The telepathy had felt like something of an afterthought to the whole brainwashing experience, which was why Clint didn’t bother mentioning it to people.
“An evil alien God took control of my mind and made me kill a whole bunch of people, then tried to take over the world,” was pretty much enough without “oh, and as a side effect, I now have a mental connection with a Norwegian-American astrophysicist,” on top of it.
Besides, Erik had made it pretty clear that he wasn’t interested in exploring exactly what Loki’s magic had done to them both that meant they could communicate with their minds. He’d spent the months since the Battle of New York doing meditation exercises and building up mental walls. Clint didn’t have the heart to tell him that they didn’t really work. It was easy enough to ignore the occasional stray thought that came through to him, after all.
He was just really fucking glad that Erik had been the only other person Loki had used his sceptre on. Being connected to all the mercenaries and other flunkies Loki had brought in would have got really fucking confusing, and probably pretty unpleasant. Most of them had been assholes.
Six months on, Clint had worked hard to put the whole thing behind him. He’d jumped through all the hoops at SHIELD until he was back on active duty again, he’d played ball with all the paperwork and extra training that being in the newly-formed Avengers involved, and had even agreed to move in to Stark’s ridiculous tower, as if having some kind of high-tech frathouse for them all was an idea that was going to end with anything other than tears before bedtime.
He had a feeling that part of it was mostly for Steve’s sake, anyway. It seemed like the guy needed a push to start socialising with people in the present, rather than sitting around moping about how everyone he knew was dead.
Clint was sitting with him, watching some movie that was on Steve’s list of “how to catch up with modern life,” but which Clint had never even heard of, let alone seen before. He had a feeling someone had been trolling Steve when they suggested it.
Hurts, echoed through his mind, and he flinched, then sent a thought out at Erik.
That wasn’t me, he got back from Erik, riding on a wave of worry.
Clint tensed up and Steve glanced over at him with a concerned look. Clint flashed him a smile and forced himself to relax as if he wasn’t now hearing random unknowns in his head.
Hey, is someone there? he sent out, pushing the thought as hard as possible.
There was a pause, during which he could feel Erik listening just as intently as he was, then a thought came back.
Who is that?
Ah, crap. Now Clint was paying attention, he could hear that it wasn’t Erik, and it came with an aura of pain and confusion that made Clint want to reach out and help the poor guy.
My name is Clint, he thought. Erik and I had our minds linked a few months ago by, uh…
He stumbled to a halt and Erik stepped in. By a cosmic power we still don’t fully understand.
Cosmic...what? repeated the new guy. I don’t...Oh no. The chair.
The dread that came with the last thought was so overwhelming that Clint had to drag in a deep breath to try and push it down.
What chair? asked Erik. What’s happening? Where are you?
Who are you? added Clint.
I don’t know, was all that came back to them, and then, They’re going to hurt me again.
A moment later there was a flood of pain. Clint curled over and grabbed at his head as it stabbed through him.
“Clint? Are you okay?” asked Steve, sitting up.
“Fine,” muttered Clint. “Just a headache.”
He got up and stumbled away to his room, reaching out for Erik. What the hell? How can someone else hear us? I thought this was only because of the sceptre?
He got back a whitewash which kind of translated to ow ow ow and it occurred to him that astrophysicists probably didn’t experience pain with the same frequency as Avengers. And actually, that even for an Avenger, this was a lot of pain, lancing down his spine all the way to his extremities, causing his muscles to tense in waves, drowning everything else out -
- after a while, he came back to himself lying on his back on his bedroom floor, and it was cold comfort to know that he laid himself down here rather than just falling on his ass. He was kind of sweaty and had no idea how long it had been, but the pain was fading rapidly from all-encompassing to a dull, ignorable ache.
Erik? Clint asked.
Who the hell is Erik? Came the reply, slow and heavy. Robotic, almost.
I am , Erik said after a long moment. That’s Clint. What’s your name?
Is this a test?
No test, Clint supplied. He wasn’t usually nice to strangers in his head - Erik could attest to that - but this guy had just had something pretty awful happen to him, going by Clint’s headache, and he wasn’t a complete asshole. It’s just nice to have a name for the person you’re talking to.
Asset? Erik asked. And oh, wow, did that bring back memories. Memories that were going to make Clint puke, potentially.
That’s what they call me.
Okay then, Erik said with a calm that had to be fake, surely. Do you recognise this?
There was a vague sense of strain, and then, rather than words, a picture passed through Clint’s mind: the sceptre, a little hazy but still unmistakable with its eerie blue-white glow.
The answer was a rush: jittering darkness and harsh fluorescent light, the sensation of being frogmarched - or maybe dragged - and then dropped into a chair. Metal closing in, holding him down. Rubber on his tongue. The sceptre, breathtakingly real, coming closer and closer until his eyes are crossed trying to see it. Then, pain.
Clint was the one that broke the grip on him. Fuck meditation - apparently all you needed to shore up your mental walls was suddenly being triggered by someone else’s memories.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” he said out loud, reeling and immensely pleased to be horizontal.
There was a long quiet moment in his head, and then Asset said, Yes.
Clint pushed himself upright, scrubbing at his face. Well, I don’t think it worked .
Clint? Erik asked.
He’s still got thoughts, doesn’t he? To be fair, Clint had had thoughts, too. Ones that still woke him up screaming some nights. Hey, kid, any desperate need to kill people? Or do some evil bastard’s bidding?
What’s my mission?
Clint was halfway to puzzling that one out when he felt a shivering ghost-sensation of rubber slipping from between his teeth. He swallowed convulsively. This wasn’t - right. Even the initial shock of Erik’s voice in his head and the occasional thoughts drifting between their minds had never brought feeling with it.
