by: Maven Alysse
A/N: set post movie (ten-twelve months later). References (but nothing graphic) to child abuse (both physical and poss. sexual), minor character deaths, and torture = combination of movie and comic canon shifted around to fit my own timeline.
Phil lives. Non-redeemed Loki.
Minor crossover with Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters
Thanks to Aislinn for being the best beta ever and for helping with naming the darn thing.
Summary: Malediction (n): an expressed wish that some form of adversity or unhappiness will befall another person or persons.
Stark's noticed a troubling pattern.
Tony Stark stared at the screen of information, brow furrowed as he tried to make sense of what he read. “JARVIS, is this all the information you could find?”
“Yes, sir. This is what SHIELD has available.”
Lips twisted in annoyance, the engineer continued to study the monitor. “There's less info here than for the Black Widow – and that's saying something. Well, that's a wash.”
He jumped at the voice beside him, “What's a wash?”
“Jeez, Bruce,” one hand flew to cover his chest in mock fright. “Warn a guy, will ya?”
A faint smile crossed the shy scientist's lips. “What's a wash, Tony? Did one of your experiments fail?” He peered at the screen, adjusting his glasses. “Is that Clint's file?” He cast a disapproving look at Tony.
Tony raised his hands, “I was curious. Besides, we've celebrated nearly everyone's birthday, except for Thor and Clint; and Thor's is next month. I just wanted to make sure that everyone got a special day to celebrate.” He paused, the next murmured. “What with the last few missions, he's had it rough, lately.”
Bruce nodded absently, reading what was up on the screen. “Circus? Really? You mean that wasn't just a line to put me off?”
Tony laughed, “I know, right? Anyway, I wanted to do something for the guy, but I can't unless I know what day to do it on. And it's not on any of the paperwork SHIELD generates.”
“You could just ask him,” Bruce suggested mildly, turning on his own computer.
“Where's the fun in that?”
“So, spider lady, when's Legolas' birthday?” Tony found Natasha curled in one of the overstuffed armchairs near the window reading what looked like a Tom Clancey novel.
“I do not know,” she calmly turned a page, never looking up from her book.
“Oh, come on. Don't give me that.” Tony flopped onto the couch opposite her, arms waving. “You've been partners for years. And he'd been very enthusiastic, as well as considerate I might add, when it came to planning your party.”
It was true, the archer had gone out of his way to insure all her favorite foods were served and had gotten her a knee length leather coat; a dark creamy chocolate color that brought out her eyes and set off her hair.
Natasha elegantly shrugged, brushing a fire red lock of hair from her face. “He enjoys planning a good party, that's true. But we've never celebrated his birthday. He never said why, and I respect him enough not to pry.”
Tony huffed, “That's … that's ... just ridiculous. I mean, what's the big secret? Even Agent has his birthday listed. We even sent him cupcakes in honor a few months ago.”
Sighing, Natasha set aside her book, leveling a look at Tony. “I'd tell you to leave it alone, but I know you won't. Just don't be surprised if it backfires in your face.” She returned to her book, effectively dismissing him and ending the conversation.
Tony bounced into Phil Coulson's office three days later. He dropped into a chair and drummed his fingers on the agent's desk. Coulson didn't look up from his paperwork. “Something I can do for you, Mr. Stark?”
“You can tell me your favorite asset's birthday.”
A faint smile touched the older man's lips. “I'm surprised you haven't already hacked that information.”
“I tried that first.” He refused to admit that he was pouting. “Someone removed it.”
Phil set his pen down, folded his hands upon his desk, and turned his attention on Tony, who fought to keep from squirming. “Natasha told me what you're trying to do and I applaud the sentiment, but Clint had never indicated that he even acknowledges his birthday.”
“Are you telling me to forget about it, Agent?” There was a bite to his tone, a challenge. He hated being told what to do, especially when his intentions were good.
A raised brow quelled his agitation. “I'm saying, tread carefully. There's probably a reason he doesn't celebrate and I'd rather not have either you or him hurt if you push the issue.”
Tony poured himself a whiskey trying to pretend he wasn't sulking; 'cause he wasn't … sulking, that is. He didn't know why both Natasha and Agent had warned him off on asking about Clint's birthday – he only wanted to make sure the archer didn't feel left out when it came to celebrations. “Hell, even Rhodney let's me throw him a party for his birthday,” he muttered into his glass.
Tony startled, nearly choking on an ice cube. A broad hand pounded him on the back to dislodge the cube, then rubbed circles to take the sting out. “Sorry. Didn't mean to scare you.”
“I swear, one of these days, I'm going to make you and Natasha wear a bell.”
“What makes you think that would help?” Clint smirked, pouring his own drink and joining him at the bar.
“Ha. Ha.” Tony took a moment to clear his throat and to catch his breath. “What did you say?”
“February 29th. My birthday.” Clint settled nonchalantly on a barstool.
For a moment, Tony just blinked, “Seriously? Leap year? So, you're what? Ten?” he grinned at his joke.
Clint's lips quirked in a smile, relaxing a touch. “More like eight, if you go by birthdays. I'm thirty two.”
Again, Tony blinked, “Really? Huh, I thought you were older.”
“Yeah. I get that a lot.” Clint shrugged, sipping his whiskey.
The engineer stared at him a long moment, getting a calm stare back. “How come Anastasia didn't know your birthday?” 'Why did you tell me?' hung unasked.
“I don't celebrate and she never asked. You did.”
Tony hid a smile in his glass, feeling somehow special that Clint had been willing to answer his question – even if he never actually got around to asking him in person. “You don't celebrate at all?”
A shrug. “Not usually. Never really got into the habit. If my folks celebrated it, I was too young to remember. Places I grew up didn't usually have enough money to spend to make a fuss over someone. It was just a day, you know? Like any other. One I didn't even have most of the time. And the kids all made fun of the fact I only got a birthday once every four years. At the circus, if you had the money, folks would go out on the town, but I was too young to make it worth my while.” He took another sip of his drink. “Nothing good ever happens on a leap year.” The tone sounded terse.
