One of the reasons Clint had moved out to Brooklyn after the Battle of New York was to avoid the random attacks by super-powered villains, aliens and monsters that the combination of Stark's tower and the Baxter Building attracted to Manhattan, so he was less than pleased to glance out his kitchen window one day and spot the Human Torch soaring over with trio of robots on his tail.
“Oh, come on,” he muttered, glancing down at Lucky, who gave him a tongue-lolling canine grin back.
It had been a shitty night, during which he'd barely managed an hour of sleep between nightmares that ended with him startling awake, convinced Loki was standing over him with that damn sceptre. He'd gotten out of bed sometime around lunchtime feeling even worse than when he'd fallen into it, which was saying something, because he'd been smacked around pretty hard by the AIM pricks that the Avengers had taken down yesterday.
The rest of the day had pretty much led from there. He'd somehow managed to break the handle off the toilet, he hadn't noticed the milk was off until after he'd had a bite of cereal, and now his coffee was being interrupted by the damn Fantastic Four.
For a moment he was tempted to just pretend he hadn't seen anything superhero-related and go back to making coffee, then there was a concussive thump and some plaster dust fell from his ceiling. Damn it, he couldn't trust the Fantastic Four to not accidentally end up demolishing his apartment building, and he'd only just got the TV all connected up right.
Clint abandoned his coffee and grabbed his bow, then headed up to the roof.
The Torch was circling back around, grabbing one of the robots and frying its circuits as another one aimed a weapon at him. He dodged the shot, dropping the dead robot as he darted away from the other two.
Clint notched one of his EMP arrows, aimed at where a robot would be in a third of a second, and let it go. It hit the robot directly in the chest panel, let off its charge, and the robot dropped like a stone, by which time Clint had already loosed a second arrow at the last remaining robot, taking it out just as efficiently.
The Torch swung around to spot where the arrows had come from and gave him a cheerful wave that Clint returned with less enthusiasm.
“Hey, thanks, man!” said the Torch, flying down to Clint's rooftop.
“You're making a mess in my neighbourhood,” Clint pointed out. “Is that all of them?”
The flame died down as Storm landed, which hopefully meant he wasn't going to melt the top of the roof. “It's all of them around here,” said Storm. “Most of them are at the Baxter Building. The Mad Thinker managed to lock us out.”
Clint sighed and rubbed his hand over his face. “Your security is for shit.”
Storm held his hands up defensively. “Hey, it's all Reed's design, nothing to do with me. Besides, didn't Avengers Tower get attacked twice last week?”
Clint hated when people called it 'Avengers Tower'. Okay, sure, the team had a couple of rooms there that they sometimes used for mission planning, but they also had rooms on SHIELD's helicarrier, at the Triskelion in DC, and would have more once the base up-state was finally finished. Calling Stark's tower 'Avengers Tower' just made it a target.
Which was probably why it kept getting attacked.
Clint shrugged. “That's Stark's problem. It's not like my apartment ever gets attacked.”
“Fair point,” said Storm. “Hey, want to come give us a hand taking the rest of the fuckers out? Your arrows worked like a treat.”
Clint considered for a moment, weighing up just how tired he was and how much his bruises from the fight with AIM yesterday still ached. “I was gonna take the dog out.”
Storm raised his eyebrows. “Seriously?”
“Yeah, okay,” said Clint, giving in. He slung his bow over his shoulder. “I'm guessing you can't give me a lift over there without third degree burns?”
“Not really, no.”
Clint sighed. “I'll get a cab.”
“Awesome! See you soon!” said Storm and took off, leaving Clint to bitterly regret all his life choices and wonder how long it would be before he managed to get some coffee now that he was apparently spending the day fighting robots.
“Hey! You made it!” said Storm. “Hey, Reed! Hawkeye's here!”
Reed Richards was hunched over a disabled robot, but he glanced up at Storm's shout. “Oh, hey,” he said vaguely, then his eyes lit on Clint's quiver. “Johnny said you have EMP arrows.” He looked down at the robot again. “Ah, yes, that will work,” he muttered to himself.
Clint had been around the Fantastic Four often enough to not be insulted by Richards ignoring him in favour of tech, particularly not as he'd also been around Stark when he did the same thing. And Banner, on occasion, although he usually managed a veneer of politeness.
At any rate, whatever Reed was doing led to a plan a few minutes later, which Clint didn't really get the details on, other than that his job was to shoot whatever Reed told him to. He could do that; hell, he'd been doing that for pretty much his entire adult life. As long as the person doing the telling wasn’t an asshole like Loki, he was fine with it. It wasn't like he was good for much else.
It took the rest of the afternoon and most of the evening to clear the robots out, followed by Reed and the Mad Thinker having a lengthy weird scientist stand-off that ended with the Thing smashing an android out of a window and the Mad Thinker taking off in a hurry with a flurry of threats about how they'd rue the day, he'd get revenge, yadda yadda yadda.
“Great,” said Clint, rubbing at his face. “Are we done? Please say we're done, I really need some coffee.”
“Are you kiddin' me? This time of night is fer somethin' stronger,” said the Thing. “Ya want a beer?”
Clint considered. Usually he got out and back home as soon as an incident was over, but it was different with these guys than with the Avengers. He'd never tried to kill them, for one.
Plus, it was a long way back to Brooklyn, and it was pretty much the middle of the night now. He was never going to find a cab.
“Sure, sounds great,” he said.
Storm threw himself down onto a sofa. “Bring me one too, Ben!” he called after Grimm.
“Go boil your head!” Grimm called back. Storm just grinned, apparently confident that he was getting beer despite Grimm's tone.
“He's done something to my lab,” muttered Richards, crouching to look at some weird flashing box that looked just like all the other weird flashing boxes in the room.
“Leave it for now, Reed,” said Sue. “Plenty of time in the morning to sort it out.”
Richards ignored her, which she didn't seem surprised by. Yeah, that distracted look was definitely a crazy genius scientist thing.
Grimm came back with five beers carefully held between his giant hands. Clint took his gratefully, taking a long slug. Richards put his straight down on a desk and stretched his body around under the machine in a way that made Clint's stomach squirm uncomfortably. There was something seriously fucked up about his power.
“This makes no sense,” Richards muttered. “What has he done?”
The others all ignored him in favour of bickering over whether or not Storm or Grimm had taken out the most robots, a fight Sue didn't bother mediating until it looked like they were going to get physical about it. Clint just sat back, letting the last of the adrenalin drain out of him, and wondered if he'd be able to get home before he fell asleep. It was edging near to 2am, would using his Avengers ID make getting a cab to take him to Brooklyn more likely?
There was something comfortable and familiar about the conversation. Clint could remember going back and forth on who was the best fighter with Natasha and some of the other SHIELD agents, before everything had gone to hell and he'd become everyone in SHIELD's least favourite agent. The Avengers didn't ever talk like that after a mission, and they definitely didn't share a beer. Cap was always too damned focus on the job, insisting on debriefings and all that crap, while Stark just wanted to get the hell away home as soon as possible so that he could get back to being a billionaire playboy. Most Avengers call-outs ending with them having an argument.
“Oh,” said Richards, in a worried tone of voice that made everyone turn to look at him. “That's not goo-”
He didn't get to finish his sentence. There were three high-pitched beeps in a row, then the machine he'd been looking at sent out a pulse of pure green light that Richards managed to avoid by flattening his body right down to the floor, but which caught Clint solidly in the chest.
It felt like he'd been thrown against a wall. He felt his whole body go flying as the green light surrounded him, sealing off the rest of the world like a cocoon. There was a terrific jolt and then everything went black.
He fully woke up with a jerk, pulling away from whomever was holding him. He was in a dark bedroom that he’d never seen before and when he turned to see who was sharing the bed with him, the man was equally unfamiliar.
“What’s goin’ on?” asked the guy, sleepily. He had dark hair that was spread out over the pillow, but Clint couldn’t see much more than that. “Clint? Didj’ya have a nightmare?”
“Where the hell am I?” asked Clint.
The man sat up. “Lights,” he said, and the room flooded with light. Clint blinked against it, taking in that the room was a lot nicer than his current bedroom but just as messy and that the guy had a square jaw, striking green eyes, a concerned look on his face and a metal arm.
A metal arm. Shit.
Clint sprang out of the bed, not taking his eyes off the guy as he got the fuck away from him. There were a couple of knives on the dresser and he grabbed them both, setting his back against the wall.
“I know who you are,” he said. “You’re the Winter Soldier. What the fuck do you want with me?”
“Hey, calm down, Clint,” said the guy, holding his hands out. “It’s fine, you’re safe.”
“Safe?” repeated Clint. “Safe?! Are you insane?” Okay, maybe he was getting a bit hysterical, but it wasn’t every day you had to face off against an assassin so legendary that Natasha was scared of him while wearing only a pair of boxers. “I don’t even know where the fuck I am!”
“You’re in our room at the Tower,” said the Winter Soldier, getting out of the bed but keeping well back from Clint. He was only in his underwear as well, which in most other situations Clint would have appreciated. The guy was seriously ripped. “Come on, Clint, just take a deep breath. Whatever you were dreaming about is over, it’s just me, Bucky. You’re not in danger.”
Clint stared at him. “The Winter Soldier is called Bucky? What the hell?”
The Winter Soldier's shoulders hunched over. “You really don’t know me,” he said, and he sounded absolutely gutted. Clint refused to let himself feel guilty about that. “JARVIS, can you get Natasha here? As quickly as possible?”
“JARVIS?” asked Clint. “Wait, we’re really in Stark’s tower?”
“You are currently on the 87th floor of Avengers Tower, Agent Barton,” said JARVIS’s distinctive voice. “Agent Romanov will be with you shortly, Sergeant Barnes.”
“Right,” said the Winter Soldier, tersely. “I’m guessing you remember Natasha, right?” he said to Clint. “You’ve known her the longest.”
Clint adjusted his grip on one of the knives but didn’t lower it by so much as an inch. “I’m not telling you anything,” he said. “Fuck knows who you’re working for.”
Except there was no way in hell that Stark would let anyone else have access to JARVIS or his tower, especially not the kind of guys who were likely to hire the Winter Soldier. And what the hell kind of interrogation plan was it to have the subject wake up half-naked and being snuggled by the interrogator?
Clint took a deep breath. Okay, okay, come on Barton, figure this out. He’d been in the Baxter Building drinking beer, and then…
Ah, crap. See, this was why he shouldn’t hang about with the crazy science geniuses.
The door opened and Natasha stepped through, wearing yoga pants and a t-shirt, which was what she usually slept in. Why the hell would she be sleeping at Stark’s tower? Hell, why would Clint?
“Clint,” she said, glancing over at the Winter Soldier. “What’s up?”
“I’m really hoping you can tell me that,” he said. “Can I trust you?”
She frowned faintly as she replied. “Trust is good, but control is better.”
Clint couldn’t keep in a relieved sigh at the code phrase and he let his guard drop, although he wasn’t quite ready to let the knives go just yet. “Oh, thank fuck,” he said. “Nat, I think we’re going to need some scientists. I’m not where I should be.”
“JARVIS, wake Tony and Bruce up,” said the Winter Soldier. “Right now.”
He was still on the other side of the room, giving Clint a dark glare that made him look every inch a deadly assassin, even in his underwear. His hands were clenched into fists, which made Clint think about how much pressure that metal hand might be able to exert, and what that would feel like choking around his throat.
“What’s going on?” asked Natasha.
Clint opened his mouth to admit he had no idea, but the Winter Soldier beat him to it.
“Look at him. It’s not our Clint.”
Clint frowned at him. “You sound very sure.”
The Winter Soldier sneered at him. “Of course I’m sure. I know my own boyfriend, and he didn’t have those bruises last night.”
Clint glanced down at the smattering of bruises left on his chest from the fight with the Mad Thinker’s robots, and the older ones underneath from fighting AIM, then his brain replayed what the Winter Soldier had said.
“Boyfriend?” he repeated, and then shook his head. “Okay, okay, this is-” He took a deep breath. There were two possibilities for what that machine had done to him. Well, two obvious possibilities, fuck knows what else the Mad Thinker might have come up with. “What date is it?”
“Oh, that’s always a reassuring question,” said Natasha. “It’s the 13th October. Or I suppose it's technically the 14th now.”
“2016?” asked Clint and she nodded.
Clint’s shoulders slumped. Same date as it had been when he’d been in the Baxter Building. “Right. Great. Then, hi, I think I’m from another dimension.”
“Wow, okay, that totally makes being woken up at a god-awful hour worth it,” said Stark, coming into the room in a robe, followed by Cap, who was just in sweat pants. Was there some kind of slumber party going on? Or had Cap just looked in the mirror and realised how goddamn incredible his abs looked and decided to forgo shirts in order to boost morale wherever he went? Because Clint could definitely work with that.
“Here’s a tip: if the Fantastic Four ever offer you a beer, just say no,” he said.
“Okay, I actually already knew that one,” said Stark, “but it’s good to confirm these things. JARVIS, tell Bruce to meet us in lab 6, I think that’s got most of the equipment we'll need.”
“And we’re gonna find our Clint, right?” said the Winter Soldier. “Getting him back is the priority.”
“Don’t panic, we’ll get your boo back,” said Stark. “If it’s a dimensional shift, it’s probably just a straight swap.”
Clint shook his head. “I can’t believe there’s another universe where I’m shacked up with the Winter Soldier,” he muttered. He glanced at Natasha. “Hey, did he shoot you in this world as well?”
Natasha shrugged. “I got over it.”
“Could we maybe not talk about me like I’m not here?” asked the Winter Soldier in a grumpy whine, crossing his arms over his chest.
“It might help if you put some pants on, Bucky,” said Cap, and the name in his mouth sparked off a buried memory in Clint’s mind that combined with JARVIS calling him Sergeant Barnes earlier to create a realisation.
“Oh, no fucking way,” said Clint. “There is no fucking way you’re Bucky Barnes.”
The Winter Soldier’s glare darkened. “Don’t go telling me who I am or who I’m not.”
“No, no, no,” said Clint. “Come on! He died in, like 1940-something! Oh wait, is that it, the convergence or whatever between our universes? You didn’t die and hung about with Steve and somehow jumped all those decades as well and then shacked up with the other me?”
“Not quite, no,” said Barnes, turning away and grabbing a pair of sweatpants off a chair and pulling them on.
“Get dressed and come down,” said Stark. “We can do all the fun comparisons of who died when and who should be wearing a goatee while we run tests.”
“A goatee?” repeated Cap, sounding confused. “You’ve already got a goatee.”
Stark put an arm on his shoulder as he led him away. “See, and that’s why you should have bumped Star Trek higher up your list.”
“Those are my Clint’s clothes there,” said Barnes, gesturing at a stack threatening to avalanche off a chair. “Grab something.”
Natasha stayed while Clint dug through for some pants and a t-shirt, crossing her arms as she leaned against the door frame. “Your hair is longer,” she said, thoughtfully. “And that scar on your calf, that’s new.”
Clint glanced down at it. “We fought a weird half-man, half-lizard thing, and its claws were longer than I expected.”
“Huh,” said Natasha slowly, and glanced over at Barnes with a significant look.
“What?” asked Clint.
Barnes huffed a sigh. “When we fought that thing, I pushed my Clint out of the way.”
“And then they had a huge row about whether or not that counted as being over-protective, which ended when Bucky slammed Clint up against a wall and kissed him in front of several TV cameras,” added Natasha.
“Oh,” said Clint, glancing over at Barnes, who resolutely kept his head down so that his hair hid his face as he pulled on a pair of sneakers. Clint looked back down at the scar. “I just got stuck spending a couple of hours in Medical.”
A couple of hours that had inched by because he’d been achingly aware of just how many other agents who were around Medical had been on the helicarrier the day he'd attacked it. After about twenty minutes, it had begun to feel like everyone was staring at him and he’d nearly embarrassed himself by having a meltdown in front of them all. He’d shoved it all down, gritted his teeth, and made it through being stitched up and bandaged, and then gone home and drunk himself into a stupor on the sofa.
All in all, it sounded like the other Clint had won that one, even if the guy he’d been getting off with was an internationally-feared assassin. At least he was a hot assassin, right?
Banner was fiddling with some piece of equipment that Clint had a bad feeling he would soon be getting up close and personal with. He glanced over his shoulder as they came in, then turned to give Clint a very long look.
“Gosh, that’s incredible,” he said.
“And you didn’t even get to see me in my boxers, like everyone else did,” said Clint.
Banner blinked and then focused on his face. “Oh sorry, that was rude, I’m just fascinated by the concept of an actual person from another dimension. Your existence confirms several key theories, you know, and the readings we get from you could revolutionise a whole field of science.”
Clint gave him a smile. “Awesome. And that’ll end with me going home, right?”
“And with our Clint coming back,” put in Barnes, who was now leaning against the corner of the lab, still with the exact same scowl on his face. Clint was beginning to wonder if maybe the wind had changed and it had got stuck.
“Yeah, yeah, don’t panic,” said Stark, walking in. “We all want our own birdbrain back.” He glanced over at Clint. “No offence, I’m sure you’re a great guy, just, you know.”
“Yeah,” agreed Clint, who didn’t really know. Watching how upset Barnes obviously was that his Clint had gone missing was making him realise how few people would even notice if he got swapped out for an alternative version of himself without any notice. As long as the new version of him could still take out a killer robot at 300 feet in a strong wind, pretty much only Lucky and Natasha would notice.
And if Clint was brutally honest, it wasn’t like he hung out with Nat much outside of work these days. Something about the memory of trying to kill her playing in a loop in his mind made grabbing coffee awkward.
Rogers came in behind Stark, carrying a heavy piece of equipment as if it weighed no more than a couple of pillows. “Where do you want it?”
“Ah, the spare socket is here,” said Stark, gesturing at a corner. Cap set it down for him. “Thanks, honeybunch,” said Stark, and gave him a kiss.
Clint did his best to keep his poker face, he really did, but his best just wasn’t up to a surprise that big.
“Oh, come on,” said Stark, catching his look. “You can’t honestly tell me that there’s a Tony Stark in a universe that contains all this,” he gestured at Cap, “and he’s not hitting that?”
“You really do say the sweetest things,” said Rogers, but there was a note of amusement that Clint had never heard from the Steven Rogers in his world. Huh, apparently there was a way to get him to relax and pull the stick out of his ass, and that was by putting Stark’s stick up there instead and oh god, why the hell had Clint thought that? He was never going to unsee those mental images.
Clint shook his head in a doomed effort to shake them loose.
“The Stark and Cap in my world just spend all their time snarking and getting in stupid fights about procedure and who shouldn’t say what in front of the media and, wow, how did I not notice that that was all just pigtail-pulling and UST?”
Stark and Cap exchanged looks. “We did, what? Maybe a month of that?” said Stark. “And then there was the movie night with all the tequila shots and, well, the rest is history.”
“Cap can’t get drunk,” Clint pointed out.
“No,” agreed Rogers, “but Tony can. Tony really, really can, and then he just comes out with exactly what he’s thinking, which is a good thing when you’re a guy trying to work out how the dating game has changed in seventy years.”
“It worked pretty well for us,” agreed Stark. “When you get back, just tell other me to get hammered and tell Steve how awesome his biceps are.”
Clint shook his head. “Right.” He wasn’t sure he really had that kind of relationship with his Stark, but he guessed that passing on a message from his counterpart in another dimension was harmless enough. Plus, he really kinda wanted to see the look on Stark's face.
Not to mention the look on Cap's.
Banner patted the examination table. “Okay, we’re all set up. Hop up on here and let me put some electrodes on you.”
Clint sighed. “Just what every guy wants to hear,” he said, but obliged. He’d spent a good few weeks after Loki having various emotionless doctors doing just these sorts of tests on him, making sure there wasn’t a trace of Loki left in him. Of course, just because he was used to it didn't mean he liked it.
“Okay, tell us exactly what happened in Reed’s lab,” said Stark. “What bullshit did he pull to fuck things up this badly?”
Clint shrugged. “It wasn’t really his fault. I ran into Johnny Storm while he was fighting robots, and ended up helping them clear a bunch of the Mad Thinker’s toys out of the Baxter Building.”
“Huh,” said Stark, and Clint noticed Natasha and Cap exchanging looks. “Just you?”
“Yeah,” said Clint. “Why?”
Cap frowned at him. “Why didn’t you call in the rest of the team?”
Clint shrugged. “I don’t know. Wasn’t an Avenger thing, I guess, and it wasn’t as if SHIELD wouldn’t have known about it. If they wanted everyone there, they’d have put out an alert.”
“SHIELD would have,” said Stark, and suddenly everyone was exchanging those knowing looks again.
Clint scowled at them all. “Stop that. Yeah, SHIELD would have. They call the shots, most of the time. I mean, Cap sometimes goes off on one of his crusades and drags us all along, but mostly it’s SHIELD who call us in for an incident.”
“And you only knew Bucky as the Winter Soldier,” said Natasha, quietly, which drew more pointed looks.
“Okay, seriously,” said Clint. “Do you want to hear this or not?”
“Keep going,” said Rogers.
“Right, well, we cleared the robots out and chased the Mad Thinker off, but he’d left some crap in Richards’s lab,” said Clint. “He was clearing it out while the rest of us had a beer, then there was an explosion of green light that I got caught in, and I woke up snuggled up with- well. With a guy I only know of as the mythological evil assassin who shot Nat that one time.”
Barnes made an unhappy growling noise in his throat and tightened his arms. Clint gave him a half-shrug of apology, and then got tutted at by Banner for not holding still.
“Did any of the others get hit as well?” asked Cap.
Clint shrugged. “I saw Mr. Fantastic dodge it, but I don’t know about the others.”
Cap glanced at Natasha and she nodded. “I’ll call over and make sure they’re all still who they should be,” she said, and left the lab.
“Okay,” said Stark. “So, that story is interesting for a bunch of reasons, but possibly the most relevant one is that the Mad Thinker had a go at the Baxter Building yesterday here as well, but we all went over and gave the Fantastic Four a hand, and we ran him off before he got further than the lower levels.”
“We’ve got an agreement with them,” explained Cap. “If anyone attacks either here or their building, we all come down on them. No one likes seeing their home be a target.”
Home. So they did all live here, like some kind of weird superhero frat house. Clint wasn’t sure what to think about that. It sounded kinda fun, especially if they had movie-and-tequila nights, but he liked his own space. Or, at least, having his own space made it easier when he was having a bad night.
A thought occurred to him. “Wait, if the other me lives here, where’s Lucky?”
“Lucky?” repeated Stark, in a tone that said it all.
“My dog,” said Clint. “Aw man, does the other me not have a dog? Sucks to be him.”
“He’s kinda got an attack dog,” said Stark, glancing over at Barnes, whose glare just darkened.
Natasha came back in. “The Fantastic Four are all confirmed as in the right dimension,” she said. “Reed said he’d head over to give you guys a hand working out how to send this Clint back.”
Stark huffed. “Don’t need help from a second-rate genius like Richards,” he muttered.
“If his lab was involved in the accident, it makes sense for him to be involved in fixing it,” said Rogers.
Stark didn’t look convinced.
“Tony, come and look at this,” said Banner, staring down at a screen that was giving him some kind of data in the form of wiggly lines.
