruce pushed up his glasses, pinched the bridge of his nose, and shoved the small tray he’d just set up with samples at the technician closest to him, not bothering to look at them.

“Hit these with a concentrated Gamma ray at two-Bq,” he ordered. “NOW!” he snapped when the guy didn’t move fast enough and the man jerked back, obviously jittery, but he retreated from the locked lab to the more likely much larger labs that contained the specialized eradiators and equipment Bruce needed but was also considered to much of a risk to handle.

Bruce resisted rubbing out his eyes, and instead braced his forearms on the table and bowed his head. He took a steadying breath and turned to look behind him where he could feel Clint’s eyes drilling into his back. He’d grown used to that gaze being focussed on him over the last year or so for a variety of reasons, but he wondered at it now. He wondered how much of it he was reading correctly and how much of it was a façade that Clint was putting forth. Either way it didn’t change the fact that Clint currently wanted his attention.

He raised an eyebrow just before he was drawn to Clint’s hand tapping over his bicep an uneven pattern. The moment his gaze drifted to the bruised fingers they shifted and slid casually down to the crook of Clint’s elbow where they tapped very pointedly overtop of the tiny bruises left behind from less than careful blood draws. Bruce blinked and looked up a Clint with a frown. Clint just kept watching him with a bland face. Bruce looked back down to where his fingers were still tapping and didn’t miss the brief gesture that was meant to roughly mimic blood being pulled before Clint’s hand moved to scratch at his collarbone and then find a resting place on his bent knee.

Bruce looked around. The two scientists and the guard over by the door weren’t paying attention to him, focused on their tasks or, in the guard’s case, on the scientist handling a tray of beakers closest to him. There was no one in the observation room above; most likely Ferch was overseeing the Gamma test. He looked back at Clint and shook his head negatively. Clint’s eye pinched at the corners, insistent, but Bruce didn’t change his answer, because the last thing he wanted was Clint being subjected to loosing more blood; he already looked pale enough in the cutting overhead lights. Clint widened his bloodshot eyes at him briefly, and tapped at his arm again before pretending to scratch it, and Bruce turned away as the door to the lab beeped and he watched the scientist re-enter.

“The results will be complete in twenty minutes,” the tall man announced, resettling his white labcoat in place as he took his seat across their shared stainless-steel table. He began scrolling through the glass display before him, looking over the coding Bruce had recently completed. “Secretary Ross will be by this evening for the serum’s testing,” The guy said. Bruce looked up sharply at that to find the man avoiding his gaze.

“No,” he snapped.

“Not your call,” he answered without looking at him.

“No!” Bruce snarled, stood, and slammed his clenched fists on the tabletop, frustration, anger and exhaustion boiling out of him. The frustration only grew at how weak his blow to the table was. The guard was now aiming his tranq rifle in Bruce’s direction while the two other scientists were completely still. “I was given two days. Forty-eight hours won’t be up until the morning,” he snarled.

“Not my decision to make,” the scientist said calmly and finally looked at him. The only concern Bruce was picking up off the dark haired man was for his own safety. Clearly he didn’t care about either Bruce or Clint’s circumstances. The tightness in Bruce’s chest was making his breathing a bit strained and he forced himself to calm.

“It won’t be ready by then,” Bruce said.

“Then I suggest you consider what you want to say to your partner when the time comes,” he returned coolly, and went back to his digital display. Bruce slowly picked up the stool he’d knocked over when he’d stood, taking care to not tip to the floor himself when a wave of dizziness hit him as he bent down. He contemplated throwing the stool at the scientist, but he’d seen the guard pull out the small remote trigger that sucked air from Clint’s enclosure, so he sat down instead. Everyone relaxed minutely.

He could feel Clint’s gaze burning a hole in his back.

If Ross was moving up the timeline it probably meant that he was concerned about the security of their location. Maybe. The problem was that there were no absolutes and he couldn’t risk Clint on the chance their friends might be closing in on their location. A few minutes after pretending to review the latest calculations on the screen before him he reset his gaze on the scientist.

“I need fresh blood samples for the next stage of testing,” he ordered in as calm a tone he could manage.

“You have blood samp-”

Fresh,” he snarled and curled his hand so tight around the datapad his fingers went bloodless white. “Fresh blood samples. What is it about that word you can’t understand?” he snapped and the guy looked startled, then affronted, and then he pursed his lips and nodded over at the guard, who relayed the request through his radio. Bruce went back to work, hoping the faint tremors in his hand would be rationalized to the poison dripping into him.

Five minutes later four armed guards entered Clint’s cell, cuffed him, and led him beyond Bruce’s sight.

Bruce sat rigidly, and when the door activated nearly ten minutes later he looked over just in time to watch the guard go down with a tranq-dart in his neck. Clint practically glided into the room, his gaze moving right passed the scientists to focus on Bruce as he fired three more darts in quick succession. He hit all three of them before they were completely aware there was a situation. They were still in the process of slumping over their tables or falling off their stools when Clint stopped beside him.

Bruce sucked in a breath, feeling the edge of the lab table press into his side as he leaned back. He held that breath as Clint moved right into his personal space, so close he had a moment where he thought Clint might be leaning in for a –

“We have to get moving,” Clint announced as he tilted his head slightly and focused his attention on the collar wrapped around Bruce’s neck. Bruce released the breath he’d been holding, because of course Clint wasn’t going for a relieved kiss; for one they didn’t have time and Clint wasn’t the kind of person to put their lives in jeopardy for a reunion, and for another Clint didn’t know Bruce right now. Not like that. He swallowed as Clint shifted around him quickly; his rough, calloused fingertips brushed over the collar and skimmed his skin as he examined the device. His face was so close Bruce could feel his breath on his skin where he’d pushed the neck of his shirt aside. Clint turned his head away to cough, and then moved back a step with a frown. Bruce swallowed as he watched over Clint’s shoulder, making sure nobody was about to come charging through the door.

“There’s no release mechanism that I can see and we don’t have time to figure it out,” he decided as he shoved his weapon into Bruce’s hand and produced a thin metal wire loosely wrapped around the fingers of his right hand. There was a thick plastic security card attached to one end, meant for door access, and Bruce realized it was from the retractable lanyards the guards wore on their belts. “I got a pretty good look at this thing when they stuck it on you,” he said and pressed his fingers into the side of Bruce’s neck, just above the skin-warmed metal. “There’s two needles on top of each other, short ones, and they’re attached to a small plate that shifts, which is why you haven’t ripped your jugular open every time you move,” he explained, and it was basically what Bruce had figured out for himself when he’d awoken the day before.

Clint looped the severed end of the thin, flexible wire over on itself and then pressed it against Bruce’s neck, forcing it between his skin and the collar. Bruce tilted his head without question, exposing his neck so Clint had better access and he only noticed Clint’s brief pause because it was impossible not to when they were so close. The wire scratched at his skin as the loop popped out the bottom and Clint swiftly dragged the broken end the rest of the way through. He proceeded to tug it in a flossing motion until the wire pressed up against the needles, right over his jugular. Clint leaned back and looked at Bruce, his game face on full force even as his right hand cupped over the collar, wrapped partly around his neck and burning warm.

“We need to stop this poison getting into your system. There’s no guarantee that we’ll get out of here, but if they don’t realize that you’re not being drugged right away than whatever it’s keeping down inside you might have a chance to recover, right?”

“Yeah,” Bruce agreed, throat tight.

“How quickly do you think?” he asked, his blue-gray eyes watching him closely.

“Don’t know. Not too long,” Bruce said. “Probably.”

“Okay.” Clint wrapped the ends of the wire securely in one hand. The other hand, the one that cupped his neck, tightened strong fingers over the edges of the collar. Bruce had figured out the plan as soon as Clint began folding the wire, and he took a steadying breath as Clint prepared to move, when Clint paused. “This isn’t going to kill you, right? You’ll recover quickly?”

“Yeah,” Bruce agreed, “Just do-” Clint twisted the collar in one direction and yanked the wire in the other. There was nothing gentle about it as the wire forced the needles to bend where they were attached to the collar, tearing out of his jugular with a sharp, unforgiving yank. Clint moved the collar until Bruce could feel the bent needles pressing into the back of his neck, but no longer piercing his skin. He imagined he could feel the poison dripping down his spine to soak in his shirt, but he was distracted by the warmer gush of blood on the side of his throat.

A moment later Clint was stuffing something between the collar and his neck, his thick fingers unforgiving as they forced his flesh out of the way just enough to get it in place before releasing him. The collar was tighter now, almost restricting his breathing too much, but the pressure over the wound was better than no compress at all.

“Good to go?” Clint demanded, focused on him intently, and Bruce nodded as there was no other answer to give. “Cover our backs,” Clint reached out and tapped the gun in Bruce’s hand, reminding him he had it. Bruce blinked and Clint was already at the door, dressed in his black pants and tank top, and still not wearing shoes. Apparently he hadn’t been a fan of the foam footwear.

He used the access card Bruce hadn’t realized he’d pulled free from the collar to open the door, and then he used the datapad he’d snatched off the lab table like a Frisbee to take out an approaching guard. It hit him right in the throat with enough force that he toppled backwards in shock. Clint was on him, driving a fist into his temple and relieving him of a gun and Taser. He didn’t wait to see if Bruce was following, and Bruce staggered to keep up, knowing he had to. He couldn’t risk Clint being caught again because he was too slow.

His vision blurred and he stumbled along the corridor until a strong hand wrapped around his arm, just below his armpit, and kept him on his feet. Clint fired behind them, doing Bruce’s job, then hauled him into a stairwell and began dragging him upwards. He pulled the gun from Bruce’s hand at some point and Bruce grabbed at the railing to help drag himself up step by step. He heard a shout, then a thump, and then the sudden, undeniable wailing of an emergency alarm.

Chapter Text

Clint’s world narrowed, once again, down to survival. Honestly, he couldn’t remember jack-shit about his past, but if the last three days were anything to go by he just might be better off leaving it far behind. Like, waaaaaay the fuck behind, because this was just ridiculous. This was too ridiculous for the way he was feeling right now, and lugging around Banner, who was trying to keep his feet and only moderately succeeding, was a hindrance he didn’t need.

He couldn’t just leave the guy behind though. Not with these sadistic, evil-scientist fucks who were using Clint to apparently blackmail him into fixing their monster serum. Jesus, every time the guy had looked at Clint his eyes had been a distracting combination of kicked-puppy and pissed off cat. The fact he’d looked ready to keel over since he’d woken up the day before had basically just cinched the fact that Clint couldn’t leave him behind. Plus, the redheaded assassin would probably put him in the ground if he didn’t at least try to get her friend out of here. But, shit, he was slow.

He was hauling them past a door on the stairwell landing when it was thrown open. Clint tossed his handgun up into the air, reached out with his freed hand to grab the guard’s shirt at the front, and he used the guy’s forward momentum to send him flying into the wall behind them. He tumbled down the stairs. Clint caught the gun just in time to smash it into the temple of the second guard that rushed through the door, and then he shot the third through his thigh, just wide of the femur and far from the femoral.

He aimed the gun at the guard that gripped his bleeding leg; the other two were unconscious.

“How many floors to the surface?” He demanded, because he’d known they’d been at least a few floors sub-terrain the moment he’d woken up in this shithole.

“Two more,” the man gasped out with absolutely no resistance. Smart. Clint didn’t see a radio so he kicked the guy’s gun down the stairs instead of knocking him out, knowing he needed to keep pressure on his wound. He began dragging Banner up the stairs again. They didn’t meet any more resistance in the stairwell, but entering the ground floor was another story as he came out to see five guards lined up with their weapons trained right on them. He threw Bruce in front of him and ducked behind his body. They floundered at the unexpected move. He reached around Bruce and shot the closest two without looking, he didn’t have time to re-check their positions as he shoved Bruce forcefully away from him and dove in the opposite direction. He took out the other three during his controlled fall. He landed on his side, his bruised ribs screaming at him as he pushed right back to his feet. The bones protested even more as he dragged Banner off the wall he was using to prop himself up.

“Did you just use me as a shield?” Banner asked incredulously, but at least he didn’t sound angry. Clint grabbed a fresh Glock 19 from the one guard that looked like he might rally enough to fire at their retreating backs, and began hauling Banner down the corridor. The place was painted white, but there were scuff marks up and down both walls, indicating they hadn’t been touched up in at least five years.