Tony chose to ignore that last statement for the time being. “So … never? You've never had anyone throw a party or give a gift?”
Clint looked down, tracing designs through the condensation left on the bartop from the glass. “For a little bit. Bobbi used to insist on at least a lit cupcake at midnight. She always had a small gift – something that could be packed and traveled easily since we were on the road so much.”
“Bobbi, huh? Good friend?” Tony leaned in with a leer. “Girl friend?”
“Wife, actually. We were together for four years.”
Tony swallowed carefully at the blank tone. He should direct the conversation elsewhere, but couldn't help but ask, “What happened to her?”
Clint drained the glass and pushed himself away from the bar. “She died.”
Tony watched silently, cursing himself, as the agent slipped out if the room.
It took nearly a week before Tony confronted Clint once again about his birthday.
“Why does this mean so much to you?” Clint had a cautious, wary air about him that Tony wanted to wave a hand and dissipate.
“It's a chance to acknowledge surviving another year. A chance to legally extort gifts from people. It's an excuse to party. Pick one.”
The archer shrugged his shoulders. “I don't care, Tony. If you want to set up something, that's fine. Whatever.”
Something in his tone actually caught Stark's attention and made him peer closely at Clint. The archer shifted uncomfortably on his feet and Tony frowned at the uncharacteristic display of nerves. “If it really bothers you, I won't bring it up again.”
Clint rubbed at his forehead, “No. That's fine, Tony. It's … I've not had much luck with birthdays.” He shot an unreadable look at the engineer and shrugged his shoulders, surrendering. “Just remember, I'm not used to them, okay?”
“Okay,” Tony grinned triumphantly, getting an amused snort from the archer, but he couldn't help but wonder at the unease.
Tinkering with a prototype gauntlet for his suit, Tony couldn't help mulling over Clint's obvious distaste for his birthday. Why? He felt the need to ferret out the details, to locate the patterns. He didn't want any holes in his hide, though, so he discounted asking Agent Agent, Romanoff, or Barton. They'd probably tell him it was none of his business, but Clint was rapidly becoming a friend and he wanted to help, but how could he if he didn't have all the information? “JARVIS, look for any person by the name of 'Bobbi,' or any other rendition of the name, in connection with Agent Barton. Focus your search prior to his employment with SHIELD.” He soldered a few wires. “In fact, I want you to locate any information at all about Barton. There's a reason he doesn't like his birthday, and I'd like to know why.”
“Very well, sir.”
Two days later, JARVIS lowered the music in his lab. “Sir, I believe I've located all information currently available electronically on Agent Barton. If there are other records, they are either hard copies or confined to a closed system. There are a few gaps where he apparently lived off the grid. I've sent the data to the side monitor for you.”
Several hours later, Tony leaned back. He'd had to piece things together, reading between the lines through a myriad of official reports and medical records, as well as what Clint himself had dropped through various conversations over the few months he'd lived at the Tower and found he didn't like the pattern he'd discovered.
“Leap year babies are supposed to be lucky. All this makes me seriously reconsider my stance on curses.”
Born on February 29, 1980, Francis Clinton Barton nearly didn't survive the birth, the umbilical cord having wrapped around his neck, preventing him from taking his first breath before the doctor freed him.
Hospital visits peppered the next few years, more than usual for a child, even one with such an inauspicious beginning.
A police report, two death certificates, and a hospitalization told the story of a drunk driving accident that had gone undiscovered for three days; resulting in the two Barton brothers being remanded to St. Ignatius Home for Orphaned Boys on March 2, 1984.
At eight years old, just two days after his 'second' birthday a police report showed up indicating the disappearance of both Clint and Barney Barton as the two brothers ran away to the circus. Both boys were wanted for questioning in the death of their foster father who had fallen down a set of stairs while drunk. Tony felt his blood boil, reading between the lines.
Clint's time in the circus left a large hole in JARVIS' report. Nomadic by nature, only the ringmaster and owner of the circus had his name on any permits or payed taxes. A few reviews found tucked in the back archives of small newspaper offices gave bare mentions of Clint's skill as 'Hawkeye, World's Greatest Marksman' with such statements like 'child prodigy' and 'impeccable aim,' but little else was discovered.
Officially, Clint Barton resurfaced in 1996 back in the town of his birth of Waverly, Iowa. Hospitalized from late-February until early May, the archer had to recover from two broken legs, a broken right arm, five broken ribs, a skull fracture, and severe hearing loss in both ears. Tony idly wondered if the hearing loss was still an issue.
A marriage certificate between one Francis Clinton Barton to one Roberta Marie Morse was filed with the Waverly Hall of Justice in April of that year. “Ah, our elusive Bobbi.” Tony studied the photograph of the couple, the lovely blonde lying curled beside her husband on his hospital bed, a joyful smile upon her face. “Damn, Barton. You sure know how to pick them.”
The mirth died quickly. A death certificate for Bobbi and another for Bernard Richard Barton in conjunction with yet another hospital visit for Clint for March 2nd 2000 made Tony swallow thickly. Once Clint was discharged he dropped off the grid, though Tony noticed that SHIELD opened a file on an assassin-for-hire a year later.
Coulson was put on the case for locating, and either recruiting or eliminating the assassin a year later, but it took two more years before he managed to bring Hawkeye into the fold. According to the files Tony had JARVIS hack, Coulson rescued Barton from where he'd been captured and tortured by a client who hadn't appreciated being turned down. He'd brought Barton to SHIELD's medical and given the assassin the choice of jail or joining. Once he'd recovered, the archer signed a contract for employment.
Tony found that Clint went after the Black Widow two years into his employment, going off the grid for three months and being considered rogue before he showed back up with Natasha in tow.
Coulson, Romanoff, and Barton had all indicated several times that the op in Budapest in 2008 had been the worst they'd ever had to deal with, but the file Tony found had been heavily redacted.