Stark went over and let out a low whistle, and then they got involved in an intense discussion that made pretty much no sense to Clint. He didn’t bother paying attention in favour of slumping on the examination table and wondering if he could get away with just lying down and going to sleep. What with his crappy sleep last night and then spending most of the day fighting, he was completely bushed.
Not that he’d be able to get to sleep with Barnes still staring at him as if he was responsible for massacring puppies.
“Okay, seriously, can you stop?” he said to him. “I swear, I had nothing to do with this whole thing.”
Barnes’s scowl deepened for a moment, then cleared. “Sorry,” he offered, easing up a tiny amount. “Just. I hate that I can’t just go get him.”
“He’ll be fine,” said Cap. “He’s got the other versions of us looking after him, right? One Tony Stark is going to be just as clever as another.”
“Damn straight,” said Stark, without looking up from the data.
“Not to mention Reed Richards,” added Clint, which prompted a rude noise from Stark.
Barnes shook his head. “Doesn’t matter how safe you all say he probably is, I ain’t gonna feel better until he’s back.”
“Yeah, yeah, we’re working on it,” said Stark, bringing another device over to scan Clint with. Clint held still for it, sadly reflecting that he still hadn't managed to get any coffee. He really should have just ignored the Torch flying over earlier and taken Lucky out for a walk instead.
Clint woke up with a start, blinking his eyes open. Something was wrong, what was it?
Where was Bucky?
This wasn’t home. Instead of the room Clint shared with Bucky at Avengers Tower, he was in a smaller, neater room that looked like some kind of posh hotel room, decorated with African-looking carved wooden decorations of birds and cats on the walls. When he’d gone to sleep, Bucky had been curled around him, clinging on to Clint as if he was a giant teddy bear, just as he always did now that he trusted himself not to hurt him during a nightmare, but now Clint was alone. The air was hot, far hotter than New York had been, and there was a sticky feel to it that reminded Clint of that awful mission in Somalia.
He was wearing a pair of boxers he didn’t recognise. Actually, the only familiar things in the room were his bow and quiver, propped against the wall.
This didn’t look good.
Jesus fuck, it was hot.
Clint pushed the sheet aside and headed to the window, pulling back the blind to look out. A manicured garden stretched down to a high fence, beyond which he could see jungle. To the left, he could see several buildings and a large statue of a panther.
Definitely not in New York anymore, Toto.
He let the blind drop and looked around the room. Okay, what were the possibilities? He could have some kind of amnesia, but he kinda hoped someone would be with him if he’d been hurt enough for that. He might have been abducted in his sleep, from inside Avengers Tower with the Winter Soldier sleeping next to him, and spirited away to Africa, or somewhere that looked like Africa, to a room that was a lot more luxurious than any cell Clint had ever been in.
Those were the only two explanations he could come up with that didn’t involve some kind of fucked-up superhero shit.
Ah, who the hell was he kidding? Of course it was going to be fucked-up superhero shit.
There was a tap on the door and it opened without waiting for a response from Clint. A guy with short dark hair who he’d never seen before came in. “Hey, congrats on making it out of bed this early, man,” he said. “I think this is the first morning I haven't had to wake you up.”
“It felt like time to get up,” said Clint, cautiously. The clock on the wall was showing twenty past nine, although Clint didn't feel like he'd have anywhere near enough sleep for it to be morning already. Oh right, timezones. If they were in Africa, then it would be a few hours later than it was in New York.
The guy’s eyebrows went up. “Right, like it’s not always too early for you until after coffee. Come on, get some clothes on and we’ll go to breakfast.”
Well, that raised more questions than it answered. This guy clearly thought he knew Clint and expected Clint to know him in return.
Clint hesitated. Either he came clean now about not having a clue what was going on, or he played along and tried to get more information on where he was and how he got there. Just because this guy was being friendly didn’t mean Clint could trust him, and being an Avenger had kinda made Clint seriously paranoid. No, screw that, being a SHIELD agent had made him paranoid, being an Avenger had just honed it.
“Yeah, give me a sec,” he said, and glanced around the room, trying to work out where clothes might be. The wardrobe seemed like the best option.
Ah yeah, there were a handful of t-shirts and some sweatpants in there, so he pulled some on, toed on some sneakers and turned back to the guy. “Okay, ready.”
He kinda wanted to take his bow, but he had a feeling that might give away that something was up.
“I think Sam’s making pancakes,” said the guy, grinning at him.
Who the fuck was Sam? Clint gave a smile back, and hoped like hell that the pancakes would come with enough context for him to work out if he could trust these guys enough to tell them that he wasn’t the Clint they thought he was.
And maple syrup, of course. Can't have pancakes without maple syrup.
The corridors outside the room had a thick carpet, the occasional expensive-looking wall hanging and a bland lack of personality that made Clint think of some of the really posh hotels that he’d been in. They passed a couple of windows that looked out over the garden, and he spotted two tall black women standing either side of a gate, all done up in ceremonial attire.
O-kay. Seriously, where the fuck was he? And why wasn’t Bucky with him? They’d been in bed together, right, so shouldn’t they have ended up here together?
Oh man, he really hoped Bucky hadn’t ended up somewhere else, off on his own. Bucky didn't do so well on his own. He tended to start just punching everyone he met in the face until he'd got answers.
The kitchen was huge on an industrial level, but most of it had an unused look. The only part that showed signs of use was the corner with a table surrounded by six chairs in it. A guy was making pancakes on the nearest stove.
“Morning, Scott, Clint,” he said. “Coffee’s just finished.”
“You’re the best,” said the brown-haired guy, who must be Scott, heading for the coffee machine.
Clint settled down at the table, watching the easy way they interacted and the way they both ignored Clint as if he were part of the furniture, other than Scott putting a mug of coffee down for him. Clint curled his fingers around it and debated the wisdom of drinking something a stranger had given him versus trying to get through a day like this without coffee. Fuck it, there were easier ways to poison someone. He downed half the mug in one go.
“Steve been through yet?” asked Scott as Sam put a stack of pancakes on the table.
“Yeah,” said Sam, then made a face that clearly meant something to Scott. “He’s already gone off on a run.”
Scott shook his head. “Man, if I’d known there’d be this much cardio involved in being on the run from international justice, I’da stayed home.”
Sam snorted. “I don’t think anyone’s expected to keep up with Captain America’s work out routine.”
Steve was here? Also, wait, on the run from international justice? How the hell did Captain America end up in that position?
At least that meant there was someone here Clint could trust, though. Ideally, he'd want to talk to Bucky or Natasha, but Steve would do in a pinch. He couldn’t imagine any circumstances that would affect Captain America's integrity enough for him not to bend over backwards to help a guy who’d woken up in bizarro-land.
“It’s not just Steve,” said Scott, and nodded at Clint. “I tried to keep up with this guy in the gym yesterday, and it nearly killed me.”
Yesterday, the team had had a brief fight with the Mad Thinker in the morning, then had lunch with the Fantastic Four. Clint and Bucky had gone back to the Tower early in order to have some really fantastic sex, then wandered down to the range until it was time for dinner. They’d spent the evening watching Netflix before heading to bed. At no point had Clint been in a gym with this guy.
Which meant either he’d lost time somehow, or there had been another Clint here yesterday. Aw man, don’t let it be time travel, he really fucking hated trying to work that shit out. The paradoxes made his head hurt.
He didn’t want to trust these guys until Steve had turned up and vouched for them, so he played along. “Got to keep these guns in shape,” he said, flashing a bicep. “Hey, anyone got the date? I think I’ve lost track.”
“Are you kidding?” asked Sam.
“Man, please, don’t wind Steve up today,” added Scott. “You know he loses his sense of humour on the 14th of the month.”
What the fuck did that mean?
At least Clint had got that it was the 14th, which it would have been back home as well, if he'd woken up in Bucky's arms where he should be.
The door opened and Wanda came in. Clint felt a wave of relief at finally seeing a familiar face, even when she was followed in by yet another stranger, a tall, serious-looking black guy.
“Your Majesty,” said Sam, giving him a nod. Clint tried very hard to keep his reaction to that off his face. “Do you want pancakes?”
“Thank you, I’ve eaten,” the man said, as Clint tried to subtly work out if he recognised him from any of the royal families he’d had to memorise for one mission or another.
“I’ll have some,” said Wanda, sitting down. She looked tired and worn down in a way that kept Clint from asking if he could have a word with her. He trusted the Wanda he knew, but something told him he didn’t know this one. Fuck, where the hell was he?
He tried to come up with a question he could ask that would give him more information without outing him, but drew a blank.
“Anyone seen the news today?” asked Sam.
Wanda nodded. “The footage of Rhodey?”
Rhodey? Tony’s Airforce friend with the knock-off suit?
“What’s this?” asked Scott, looking up.
“There was a press conference about some AIM thing that they dealt with a couple of days ago,” said Sam. “He walked onto the stage with only a couple of sticks; no wheelchair.”
Clint kept his face hidden behind his coffee. He wondered if it was a coincidence that there had been a fight against AIM the day before yesterday for him as well.
“They think he will make a full recovery,” said the king or prince or whatever the fuck he was. Clint had a feeling he did know his face, but he couldn’t place where from. A photo somewhere, he hadn’t seen him in person.
“That’s good,” said Scott.
“Yeah,” agreed Sam.
There was a weirdly heavy atmosphere about the whole conversation. Clint wondered how Rhodey had got hurt and why Tony was doing press conferences about incidents with him rather than the other Avengers.
Steve came in then, wearing running clothes and looking about as dishevelled as he ever got. He was frowning at nothing in a way Clint hadn’t seen since the last time he and Tony had had a fight. Man, if Steve was here and Tony wasn’t, did that mean they’d had some kind of epic break-up?
“Morning, Cap,” said Scott, and got a vague nod before Steve’s eyes fixed on the royal guy.
“T’Challa,” he said. “Are your people ready?”
T’Challa. Clint’s brain finally pulled out a memory of the man, a formal photo of him wearing royal robes and standing next to his father, the king of Wakanda. Jesus fuck, were they in Wakanda? No wonder Clint hadn’t recognised it.
“The procedure is set to begin on time,” said T’Challa. “Doctor Mwangi is confident that Barnes will be revived within an hour.”
Clint jolted at the sound of Bucky’s name, then tried to hide the reaction. What the fuck? Revived? What the hell had they done to Bucky?
Any thought of talking to Steve disappeared from Clint’s head. If this lot had done something to Bucky, any version of Bucky, Clint wasn’t going to trust them an inch. He’d seen enough episodes of Star Trek to know that if you got flushed through to a mirror universe, your friends might well turn out to be an evil, leather-clad villains. Maybe that was even true for Captain America, hard as it was to believe.
“I want to see him,” said Steve.
T’Challa nodded. “I was intending to go there now. You can join me.”
“I’ll come too,” said Clint, swigging back the last of his coffee and standing up. Everyone in the room turned to stare at him.
“He isn’t for gawping at,” said Steve, sounding disapproving.
“I know,” said Clint. “I just thought an extra person would help.” Hopefully that was vague enough not to arouse any suspicion that he didn’t have the first clue what was going on.
Steve’s frown deepened. “I don’t need someone holding my hand.”
Clint raised his own hands. “No hand-holding. I promise.” Unless Bucky needed it. Clint was always up for holding Bucky’s hand.
Steve nodded. “Okay, fine,” he said, and Clint let out a slow breath of relief. If Steve had tried to keep Clint away from Bucky, he’d have had a fight on his hands. A fight that Clint would probably have lost, especially if the others pitched in on Steve’s side, but still. If Bucky was here, he needed to see him, no matter how bad it was.
They went past a couple of empty medical rooms before they got to a massive lab surrounded by plate glass, through which Clint could see numerous white-coated figures scurrying about. It wasn’t until they went inside that Clint saw what they were all gathered around.
Bucky was frozen in place, ice crystals on the glass of the pod he was in. His eyes were shut and he looked horribly pale, but that wasn’t even the worst part. The worst part was the broken-off remnant of what used to be his arm. Clint had to stifle a pained noise when he saw that. Oh god, what had they done to him?
He was still staring when one of the doctors came over. “Captain Rogers,” he said. “We’ve already begun the process. All the readings are looking good.”
Steve nodded, his mouth set in a grim line. “Good.”
Clint clenched his fists, nails biting into his palms. This wasn’t his Bucky, he told himself. It couldn’t be. Maybe this one was still under the influence of Hydra and that was why they were subjecting him to something Clint’s Bucky still had nightmares about. There had to be a reason for Steve to be part of this.
Except, of course, Clint had just woken up in bed, where presumably the Clint who belonged here had been. What if his Bucky had been caught up in whatever had brought Clint here and was now the one trapped in that awful pod?
It seemed to take a very long time for them to revive Bucky. T’Challa left after a few minutes but Steve looked set on staying so Clint kept next to him, watching as the temperature reading on the outside of the pod slowly crept higher. When the doctors judged it safe to open, they lifted Bucky out and set him on a bed, still unconscious, and Clint got a better look at the mess of his arm. Christ, it looked as if it had been hacked off.
Steve stayed standing back out of the way against a wall with his arms crossed as the doctors fussed around Bucky. Clint stayed next to him, wondering what he was hoping for when Bucky did wake up. Part of him was hoping that it would be his Bucky, but another, larger part didn’t want his Bucky to have to deal with being frozen by his best friend.
Hell, he didn’t want any Bucky to have to deal with that.
“He should wake up soon,” said the doctor, after another aeon had passed.
Steve nodded stiffly and took a step forward. Clint noticed that the doctors were starting to keep their distance from the bed now, monitoring the machines from a few steps back.
Bucky woke up with a sharp breath, every limb going tense as his eyes flew open.
“Hey, Buck, it’s okay,” said Steve, moving into his view. “You’re safe, and I’m here.”
Bucky’s eyes flickered around the room at the doctors, lingered for a brief beat on Clint, then settled on Steve. “Fucking asshole,” he gritted out. “I told you to leave me asleep.”
Okay, not Clint’s Bucky, then. Disappointment rolled through him and he took a deep breath to shove it down. That was a good thing, even if it did leave him all alone here with these strangers wearing his friends’ faces.
“Yeah, we both knew that wasn’t gonna happen,” said Steve. “The doctors have explained to you that they need to wake you up once a month to check you’re doing okay.”
Bucky made a face, but didn’t reply. He glanced around the room again, then relaxed with a sigh as the doctors moved in on him again. They started attaching more equipment to him while Bucky held still, his jaw gritted with the expression that meant he was stoically enduring something that he hated.
Clint could feel himself shaking. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck. It wasn’t his Bucky, but that didn’t make it any better. Not even hearing that this Bucky apparently wanted to be frozen helped, because what could be so shit about being awake that cryo would be better?
He couldn’t take it any longer and turned on his heel, striding out of the room before he could start screaming. Outside, he leaned back against the wall and worked on taking slow, deep breaths. Jesus, what the fuck kind of shitty world was this, and how the hell was he going to get home? He just wanted to be back with his Bucky, the one whose eyes softened whenever he looked at Clint, who had a tiny, happy smile that only slipped out when he was completely relaxed and content and that made Clint kiss him every single time.
Aw man, how did Clint already miss him so much?
Clint couldn’t bring himself to go back into the lab so he headed back towards the kitchen instead. As he passed one of the empty rooms, one that looked like some kind of staffroom, he spotted a newspaper and nipped inside to grab it. It was written in a language he assumed was Wakandan, but the date was pretty obvious. It was the same date as it would have been if he’d woken up back home this morning.
The large photo on the front page was of Tony and Rhodey, standing at lecterns at what was obviously a press conference with the Avengers logo emblazoned behind them. Behind them was a strange figure with a bright red face wearing a cloak. Clint couldn’t tell if it was a man, a robot, or some kind of alien.
Shit, this didn’t look good. If this wasn’t time travel, then it had to be some kind of dimensional bullshit, right? Where the hell were Bruce or Tony when you needed them? Hell, Clint would even take Reed Richards at this point.
The text under the photo had New York included in it. Clint wondered what the hell Tony was doing in New York while Steve was in Wakanda, apparently on a long-term basis. What had gone so wrong that those two weren’t all over each other, set on being the ultimate golden superhero couple and making everyone else a bit queasy with their heart eyes?
As much as he loved Bucky, Clint could understand a world where they weren’t together, just because they’d had to work through so much crap first. Especially if Bucky spent most of his time here in stasis, where Clint’s incredible flirting skills and sexy abs wouldn’t have an impact on him.
Steve and Tony though, that was kinda different. From what Natasha had told Clint, it had been pretty obvious to everyone in the room when they first met that they’d probably end up banging, and certainly Clint had picked up on it within a couple of hours of being around them outside of an alien invasion. How the hell did they screw up all that UST so badly that Steve had moved a whole continent away?
He took the paper with him back up to the kitchen, then sat down and tried to figure out the text, without much success. The only words he really recognised were names. He turned over the pages, but most of the other photos were clearly related to Wakandan affairs, and meant nothing to him. There was one of T’Challa cutting a ribbon on what looked like a new hospital somewhere towards the middle.
Wanda came in while he was flicking through the sports pages. “Hey,” she said, flicking him a smile. “Bored again?”
Clint shrugged. “Not much going on,” he lied, because there was a fuckton going on but he couldn't talk about any of it without giving himself away.
“Yeah,” she agreed. “Who knew I’d miss all the endless training and briefing sessions at the base?”
“Right,” agreed Clint, shutting the paper and wondering which base she was talking about.
“Do you want to help me make lunch?” asked Wanda. “There’s a Sokovian stew that I’ve been able to get most of the ingredients for.”
Clint raised an eyebrow. “It’s a bit hot for stew, isn’t it?”
She shrugged. “I though Bucky might appreciate it. Something sort of filling, you know?”
Stew was warming, thought Clint. Yeah, that made sense for a guy who’d just been frozen. He stood up. “Okay, but you’ll have to put me on easy shit. I’m not a great cook.”
“Oh, there’s lots of vegetables to be chopped,” she said, with a grin that finally started to remind him of his Wanda.
By the time Wanda was putting bread in the oven to warm, Clint had pretty much just decided to wait and see what happened, and hope like hell that the guys at his end would come up with some way to get him back. He guessed that Bucky was probably freaking out and could be relied on to stand over Tony looking threatening until he built a wormhole device or whatever.
“Man, that smells good,” he said, leaning over the pot.
Wanda smiled. “Yes. It was always a favourite of ours when we were children.”
“I’m guessing Pietro wasn’t trusted with doing the chopping,” said Clint, because Pietro was fast but he was pretty slapdash, and Clint could imagine fingers going flying.
Wanda’s whole body stiffened and her jaw clenched. “He was fine,” she said shortly, and turned away.
Clint blinked at her, trying to parse that reaction. Had something happened to the Pietro here? Clint hadn’t seen or heard any sign of him, now that he thought about it.
Aw man, Clint didn’t want to be in a world where Pietro wasn’t around to drive him up the wall.
Steve came in with Bucky hovering behind him, shoulders hunched over in a way Clint hadn’t seen in his Bucky since his first few weeks at the Tower. Clearly being kept cryogenically frozen wasn’t doing his mental state much good. Who'da guessed it?
“Hello,” said Wanda. “How are you feeling?”
Bucky gave an awkward shrug. “Fine.”
That was definitely bullshit, but instead of pointing that out, Clint said, “We’re making stew for lunch. Well, Wanda made it and I got in her way.”
“You weren’t that bad,” said Wanda. “At times, you were almost helpful.”
Steve had spotted the newspaper on the table. He stared down at the photo of Tony and Rhodey for a long moment, then picked it up, crumpled it into a ball, and threw it at the bin with a hard thump.
There was an awkward-feeling pause that Clint didn’t know how to break. Wanda sent him a look that would probably have been meaningful if he had the faintest fucking clue what was going on.
“Do you want a drink?” Steve asked Bucky, who just gave a shrug in response.
“Sure,” he said. Steve pulled out a couple of sodas as Sam and Scott came in.
“Oh man, that smells good,” said Scott, heading over to the stove.
Wanda held a spoon out in his direction as if preparing to hit him. “No touching. Lay the table.”
Scott held up his hands defensively and turned to open a drawer and pull out cutlery.
Clint kept quiet and observed as the table was laid and Wanda dished up for everyone. The mood was subdued but it was clear everyone here was used to each other, and they’d lived here for at least a few months. Bucky didn’t say a word, holding back until everyone else was seated before slipping into a chair, keeping his eyes on them more than his food. Steve kept close next to him, trying to strike up a conversation but not getting very far.
“You got tests this afternoon?” Sam asked him, during a lull.
Bucky gave a shrug, glancing at Steve.
“I think they want to do another brain scan, but that shouldn’t take long,” said Steve. “I was thinking we could head outside, take a stroll around the gardens.”
“Ooh,” said Scott, “I finally managed to get hold of a frisbee, if you’re up for it?”
Steve sent him a glare. “If you break a window, you’ll be the one who has to explain it to the Dora Milaje.”
Scott rolled his eyes. “C’mon, look around the table. We’ve got a couple of guys with crazy good aim and a woman who can create force fields. The windows will be fine.”
“Not now you’ve said that, they won’t,” said Sam. “Talk about tempting fate.”
Scott sent Clint a significant look, along with a raised eyebrow. Ah crap, was this something he should be in on?
“Nah, he’s right,” said Clint, glancing over at Bucky and hoping he was getting this right. “Sniper bros, right, Bucky? Nothing’s gonna get smashed that we don’t mean to smash.”
Bucky moved fast, standing up and pulling a gun out to point straight at Clint. “Who are you, and where’s Clint?”
Clint froze in his seat as the others all jumped up as well.
“Bucky, stand down!” said Steve, reaching for the gun, but Bucky twitched it away from him, stepping back.
“No way. Are you all blind? This ain’t Barton, Steve,” he said. “Look at the way he holds himself! Not to mention he just called me Bucky, and he’s been acting weird.”
Steve glanced back at Clint, who held his hands up, palms outwards. Shit, what did he do now?
The others were all staring at him as well.
“He didn’t go for a run after breakfast, like he always does,” said Scott, slowly.
A red glow appeared around Wanda’s hands and she took a step towards Clint that made him scrape his chair back, away from her.
“Keep out of my head,” he snapped, and then could have kicked himself.
“Who are you?” Steve demanded.
Clint sighed. “I’m Clint Barton,” he said. “Just, uh, not the right one for this world. I woke up here this morning, instead of the Tower.”
“The Tower?” repeated Scott. “Stark’s Tower?”
“Shit,” said Sam. “Is this some kind of trap?”
“If he’s on Tony’s side, we need to get him locked up,” said Wanda. “We can’t risk him reporting back to him.”
“Tony’s side?” repeated Clint. “I don’t know what you mean. I’m serious. Last night, I went to bed as normal, in my room at Avengers Tower, then this morning I woke up here.”
Bucky snorted. “And just kept your mouth shut and played along at being the right Barton? Bullshit.”
Steve gave Clint a very narrow-eyed look. “Before Ultron, Tony was working on making facsimiles of people. Life Model Decoys, he called them.”
“Oh, hey, no,” said Clint. “I swear, I’m not anything like that. I’m just me. And what the hell is going on with you and Tony anyway, that you think he’d be sending in android spies or whatever? I mean, he’s kinda nuts but he’s not a bad guy.”