Someone slapped him across the face. “Soldat!”
Things tilted. Clint had been sitting on his ass staring vaguely at the far wall of his bedroom, and then he was staring at concrete and sitting in a chair. No. The Chair.
A hand curled in his hair, jerking his head up. An unfamiliar white face inserted itself into his (his?) vision. They said something in Russian that he didn’t understand.
“Wipe him again,” a dispassionate voice - American - responded. Clint didn’t - couldn’t - move as a mouthguard, black rubber, was shoved back between his teeth. There was a metallic groan and movement, and his head was forced down and restrained.
He felt that same fear-that-wasn’t-his, heard hurts hurts hurts , and then, with an adrenaline-fuelled shove, he was back on his bedroom floor, panting and sweating.
“Aw, fuck,” Clint groaned.
Agreed, Erik said.
Erik had theories, babbling on about nonlocality of events and quantum entanglement of magnetic fields, but most of them went right over Clint’s head. To be honest he didn’t really care exactly how this had happened. He had learned early in life to take things as they came.
To him, the bigger issue was that whoever had the scepter now was clearly up to no good and this guy, Asset , was suffering for it, but Clint was damned if he could figure out what to do about it.
How do you go about finding a guy with no name and no location?
Erik finally started jotting down notes rather than sending his theories through the mental link, and Clint basked in the sudden silence. Every once in awhile he would reach out, trying to sense Asset, but feeling only a void in his place.
Clint was staring up at his ceiling, wondering if he was finally tired enough to attempt sleep, when between one blink and the next he was staring down the scope of a sniper rifle instead. The asphalt was sharp against his elbows and knees, an icy wind making the flags nearby snap on their poles.
Clint attempted to roll aside, but of course he couldn’t. He had no control of the finger resting on the trigger or the steady breaths rising and falling from his lungs.
Hey , he sent out. Hey...Asset?
He felt it for just a moment — a curl of curiosity before it was replaced with an odd sort of numb blankness.
How are you communicating?
I dunno , Clint replied. I just think, and...y’know, you hear it.
Is this a test?
What do you mean? Clint couldn’t figure the guy out. You asked that before, what kind of test would it be?
To determine if I am compliant with mission parameters , the man answered immediately. I will comply.
There was something oddly robotic about the statement.
What is your mission? Clint asked.
Sharp suspicion colored the man’s thoughts. Before he could respond, however, a procession of cars pulled up in front of the building he — they? — were looking at. The man pressed his eye back to the scope and Clint watched through Asset’s eyes as the car door opened. One man got out, but was quickly dismissed by Asset. Then another man emerged, and Clint felt the new tension in Asset’s body as he confirmed his target.
Asset took a deep breath and then glanced once at the flags to judge the wind speed and direction. As he exhaled, he took two shots in quick succession, one to the guy’s forehead and another straight to his chest, left of center mass.
That was a fucking good shot, Clint couldn’t help thinking. That distance, in this wind? Impressive.
He felt just a little prickle of pride as Asset broke down his rifle and bipod with quick, efficient movements.
I comply, Asset sent back. And if you did not know my mission, then you are not authorized.
Clint felt the equivalent of a mental shove, and then he was back in his bed, throat dry, once again staring up at his ceiling.
So the guy was not being very cooperative. But someone had just been assassinated, and Clint had a few flags to help him figure out where, and that was something.
Clint was on the range the next time it happened. He was testing out his boomerang arrow when the pain hit, bringing him to his knees.
It came in waves of blinding agony, sharp and electric like being tased over and over again, until his bones felt like they were going to break and the rubber in his mouth tasted like bile.
When it finally faded Clint took a moment to just pant for breath, trying to pull himself together. In a dizzying sort of double vision, he knew he was still flat on his back at the range in Avengers Tower, and yet he was also lying on a cot, metal supports groaning under his weight as he stared up at a cracked concrete ceiling.
Asset? Clint said tentatively.
Yes. That strange robotic quality was gone, as was the cold focus. The man just felt weary now, and sad.
It’s not right, whatever they’re doing to you.
Clint could feel the man breathing. Every muscle in his body ached, phantom shocks still traveling down his limbs from time to time.
The Asset’s thoughts were quiet and tentative, almost a whisper. Clint wanted to reassure him that whoever was holding him captive couldn’t hear them, that there was no way that they could eavesdrop on a conversation that was happening in their heads, but that wasn’t something he could honestly promise.
If the scepter had been used to manipulate this man already there was no telling what kind of information whoever used it had, or what they were capable of doing. It seemed unlikely that another person could have joined the bond without either Clint or Erik noticing, but it was too risky to be making assumptions.
In the back of his mind, Clint could still feel the Asset’s presence, and felt a pang of confused helplessness that wasn’t entirely his own.
“Fuck,” Clint muttered, rubbing at his temple where he felt a headache starting to form. He racked his mind for a way to comfort the man that felt so pained and alone inside his head, but he was coming up empty.
Asset? He questioned, directing his attention to the presence still lingering.
The Asset didn’t reply, but Clint felt the man focus more intently on his voice. He shivered a little at the intensity of the Asset’s undivided attention. I’m going to try something, but you have to promise you’ll tell me to stop if it you want me to, okay? He waited what felt like decades before the Asset replied with an okay, still projecting his voice like he was scared of getting caught. Knowing that was as much of an agreement as he was going to get, Clint took a deep breath and concentrated all his energy towards reaching out through the bond towards the Asset.