“Don’t worry,” Clint growled softly and peaked around a corner. There was a solid metal door with a glowing EXIT sign overhead about ten meters away. “I’m just a carpet clown to them, you’re the main attraction. They want you alive,” the lights imbedded in the ceiling were flashing red and he could hear the muffled gathering of a lot of boots on the ground. It had maybe been a minute since the alarms had gone off, and main security was most likely properly geared by now. He didn’t think they would have expected him and Banner to move this fast though. At least he hoped not. “Come on,” he tugged at the mans arm to help lead and noticed that he was becoming increasingly steady on his feet, which was great considering they should have already been out of this building thirty seconds ago and he could only guess at how many people were about to fall all over them.

He had the guards’ security card ready and he slid it through the card reader. It blinked red. “Awww, card,” he muttered, and shoved Bruce against the door. “Stay,” he ordered, and ran ten feet back to the fire alarm, where he proceeded to pull it. A different emergency siren began to sound along with the one already trying to drill a hole in his head, but Bruce, who’d been leaning against the door release, was now falling through as it swung open. He’d caught his feet beneath him just as Clint caught up, and they stumbled together up a short set of stairs that were framed with cement walls and handrails. It only took moments before Clint’s toes were curled into soft dirt and old leaves.

“How did that work?” Bruce muttered, obviously to himself as he blinked against the sudden daylight that was only slightly muted by the shade of trees overhead. He looked too pale against all the natural colour.

“Military base,” Clint shoved him, with absolutely no care, into the trees. He got the hint and began stumbling along, bending and weaving through the foliage. “I figured the lower levels were high security, but the ground level might be standard. It’s a training facility launch point for special applications. Standard floor levels are subject to safety regulations.” Behind them he heard orders being barked out, and if he could hear them they were still far too close. He bulldozed through a thatch of reaching branches and the forest thinned out a bit. Then a drone (military, Millennium Specs Class Two with video tracking capabilities) sped past him and began to keep pace ahead of him. He could hear another one buzzing off to his left, and then Bruce was at his shoulder, tripping at a root and stumbling. Clint grabbed him as he aimed and shot down the first drone, which crashed off a tree and deflected into the second drone that had flown too close as it monitored Bruce. The gunshot was loud in the otherwise peaceful forest, but they’d clearly already known where they were so Clint didn’t worry about that. The thinning trees cleared and the leaf and stick strewn ground turned to tall, wild grasses that ended abruptly at the edge of a cliff. Bruce grabbed his upper arm and yanked him to a stop. Another three steps and they would have been over the edge of a pretty high drop. He made the final steps and peered over: it was too high to survive a fall and there was no convenient river at the bottom. Shit.

Breathing heavily Clint turned without hesitation to chase the ridge and get them back into the cover of the trees. He didn’t get them more than two steps when a shit tonne of very heavily armed soldiers burst out of the trees, surrounding them in a well-formed semi-circle formation. Clint froze, his heart hammering hard in his chest. Beside him Bruce also stopped, his breathing was laboured and he bent over, bracing his hands on his knees and sucking in deep breaths. His shoulder knocked into Clint’s forearm as he tried to regain control. Clint carefully raised his hands shoulder height and ignored his own heavy breathing. He was winded, his chest ached in a way that made him feel dizzy as he took in the situation. The situation was they were fucking screwed. He could hear several more drones hovering at their backs, somewhere over the deep ravine.

Clint coughed, his chest uncomfortably tight after the exertion and he was feeling it in every limb.

“Drop your weapon,” the apparent soldier in charge ordered from the left side of the human barrier. Clint eyed him quickly: tall, calm, aiming a Heckler and Koch MP59 (typically a Navy special Ops weapon of choice currently carried by a Ranger), with steady hands. Clint slowly bent over a bit and tossed his own weapon on the grass, where it partially disappeared in the green and yellow stalks. “On your knees,” the man ordered, and Clint took a long, disappointed breath.

“Yeah, I don’t think so. Pulled a muscle when I was jogging, it would be a bitch to get back up.”

“I’m not going to ask again,” the guy ordered, and the tension in all the soldiers amped up.

“Clint,” Bruce said, straightening slowly, his arm raised but clearly he was unsure what to do. He looked pretty awful with blood leaking all down his neck and soaking into the white t-shirt he’d been dressed in, some even dripping on his tan khaki’s. But he was standing and not dead, so that was something.

Shit,” one of the soldiers on the other side of the group hissed, jerking his weapon higher and suddenly he became the most dangerous man in the group. Young, this was probably his first long-term station, he’d somehow managed a milk run for his first deployment, and he was staring at Bruce with wide eyes through his field issue safety glasses. “Sir, that’s fucking Bruce Banner, Sir,” he hissed like that was some kind of world ending fact. Now other soldiers were growing anxious and it was taking more concentration than Clint wanted to spare to read them all continuously.

“Maintain your calm, Hess,” the leader growled, unconcerned and still aiming his weapon steadily at Clint. “On your knees, or I’ll cap them,” he said to Clint.

“You don’t want to do that,” Bruce said, equally calm. Apparently that was all it took to shift most of the soldiers tension from ‘confident soldier’ into ‘freaked-out soldier.’ “Trust me, it’s a bad life choice.”

Sir,” Hess, who was jumpy as shit now, hissed again, apparently refusing to tow the line. “He is the fucking HULK, Sir. I did not sign up to fight the Hulk.”

“Hulk is not the threat at the moment,” the leader said with confidence, keeping his sights on Clint.

“What the hell is he even doing here?” Hess just would not shut up, and Clint wished he could appreciate the distraction he was causing, but he knew trigger-happy when he saw it and he was in no mood to deal with that right now. “He should be locked up-” he felt Bruce tense along his arm before he shifted away.

“No,” another soldier spoke up, his voice deep and rumbling. “Hulk saved my brother and his family when the aliens attacked. He’s good people. Why the hell are we hunting him, sir?” Annnnd that was another soldier that was probably going to be in shit once this was over, but he’d lowered his weapon, his dark hands flexing on the grip and his finger light on the trigger.

“Let’s just calm down,” the leader tried, but Hess was clearly scared stupid and Clint, knowing this was not going to end well, reacted the moment he spotted the kid jerking his weapon in fear. He twisted, using as much speed as he could muster, and threw himself between Bruce and that soldier as a gunshot clapped the air. He felt a hot-blazing pain erupt in his right arm just as he realized he’d miscalculated his steps. Instead of blocking Bruce he fell into him, but Bruce had been reeling from the surprise of the attack, which meant his balance was not as solid as Clint would have hoped. They were both falling and then tumbling over the high cliff edge.

Clint reached reflexively and managed to grab Bruce’s wrist with his injured arm. He had a moment to be aware of Bruce’s fingers wrapping crushingly around his own wrist in return just as Clint dug the fingers of his other hand hard into a dip in the rock ledge, abruptly halting their fall. The force of Bruce’s weight coming to a dead stop ripped at his shoulder, and the world turned slow and glowy as the joint eased from its socket with the gentleness of a fired cannon.

“Ahhhhhhhhh fucckkkkk,” he yowled as the searing white-hot pain sent shards of burning through his limb, back and neck. “Don’t let go,” he managed to grit out between his clenched jaw, knowing the hand that had grabbed Bruce was now useless as anything other than a fall stop, and only Bruce’s grip was keeping him from dropping now. Clint desperately sucked in gulping breaths through his nose. His chest had slammed into the uneven rock face, a jutting edge digging in hard, but he’d rotated just enough to not lose all the air in his lungs, which was good, because another one of those persistent coughs were stirring deep inside and he was trying to hold it off. If he started coughing now he’d probably also throw up. His lower body and Bruce were in a free hang but he couldn’t risk looking down to assess if the cliff face was in reach for Bruce; the idea of letting the man fall made him panic in a nearly all consuming and unfamiliar way.

Clint’s hand slipped along the ground; he could feel the fine granules of dirt and small pebbles in the pads of his calloused fingertips and he locked his knuckles harder. His vision went white as the small movement jarred Bruce, and his not insubstantial and rocking weight caused Clint’s detached shoulder to shift with a hot, slick, slip-grind. Fuckkkk. Shoulder, no.

A strong hand wrapped around the wrist he was just clinging to the rock with, the warmth of the dry skin was shocking on Clint’s cold flesh. Another hand was digging fiercely into his armpit, some tiny rocks went skidding over the edge of the cliff and bounced off Clint’s face. He kept his eyes clenched tight and forced the cough in his chest to stay down, because if it escaped the force of it might make him lose his grip. He could control it, he had to- he was being dragged upwards, and the agony in his dislocated shoulder flared so hot he barely managed to cling to consciousness, but a moment later he felt lighter and heavier simultaneously.

Sound was muted around him and he felt his body drag over uneven ground, ground that was holding him firmly now. He forced his eyes open, awareness snapping back, and something dark blurred closely in his vision. He couldn’t identify it; it could be dangerous. He moved to create some space, and blinked. He was on his knees now, his vision was clearing but every breath pulled sharply at his chest, a piercing ache focused over his left ribs and his right shoulder was a hanging, useless weight. His body was dipping to the right in instinctive sympathy to the limb. He had a boot knife held loosely in his left hand, ready for deployment or defence. It was a dark matt-gray designed to not reflect light. He didn’t know where it came from. Clint swallowed, took in the dark skinned soldier who was on his back a few feet away, half propped up on his elbows and holding his hands out in a classic no-harm gesture. His eyes were calm but wary. Clint swallowed again, and sound came rushing back like a clap of thunder and it felt like oxygen was finally filling his lungs.

“Stay down! Stay down!”

“Drop the weapon!”

“Get on your stomach, hands above your head!”

The soldiers’ had all moved closer, their guns trained on him but the calm of before was completely lost and Clint took stock of who he’d need to take out first to get out of this. He wasn’t sure he could manage with only one arm but-

“Clint.” His name. His name. Spoken softly, but there was a bit of strain, and he tilted his head to the right to see dark brown eyes watching him. Strained eyes. Dark brown eyes that held a thin but bright ring of green.

Pretty.

Clint shook his head and looked back at his targets. The one splayed on the ground in front of him was an unknown threat, there was only a fifty:fifty chance he’d have to fight that man, but once he started taking out his squad the chances shifted to ninety:ten. There were four rocks in grabbing distance that he could use; a trachea blow would take the same number out of the equation completely, but if he aimed for ricochets he could disorient a few more with a blow to the face. Then he’d go after the guy calling the shots, and get his weapon. He prepared to strike-

“You need - to clear out,” Bruce’s voice redrew his attention, louder now, and strained, and Clint looked back to see that his eyes were completely green now, and he was hunched over on himself, like he was the injured one.

The men that had been yelling and pointing their weapons stilled; the sudden silence was jarring enough that Clint thought his hearing had gone off again, until he heard a muttered shit from the soldier on his ass in front of him. Bruce’s breathing had become ragged. What the hell? Was he having some kind of medical attack? Clint forced a bit of his intense focus to retreat so he could give more attention to the scientist and not just his enemies. Bruce was shaking now, and he jerked his head up to glare at everyone around them.

“LEAVE!” he hollered, and apparently that was all it took to convince an entire squad of highly trained and well-armed soldiers to turn tail and disappear into the trees. It only took moments. Clint could hear branches breaking in their panic.

“That’s one hell of a trick,” Clint rasped out, and coughed a bit, which sent agony through his shoulder and side, and Bruce was punching the ground in anger.

His punch left a crack in the rock.

Clint realized that not being so close to the edge of the cliff, or Bruce, was probably a good idea. A fantastic idea even, but when he went to move, he ended up collapsing instead. At least he managed to fall on his uninjured shoulder as his right arm was still a useless weight. He was managing not to grab it in agony only because he had no idea what was going on with Bruce and he couldn’t risk losing his shit until the situation was clear. The metal collar that ringed his neck suddenly snapped off and hit the ground, broken and warped… annnnnd then there was a really big, green, human-ape thing towering over him only a few meters away. Clint looked up, and up, from where he sprawled on his side. Big was maybe understating it. Jolly Green slammed his massive fists into the ground once more, dirt and rock chips flying everywhere, and let out a roar so loud and long Clint’s ears were left ringing.

So, this was Mr. Hyde.