“Not a bad guy,” repeated Steve, and then gestured at Bucky’s broken off arm. “That look like the work of someone who’s not a bad guy?”
Clint stared at the stump, then lifted his eyes to Bucky’s face, feeling sick. “Tony did that?” He shook his head. “What the hell happened here?”
“Quit fishing for info,” said Bucky. “Steve, we need to get him locked up where he can’t communicate with Stark.”
“Sam, find T’Challa and ask him if we can borrow a cell,” ordered Steve.
Sam nodded and dashed off.
“Aw, come on,” said Clint, raising a hand to rub over his hair and then carefully dropping it again when Bucky tightened his grip on his gun. “I may not be your Clint, but I am a Clint. There’s no need for all this.”
“Where is our Barton?” growled Bucky. “If you’ve hurt him-”
He cut himself off and gritted his teeth together.
“I’m guessing he’s back where I’m from,” said Clint. “Woke up in my bed like I woke up in his. Which probably raised some questions, given that he wouldn’t have been alone.”
“Okay, sorry, can we just backtrack?” asked Scott. “You’re saying you’re from, what? Another dimension or some shit?”
Clint shrugged. “As far as I can tell. I mean, I’m not exactly the science kind of guy, but apparently Tony’s not available.” He perked up. “Oh hey, is Bruce around somewhere? Or, shit, I’d even take Reed Richards.”
Steve shook his head. “I don’t know who that is, and no one knows where Bruce is. You must know that.”
“I really don’t,” said Clint, his shoulders slumping.
Steve frowned at him, then glanced at Wanda. “Can you tell if he’s telling the truth or not?”
“It would take time,” she said. “If he is some kind of duplicate, he’s a good one. I’ll need to get right inside his brain.”
Clint shivered. “Aw man,” he said, miserably. He hated having people inside his brain.
Sam came back with T’Challa and two of the guard women. The gun in Bucky’s hand disappeared as completely as it had appeared before they could see it, but Clint didn’t bother thinking that meant he’d be able to escape from this.
T’Challa looked Clint over and Clint tried out a smile, but it felt pretty weak. “You say he is an imposter,” he said to Steve.
“He claims he’s from another dimension,” said Steve. “We think he might be from Stark.”
“Seriously,” said Clint, “what the hell happened with Ton-?”
One of the women levelled her spear at him. “Silence!”
Clint shut up.
“Come with us,” said the other woman, and he stood up, glancing over at Steve.
“Steve, man, I swear, I’m not a threat,” he tried. Steve’s forehead creased into a frown, and he nodded at the women, who escorted Clint out.
Okay, so this looked bad. How had he managed to fuck things up so badly that he was being imprisoned by people who should be his friends?
And why the fuck were they so paranoid about Tony? The guy was kind of an ass at times, but there was no way he’d be going after other Avengers with super secret spy bots or whatever.
Or, at least, the Tony Clint knew wouldn’t. Given that this Bucky was willingly going into deep freeze, this Steve was okay with locking up his friends without giving them the benefit of the doubt, and this Wanda was probably going to end up digging through Clint’s psyche, maybe this Tony had a whole army of lookalike droids that he used for evil. And hacking off Bucky’s arm apparently, which, what the fuck?
The cell Clint got led to was nicer than the piss-stained police lock-ups he’d got far too used to in his youth, but still undeniably a cell. He sat down on the bunk and put his head in his hands.
Fuck, he really hoped the people in his universe were able to come up with a way to rescue him, because it didn’t look like he was getting back any other way.
Clint woke up in a flail of limbs, feeling as if he’d been thrown through a wall. Instead of being tucked up in bed with the strange sounds of the Wakandan jungle outside his window, he was sprawled on the floor next to a sofa wearing full tactical gear.
“Holy shit man, you okay?” asked a young-looking blond guy, crouching over him.
Clint struggled to sit up and found he was in a lab that contained enough equipment to make him think of Tony’s workshop. “Where the fuck am I?” he asked, glancing around.
A woman was picking herself up off the floor while another man bent over a machine, frowning and muttering to himself. They were all wearing matching blue catsuits, which Clint was going to put to one side and process later, because what the fuck?
“You’re at the Baxter Building,” said the young guy. “We were having a beer, do you remember? We took out the Mad Thinker.”
Clint stared at him. “The Mad Thinker? What the fuck kinda name is that?”
The woman bent over Clint with a frown. “Your hair has changed,” she said slowly, then searched over his face before glancing back at the guy bent over the machine. “Reed, this isn’t the same Hawkeye. He didn’t have that tan earlier. What the hell did that machine do?”
“What the fuck do you mean I’m not the same Hawkeye?” asked Clint, standing up. “I feel pretty much the same.”
“The Hawkeye we were just sharing a beer with had shorter hair, a bruise forming, and knew who we were,” said the woman. “And he didn’t look like he’d spent much time outdoors for months. Your nose is peeling.”
Clint rubbed at his nose. He never seemed to manage to put enough sunblock on to defeat the African sun.
A roughly human-shaped pile of rocks that Clint had assumed was some kind of sculpture took a step forward and made him jump. “He looked tireder too,” it said, then snorted. “Yeah, and he’d got past the staring blankly at me thing ages ago. Hi, I’m Ben. No, I ain’t a sodding rockery.”
Reed came over from his machine to stare at Clint. “Fascinating,” he murmured to himself. He glanced back at the machine. “I think the Mad Thinker might have rigged that up to my multi-verse detector as a booby trap. It must have sent out a burst of inter-dimensional energy that sent Hawkeye through to another dimension.”
“Another dimension?” repeated Clint. This was just the kind of crap he’d thought he’d be able to avoid in Wakanda. Apparently, he'd needed to make sure that all the other Clints in parallel universes avoided it as well. Some hope of that.
Reed nodded, turning back to the machine. “Absolutely fascinating,” he said again.
The machine let out a beeping noise and everyone flinched.
“Duck!” shouted the young guy and everyone, including Clint, threw themselves down as a burst of green light exploded out. It missed everyone.
“Fer the love of God, Reed, wouldja just pull the damn cord on that thing?” bellowed Ben.
Reed reached out with his arm and it stretched obscenely, until it was several metres long and able to reach the wall socket. Clint felt kinda sick watching it. Right, okay, so these guys were super-powered, which probably explained the catsuits.
Well, not completely. Any sensible superhero went for body armour over a glorified leotard, right?
The machine was unplugged and it powered down with a little whine, and everyone relaxed.
“Fucking hell,” said the young guy. “And I thought we were gonna get to bed some time soon.”
“You still can, Johnny,” said Reed.
“It ain’t like you do a hell of a lot of the science stuff,” added Ben.
Clint let out a sigh and sat down on the sofa. “Let me guess, I’m gonna have to be scanned and poked and prodded and all that? Fuck.” He glanced around at the room again. “Anyone going to at least tell me who you guys are and if I should trust you? Cuz, no offence, but this could be some huge set up.”
“We’re the Fantastic Four,” said the woman, then winced at the look he gave her. “Yes, I know, that one’s Johnny’s fault.”
“Ah, shut up, Sue, it’s a great name,” said Johnny. “Better than The Avengers anyway - who the fuck are they even avenging? It sounds like some kind of weird Christian cult. The kind with enough weaponry to form a militia buried in a corn field.”
Clint rolled his eyes. “At least we don’t sound like a kids cartoon.”
“So you’re in The Avengers in your world as well?” asked Sue.
Clint hesitated. As far as he was concerned, he was, but he had a feeling that the UN wouldn’t agree. Still, the majority of people who had been Avengers were with him in Wakanda, so didn’t that make them more The Avengers than Tony, Rhodey and Vision? Especially with Rhodey benched for the foreseeable future?
“Sure,” he said, not wanting to go into all that. “Along with all the cool kids.”
“But you don’t have us in your world,” said Sue, thoughtfully.
“Maybe their Reed is better at tracking cosmic radiation,” muttered Johnny, which earned him glares from both Reed and Sue.
“If you don’t want to trust Reed, we could call Tony Stark and get him to come over and help?” said Sue. “Uh, if he’s an Avenger in your world, that is.”
Great, so Clint either trusted a stranger or Tony fucking Stark. Just because it wasn’t the same Tony fucking Stark as the one that had stabbed him and the others in the back didn’t mean Clint was any more eager to put himself in his hands. “Nah, it’s cool,” he said. “If you were bad guys you’d probably have better outfits, right?”
“And now you’re having a go at our suits?” asked Johnny. “The guy who was wearing purple sweatpants this morning?”
“That wasn’t me,” Clint reminded him without bothering to mention that, before he’d gone on the run and left all his belongings behind, he’d owned three pairs of purple sweatpants.
He missed those sweatpants. They’d been comfy as fuck.
“Hey, before we get started with all the science shit, can I get some coffee?” he asked. “I’m on African time, so it’s first thing in the morning for me.”
“African time?” asked Johnny. “Oh man, we didn’t dump our Clint in the middle of a mission, did we? He was pretty beat.”
“Nah,” said Clint. “We were just chilling out. Sort of a diplomatic visit kinda thing.”
Which was complete bullshit, but Clint wasn’t getting into the mess they’d made in his world. He had a feeling he’d end up feeling pretty silly if he tried to justify the fact that they’d all just whaled on each other until an airport was destroyed and Rhodey’s spine was fractured.
“I need to get some equipment set up anyway,” said Reed, looking around at his lab with a frown.
“We’ll get you coffee,” said Sue. “Maybe even some food, if you’re lucky.”
“And if Johnny hasn’t eaten the kitchen out again,” added Ben.
“What can I say?” asked Johnny. “I guess I just burn through the calories.”
For some reason, that made Ben growl and roll his eyes. Clint had a feeling he’d missed an in-joke.
It figured that he’d get whisked away from home on the 14th of the month, on the one day that Barnes was around to add a slight trace of excitement to the otherwise horribly samey monotony of life hanging out in the Wakandan palace. Not that Barnes did much, mostly he just stood in the background and glowered at people, but Clint and Scott had hatched a plan to get him outside and playing frisbee this month. Clint had a feeling that just hanging out and doing something a bit normal might relax the guy a bit, and also he kinda wanted to be able to put ‘Survived Playing Frisbee With The Winter Soldier’ on his resume.
That was going to have to wait until next month now. Clint was more disappointed by that than he’d have figured. If he didn’t think Barnes was already getting enough nagging about it from Steve, he might have had a go at trying to convince him to stay awake longer. They’d only really managed a handful of brief chats, but they were enough to make Clint think they had things in common and would get on, if Barnes would just relax a bit.
Plus, he was kinda easy on the eyes. Clint wasn’t gonna fuck up by making a move on a guy who was so obviously not in a good headspace for it, but it was nice to have some eye-candy around, right?
He wondered where the Barnes in this world was. Had he got away from Hydra? Did Steve and the other Avengers here know who he was yet? Did Tony know he'd killed his parents?
“Oh, that is fascinating,” said Reed, glancing up. “Your radiation readings are like nothing I’ve seen before. You’re emitting a completely different type of radiation to people from this universe.”
“Um. Okay,” said Clint. “That’s not gonna mutate me into some weird-ass thing, is it?”
“Oh no,” said Reed. “It’s completely harmless.”
Clint did his best to find that reassuring. “Okay,” he said. “Hey, you got a tablet or a laptop or anything? I kinda want to Google some stuff and find out what this world is like.”
“Oh, sure,” said Reed, turning away from his screen and frowning around the lab. “I think I left one in the kitchen.”
“Cool,” said Clint.
He made himself more coffee while he was out there, as well as a cup for Reed to ignore, then settled on the sofa in the lab with Google.
The first couple of searches came up with various articles about the Avengers fighting either aliens or bad guys, and nothing at all about them fighting each other, so he let himself relax slightly then settled in to work out exactly how things were different. There was no mention of Wanda, Sam or Vision, and it looked as if the team’s line-up hadn’t changed since the Battle of New York, although not everyone was in the photos for every incident.
Clint couldn’t help noticing that it took a few months for the other Clint to show up fighting alongside the team again after the shots of him shooting at Chitauri. He wondered if he’d had to deal with all the counselling and other bullshit that Clint had thought he'd have to go through before Steve and Tony had cornered Fury and made him sign off on Clint getting back to active duty.
All the photos of the team were from incidents or official Avengers events. There weren’t any shots of them just hanging out with each other. Clint could remember the first time he’d gone out to a bar with Tony and Bruce on a bit of a whim after he’d dropped by to look at some arrows Tony had made for him. They’d been tracked by paparazzi from pretty much the moment they’d left the Tower, while Tony gave them a smile and a wave, Bruce tried not to obviously cower, and Clint ruefully thought that his days of being able to go undercover were fast running out.
Apparently, that hadn’t happened here, and neither had any of the other nights out and meals together that they'd had over the years. It didn’t look as if the mess in DC over Project Insight had happened either, or Sokovia and Ultron. There was no mention of anything like the Accords, even though it turned out that this world didn’t just have the Avengers and the Fantastic Four, but also another superhero group called the X-Men, and a couple of loner types wearing increasingly ridiculous costumes.
Clint was beginning to wonder if maybe he should have spent some time going over his fashion options before settling on black tactical gear. Man, he’d missed out on a world of epic purple shit, and maybe even a mask, like the Lone Ranger or Zorro or someone totally cool like that.
Nat would probably have mocked him for that, but it might have been worth it.
A couple of hours passed. Nothing much happened and Clint ran out of shit to Google and ended up reading Buzzfeed articles while Reed dismantled the machine that had caused this whole mess, took a few more readings from Clint, built a whole new machine that took yet another set of readings, then spent nearly an hour hunched over a screen making quiet humming noises to himself.
God, Clint did not get scientists at all.
It was past dawn and his stomach was beginning to remind Clint that it was lunch time in Wakanda when Reed finally emerged from his science fugue.
“I am going to have to call in Stark, and Banner as well. Ideally, I’d get Jane Foster on it but I think she’s still in England.”
“Great,” said Clint, trying to hide his reaction to trusting Tony fucking Stark with this.
At least Bruce would be keeping an eye on him. Clint always got along with Bruce, and had respected his decision to just get the hell out of the superhero game and go into hiding instead. Apparently, he hadn't done that here, possibly because the mess in Johannesburg hadn't happened.
It might actually be interesting to see how similar or different the Bruce and Tony here were to the ones Clint knew. And maybe he could somehow steer this Tony to think rationally before locking up half his friends and trying to kill the other half.
Yeah, okay, maybe that was having too much confidence in Clint's ability to manipulate people. He wasn't Natasha.
Reed stood up and stretched, which involved his whole body elongating out and then relaxing back. Seriously, such a fucked up power. “I suppose we could have breakfast while we wait for them,” he said, not sounding as if he had any enthusiasm for the idea.
“I can make eggs, if you’ve got them,” offered Clint, trying not to leap up too obviously at the idea of getting to eat.
“Uh,” said Reed, staring blankly in the direction of the kitchen. “We might?”
Fucking scientists, seriously.
“Stark and Banner are coming over,” Reed told them, and Johnny groaned.
“Oh god, it’s way too early to have to deal with Tony Stark.”
“So go back to bed,” said Ben. “Ain’t like you don’t sleep away the morning most days.”
“And miss out on all the excitement of an inter-dimensional traveller?” said Johnny. “No chance. I’m still waiting for him to turn out to be secretly evil, or from a world run by mice, or something. Hey,” he said, looking at Clint, “do you guys have dinosaurs?”
“Oh, sure,” said Clint, and all four turned to stare at him. “They all live on an island off Costa Rica called Jurassic Park.”
Johnny deflated again. “No fair teasing me with exciting possibilities, man.”
Clint gave him an unrepentant grin. “I’m trapped in another dimension, I’ve gotta make my fun somewhere.”
Tony and Bruce turned up earlier than Clint was prepared for.
“Oh man, it’s an inter-dimensional Barton,” said Tony with excitement, coming over to look Clint over like a museum exhibit.
Clint scowled at him. “Oh man, it’s a god-damned Tony Stark.”
Tony raised his eyebrows. “O-kay, and he’s grumpier than our one. And our one is pretty grumpy.”
Clint bit his tongue on a response to that, because this wasn’t actually the Tony Stark that had locked him up and driven him into exile and generally been a prick.
Which didn’t mean he wouldn’t be, given a chance. Just because that shit hadn’t happened here yet, didn’t mean it hadn’t just been delayed for one reason or another.
“Hey, are you working on a super-powerful AI in your spare time?” asked Clint. “Meant to be the ultimate peace-keeping thing?”
Tony froze as Bruce glanced over at him. “Um,” he said. “Nope. No way, that would-”
“Do us all a favour,” interrupted Clint. “Delete the whole damn thing.”
Tony swayed back on his heels. “Ah, okay, so there’s a flaw?”
“I’ll say,” said Clint. “It tried to destroy the world. Killed hundreds of people, including my friend’s brother.” He hadn’t really known Pietro long enough to claim him as a friend, although he had a feeling they would have been.
Tony blinked, and Clint could see the wheels starting to turn. “Right, okay, yeah, definitely want to avoid that, then.”
“And don’t just say you’ll delete it and then start fiddling with the code instead,” added Clint. “Delete the damn thing. You’ll regret it if you don’t.” He glanced over at Bruce. “Hey, you’re the sensible scientist, right? Or, at least, the most sensible scientist, it’s not a high bar. You should make sure he does it.”
“Okay,” said Bruce, nodding and then looking at Tony again. “I mean, I don’t know about sensible, but I reckon I can acknowledge a warning from someone who’s lived through the consequences.”
“Awesome,” said Clint. He could rely on Bruce to curb Tony’s megalomaniac tendencies. One terrifyingly bad science decision had been enough for him to learn the lesson, unlike Tony, who just kept making the same stupid mistakes.
Okay, so Clint was definitely taking his rage at his Tony out on this one. Screw it, maturity had never been his strong point.
Reed cleared his throat. “Banner, can I show you the readings I got? You’ve got more experience with radiation than I do.”
“Oh, sure,” said Bruce, and all three of them disappeared into Reed’s lab.
“So, have you got any other cryptic warnings?” asked Johnny. “Like, ‘make sure Johnny gets to go to Vegas whenever he wants’ or something?”
Clint rolled his eyes. “I don’t know you guys back in my world,” he reminded him. “For all I know, you going to Vegas ends with an ill-advised tattoo and an STI.”
“That’s pretty much what I’d guess,” agreed Ben. “Probably more than one STI, though.”
“Ah, go blow a goat,” muttered Johnny.
Johnny had a point, though. If all the stuff with Hydra and Insight hadn’t happened here yet, that meant SHIELD might be riddled with Hydra double agents just waiting for their chance to take over. Clint should probably give someone a heads up about that, and maybe also about the whole ‘Bucky Barnes is alive and brainwashed’ thing.
“Hey, anyone know if Natasha is around?” he asked.
Johnny shrugged and glanced at Sue, who shook her head. “We don’t really keep track of you guys, sorry.”
Clint was just contemplating whether he cared enough about Hydra to have to go talk to Tony and Bruce while they were in the middle of science, when a phone began to ring. Everyone looked at him, and he realised it was coming from his pants.
“Ah crap,” he said, fumbling to pull the phone out and then staring at the caller ID.
“Who the hell is Simone?”
“No idea,” said Johnny.
Clint sighed and answered it. “Uh, hi?”
“Morning, Clint,” said a cheerful-sounding woman’s voice. “I just wondered if you know how much longer you wanted me to keep an eye on Lucky? It’s no bother, the boys love him.”
“Um,” said Clint. “I think I’m gonna be a bit longer. Probably most of today?” Who even knew how long it would take for this mess to be sorted out? He thought about the look on Reed’s face as he’d gone through the data earlier. “Maybe not until tomorrow.”
“Okay, no problem,” she said. “We’ll keep him here today. It’s a nice day, we’ll go out to the park.”
“Sounds good,” said Clint, realising that he hadn’t actually seen out a window the whole time he’d been here. For all he knew, ‘good weather’ in this dimension came with a purple sky.
Probably not, but it would be super cool if it did.
“Just let me know when it looks like you’re going to be finished,” said the woman.
“Sure thing,” said Clint, assuming the other Clint would know to call her when he got back. “Thanks.”
“No problem,” she said, and rang off.
Clint looked around at the others. “Okay, who’s Lucky?”
There were shrugs. Watching Ben shrug was like watching pebbles shifting on a beach, and oddly hypnotic.
“Sounds like a stripper,” said Ben.
Clint rolled his eyes. “I really doubt that the other Clint has a stripper at home that needs looking after by a friend when he’s away for a day or two.”
“If he did, I’d need to find an excuse to go visit,” said Johnny.
“It sounds like a pet rather than a child,” said Sue. “Unless it’s a child with a pretty unfortunate nickname, which I wouldn’t put past Barton. He’s got an odd sense of humour.”
“He mentioned taking out a dog earlier,” said Johnny. “I thought he was kidding.”
A dog. Clint would love to have a dog.
Oh man, this Clint had a dog. That was completely unfair. Not only was he not an international criminal, but he also got a dog? There had to be some kind of inter-dimensional tribunal of fairness that Clint could complain to.
Would T’Challa let Clint get a dog when he got back to Wakanda? Probably not, with all the cat-related stuff going on there.
“I guess if I get stuck here for too long, I’ll probably have to head back and do something with it,” he said. Something like give it a long petting and tell it what a good dog it was.
He headed back towards the lab, where he found Tony taking apart the weird machine thing and Reed and Bruce bent over a computer screen.
“Hey,” he said.
Bruce looked up at him. “Your readings are fascinating.”
“Um. Thanks?” said Clint. “So, other Clint has a dog?”
“No idea,” said Bruce with a shrug. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you -sorry, the other Barton- talk about anything outside of the Avengers.”
“He's had it a couple of months,” said Tony. “Yellow mutt thing, one eye, no one’s really meant to know about except for Natasha but I’m a nosy asshole with awesome hacking skills.”
Clint sighed. “Aw, man,” he said. “Why didn’t I get a dog?” He glared at Tony, who held up both hands defensively.
“Not my fault. I mean, definitely not my fault, probably not the fault of any Tony Stark.”
Clint let his shoulders slump. “Yeah, yeah, okay,” he said. “Hey, speaking of Nat, is she around somewhere? There’s a couple of things I want to chat to her about.”
Tony shrugged and glanced at Bruce.
“I think she’s on a mission,” said Bruce. “She didn’t come along to the AIM thing yesterday, usually that means she’s on a mission.”
“Right,” said Clint. Natasha was pretty much the only person he’d trust in every dimension. Who else could he talk to Hydra about without risking that they were a double agent?
Oh right, of course.
“Steve’s around,” said Bruce.
“He’s probably standing to attention in his room, awaiting the call to arms,” said Tony. “If he even gets a room at SHIELD, and they don’t just keep him in a case like a life-size GI Joe.”
That brought up an image of Barnes in his cryogenic stasis pod that made Clint send another glare at Tony.
“Okay,” said Tony, blinking, “you really don’t like me. What the hell did other me do with that AI?”
Clint shook his head. “Wasn’t just that.” He looked back at Bruce before Tony could ask any further questions, because he was fucked if he was going to talk about it. “Your Steve lives on base?”
“Yeah,” said Bruce. “They offered him an apartment, but he said he preferred to just stay there. I don’t think he’s much of a fan of modern life.”