As for this year, Barton had languished within the control of a mad trickster god through the week of his birthday.
“I concur, sir. It does appear that Agent Barton holds a significant amount of bad luck during leap years, on or around his birth date.” There was a hesitation, and Tony could hear the concern in the AI's voice. “Might I suggest, sir, that you not reveal your knowledge of this subject, as it may upset Agent Barton.”
“A bit late for that.”
Tony jumped, nearly falling out of his chair as Barton's voice sounded from behind him. He twisted, confused, as no doors or windows were in that corner of the room. A ceiling tile lifted and Barton dropped soundlessly into the room. “JARVIS!” Tony exclaimed.
“I apologize, sir. It seems my sensors did not pick up Agent Barton's movements within the ceiling's crawl space.”
Crossing his arms defensively, Tony pivoted to glare at the archer, incensed. “How long have you been spying on me?”
“Since a flag went off that you were looking through my files.” Barton's voice was dry as he stared dispassionately with blue green-gray eyes, his loose posture not giving hint to his true feelings.
That pulled the wind from his sails and Tony nervously chewed on his inner cheek. Was the man angry? Impressed? Neutral? He drummed his fingers on the edge of the keyboard, just for something to do. As time stretched, Tony idly wondered how Barton would get away with his murder. There was no doubt that he was going to die, it was just a matter of how slow the agent would draw out the process. He felt his Adam's apple bob convulsively as he swallowed, trying to not to fidget as the second hand ticked away. He thought about shifting to place the lab table between them but feared any movement on his part would set the archer off.
Clint then did a very curious thing; he leaned back against the wall, wrapped his arms around himself as if cold and crossed his ankles, putting himself off-balance. Tony knew the man could attack in an instant, but the position would give him a moment or two of warning. Tony felt his shoulders relax a notch. “Uh … sorry?”
A blank-eyed stare, then Clint sighed after a long silence. “You could have just asked.”
Tony smirked, “Would you have told me?”
Clint shook his head. “Probably not.”
Tony glanced over at the information up on the screen. “Now what?”
Clint shrugged. “Now you know why I don't celebrate my birthday.” There was tension in his form and an odd vulnerability in his eyes. “What do you plan on doing with the information?”
Tony stared for a moment. “JARVIS, delete the file, erase the browser history.”
Clint cocked his head, watching quietly as the screens blanked out, then turned his attention back to Stark, waiting patiently.
“Did you ever check to see if you're under a curse or something?”
“You believe in curses?” there was no judgment in the tone.
Tony shrugged. “Well, a China girl I dabbled with for a while told me she hoped I lived in interesting times.” A faint smile touched upon his lips, “There might be something to that, since I got kidnapped by the Ten Rings two months later.”
“It would be nice if I was under a curse.” Tony blinked and the archer continued. “If it were a curse of some sort, then there's a chance of breaking or removing it, right? But it seems pretty farfetched.”
Tony blinked incredulously, sweeping a hand at the computer, “Seriously? You've got more bad luck than a room of black cats playing amidst broken mirrors. It's either a curse or you've got the attention of a powerful being who likes to see you suffer for their amusement.”
He cursed to himself as Clint's blue eyes shuttered at the inadvertent reminder of his stint as Loki's lackey. “So what does the great Tony Stark suggest?”
He winced at the bitter tone, knowing he deserved it. “I don't know. Find a magic user, or … or a fortune teller or someone. See if you really are under a curse and what can be done to rescind it.”
Clint pushed himself off the wall and moved past the engineer. “I'll take it under advisement,” and he stalked out of the lab.
Clint disappeared shortly after that conversation. Tony worried he'd chased the younger man away, but he overheard Natasha and Agent discussing the mission parameters that the archer had been sent on and felt reassured that Barton would return after he'd fulfilled his objective.
Three weeks later, Tony found a note on his work table in Clint's unique scrawl. 'You were right.'
It took a moment for Tony to remember what it was the note referred to, then he blinked. “Huh. I wonder if I should be pleased or scared spitless.” He folded the note, stuffing it into his pocket. “JARVIS, where is Barton at the moment?”
“Agent Barton is on the rooftop terrace, sir.”
Tony found Clint perched on the railing, legs dangling over the side as he stared down at the street below. Tony leaned against the rail a few feet away, not wanting to startle the younger man into plunging off the building. Clint had excellent balance, but he'd rather not test the theory. Well, at least not without a back up plan. A flickered glance let Tony know that the agent was aware of his presence. “So, a curse, huh?”
“Did they tell you why you were cursed?”
One shoulder rose in a shrug. “They really couldn't tell. Thought it was less directed at me specifically and more at my father.”
Tony could relate to the bitterness that cut through the tone. “Shouldn't it have gone away once the old man was dead?”
“Maybe,” the archer sighed. “But that's only if whoever crafted the curse put that in as a condition. Apparently, they didn't.”
“Any way to lift it?”
“The caster has to lift it. Or, I gotta wait until they die. Any spells they cast will stop on their own at that point.”
Tony looked horrified, “That's it? Pray someone will suddenly decide to lift a curse they placed 32 years ago, or that they die really damn soon? That's bullshit,” Tony started pacing the rooftop, his fingers snapping in irritation. He whirled to point at Barton. “Who'd you speak with?”
Barton swung his legs back over the rail, dropping to the rooftop, and a knot eased in Tony's chest. “Spoke with a clan leader I know. Had to make a side trip to Romania, but she's the only one I trust who wouldn't make an issue of me searching her out.”
Tony nodded, he could see why having a government agent appear on your doorstep might put someone on edge. “Wish I'd known you were going to actively take my advice.” At the raised brow, Tony waved a hand. “You stalked out of here that day looking pretty mad. I figured I'd pissed you off enough that the topic was dead and closed.”
Blue gray eyes softened a touch. “I wasn't angry. Not really. More rattled than anything else. Loki's a bit of a sore subject.” He huffed, a wry smile touching on his lips. “For obvious reasons.”