When it ran out of air it snorted heavily, glared at the trees with a clear intent to hunt down the retreating soldiers. Clint stayed very still, waiting to see if it would leave so he could make his own retreat, but its attention was diverted as it spotted him, and its face shifted from rage to…a mixture of things Clint couldn’t be fucked to read as it took the only step it needed to loom directly over him. It, he, cast a big shadow as he dropped to one knee, leaned on one massive hand, and bent very, very close. He was fucking enormous.

“Shit,” Clint hissed, and leaned back, barely holding off the whimper as a thousand needles stabbed through the growing numbness in his shoulder. “You need to drink a bottle of Listerine, pal,” he snapped and it snorted a hot gust of air strong enough to ruffle Clint’s hair, but pulled his head back a bit. Then he reached out and poked lightly at Clint’s hip, like he was checking that his potential chew toy was still alive when, clearly, he was. “Hey! Watch the goods, asshole,” Clint snapped and forced himself to get his knees folded under him, his rear resting on his calves and the tops of his sore feet pressed into the ground. Every bruise and ache that had been muted from the adrenalin rush, and the fire in his shoulder, flared. The hulking…oh. Hulk. The name made sense. Clint wasn’t thinking very quickly right now. If he was he might be wondering why the hell he wasn’t trying to retreat with the soldiers.

“Cupid broken,” the deep, rumbling noise made the air vibrate around Clint as the Hulk’s green eyes darkened and he looked sharply back at the forest, where the soldiers were probably still close enough to easily catch for this guy.

“Watch who you’re calling broken, Asparagus-Head,” Clint snapped, re-capturing its attention, which was probably not a great idea but somehow he just couldn’t find it in himself to be overly concerned. The thing…guy? Whatever. He was exposing his throat to him like crazy, either a sign of trust or invulnerability. Clint figured in the grand scheme of things he wasn’t dim enough to attack Hulk outright anyway. Probably.

Hulk’s lips pulled back, and he gently poked Clint again in the thigh. Clint realized Hulk was grinning. He smacked at the massive hand with the hilt of the knife he couldn’t remember acquiring, warning him off, but they were interrupted as an engine whine began to approach. Hulk looked beyond Clint with an irritated snort, and Clint scrambled up from his knees, only to nearly fall back down as dizziness hit. The spike of pain stole his breath, but he stabilized and turned in time to watch a gold and red robot land ten feet away.

Clint stepped forward and to the left without thought, braced his legs in readiness to attack or defend, and held the knife, palm down and blade pointed outward in clear threat. The robot froze, slowly held its arms up in a clear ‘I come in peace’ stance, and the mask and helmet retracted to reveal an unfamiliar, dark haired, bearded man. The guy was staring at Clint like he was insane.

“Did you seriously just place yourself between me and the Hulk?” The guy asked, and while there was no threat in his tone his incredulity was noted. Clint lightly flexed his fingers on the knife, just enough to keep his grip loose and ready. The man was well trained enough to note the action but was apparently unconcerned. “You’re protecting Hulk. That is fucking adorable.” The words were mocking, the tone was amused, his eyes were serious and assessing Clint, easily noting the blood, exposed wounds and his useless, hanging arm.

“Who are you?” Clint asked softly, making one hell of an effort to pretend that he wasn’t on the verge of collapse, and the robot man’s face carved a lot of emotions before settling on wary friendliness.

“I’m Tony. I’m here to help. A plane will be joining us in a moment; Natasha is on it. I believe you two have met.” He said. A clear image of the red-haired woman he’d fought just before he and Bruce had been grabbed arose to the forefront of his mind. He’d lost sight of her just before he’d blown the propane tank. So she’d survived the attack. He supposed that was good, unless she’d had something to do with it in the first place. He didn’t have much time to think on it when, as promised, the air displaced around them and a large area shimmered hazily above the ravine. A door gaped open from apparently nowhere in the middle of the haze and a group of people stood gathered around the lowered ramp. They were staring at him like he was the anomaly and the door and people floating in the middle of the air was perfectly normal.

It was the staring that made him uneasy.

He recognized the three from the prison immediately, and Natasha, who made the leap from the back of the plane to the ground from several meters away look relaxed. She stopped beside the robot, arms loose at her sides, palms out and face calm as she looked first to Clint, then to the giant version of Bruce looming behind him. The green guy felt like a wall of radiating heat and Clint remembered a bit too late that Hulk was also an unknown. Everyone was an unknown, no matter what they said. He locked eyes with the dangerous woman before him, and decided on a plan.

“Cupid go home now.” Hulk had apparently decided on a plan of his own and Clint, who had somehow picked up the moniker of a matchmaking cherub, considered arguing with him. He didn’t consider long; he was so exhausted and holding the knife out defensively was putting serious strain on his shoulders, ribs, and back, so he lowered it in agreement. It was only then he noticed a new kind of tension in the air as everyone seemed a bit startled.

“Wait,” Tony (if that was his real name) said, clearly shocked by something and Clint refocused on him sharply, only to see that he was staring above and beyond Clint. “You can talk?!” Tony demanded of Hulk, actually sounding outraged. “Since when do you talk?”

“Stupid Tinhead,” Hulk grumbled, and Clint twisted around in time to watch the giant green guy sit down, the rags of his pants not leaving much to the imagination before he was shrugging in on himself and suddenly he was Bruce again.

He heard Natasha and Tony move, and he faced them with the knife raised once more, which had them stopping immediately.

“Clint,” Bruce sighed a long moment later, clearly weak and curled in on himself, shaking and sickly looking, but no longer wearing that collar and the bruises that had encircled his neck were gone. “Let them help?” he asked. “They’re friends,” he explained. His shaking was growing worse, and Clint knew that in his own condition he wouldn’t be much of a fight against Natasha anyway, so he completely dropped his defensive stance at the request. Apparently his body decided enough was enough as well and he sank to his knees beside Bruce. When the robot man scooped him up to take him to the floating, invisible, airplane he didn’t bother to try and fight the darkness that jumped out to swallow him.

+

They’d laid Clint out on the aircraft’s built in medical bench as soon as Tony carried him in, and Sam stepped up with Barnes to check him over. They didn’t have proper scanners, and they were wary of setting his shoulder without an x-ray machine present, but apparently Friday was capable of such assessments and they couldn’t risk leaving the joint out of place too long; the extra strain and swelling on top of stretched muscles and ligaments would only do more damage. They set it back in place, hooked him up to a Saline IV with a mild painkiller to keep the fever and shock at bay, and went to work on checking him over.

He was covered in bruises and scrapes, his shoulder was hot and swollen beneath a litany of tiny, paper-thin cuts, as well as larger cuts. He was clearly dehydrated and looked thinner than he should, his work-toned muscle pulled a bit sharper. He had several stitched wounds, a few which had ripped open and looked angry where crusted blood flaked off the skin and thread. They fixed the stitches, smeared them with antibacterial ointment and covered them. There was a clear bullet wound on his upper right arm, it had gouged out a line of flesh that had left just enough flapping skin to be sutured back together, but they’d need to keep an eye on it. Dr. Cho would be very useful here with her flesh-knitting machine, but they couldn’t go to her for obvious reasons, which frankly just sucked.

Clint was showing signs of laboured breathing that had Bruce frowning from where he’d huddled under a blanket just beyond them, refusing to take a seat despite the fact that his hands were shaking too much to help. He’d told them about the poison they’d used to keep Hulk subdued, and it had been burned out of his system but he still needed time to recover. Sam kept an eye on him as they worked.

Clint though, Clint hadn’t looked this rough even after he’d fought Ultron’s army. Sam wondered how much of the damage he’d been hiding while in the Raft. Based on the video’s Tony had unearthed, a fair amount. The colouring of the bruises and the level of healing on the burned Taser marks told another story. A few of his ribs were fractured, which came as no surprise considering the bruising on his left side, but none were displaced and they didn’t want to risk wrapping his chest if his lungs were compromised. Clint woke up just after they finished the worst of it, and he immediately reached over to prod at his damaged shoulder. They’d wrapped it securely to his chest for just this reason.

“Easy, easy man. You’re safe here, we’ve got you.” Sam said and Barnes, his job as assistant medic complete, slipped away without a word as piercing blue eyes focused unerringly on Sam. They lacked the familiarity he’d grown used to, just like they had that last day on the Raft. Clint broke his gaze and looked around the areas he could see with a quick glance, and then he was pushing to sit up with his good arm.

“Hey, hey? What part of take it easy did you not get?” Sam asked, but he refrained from trying to press Clint back down because he knew that wouldn’t go well. Feet dangling over the edge of the bed, Clint eyed his torso, bare but for the bandages, his gaze travelled to the IV in his elbow and narrowed. “It’s just IV fluids and a mild pain killer for now. We’ll probably need to add antibiotics to the mix, and maybe an anti-coagulant once we get a more in-depth look at your bruising, but we’re holding off until we can get you under proper scanners.” He explained, which was apparently enough for Clint to not tear the needle from his arm, but not enough to keep him on the bed. He stood, stumbled a bit, and pushed Sam’s steadying hand away as soon as he caught his elbow.

“I’m fine,” he growled, and stumbled a few steps to the bench against the wall, Sam barely grabbed the IV bag and followed him in time to keep it from tearing out. He watched as Clint sat with his back pressed to metal with a clear view of them all.

“Here,” Scott said, and leaned around Sam, slowly, to push a notch in the wall to the right of Clint. A small, sturdy hook sprang out. Sam side-eyed Scott. “I think they’re for jackets?” he shrugged, and backed off as Sam hooked the IV bag to it and also backed off to give Clint space.

Bruce moved forward, ignoring the hooded blue gaze that followed him, and didn’t bother to ask for permission as he made Clint lean carefully forward and draped a dark blue blanket around his back and over his shoulders, before sitting next to the archer. Sam couldn’t tell if Clint relaxed, but Bruce did, his head leaning back against the wall and he was asleep. Just like that.

Clint seemed bemused, but said nothing.

Sam realized they’d forgotten to check the archer’s bare feet, but there were no bloody footsteps and rest was crucial at this point, so he moved to the front to get Steve to see if there was floor heating or something in this advanced stealth plane. When he came back from the front Clint’s eyes were closed. For now he figured that meant they were good to go.

Chapter Text

Clint drifted in and out of a surface deep trance, unable to let sleep overwhelm him but at least capable of resting. Bruce was a solid presence at his side, and he didn’t know what to think about that, or about any of this. He listened enough to know Natasha and the other woman, Wanda, hadn’t joined them on the plane, instead they had gone to investigate the labs that Clint and Bruce had been held in.

“He’s a flight risk,” Natasha had muttered to the group in the plane before departing, but Clint had only just begun to regain awareness as he’d been laid on the med table. “Don’t let him out of your sight.”

“He can barely stand,” someone else had grumbled.

Sam, Bucky and Scott, who Sam insisted on introducing the moment Clint was fully conscious, were the constants in the back of the plane. The metal suit guy, Tony, was mostly silent and watchful, occasionally pacing towards the front of the plane, and then back towards them without saying anything. Clint was aware of him the most because his steps were not quiet, but nobody approached close enough to force his attention.

Eventually Clint was dragged from his not-sleep by hissed, angry words that were failing to keep quiet in the small space and tensions were high.

“Is this what you wanted Tony? This is how you want to protect people? This is your idea of control and loss stop?” Steve, the blonde guy flying the plane, was snapping. His anger was so potent Clint could easily see the muscles in the back of his neck straining and Tony…just deflated.

“This is not what I had in mind, no. This is actually the exact opposite.” He said, and went to rub at his forehead, but aborted when he remembered he was still wearing all that metal.

“Shut-up,” Clint muttered without thought, knowing he was glaring through half opened eyes. His attention redirected to the basically comatose Banner, who was curled in on himself on the bench-seat and was somehow dead to the world in this vertical position. “Stop being idiots,” he ordered, because he just didn’t give two shits about dealing with whatever their issues were. He was the one who had no idea about anything, and this display was not helping his confidence in these people. He closed his eyes again, letting the sudden silence soothe him into another light doze.

“We’ll need to land,” someone said a while later, and Clint kept his eyes closed and body lax, fighting his need to check his surroundings as he was drawn awake. “We have to drop Tony off and get supplies before we hit the stretch to Wakanda. Who knows when we’ll be able to get back here…” they trailed off.