“I don’t think Cap’s much of a fan of anything,” muttered Tony.
Bruce gave a long-suffering sigh. “He’s having trouble adjusting,” he said, diplomatically.
Clint frowned. “How long ago did he defrost? Ours was pretty much adjusted within six months.”
Bruce and Tony exchanged looks. “Four years,” said Bruce.
Huh. So this Steve was living on base, probably surrounded by guys who were HYDRA agents, and this Tony was still at the level of bitching about him the whole time.
“You know, in my world, you and Steve were best friends,” he said to Tony as he pulled the other Clint’s phone back out and scrolled through the contacts. “Used to hang out all the time. Tony took it on himself to introduce Steve to a bunch of modern stuff.”
Tony blinked. “Wait, what?” he said, and then, “Hang on, were? What happened?”
Clint shrugged. “You’re an asshole.” He finally found Steve, not under ‘Steve’ or ‘Cap’ or even ‘Man With A Plan’ but under ‘Rogers’.
“Well, yeah,” said Tony, “but it’s not like I keep that a secret. And definitely not from Cap.”
Clint hit dial and turned away from him before he could give in to the urge to just throw something at his smug, irritating face.
“Rogers,” replied Steve after less than three rings.
“Hey, it’s Clint,” said Clint automatically, and then realised that was a bit misleading. “Well, no, okay, it’s not the Clint you know, but it’s a Clint.”
“Hawkeye?” asked Steve, and then, “What are you talking about?”
“Uh, hi, I’m a version of Clint Barton from another dimension,” said Clint. “I kinda need to talk to you.”
There was a very long sigh. “I’m not in the mood for games, Barton.”
“Me neither,” agreed Clint. “I’m not kidding, Steve. I’m at the Baxter Building. Apparently Reed Richards had some kind of science malfunction, I didn’t really get all the details-”
“It was not my fault,” said Reed, huffily.
“Tony and Bruce are here if you want to double-check with them,” said Clint.
There was silence on the line for a moment. “No, I believe you,” said Steve, slowly. “You sound different. I think the only person our Barton calls by their first name is Black Widow.”
“Natasha is the best,” agreed Clint. “Apparently she’s on a mission though, so you’re gonna have to be second best. I’ve got some stuff you should probably know.”
“I’m on my way,” said Steve.
“Awesome,” said Clint. “Do me a favour, don’t tell anyone at SHIELD where you’re going or why.”
He hung up without waiting for a response to find Tony and Bruce looking at him.
“Is there a problem at SHIELD?” asked Bruce.
Clint shrugged. “No idea.” After all, maybe this world had managed to avoid letting Hydra infiltrate every single level of the intelligence community. Or maybe it was worse here and they’d managed to infiltrate the superhero teams as well, which was why he was only going to talk to Steve about it. If Captain America couldn’t be trusted to fight Hydra, then this universe was way more screwed than Clint would be able to fix.
Clint didn’t get to sleep until nearly dawn. Once Reed Richards had come over to join Stark and Banner, he'd spent several more hours being tested and fussed over in the lab. Natasha and Cap went back to bed but Barnes stayed exactly where he was, silently staring at Clint with a blank look that was barely better than the glower he’d had earlier.
Clint went through the other side of exhausted to the point where everything seemed to be happening through a fog, and he just followed the scientists’ instructions and thought about how nice it would be to put his head down and close his eyes, just for a moment.
It was Barnes who eventually came to his rescue. “Stop,” he said, stepping forward as Stark started to wheel out yet another bleepy machine that measured...something. Clint had stopped caring two hours ago. “When did you last sleep?” he asked Clint, accusingly.
Clint shrugged a shoulder. “Last night?” he tried.
Barnes snorted. “No way. I know that look. It’s been at least 48 hours since you got more than an hour or two.”
“Okay, so I didn’t get a lot last night.”
Barnes turned his glare on the scientists. “He’s going to sleep now.”
“But,” started Stark, then deflated in the face of Barnes’s glare. “Yeah, okay, fine.” Clint was pretty impressed. He had to work out how to replicate that effect for the next time his Stark got too...Stark.
“We’ve got enough data to be going on with,” said Banner. Richards didn’t even seem to have heard.
Barnes jerked his head towards the door. Clint took a moment to debate the relative merits of having to stay up being tested for a minute longer versus heading off with a known killer, and stood up.
“I’m guessing there’s a spare room somewhere in this place,” he said.
Barnes snorted. “There’s about eighty. Only about ten percent are made up like some kind of themed brothel.”
“Screw you, they’re classy as fuck,” said Stark without looking up from the screen.
“Okay, now I kinda want to see them,” said Clint as he followed Barnes out.
“No, you don’t,” said Barnes, flatly.
Clint was too tired to argue. Barnes took him to a spare room decorated in completely neutral tones and Clint barely managed to toe off the other Clint’s sneakers before he fell face first into the bed and let himself finally fall into sleep.
Or a light switch. The room was dim in an artificial way that made him think it was still some time during the day, hopefully not too late. He didn’t really want to have slept through the whole experience of being in another dimension.
As his brain came back online, he realised that of course there wasn’t anything as old-fashioned as a light switch in Tony Stark’s house.
“Lights?” he asked, cautiously.
They came up gradually, revealing that at some point someone had come in and put a stack of clothes on the chair next to the bed. Christ, had Clint slept through a stranger coming in while he was passed out and vulnerable? Some secret agent he was.
The bedroom had an en-suite, so he had a piss and splashed water on his face, hoping it would wake him up. It didn’t help as much as he wanted it to.
There was a new toothbrush and toothpaste, so he took advantage of them, then went back into the bedroom and changed into the clean clothes.
“Sergeant Barnes asked me to tell you to come up to the communal kitchen once you were awake,” said JARVIS, making Clint jump. “Agent Romanov is also present.”
“Right,” said Clint. “Okay.” Where the fuck was the communal kitchen? “Hey, JARVIS, can you tell me the time?”
“It’s currently 12.17 pm,” said JARVIS.
So, he’d had about eight hours sleep. That should have been fine, why did he still feel like crap? Well, except that he’d had a serious sleep debt by the time he got to bed.
“Sergeant Barnes wishes you to know that he’s putting coffee on,” said JARVIS, and Clint felt his whole body perk up at the idea.
“Okay, awesome. Uh, which way do I go?”
“If you turn left out of this room and head to the end of the corridor, there is an elevator that will take you straight up,” said JARVIS.
Clint followed his directions and found himself in a lounge he recognised from his Stark’s tower, the one with a huge window looking out over the city. This was where they’d finally cornered Loki.
He found the kitchen by following the smell of coffee. Natasha was sat at a table large enough for ten people while Barnes was leaning against a counter, arms crossed and still scowling. When he saw Clint, he turned away to grab a mug and pour him coffee.
“Thanks, man,” said Clint, taking a grateful sip that became more of a mouth-burningly hot gulp. He slumped at the table next to Natasha.
Barnes gave a shrug. “I figured you’d have the same relationship with coffee that my Clint does.”
“It’s the best thing in my life,” agreed Clint, taking another blissful sip.
Natasha watched him with an assessing look that Clint knew all too well. He returned it with a twitch of his eyebrow.
“Budapest,” she said.
“Nightmare of epic proportions,” said Clint, promptly.
She nodded. “Barcelona.”
“Totally not my fault,” said Clint, and got the same disbelieving snort that his Natasha would have given.
“Had it coming, and more besides.” She gave him a meaningful look. “Maybe the thing with the talcum powder was a step too far,” he admitted.
She nodded, then hesitated before the next one. “Bobbi Morse.”
Clint clenched his jaw, then shrugged one shoulder. “I can’t really sum that one up in one sentence. I’m guessing it was just as much of a trainwreck here as it was for me.”
“Trainwreck is definitely one word for it,” agreed Natasha. “Did you manage longer than eight months?”
Clint slumped down and focused on his coffee. “Nope.” Did knowing that his marriage had crashed and burned just as badly in this dimension make him feel better about it? Not really.
Barnes shifted his weight against the counter but didn’t say anything.
Natasha tapped her fingers on the side of her mug. “It seems most things are the same between our dimensions, then.”
Clint nodded. “Unless you’re about to tell me you’ve got zombies or vampires, or the President is a pot plant or something.”
“Nah, nothing that exciting,” said Barnes. “Well, I mean, you have the unicorn infestation as well, right?”
“Oh sure,” said Clint. “Damn things get everywhere.”
Natasha leaned forward in a way that Clint instantly distrusted. “The Battle of New York,” she said, softly.
Clint pressed his lips together and looked down at his coffee. “Worse than Budapest.”
“You were compromised,” she said, and it wasn’t a question.
This was the very last thing Clint wanted to talk about. Maybe if he just got it out quickly, like tearing off a band-aid. “Yep. Then my Natasha knocked me out, we all fought aliens, and eventually Stark pulled off a crazy hero moment and we all got to go home.”
Or to a SHIELD medical facility, but Clint spent almost enough time in those to count them as a second home now.
“After the shawarma,” said Natasha, nodding in agreement.
Clint blinked at her. “What? What shawarma?”
“You didn’t go for shawarma after the battle?” she asked.
He stared at her. “Wait, what? Half the city was in ruins, you were all beaten to hell, Stark nearly asphyxiated in outer space and then fell a few hundred feet, and then you went for take out?”
“We ate in,” said Natasha, as if that helped at all. “Tony got one of his fixations on it, you know how he is.”
Clint didn’t really know how he was, not the way the team here seemed to. “So, hang on,” he said. “Our dimensions were basically the same, then you guys went for dinner while we did the sensible thing and just went home, and that ended with everyone living together and half the team getting off with each other?” He considered that. “Huh.”
“Who’da thought one of Tony’s ideas would work out for the best?” said Barnes.
There was a pause as all three of them ran that through their minds.
“Must have been a fluke,” concluded Natasha.
Footsteps pounded outside and a man skidded into the kitchen, drawing up short when he saw Clint.
“Hey! I heard we’d replaced our old man for another,” he said with an accent that Clint couldn’t quite narrow down beyond eastern European. “Hey! Wanda! Come check out the inter-dimensional traveller!”
He was younger than Clint had realised when he was moving, barely more than a boy, and had the kind of restless energy hanging around him that made Clint feel old. He was followed in by a woman the same age, who had long, red hair and dark eyes that seemed to be looking straight through him.
“You don’t know them,” said Barnes, and he glanced at Natasha. “That’s interesting.”
“Yes,” she agreed.
The boy pressed hands to his chest. “Okay, I’m devastated. How can you not know me, your bestest friend in the whole world? Closer than a brother, bonded in ways that-”
“Stop lying to him,” said the girl. “I’m Wanda,” she said to Clint. “This is my brother, Pietro. He and our Clint like to wind each other up.”
“Right,” said Clint. “Okay. And you’re both on the team?”
“Are we meant to be telling him this stuff?” asked Pietro. “Isn’t it some kind of spoiler, or going to destroy the fabric of the universe, or something?”
Natasha shook her head. “That’s for time travel. Knowing things about this dimension won’t affect his dimension.” Her eyes flicked to Barnes. “It just might give him a few pieces of information that are still hidden in his world.”
Barnes set down his mug in the sink with a hard noise, but didn’t say anything.
“Sir has asked if Agent Barton would come down to the lab,” said JARVIS. “He and the other scientists have some information.”
“They can get me home?” asked Clint, standing up.
“And get our Clint back?” added Barnes.
“They believe so,” said JARVIS.
Barnes strode for the door. “Come on,” he said, without looking at Clint.
“Wow,” said Clint as he and Natasha followed him. “He’s pretty eager to get the other Clint back.”
“They are extremely close,” said Natasha. She hesitated, then gave Clint a sideways look. “It's already lasted a lot longer than eight months, and I don't foresee it ending any time soon.”
Clint felt his jaw clench and he jerked a nod. “Guess I should be looking out for him in my world, then.”
Barnes snorted, then turned to glare at Natasha. “You’re gonna get him killed.”
She shrugged at him as they all got into the elevator. “Maybe you should give him some context, then.”
Clint glanced between them. “Well, this is all very cryptic.”
Neither of them answered. The elevator doors opened on the lab, which now showed all the signs of three geniuses pulling an all-nighter and was covered with scraps of paper, discarded equipment, and more coffee mugs than most Starbucks.
Cap was already there, frowning at Stark with concern. “Tony, you said you’d stop after the fifth cup.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” said Stark, “and I totally meant to, but then we looked at the results of the Geiger Counter Spectrometer and-” He caught sight of Clint over Cap’s shoulder. “Clint!” he said, ducking around Rogers. “Clint! Man, are you a scientific marvel?!”
Clint blinked. “Uh, I’m guessing, yes?”
“He’s some kind of marvel,” muttered Natasha.
“Can you get our Clint back?” demanded Barnes.
Stark waved a hand at him. “Keep calm, Robocop, we’ve got a plan. Just, look,” he glanced around his audience’s faces, then back at Banner, who was slumped over a desk, and Richards, who was squinting at a read-out as if completely unaware they had company. “Okay, I’m gonna give you the dumbed down version. The data we got from this Clint earlier-”
“Last night,” put in Rogers.
Stark patted at his shoulder without really looking at him. “Okay, okay, last night before we did crazy science and made several incredible breakthroughs that should net at least one of us a Nobel prize-”
“I’ve already got one of those,” said Richards, absently.
“Me too,” said Banner, mumbling into his folded arms.
Stark huffed out a breath. “I’m sure I could have got one, if I wanted.”
“Tony,” said Rogers, taking hold of Stark’s shoulders. “Tony, come on, take a deep breath.”
Stark stared at him for a moment, blinked, then nodded and did as instructed. Some of the manic look in his eyes faded.
“Right, okay, so, the readings we did on you revealed that you’re definitely not from around here. We all emit IR radiation,” he said, waving at everyone in the room who wasn’t Clint, “but you also emit UV, which is insane-”
“Wait, hang on,” said Clint. “I emit radiation? Like Chernobyl or something?” He glanced down at his hands.
“Yeah, I’m not too wild about that idea either,” said Barnes.
“No, no,” said Stark. “It’s totally harmless, everyone does it, loads of other stuff as well - bananas are crazy full of radiation, nothing to worry about - it’s the type. That’s fascinating. No one from this universe has readings like you.”
“O-kay,” said Clint, slowly. “So, I’m a special and unique snowflake.”
“Right!” said Stark, pointing at him. “So, we were looking at the possibility of using that as a way to get you and our Clint back in the right places. See, it’s not actually building the tech to open an inter-dimensional portal that’s the hard part, or, well, not the hard part for the people in this room, it’s getting it to open on the right dimension. There are infinite worlds to chose from, and it would be very easy to send you off to the wrong one, and end up with their Clint in return, and just create a huge mess, basically. We need something that we can use to track either your world, or our Clint, so that we can go straight to the right universe.”
“And my special radiation would do that?” asked Clint, remembering all over again why he usually snuck out of briefings once they got to the science part.
“Nope,” said Banner, raising his head from his arms. “It’s not unique enough. Infinite number of worlds, finite number of likely forms of radiation, there’s bound to be more than one that emit UV.”
Clint considered that. “O-kay, so, I’m not such a special snowflake.”
“Oh, I’m sure you’re special enough, cupcake,” said Stark. “Just not special enough for our purposes. Or, at least, not for that, but we did find something. JARVIS, run the vid.”
An image, divided into 4 quarters, was projected on the wall. Each picture showed the same view of a darkened bedroom, one showing just the dark of the room, one showing the two bodies in the bed highlighted in the red-orange tones of an infrared camera, and two others showing the scene through readings Clint didn’t recognise.
“You have a camera in our bedroom?” asked Bucky, turning a glare on Stark.
“There’s cameras in every room,” said Stark, which made most of the rest of the room turn glares on him as well. “Oh hey, no, they’re for JARVIS, and he’s the only one who can access the footage, unless there’s an emergency.”
“I value your privacy very highly,” put in JARVIS.
Clint shook his head. “So what, this is the footage of me arriving and him going?”
“Yep,” said Stark. “Watch the lower right one, that shows the radiation.”
Nothing much happened for a few seconds, then one of the bodies in the bed was suddenly bathed in green light that faded almost immediately, but left a faint trace all the way around the figure.
Barnes frowned. “Play it again,” he said. “Slower.”
The video went back through, frame by frame.
Barnes huffed out. “There’s no movement at all. Looks like it’s the same person the whole time.”
“There’s no movement within this dimension,” said Richards. “Trans-dimensionally, it’s like an explosion.”
Barnes shook his head. “I thought I was being a moron for sleeping through the replacement of my boyfriend.”
“Nah,” said Stark. “No way you’d have been able to sense it, it was just our Clint one minute, and this Clint the next. Complete overlay of their atoms.”
“They can’t both exist in the same universe at the same time,” explained Richards. “In order to preserve the universal balance, you can’t add or take away matter or energy, so when this Clint came through, it forced our Clint out.”
“So, you can’t ever have two of me in the same place?” asked Clint. “Man, Star Trek lied to me.”
“Two of you in the same place would de-stabilise the universe,” said Richards, very seriously.
“Plus, it would be really annoying,” added Stark. “Can’t imagine anyone wanting to be around for that. Well, other than Bucky, of course, I bet he could think of a few things to do with two Clints.” He sent Barnes a sleazy wink.
“At the moment I just wanna get my Clint back,” said Barnes. “You don’t seem to be any closer to that.”
“Ah!” said Stark. “But we are! That green light, that’s radiation of a kind no one has ever seen before, and it’s still clinging to Clint now.”
Clint glanced down at himself. “Um.”
“It seems to be completely harmless,” said Banner, which he probably thought was reassuring, but coming from the guy who’d caused a radiation-related accident that created an angry green rage monster, it lacked something. “It seems to just be the residue from the inter-dimensional travel.”
“Which means,” said Stark, triumphantly, “that the only people who will have it are you, and the other Clint.”
“So you can use it to lock onto the right universe,” said Cap.
“Bingo!” said Stark, grinning at him.
“When?” asked Barnes. “Can we do it now?”
“We need to build a gadget first,” said Banner. He stood up and stretched rolling back his shoulders. “Well, no, Tony needs to build a gadget. He’s the mechanic, I’m purely theoretical, which means I’m going to have a nap.”
“Slacker,” said Stark. “It’s cool, I just need a bit more coffee, and then-”
“No,” said Cap, firmly. “No more coffee.”
Natasha took hold of Clint’s elbow, distracting his attention from the bickering that ensued. “Wanda and Pietro will have made lunch.”
Of course they would have. This version of the team probably ate their meals together, all laughing and joking like the fucking Brady Bunch. Fucking shawarma, seriously, the hell?
Clint was starving, so he just nodded and followed her back into the elevator. Barnes slipped in behind him. The news that they had a plan to get his Clint back didn’t seem to have done much to wipe the scowl off his face. Clint wondered how his counterpart put up with having a boyfriend who seemed to be grumpy pretty much all the time. Maybe the sex was just really good. He thought about just exactly what Barnes might be able to do with that metal arm, and then realised that was not a thought he should be having while in an elevator with the guy.
Wanda and Pietro had made lunch, but it was just a pot of stew sat on the stove for people to help themselves from. Thor was filling up a bowl for a woman Clint recognised as Jane Foster, although he’d never met her in person.
“Oh, hi!” she said, turning to stare at him with the bright light of scientific curiosity that Clint was getting a little sick of. “You’re the inter-dimensional traveller.”
“Yep,” said Clint, giving her a nod.
“Fascinating,” she said, moving in to stare at him. “Tony’s email didn’t say anything about what the journey was like, do you remember much?”
Clint shrugged. “Just felt like being thrown against a wall, then I blacked out.”
“So your body interpreted the inter-dimensional movement as a blow,” she said thoughtfully.
Thor nudged her and set the bowl on table. “Eat, and then you may go assist the other scientists with their endeavours.”
“Apparently, there’s some really fascinating radiation readings,” said Natasha, starting to fill her own bowl.
“Oh,” said Foster, and started scooping up the stew faster than Clint would have advised, given the obvious heat of it.
Clint got himself a bowl and sat down with it. Foster finished hers in record time and then hurried off to go down to the lab, at about the same time as Cap came in, filled two bowls and then followed after her.
Barnes didn’t eat. He just sat at the table and scowled at nothing until Cap came back and sighed at him.
“Don’t be a punk,” he said. “You’ll get him back.”
Barnes’s scowl only deepened. “I better,” he muttered.
Rogers patted his shoulder, then poured another bowl of stew and set it in front of Barnes. “Eat something.”
Barnes glared at the stew as if it were responsible for the situation, then picked up a spoon and started eating it with an air of aggression that Clint didn’t think was called for. It wasn’t the stew’s fault, after all.
Natasha finished her lunch and took the bowl over to the dishwasher, then turned to lean against the counter and give Clint a careful look. Clint raised an eyebrow back.
“That’s your decision-making face,” he said.
“Yes,” she agreed. “I wonder...your SHIELD. Do you have Alexander Pierce and Brock Rumlow working there?”
“Yep,” said Clint. “Pierce is secretary to the World Security Council, Rumlow’s in command of a strike team. I don’t know either of them though, other than to pass in the corridor.”
Natasha glanced over at Rogers with a meaningful look. “Just like they were here.”
“Were?” asked Clint. “They dead here?”
“What about Project Insight?” said Rogers, not bothering to answer Clint’s question.
Clint frowned. “I think I’ve heard people talking about it, but I don’t know what it is,” he said, then shrugged. “I’m not really in the loop at SHIELD any more.” He thought back to half-heard conversations as he’d passed through SHIELD headquarters with his head down. “Something about it being held up because of an IT issue, I think?”
“That makes sense,” said Barnes. “They rushed the last bit of programming here because Pierce was worried that the Avengers were getting too much traction. If his world had a less cohesive team, maybe their Pierce isn’t as worried.”
“Okay,” interrupted Clint. “Enough talking about me like I’m not here. Why the hell would Pierce be worried about the Avengers? He works for SHIELD.”
Both Barnes and Natasha glanced at Rogers, who paused for a moment then sighed. “Pierce is HYDRA,” he said. “So is Rumlow. Or, at least, they were here. It may be different where you’re from.”
Clint stared at him. “But they’re right at the heart of SHIELD. Pierce is pretty much only second to Fury.”
“SHIELD was riddled with Hydra agents,” said Natasha. “It had been for decades. Project Insight was a Hydra project within SHIELD, three new helicarriers that would be under their control and be able to target individual people.”
“Here, Fury found out about it and got us involved, and we destroyed them before they even took off,” said Rogers. “Tony hacked into their guidance computers so that they destroyed each other, and the rest of us took out all the Hydra elements within SHIELD.”
Clint took a moment to process that. “Shit,” he said. “I need to get home.”
“Don’t trust anyone within SHIELD,” said Natasha. “Hydra might have turned different people than they did here.”
Clint nodded. “I’ll get Nat -my Nat- to gather intel. She’s got the clearance for it.”
“And you don’t?” asked Barnes.
Clint shrugged. “I got downgraded after everything with Loki. Not a lot of trust after you take out a helicarrier and kill a bunch of agents.”
“That wasn’t you,” said Barnes, then looked over at Natasha. “Why the hell would they blame him for that? He was brainwashed!”