It was as if he had a wet blanket draped over his head, and he immediately felt the strain of moving taking a physical effect on him. Nevertheless he pushed through, grasping desperately at the link connecting them and pulling. The closer he got to the Asset mentally, the clearer the man’s thoughts and emotions came through, until they were almost intertwined.
His head pounded and ears rang as his system was flooded with the buzzing of a thousand memories and voices he didn’t recognize.
Almost all of them were painful, and his body burned with memories of torture he hadn’t experienced, and tears that weren’t his to shed dripped down his cheeks. People were yelling in a language Clint was quick to recognize as Russian, and hands that weren’t his own gripped a rifle like his life depended on it.
There was something else, though. Some happy, golden memories preserved so deep in the core of the Asset’s mind that even he couldn’t reach.
Within those, Clint saw flickers of bustling streets, of peeling wallpaper and bruised knuckles. Glimpses of a world a lifetime away, of a home that was never his own. In the center of it all, he saw a boy with dark hair and a crooked smile, steel grey eyes filled with hope. He drew closer to the boy, feeling the pain fade away into the back of his mind and warmth seep into the tips of his fingers.
Suddenly, the images were torn away and Clint felt like he was falling fast, tumbling back into his own head and away from the warmth and purity surrounding the memory, or whatever it was. STOP. The Asset’s voice echoed in his mind, head spinning with the force of it. He sounded so broken, so full of fear, that Clint instantly reached out again only to be shut out completely, the Asset’s presence blinking out of existence.
Just like that, Clint was alone again, sitting on the floor of the range with his mind reeling. He looked down to find that his arms were dripping blood, sharp scratches in his skin red and inflamed from where his nails were still digging in. He let go immediately, pushing his palms up to his eyes instead, pressing against the lids with a groan.
This time, the anger and helplessness he felt was all his own.
Clint? A voice echoed in his head, causing him to start.
He sighed when recognition hit. Yeah Erik? The scientist probably heard some, if not most of what just transpired, so it made sense for him to want to know what the fuck happened.
What are we going to do?
The realness of the situation washed over him, and Clint growled in anger at whoever thought they had the right to tear apart the Asset’s memories like he didn’t matter, like he was only a tool for them to mold. It wasn’t right. He didn’t know what to do, and projected all these thoughts over to Erik who grew quiet (which Clint was silently thankful for since his head was pounding enough without someone else hanging around in it).
Getting up on shaky knees, he shook off the dizziness and sighed. One thing was for certain; he needed some goddamn coffee before he could think about this anymore.
In the end he gave up and just brought the whole pot back to his room with him, sipping from the spout as he settled down on his couch.
“Jarvis? Are the results of the search I requested ready to display?”
“Yes, Agent Barton,” Jarvis answered immediately.
”Go ahead, then.”
Jarvis repeated Clint’s own voice command back to him as the results loaded. “Search parameters: Monitor all domestic and international law enforcement channels for reports of an assassination yesterday between 23:45 and 00:15 Eastern Daylight Time. Sniper shot from a rooftop to target emerging from a vehicle motorcade. One shot to the forehead, one shot to left of center mass. Victim was male, likely Caucasian, brown hair, no identifying marks, aged 50 - 65, approximately five-ten to six feet tall.”
Crap, there were a surprising number of old white guys getting themselves taken out sniper-style, Clint thought, as the results scrolled by. He thought for awhile longer, trying to recall any more details of the hit. The sun had been almost directly overhead, the shadows stark and close to the figures on the ground. The wind had been icy, though, creeping in at the neck of Asset’s tac vest. “Limit search to locations 10 to 14 hours behind Eastern Daylight Time and with daytime temperatures below 10 degrees Celsius.”
That cut the list down by more than two thirds, but it was still a lot to go through. Clint took another gulp from the coffee pot, and sighed.
What did you do to me?
The thought startled Clint out of a dead sleep. He rubbed a hand across his face.
Asset? he asked, pulling himself upright. He must have fallen asleep on the couch while he was reviewing the data. His ears ached from sleeping with his hearing aids in, and the coffee pot was on its side on the floor, the last few drips of coffee puddled around it. At least he had found the right hit before he dozed off and had instructed Jarvis to gather any available surveillance footage.
As he woke up more he could sense the Asset’s emotions — fury, confusion, and, above all, a despair so deep that Clint had to take short, sharp breaths just to get a handle on it.
I’m compromised, Asset sent. Barely a moment behind the thought came the memories, fast and confusing, a tidal wave that threatened to overwhelm them both. Memories of kills and wipes — too many to even count, and pain beyond imagining, mixed with other memories, a little less vivid but just as real. Memories of war that seemed strangely old-fashioned, like something out of a movie, as well as memories that were tinged with that warmer feeling — a glimpse of a bloodied chin, a skinny teen shivering in a stained undershirt, a woman cooking at the stove and smiling down at him soft and warm —
What did you do!? The Asset sent again, frantic now.
I don’t know. I’m sorry — I didn’t mean to. Christ, what did Clint do? He messed around where he shouldn’t have, is what he did.
If they find out —
Asset didn’t even need to finish the thought. Clint could sense it. If he were lucky they would just kill him, but if not — there was a sensation of cold, so deep and final that it felt like neverending death.
Don’t shut me out again, Clint pleaded. We’ll figure this out together, I promise. I have resources — I can get you out, if we can figure out where you are. Clint stumbled forward, banging his shin on the coffee table as he pulled up the information about the assassination on the giant touch screen. Your mission was in Astana, in Kazakhstan — are you still there? Did they transport you?