“We’ll fix this,” someone growled, defeated and morose and defiant, and Clint allowed himself to drift back to his distant awareness, getting as much rest as he could.

He felt it when the plane touch down, the light bump handled with obvious experience but still enough of a nudge to tell him they landed. Clint watched through hooded eyes as the back door opened to expose the outside; watched as everyone gathered up near the cockpit and began a group conference; watched as their focus shifted to planning. It was that moment he made his move.

+

Bucky came back from the cockpit after making sure the unfamiliar aircraft was primed for quick take-off. He took in Steve, Tony, Sam, and Scott having another little discussion that probably involved convincing Stark to fuck-off already. Hopefully. He noted Bruce on the bench, still lying where he’d curled up on his side twenty minutes ago, tucked under two blankets and dead to the world. He noted the absence of a body beside him.

“Where’s Barton?” he asked, cutting through the soft argument taking place as the four abruptly looked at him, then looked to where Clint had been sort-of-resting for the last hour and where he clearly wasn’t anymore. Bucky looked at the hatch, open and ready for egress, and pressed his lips together. Amused, frustrated, impressed. He kind of hated Barton and felt like this week would never end.

“Are you kidding me with this!” Scott complained as they rushed en-masse off the jet and into the back end of a public parking lot next to a Costco. It was after hours, late enough that there’d be some evening light for another half hour or so but not much of it. A few cars were scattered about, the massive Costco building was on the right, a strip mall with a number of stores loomed on the left, and dumpsters lined the edge of the buildings. A tall wooden fence separated a subdivision from the parking lot, a main road with continuous traffic flowed about two hundred meters away, and a sprawling town with a population of two-hundred thousand plus surrounded them.

Bucky didn’t know about anyone else, but he couldn’t spot Barton.

“So, who’s going to be the one to tell Widow we let her boy out of our sight?” Sam asked, turning in a slow circle to try and spot their escape artist.

“Spread out, grid search, lets find him,” Steve ordered, and they launched smoothly into action.

+

Two hours later they were forced to retreat as local authorities had spotted their presence.

Bruce woke up, heard the news, and had warily planted himself in a corner for deep breathing.

An hour later Natasha reported in. When they told her Clint had disappeared she’d given them coordinates to pick her and Wanda up, and severed communication without another word.

+

Three days off-grid and he wasn’t any closer to getting a plan together to figure out his next steps. The bone deep exhaustion that had wrapped around and settled in his core wasn’t getting better. He couldn’t sleep, he couldn’t shut his mind down enough to rest, and he couldn’t relax. His body was a constant throb of pain, breathing hurt, he’d developed a chest-rattling cough that made spots dance in his eyes when he lost control of his lungs, and he was at the end of his rope. He’d risked exposure to break into a pharmacy hours before and helped himself to the meds they wouldn’t dole out without a doctors signature. Now his vision was blurring to the point that reading the labels was becoming complicated.

He stepped unsteadily from the cheap rooms tiny shower, feeling vulnerable, shaky, hot, and ill. It was a shitty combination. The water had felt icy; he felt like he was cooking on the inside out but his skin was pebbling in the hotels mediocre air-conditioning. He’d left the light off in the bathroom, choosing to utilize the glow from the street through the room’s small window in an effort to reduce the spiking headache that wouldn’t go away. The towel, still damp from the shower he’d taken earlier to try and relax, wasn’t doing too much to dry him off. A cough stuttered out from deep in his chest and he spit some mucus into the sink.

He gave up on the effort of dabbing the towel over his skin and left the bathroom, not caring that his back was still wet because frankly the effort of drying off properly wasn’t worth it. The bed sheets would do the job when he crawled beneath them and… and apparently all the weapons he’d stashed around the room were now piled in the center of the blue striped duvet. He wasn’t alone. He shifted his eyes marginally further to see Natasha sitting in the room’s single chair, which rested beneath the solitary window. The thick curtains were still drawn closed.

Thwt. Clint barely heard the unmistakable sound of a dart gun firing before he’d had time to properly register her presence. He shouldn’t be so easy to get the drop on, at least he didn’t think he should be. He was furious with himself even as his knees buckled beneath him. Natasha was beside him before gravity properly took over, her arms wrapped around him, and she lowered him to the ground like a precious cargo.

“It will be okay, Clint,” she murmured, soft and directly into his ear as he struggled, too late, to get away. He managed to flop a little in her clutch, and didn’t notice her fingers grip one wrist to keep track of his pulse. Her other arm wrapped solidly around his front and she pulled his back to rest tighter to her chest.

He wished he could believe her.

He didn’t believe her.

He hated that he was maybe a little relieved to see her.

He let the darkness take him.

+

They were quiet as they waited for Natasha to give them coordinates, and they were quiet when they’d landed in the unused back corner of Cyrpress Land RV Park in Boutte, Loussiana. Steve was the one who stepped out onto the gravel pad, pretending he didn’t see the folks that came around their RV’s to gawk as he reached into the back seat of a navy-blue SUV. Under Natasha’s watchful scrutiny he gently pulled Clint out and stood with him cradled in his arms before they stepped back onto the jet.

We’ve got him, Sam typed into a cell phone, nearly misspelling as he paid more attention to Steve’s careful movements. He sent the text to Tony, tossed the phone out the door, and Scott closed the hatch. Bucky engaged the planes stealth tech and they were in the air and speeding towards Wakanda in under a minute.

Clint was pale and shiny from fever, the skin beneath his eyes was puffy and dark, and his breathing was clearly laboured. He didn’t stir when Steve delicately placed him on the padded medbed and, with soft orders from Bruce, they angled the bed so his upper body was raised higher, covered him in a pre-warmed blanket, and got an IV running. Natasha was the one to wipe his brow and neck every so often with a damp cloth. Bruce sat on his other side; his hand resting gently over the damaged wrist Clint had stabilized with a tensor bandage. His grip was light, ready to pull away should Clint wake up.

It was hours before they flew between a holographic curtain of greenery and landed inside a mountain that had been retrofitted into a sleek, open hangar. The medical team awaiting their arrival whisked Clint away with Bruce and Natasha refusing to be left behind, and then there was nothing more to do but rest and wait.

+

For a long time he lay there, keeping his breath even, his body relaxed. It wasn’t a difficult state to maintain at first; he could tell he was on some kind of meds if only from the diminished pain. Diminished but not gone, and he was very aware of how easy a target he was right now.

He was also aware that he wasn’t the only one in the room, and as he’d been aware of his company for a few minutes now, he figured they probably knew he was awake. Well, he wasn’t getting answers by pretending to be unconscious.

It took a bit more effort to open his eyes than he would have liked, and it took even longer to focus, but he’d never really needed a crystal clear picture to know what he was looking at…that he could recall.

“Little Red,” he greeted, and the familiar cough rattled his chest and out his throat. There was that agony in his chest he hadn’t been missing, but it settled quicker than before, and an ice chip was unexpectedly shoved in his mouth. He considered spitting it out, but he really didn’t want to, the cool wetness was a relief against the gummy heaviness on his tongue.

“You get a pass on that because you don’t know me right now. Call me Red again, and there will be consequences.”

“What, you’ll beat me up?” he coughed and grinned. “Again?”

“Worse, I’ll let Steve in to watch you with his guilty eyes,” she scooped another ice-chip from a cup, with a spoon this time, and he opened his mouth like a baby bird to accept it. “Trust me, you don’t want that.”

“Which one was he again?” He asked around the melting cold and took in the clean room, sleek lines, and large windows. He had a pretty nice view of a distant cliff engulfed with trees and three separate waterfalls. This must be some kind of executive suite.

“The fit one.”

“Please, anyone but him,” he started coughing again, and spit some mucus into a tissue she handed him without question. He dropped it on the floor when he was done, because he wanted to see what she’d do. She plunked the entire box of tissue beside his hip. “Can I expect an honest damage assessment?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said and helped raise his bed from slightly elevated to sitting, and handed him the fancy insulated cup with the ice-chips. “We haven’t mislead you, and we will not lie to you.”

“Well,” he picked at the nice blue blanket covering him to his waist, and in his shirtless state he noted that his ribs had been wrapped with a wide, dark green bandage that explained why he felt like he was being gently hugged. “That’s reassuring.” He dragged a finger along the green material, getting a feel for the soft, rubbery fabric.

“We don’t expect you to believe us,” she acknowledged.

Some of you expected me to believe you,” he smirked and for a moment she looked exasperated, or as close to it as he suspected she would get.

“Some would believe that kind of naivety is a gift.”

“You don’t believe in gifts?”

“It’s foolish to trust in anyone but yourself,” she shrugged and leaned back in her chair, “but sometimes we’re lucky enough to learn that it’s okay to lean on others once in a while.”

“What idiot taught you that line?” he snorted.

“You.” She smiled. It was down right threatening and sweet at the same time. “You’ll remember soon enough.”

“Sure,” he agreed and leaned back in the bed, wondering if she’d notice if he kept the spoon from the ice cup. “Okay, give me the damage,” he told her and absolutely did not fall asleep before she got beyond listing his apparently extensive bruising. At this point he figured they weren’t out to kill him, probably, so a little more shut-eye wouldn’t be world ending.

+

“We should give him our personal files,” Steve suggested, watching Clint from the viewing room as the archer sat in the visitor’s chair that he’d dragged in front of the room’s window. Clint was currently sharing his thousand-yard stare with Wakanda’s scenic wilderness, his shoulder strapped securely over his chest, forcing him to rest it. Scott had taken up residence on the bed, sitting cross-legged and using a deck of cards to display the floor plan of a building. Likely when his design was finished he’d be providing Clint with a play-by-play of whatever heist it had been for.

“No,” Natasha said flatly and Steve cut a look to her. It seemed pretty straight forward to him: give the guy an idea of who they were than maybe it would help him remember them.

“Why not?” he asked. She kept her eyes on Clint.

“If we’re unable to give him back his memories, if he stays the way he is now and decides he won’t trust us, decides we’re the enemy,” she shook her head slowly. “He’s not the kind of person we want knowing our strengths and weaknesses. Not if he’s going to come against us one day.”

“It won’t come to that,” Steve said, but he could hear the uncertainty in his words. He trusted that at his core Clint was a good, fair man, but recent experience made it impossible to believe that they’d always be on the same side. He hoped he wasn’t just paying lip service to the continued dream of team, of family, always coming through for each other. It was clear Natasha had different ideas if the look she gave him was anything to judge by.

“You think it could come to that?” he wondered, and thought over how much better she knew Clint than anyone else here. Well, apparently with the exception of Bruce, but Steve hadn’t asked Bruce exactly how close he and Clint were, and Bruce hadn’t brought it up.

“It would be foolish to think we knew anything about his thoughts. Clint can be unpredictable when he’s in his right mind; running scared, not knowing or trusting us, could be a big problem if we can’t fix this. He will rely on instinct to decide his actions, and his instinct will not make it easy for him to give us a chance.”

“We’ll fix it,” Steve said. She didn’t respond, just kept watching her partner through the glass.

+

“You should go in there,” Sam suggested casually, like he had six times before and, like those times Bruce shook his head and moved away from the one way view screen that had a direct line into Clint’s room. To Clint it would just look like part of the wall. It was creepy and invasive and they had all been in here several times to basically watch the archer sleep, pick his nose, or stare out the window. Right now Natasha remained in Clint’s room, and Clint didn’t appear concerned either way.

The thing is, everyone but Natasha had thought he’d understood the situation and knew he was safe with them after they’d taken them away from Ross’s funhouse. He hadn’t really let his guard down on the jet though, except with Bruce in the sense that he hadn’t questioned him sitting beside him. Clint had been calm and agreeable and…and somehow in their rush and exhaustion to get he and Bruce back they had not properly assessed his mental state. Which was, as far as Sam could tell, in full on survival mode and completely untrusting of pretty much everyone and thing.

Sam had known Clint for a while before this shit storm between them, the Accords and Tony, and he’d thought he’d had a decent bead on the guy. Not great because Clint was gone a lot of the time and Sam trained more exclusively with Steve and Natasha, even when Clint was in house. Plus they didn’t exactly have a lot of heart to hearts, but he had a decent understanding of how the guy operated. He figured he had the basics down.