Clint tried to hide his flinch, gritting his teeth. God, he fucking hated people talking about this.
“I’m not there,” said Natasha. “I don’t know.”
“They’re trying to isolate him,” said Rogers, in a grim tone. He looked at Clint. “You and your Natasha, you’re the best agents SHIELD has, and incorruptible. Hydra want you out of the way.”
Clint hadn’t once considered that there might be any other reason for the way he was being shut out than that no one trusted him any more. It felt like a weight being lifted off his shoulders. “Natasha’s been sent on a lot of missions in the last few months,” he said, slowly.
There had been strong hints that she was having to take up the slack for him, as he couldn’t be trusted with the important or delicate missions any more. Maybe they’d just been trying to keep her out of the way.
“Your world seems to be pretty similar to ours,” said Rogers. “It seems likely that this will play out in the same way as well, just on a slower timeline.”
Clint took a deep breath. “Project Insight,” he repeated. “Okay, I’ll look into it as soon as I get back.”
Barnes twitched. “You need to be super-stealthy,” he said. “The minute they think you’re asking too many questions…” He trailed off, then glanced up at Rogers, who just raised an eyebrow. Barnes made a face. “They’ll send the other me after you.”
Clint raised an eyebrow. “You were Hydra?” Barnes just gave a miserable shrug, so Clint moved on. “So, what, I’ll need to seduce the other you to the side of good using my fantastic biceps and sexy ass?”
Barnes snorted. “Nah, that only works in crappy spy films.”
“It worked on Natasha,” Clint pointed out.
“My defection had nothing to do with your biceps,” said Natasha. Clint gave her a look that made it clear they both knew better and she rolled her eyes. “Seriously. And neither did Bucky’s.”
“Wasn’t a defection,” muttered Barnes, then he gave Clint a serious look. “If they do send him after you, then you just run. Try and get to your Steve, he’s the only one who’s going to get through to him.”
“Get through to him,” repeated Clint, and shook his head. “Look, man, I get that cryptic hints and all that are fun, but there’s clearly something you’re not telling me. How the hell did you end up going from Captain America’s bestie to Hydra’s assassin, and then back again? Not to mention the age thing.”
There was a pause. Natasha and Rogers both looked at Barnes, who scowled.
“He’ll need to know,” said Natasha.
“The more he knows, the easier it will be for him to get the other you back,” added Steve.
Barnes let out a long sigh. “Yeah.”
There was a pause, during which Clint waited for him to say something, but instead he stood up and cleared away lunch, keeping his head down so that his hair hung forward over his face, which didn’t do much to hide his unhappy expression.
When he was done, he turned to Clint. “Come on,” he said, and headed for the elevator without checking if Clint was following him.
They went all the way up to the roof and then right over to the edge, where there was a railing and not much else to stop you falling 90 storeys. Barnes sat down on the edge, letting his legs dangle down, and Clint joined him, resting his arms on the railing in front of him.
Clint was distracted by the view for a few minutes, looking out at New York from a vantage point he didn’t get to see it from very often. “This is pretty awesome.”
Barnes nodded. “Me and my Clint come here fairly often,” he said. “Usually when we need to talk. He likes rooftops, I like being outside, it works out pretty well for us.”
Clint couldn’t imagine having a special place to go to have relationship talks or whatever, but then maybe that was why he and Bobbi hadn’t lasted.
Barnes stared up at the sky. “I spent a lot of years not getting to go outside much,” he said. “Decades.” He halted again, and Clint made himself wait it out. “You know what happened, right? I fell from a train.”
“Yep,” said Clint. “A few days before Cap went down, the only other Howling Commando to die in active duty. Except, apparently not.”
“No,” said Barnes. “Hydra picked me up. They took me to their base, did a bunch of shit to me that sort of replicated the super soldier serum, gave me a new arm to replace the one I lost in the fall,” he gestured with the metal arm, “then put me in a machine that wiped my mind, my memory, everything that made me who I am, and replaced it with total obedience and a bunch of trigger words that made me their puppet.”
He said it with no emotion at all, as if he were reading off a shopping list. Ice went down Clint’s spine. For a moment, all he could see was Loki’s eyes as he pressed his sceptre to Clint’s chest and took over his mind. He shuddered.
Barnes glanced over. “Yeah,” he said, as if he knew exactly what Clint was thinking. “Me and my Clint have got more in common than rooftops and shooting shit.”
“You were brainwashed that whole time?” asked Clint.
Barnes nodded. “Seventy years, give or take. They sent me out on assassinations, and when they didn’t need me, they put me in cryogenic stasis. Then the whole thing with Project Insight went down and they sent me after Steve. He recognised me, tried to break through the conditioning while we were fighting, but whatever they did was too solid. I knew I knew him, but it didn’t matter because I had a mission.”
Clint’s heart felt like it was stuttering. He could remember exactly how that felt, fighting Natasha and not caring that she was his best friend because Loki needed him to take her out, and that was all that mattered. He took a couple of breaths that dragged in his throat, hands clenching on the railings. Oh man, no, he wasn’t doing this, not now, not here. He tried to force it all back down, but all that did was make it worse. The feeling of being trapped rose up, closing in on his mind as if Loki were still there, still controlling everything Clint did and making him not care that he was killing people he worked with, taking out the organisation that he’d dedicated his life to.
“Hey, deep breaths,” said Barnes, and a hand rested on Clint’s back, stroking in slow circles. “It’s all over and done now, we’re both free of it.”
Clint managed a nod, forcing himself to take slow, deep breaths until the panic had been forced back. Fuck, he couldn’t let it get to him like that, not if he wanted to keep his job.
Barnes was giving him a concerned look that made Clint want to get up and walk away, go and find a hole to hide in. He shook it off. “Right, okay,” he said. “So, what? The Bucky Barnes in my world is still brainwashed by Hydra? How do we break that?”
Barnes let his hand drop from Clint’s back and looked away. “You need to get Steve to confront him. He knocked me out, brought me back here, put me in Bruce’s Hulkproof cell downstairs and then spent days just talking to me, reminding me of all the shit Hydra had taken from me. Eventually, it got through.”
Clint nodded. “Okay.” So when he got back, he had to tell Stark to make a move on Cap, and Cap to hunt down his brainwashed best friend. And take down a massive Hydra operation within SHIELD. Well, at least he’d have plenty to do.
They sat there in silence for a few minutes, then Barnes let out a soft huff of air.
“I wasn’t gonna say this, but I reckon the other me needs all the chances he can get, if he’s spent a couple extra years in hell. The thing is, Steve got me remembering and broke my conditioning, but Clint was the one that really pulled me back together. Knowing someone else knew what it was like, even just when we were hanging out on the range or winding Steve up together, all that normal shit. It made me remember how to be a person again.”
Clint didn’t know what to say to that. The idea that he could help someone else get his shit together when he was still pretty much fucked up himself felt like bullshit.
Barnes let out a half-laugh. “Yeah, I figured you’d make that face. Look, just be his friend, okay? It’s not some kind of star-crossed lover thing where we’re destined to be together in every universe or, at least, I don’t think so, but everyone needs friends, right?”
Clint thought about how lonely the last year or so had been, with Natasha off on missions all the time and no one else really talking to him. “Yeah, okay.”
“Do you want to spar?” Cap asked him at one point, and just got a sharp shake of the head.
“Ah, come on, Buck, sulking ain’t gonna get him back quicker,” said Rogers, and got a glare that Clint would have backed down in the face of. Rogers just sighed and rolled his eyes, then headed off to the gym.
Clint watched him go, wondering if he’d ever be able to look at his Cap the same way again, knowing how much more relaxed this one was. He hadn’t realised that his natural state wasn’t stiff and humourless. Hell, he couldn’t remember the last time he heard his Rogers talking about anything other than the job.
But then, he couldn’t remember the last time he spoke to anyone on his team about anything other than the job. Natasha, probably, in one of the brief gaps between her missions, but he had a feeling that even then they’d just been talking around Loki and Clint’s ongoing failure to deal with it.
Christ, who knew shawarma would make such a difference?
“Okay, see, this I do not get,” said Pietro, turning towards Clint. “If you are the same person as our Hawkeye, give or take a few recent events, why are you so quiet? Our Clint doesn’t shut up when we’re watching rubbish TV.”
Clint managed a shrug. “Your Clint knows you all. And isn’t, you know, trapped in a different dimension wondering if he’ll ever get home, and hoping his neighbours are remembering to feed his dog.”
“He is right now,” said Pietro, then glanced over at Barnes. “Right down to the-”
“If anyone else compares me to a dog, I’m gonna rip their arms off,” growled Barnes. Pietro shut his mouth.
“He’s not wrong though,” said Wanda. “It’s interesting to see how much we’re the people we are because of the events we live through.”
“No shit,” said Barnes, holding up his metal arm.
“Agent Barton, Sir has asked me to tell you that the machine is ready for use,” said JARVIS, and Clint got up, relieved to be leaving the conversation behind. He didn’t want to hear how happy and relaxed the other Clint was, the other Clint with his boyfriend and gang of close friends, living in a billionaire techno-genius’s tower. Yeah, he bet he’d tell more jokes if he lived like that as well.
Barnes followed him down to the lab, where the four scientists were bent over a machine that was covered with more flashing lights than Clint was really comfortable with. The space in front of it had been cleared and a white cross painted on the ground.
Stark turned and grinned at him with a look that made Clint want to run as far as he could. How the hell did he end up being a guinea pig for this kind of mad scientist crap?
“We’re all set!” said Stark. “We’ve got an inter-dimensional ping on another source of the radiation you got from the portal, which must be our Clint, and we’re all set to shove you through after him, which should make him ricochet back here. Ready?”
“No,” said Clint, eyeing the machine. “We’re sure it’s not going to liquidate me or mutate me or anything really fucked up and B movie?”
“We’re, like, 96% sure,” said Stark.
Clint glared at him.
“Ah, come on,” said Stark. “Give us some credit. If the Mad Thinker managed this, we damn well can.”
“I have every confidence it will work as expected,” said Richards, a guy whose previous experiments included one that went so wrong that he and his 3 closest friends ended up being dosed with so much radiation that they got superpowers.
Ah, screw it. It might be fun to have superpowers.
“What do I do?” asked Clint.
Stark nodded at the floor. “Stand on the cross, tap your heels together three times and say there’s no place like home.”
Clint did the first of those things, while Stark moved everyone to the side.
“Okay,” said Foster, bent over a laptop screen. “The signal is coming through clearly.”
“Powering up,” said Richards.
Clint took a deep breath as a green light started to glow from within the machine.
“All parameters at the correct levels,” said Banner, and a moment later the green light exploded out towards Clint, knocking him backwards and into darkness.
The thing about being in a prison cell was that not much happened. Clint took his chance to curl up on the bunk and have a nap. He was feeling pretty blitzed and he had a feeling that he’d missed out on sleep somehow, through time zones or dimensional lag or some such shit.
He woke up when the door opened and Wanda came in. Two of T’Challa’s guards stood either side of the door, glaring at him.
Clint sighed and sat up, spinning his legs off the edge of the bunk. “I'm guessing this is the bit with the mind-fuckery. Just go gentle on me, yeah? My psyche is pretty fragile.”
She had her mouth pressed together in a way that made Clint think that she hated doing this as much as his Wanda did. “It should be possible to get everything we need from the surface level of your brain.”
She held her hands up and red fire twined around them, then she stepped towards him.
He flinched backwards. He’d meant to hold still, but he couldn’t control himself enough not to move away instinctively.
She paused, and he made a face. “Sorry, sorry, I understand why you guys are doing it, just-” He shrugged. “I really fucking hate people getting in my head.”
“So does our Clint,” she said, quietly.
Clint gave a shrug. “Guessing he didn’t get to skip all the Loki bullshit either, then.” He took a deep breath. “Okay, come on, let’s just do this, before I get branded as an enemy of the state and executed, or something.”
She nodded and her hands lit up again, and he forced himself to hold still as she reached out for him, but he couldn’t keep himself from screwing his eyes shut and clamping his hands around the edge of the bed.
Red light surrounded him and for a moment it felt like he was falling.
“Show me your home,” whispered a voice, and the red mist swirled around him, then fell away to reveal the main lounge at Avengers Tower.
Clint stood for a moment, blinking at the view out the window. It felt like there was something he should be remembering, but it was gone.
There was a noise from the kitchen and he headed in that direction, trailing a hand along the familiar line of the wall as he went. Inside the kitchen, the whole team was gathered around the table, drinking coffee and chatting away together around a mostly-demolished pie. A warm feeling of belonging settled into Clint’s chest as they turned to greet him with smiles.
“Hey, Birdbrain, I’ve got your coffee ready,” said Tony, handing him a mug. Clint clung to it, letting the familiar smell sink into him.
“Come and sit down, we’re trying to work out which film I should be caught up on next,” said Steve, waving him over to an empty seat.
Bruce shook his head. “I still think Apocalypse Now is a terrible idea.”
“If we’re going for war films, can’t we go for something a bit classier?” asked Natasha. “Casablanca.” She caught Clint’s eye and sent him a quiet smirk as he groaned.
“Fuck no,” he said. “Not after the Geneva mission.”
“Forest Gump,” suggest Wanda. “That has a war in part of it.”
Pietro groaned. “How many more times will you make me watch that film?”
For a split-second, the walls of the kitchen fell away and Clint was in a cell. He blinked and was back in the kitchen, watching Wanda roll her eyes as Pietro dramatically proclaimed that life was like a box of chocolates.
Is this your home? murmured a quiet voice in the back of his mind.
Clint shook his head to clear it, glancing around at the gang and immediately spotting the missing piece. “Where’s Bucky?”
“I think he’s in your room,” said Steve, distracted by a silent battle of wills with Thor over the last slice of pie.
Clint turned away, leaving them to continue the debate. He made his way through the corridors of the Tower, glancing at the place by the main elevator where he’d first met Bucky; the place where he and Pietro had once set up an ambush from the air vents and demanded payment in chocolate from anyone who wished to pass unmolested; the sofa where he’d curled up on the anniversary of the Battle Of New York and Natasha had come to sit by him, letting him put his head in her lap and stroking his hair. Every part of this tower was filled with memories of the team, the friends he’d managed to get so close to that sometimes they felt more like family.
The door to his and Bucky’s room was half-open and when he went inside, Bucky was slumped on the bed with a book, wearing the Hawkeye hoodie that Clint had bought him as a joke, before they were even together. He hadn’t really thought Bucky would wear it, but he’d taken to putting it on whenever things in his head were getting a bit overwhelming.
Maybe it shouldn’t have been such a surprise when Bucky had kissed him one day when they were up on the roof, kicking their heels and sharing a beer.
Bucky looked up and smiled at Clint. “Hey.”
“Hey yourself,” said Clint, heading over and throwing himself on the bed beside him. Bucky put his book down and opened his arms so that Clint could crawl into them, settling on Bucky’s chest and letting out a quiet sigh. That was it, that was exactly what he’d been looking for. Now he was home.
Bucky closed his arms around him and pressed a kiss to the top of his head.
“They’re arguing about which film to watch tonight,” Clint told him.
Bucky snorted. “As long as it’s nothing with talking animals.”
“I like talking animals,” said Clint. “Oh, remind me that we need to watch the Disney Robin Hood at some point.”
“Yeah, I’ll definitely do that,” said Bucky. He sounded comfortably amused and Clint let his eyes fall shut as if he could sink into the sound.
Tell me your secrets, whispered a voice, and for a moment it felt like Clint’s mind was a pack of cards being fanned out. He clamped down on the sensation, screwing up his eyes and trying to gather the cards back together.
One of Bucky’s hands stroked down his back and another kiss was pressed to his forehead. Clint's mind relaxed as he remembered that he was totally safe here, in Bucky’s arms.
Tell me your secrets, repeated the voice, and he was standing by the entrance of the circus, 15 years old again.
“I’ll give you twenty bucks for a blowjob,” said the man.
Instead of telling him to fuck off, Clint said, “Fifty,” and then followed him around the back of one of the caravans.
There was a blink, and he was in a dark room in Bulgaria, staring down at a man who looked too much like his father and who just laughed every time Clint asked him a question. He drove his boot into his ribs again and again, long past the point where he should have stopped, until the man passed out with blood dribbling from his mouth.
He was sat on the roof of Avengers Tower with Bucky beside him and a pair of beers in their hands.
“C’mon, then, Mr Best Marksman in the World,” said Bucky. “What’s the best shot you’ve ever made?”
Clint’s mind went straight to the arrow he’d sent into the helicarrier's engine from the back of a plane, and how it had soared around to exactly where he wanted it to be despite the altitude and the wind. A shot that killed good people, people he’d worked with and knew, but a shot that he still didn't believe he’d made in one go and couldn’t help feeling a thrill of pride over.
“There was this time in Santiago,” he said instead, tucking the guilt away.
The bed was empty when he woke up with the soft sound of Loki’s voice in his ear. The thin, grey light of dawn was seeping past the curtains, and all he wanted was for Bucky to be there so that he could hold onto him and remember that Loki was long gone.
He found Bucky in the gym, slumped on the floor beside a destroyed punchbag with his hair clutched in his hands.
At least I’m not the only fucked up one, he thought, and then couldn’t breath for a moment of horror at what that thought said about him.
Bucky hadn’t noticed him yet. Rather than going over and trying to help, Clint just turned and walked away, pulling himself up into the air vents to find somewhere to hide while his boyfriend had a breakdown.
Are those all your secrets? whispered the voice, and Clint pressed his face tighter into Bucky’s shoulder, clinging onto him and trying to shut down the dark clutch of those memories.
Coming back to reality was like a bucket of cold water. He sucked in a gasp as he came back to the cell, curling over his lap as the realisation that it had all been fake hit. He wasn’t cuddled up with Bucky, he was stuck in another dimension with no real hope right now of ever getting back.
“Fuck,” he muttered. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
“I'm sorry,” said Wanda.
Clint pulled himself together enough to look up at her. “Did’ja get what you needed?” Did you really need to delve into so many dark places to find it? he didn’t ask, pushing all those bad memories back down. Fuck, he didn’t know if having to relive them was worse than being tricked into thinking he was in bed with Bucky only to be pulled back to being alone and locked up.
She nodded. “I believe so. I’m sorry if it was traumatic for you.” Clint just snorted, rubbing his hands over his face. Wanda glanced over her shoulder at the two women by the door, both of whom still looked completely impassive. “Pietro- he was there. In the world you come from.”
“Yeah,” said Clint. “He’s on the team, same as my Wanda.” She was silent, so he added, “He’s saved my ass a couple of times, although he’s always pretty obnoxious about it afterwards. Calling me ‘old man’ and demanding pay back in beer.”
Wanda let out a choked laugh. “Yes, that sounds like Pietro.” She looked down at the floor. “Here, he’s dead.”
Clint felt his jaw tighten. “Yeah, I figured,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
She nodded, then turned on her heel and walked out without another word, followed a moment later by the guards. The door slammed behind her and Clint was alone again.
Probably not, but if being in the Avengers had taught Clint anything, it was that he shouldn’t count anything out.
He was trying to remember the details of a Buffy episode he vaguely remembered that had her hallucinating about another world when the cell door cracked open and Bucky slipped inside. He shut the door behind him then stopped where he was and just stared at Clint.
Clint sat up. “S’up?” he asked.
There was no immediate response, so Clint let himself settle back against the wall. He could remember his Bucky being like this, spending most of his time just watching and calculating, only occasionally coming out with a handful of words to show what he was thinking.
Footsteps went past outside and Bucky stiffened, glancing at the door. When no one came in, he relaxed again.
“I’m guessing you’re not meant to be here,” said Clint.
Bucky shrugged. “They’re busy arguing about you.”
“Yeah, I figured,” said Clint, with a sigh. “They all seem pretty paranoid. Think I’ll get the benefit of the doubt?”
“Probably,” said Bucky. “I did.”
“Right,” said Clint. “Except you’re being kept on ice. That doesn’t show a whole lot of trust.”
“That’s my choice,” said Bucky. He took a step forward, still staring at Clint as if trying to see inside his skull. “She said you and the Bucky Barnes in your universe are fucking.”
Clint was willing to bet that wasn’t how she’d phrased it. “Yep,” he said. “Don’t get all twisted up over that though, it’s not like I’m gonna get the two of you confused.”
Bucky shook his head and took another step forward, then stopped and clenched his fist. “I don’t get it.”
“O-kay,” said Clint. “Well, sometimes when a sniper and an archer love each other very very much-”
“No,” interrupted Bucky. “I mean- I don’t get how he can trust himself. Did different shit happen to him?”
Clint shrugged. “I’ve no idea, I haven’t got much information on what happened here. My Bucky was screwed over by Hydra and kept as their puppet for seventy years though, if that’s what you’re talking about.”
The way Bucky’s face twitched made it clear that it was. “And he ain’t worried about hurting you?”
“Nah,” said Clint. “Well, I mean, not that he’s ever really said. I reckon he might have been a bit when we got started, but once a few months had gone by, I think he realised it wasn’t gonna happen. Breaking free of them meant being completely free to do whatever shit makes him happy. Apparently that includes me.”
He couldn't keep in a grin at that, because it still blew him away to realise that he was one of the things that Bucky had chosen for himself, that he'd decided he needed to be happy.
Bucky’s brow furrowed and he moved his arm as if to cross it, then aborted the motion when he remembered he only had one. The missing arm must be relatively new, then. “Months?”
“Yeah,” said Clint. “We’ve been together just over a year.” He glanced around at the walls of the cell. “He’s probably going out of his mind right now.”
Bucky nodded. “Yeah, I would be.” There was a dark look to his eyes that Clint thought he recognised. He took a moment to study Bucky’s face, then snorted.
“Ah, of course.”
“What?” growled Bucky.
“You were the one who noticed I wasn’t your Clint,” pointed out Clint. “You’re also the one that knows him least well, if you’re spending all your time frozen. You must pay a hell of a lot of attention to him when you’re awake to have worked out I wasn’t standing right or whatever. Not to mention that you found out that me and my Bucky are together and immediately came here to interrogate me about it.”
Bucky stood very still for a moment, then abruptly relaxed. “Yeah, okay,” he said, shrugging. “What’s your point?”
“No point,” said Clint. “Well, other than that you’re never going to get anywhere with the other me if you’re only awake one day a month.”
“Then I guess I won’t get anywhere,” said Bucky. “At least, not until the white coats work out how to stop folks being able to hijack my brain.”
Clint shook his head. “That’s not how it works. Well, it’s not how it worked for us. Bucky, my Bucky, he rooted it all out just by getting back to being who he is. He got back to winding Steve up, and drinking too much of Tony’s over-priced booze and then persuading everyone to start dancing, and hanging out in Central Park and pretending to be scandalised by modern fashions, and the next time someone tried to take him over, there was too much new stuff for the old programming to take hold. Or something, Bruce tried to explain it but it kinda went over my head. Something about the way the brain changes when exposed to new situations and the inability of neuro-programming to adapt.”
“I can’t trust that,” said Bucky, shaking his head.
Clint thought about how beautiful it had been the first time his Bucky had let go enough to laugh, his whole face lighting up with it, wiping away all the darkness that Hydra had stained him with. “I reckon it’s more about trusting yourself.”