The two were quiet a moment after Clint's admittance. Tony cleared his throat, “Yeah, well, there's a man here in New York you should consult. Name of Doctor Stephen Strange. Bills himself as the Sorcerer Supreme, but he's reliable and I haven't heard any proof that he's not the real thing.”
“I thought about him. SHIELD has a file on the man. He's not on this plane currently, and it's not known when he'll return. It's why I tried my contact in Romania.”
“Oh.” Tony blinked. It hadn't occurred to him that SHILED might already know about Strange. It made sense, though. The man is powerful and if not a threat on his own, then at least a lodestone for evil mages and whatnot who would try to challenge him. “Going to ask him?”
Clint nodded, “Left a message with his servant who promised to pass the information on when his master got home. But I doubt I'm a priority, so who knows when I'll hear from him.”
Tony nodded, but mentally wrote a reminder to himself to harass the Sorcerer Supreme until he'd done everything he could for Hawkeye. He clapped the shorter man on the shoulder. “Alright, Legolas. Since you're home and relatively in one piece, let me offer you a drink.”
Three months later, Clint received a response from Dr. Strange. The sorcerer extended an invitation to his home to discus the particulars of the curse laid upon him. Clint arranged his schedule and soon found himself sitting in the center of a ritual circle, spine ramrod straight, legs folded beneath him in a half lotus, hands resting palm up on his knees, and clad only in a pair of cotton drawstring pants and painted symbols upon his skin.
Dr. Strange had paced around the circle, causing the hairs on the back of the agent's neck to prickle unpleasantly each time the mage moved out of sight. Clint schooled himself into patience, regulating his breathing.
The sorcerer made a sharp gesture with his left hand and barked out a string of syllables that vanished from his mind the moment he registered them. The air around him grew hazy for an instant, then bright lines could be seen in a variety of colors crisscrossing before him in an intricate web.
“What is that?”
The doctor settled himself on the floor before him, well outside the edge of the circle where the lines seemed to fade out. “Each person, no matter how young or how anti-social, have connections with those around them. Some they make themselves, some are imposed upon them. Some shift in intent over time – both positively and negatively – while a few others die out, but leave behind a remnant.” He gestured at the web. “These are your connections, for good or ill.”
“They indicate the mental flavor of that connection, so to speak.”
“So, brighter colors are positive connections, while darker are negative? And the thicker the strand the stronger the connection?”
“Yes. These,” he pointed to a set of strands that pulsed a royal blue, “are those you've learned to trust. The brighter the color the deeper the trust.”
Of the blue strands, two were a clear sapphire, indicating the deepest trust. Clint ghosted a hand over the strands: the solid strand – Natasha. The one that looked broken, slightly frayed, but as if it had been sewn back together – Coulson. Even months later, Clint still had trouble reconciling Coulson's near-death, knowing that his knowledge had been used to invade SHIELD headquarters and had been instrumental in the events that led to Coulson being so grievously injured. That was obvious by the muddy blue strand that belonged to Fury. Clint knew that before the Loki incident, the blue would have been just as clear as the other two, if not as thick.
Clint frowned at the web. The dark colors overwhelmingly outnumbered the bright. It didn't surprise him – his life and career didn't exactly encourage friendships, but the sheer number of negative connections shook him.
Two, in particular, drew his attention. One shimmered in a green so dark it nearly looked black. A scowl crossed his face. “Loki.” Lips pressed together, he examined the strand. “Can he still manipulate me? He didn't leave a trigger behind, or something?”
“No. The tesseract energies no longer affect you. Loki can manipulate you only so far as his lies can manipulate anyone. Rest assured, your mind is your own.”
SHIELD's psychic department had said the same thing after the debriefing, but something about Dr. Strange's demeanor made the same news feel more believable.
The second strand had an oily gleam to it. “Is that the curse?”
“Yes,” the sorcerer examined the thread, fingers hovering above it. A frown appeared between his eyes. “This … this is older than your contact suspected.” He lay a fingertip upon the strand, eyes closing in concentration. Clint shuddered feeling the minute vibrations. Dark eyes opened, piercing him where he sat. “The origins of the curse are familial, but not caused by your father. It goes much farther back. Several centuries, in fact. You had an ancestor run afoul of a witch.”
“Can you tell the particulars?” If he knew the reason behind the curse, he might be able to break it.
Dr. Strange spent several long moments examining the thread while Clint did his best not to squirm at the sensation rippling through him.
The sorcerer murmured a word. Clint's body jerked as if hit by a powerful blow. Eyes slammed shut and his jaw clenched tight as disjointed scenes flashed through his mind in quick succession.
A dark wood.
A strange looking house.
Bars of a cage.
A lit oven.
Normal looking women whose features transformed into terrifying visages.
Fighting the darkness.
Through it all, a steady presence at his side.
Then, a soul deep pain.
A gasp tore from his throat, limbs trembling as he came out of the vision. “She died,” he murmured, his voice choked, a knot in his chest.
“What did you see?”
The question caused him to blink and bring the room back into focus, as he returned to the present. Head tilted to the side, brow furrowed, he tried to put the images and sensations into words. “He had a sister. They fought witches and other dark creatures through weapons they created and skills they honed over the years. Their last fight should have been fatal – the witch cast a curse on the both of them. The death would have been slow and lingering, causing them to feel hours of agonizing pain. His sister ...” he paused, swallowing sharply as the images rose in his mind. “His sister somehow managed to twist the curse: she took on more of it herself, and rebounded some of it upon the witch, which spared her brother from the worst of the curse. She didn't live much longer after that.” He took a shuddering breath, feeling a wave of emotion so intense it nearly took his breath away. “He almost followed her in his grief but realized that would make her sacrifice be in vain.”
“Anything else?” the sorcerer frowned, with a faraway look in his eyes, as if trying to recall some elusive fact.