I don’t know. They wiped me after — I don’t remember. I don’t even know what’s real anymore. The Asset felt so bereft, so lost, that it made Clint’s chest ache.
I’m real. Clint tried to send reassurance and comfort through the mental link. This is real, I promise. And we’ll get through this. I’m not gonna leave you alone with this, I promise.
There was silence, but Clint knew Asset was still there, could feel him struggling with his confusion and despair in that cold room somewhere.
Why? Asset finally asked.
Because what they’re doing to you is wrong. You don’t deserve that. No one does. So we’re gonna help you. I promise — we’re in this with you.
With you to the end of the line, Asset thought — remembered, it seemed — and Clint jolted in surprise, because it didn’t make any sense at all but that had sounded like Steve .
Steve? He found himself thinking out loud, and now the Asset really was panicking, memories overwhelming him. With another shove Clint was suddenly alone in his own room again, more confused than ever.
Clint couldn’t sleep again, afterwards. He took out his aids and occupied himself with searches of the operatives and interests around Astana, Jarvis projecting his comments onto the far wall. It was informative - the sociopolitical climate of Kazakhstan was fascinating - but he knew better than anyone that the assassination business was highly mobile out of necessity. Asset could be based anywhere on the planet, just about, and it didn’t seem like he was going to be able to tell Clint where.
Eventually, just as his stomach was starting to grumble, he felt a shiver of sensation like a tickle at the back of his brain and Asset said, I remember that.
He sounded calmer, the panic from earlier faded to a weariness so extreme Clint himself could feel the weight of it. Clint blinked at the page he had open on his laptop about Soviet biological weapon development, and then realised with a jolt that he wasn’t the only one looking at it.
He hadn’t considered, until now, that it might be an assault on its own that he was actually inside Asset’s head compared to the quiet flow of words-and-feelings he and Erik shared. He waited a moment to feel a rush of panic at the intrusion, but it didn’t come. Asset didn’t feel anything like Loki - there was no force, no domination, just the vague impression of another presence.
Were you a history buff or something ? Clint asked. It’s not like he had much room to judge on the past interests of assassins: a history degree wasn’t any better or worse than growing up in the circus.
I was there, came the reply.
Clint squinted. He was deep into the kind of reports that definitely weren’t searchable via Google, and the page he was on was about the use of weaponized Smallpox in 1948. How old are you, exactly?
Don’t know. Just remember dropping the payload. Mission success. Five victims.
It checks out. Unless Asset was a very early starter, Clint was going to go ahead and assume that he’d been at least twenty in 1948. Except anyone that age would be heading fast for their nineties, and if an eighty-something-year-old was capable of making the shots the Asset had made in Astana then Clint was going to go right ahead and retire effective right now -
- except that he was kind of used to being outclassed by the elderly these days, thanks to Captain America. And, speaking of:
You know Steve Rogers? He asked, preparing himself for a repeat meltdown.
There was a frisson of that same fear, close enough Clint was peripherally aware of his own heart rate increasing. Asset was quiet for a long moment, and then a picture floated up to the surface of Clint’s mind, slow and a little hazy. The figure in it was slight and blond, wearing clothes that were a little big on his frame and a lot old-fashioned. Clint wouldn’t have recognised him at all if it weren’t for the extremely thorough dossier SHIELD had given him in the wake of Loki.
Maybe, Asset whispers.
And that really was something. However, Clint was more of a big picture man, always had been. They could worry about particulars later. How can I help you?
I don’t want to hurt anyone else. The accompanying memories were almost overwhelming, Asset an open book whether he intended it or not: heat and cold, rapid pursuit and the impossible patience of a sniper, cordite and blood.
Jesus fucking Christ. Okay. Okay.
Clint considered the people he’d seen from the inside of Asset’s head. Are you trapped? Are you a prisoner?
There was a long quiet. Clint got the impression Asset didn’t know how to answer, or maybe didn’t know the answer at all. Eventually, he said, I can’t....
There was a breathless brush of trying to hit someone and finding himself frozen solid by a command in...Russian, maybe? Literally stuck in place like he was unable to move.
Whoever had him, they had the sceptre, and they’d scrambled the poor bastard’s brain into the bargain. Once upon a time Clint didn’t believe in shit like mind-control, but there was nothing like a brush with the concept to make a believer. Clint, thinking miles a minute, considered the idea of a guy whose body was a slave while his brain was capable of a little minor rebellion - not like him, who’d been subjugated completely.
Clint thought back to the documents JARVIS had found for him, all the supposed sightings of the Asset over the years, some dating much further back than should have been possible. If they really were all of the same man, there had to be some reason he seemed to vanish off the map between every hit. Hey, Asset, would you be able to tell me how long you spend between missions?
It was a shot in the dark, but worth a try. Anything to gain more information on Asset’s situation, right? After a while without a response, Clint sighed, It’s okay if you don’t -
His train of thought was cut short by the sudden, all encompassing pain starting on his head and sending searing jolts down the rest of his body. He caught glimpses of a man’s face leaning down over him and felt the taste of blood and plastic in his mouth. It felt like his brain was being torn apart and stitched back together again, jagged and broken, and it was familiar, in the sickening way that certain types of pain always will be once they are experienced, and
Asset let him go then and Clint gasped for breath. The chair, he remembered. Right. Okay, so it was possible that the chair put Asset to sleep between missions, explaining the seeming immortality of the man, or maybe it made him forget what was happening between missions. Then again, it was totally possible that the sole existence of the thing was to torture him and this flashback was just another memory of his endless suffering in the hands of whomever had Asset. Fuck.
Is that- is that what happens? Do you know what the chair is for?