Bucky clenched his jaw. “Definitely can’t do that.”
“Then I guess you’re gonna stay in deep freeze while the Clint here moves on with his life and grows old,” said Clint. “Which is kinda sad for him, cuz I got to be honest, being with my Bucky is pretty much the best thing in my life.” He paused to consider. “Well, after shooting, anyway. Archery is the best.”
Bucky rolled his eyes in a way that felt like a pale reflection of how Clint’s Bucky would have reacted to that statement, and a pang of loss echoed in Clint's chest. God, he just really, really wanted to be able to get back home to his boyfriend.
Bucky glanced over at the door and froze still for a second. “I gotta go. I wasn’t here, okay?”
“Sure, whatever,” said Clint, feeling exhausted again. Bucky slipped away out the door, locking it behind him, and Clint was left to collapse back and think that he really didn’t miss how messed up Bucky had been when he’d first been working through everything from Hydra.
Maybe that sounded uncharitable, but it was the truth. Clint had hated watching him struggle like that, even before he started falling for him. He still occasionally found himself struck all over again by just how hard it must have been for his Bucky, and how far he’d come. It sucked that the Bucky here still had all that to go through.
If he’d even give it a try.
The door opened again and Steve came in, Sam hovering behind him.
“Hey, Cap,” said Clint, giving him a vague wave. “You decided if you’re gonna find me a firing squad or a science lab yet?”
Steve ignored him. He was standing with his back very straight, giving Clint his stern-eyed I am Captain America gaze.
“Wanda said that where you come from, we all live in Tony’s tower,” said Steve.
“Yep,” said Clint. “All the Avengers under one roof, and absolutely no one hiding out in Africa.”
Steve’s gaze became more of a glare. “Both Tony and Bucky,” he pressed.
“Yep,” agreed Clint. “And me and you, and Nat, Bruce, Wanda, Pietro, Thor when he’s on the right planet. Not you or Scott,” he said, looking at Sam. “I’ve no idea who you guys are, sorry man.”
Sam gave a shrug. “It’s cool. Kinda nice to think that there’s a me out there who’s still in DC, living the quiet life.”
“And no one tried to kill anyone?” pressed Steve.
Clint blinked at him. “Uh. No? I mean, not really. Unless you count Loki fucking with me, or when we first met Wanda and Pietro and Stryker still had his claws in them.”
Steve shook that away impatiently. “No, I mean, Tony and Bucky. Or does your Tony not know?”
Clint shook his head. “I’m lost,” he confessed. “Know what? Why the fuck would Tony and Bucky be- Oh, wait, are you talking about Tony’s parents?”
Steve’s face was set like a marble statue. He jerked a nod.
“Our Tony had a bit of a reaction to finding that out,” said Sam. “I’m guessing yours did too?”
“Well, yeah,” said Clint, “but that was ages ago, back before we took Project Insight and SHIELD down. My Steve and Natasha found all the records from Fort Lehigh. Tony was pretty pissed, but by the time we’d caught up with Bucky and got him back to the Tower, and then gone through breaking through his conditioning, he’d got over it.”
He didn’t mention the long chat the two of them had had over a bottle of whiskey about shitty parents and the fucked up emotions that swirled around when they died when you were a kid, with a minor deviation into where to lay the blame when someone was mind-controlled.
Steve frowned. “Your Steve told Tony as soon as he found out?”
“Yeah,” said Clint. “I mean, why wouldn’t he?”
The atmosphere in the room turned awkward. Sam looked like he was biting the inside of his cheek to keep from speaking.
“Oh wow,” said Clint, slowly. “Man, did you ever fuck that up.”
That was probably the wrong thing to say if the way Steve’s look darkened was anything to go by. Clint stood by it, though.
“There didn’t seem any point,” said Steve. “I thought it was only gonna hurt him.”
“Right, and how did that end up going for you?” asked Clint. “Seriously, who keeps something like that from their boyfriend?”
Steve reacted as if he’d been electrocuted. “Boyfriend?!”
“Yeeeeah,” said Clint, slowly. “My Steve and Tony got together about a month after the Battle of New York.”
Sam snorted out a laugh. “Oh man, that explains so much.” He hit Steve’s arm with the back of his hand. “We shoulda just locked you guys in a closet together or something and saved ourselves a whole lot of bother.”
Steve made an aggravated noise in his throat and clenched his fists.
Clint shook his head. “I’m beginning to think that maybe everyone in this dimension just isn’t getting laid enough. Seriously, my Steve and Tony are basically the ultimate power couple, how the hell did you miss out on that here?”
“I really wish Natasha was here for this,” said Sam. “All that time she spent trying to set you up, and she never even considered Stark.”
Steve sent him another glare, then turned back to Clint. “T’Challa’s pulling together a few scientists who he thinks are going to be able to help you,” he said abruptly, not bothering with any subtlety on changing the subject, “but it’s going to take a few hours to get them and their equipment here. We figured you might as well wait in here until then.”
Which meant they still didn’t trust him. Clint sighed. “Great. Just, do me a favour and get me a crossword or something?”
“I’ll see what I can dig up,” said Sam, and they left again, the lock clicking shut behind them. Clint collapsed back onto the bunk and stared at the ceiling. Man, this really sucked.
The SHIELD base in New York was far enough out that it took Steve a while to get to the Baxter Building and when he turned up, he marched into the lab as if he were heading out onto a parade ground. There was a wrinkle in the centre of his forehead that looked pretty permanent.
“Barton,” he greeted Clint with a jerked nod. He was in a shirt and slacks that had sharp lines ironed into the seams, as if they were new out of the shop.
“Hey, Capsicle!” said Tony. “You’re looking...well-starched.”
Steve sent him a frown, but didn’t respond. “You wanted to talk,” he said to Clint.
“Yup,” said Clint. “Come on, let’s go for a coffee or something.” Because, if he knew anything about crazy genius scientists, this whole damn building was bugged and who the hell knew might be listening in?
Steve’s frown deepened. “A coffee?” he repeated, as if the concept was entirely new to him.
“Yep,” said Clint, getting up. “We can get you a couple of pastries or something. Are you as into cinnamon rolls as the Steve I know?”
Steve blinked. “I don’t- I haven’t ever had a cinnamon roll.”
“Then that’s what we’re doing,” said Clint, slapping his shoulder. “C’mon, I’m so done with hanging out with science types.”
“You know, our Clint is way more polite,” said Tony.
“Go fuck yourself, Stark,” said Clint, with maybe more relish than was needed. Bruce snorted with amusement, then schooled his face to look innocent when Tony sent him a betrayed look.
“You’ll have to show me the way out of here,” Clint said to Steve, who shook himself, nodded, and turned about face to head back out.
The weather outside was warm but overcast, and disappointingly the sky wasn't purple, but at least Clint was outside. It turned out that the Baxter Building was at 42nd and Madison, which meant that Stark’s tower was right in front of them, towering over Grand Central station. It still had Stark emblazoned on the side rather than Avengers, but Clint could see the places where it had been remodelled after the Battle of New York, in the same places that the damage had been in his world.
Clint could see three different coffee shops without turning his head. Man, he’d missed New York. “That place will do.”
Steve followed him down the street. “I thought you had something important to tell me.”
“I do,” said Clint. “Just, need to be somewhere with a bit of noise to cover what I’m saying, you know? Plus, I miss popping into a coffee shop, they don’t really have them in Wakanda.”
Steve’s frown deepened. “You’re living in Wakanda?”
“Yup,” said Clint, ducking inside the coffee shop and glancing around at the crowd in there. Perfect. Enough people to create a buzz that would hinder eavesdropping, not enough that they couldn’t still get a table tucked away from the others. “Grab a seat, I’ll order,” he said.
There was an awkward moment at the counter when Clint realised he didn’t know if he had a wallet on him or not. He patted a few likely pockets and found one, and it even had enough cash in it to cover the coffees, a cinnamon roll and two slices of pie. Thank fuck.
Steve had his back to a corner and was watching everyone else in the place as if they were going to suddenly turn out to be Hydra or something. Clint gave him a cheerful smile as he sat down.
“Okay, so, most of this is going to freak you out,” said Clint, “but keep in mind that just because it happened like this in my world doesn’t mean it will here. There are a lot of similarities though, so I thought I’d give you a heads up, just in case.”
“You’re worried about who can be trusted. That’s why we left the Baxter Building,” said Steve.
Clint nodded. “Eat your cinnamon roll. Act normal. Try not to look as if you’re freaking out, even if you are.”
Steve nodded and took a bite of cinnamon roll. He blinked and looked down at it with surprise and Clint grinned. “Told you that you liked them.”
“Apparently,” said Steve. “I don’t eat much outside of SHIELD’s canteen.”
“You should,” said Clint. “They serve slop.”
Steve shrugged. “Better than Army rations.”
Clint couldn’t argue that, but there wasn’t a lot in it. “Okay, but there’s also kinda a problem with the people you might be eating with,” he said, then dropped his voice. “In my universe, my Nat and Steve found out that Hydra had infiltrated the whole organisation, from the top down.”
Steve’s eyes went wide but he did a very good job of not reacting beyond that. He took a sip of coffee. “Tell me everything.”
Clint did so, as much as he could. He hadn’t been around but he had got a full report from Natasha and a couple of other agents who he’d met up with in the aftermath. Officially, they'd been touching base and debriefing, but in reality they all just really wanted to get blindingly drunk with other people who were feeling as betrayed as they were.
Steve listened largely in silence, occasionally nodding, and demolished the cinnamon roll and both slices of pie without really noticing. At least Clint hoped he hadn’t realised, because he’d kinda been intending to eat the second slice himself and that was just rude otherwise.
When he was done, Steve let out a long sigh. “And you think it’s the same here?”
Clint nodded. “I did a Google earlier, and I can’t see that anything here would have changed enough to have stopped them.”
Steve’s jaw clenched. “Then I’ll have to take them down. I won’t let Hydra take control.”
“Awesome,” said Clint. He bit at his cheek and thought about just leaving it there, but an image of Barnes frozen in his cryo tube came to him, and he let out a sigh. “There’s kinda something else. Hydra had an assassin called the Winter Soldier, have you heard of him?”
Steve shook his head.
“Okay, well, if he’s around in this world, Natasha will know about it,” said Clint. “They’ll probably end up sending him after you once you start taking them down.”
Steve gave a shrug. “I’m sure I can handle him.”
“Okay, I admire the self-confidence, but he’s pretty hardcore,” said Clint. “I wasn’t there, but he took my Steve, Natasha and Sam all on at once and still walked away. And then he beat my Steve into unconsciousness, later on.”
“Who’s Sam?” asked Steve.
Clint shook his head. “Not important. Well, it is, he’s awesome, if you happen to meet him you should definitely make friends. Sam Wilson, lives in DC, good man to have at your back in a fight, plus he makes excellent pancakes.”
“Right,” said Steve, clearly taking mental notes. “Okay.”
“The point I was trying to make is that if the Winter Soldier comes after you, you shouldn’t hurt him,” said Clint. “Well, nothing permanent. You’ll have to knock him out to keep him down or he’ll just keep coming, but it’s not-” He stopped the ramble and shook his head.
“You’re not really making sense,” said Steve.
“I hate talking about this shit,” said Clint. Fucking brainwashing bullshit had happened to way too many of his friends and yes, he counted Barnes as one of his friends now. Even if he spent most of his time in deep freeze, Clint still had a good time on the one day a month that he was defrosted, and he knew Barnes would have his back if he needed it.
He scrubbed at his face, then looked back up at Steve. “He’s been brainwashed,” he said. “Hydra took who he is and put in a bunch of programming to make him their perfect killer instead. It’s really fucked up. You need to take him down and get him away from them so that you can break through the conditioning.”
The fact that he was Bucky Barnes was right on the end of his tongue, but he swallowed it back. If this Steve was anything like his, once he heard that he wouldn’t be able to approach the situation in a calm, rational manner at all.
“This is a lot,” said Steve, frowning. “Would Hydra have really been able to keep all this from our Barton and Romanov? Not to mention Fury?”
“Yep,” said Clint. “They’re fucking sneaky bastards.”
“Stark’s hacked into the SHIELD systems more time than I can count,” said Steve.
“Yeah, our Tony used to do that as well,” said Clint. “Oh, hey, speaking of- When you pull the Winter Soldier out, don’t let Tony read all the files on him. He killed Tony’s parents and our Tony didn’t react well to finding that out.”
“He killed Howard Stark?” asked Steve. “I was told he died in a car accident.”
“Everyone was told that,” said Clint. “When Tony found out different, he tried to beat B-, uh, the Winter Soldier to death. Ripped his arm off. It’s why we’re in Wakanda, we’re in hiding from him.”
Steve couldn’t keep his horror off his face. “He ripped his arm off??”
“Yeah,” said Clint. “Oh wait, shit, did I mention that his arm is made out of metal? He ripped that one off, not an actual arm. It's like a robot prosthetic thing, very cool. Or it was.”
Some of the horror drained from Steve’s face, but not all of it. “I thought Stark was one of the good guys.”
Clint hesitated. “He is,” he said, slowly. “There was other stuff going on as well, and it was kinda sprung on him. I guess he just sorta snapped?”
Steve took a sip from his coffee as he thought that over. “So, I’ve got to take out the half of SHIELD that are secretly Hydra, including the secretary to the World Security Council, and take down three helicarriers which have advanced weapon systems, while at the same time rescuing a brainwashed assassin without him killing me, and then manage to keep Tony Stark, who hates secrets, from finding out about his past.”
Clint considered that. “Yeah, pretty much,” he said. “Also, if you run into a pair of twins with special powers who are working for a unit of Hydra that’s in Sokovia, you should recruit them. They’re awesome.”
Steve’s face was a picture. Clint kinda wished he’d thought to get a photo of it, not that he’d have been able to take it home with him.
Steve took a deep breath, then shook his head. “I don’t- Right. Okay.” He took another breath, then nodded. “Fine.” His back straightened until he was the closest you could get to standing to attention while sitting down.
Clint gave him a nod. “Sorry to kinda dump this all on you, but I figured it was better to pass on the intel.”
“Yeah,” said Steve. His jaw was so tight that Clint was worried that his teeth were going to crack.
“Okay,” Clint said, standing up. “Come on, let’s walk it off.”
Steve followed him outside, but he didn’t look much calmer. “Walk what off?” he asked. “The fact that the one good thing I thought this time had going for it, which was that Hydra had been eradicated, is a lie and that, actually, I’ve been working for them the whole damned time?”
“Yup,” said Clint. “Okay, so maybe it’s more something you need to punch out or whatever, but I’ve been there. I dedicated my life to SHIELD, then found out it was all crap and that half the people I thought were my friends were fucking snakes. And, hey, what do you mean the only good thing about now? You enjoyed that cinnamon roll, didn’t you?”
That got him a very dark look that Clint returned with a grin.
“Seriously,” Clint said. “I know it fucking sucked to wake up with all that time missing, but you can’t tell me you haven’t got used to it after a few years? Made friends with the other guys, discovered a love of Motown, bought out half an art shop?”
Steve shook his head. “All my friends are dead,” he said. “The Avengers are a team, they’re not a social group.”
Okay, that was just depressing.
“The Avengers will be your friends if you let them,” Clint said, because no matter how it had ended, the Avengers on his world had all been friends for a good couple of years before everything went pear shaped. “And if you do run into Sam Wilson, he definitely will.”
Steve just shook his head and glanced away. “Unless he turns out to be fucking Hydra,” he muttered.
“Nah, Sam’s good people,” said Clint. He glanced around at the street they were heading down. “You know what? Let’s not leave looking into this until your Clint comes back. You head to Central Park, I’ll meet you at the bridge where you and Barnes got arrested when you were kids.”
Steve turned a startled look at him. “The other me told you about that?”
Actually, Barnes had told Clint about that, on one of the few occasions when he’d come out of his shell enough to join in with the general conversation. They’d been talking about being international criminals and had got on to comparing who had been the most delinquent kid. Clint had pretty much been winning that hands down, with Scott coming in a clear second, until Barnes announced that if Steve was going to pretend that he didn’t have any stories, he was going to set that right.
He’d come out with a whole bunch of stories that had made Steve groan and bury his head in his hands, but Clint had seen the smile he'd been hiding at having someone else around who knew his past.
Clint shrugged. “It came up,” he said, and told himself to be better at hiding the fact that he’d hung out with Cap’s childhood best friend. “I’ll meet you there in about ten minutes, yeah?”
Steve nodded and headed off. Clint glanced around and ran through what he was going to need, then headed for Grand Central, and the nearest businessman with a laptop bag.
“We’re all set, let’s find a bench.”
Steve frowned. “Did you just buy that with our Barton’s money?”
“Nope,” said Clint, settling down and turning it on. “I stole it.”
There was a strong aura of disapproval. Clint rolled his eyes. “I’m gonna go searching through super-secret spy files for signs of an even more super-secret Nazi organisation. Do you really want me to do it from a computer that can be tracked back to us?”
Steve sighed. “I guess not.”
“Besides,” said Clint as the Windows desktop came up, “the guy I stole it from was yelling at someone on the phone and sounded like a complete prick. He was heading for some karma.”
Getting into the SHIELD systems from an unsecured laptop was easier than it should be, once you knew the trick of it. Clint wasn’t very good at computer stuff but Natasha had shown him how a few years ago, in case he got caught out on a mission and needed a back door.
“Okay, this is where we gamble everything on your Clint having the same log in details that I did,” said Clint, typing in the password he hadn’t used since SHIELD went down.
There was a pause, then the database opened up. “Oh yeah,” said Clint, allowing himself a little dance. “Who needs Tony fucking Stark for all this tech bullshit?”
“I can’t imagine Hydra just have all their files in the main system though,” said Steve.
“Nope,” said Clint, clicking through to the personnel files, “but I know where to look to see their traces.” He’d spent two long days looking through all the files Natasha had dumped on the internet, looking at all the signs he should have noticed years earlier that there was something weird going on. Then he'd got very drunk. Okay, so maybe his coping methods weren't the best, but he'd had to do something.
He bought up the file for a junior agent he’d once had on his team on a training mission.
“Crap,” he said. “Look, there. See that number?” There was a small 2 on the file, just under the agent’s name.
“Yeah?” said Steve.
“That was a code they used. Every personnel file had it on, I can remember assuming they were just some kinda HR thing. They gave every SHIELD employee a number from 1 to 5. 1 meant they were Hydra, 2 meant they were going to be recruited, 3 meant they were either unimportant or hadn’t been investigated yet, 4 meant they would actively oppose Hydra and needed to be kept in the dark and 5 meant they were too much of a threat and needed to be either sidelined or eliminated somehow. Me and Nat and my Steve were all 5s.”
He’d been pretty proud of that, especially when he found out Bobbi had been a 4. Probably petty, but still.
Steve nodded. “What are we here?”
“No idea,” said Clint. “Your Clint don’t have anywhere close to the clearance needed to look at Captain America’s personnel file, and definitely not his own.” He went out of personnel and made his way through various menus to a particularly dull bit of budget allocation. “Insight was all hidden down so deep I wouldn’t be able to get to it,” he said, “but they needed funding for it, so…” He scrolled down the spreadsheet. “Yeah, there.”
The entry just read Insight but it was clear from the numbers that they were spending a lot of money on it. Clint sighed and sat back, glancing at Steve. “Sorry, man.”
Steve just nodded bleakly, then took a deep breath, setting his shoulders with resolution. “At least we know.”
Clint nodded. “Yeah. My Steve only found out because Pierce sent the Winter Soldier to kill Fury. Oh, you should probably warn him about that.”
“We need a plan,” said Steve, “and for that we need more intel. Whereabouts was Insight based? How did your Steve take it down?”
The next hour was basically an interrogation, although at least they were out in the open air with sunshine and birdsong and the background hum of New York traffic. Steve drilled Clint with question after question, and Clint did his best to remember every detail that Nat had mentioned to him.
They backed Clint’s memories up with whatever they could get out of the SHIELD files, but there wasn’t much available in the parts Clint could access and he really wasn’t the guy you went to for hacking.
“You’ll have to get Nat on this, when she’s back,” he said. “She’s so much better.”
Steve nodded. “And we can trust her?”
“Are you kidding?” asked Clint. “It’s Nat. No one else I’d trust more, in any dimension.” He considered. “Unless there was one where she was still working for the Red Room. Or didn’t actually know me and was after something I had. Or there was ice cream at stake.”
Or she decided to side with Tony fucking Stark because she was sometimes a contrary little fucker. Clint didn’t dwell on that though because she’d come through for them in the end, before she’d gone to ground. Clint had spent the last few months waiting for her to get in contact but there had been nothing, which actually hurt more than her siding with Tony had. At least he’d kinda understood her reasons for supporting the Accords.
“Right,” said Steve.
Clint shut the laptop down. “That’s probably all we can do right now. We'll need to destroy this laptop later, but for now let’s get lunch.”
“Lunch,” repeated Steve. “Is this really the time?”
“Well, it’s gone noon, so...yes?” said Clint. He pulled out the other Clint’s phone and checked it. “No one’s called to say that they’ve done incredible science and I can go home, and I’m really looking forward to getting a proper New York pizza after months in Wakanda, where they just don’t understand how much grease a good pizza needs.”
Steve didn’t look that sure, but Clint had already tucked the laptop back in the bag and stood up. “C’mon, we’re not gonna be taking Hydra down in the next hour, and I’m not kidding about pizza. I’d never kid about pizza.”
The pizza was incredible though, as was the knowledge of just how jealous Scott was going to be when he found out Clint had had some. They’d spent an hour last week talking about all the terrible American junk food they missed.
They headed back to the Baxter Building after that.
“Once we’ve got the right Barton back, I guess we’ll head to DC and try and infiltrate Insight,” said Steve. “Take down the helicarriers before they get launched.”
Clint nodded. “Seems like your best bet. Any idea when Natasha’s mission is meant to be over? You’ll want her with you.”
There was a muffled thud and both their heads whipped around to look at the Baxter Building. A small crowd of robots were hovering around the fourth floor, and had just blown out a window.
“Shit,” said Clint, and started running. A streak of flame came out of the window, ploughing into one of the robots and then resolving into a man made of flames. Okay, fine, Clint could roll with that, just as long as he could get his hands on the other Clint’s bow as soon as fucking possible.
Steve had started running at the same time as Clint and was already several metres ahead of him. Fucking super-soldiers. They both dashed into the lobby and headed for the stairs as there was another implosive thud and the building shook.
They made it into the lab where the others had been just in time to see Iron Man fly out of a hole in the wall and send a robot tumbling through the sky with a blast of his repulsor. Sue and Reed were facing off against a hefty-looking guy in loose green clothes who was carrying a massive gun.
“You will return my device!” he announced, shooting the gun at Sue. She threw her hands up and the shots bounced off some kind of invisible forcefield.
“You left it in my workshop, attached to my multi-verse detector,” said Reed. “It’s mine now.”
Clint darted across the room, dumping the laptop bag as he went, and grabbed the bow and quiver from the sofa, getting an arrow notched while Cap threw himself at the nearest robot. He caught sight of Bruce backing into the kitchen, out of the way, which seemed pretty sensible. If the Hulk came out in Reed’s lab, it seemed likely that not much of it was going to survive.