“I get the feeling the dark-side had even more to worry about than before as he took his rage out on the supernatural.” Clint shook himself. “I know I would have.”
The mage's gaze sharpened. “That must be it.”
“What must be what?”
“The curse wasn't negated. Only softened. What began as death, transformed to misfortune. The curse passed down to his children, and along the generations, it echoed bouncing back and forth without any release, gaining strength once more until it connected to you.”
“Something must have resonated between you and the original target. Probably the date of your birth, as it seems especially virulent around that time. Your personality must be close to the original, too, or the curse wouldn't have connected so strongly. Being born in a time where medical science could insure your survival through things that would have killed you during your ancestor's time has kept the curse from completing. That's why each year the effects seem more wide-spread.”
“So, it's a ripple effect. The longer it goes on, the bigger the waves?”
“What can stop it?”
“A family member can reduce it for you.”
Clint stared blankly at the sorcerer, “Uh huh. If I remember correctly, that particular 'cure' killed his sister. I wouldn't be willing to let someone sacrifice their lives for me like that. So it's a good thing I'm all out of family members, isn't it? Any other way?”
Dr. Strange shook his head, his expression one of sorrow. “No. The curse will only end with your death. I am sorry.”
Clint nodded, a wry smile curling his lips. “We all gotta go sometime, Doc. Don't stress yourself over it.” He rose, breaking the circle, and shook hands with the sorcerer as the web faded away. “Thanks for the help.”
Stark waited as patiently as he could – which was longer than most would ever give credit to – before hunting Barton down. The archer had been quiet the past week, more apt to sit back and watch the others rather than being right in the center of it all as had become the norm. Tony didn't like the change and he was determined to figure out the cause.
He found Clint in one of the smaller labs on the floor below the ones he and Bruce had taken over. The agent sat at one of the interactive desks making adjustments to a formula up on the screen. Glancing over it, Stark noticed it was to a powerful acid, but the proportions looked wrong for the material that would hold it. Curiosity derailed his original purpose for locating the man. “What are you up to, Legolas?”
“Please, that pointy eared ranger ain't got nothing on me,” came the jaunty rejoinder as deft fingers wrote out another equation.
Tony smirked and leaned over to get a better look at the screen. “Seriously. What are you doing?”
Barton cast a sideways look at him, then explained that the acid R&D developed was too strong and kept eating the cartridges before he could even use them. “They're idiots. I've told them it wouldn't work, but they won't listen and I'm tired of having to scrap everything and get it all replaced each time they try to sneak one in my quiver. I don't know why they changed the formula to begin with. My original batch works just fine.”
Tony thought he heard a proprietary tone and he grinned at the archer. “Your batch, huh?”
“I designed most of my trick arrows, myself.” Clint shrugged, not looking up from the screen. “Not like I had an R&D department to do it for me before I joined SHIELD.”
Tony blinked, amazed. “I didn't know you had a degree in chemistry.”
“I don't. Not really. Bobbi did, and I took a few on-line courses to figure out the math.” He shrugged again, clearly uncomfortable; though Stark couldn't decide if it was due to his lack of a college degree or from bringing up Bobbi's name in conversation.
Tony chose to ignore the embarrassment, propping one hip onto the desk in order to see the computer screen better. “Have you thought about using a different material for the canisters?”
“Anything SHIELD has access to that could hold it makes the arrow too unwieldy to fly.” Clint brought up the specs for the canisters R&D designed.
“Show me your original formula,” Tony demanded, moving around to stand beside the agent, eyes focused on the screen, but watching the other from the corner of his eye, inwardly smirking as the tense posture relaxed when he made no disparaging comments.
“It's a combination of two ingredients that are powerful in their own right, but intensify to a magnitude of five when the canister shatters upon impact and the two mix.” The archer showed off the specs and formulas for the acid and the delivery system, putting them up side-by-side with the ones R&D created.
Stark studied the two, quickly able to distinguish between the two, admiring the simplicity and elegance of the more superior design. “You're right. They're idiots.”
Clint laughed, opening up his email to send another request for his old arrows to be reinstated, citing saving money since the newer versions necessitated the replacement of four quivers along with all the arrows. “At least it didn't come out of my pay, or I'd really have to be mad.” It had even destroyed one of his suits, “Acid burns are not fun, let me tell you. They nearly got a boot up their ass for that stunt.”
“How'd that happen?”
“They doubled the thickness of the containers, thinking it would solve the problem. Forget the fact that it made the arrows so top heavy they'd never make it to their destination. All it did was slow down the seepage rate, so instead of finding the quiver in a puddle with the rest of the gear halfway to the drop off point, it took a few hours before the acid ate through the material and several layers of skin. They're lucky I didn't have to abort the mission for their snafu.”
“You continued the mission even with acid burns?” Tony was aghast.
Clint shrugged. “I wasn't incapacitated by it and was able to finish the job.”
“You're crazy. You know that?”
“Aw, you say the sweetest things, Stark.” Clint shot off a smirk as he sent off the email and began closing down the work station.
Tony watched him for a moment, then blurted. “How did things go with Strange?”
At the sudden tension in the room, Tony felt his stomach sour. “That bad?”
Barton stayed still for a long moment, before heaving a long quiet sigh and continuing the shut down procedures. “Yeah.”
“Can you break it?”
“The curse is really old,” Clint started, then paused, thumb taping absently on the edge of the table, gaze faraway and troubled.
“Just how much time are we talking about here” Tony rolled a chair closer, straddling it backwards, crossing his arms over the top and resting his chin on them. “Thirty two years is pretty old for a curse, you know?”
A sidelong glance accompanied a wry grin. “This one is a few centuries old. A witch cursed a pair of hunters, a brother and sister. Somehow, the sister twisted the curse, taking most on herself and rebounding some to the witch reducing how much her brother received. She died from it. The curse went from a death curse to one of misfortune, but it was never negated. It wove itself into his lifeforce and got passed down the generations to me.”
“And since you only have one true birthday every four years the misfortune is quadrupled?”