There was such a long pause after that that Clint couldn’t help but assume he’d crossed a line or something. But then Asset replied, It helps me forget again before going under.
So he was right, at least partially. Whoever had Asset was wiping, or more like repressing, his memories and then putting him to sleep (Clint assumed that’s what Asset meant by “going under”) until he was needed next. The thought made him sick to his stomach. The biggest problem now, though (apart from the obvious), was that as soon as Asset was done with the mission he was on, he’d be put back to sleep and his memories wiped again (Clint and Erik included this time) with no way of knowing when, or if, he’d wake up again.
Asset, what is your mission right now?
Asset froze in his mind and Clint sensed the thoughts that had previously been circling his, and so by relation Clint’s own, head stop immediately. At Clint’s question everything narrowed down to a single thought.
Eliminate Captain America.
Okay, great. That’s just awesome. Exactly what Clint needed; his good friend and fellow Avenger Steve Rogers, targeted by a powerful organization using the brainwashed time traveler assassin who is, by the power of a glowing alien cube, inside his head, to do their killings.
Oh, and who could forget the fact that the only few memories said brainwashed assassin did have were of the Avenger he was told to kill- something that even Asset couldn’t explain. Great.
You're on his team, thought Asset, and it wasn't a question. Clint caught a flash of files laid out on a table, photos of the Avengers clipped to the front.
Yeah, he agreed and focused in on the one with his face on it. The photo was from his SHIELD ID and he wondered how the guys who had Asset had got it. I'm Hawkeye.
Bucky's mind flicked through the file, which was more in-depth than Clint would have guessed. You're a marksman.
Yup, said Clint and concentrated to send an image of one of his arrows hitting a bullseye. Best in the world.
So am I, thought Asset, and then, I'm better.
There was no way Clint was letting that stand. No way. No one's better than me. I hold all the records for the last fifty years. Only ones I can't beat are from World War Two.
I'm better, insisted Asset. An image of an old-looking target, punctured right in the centre by a tight cluster of bullet holes, floated into Clint's head.
The records Clint had never managed to beat were Army rifle records, set by Bucky Barnes. Steve's childhood friend Bucky Barnes.
Hey, what do you look like? asked Clint, desperately trying not to think about the image he'd received from Asset of Steve before the serum. There was no way. Surely?
Asset was silent for long enough that Clint thought he'd shut down again, then the range disappeared and he was looking through Asset's eyes at a chipped mirror in a cramped bathroom. The face in the mirror was frowning slightly from confusion and framed by bedraggled, shoulder-length hair, but Clint instantly recognised it.
Asset flinched back and the image disappeared. No, he thought with desperation. I am the Asset.
You're James Buchanan Barnes, thought Clint, his mind reeling as he tried to work out how that was possible.
No! screamed Asset, and he pushed Clint out of his mind, slamming up walls so fast that Clint couldn't reach him.
Fuck. Clint reached out to see if Erik had been aware of the exchange, but he was asleep.
Clint stared up at the ceiling of the range and tried to get his brain to work. Steve’s best friend was some kind of brainwashed assassin, and his current mission was to kill Captain America.
That meant they'd be bringing him to New York. Clint thought back to the bathroom he'd seen in Asset’s - Bucky's - head. There had been a porthole rather than a window, so they must be bringing him by boat. That meant there was time to get ready. Clint was going to have tell the rest of the team first, though.
Fuck. Natasha was going to be so mad that he'd had weird brain powers for months and not mentioned it.
Bucky let him back in before he got that far. He was in the conference room where the rest of the team were due to join him in ten minutes, but he wanted to have as much information as he could before then, so he was going over the intel on where the sceptre should have been stored after SHIELD had gotten their hands on it.
Mainly what he was finding out was that SHIELD had huge holes in their security logs for the base where they kept sensitive items and no one seemed to have noticed.
Don't let me hurt Steve, Bucky thought, interrupting Clint’s study of guard patrol patterns that left gaps even a child could wander through. Or you, he added.
I'm going to do my best.
Do better than that, thought Bucky. You'll have to kill me.
No, thought Clint, immediately, instinctively. He wasn’t killing a guy who wasn’t in charge of his own actions. Just because those assholes had fucked with his brain so much that his body did what they ordered didn’t mean he deserved to die.
Otherwise I’ll kill you all, thought Bucky, and he sounded so resigned. There was no way Clint was letting that happen.
His mind cast around for a better plan. They had this secret that Bucky’s handlers didn’t know about, there had to be some way to make the telepathy work for them.
There had to be -
Hey , he said. Pick up that pen.
It was sitting on a pad of paper in front of Clint. Asset didn’t reply, but he gave off a strong sense of no.
Work with me here, Clint entreated.
He could feel Bucky steel himself, then push through the link into Clint, taking control. Clint panicked for a brief moment, before forcing himself to calm down. If this worked, it was how they were going to save Bucky. He really wanted to save Bucky.
I’m not Bucky. I’m the Asset, thought Bucky again, but he didn’t sound sure. He exerted his will power, and Clint’s arm moved without his control, picking up the pen.
Clint grinned as he took back control, throwing the pen up in the air and catching it.
They control what your body does because they took over your mind and filled it with their commands , he thought. But yours isn’t the only mind that can move your body. When you get here, I won’t let you hurt Steve. I won’t let you hurt anyone, and we’ll get you away from them.
The rest of the team entered the room shortly thereafter, minus Thor (who, if Clint was remembering correctly, was off dealing with some otherworldly business). Bucky had hovered around in his head after their conversation, but mostly, Clint thought, because he seemed to be craving the comfort of another person’s presence more than a need to talk.