Clint got off an arrow at one of the robots outside as Steve threw himself into the fight, throwing a punch at a robot that was hard enough to dent metal. Jesus, that must have hurt his knuckles, super-soldier serum or not.
More robots were swarming in and Clint stopped paying attention to anything other than trying to pick them off, hopping up onto a cabinet to give himself a height advantage. Man, he’d missed this over the last few months of stagnating in Wakanda.
That said, he was now kinda regretting just how much pizza he’d eaten. Aw man, too much movement on a full stomach, that was not good.
He sent another arrow smashing into a robot that was crawling through the hole in the wall and wondered how many arrows he had. If it had been his quiver, he’d have known exactly how many were left, but he hadn’t bothered counting earlier and there wasn’t really time now. Fingers crossed it was going to be enough to get through the fight, especially given that the bow wasn’t the same as the one his Tony had made him back home, the one that transformed into a quarterstaff for when he ran out of arrows or things got hand-to-hand.
“Give me my device!” bellowed the crazy evil guy, shooting off his gun again and making everyone duck down. He darted for the device but Sure threw out her hand and his grasp bounced off something invisible around it. Reed took the chance of his distraction to send his arm out, tangling around his body like a tentacle.
Ugh, that really was the grossest superpower Clint had seen in a long time. Did the guy just not have any bones?
Steve picked up the laptop Clint had discarded and launched it out of the window, where it hit something Clint couldn’t see with a shattering noise. He glanced at Clint.
“Does that work for destroying it?”
“Yep,” said Clint, hitting another robot with an arrow and wondering why the other Clint only had empty spaces where his EMP arrows should be. “Good going.”
There really were a lot of robots. One of them hit Reed with some kind of taser that made him freeze up, giving the villain the chance to escape out of his arms. Clint sent an arrow at it that sank right through its skull into the hardware inside, sending it reeling back with jerky movements. Reed sent him a grateful look, then jumped back towards the villain.
Suddenly, Clint got hit by what felt like a kick in the chest and everything went green, and then black.
It took one glance for Clint to work out that things had gone wrong. He was in a room that had all the unmistakeable signs of being a cell and the temperature was about ten degrees higher than it had been in New York.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” he muttered, getting up off the bunk. He was wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt, so this other him probably hadn’t been on a mission, unless he'd been locked up for long enough to be in prison clothing.
Nah, prisons didn't give out t-shirts with cartoons of dogs on them. The Clint Barton from this world didn't dress to be locked up when he got up this morning.
Clint tried the door, without much hope, to find it locked as expected.
Something snapped. He just wanted to go the fuck home. Stark had said they’d worked it out. Where the fuck even was he?!
He hammered on the door with his fists. “Hey! HEY!! You’ve got the wrong Clint Barton locked up! Let me out! Hey, fuckers, LET ME OUT!!”
There was no immediate response, so he banged harder, and kicked at the door as well. “I need to talk to a goddamn scientist!”
It took a couple of minutes before the door was yanked open, during which time Clint took his frustration out on it. The mindless violence felt pretty good, although he could have done with something breakable to smash.
When the door opened, he was faced with a whole crowd of people. There were two tall black women who were unmistakably guards, armed with spears and glowering at him. Behind them was Cap, Bucky Barnes and another guy Clint didn’t know, all of whom looked varying amounts of unhappy.
“Cap,” said Clint, focusing on the one person he actually knew from his own world. “You’ve got to help me. I’m from another dimension.”
“I know,” said Rogers.
“He’s different again,” said Barnes. “Look at the haircut.” Clint looked at him and realised that he was an arm down. His metal arm looked as if it had been ripped off, which must have taken some serious strength. Jesus, what the fuck was happening in this world?
Aw man, please don’t let this be an alternate universe where everything was just dark and terrifying, Clint couldn’t deal with that right now. He was meant to have gone back home, where he could go back to Brooklyn and curl up with Lucky on the couch. He'd had enough of this inter-dimensional bullshit.
“Teela,” said the stranger. “Go over the footage from the cell camera, find the moment he arrived and bring it to the lab.”
One of the women nodded. “Yes, your Majesty,” she said, and left.
Your Majesty. Apparently the other Clint had been locked up by the monarchy. Great, that just added another layer of fucked up to all this.
“Anyone want to clue me in on where the hell I am, and why I was locked up? Did you have an evil me through before? Oh man, did he have a goatee? There’s no way in hell I can pull off a goatee.”
Rogers frowned and glanced at Barnes, who also shrugged. Okay, so maybe Stark needed to be around for there to be a point to Star Trek references.
“You are currently in Birnin Zana, in Wakanda,” said the stranger. “I am King T’Challa. We were holding the other Clint Barton in custody until we could verify his story, which you have managed to do just with your presence.”
“Right,” said Clint. “Uh, your Majesty.” He glanced at Rogers. “Is Stark or Banner around? Or Reed Richards? They were working on figuring out how to get me home in the last world I was in, and built a machine thing. Hopefully, they’ll be able to do that here as well but, you know, actually get it right.”
Rogers’s jaw clenched. “Tony and Bruce aren’t available,” he said. “We don’t know a Reed Richards.”
“We’re going to have to explain this every single time,” said Barnes, sounding resigned.
“We have Wakanda scientists,” said T’Challa. “They have just arrived from the university. Please, come this way.”
Clint followed him and Rogers down several corridors, glancing around. This had to be the royal palace of Wakanda; it was really posh. Outside the window it was dark, and he spent a few minutes trying to remember what time zone Wakanda was in, and what time it must be. He got as far as ‘late’ before he gave up.
Barnes followed the group, a step behind Clint in a way that made him think of how the last Barnes had trailed around after him as if he might turn back into the Clint he really wanted at any moment.
“Hey,” Clint said, glancing back at him, “We’re not fucking here as well, are we?”
Barnes nearly tripped over his own foot. “No,” he growled.
Rogers glanced back over his shoulder. “You and your Bucky are together?” he asked, then sent a meaningful look at Barnes, who scowled at him.
“Nah,” said Clint. “I don’t know the Barnes in my world. The world I was just in, the Avengers all lived together in Stark’s tower, and half of them seemed to be fucking. I’m guessing if Stark’s not around, you and him aren’t hooked up?”
Rogers's glare was even darker than Barnes’s. “No,” he bit off, turning away again.
“The Barton we had here must have been from that world,” said Barnes. “Or one very similar.”
Clint frowned. “Richards in the last world said that the reason I displaced their Clint was because the universe can’t have extra matter in it, so when I got sent through, it pushed the other one out. They thought he’d got pushed back to my world, but if he got sent here, and pushed out your Clint, then maybe there’s just, like, a huge chain of Clints, all being pushed on one world at a time.”
T’Challa opened a door to a lab and waved them all inside. “That would make sense,” he said. “Unfortunately, it will make returning you all to the correct locations extremely difficulty.”
Clint sighed. “This is like a fucked up cross between Quantum Leap and Sliders,” he said, which earned him a bunch of blank looks. Yeah, okay, if Star Trek pulled a blank, those two definitely would.
“I believe we will have more success returning you to your correct world than either Sam Beckett or Quinn Mallory,” said a woman who was inside the room. “Our science is rather more dependable.”
Clint gave her a grateful smile. “Here’s hoping,” he said.
“This is Professor Nugud,” said T’Challa. “She is the head of experimental physics at Birnin Zana University. She will be heading up the team I have assembled to help you.”
Clint shook her hand. “Clint Barton,” he said, then rolled his eyes at himself. “Which you already knew, and which doesn’t really make me unique at the moment.”
“I don’t know, seems like Bartons are always pretty unique,” muttered Barnes.
Nugud sent him an amused look, then looked back at Clint. “You have spoken to other scientists about this?”
“Yeah,” said Clint. “Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, Reed Richards and Jane Foster from the last dimension I was in.”
She nodded. “I recognise some of those names. Can you tell me anything about what they found out?”
Clint sighed, and resigned himself to a long few hours. “There was all this stuff about radiation,” he said. “I didn’t get it all, but this is what they told me.”
He did his best to remember all the scientific terms that Stark had thrown at him, while Nugud nodded and made notes, occasionally sending one of the other scientists to get some piece of equipment or take some readings. At one point, the guard from earlier came in with the video footage of Clint arriving, and he got to watch another him sitting on the prison cell bed for a few minutes before Clint replaced him.
Rogers and Barnes hung around in the corner, but Clint couldn’t tell if they were guarding him or making sure the scientists didn’t do anything too funky. If he’d thought the Barnes in the last world had been grumpy, he had nothing on this one, who seemed to have a permanent frown etched on his face.
“So, do I get to find out why you guys are in Wakanda?” asked Clint. “Diplomatic mission? Totally over-the-top vacation?”
Rogers’s frown deepened.
“Oh man,” said Clint. “It’s not something shitty, is it? America was wiped out by nuclear war and you’re the last Americans left alive?”
Rogers shook his head. “America is fine,” he said, but didn’t offer any further information.
Barnes rolled his eyes. “Jesus, Stevie, when the fuck did you become so cagey?” he muttered. “We’re fugitives,” he said to Clint. “There was a disagreement with Stark. And the UN.”
Rogers folded his arms. “He doesn’t need to know all this.”
“Are you kidding?” asked Clint. “This sounds way more interesting than the lovefest I got stuck in the middle of in the last world.”
“There was definitely not a lovefest,” said Barnes. “Pretty much the opposite. We blew up an airport, between us.”
One of the scientists wheeled out a machine that Clint was beginning to recognised. “Could you lie down, sir?”
Clint shifted around on the table to do so, glancing over at Barnes. “Which airport?”
Okay, not the airport Clint would have guessed. Had he ever even been there?
Rogers let out a long sigh. Barnes glanced at him. “Go get something to eat. You’re all pissy from low blood sugar.”
“That’s not why I’m pissy,” said Rogers, but he straightened up from leaning against the wall. “You want coffee?”
“Always,” said Clint, although he wasn’t sure he was actually being asked.
The look Cap gave him made him think that the Clint from this world felt the same way about coffee. Clint just gave him a hopeful smile, and then held still as the scientist turned the machine on and started scanning him.
“Anyone else?” Rogers asked, and the heads of pretty much every scientist in the room perked up.
“Wait, isn’t it the middle of the night?” asked Clint. “What time even is it?”
“It’s coming up to 11,” said Nugud, “but this will take a while. I should imagine we’ll be pulling an all-nighter.”
Clint shook his head. “Why are scientists always so eager to stay up all night?”
She just smiled at him with the same excited look in her eyes that he’d seen all too many times before. He sighed, and resigned himself to a good few hours of being poked and prodded.
Rogers ended up with drinks orders from most of the people in the room, although he didn’t seem to mind being treated as a glorified coffee boy. “Are you gonna help me carry all this?” he asked Barnes before he left.
“Nope,” said Barnes.
Rogers sighed, but left without further arguing.
In the time that he was away, Clint got scanned by at least three different machines, and Professor Nugud started making quietly excited noises at whatever was on her computer screen. Barnes just stood back and let them get on with it, his one arm wrapped around his chest as if he were feeling as uncomfortable as Clint was.
When Rogers came back in, he was carrying several mugs and accompanied by two guys who were carrying the rest.
“Hey, you must be the new Clint,” said one of them, a white guy with brown hair who was vaguely familiar in a way Clint couldn’t pinpoint. “Are you freaking out yet?”
Nearly, thought Clint, but he didn't say it. “Not yet. Give me another hour or two of tests, or maybe another couple of alternate universes.”
“Chin up,” said the other guy, a black guy with a goatee. “Looks like we’re all gonna be staying up with you, anyway. Even Bucky,” he added, as if that was meaningful. Barnes's scowl deepened.
“It’s not like there’s anything else exciting going on,” agreed the first guy. “Or has been for, you know, weeks.” He glanced at T’Challa, “Ah, no offence, your majesty, Wakanda is great, it’s just kinda quiet.”
“None taken,” said T’Challa. “We prefer quiet to alien invasions and rogue fascist organisations.”
“And who can blame you?” asked the black guy. He handed Clint a coffee and Clint wrapped his hands around it gratefully.
“Sorry,” he said to him. “I don’t know the you in my world. Are you an Avenger here?”
The guy glanced over at Cap. “The last Clint didn’t know me either. I guess the other mes are more sensible than I am, and didn’t get mixed up in all this superhero crap.” He held a hand out to Clint. “I’m Sam Wilson. I spent too much time hanging out with Steve and kinda became an Avenger by default.”
Clint shook his hand. “Good to meet you.”
“Oh sure, blame me,” muttered Rogers.
Barnes snorted. “You realise I could pretty much say the same thing, right?”
“If it helps, it was answering a call from Sam that screwed me over,” said the other guy Clint didn’t know. “I’m Scott Lang,” he said to Clint. “In case my awesome hasn’t spread to your universe yet.”
The name rang a bell. Clint glanced over and frowned at him. “Oh, hey, aren’t you the guy that took over from Hank Pym? I read a file about you.”
“Hah, I am totally a superhero in multiple universes,” said Lang with a grin. “Awesome.”
“Not really a superhero,” said Clint. “More like a person of interest that SHIELD are keeping an eye on in case they need to shut you down.”
Lang shrugged. “I’ll take it. It means I’m not still a criminal.”
Wilson coughed. “On the run from the UN,” he pointed out.
“Not in my world,” said Clint. “Well, not yet.”
The door opened again and Wanda came in. She looked tireder than the Wanda Clint had met in the last world, and she only spared Clint a nod before turning to Cap. “Steve, there is something on the television that you should see.”
Steve nodded and headed for the door. Wanda glanced around at the others. “You may want to see it as well.”
Clint glanced at Nugud. “Are we done for now?”
She was buried in a computer screen, staring at reams of data, and just waved a dismissive hand at him, so he followed the others to another room nearby, which had been set up as a lounge. A TV in the corner was showing CNN with footage of Iron Man, special forces and a weird-looking purple guy with a cape fighting AIM.
“Oh, hey,” said Clint. “We fought those fuckers in my world, the day before yesterday.”
“So did Tony and Vision,” said Wilson, grimly. “I guess they came back.”
“Vision’s the purple guy?” asked Clint.
“Yeah,” said Wilson. “He’s sort of an android; it’s complicated.”
“You don’t have him in your world?” asked Wanda.
Clint shook his head, frowning as he watched the fight unfolding. The Iron Man suit was looking pretty battered and there was a wobble to the way it was flying that he recognised from the end of particularly hard battles.
“In my world, we tracked AIM back to their base and wiped them out,” he said. “We arrested the whole cell.”
And then Stark and Rogers had got stuck on one of their endless rows over whether or not civilian consultants needed to go to debrief and Clint had snuck off home while they were distracted.
On screen, an AIM agent fired an enormous gun that sent out a splay of blue light that clearly packed a punch. Vision was thrown off course by it, crashing into a building before he could right himself.
“This is the third incident involving the Avengers and AIM in the last forty-eight hours,” said the reporter. “The previous engagements ended when AIM retreated but it’s clear they are far from being fully defeated.”
Iron Man swooped over, sending a repulsor blast at a group of AIM agents who had pinned down a handful of special forces. Two AIM agents stood up from behind a vehicle with rocket launchers on their shoulders and sent missiles after him. He managed to dodge the first one, but couldn’t seem to quite avoid the second, which exploded a few inches from his shoulder, sending him into a freefall that he only managed to pull up from a few feet from the ground.
“They’re getting their asses kicked,” said Wilson.
Vision landed in front of the barricades AIM were firing from and sent a laser beam from his forehead towards them, cutting through turned over vehicles and weaponry and drawing a barrage of gunfire.
“Okay, that laser thing is cool,” Clint said.
Wanda nodded. “He can also adjust his density, so he can walk through things or become completely invulnerable,” she said, and it sounded like a boast.
Clint watched as Vision faded into transparency as a grenade exploded next to him, sending up shrapnel that just passed through him.
“Nice,” he agreed.
The AIM agent with the blue weapon ducked around a corner and fired it at Vision again. It engulfed him for a moment and he seemed to lose control of his density, returning to normal just in time for another explosion to catch him, fire engulfing his cape.
“Shit,” said Lang. “What the hell is that gun?”
“Nothing I’ve seen before,” said Rogers, tensely.
“They didn’t have that when we fought them,” put in Clint. “But then, we don’t have a Vision.”
Iron Man flew over, sending scattered missiles out at the AIM agents just as special forces led a charge. Vision shook his cape, putting out the flames, and followed them, sending out another laser beam.
AIM scattered after another ten minutes of fighting, leaping into vehicles and heading off, but it was clearly a retreat rather than a defeat. Rather than chasing after them, Iron Man and Vision stayed with special forces, securing the area. Stark pulled off his helmet and bent over to examine some damage to the leg of his suit.
“He looks exhausted,” said Wilson, quietly.
“AIM won’t give up,” added Wanda. “Until that cell has been wiped out, they’ll keep coming. Remember Lima?”
Clint did remember Lima, which had involved far too much tracking around the city looking for a hidden base while being ambushed from all sides. He'd ended up being benched with cracked ribs before they'd even found it and had watched the final assault from SHIELD's mobile headquarters, trying to ignore Agent Fowler glaring at him and flexing the wrist he'd shattered in the helicarrier attack meaningfully.
“Even if Rhodey's back on his feet, he's nowhere near combat ready,” said Wilson. “So, it's just gonna be the two of them.”
Rogers gritted his teeth. “Tony has my number. Any time he decides he wants assistance, he just has to call.”
Clint blinked. Wait, what? He was waiting for a phone call before stepping in and helping take down AIM? A phone call from Tony Stark?
“You’re going to wait for Stark to ask for help?” he asked. “Seriously? I mean, I don’t know the guy that well, but I do know exactly how stubborn he is. He won’t ask for help until it’s the absolute last minute, which is gonna be far too late to get over to him from here.”
“You don’t understand the situation here, so don’t get involved,” said Rogers with a hard glare.
Clint held both his hands up defensively. “Okay, fair enough. I do understand AIM though, and Wanda’s right. They need to be tracked back to their base and wiped out, or they’ll keep coming. And, hey, I bet you ten bucks that their base is in the same place it was in my world, which means I know where it is.”
“Steve, we need to at least tell them that,” said Wilson.
Rogers shook his head, then his shoulders slumped. “I’ll send him a text.”
“Oh for...” said Wilson, then he stepped forward, snaking a hand into Cap’s pocket. Rogers tried to fend him off but Barnes stepped forward, catching his wrist and giving Wilson a chance to pull out a phone and back away, out of range.
Rogers glared at Barnes. “I’da thought you’d be the least eager to get involved with Tony again.”
Barnes shrugged. “It’s the right thing to do,” he said. “We can’t go letting the bad guys win. Not again.”
Wilson had already dialed and put the phone to his ear. On the TV screen, Stark suddenly straightened, rammed his helmet back on, and took off. A moment later, the phone was picked up.
“I swear, Cap, if you’re just calling to gloat,” Stark could be clearly heard saying as Wilson switched to speaker.
“It’s Sam, Tony,” said Wilson. “And no one’s doing any gloating. Well, maybe AIM, but I reckon that’s at all our expense, not just yours.”
“Okay, great, thanks for that, now what are you calling for?” asked Stark. “Cuz, I’m kinda busy.”
Wilson glanced over at Clint. “We know where their base is,” said Clint. “They’ve got a warehouse by the docks with a tunnel down to an underwater base outside of the harbour.”
“You’re freaking kidding me,” said Stark. “Underwater? For fuck’s sake.” He let out a long sigh. “Doesn’t matter much, anyhow. We don’t have the resources for a full assault on something that’s gonna have the kind of defences that AIM go in for.”
Wilson gave Rogers a pointed look that made him scowl.
“You’ve got special forces there,” said Clint.
“Yeah, and they’ve just had the shit kicked out of them, same as me and Vision, and they’re trying to regroup before the next attack comes through,” said Stark. “I guess we could call in the Army -or the Navy, I suppose, if they’re underwater- but with the kind of weapons AIM has, there’d be casualties. There’s a reason the Avengers were always called in to help with them.”
There was another awkward pause, during which everyone turned to look at Rogers with varying amounts of meaningful glare.
“Not your problem though,” said Stark eventually. “Thanks for the info, have a good day.”
“Wait,” said Cap, heavily. “Tony.”
“Hey, Steve,” returned Stark, “I thought we were just pretending you weren’t there.”
Steve ignored that. “Tony. If we come over and help, are you going to arrest us?”
There was a long silence, then a sigh. “I guess not. I mean, I can’t speak for the UN or whatever, if they catch wind where you are, but as far as the Avengers are concerned, you’ll get a free pass for this one. Getting AIM contained is the priority.”
Cap nodded to himself, staring down at the phone for a long moment before he took a deep breath. “We’ll be there in a few hours.”
There was a sigh of relief that Clint was willing to bet they weren't meant to have heard. “Okay,” said Stark. “It’s about a seven hour flight on a stolen quinjet from Wakanda, right? Or am I meant to be pretending I don’t know where you are?”
“I don’t think anyone here thought you wouldn’t have tracked us down by now,” said Cap. “We’ll call when we’re close.”
“Right,” said Stark. “Steve-” He paused, then let out a sigh. “Thanks.”
He hung up.
Steve clenched his jaw, then looked around at the others. “This is a strictly voluntary mission. Anyone who doesn’t want to risk it, doesn’t have to come. No one’s going to judge you.”
“I’m coming,” said Wanda.
“Yeah,” said Wilson. “No way I’m letting you go off on your own again, bad shit always seems to happen when I do that.”
“I’ve already taken down this base, I don’t mind doing it again,” said Clint. “I’m guessing the other me has some equipment I can use?”
“And if you get swapped out for another Clint before we get there?” asked Wilson.
Clint shrugged. “You’ll have to ask him. I can’t speak for any other Clints, but I’m not staying behind just in case there’s an alternate universe version of myself that’s prepared to let AIM just do whatever the fuck they want.” Plus it meant the scientists wouldn't be able to poke at him anymore.
“Fair enough,” said Lang. “I’m coming too, by the way. Sounds way more interesting than playing frisbee.”
Cap looked at T’Challa. “Is the quinjet available to take out?”
T’Challa nodded. “I’ll ask my people to get it ready for you, if you’re certain this is the best plan.”
“I’m coming,” said Barnes, pretty much out of nowhere.
Rogers turned to glare at him. “No, you’re not.”
“If you’re going into a fight, then I’ve got your back,” said Barnes. “That’s pretty much how it goes, Steve.”
“You’re down an arm, and you’ve got the biggest target on you,” said Rogers. “You’re sitting this one out.”
“I can fight better with one arm than any AIM guy can on his best day,” said Barnes, dismissively. “I’m not staying behind.”
“If all the scientists weren’t busy with Clint, you’d have insisted on being frozen again, hours ago,” said Steve. “You wouldn’t be coming then, either.”
Barnes’s glare turned into a glower. “I thought you wanted me to stay awake longer. If you go, I’ll be in cryo before you get back.”
“Don’t pull that on me,” said Rogers, taking a step towards him. “You know how I feel about you spending all your time frozen, don’t use that against me.”
Clint noticed that the others were quietly backing out of the immediate radius of the two of them. He glanced over at Wilson, who gave a shrug and an eyebrow raise that implied he should be moving away as well.