Clint nodded. “That, and Dr. Strange thinks the length of time its been in effect has caused it to gain strength over the years.”
“And the way to break it?”
Hands spread out in a gesture of helplessness. “He said it could only be reduced if family took part of it on. Since it killed the sister when she did it, I'm glad all my family is dead.” He paused again, shrugging. “I can't get rid of it. It'll be with me until I die.”
“I could stop your heart here in one of my labs if you'd like,” Tony offered, only half joking. “That'd kill you and in a controlled setting. My medical team could bring you back.”
Clint's smile was gentle. “I appreciate the offer. But you've read my medical files. I've had to be resuscitated several times in my life. If that didn't get rid of the curse, then having your docs do it on purpose won't, either. I'm guessing it'll take a final death sort of thing in order to get rid of it.”
Tony felt his brow crease. “So, what can we do?”
“Nothing, really. Things'll go on as they always have. Either I'll keep getting lucky, or I'll die. But I don't see that there's anything that can be done.”
Tony paced the lab, unable to believe what he was hearing. “Are you kidding me? You nearly died several times because of this.” He glared at the archer, getting even more upset when the man simply stared back. “You fully expect to die from this, don't you? How can you be so calm?” He expected Clint to rant, to scream about the injustice, to destroy things in an epic fit of despair and frustration; not that he'd know what to do if he did. This non-reaction, this calmness, baffled him, even scared him a bit.
Another gentle smile crossed Clint's face, as if the archer read his mind. “Tony. Think about what I do for a living. Death isn't a distant, unfamiliar figure for me. I walk that line practically every day. So does Natasha. So do you, for that matter; with or without your suit.” Blue-green gray eyes peered resolutely up at him. “So now I know there's a reason for why I nearly die every four years,” he shrugged, and with that one graceful movement dismissed the entire situation. “It doesn't change the fact that I could get hit by a bus tomorrow, or my target could get a lucky shot off and hit me on my next assignment.” He rubbed his forehead, a wry smile appearing as if he'd just realized something. “If I let it matter, I won't be able to live my life – forever paralyzed by what might happen. So...” again he shrugged. “I'll continue living my life the best way I know how and let the future take care of itself.” He rose from his seat and lay a hand on Tony's shoulder. “I appreciate everything you've done. But since there really isn't anything that can be done, just try to forget about it, okay?” He gave a short squeeze, locking gazes with him. “You're a good friend, Tony.”
Stark sat quietly in the lab for some time after Barton left, his mind awhirl. He couldn't believe that there was absolutely nothing that could be done to help Clint. There had to be a loophole, something that would get his friend out of this snare, something that the man himself might have overlooked, being too close to the problem. “JARVIS, contact Dr. Strange for me and ask when I might be able to speak with him on an urgent matter.”
“Very good, sir.”
There had to be something.
Tony Stark stood in Dr. Strange's parlor, his arms crossed over his arc reactor, one finger absently tapping along the edge as he waited for the mage to receive him. He hated waiting and didn't usually seek out the assistance of others, but for this he would.
“Mr. Stark. Welcome to my home.” Dr. Stephen Strange entered the room, his cloak conspicuously missing, though his amulet lay prominently upon his breast. He rang a small bell and a thin Oriental in traditional dress appeared at Strange's elbow. “Tea? Coffee?”
Well aware of the social niceties, though he loathed the waste of time, Tony allowed his host to ply him with tea and small sandwiches and make inconsequential chit-chat before settling down to business.
Strange ran the bell again and his servant quietly took away the dishes. Dark eyes met equally dark eyes and Tony felt as if he'd passed a test of some sort. “I cannot remove the curse upon your teammate.” he baldly stated.
Tony waved a hand. “I figured that if you could, you would have already. You aren't the type to let people suffer needlessly. I just had a few questions that Clint either didn't think of or hadn't wanted to ask.”
“Did he send you?”
“No. He doesn't know I'm here. But I couldn't let this rest.” He tilted his chin up challengingly.
Dr. Strange inclined his head. “What are your questions?”
“Clint has technically died several times throughout his life. Why did that not negate the curse?”
“Ah. He may have died, but he wasn't gone long enough for the curse to dissipate before returning. That allowed the curse to reestablish itself.”
“So – if there was a way to remove his soul or whatever long enough then the curse would go away?”
Strange shook his head. “The lifeforce would have to leave the body, which means that anything used to keep the body viable would be enough to allow the curse to linger. For what you're thinking to work, it would mean requiring magic after the fact to animate the body once more. Your friend would basically be a partial zombie. I couldn't allow that.”
Stark shuddered, “God, no. That's … well, quite frankly, that's disgusting. He'd never go for it.”
Tony stayed silent a long moment. “What about family taking it on?”
“I'm not sure I understand what you're asking, Mr. Stark. Mr. Barton told me he has no living family.”
Tony scowled, eyes narrowed in annoyance. “From what I learned about his brother, I don't think he's what you mean by family. He definitely wasn't one who would try and save anyone out of the goodness of his heart.”
Strange crossed his legs and leaned back in his chair, stroking his beard. “Tell me what you're thinking.”
“This guy's sister must have loved him a whole lot to do what she did. What I'm asking is, does 'family' have to be by blood?”
A smile crossed the mage's face. “No. Any deep enough connection can bind people together as close as blood. But, Mr. Barton expressed his relief in not having family if it meant their death if they took on part of the curse.”
“Yeah, but she died 'cause she took on most of it and it was still a death curse when she did it. It was because of what she did that it changed to misfortune for him, right?”
Strange again inclined his head. “Correct.”
“And if what I'm considering works, there'd be several people sharing the curse rather than the one.”
“I agree that with enough people taking on a portion of the curse that it would result in the curse's effect being near on negligible.”
Tony nodded, “One last question. Would Clint need to know what was happening for it to work?”
“No. I have a good understanding of the curse from my earlier examination and I can easily locate him on the astral. Though, you might want to reconsider keeping him in the dark about this.”