When the door to the conference room opened, though, he backed off. Intimidated by Clint interacting with others, his presence faded until he was barely there at all and Clint could only sense him by paying close attention and being extra vigilant towards any stray thoughts that didn’t come from him.
Everyone was seated around the table chatting casually. Clint’s eyes met Nat’s across the room and she raised an eyebrow questioningly. Of course she would notice something was up. Maybe it was a bit suspicious that he was early to the meeting, since he was nothing if not consistent with his perpetual lateness normally.
The others sent a few strange glances his way as well, but looked to brush it off. Reminding himself of why he was there, he cleared his throat awkwardly, gathering the room’s attention.
Everyone turned to him and the undivided attention was a little nerve-racking.
“So, uh, there’s something kind of important I need to tell you guys,” Clint started, shuffling his feet slightly and rubbing the back of his neck guiltily.
“Is this personal or work-related?” Steve asked, immediately stepping into the role of team leader.
“Work? I guess? Maybe both, depends how you look at it,” Clint hedged, shrugging and offering an uneasy grin to Natasha. She was giving him one of her patented, what the fuck did you do this time Barton, expressions.
It was obvious that everyone was intrigued, and rightfully so. Really, how was he even going to start explaining this one? Sure, he’d said and done some weird shit before, but this would be a lot to take in, even for Nat, who was used to his uncanny ability to land himself in complicated situations. Before he could say anything, though, Bruce broke the silence.
“Does this have anything to do with the powerful foreign energy blasts we’ve been recording coming from the tower whenever you’re here instead of Bed-Stuy?”
Clint gaped at him. “Oh, yeah, uh, maybe? Yeah no, that’s a definite possibility.”
Bruce smiled reassuringly.
“Alright, well go on. I had my theories, but I’d like to know what’s actually going on first and foremost.”
Clint took a deep breath.
“Right. Okay, so you know I was controlled by Thor’s asshole brother with the big glowy stick? That may or may not have given me some kind of telepathic link to everyone else it was used on. Up until a few days ago that’d only been Selvig. Anyways, there’s kind of this other guy now, who’s being brainwashed into killing people even though he’s a great dude, I swear, and-”
“Clint, holy shit man, I’m gonna need you to slow the fuck down,” Sam interrupted.
“Sorry,” he said nervously. “I know this is a lot to take in at once, and I probably should have told you guys sooner,” he glanced at Bruce, who looked to be a combination of concerned and amused, “but I really need your help on this one. This guy, right, this assassin, he’s in my head, and he’s got people who hurt him, who control him. Those people use him, they make him kill and then they wipe his memory.”
“Why are you telling us now Clint, and not when it first started?” Steve asked, a crease forming between his brows.
Turning to face him, Clint said, “Because I finally got a name. And his next hit. We can stop it, help him, and I can break his programming.” Everyone looked at him expectantly, clearly waiting for him to elaborate.
“It’s you, Cap. You’re his next target, and he’s a damn good shot. The best I’ve ever seen, so trust me when I say you’re in danger. There’s also the fact that, uh, you know this guy from back in the 40s and I really don’t want you to freak out when you see him so-”
“How could I have known him? He should be long dead by now, Clint, are you sure?” The others nodded in agreement, because yeah, it did make more sense that Clint had fucked up than for them to have another “Capsicle” type situation on their hands. Even Clint could admit to that reasoning.
“I’ve seen his face guys, trust me. Besides, nobody else could have that great of an aim, or the memories he has.”
“So you can see into his memories too? That’s fascinating-” Bruce started, understandably enthralled.
Steve still looked confused, though. “What kind of memories could you see?”
“Um,” Clint faltered, “Some of torture and killing, but also some happier ones that I think are from before the war. You know, dancing, old timey New York, and some of you Steve, but small.”
Steve went pale at that. “Do you mean-”
“Yeah, I think Bucky Barnes is still alive, and if he is, he’s going to need our help.”
Stevie! Clint could feel Bucky’s concern as Steve flinched at the name, his head drooping as if he were a breath away from passing out.
Bruce reached out instinctively to take Cap’s pulse, but Steve shook him off, the devastated expression on his face fading into grim determination.
“It’s impossible,” he said, his voice hoarse. “Bucky —” He stopped, pulling in a deep, rasping breath. “I saw him die. It has to be — some kind of trick, or replica, or — I don’t know. It can’t be him.”
Clint felt his own horror doubled with Bucky’s, an echo of Bucky’s remembered terror at falling endlessly, Steve’s screaming face fading into the mist above him. Christ, in Clint’s mind it had all happened decades ago, but for Cap and Bucky the memory was still vivid and raw.
Clint swallowed down a wave of nausea.
“Just — give me a second,” he said, not entirely sure if he was talking to the people in the room or the one in his head.
He closed his eyes to block out the chaos in the room, focusing on sending reassurance down the connection to Bucky. He tried to gently lead Bucky away from the traumatic memory, urging him toward those happier, gold-tinged years before the war.
Think back, he urged Bucky. Show me something only you and Steve would know.
Clint opened his eyes again. Everyone else was talking urgently, their voices low, but when he whistled sharply all eyes focused back on him.
“The last time you saw Bucky before you shipped out was at the World Exposition with...uh, Connie and Bonnie. He told you not to do anything stupid, and you said he was taking all the stupid with him. He called you a punk, and you called him a jerk.”
Clint held Cap’s gaze, even though he could tell each word was causing him pain. “He never wanted you to fight, he was so relieved when —”
Cap in the room and Bucky in his head snapped at the same time, and Clint swallowed the rest of his words.