He was beginning to get the idea that he really didn’t know the guy half as well as he thought, or maybe it was just that he knew him as well as Clint wanted. He’d honestly never figured him for the type of person that Natasha had to keep demanding he return plastic spoons from, because he kept stealing them to apparently use as weapons. He’d never figured him the kind of guy that, with or without his memory, would choose to stick it out alone in a discount motel room with stolen meds and a level of mistrust so engrained that seeking out a doctor was apparently not going to happen.

It made more sense now, how Natasha and some of the more well known SHIELD agents always seemed to herd him towards the medics after missions when it looked like he might need them.

Clint had been in a bad way when they’d found him.

Sam eyed Bruce, who was occupying himself by boiling water for what must be his hundredth tea that day alone, and forced himself to stop mentally reviewing the list of things he didn’t know about his teammates. They had Clint and Bruce back, which was what mattered at this point.

“Seriously,” Sam said as Bruce eyed the variety of tea boxes like he hadn’t spent two days staring at them. “He could probably use a familiar face, maybe someone that won’t threaten to shiv him with the spoons he keeps trying to hide,” he suggested.

“They’re just playing; he’s not planning on successfully turning a weapon until Natasha leaves the room,” Bruce said. “It’s one of the reasons she’s not leaving the room.” His lips quirked slightly and Sam was pretty sure Bruce had no idea what tea he’d selected as he dropped a green ball in the fancy glass teapot.

“Well, he did try to use his lunch fork to break the window when Steve was in there, so she’s probably on to something,” Sam allowed. Steve had been by the door asking someone in the hall for a magazine Clint requested when Clint had slid from his bed to scratch a giant X on the glass to weaken it before he threw a chair at it. The chair had bounced off hard enough that it flew back, hit his bed, and skid to a halt by Steve’s feet.

“It’s not like I could have climbed out of here with this shoulder anyway,” Clint had quipped and climbed back onto his medical bed like the entire, ridiculous, scenario was to be expected. He’d handed the fork over to Steve with a grin when Steve held out a hand. His grin had widened as he’d watched Steve bend a chair leg back in place before he could use it again. As punishment Steve had put the ball game on and refused to change the channel. Clint didn’t seem to have too much patience when it came to watching televised sports, especially when the highly skilled players didn’t throw an absolutely perfect line. Sam had taken a notebook with him the last time he’d visited Clint, and he’d spent the hour tearing off small pieces of paper to throw at the garbage can. For the first twenty minutes Clint’s eye had twitched every time he’d missed, until he’d focused enough to realize Sam was doing it on purpose.

Now, Bruce parked it at the fancy wood and glass table in the middle of the observation room where he processed to watch some weird flower slowly unfurl in the glass pot.

“He relaxes when you’re around,” Sam tried again, because watching a guilty, dejected Bruce Banner was not on anyone’s fun-list. Bruce snorted in disbelief and didn’t break his stare-off with the tea-flower.

“Yeah, he relaxes so much that the second I fall asleep he takes off,” he inhales deeply, shakes his head at himself and sighs. Thank god Barnes wasn’t in the room with them right now: the two of them would just collapse the building with their combined weariness. “Sorry,” Bruce said softly, “I didn’t mean to offload on you.”

“Whew, yeah, take it easy there, you nearly took my head off,” Sam rolled his eyes, grabbed two beautiful ceramic mugs (everything in Wakanda seemed to be created with an artists eye) and took the seat not quite across from Bruce. He placed the mugs on the table and slid them forward in presentation.

“It needs another minute to steep,” Bruce said flatly, his forearms resting on the table, one hand over the wrist of the other.

“This isn’t your fault,” Sam said.

“I didn’t know you were in the habit of lying,” Bruce shot back.

“This is on Ross. It’s all on Ross.” Sam said. “You’re doing yourself and Clint a disservice by shouldering the blame.”

“Maybe,” Bruce leaned back in his chair, hands dropping to his lap, “but this is the first time in years that there was someone he could use against me, someone close, and we’re not really even-” he cut himself off with a shake of the head. “Clint being on the Raft was a lucky break for Ross, but how Ross even knew to target him…I was careful. We were careful. Only Clint knew where I was, Natasha found out as a failsafe when Clint was arrested, and it still wasn’t enough. People who get close to me-”

“Shut-up, Bruce,” Sam cut him off and nudged a mug pointedly with his index finger. Bruce looked at him properly for the first time since they’d picked up Natasha and Clint in a trailer park outside of New Orleans. Sam couldn’t read the look, but he was good with the end result when Bruce actually snorted a genuine chuckle and finally poured the tea. The flower thing bobbed around inside the pot and Sam eyed it dubiously.

“Do you know what Clint said to Hulk the first time they spoke?” Bruce said as he sat back, staring at the steam curling up before him. “And I mean actually spoke to him, not just fought beside him?”

“It’s never come up.”

“No,” Bruce said thoughtfully, “I guess it wouldn’t have. We were called out about three months after the Chitauri: a coalition of scientists basically wanted to jumpstart a new ice age,” he waved that off like it wasn’t important. Sam had read all the Avenger mission reports; he knew the one Bruce was talking about. It had been messy. “Hulk had basically just crushed a small mountain so they could get to the world ending machine. Everything was under control and everyone was filthy and exhausted, and Hulk just wanted to keep going, keep crushing things. He had a lot of issues to sort through,” Bruce shook his head and the corner of his mouth lifted in remembered amusement. “And Clint, he was covered in rock dust, had this cut on his chin,” he gestured briefly at his own, “that made him look like he had the worst muddy beard in history. His bow was broken and his quiver had two arrows left in it and he walked right up to Hulk, who was just looking for a fight.” Bruce was talking like he could remember it, like the emotions were shared. Sam hadn’t realized there was a connection between him and Hulk, not like this. Then again, nobody had known Hulk could talk either. He bet Clint knew.

“He got right in his path, basically planted himself in front of him, and he barely reaches Hulk’s elbows,” Bruce held a hand out to loosely demonstrate the height difference, “and he actually pointed up at Hulk, furious, and Hulk had no idea what his problem was, and he wasn’t interested either, and Clint said: ‘I heard you went after Natasha on the helicarrier,’and then he got even closer and actually jabbed him in the chest,” shit, Sam knew he was staring at Bruce in disbelief, because there was no way Barton was that batshit insane. “And he followed up with: ‘If you ever lose control of your shit like that again, or even look at her funny, I will put you so far in the ground you’ll be pissing dirt for the rest of your life. You getting me, Kermit?’

“No fucking way,” Sam said, and now Bruce was grinning, warm and happy and almost unrecognizable to Sam. “How is he still breathing?”

“Well, it took Hulk a moment to process, because nobody had ever yelled at him like that before, or talked to him like he was just another person, and then…he laughed.” Bruce shook his head like he still couldn’t believe it, and that had been years ago. “He just laughed like it was the funniest thing in the world and he kept laughing until he shifted. The next thing I knew I was waking up in the quinjet and Clint was flying upfront and nobody seemed to know anything about it. The rest of the team had been a mile away and Clint had shut his comm off. He never even mentioned it to me. At the time Hulk and I were not really communicating, I didn’t actually get that story form the big guy until last year.” Bruce picked up his tea and took a sip.

“I hated him at first,” Bruce muttered like a confession, and Sam realized he was talking about Clint, not Hulk. He realized that this was probably the first time Bruce had spoken to anyone about this, it was also the most he’d ever spoken to Sam, period. “We could barely tolerate each other. Clint always seemed to want to train with Hulk and barely had two words to rub together for me, and that really pissed me off.” He seemed amused now, but Sam had a pretty good imagination, and Tony had commented a few times about how they used to barely endure being in the same room together. “It took a while to get that Clint liked Hulk and his lack of complications, at least in the sense that there’s no subterfuge with him; what you see is what you get. Clint has some compelling reasons to be drawn to that,” his grip around the mug tightened briefly. “Once I figured out that Clint didn’t actually hate me, that he was just a grumpy asshole who wanted to spend time with his friend and didn’t know how to ask, we started getting along better and just-” he trailed off and Sam shook his head.

“Seriously man, if your worried about him getting hurt because he matter’s to you, then you need to slow your roll: the guys clearly nuts, he gets into enough trouble on his own, it’s more like he needs you to make it all worth it.” Sam finally picked up the tea and took a sip. He spit it back into the mug, and not onto the floor, because his momma had taught him manners and he was a classy fucking guy. “This is nasty,” he declared and glared at Bruce, who was taking another drink of his own tea like it wasn’t irreparably damaging his taste buds. Well, at least he didn’t look like he wished he could drown in alcohol anymore, so Sam figured he was a bit better then he had been ten minutes before. Talking it out for the first time probably helped, but he still wasn’t making any attempt to go sit with Clint. “I’m getting coffee: a real drink actually designed to solve people’s problems. You enjoy your rotting flower water.” He went back to the little kitchen section of this strange waiting/viewing room, and drank half a mug of coffee before topping it up and sitting back down with Bruce.

Two hours later the decision to try and fix Clint’s head was made.

+

When they walked through the door Clint was already watching them. This did not surprise Steve, nor was he surprised by the cool, flat stare that sifted through them as they filed into the fairly spacious room and spread out in a manner not dissimilar to a suspect line-up. Steve regretted the mental comparison instantly, but couldn’t seem to banish it from his thoughts as Clint sat, still, in the chair by the window. The sunlight filtering into the room only highlighted the familiar bruises that covered too much skin, fingers taped and bandages peaking out from beneath the dull burgundy scrubs he was wearing. He’d taken his sling off again, his right shoulder still needed to heal, but Clint had been unusually reluctant to keep the sling on. Steve suspected it was because he considered it a visual reminder of weakness, and in this state he did not want to be seen as weak.

“Where’s the one-armed man?” Clint asked when the door slid shut behind Sam, and irritation burned bright for a moment before Steve forced his protective temper back under control. Clint was being insensitive to get a rise, because apparently he understood how to read people best when their emotions were running hot. Considering they’d just entered his room en-masse Clint had the right to be edgy. He looked as calm as a brick wall. Take that how you will.

“Clint,” Steve began.

“No,” Clint shut him down with his very blank face, his hair looking almost golden in the sunbeams.

“Okay, cool. I’m gonna go then, seeing as you don’t need me in here at all,” Scott announced. “Only really hear because Barton grabbed me from the street and threw me in his big-ass van in the first place,” he muttered as he actually squeezed behind Steve so he could get to the door. “Not to say I minded once I knew what was going on-” his muttering cut off when the door closed behind him. Clint started coughing, heavy and wet sounding, but he regained control fairly quickly considering some of his earlier bouts. He was on his feet now.

“You need to know who you are, Clint,” Natasha said softly, determined and confident. Her fists were clenched tight.

“I’ll figure it out,” he said, voice deep and gravelly. “No need to fuck with my head anymore.” He glared sharply at Wanda and Sam, and shifted his gaze back to Natasha and Steve.

“We’ve done the tests, backwards and forwards. We got all the information Ross had on the device used on you. It malfunctioned, it was just supposed to make you susceptible to suggestion-” Steve explained, though they’d gone over this with Clint the day before, showing him the diagrams and the breakdowns and he’d sat and nodded through it all, like it made sense when Steve had only understood the barebones of it.

“Yeah, which leads me to thinking I’m pretty susceptible to suggestion right now,” Clint said, and cleared his throat, his hands loose and ready at his sides.

“All your memories are in there Clint, otherwise you wouldn’t know how to do anything,” Sam said, smooth and easy, “all we need to do is unlock the wall that’s keeping your identity from you.”

“I’d like a second opinion.” Clint said, and cocked his head to the side, “but apparently we’re all fugitives and you’re not too keen on letting me stroll out of here.”

“Enough,” Natasha said, eyes hardening and she stepped forward. “Clint, I am sorry, but when you have yourself back I know this will be okay.”

“That’s not your decision to make,” he snarled, but didn’t back away, because that would put him in the corner.

“We should have just knocked him out,” Sam muttered, too softly for anyone without enhanced hearing to pick up on, but Sam knew Clint needed to be fully aware for this to work, and then Natasha was moving toward Clint. She had him restrained in seven quick moves, which was four more than Steve would have expected considering Barton’s condition.

“No!” Clint yelled and struggled in her hold, his arms locked behind his back and Natasha’s hands threaded through them and braced against his neck. She’d done something to his legs that had made them give out and he was back in the chair, livid. “Fuck you, you say you’re the good guys? Get the fuck offa me!”