Tony's first inclination was to dismiss the suggestion, but he remembered Clint's reaction to finding Tony snooping earlier. “Thank you, Dr. Strange. I hope to have further communication with you, shortly.”
Tony strode down the corridor heading toward Agent Coulson's office. The handler was his best option in figuring out how to proceed. He walked into the office after a cursory knock. Coulson sat at his desk working on his computer and didn't bother to look up at Stark's entrance. “Mr. Stark, I'm very busy today. Can we reschedule for a later date?”
“It's about Clint,” he blurted, not wanting to get kicked out.
At the use of Barton's first name, Coulson turned away from the monitor to send a piercing glance through him. “I'm listening.”
Tony shivered at the cool tone, but rallied. “He told me his birthday and I had done some digging.” As the agent's expression grew even colder, Tony hurried to explain. “No, it's cool. He knows I did it and we talked.” He only relaxed a bit when Coulson leaned back and made 'hurry up' motions with his hand. “I joked that maybe he was under a curse considering everything that's happened to him. Turned out I was right. And now I need your help.”
“In what way?”
Tony breathed a sigh of relief, grateful the agent was willing to listen and hadn't ventilated his skull with the nearby stapler. He quickly laid out the particulars of the curse. “Dr. Strange said that 'family' was a relative term. That any deep connection would work. He also agreed that with enough people, the curse could be reduced to practically non-existent since it can't be removed completely due to the twist.” Stark paused, “Neither of them said anything, but I think the next time the curse hits, it'll kill him. I know he has a dangerous job and that accidents could happen at any time, but this is a death sentence that could seriously mess up the way he does things.” He cocked his head as he stared at Coulson. “It already has, actually. He's been a lot quieter since he spoke with Strange. The effects have gotten bigger over the years, too. Like ripples in a pond. We had a city-wide invasion this last time – what would the next one look like? Clint knows this. He's seen the same patterns. I fear that he'll decide that it would save a lot of trouble later on if he allowed himself to be taken out one day during a mission before the curse kicked in one last time and perhaps destroyed a state or two.”
Coulson had gone very still in his seat and Tony knew he was mentally going over Barton's recent behavior and tallying the odds on Barton making a sacrifice play. “Does Clint know about the non-blood family clause?”
“I think he believes it will kill whoever tries to help and he's not willing to do that, but he didn't delve any deeper on the subject with Strange – he doesn't know that the more people involved, the less dangerous it is.”
Coulson rubbed his forehead. “What are you suggesting?”
Tony took a deep breath. “I wanted your opinion before I said anything to anyone else. I think that we … the Avengers, I mean … could take on the curse. We've worked and lived together for nearly a year. We're the only family we have, for the most part.” He picked up a pen to fiddle with. “You're the only other person who knows so much about Barton's past, I wanted to know how much the others should know in order to see if they'd agree.”
“Clint doesn't know you're doing this, does he?” It was more a statement than a question.
“I … didn't want to raise his hopes in case this was a bust.” At the disappointed look, Stark raised his hands defensively. “Hey, family's not my forte, alright? I just want all bases covered. I didn't want to send Clint further into depression or anything.”
Tony startled badly, nearly falling out of his chair. He whipped his head around to see Natasha leaning negligently against the closed door. He hadn't even heard the assassin enter, “Jesus! Bells! I swear, I'm implanting bells on both you and Clint!”
Natasha merely smirked. “Curses are tricky, but if Strange says this will help, then I'm in.”
“You sure?” Tony turned to watch as the Russian settled herself on the couch, curling her feet beneath her, looking like a large cat as she blinked inscrutably at them.
“He is my partner.” She turned her stare on Coulson, who nodded. “Good. Tell the others,” she commanded. “I'll dealt with Clint.” Tony opened his mouth shutting it at a shake of her head. “He will protest because he does not feel he is worth the bother and if something went wrong he would blame himself even though the decision is not his. I will work on that while you tell the others that which they need to know. Tell me when the spell will be cast and I'll make sure the two of us are where we need to be.”
“I can send the two of you on assignment to make sure he doesn't try to run to protect us,” Coulson offered.
“Acceptable. Something important, but low-key, so he doesn't try to do something foolish.”
Coulson smirked, “I have just the thing.” He pulled a file out of a drawer and handed it over. “You'll go in as a couple.”
She mirrored the smirk. “I'll let him know. We'll be gone a week. I will tell him on our way home. See to it that everything is arranged by then, Stark.”
Tony gave a sketchy two fingered salute as he watched Natasha saunter out of the office.
Three days later, Tony managed to catch both Banner and Rogers having breakfast in the kitchen. “Gentlemen. Glad I caught you. I've got something serious to discuss.”
“What's the matter, Tony? One of your experiments not going well?” Banner asked, setting his coffee down.
“Would you consider us family? All of us? The Avengers?”
Both men blinked, shooting glances at each other while Tony squirmed a bit in his seat, annoyed with how he blurted that out.
“You feeling okay, Tony?” Rogers asked his brow furrowed in concern.
Tony covered his face, “Gahhh! I'm screwing this up.”
Banner patted Tony's shoulder. “Start from the beginning, Tony. Maybe it'll make more sense if you do.”
“Clint's under a curse.”
“Loki?” Rogers asked, one hand clenched into a fist.
“No. It's older than that, but the curse is why Clint got caught up in the whole mess to begin with.” He sighed, then straightened up to look them both in the eye. “It's a curse of misfortune, but each time it goes off, the effects are worse than the last. It effects more people. The next time it goes off, something worse than the Chitauri invasion may occur.” Both men shuddered.
“Can't it be broken?” Steve inquired.
“Only two ways we could find; either through his death, or by having family take on parts of it to lessen the effects.”
“Ah,” Bruce nodded sagely. “That explains the question.”
“I thought Clint mentioned a brother?” Steve murmured.
“He died years ago. Wasn't a real nice guy, either. Coulson, Romanoff, and I are already in.” Tony looked at them both. “So?”