“Nobody else was there,” Steve said hollowly, looking away from Clint and around the room. “Even the girls had left. And I never told anybody.”
Clint rubbed the back of his neck. “Cap I know — God, I know — how crazy this all sounds. But there’s a way — if we concentrate, if we both allow it, I can see what he sees and feel what he feels. I saw his face, and his memories. It’s him.”
Steve nodded once, sharp and decisive, and Clint could almost see the moment when Bucky’s best friend got shoved aside and the Captain took over.
“So what’s our plan?”
It was almost surreal, how quickly the team was able to move past the big revelation and onto the logistics. Clint figured that the whole mind-control and alien invasion had cracked the seal on what everyone figured was possible, easing the way for them to wrap their minds around Cap’s long-dead bestie from the 1940’s sharing Clint’s mindspace.
Bucky had retreated again, but was still present. Clint could feel his attention focusing on Cap, who still looked a little shaken even as he took command of the room, but flickering occasionally to Nat.
Natalia Romanova, Clint caught, along with a glimpse of a young girl in a ballet costume, her face smeared with blood.
“You know Nat?”
And crap, Clint had said that out loud, because everyone in the room was staring at him, Nat’s gaze sharpest of all.
Tony had been surprisingly quiet in all this, but now he spoke. “Jarvis, put James Buchanan Barnes on the screen,” he said, and there was Bucky, in black and white in his Sergeant’s uniform, smirking at the camera.
Nat’s eyes narrowed.
“Show me the hits,” she said, and a list of linked assassinations, cobbled together by Jarvis from surveillance based on Astana and filled in with Clint’s spotty borrowed memories, scrolled past.
“There,” Natasha said. “Odessa.” She looked shaken for the first time. “The Winter Soldier.”
“That guy’s a myth,” Tony protested.
“He was part of the Red Room. Hydra sent him to monitor our training. I didn’t know he was the Winter Soldier, or Sergeant Barnes, but ... it fits.”
“Hydra.” Steve practically spat the term. “Hydra was destroyed.”
“No.” Clint pulls from Asset’s memories — that tentacled logo on his handler’s coats, the whispered Hail, Hydra they spoke in greeting. “They just went deep underground. They have him now — they’ve had him this whole time.”
“How could Hydra stay in existence all this time and SHIELD not know about it?” Bruce asked.
Clint was starting to put the pieces together at the same time as Bucky, the realization striking them both.
“The same way that SHIELD facility holding the sceptre had security lapses so bad a child could have stolen the artifact. Nobody’s that incompetent, it had to be deliberate — from the inside.” Clint swallowed thickly, thinking of all the work he had done for SHIELD, all the time he had spent with STRIKE Team. Who had really been giving the orders? What had his missions really been accomplishing?
“Hydra has infiltrated SHIELD.” Of course Nat would be the first to speak it aloud. “There is no one outside of this room that we can trust.”
Things moved quickly after that. Steve went into full-on Captain America mode, taking charge with an impressive level of efficiency that didn’t completely hide the complex mix of desperation, relief and horror he was feeling about what had happened to his best friend.
For the next couple of days, Natasha and Tony concentrated their efforts on working out how deeply Hydra was embedded in SHIELD without letting anyone suspect that they knew there was a problem.The rest of the team dealt with the more immediate threat of the assassin being sent after Steve. Given that Clint was able to watch through Bucky’s eyes as he was briefed by his handlers, it was easy enough to come up with a plan.
“They’re going to hit your apartment,” he reported back to Steve. “Bucky’s meant to be the only one engaging, but there’s a strike team in reserve. I’m guessing they’ll go in once they see him freeze up.”
They’ll take me for recalibration, Bucky thought, along with a sensation of pain and loss. Clint tried to keep the wince off his face, because this whole situation was making Steve sad enough without him detailing just how many of Bucky’s thoughts revolved around the fear of punishment.
“Then we’ll have to neutralise them,” said Steve. “I’ll be the bait. Clint, you keep close but out of sight, so you can concentrate on the mental link. Everyone else stays further off until the strike team make their move, then take them out while Clint and I focus on Bucky.”
“Ah,” said Bruce carefully and Steve nodded at him as if he already knew what he was going to say.
“This isn’t going to be a code green, you can stay out of this one.” He managed a weak smile. “Apart from anything else, I don’t want my neighbourhood completely trashed.”
Bucky sent Clint an image of the rocket launcher he was being issued. I reckon it’s going to get pretty trashed even without the Hulk. Clint decided not to mention that to Steve.
They were all in position for a good couple of hours before Steve got home from the SHIELD meeting that had been scheduled with suspiciously little notice. Clint was on the roof, dressed in black and holding himself motionless in the shadows. No one was going to see him until it was far too late, and he had a good sight line on everywhere that Bucky might choose to use as a perch.
Bucky’s final mission briefing had been about six hours ago, and had involved a shattering blast of pain. He’d been very quiet since then. Any time Clint reached out for him, all he caught was a thrum of single-minded focus on his mission.
They triggered some extra programming, thought Erik, who had let all his attempts at creating walls fall away so that he could nestle in close to Clint’s mind, in case there was anything he could do to help.
Then we’ll tear that down as well, thought Clint, and tightened his hand on his bow.
The first sign that things were starting was the faintest movement on the opposite roof, a shadow shifting in the dark that Clint wouldn’t have noticed if he hadn’t been watching for it.
“Here we go,” he muttered into his comms, right before a rocket shot from the roof right through the window of Steve’s apartment, exploding with a flash of light and making the whole building shake under Clint’s feet.
“Yeah, we got that,” said Tony, “but thanks for the warning.”