“Peace, bratik,” Natasha pressed softly to his ear, her hard façade shifting to tightly controlled anger and guilt. Clint didn’t stop squirming, which must have been hell on his broken ribs. He tried to smash his head back into hers, but she had a firm grip. Steve had been in that hold in training once, and he’d been very hard pressed to break it. Wanda pulled herself away from the wall and moved swiftly across the space, her intent clear as her eyes began to glow red and a fine mist of red haze filtered through here fingers.

“No,” Clint snarled and Steve felt like his heart was going to pound out of his chest. “Back off!

“Stop!” Bruce yelled, his deep, angry voice cut through the din Clint was making in his struggles against a disturbingly silent Natasha, and everyone stilled. Steve hadn’t noticed the door behind him open to admit the scientist. “Stop,” Bruce said again, quieter but just as determined, and he was staring at Clint. The look of such open horror on Bruce’s face made Steve swallow guiltily, even though they’d all decided this was the best course of action before coming in here. They’d known it would be difficult to go through with but- he looked back at Clint, whose chest was heaving, nostrils flaring and eyes wide in fury and fear. Steve hadn’t expected it to be quite this rough, and he’d watched the video of Ross having him pinned down to do this very thing. He’d seen the tapes of Loki tapping him on the chest with his sceptre years ago and taking away who Clint was. Being here in person…

“We can’t do this, not like this,” Bruce said, soft but sure. “Clint has to be on board one hundred percent; this needs to be his choice.”

“He might never choose this,” Natasha said, soft and cool and she looked up from between where her red bangs had spilled over in their struggle, some of the strands resting across Clint’s pale hair. “And he will not remain here after this. Are you willing to risk him leaving, risk loosing him for good?”

“Yes,” Bruce said, no hesitation, and also not a hint of happiness. “It has to be his choice, we can’t force this on him like everyone else has. We have to be better than that, for him.” His voice sounded as rough as Clint’s and his heavy tiredness leaching the youth from his face was a forceful reminder of what Bruce had, and was still, going through as well.

“Well,” Wanda said after a charged moment where Bruce and Natasha stared at each other; Clint’s heaving breaths cut a jagged staccato through the quiet. “I’m not willing to risk loosing him,” and before anyone could move she was pressing her hand to Clint’s forehead, as fast as a viper. Clint only jerked a little, his eyes filmed over in a smoky deep red, and in moments they cleared and Wanda stepped away. She let out a deep, shuddering breath, and the mist of her powers disappeared completely. She pressed her back against the large window, between Clint and Natasha and the rest of them, and she had paled so drastically Steve worried she might collapse.

She didn’t, but Clint passed out.

Bruce shoved Steve out of the way and fell to his knees before him, grasping his face in his large hands and gently tilting his head up now that Natasha was no longer holding him in a lock. He checked for a pulse at his neck.

“What did you do?” Bruce snarled.

“What we decided I would do before we came in here,” Wanda snapped back, but it lacked her usual heat and Steve moved closer to her in case she needed a hand.

“Get him on the bed, and bring the doctors in,” Bruce said, and Natasha heaved Clint up and onto the bed before Bruce could even get into a decent position to help. The doctors came in, pressing around and pushing them back.

“And?” Natasha asked Wanda as they were herded towards the door.

“I unlocked everything there was to unlock. It wasn’t…deep, but there were walls that were forced, unnatural, from that device,” she hissed and took a breath. “I got everything I could,” she said, softer.

“She needs to leave,” Bruce’s heavy, angry words cut through their little group and Sam stepped forward and silently got between he and Wanda, before nodding and they both swept out of the room. Bruce stood pressed into the corner in the opposite end of the room, his eyes trained on Clint, his pupils tinted green and he was very clearly holding onto the big guy with a control Steve could only assume was impressive, never having experienced it himself.

It took five minutes for the doctors to conclude, with all their fancy medical doodads, that Clint was just sleeping. They got him settled in the bed, sat it up slightly and put a nasal cannula in to ease his still healing lungs. Bruce left not long after, his entire body a giant warning sign to not engage him and then it was just Natasha and Steve in the room. Natasha pulled the chair over beside Clint and sat with complete serene composure. Steve stood by the door to wait.

+

It was nine hours before Clint blinked open hazy blue eyes. In his typical fashion he was looking right at Natasha when he did so. She watched Clint back with a steady, calm gaze, much closer to him that Steve would have felt comfortable having anyone when he was waking up.

“Nat?” Clint croaked out, cleared his throat, blinked, and looked around the mostly darkened room. “Cap,” he muttered in greeting when he spotted him. The tight coil of anxiety Steve had been ignoring in his own chest unfurled and his shoulders slumped in relief. Natasha all but shoved a straw between Clint’s lips and he sucked down a few grateful gulps of water before bringing his hand up to take the cup. She pulled it back and put it on the bedside counter before he could and he narrowed his eyes at her in reproach. Then his sleepy gaze turned sharp and worried, like a switch had been flipped.

“What’s wrong?” he demanded as he stared at her, and Natasha tilted her head as she assessed him.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

“My name? What-” his confusion melded into a considering look, then a distant one. He sucked in a slow breath and let it out between his teeth. “Clinton Francis Barton.” He answered after a moment that seemed to take forever, and a curl began to lift the corner of his lips. “Greatest marksman in the world,” he tagged on with his quiet raspy breath.

“How much do you remember?” she asked softly, and his pleasure at knowing himself disappeared as he narrowed his eyes at her.

“Everything, Nat. I think I remember everything.” He reached a hand out and gripped the back of her neck, red hair falling over his wrist, obscuring bandages and bruises. “Thank you,” he said softly.

“We had to-” she started, and Clint apparently didn’t need to hear anymore as he dragged her towards him, and she let him. Natasha wrapped her arms around Clint, buried her face in his neck, and let him bury his face in her hair. Steve immediately felt extremely out of place. He shouldn’t be witnessing this, she never let anyone see her like this. Shit, Steve hadn’t even been aware that she’d apparently been tearing herself up in guilt for their actions earlier, and now Clint was murmuring a string of what might be Russian in her ear as she clung to him. She made a move that looked like a nod and Steve was about to turn and leave when Clint pinned him down with his piercing blue eyes and said again, “Thank you.”

They broke their embrace, Natasha sat back in her seat and looked as completely composed as she had the last nine hours. Clint dropped his head to his pillow, the soft, satisfied smile back on his lips.

“It’s nice to know who I am again. I like this, this is good,” he mumbled, clearly prepared to go right back to dreamland. “Get Wanda in here soon, hmm? Need to tell her she did good, girl doesn’t need anymore guilt on her shoulders.” And he drifted off. Natasha stood and looked at Steve.

“He’s back, we can pull constant surveillance from him. I’ll let everyone one know, you tell Stark.” She ordered. Steve tensed right back up at the order, but nodded when she narrowed her eyes at him. Tony needed to know, she was right, but the thought of calling him made Steve’s chest tight and stomach roil in anger, and maybe guilt. “Then get some sleep.”

“You too,” he ordered. She nodded, gave Clint a final, calculating glance, and swept out of the room. Steve looked back at Clint, thought over the thanks he’d given, and was relieved that for once in all these months of uncertainty, hostility, and misunderstandings, Clint’s ease at their actions, his forgiveness, was one step closer to making things right.

One step would have to do for now.

+

*Bratik –Russian endearment for brother from female to male (bratishka is for an older brother figure)

Chapter Text

Clint remembered.

He remembered the first time he’d met Natasha; he’d been falling off a bridge, only three fingers hooked desperately around the metal rail held him in place. Broken ankle, busted ribs, a gunshot wound not bleeding too heavily but his arm was going numb; it was icy and cold and the ground was invisible in the fog far below. Sudden warmth had wrapped around his wrist, and easy strength had hauled him back up to safety. He’d lain sprawled on the pavement looking up at a red-haired angel, her face pale like it hadn’t seen the sun in years. Her eyes as cold as the ice in his dad’s bourbon. He’d thought he’d never forget her expression, he’d never forget the curl of her fingers pressed into his skin, her grip tight enough to brand him with bruises. She’d left him there on the ground, turned her back on him because he was no threat. He’d crawled away, healed up, met SHIELD, and then gone after her with their blessing.

He remembered. He remembered them, and the relief of it, now that he knew what he’d been missing, made him nauseous when he thought about it too hard. He remembered meeting Sam and being insanely jealous of both his wings and his instant ease with everyone on the team. He remembered meeting Steve after Coulson had died. He’d been thinking ‘you’re his hero,’ and he remembered being furious after he’d learned how Steve and Tony had wasted time arguing instead of working to stop Loki sooner. Clint had believed that maybe, maybe, he wouldn’t have killed Coulson if they’d gotten their act together sooner…but that wasn’t fair; it wasn’t their fault. It was Loki’s fault, and if it wasn’t Loki’s than it was his own. He remembered that Coulson was alive, and how he’d decided the best way to deal with that shit-storm revelation was to just ignore it as best he could.

He remembered Wanda, and the familiar sharp sting of pain every time he looked at her without her brother by her side. He remembered the dullness in her eyes she tried to fill with duty, with redemption. The guilt she carried for all the people that died in result of her choices. Sokovia. South Africa. Her brother. The fear sat within her that she was fighting daily to overcome; he knew about that. And he knew about Tony. Tony was pretty fucking unforgettable, and he missed him, between the anger, hurt and what felt awfully close to betrayal, he missed him.

Now Clint sat outside, high up a cliff face. The smallest of a series of waterfalls rushed beside him, gushing over the rocks sharp edge, filling the air with noise and humidity. Occasionally a bird would swoop close enough he could easily pick out individual feathers shifting in flight. He looked down on the small city edges in the distance and could pinpoint the room he’d been healing in with little effort. Small rocks dug into his ass, his heels, and beneath his thighs. He held his straight-backed posture, forcing his abdominals to maintain the position. Regaining strength. It wasn’t difficult but it would be a while before he was really comfortable in his body again. His shoulder and busted ribs would take a while to heal. He wouldn’t be able to pick up a bow properly for at least a month, maybe two. He’d have to be careful, go through rehab properly so he didn’t fuck it all up again. The window of his room was at the edge of the range for his heaviest bow. He bet he could hit the palm print he’d left on the glass the night before. A long-range rifle would be no problem.

His lungs had ached all the way up the damn hiking trail, the deep burn irritating him more than the busted bones, bruises and cuts combined. Fuckin' waterboarding. Clint usually wasn’t affected by it to such a degree, but the water had probably been tap instead of distilled, and there had been a lot of it. Being gut punched during the process hadn’t helped keep it out of his lungs. The antibiotics were some kind of super strength though, so he figured another few days and he’d be clear. Fortunately there didn’t seem to be any other side affects; a small mercy he supposed.

Fuck. He rubbed at his eyes and forced the memory away. He could have done without the memories of his time with Ross. It hadn’t even been that bad, far from the worst he’d been through. He didn’t know why it kept cropping up on him.

He refocused on the stupidly hot and heavy Wakandan air. His scrub shirt was soaked with sweat; he could feel it dripping from his hair down the back of his neck as the sun turned his skin red. He’d been inside for far too long, he wasn’t used to the UV rays anymore. He’d probably look like a lobster when he went back in. He’d forgotten sunscreen. Dummy. That was the least of his problems.

The base of the cliff was far below him.

He sat there, his legs hanging over the edge and his feet kicking back and forth. Back and forth. He’d chosen this spot for the jutting edge of stone, thinned beneath him just enough to be risky to sit on. It was beautiful. He could spend hours with the roar of water in his ears, the cry of birds occasionally piercing it. It was white noise to the jumble of thoughts tumbling through his head, to the memories he was still slotting back in order.

He wasn’t surprised when Natasha joined him, shoving a ball cap on his head. She was wearing tight pants designed to wick away moisture, and tank tops: a fitted black one with a baggy purple version over-layering it. Her hair was pulled back in a sweaty bun. She’d remembered sunscreen, the tropical coconut scent wafting off her skin in the heat. She sat right next to him, their arms brushing as she kicked her feet out beside his. She was wearing proper hiking shoes. Maybe he should have looked for something more than the hospital sandals he’d been issued when he’d slipped out of the room. But whatever, his feet needed toughening up anyway.