“Clint's helped me acclimate to this time period,” Steve commented. “He reminds me a lot of Bucky. He's got the same protective instincts over those he cares about.” He gave a slight smile, “He only gently teases when I make a mistake. In fact, he got into a group of agents' faces in my defense, recently. I'd joined him for lunch on the helicarrier and I had a couple of questions. Thought Clint was going to punch a few people in the face when they sneered at me.” He tipped his head in thought. “ So, yes, he's family to me. Same as you guys are. If I can help, I will.”
Bruce nodded as well, “He treats me like a human being and not like a monster, but I know that if he needed to, he'd make sure I wasn't a danger to anyone. We've had a few conversations over his experimental arrows. Yeah. He's like a younger brother.”
Tony smiled. “I agree. So. This is what we hoped to do. When Natasha and Clint get back, we're going to have Dr. Strange cast a spell to spread the effects of the curse so it won't kill him. Since we got five of us, it'll mean no one will get too much of a concentration.”
“What about Thor?” Steve wondered.
“I haven't heard from him in order to tell him. There's no saying when he might come back down for a visit. I'm sure he'd be willing to help, but I think we can handle it if he doesn't come back before the end of the week.”
“Gotcha. I'll tell him on our way over.” Natasha hung up the phone and startled slightly at the sight of Clint leaning against the door frame, ankles crossed and arms folded across his chest.
“Why don't you tell me now?”
She suppressed a shiver at the cold tone. She knew how much he hated being kept in the dark. He'd figured something was up days ago, but had only hinted for an answer during the mission. She knew the others would want to keep it a surprise, but that's not how their partnership worked. “Very well, but I don't want you to freak out.”
“And why would I do that?” he purred, pushing off the frame to stalk closer.
“We're meeting the others at Dr. Strange's place before going home.” He blinked, his expression moving from confused to blank, and she rushed on. “We all agreed to share the curse, even Coulson.”
Clint sank onto the mattress and ran a hand over his face. Natasha knelt beside him, lightly rubbing his shoulders comfortingly. “We're family, Clint. And with so many of us, it means the curse won't have any noticeable effects, Dr. Strange guarantees it.”
“I...” he reached up and grabbed her hand, tangling their fingers together.
She wrapped her free arm around him, drawing him into an embrace. “You'd do the same for any of us. Let us do this for you?”
She smiled into his hair and kissed his temple as he nodded.
“Come on. Let's pack up and go. Our family is waiting for us.”
“Eye of the Hawk!” Thor clapped Clint on the back once the younger man entered the room. “Your Midgardian Sorcerer Supreme has explained to us all the procedure for this evening. I am honored to help in this manner as you are a warrior brother to me, as are the others.”
Clint smiled, “I'm the one honored, Thor. When did you find out?”
“Hiemdall mentioned it several days ago and I made arrangements with my Father to arrive on this day. He agreed it was a worthy task for a worthy mortal.”
Clint blinked in surprise. “Wow. Thank him for me.”
“I shall. I shall. Come. The others are waiting.” Thor escorted the two agents further into the house.
Dr. Strange frowned as he felt the lines of connection shift slightly during the incantation. Someone had added themselves to the spell, willingly taking on part of the curse. Their presence momentarily boosted his own power, and smoothed out a flux he hadn't been aware of; one that would have proved disastrous in the end. The added person stretched the curse to its full limit, all but negating it entirely. He thought he heard a mocking laughter as the presence faded as the spell came to an end.
Putting the occurrence to the back of his mind for the moment, he broke the circle. “It is done.”
Stark blinked, “It is? I don't feel any different? Do you, Clint?”
The younger man tilted his head and rolled his shoulders. “Yeah, actually. It feels like … like I put down a weight I didn't know I was carrying.”
“Really? It seems you had a greater sense of the curse's effects than I initially believed,” Dr. Strange commented. “The curse should have no effect upon any of you, now. You each carry a segment which reduced it's strength significantly. I've locked it down so that no one can take advantage of it's presence within you, either.” He gave them all a serene smile. “It also will not pass on to any children you may have.”
Pleased and a bit overwhelmed, the group thanked him profusely before heading back to the Tower.
Alone once more, the Sorcerer Supreme stepped within his personal ritual circle. He lit the candles and sent his astral self searching for the one who had helped out. He found the strand and followed it, surprised at how far away the journey led.
He appeared in a blue washed area; another figure soon arrived. ~ Ah. Came for a visit? I am honored that one such as yourself went to the trouble over one such as I. ~ The tone was smooth and lightly mocking,
Dr. Strange recognized the being and he brought up his defenses. ~ Loki. What, exactly did you do? ~
Jade green eyes stared back and a hand splayed across his breast. ~ I? Whatever do you mean? I simply helped you in your casting. Without me, your spell would have tangled most distressingly. ~
~ Why would you help, Loki? I would think you'd enjoy your brother's misfortune. ~
The slender form paced before him, the only sign of agitation the mage had seen. ~ If any is to curse Thor, it shall be me and no other. I wasn't going to let a stupid error on your part kill the man before I am done with him. ~
Dr. Strange watched the trickster, trying to figure out why and how he'd helped. ~ How did you manage to add yourself to the spell? ~
A cold smirk crossed Loki's face. ~ Though he would deny it with his last breath Barton will ever be My Hawk. Besides, my brother claims him as family, can I do no less? ~ He stared at the mage with a calculating glare. ~You did not have a deep enough connection to Barton for what you hoped to do. If left to it's own devices, the curse would have killed My Hawk by his next birthday. And without my help, the way you meddled would have re-instated the original curse at full power, killing them all within hours. ~
~ What's in it for you, Loki? ~
~ I'm not done playing with them, yet. Life would be so boring without them. ~ The trickster god smirked and waved his hand, sending Dr. Strange back toward his body. ~ Goodbye, Dr. Strange. It was a pleasure to speak with you. ~