Steve had rushed out of the ruin of his apartment and on to the fire escape, dashing up the steps with his shield slung over his back while Bucky opened fire, which hadn’t been part of the plan at all, but Clint had figured Steve wasn’t going to just take cover like a sensible guy.
He fixed his eyes on the dark figure firing at Steve and took a deep breath, reaching across the psychic link with all the strength he could. You don’t want to do this, he thought. Bucky, stop.
I am the Asset, he got back. This is my mission.
There was a hard shove against his mind and he lost the link. “Fuck,” he muttered.
“Please tell me your amazing psychic whatsit isn’t going wrong,” said Tony. “Cap’s already doing his best to get shot.”
Steve had reached the top of the fire escape and then paused to yell across at Bucky, but Clint could tell that wasn’t going to get them anywhere. Bucky’s mind was nothing but a steel trap of dedication to killing Steve.
He reached across to him again, putting everything he could into it, and he felt Erik add his mind as well. Let us in. Let us help you.
He remembered the tiny, skinny version of Steve that had been in Bucky’s memories and threw it at him. Let us stop you hurting your friend.
That was enough to make Bucky’s focus falter. I know him, he thought, which gave Clint and Erik just enough of a gap to push past his barriers and get properly inside.
Fuck, Clint hated being the one attacking someone else’s mind, but he was all too acutely aware that Bucky’s mind didn’t belong to him right now. If someone had to be controlling him, he’d much rather it was him than Hydra.
It was like sinking into an ice bath. Or, perhaps, like diving headfirst into a frozen lake like an idiot. Clint, half-stunned by the sensation, gritted two sets of teeth at once and pushed.
The body, Bucky’s shorter, heavier, pain-wracked body, stuttered to a halt. It took every bit of Clint’s will. Then again, he’d been called stubborn plenty, and it was hardly the first time he’d used that to save someone’s life.
The ice cracked. Clint - or maybe Bucky - gasped as something that wasn’t Hydra’s hold trickled through the gaps: memories. Steve before he’d been superpowered, not the half-coloured version of the memory Clint had lobbed at Bucky, but in bright technicolour. And that was just the beginning of a deluge, too quick for Clint to follow.
He would have tried, if he - they? - hadn’t then been flattened by two hundred pounds of super soldier.
“It’s okay, Bucky,” Steve was saying, even as he held Bucky down. “I’m here. It’s okay.”
Clint, backing out quickly now that the murder-machine part of Bucky seemed to be, if not gone, at least halfway there, heard Bucky’s rough, “Steve?”
Then he was back in his own body, thank god. While left unattended, it had slumped down onto the roof, still clutching his bow in an outflung arm. “Ow.”
A heavy gauntleted hand patted him on the chest. “Thought you were dead for a second there. Did it work?”
“Yeah,” Clint gasped. Jesus, his head hurt. “It worked.”
“This is fascinating,” Bruce said. He was peering at Clint’s brainwaves on a screen off to one side. It felt a little like what Clint imagined having naked photos of him on the internet would feel like. He’d have to ask Tony later.
The man in question was looking at another screen. “If you say so.”
“The sustained interlinking of minds via an extraterrestrial force - you don’t think that’s interesting?”
“It’s too...squishy.” Tony made a face unsuited to a man of his age and position. Not that his age and position usually stopped him, to be fair. “You combine magic with the biological sciences, and you still expect me to pretend to be interested?”
“Does it appeal to you more if I call it brain-internet?” Bruce sounded amused and not at all offended.
“Do you actually need me here? Can I go?” Clint piped up.
“No,” they both replied in unison before continuing to babble at each other.
Clint sighed, and removed another electrode from his head. They’d notice at some point, but hopefully by then he’d be close enough to freedom he could cut and run without being responsible for damaging expensive equipment.
He’d pulled two more off when there was a faint buzz from overhead and the door slid open to admit Steve and a wary-looking Bucky trailing behind him. Steve marched over to Bruce’s side, peering at the screen. Bucky, meanwhile, drifted into the more defensible spot in the corner of the room, fingers twitching.
You look ridiculous, said the voice in Clint’s head.
Apparently even assisted de-mind-fucking didn’t do much to repair seventy years of trauma, but that hadn’t surprised Clint. He’d kept out of the way and left that to the experts. What had surprised him was Bucky’s willingness to use their link even now that they lived in the same location.
Clint, scowling, pulled the last of the electrodes off. A machine began to beep, and Tony said absently, “Hawkeye’s braindead. I knew it,” before Steve distracted him again.
You look good , Clint replied, feeling a little like he was passing notes in class while the teachers had their backs turned. It was true though - for all the time they’d spent in each other’s heads, they hadn’t spent nearly so much face-to-face. And what an excellent face the ex-Winter Soldier had, all strong stubbled jaw and pale eyes.
He felt the burst of amusement his passing thoughts evoked and winced. Uh. Sorry.
‘S fine. Bucky looked across at the other three. Are they gonna figure out a way to separate our brains anytime soon?
Doubt it. Even as Clint thought that, Bruce and Tony began to bicker. He couldn’t really understand most of what they were saying, but it certainly didn’t sound like, ‘Eureka! A cure!’ It’s not so bad.
Bucky leveled a look at him, still a little amused but mostly considering. There was a long moment where Clint struggled not to twitch under the force of his focus, and then Bucky smiled.
It was just a little uptwitch of his lips. But Clint, who’d at this point had his fingers in most of the dark and terrible corners of Bucky’s brain, felt the little burst of happiness behind it like the sun rising.
“Could be worse,” Bucky said, and Clint grinned back.