He’d awoken that morning with the entire team filing in to say hi. He’d maybe panicked a little after taking them in, and pretended to fall asleep again pretty quickly. He hadn’t interacted with any of them aside from Natasha and Steve the night before.

Nat nudged his foot with hers.

“What are you missing?” she asked softly, but he could tell she already suspected. He looked off in the distance and imagined he could see his team, well, the team that was still together, gathered in this jungle city. He swallowed thickly. You see, Clint wasn’t an idiot, he saw a lot more than he let on, and had spent a lifetime learning how to read people in a moment. That morning, in his hospital room with his team, he’d read him, and it had been pretty fucking obvious what Clint was missing. Now, every time he thought about what he somehow knew he’d lost, every time he thought about what he’d probably had, something he’d never imagined he’d find…he couldn’t find him in his memories and he didn’t know what to do.

“Bruce,” he said softly, and she definitely wasn’t surprised. She knew him so well. “I’m missing Bruce.”

+

Natasha compiled a file on Bruce for Clint. Since it was Nat levels of detailed he figured he was as well versed in the man as he was likely to get. She had some pretty personal stuff in there. Because he’d asked her to not hold back, a lot of it had involved a lot of Clint. He read it tucked into a corner on the buildings roof, which was covered in trees and flowers and birds. There wasn’t enough in the file. He was missing far too much.

+

Coulson contacted him, just to say hello, to check in. It was awkward. Clint still wasn’t quite sure how to deal with the fact that he’d lied to him for over a year about, well, being alive. They used to be close, but life had a habit of reforming itself, and you ride with it and adapt, or else you don’t. When he was young Clint had learned the hard way that you move on when it’s time. Find a new path, new way, new directive. Coulson had been his directive for a long time, his and Natasha’s, but things changed whether you wanted it or not. Priorities changed.

Clint wasn’t upset. He missed his friend occasionally and he could see the strain Phil was under, the extra baggage at the corner of his eyes when they had a rare video conference. Normally Clint would step up and lend a hand in a heartbeat to try and ease that stress, but he hadn’t been asked. Maybe it was selfish that he didn’t offer aid directly, but he’d decided that if his skillset was ever necessary Phil would reach out, and that was enough for him. He was too tired to keep trying to help where he wasn’t really wanted.

Phil’s call had come at a convenient time though, and Clint was using it as an explanation to leave Wakanda. Steve, Sam, and T’Challa were the ones he was trying to sell, because Scott didn’t care, Wanda seemed disinterested, and Barnes…well, he was too busy trying to convince Steve to freeze him again to care about where Clint was going. Clint told them he was “needed” on a SHIELD mission, that’s why Phil had called: it was just some minor reconnaissance, he’d be gone a week, maybe two. He’d get a lift beyond Wakanda’s border and then he’d find his own way to his destination, no problem. They were concerned about Stark’s tech finding him. Clint had been training his whole life to hide, he wasn’t worried about getting caught by Tony.

He’d been so intent on his planned task that he’d been halfway to his transport before he’d remembered that he couldn’t leave without telling Bruce. Shit. Dick move, Barton. He adjusted his course to the lab Bruce favoured, and walked through the door with a wide grin and easy gait. Bruce was there, focused on his work, so Clint plopped himself down on the stool beside the man, grabbed his cold coffee and took a swig. It was gross, but somehow felt right. Bruce sighed and when Clint put it back on the table he, moved it to his opposite side. Bruce liked his coffee cold, liked it black, and liked savouring one cup for an entire afternoon. ‘Like an ice coffee’ he’d said, ‘without the dilution.’ That had been in Nat’s notes, apparently Clint had told her about that pretty soon after he’d started stealing Bruce’s coffee. She also said Clint started calling him Bruce instead of Banner around that time.

Over the last few weeks Clint had found that he liked to watch Bruce work, watch how he’d get lost staring at his screens, how he’d move formulas around and stand at different distances to see if it would change his perspective before moving close for the minor details. Considering what he knew about the nature of their relationship Clint wasn’t sure why he was surprised to find he liked watching him so much; it was calming. He hadn’t had a lot of calm in his life.

“So I’m heading out,” he said, breaking the easy silence. Bruce stilled and looked at him, questioning and uncertain. Two of his fingers on his right hand twitched where it rested on the table. He was so controlled that was basically his version of clamping his hand into a fist. “Coulson gave me a run,” Clint rushed to explain and silently ordered himself to slow it down. “Shouldn’t be longer than two weeks.”

“You’re not healed enough for a mission,” Bruce said, looking pointedly at the still wrapped fingers on Clint’s left hand, fractures that long experience told him he could work around if he needed to.

“I’ll be fine. It’s reconnaissance only. Most strenuous thing I’ll probably have to do is climb a tree; he just wants a pair of eyes he can trust on the scene.”

“In that case, want some company?” Bruce asked, pushing his glasses up his nose in a familiar way Clint had quickly grown used to from all the time he was trying to spend with him.

“Probably best to not. One of us going out alone is already a target, but two of us? Somebody will notice if we’re out there together.”

“Yeah,” Bruce sighed and pinned him with a sharp little look, “at least your identity isn’t really known in the public eye. You only have to worry about Tony, the government, everybody else who’s a part of the Accords, and all your friendly, worldwide acquaintances.”

“Yeah,” Clint snorted a laugh and shifted closer to Bruce. Close enough that he could feel the heat from his arm soaking into his own. He wondered if he was generally allowed to reach out and touch at this point in a conversation, he forced himself to not tense with the uncertainty. Bruce solved the dilemma by wrapping his hand around Clint’s, their fingers curled together and Clint squeezed, a smile on his face that he couldn’t seem to help and didn’t care to stop.

“Bring me a souvenir?” Bruce asked, and Clint…well, shit; he had no idea what Bruce would like, but he kept smiling and nodded.

“Of course.”

“When are you heading out?”

“This afternoon.”

“Let us know if you need any help,” Bruce said, trying to mask his worry with sincerity, but not well enough. Clint felt a weird little internal squirm at the concern. It was nice.

“Naturally,” Clint got out. “This mission? Piece of cake.”

He’d told Bruce, along with the rest of the team, that his head was still a bit scrambled. It was true, so it was a good explanation as to why he might not be acting the way he usually did around Bruce. Normally he managed to avoid romantic moments altogether by making sure other teammates were around; he wasn’t a PDA kind of guy so it was easier when he didn’t have to question exactly how he should act.

He left the lab with a grin and a nod, and wondered if maybe he should have gone for something more intimate as a goodbye. Bruce didn’t seem bothered either way, just watched him go with his kind, but calculating, eyes.

+

T’Challa lent Clint one of his personal jets. It was conveniently unregistered and had the invisibility shield that Clint remembered, in a distant sort of way, from when the team showed up to almost rescue him from Ross’s soldiers. Clint had discovered the memories that felt like they had an echo of mistruth to them usually involved Bruce; it was because he couldn’t remember Bruce being there they felt false.

He was discovering more and more hollowed memories every day. It scared the fuck out of him, and made him so furious he had to make a conscious effort to not clench his jaw. Having no trouble remembering Hulk made all of this even more difficult to swallow.

The jet, though, it was pretty nice. Clint figured T’Challa was lending out his fleet to them at the drop of a dime as a way to passively make up for relentlessly trying to murder Barnes based on a falsified news report. Clint had no problems taking advantage of this generosity, because who knew how long it would last. While he was in flight over Nigeria, on the way to Spain, he made further effort to show his appreciation of the jet by hacking into the gps and adjusting it to log Spain as his port of landing for the foreseeable future. He then veered west, cutting across the Atlantic to the good ol’ homeland. He parked in South Carolina.

He found the scrap of paper in the front pocket of the jeans he dragged on after landing. Natasha’s sharp cursive curled an address across the tiny square page and he finally relaxed, settling back into his skin for the first time in what felt like months. It had barely been three weeks since he’d regained his world, or most of it, and he’d been edgy the entire time. Now he smiled sharply at the paper; he didn’t need her help, and he certainly didn’t need her permission, but knowing that she had his back no matter what, was a relief he had forced himself to not chase. Of course she figured out a way to remind him that they were solid without them ever having to speak a word.

On his way out of the jet he ignited the paper with the lighter he found in his other pocket, erasing all trace, and went to find a ride to DC.

He had a meeting and he didn’t want to be late.

+

It was well past the witching hour, the buildings lights were dimmed for nighttime power conservation, and the guards had been ordered to steer clear of the East basement wing for the remainder of the morning. The quiet stillness had settled in the lab hours before, and even with Thaddeus Ross’s unscheduled entry it maintained its eerie silence.

He moved with determination, clearly a man who was reaching the pinnacle of a long awaited goal. Even the process of removing his knee-length jacket to drape over a stool seemed important, the way he rolled his white shirts sleeves above his elbow displayed intent. The black briefcase he’d carried in with a white knuckled grip had been placed on one of several stainless steel tables. It hissed as he clicked it open, a puff of white mist rolled over its dark brim to dissipate on the metal surface as he pulled a clear canister from its innards. He handled it with the care of a newborn child.

Braced inside was a vial filled with a translucent red liquid so thick that it did not shift within the glass. He held it at eye level a moment, smiling, until a sound drew his attention.

“You’re late,” he snapped and turned to glare at the technician whom should have already set up the incubation chamber for him. Ross stilled when he realized that it wasn’t his expected companion, and that they were nowhere near the only entrance in and out of this specialized room.

“Seems to me I’m right on time,” the visitor said as they stepped out from their place in the corner of the lab. They must have been there the entire time. Ross squared his shoulders and glared, wondering how he’d missed him when he’d entered.

“You’re not authorized for this room,” he did an admirable job of keeping his tone even, but his lip curled in an unreleased snarl that clearly expressed his irritation.

“I’m not authorized for this building,” the man, who was dressed in complete black, including gloves and a balaclava which covered his entire face, shrugged. Then he cocked his head in apparent thought. “Actually, I don’t think I’m even authorized for this country at the moment,” his tone was deceptively light, but Ross shook his head in derision.

“Which one are you then? Rogers?” He narrowed his eyes and considered. “Wilson?”

“It’s like you didn’t even read our dossiers,” the masked man said flatly, and pulled up his mask to reveal his face, blue eyes hard and flat in the dimly lit lab, his blonde hair barely visible tufts around his ears where the black material bunched up like an awkward hat. Ross actually looked startled by the reveal, and Clint Barton grinned. “Remember me?” He asked softly.

There was a long, heavy silence as Ross stared hard at Barton, clearly having a very clear memory of him. Ross remembered the basics in his file, his relationship with the monster that paraded around like a hero, remembered the blood and the threats, remembered how easily he’d controlled him and used him to find Banner. He remembered the promise hissed between teeth as he’d ordered him pinned to the table. He’d cared little for the bravado at the time, and here Barton was, watching him silently, waiting, and just as underwhelming as he’d been all the other times Ross had used him for his own goals.

Barton’s eyes shifted to the canister that held Ross’s future, the future he was supposed to be creating right now, after years and years of effort and sacrifice.

“I was never going to waste this on you,” he explained to the archer, not sure why, but he was already tired of waiting for the guy to make his grab for it.

“I know,” Barton said, like it had always been obvious, with or without his memories.

“So you’re here to what, intimidate me into not using it?” Ross sneered.

“No.”

The air in the room chilled, and Barton just kept watching Ross, waiting for him to get it. Ross stood very still now.

“You can’t kill me, you’re an Avenger.” He pointed out, and Barton’s brow furrowed and he cocked his head.

“What I am is an unemployed long-range specialist turned fugitive who made you a promise,” Barton said flatly.

“An assassin,” Ross spit with disgust, and Barton nodded in easy agreement.

“Exactly.” He pulled his gun and fired. Two shots, one to kill instantly, the other to mask the perfect kill shot. He picked up the canister with the red serum as he stepped over the body, pulled the mask back over his face, and left without a backwards glance.

+

Tony heard about Ross on the news, and promptly hacked the police reports. It was clearly an unnatural death, but nobody knew what Ross had been doing in the government lab that late at night. He might have resigned as Secretary of the State two weeks before due to some ‘evidence’ about his actions on the Raft and in Canada coming to the President’s attention (along with some subtle threats about exposing the information to the masses and perhaps pulling some of the funding Stark industries sent their way), but Ross was clearly too valuable to give the boot altogether. His new position was still being determined though, and while he had connections to the lab he was found in, he wasn’t technically supposed to be there.

The cause of death was gunshot. Two bullets to the heart and chest, clean shots but not as clean as a general ‘professional’ hit would be. There was exactly zero evidence aside from the gun that had been left on a table at the scene. The gun’s serial number had been traced as a weapon that should have been destroyed as part of a police arms disposal plan four years before. New investigations had already been launched to figure out that apparent clusterfuck.

Tony told Friday to keep him appraised, and went to see what Rhodes was up to.

+

Clint flew back over the Wakandan border one week and six days after he left. Natasha met him in the hangar with narrowed eyes as he landed, standing close enough to reach out and touch the planes nose as the props hit the floor.

“I thought you would have been back sooner,” she said casually when he stepped out the side door. She took his bag from him, like he couldn’t handle it because one shoulder was delicate and his other hand had broken fingers. He scratched at the back of his neck sheepishly and looked at her sideways, trying to gauge if she was genuinely upset.

“Yeah, there was a thing I needed to do in Chicago,” he said, and her raised eyebrow told him that he really didn’t want to leave the explanation there, so he hurried on with a hushed tone. “The guy I bought the gun from didn’t even bat an eye when I approached him on the street. Eight hundred cash and there were no questions and a loaded clip thrown in for free. They were repurposing weapons that were supposed to be destroyed. I couldn’t just walk away from that, Nat,” he explained.

“Of course you couldn’t,” she sounded put upon but he could see the grin twitch the corner of her mouth. “At least you didn’t hurt yourself further,” she commented, which was true, he’d actually just done a tonne of skulking, scared the confession out of a key player, and sent everything gift wrapped to the FBI. Not the police, because two of the guys in on the gun ring were cops and Clint really hated dirty cops.

“The team?” he asked.

“They believed you were on a mission for Coulson. Rogers called him and he covered for you. Of course, officially Coulson still has no idea where any of us are or how to contact us.”

“Cool,” he smiled a little at that, because even if they weren’t close at the moment they always had each others backs. “Bruce?”

“Relieved, I think,” she said and dumped his duffle in the back of Wakanda’s version of a golf cart and they both slid into the front seats. It had no wheels, hovering three inches above the ground through some kind of magnet system. He was really glad he didn’t have to walk back to the building they were staying at, because it was far and he hadn’t actually slept much. Nightmares kept him awake and work kept him from sleep. He was tired. He basically dozed with his eyes open as Nat drove, and she kept to the familiarity of their silence.

“Get your shoulder looked at,” Natasha ordered when she pulled up to their building and he slid off the seat with little grace. “And tell him,” she levelled him with a pointed look.

“You don’t think he’s figured it out by now?” He resisted scratching at his neck again, unease instantly coiling within him as he met her steady gaze.

“Doesn’t matter. He should hear it from you,” her gaze drifted to his jaw, where he’d hoped five days of not shaving had hidden the worst of the new bruising.

Okay, so maybe he was a little more banged up than he had been when he left, but she should see the other seven guys, and they’d been armed. At least he hadn’t been shot or stabbed! She didn’t comment further, and drove off without letting him grab his bag.

“Aww, Nat,” he sighed, and dragged his phone from his pocket. He quickly sent her a text.

Careful with the bag, precious cargo. He warned, because he’d really had no idea what to do with the red liquid that Ross had used Bruce to create other than stuff it in his bag. It was wrapped up in a dirty pair of jeans. He probably should have put it in some kind off special cooling box a week ago.

No shit, Nat’s response was quick and comforting. He went to find Bruce.

He found him in the kitchen, making something that looked like a quiche, in the sense that it had a lot of mixed eggs being dumped over a bunch of vegetables. Clint forced himself to stop in the doorway, and crossed his arms to watch. Bruce’s shoulders were hunched, a lot like they’d been when Clint had first woken up, after Wanda had gone into his head and reversed whatever Ross had done to him. When she’d finally come by to see him, a day after he woke up properly, she’d looked so relieved after announcing that she’d done all she could that he hadn’t had the heart to tell her he wasn’t all back.

Only Natasha knew, though he suspected Bruce had figured it out almost right away. He’d never said anything though, just kept keeping-on like nothing was amiss. He kept acting like Clint wasn’t screwing everything up by pretending to remember their relationship, or even who he was, and no doubt doing everything ass backwards. He didn’t know why Bruce hadn’t called him on it.

“How was your mission?” Bruce asked as he turned on the tap and began filling a kettle, no doubt out of compulsion as opposed to actually wanting a drink. Clint had asked Natasha if Bruce had always made as much tea as he seemed to since they’d arrived in Wakanda. She said the regularity was a fairly new development. She’d explained which ones she thought were his favourite, at least by what Clint had once asked her to pick up in Beijing.

“Good mission, easy,” Clint blurted, too quick and he hid his cringe as Bruce turned away from the sink and looked at him, bemused. He looked tired from this angle as well, but also like he’d been getting some sun. Clint was just glad he hadn’t holed up in the lab the whole time, which seemed to be something he liked to do. There were a lot of very smart people who always wanted to speak with him, so he had genuine excuses to stay indoors.

Clint entered the kitchen properly, went to the fridge and started looking for something quick and easy to put together.

“You bring me that souvenir?” Bruce asked lightly and Clint nodded absently. He’d grabbed it in South Carolina; a super cheap watch with the silhouette of a palm tree in the center. Bruce would probably loose it, Clint had this niggling feeling that he lost a lot of watches whenever he shifted to Hulk and forgot to take them off, but he’d seen the cheap timepiece and just thought Bruce would be amused.

He ended up pulling out a block of odd-looking cheese and a cucumber from the fridge. It would do. He placed it on the kitchens island counter, and just managed to not twitch in surprised when Bruce was suddenly beside him, reaching out to gently hold his wrist. Clint looked up in question, hoping his nerves weren’t as exposed as he felt.

“Thank you,” Bruce said softly, and Clint turned so his back was leaning against the counter and Bruce was leaning beside him, facing him.

“Yeah well, don’t thank me till you see it,” Clint said breezily, and swallowed a bit when the grip on his wrist tightened. He had strong fingers.

“That’s not what I’m thanking you for,” Bruce said and Clint looked at him, recognizing that Bruce suspected Clint had killed Ross. Clint had spent the last week hunting down gun smugglers because it was the right thing to do, but also maybe because he’d needed some time to think. He’d come to the conclusion that Bruce might really not be happy with him killing someone in cold-blood. Maybe Clint should have felt more remorse or hesitance for the actions that he really hadn’t taken too long to decide on. He didn’t feel anything close to regret. He thought maybe Bruce could see that too, and he was surprised the scientist was still here with him, and not walking away from the deep cold that Clint sometimes wrapped himself in to do his job; to survive another day.

Ross hadn’t been a job, he’d been a promise. Clint always kept his promises.

“Nothing to thank me for,” he said softly, and took a breath, because as far as he was concerned he was safe, Bruce was safe, and everyone who would have been affected by whatever shit-show Ross had been concocting was safe.

Bruce moved quickly was now standing before Clint, still holding his wrist and so close they were almost pressed together chest to chest. Clint watched his throat shift as he swallowed, and looked up to meet Bruce’s eyes. The warmth, kindness, and dark satisfaction he found…Clint breathed a sigh of relief, only now admitting to himself that maybe he’d been afraid this would chase Bruce away. It wouldn’t be the first time somebody he was with finally, truly, comprehended what it was that he was sent out to do most missions, and left him for it. Most were interested in the hero, they didn’t want the dark, crusty stain that came with him.

“Bruce,” he said, his breath picking up as Bruce leaned in, his intention clear, and pressed their lips together. His mouth was soft and warm, suggestive but not demanding. He pulled away after a long moment and Clint forced himself not to chase and deepen the connection. He swallowed and opened his eyes, not realizing he’d closed them. Bruce was smiling softly.

“The first time you kissed me was after I helped you out of a stream Hulk had pushed you into,” he said. Clint stopped his hands from wrapping around Bruce’s back. He would have pulled away completely, but Bruce had him up against the counter. He wasn’t blocking him in with his arms, wasn’t trapping him, and he still only had one hand wrapped lightly around Clint’s wrist. He didn’t want Clint to go, but he wouldn’t make him stay. Clint swallowed thickly, comprehending what the confession meant, understanding that Bruce knew Clint didn’t remember them. It was confirmation, and it felt damning.

“Bruce-” Bruce kissed him again, pressing harder this time, and pressing closer. Clint curled his hands around his waist, feeling the heat on the skin beneath the rumpled shirt and squeezing a little. Bruce broke the kiss and this time Clint reached up with his uninjured hand, feeling and ignoring the burning tug deep in his shoulder as he pressed his fingers around Bruce’s neck, half on skin and half on the collar of his shirt. He felt stretched and raw, and far too comfortable in the space of a man he didn’t know as well as he should. He thought maybe his body remembered more than he did.

“Bruce, I don’t-”

“He can’t take everything from us,” Bruce said, brushing his lips gently over Clint’s, “and we’ll get the rest back.” His warm confidence dug unexpectedly deep into Clint, searching for marrow to settle into and that was it. Clint was done. He couldn’t fucking take this gentleness anymore. It was too much and exactly what he wanted and he needed more. Fuck the memories and fuck his life. He wanted more, and he’d always gone after what he wanted. He’d deal with the repercussions later.

“Jesus, Bruce,” he hissed, and dragged him in for another kiss, harder and deeper, tasting the warmth of Bruce’s mouth, feeling the rim of his glasses as they pressed briefly just beneath his eye. Bruce pulled back, yanked the black frames off to drop on the counter, and pressed bodily into Clint, pinning him against the hard surface, solid and hot and weighted. Clint groaned, dropped the hand at Bruce’s waist down to his ass and squeezed, not giving a damn about the sharp spike of pain from his fingers. Bruce jerked into him, pulled back from the kiss almost like he was surprised, and Clint thought that maybe he was pushing too much, going too fast. He dismissed that idea as Bruce dragged both of his own hands down Clint’s sides, gently over his sore ribs, and past his waist until his fingers were wrapping around him, pressing hot and deep where his thighs met his ass. His hands felt fucking huge and strong and Clint inhaled sharply when Bruce pressed in again, and lifted him to sit on the counter.

Fuck,” Clint groaned and wrapped his legs right around Bruce, making sure he stayed exactly where he wanted him as he threw his arms over his shoulders to try and drag him closer and-

“Guys, this is a communal kitchen,” Scott fucking Lang said as he came wandering through the door, clearly just out of bed if the pyjama pants and lack of shirt were anything to judge. The guy scratched absently at his chest as he walked right by them to open the fridge. Bruce dropped his forehead to press into Clint’s neck, and Clint knew that he could kill Lang with the cucumber sitting by his right hip…probably. He was motivated enough to try, but then Bruce was gently pulling away and Clint reluctantly unwrapped his legs and allowed Bruce to brace him as he slid back to the floor. Scott closed the fridge door, looking puzzled a moment, before he looked towards them and a happy little grin appeared that dropped ten years off his face. He walked up to them, reached around Clint, who was still breathing a little heavy, and snagged the cheese.

“Yessss,” he murmured softly and left the kitchen with the entire block. Clint watched him basically shuffle away.

“Was he sleep walking?” he asked and Bruce huffed a laugh, leaned in and kissed him once more. Clint took a deep breath.

“We should probably talk,” Bruce said, and Clint very maturely did not groan in resignation, because talking?

“Probably.”

“Natasha thinks we’re going to need to leave here soon; thinks we’ve stayed too long in one location.” Bruce added.

“Well, we’ll most likely split into groups, so I’m calling dibs on you and Hulk.” Clint announced as they left the kitchen. He’d call dibs on Nat too, but she did not appreciate anyone staking any kind of claim on her. Ever.

“Probably best,” Bruce said with a wry smile. There were so many things that needed to be fixed, issues upon issues for all of them to deal with, but Clint figured that, like always, they’d get through it or they wouldn’t. With Bruce’s arm bumping against his he thought that, for as long as it lasted, at least he’d be in good company.

“Wait,” Bruce stopped with a frown when they were halfway through the living room and turned around. “Were are we going? I have to put the frittata in the oven,” he said and wandered back to the kitchen. Clint watched him walk away and didn’t bother to control a wide grin of his own.

End.

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