“And you know how I feel about backing you up,” said Barnes, taking a step closer and hunching his shoulders as if preparing for a fight. “Same way I’ve felt since the twenties. I ain’t staying behind.”
“I’m not taking someone who’s down an arm into a fight,” returned Rogers.
T’Challa took a step forward and cleared his throat, pulling their glares away from each other and aiming them at him instead. “I may have a solution to that.”
“What?” growled Barnes.
“My people recovered your arm from the bunker,” said T’Challa. “They’ve been working on it since then. The lead technician told me yesterday that he thought they were in a position to reattach it.”
Barnes just stared at him, and for the first time since Clint had woken up here, he didn’t look even a little bit grumpy. “You’ve got my arm,” he repeated, sounding shell-shocked.
“Why the hell didn’t you say anything?” asked Rogers.
“We weren’t sure we would be able to do anything with it,” said T’Challa. “I didn’t want to get any hopes up, and then it felt wrong to speak to anyone else about it before Bucky. I had intended to speak to you about it earlier today,” he said to Barnes, “but I’m afraid the incident with Clint distracted me.”
Barnes glanced over at Clint as if he'd forgotten about him. Clint gave him a shrug. “Sorry, man.”
“How long would reattaching it take?” asked Cap.
T’Challa shrugged. “An hour or two, they think.”
Barnes turned back on Rogers and darted a finger at him, prodding him in the chest. “You’re not going without me. You’re going to damn well wait, then let me come with you, with both arms.”
Cap hesitated then nodded. “Yeah, okay, Bucky. We’ll wait.”
Barnes slapped his shoulder in thanks, then turned on T’Challa. “Where do we go?”
“This way,” said T’Challa, waving him towards the door, and they both left.
“Are you sure about this?” asked Wilson. “Tony and Bucky in the same place?”
Rogers nodded. “I trust Tony to keep his word, and if Bucky wants to help, we’ll let him help. It’s better for him than just spending all his time frozen.”
“You’re hoping it will make him want to stay awake,” said Wanda, glancing after Barnes with a considering look.
Cap didn’t respond to that. “Okay, I want everyone ready in an hour. We need to go as soon as Bucky’s done.”
Clint nodded along with the others, relief at having something he could actually do running through him. He'd spent enough time caught up in the kind of science crap that he usually tried to avoid. Now he just really wanted to shoot something.
They all gathered in the lounge where the TV was still showing CNN, cutting between footage from the two fights against AIM and an interview with Stark in which he did his best to sound confident, but came across all too clearly as exhausted, especially if you knew him well enough to see past the media smile. Clint knew his Stark just about well enough for that.
Cap had his suit on but the shield was conspicuously absent as he hovered by the door, clearly preoccupied by waiting for Barnes to get back. Wilson was wearing a fairly standard black combat outfit but had a fancy-looking metal backpack propped by his feet that didn’t tell Clint a whole lot about what his superpower or special ability or whatever was. Was it rude to ask?
Lang was slouched on the sofa next to him in the same clothes he’d been wearing earlier. “I thought we were suiting up?” Clint asked him.
Lang shrugged. “We’ve got seven hours on a small plane first. My gear is way too uncomfortable for me to want to travel long-haul in it.”
Clint had slept in his gear more times than he wanted to think about, occasionally while standing up, but he nodded anyway.
All Wanda had done was put on a red jacket and a pair of gloves, although she had also filled a bag with bottles of water and some snacks.
“Good thinking,” said Clint, glancing at them.
She snorted. “You only go on a seven hour plane journey with Steve without taking any food along once.”
“You should try going on a roadtrip with both him and Barnes,” said Wilson. “We had to stop for more snacks about once an hour.”
“I can hear you, you know,” said Rogers.
“And you’ve made sure to pack your own food?” asked Wilson, pointedly.
Rogers opened his mouth, then glanced down at his belt and patted one of the pouches. His shoulders slumped. “I’ll go and pick up some snack bars.”
“Yeah, you do that,” said Wilson. “And get some for Barnes as well, I’m not dealing with him being all grumpy cat just cuz he’s hungry.”
Rogers rolled his eyes. “You realise we’ll need to spend most of the flight sleeping, in order to be rested up for the fight?”
“And then you’ll be waking up and wanting breakfast,” said Wanda. She patted the bag beside her. “But don’t worry, I’m prepared.”
“Hey, does your quinjet have a coffee machine?” asked Clint.
Lang’s head whipped around. “Your quinjet has a coffee machine?!”
“Nah,” said Clint. “I guess I just live in hope.”
Lang slumped. “Oh man, that would be the best if it did. Hey, Steve-”
“No,” said Steve.
“Tony would have done it,” said Wanda, quietly.
Not quietly enough. Steve turned a glare on her, then pushed open the door and stalked out in the direction of the kitchen.
“Nice going,” said Wilson. She just rolled her eyes at him.
It took another hour for Barnes to turn up. Everyone’s eyes immediately riveted on the shiny silver metal of his new arm. He shifted self-consciously.
“How is it?” asked Rogers.
Barnes shrugged. “Feels okay. Guess we’ll find out when I try and fight with it.”
T’Challa and Nugud came in together. “The quinjet is ready on the airfield for you,” T’Challa said to Rogers. “I’ve arranged for a car to take you there.”
Cap nodded. “Thank you.”
Nugud looked over at Clint. “We’ve confirmed the same readings that the Tony Stark told you about in the last universe, but we’re not sure how we’re going to solve the problem of locating the correct universe to send you to. We’re going to keep working on it, but it looks as if it will take a while, and that’s without having to build a machine that will allow inter-dimensional travel.”
Clint nodded. “Okay, so, I’m stuck here long enough to go on a jaunt to beat up AIM?”
She shrugged. “Unless another universe puts something together and sends their Clint on.”
“And then we’ll all go bumping on to the next world again like dominoes,” said Clint with a sigh. “Yeah, great.”
“We’ll need to keep someone with him once we go into the base,” said Barnes. “If he shifts over, someone will need to make sure the Barton that replaces him is up for a fight.”
Rogers sent him a sly look. “Are you volunteering?”
“Sure,” said Barnes. “And you can stick close to Stark.” He gave Rogers a shit-eatingly smug grin that lit up his whole face and, wow, he really was very hot, no wonder the Clint from the last universe was shacked up with his version of him.
Clint pulled his gaze away and cleared his throat. “I’m sure it’ll be fine. Surely no one will send us on until they’ve worked out how to get us to the right places, and your Clint can handle a fight, right?”
“Sure,” said Lang. “Just, you know, he’s kinda pissed with Tony Stark still, so he might go after him rather than AIM.”
“Nah, he’s a professional,” said Wilson. “He’ll go after AIM and then Tony.”
“No one is going after Tony, unless he goes after them first,” said Rogers, firmly. “We’re going to be professional about this.”
“With both Scott and Clint on the team?” asked Wanda, sceptically.
Cap ignored her with what looked like an heroic effort of willpower. “Let’s go.”
Clint managed half an hour of dozing, but he’d only been awake for a few hours since he’d slept in the last world and he wasn’t that keen on sleeping around so many strangers anyway. In the end, he relieved Wilson from his piloting shift and settled into the quiet routine of a night flight.
After about ten minutes, Barnes got up from where he was slumped against the wall and came over to sit in the co-pilot’s seat instead. Clint glanced over at him. “Can’t sleep either?”
Barnes shrugged. “I spend pretty much all my time asleep.”
“Wakanda can’t be that dull,” said Clint.
“Nah, it’s- I’ve been in cryogenic stasis,” said Barnes. “It’s safer that way. They wake me up once a month for a health check, it just happened to be today.”
“Safer,” repeated Clint. “Something I should know before I go into a fight with you?”
Barnes was silent for a few minutes. Clint waited it out, watching the moon disappear behind a straggle of cloud and then reappear again.
“Did they tell you in the last world about my past?” asked Barnes, eventually.
“Yeah,” said Clint. “The Barnes there gave me a rundown, told me what to watch out for if we found the Barnes in my world.”
Barnes frowned. “What did he say? He told you to be careful, right?”
“Yeah, yeah, don’t worry. I’m under strict instructions to get the hell out of the way if he’s still, you know, all Hydra, and get my Cap to intervene instead,” said Clint. “Seriously though, I am an Avenger and a SHIELD agent, I’m not exactly defenceless.”
Barnes shook his head. “You ain’t prepared to deal with me,” he said, flatly. “Trust me. Unless you’ve got some crazy superpower that the Barton here doesn’t, it’s not worth risking.”
“You mean, other than my wit, charm and all-round incredible levels of awesome?” asked Clint, trying to hide his irritation. He might not be a super-soldier, but he was the best damn agent SHIELD had, along with Natasha, and when they sparred he was just as likely to win as she was, and that was without his bow in his hands.
“Yeah, other than those,” said Barnes, rolling his eyes. “They’re not exactly gonna help you in a fight, especially not against a guy who’s been programmed to just keep coming until you’re dead.”
Clint made a face. “They worked on Natasha,” he said, then wanted to smack himself. Once he’d noticed that no one here had mentioned Natasha and that there was no sign of her either in Wakanda or with Stark’s team, he’d decided that he was going to avoid finding out if she was dead or missing, or still working for the Red Room or whatever. This whole thing was stressful enough as it was without having to deal with something shit having happened to Natasha, even an alternate universe version of her.
Barnes shrugged one shoulder. “I can’t speak for what went on between you and Romanov. The other you doesn’t ever talk about her.”
That didn’t really clarify much. Clint bit at the inside of his lip and concentrated on flying for a moment to stop himself picturing all the bad shit that might have happened to Natasha. Oh shit, the Clint here hadn’t ended up killing her when Loki had control of him, had he?
The thought made him feel so ill that for a moment he thought he was going to have to hand control over to Barnes so that he could go throw up, especially when he realised that even if that hadn’t happened here, there must be a universe where it had happened and if things kept on like they were, there was a chance he’d end up seeing it.
Definitely time to change the subject.
“The other Barnes said I needed to make friends with you, well, with the you in my universe, whatever, this is way too confusing. He said that Cap was the one to break through the conditioning, but being friends with his Clint was what brought him back to himself and reminded him who he was.”
Barnes frowned at that, then shook his head. “I don’t know about that. It feels like I know who I am, it’s just I can’t trust that to stay the same.”
“I’m guessing you don’t get much time to make friends if you’re in cryo all the time,” said Clint.
“There's no point,” said Barnes. “What's the use in making friends if it just gives someone access to turn me back into a weapon?” He pressed his lips tightly together, then added, “That’s what you need to know if we’re gonna fight together. There’s a set of Russian words, they sound like nonsense, but they implanted them in my brain. Someone says them, I just become their puppet, follow all their orders, kill anyone they aim me at.”
He said it in the same blank, impersonal voice that the other Barnes had used when talking about what Hydra had done to him. Clint took a deep breath, trying to push back the memory of being Loki’s puppet, of killing the agents he’d been aimed at. Shit. How the hell did the Clint from the last world deal with being in a relationship with a guy who brought up all the horrific shit that Clint had done his absolute best not to think about for the last five years?
His hands were clinging to the steering column so tightly that it started to push the quinjet into a dive and he had to correct himself. The dark outside seemed less peaceful now and more like it was pressing in on all sides. He tried another couple of deep breaths, but his breath caught in his throat and, shit, this was not good, he couldn’t do this now, not in front of a bunch of Avengers from another universe. He needed to show that he was just as good as their Clint, just as capable in a fight and definitely not a liability.
“You don’t need to worry,” said Barnes, clenching his hands into fists and glancing away. “AIM won’t have the trigger, I’ll be fine, and Steve’ll be there anyway.”
The moon came back out from behind a cloud, beaming a shiny silver path onto the sea below them. Something about the cold glint of it made Clint think of Loki’s sceptre, pressing into his chest and ripping away who he was.
You have heart, whispered in his ear and he couldn’t cope with this shit right now. He bit hard at the inside of his cheek, hoping the pain would pull his brain out of the spiral it was heading down.
“You okay?” asked Barnes.
“Fine,” gritted Clint.
“No, you ain’t,” said Barnes. “You want me to wake someone?”
“Fuck, no,” said Clint. He squeezed his eyes shut for a long moment, then opened them again to stare out of the front window. C’mon, Hawkeye, slow, deep breaths. Get it together.
He was very aware of Barnes frowning at him, clearly trying to work out what this reaction was in aid of.
“Hey,” said Barnes, “it’s okay. Whatever it is, it's not here.” He reached out for Clint and his hand hesitated over his shoulder for a moment before coming down, giving Clint a tentative pat.
Clint took a deep breath, and then another one, pushing Loki’s voice back down. Loki wasn’t there, he was in a prison cell in Asgard in another dimension. There was no way he could reach Clint.
“Sorry,” he said.
“Don’t apologise,” said Barnes. “Just, you know, take deep breaths. Whatever you’re scared of ain’t gonna happen.”
Clint snorted. “It already fucking has,” he muttered, then concentrated on just breathing until the panic had been pushed back. Barnes kept his hand on Clint’s shoulder the whole time, rubbing in little circles that were far more soothing than Clint really wanted to admit to. He remembered the Barnes in the last world doing the same thing, and wished like hell there was someone in his world who would do that for him.
“You want to talk about it?” asked Barnes once Clint had himself back under control.
Clint shook his head. “Don’t want to talk about it, don’t want to think about it.”
“Right,” said Barnes. “And how’s that going for you?”
Clint sent him a glare that was probably a bit weak, especially as he didn’t want to do anything right now that might make Barnes move his hand. “You think I should just get myself frozen so I don’t have to think about it instead?”
Barnes’s look of concern melted into a glare that was already becoming familiar to Clint. “That’s not the same thing.”
Clint shook his head. “I kinda think it is,” he said. “Did your Clint tell you about Loki?”
Barnes shook his head.
Right, of course not. That would be too easy. Clint tried his best at the emotionless voice that Barnes used to talk about his past and just threw it all out before he could think twice about it. “An Asgardian called Loki took over my mind for three days. Some kind of magic thing that made me want to do nothing other than follow his orders, even when his orders were to attack SHIELD and take out my best friend.”
Saying it out loud made the dark edges of panic creep back, and he had to grit his teeth to push them back again.
“Yeah, okay,” said Barnes, quietly. “Maybe it is.” He squeezed Clint’s shoulder. “I guess I’m seeing why being friends with a version of you might have helped the other me.”
Clint nodded, then took a deep breath and shook his head. “Okay,” he said, trying to keep it breezy. “Enough depressing bullshit. Tell me something highly ridiculous that Cap did when you were kids that I can tease my Cap about when I get home.”
Barnes laughed. “Oh, I’ve got a whole bunch of stories like that. We might need a longer flight time.”
Clint returned the grin. “I’m sure AIM won’t mind waiting a couple more hours.”
Clint had been at least three-quarters of the way asleep, slumped on the bunk in the cell and wondering how much more proof he’d have to come up with to convince this Steve that he really was from another dimension when he was hit by a blow that kicked him into another dimension.
Finding himself crouched on top of cupboard with a bow clutched in his hands and robots crawling through a hole in the wall was a very sudden wake-up call.
“Shit!” he said, hands automatically pulling out an arrow and shooting a robot. “What the hell is going on?”
Steve was using a wrench to batter a robot into submission nearby. He glanced over at him. “Hawkeye?”
“Hey, Cap,” said Clint, shooting another arrow and realising where he was. This was Reed’s lab in the Baxter Building, and through the holes in the wall he could see the familiar and very welcome sight of New York. Reed and Sue were ganging up on the Mad Thinker on the other side of the room, and he could hear Tony’s repulsors firing outside. Oh, thank fuck. “Guess who’s back?” he added.
Steve sent him a distracted smile, then threw the robot he was whaling on out of the hole. Clint shot the last one trying to crawl in through the hole, and then the lab was empty of all the bad guys except the Mad Thinker.
Clint jumped down from his perch and aimed an arrow at him at the same time as Steve turned to round on him. Reed had one bendy arm wrapped around his wrist and Sue was holding up a forcefield that shimmered in a bubble around him.
The Mad Thinker glanced around at them with a scowl. “Damn you, Richards!” he declared, then pulled out a smoke grenade and threw it to the ground, distracting them all enough to get away and dash back out the window, where he was caught by one of his robots and flew off.
“I hate that guy,” said Sue with a sigh, running her hand over her hair.
Reed frowned around at his lab. “He’s made a terrible mess. Again.”
Tony flew in and landed on the ground, his facemask popping up. “He’s just got no consideration for the scientific process.”
“Okay, I think we’re all missing the main point here,” said Clint. “Hey guys, I’m back! I went to another dimension and survived to tell the tale, and wow, you would not believe how badly the Avengers there had fucked things up.” He glanced around as Bruce came out of the kitchen with the kind of stressed look that meant he’d been forcing himself to be calm to avoid a visitation from the Hulk. “Hey, is Bucky around somewhere? I’m guessing he’s been a bit nuts without me, I should probably make sure he knows I’m back okay.”
There was a long pause.
“Bucky?” repeated Tony, slowly. “Who the hell is Bucky?”
Steve’s face had gone white. He grabbed Clint by the shoulders and backed him up against the wall. “What do you know about Bucky?!” he demanded.
From Clint’s new vantage point, he could see the Tower through the hole in the wall but instead of the familiar Avengers logo on the side, it said Stark.
“Ah crap,” he said, leaning his head back against the wall with resignation. “I’m not home.”
Steve pressed him harder against the wall. “What do you know about Bucky?” he repeated in an insistent voice.
“I know loads of stuff,” said Clint. “I know he sleeps best with his back to a wall, I know his best subject at school was math, and I know that if he thinks you’re about to do something dangerous, nine times out of ten he’ll step in and do it himself instead. What I don’t know is what he’s like in this universe.”
Steve stared at him for another long moment, then let go and took a step back. “He’s dead in this universe,” he said, in a harsh voice.
“Oh,” said Clint, and had to take a moment. Not your Bucky, he reminded himself. His Bucky, the one he was ridiculously in love with, was still alive and well. Clint just had to work out how to get back to him.
“He fell from a train in 1944,” added Steve. “How the hell do you know him in 2016?”
“Uh,” said Clint, then glanced around at his audience. “Okay, wait, was his body ever found? Cuz, he might still be alive here too.”
Steve’s eyes widened and his hands clenched into fists. “Don’t mess with me.”
“I’m not,” said Clint, holding his hands up. “I’m really, really not. Just, Bucky is alive and well in my world, and he was around in the one I’ve just come from, and they both fell from that same train, so it seems like maybe he could be around here as well.”
“Well, that’s definitely a thing,” said Tony, glancing at Steve with concern.
Steve look as if he was seconds away from just punching the nearest thing, which at this point was Clint. “The other Barton knew something from my childhood that I didn’t think any version of me would have told him,” he said. “That lying bastard, why the hell didn’t he say anything?”
“Uh, possibly because he knew it would end like this?” said Tony, stepping in closer and taking Steve’s shoulder. “C’mon, Cap, keep it calm.”
Steve shook him off and paced away to the hole in the wall, then turned back. “The Winter Soldier,” he said, and Clint couldn’t stop himself from flinching. “He was real cagey when he was telling me about him.”
“Yeah,” said Clint. “He would be.” He glanced at Tony. “Uh, can I get a rundown on what’s been going on here?”
Tony shrugged. “The Mad Thinker built some machine that kicked all the Hawkeyes out of place. We’ve been trying to sort it out, but we kinda got distracted.” He gestured at the nearest destroyed robot.
“He said that there was a problem with SHIELD,” said Steve. “Gave me some info that included this legendary assassin that I wasn’t allowed to hurt because he was brainwashed.”
A problem with SHIELD. Well, if SHIELD was still around here, that would be a problem, especially if the Bucky here was still under Hydra's control.
Clint nodded. “Well, he wasn’t wrong.”
“Wait, what?” said Tony. “Is that what you two went off to whisper about?” He glanced at Steve. “Why the hell did he need to tell you that in private?”
Steve looked shifty as fuck, then shook it off. “Doesn’t matter,” he said. “If Bucky is this Winter Soldier, then I’m going to get him.”
“I’ll come,” said Clint, straightening up.
“No!” said Richards. “We still have readings to take, we need to-”
“That can wait,” said Clint. “If there’s a Bucky Barnes in this world that’s still under Hydra’s thumb, I can’t leave him. Not and still be able to look my Bucky in the eyes.”
He slung the bow over his shoulder and looked at Steve. “We’ll need everyone,” he said, “if we’re going after Project Insight. It took the whole team last time.”
Steve frowned. “The other Barton wasn’t sure who we could trust.”
Clint snorted. “We can trust our team, c’mon. Unless you’ve invited fucking Rumlow or someone onto the team, no one’s going to take Hydra’s side over ours.”
Steve’s eyes cut over to Tony and then away. “He said there might be other considerations,” he said, carefully.
Clint blinked and then groaned. “Oh man, this is because all the guys in his world are paranoid as fuck, and his Steve fucked up being open and honest, and then his Tony fucked up being a rational human being.”
“Hey!” said Tony. “I’ve no idea what you’re talking about, but I can totally do rational.” There was a sceptical pause and he frowned. “Oh, screw you guys.”
Steve shook his head. “This is immaterial. I don’t care what happened in another world, I care what happens in this one, and what happens to Bucky.”
“Then you’ll need a team,” said Clint. “Trust me, we’ll have to take on half of Hydra. Where are the others?”
“What others?” asked Tony. “Romanov is on a mission, that’s pretty much everyone. Thor’s on Asgard, but Thor’s pretty much always on Asgard these days.”
Clint glanced around and took a deep breath. “Okay, fine. Well, I guess we’ve got the advantage of one of us having done this before.” He glanced at the quiver he’d been using, and pulled a face. “I’m gonna need more arrows before we go. Can we stop off at the Tower?”
Steve and Tony exchanged looks. “You don’t have any arrows at the Tower,” said Tony. “I mean, unless Barton has stockpiled them in the airvents, which I wouldn’t put past him.”
Right, of course. Stark’s name on the tower, not the Avengers. “Where does he live, then?” he asked. “Aw man, he’s not still at the SHIELD base, is he? Their barracks suck.”
“They’re not that bad,” said Steve, defensively.
“Barton’s got an apartment in Brooklyn,” said Tony.
“And a dog,” added Bruce.
Clint felt his eyes light up. “A dog? He’s got a dog? Aw man, that’s not fair, why don’t I have a dog?”
“That’s almost exactly what the last Barton said,” observed Bruce. He glanced at Tony, then back at the lab. “I’m gonna sit this one out, unless you’re sure you need the other guy. I'll help Reed get his lab back in order so we can get back to working out how to get our Hawkeye back.”
“Good plan,” said Tony. “I mean, we can’t let the dog be abandoned, right?”
“You have equipment at the base,” Steve said to Clint. “I’ll have to go there anyway, to get my stuff.” He looked around at the others. “Okay, Barton comes with me, everyone else get their stuff and we’ll meet at Tony’s tower to plan how to get to DC.”
Johnny and Sue exchanged looks. “We’ll come,” said Sue. “Reed’s the only one that needs to stay to work on the trans-dimensional transporter.”
“I’ll dig Ben out from wherever he’s been hiding and get him along too,” added Johnny.
“Okay,” said Clint. “Good.” He looked over at Steve’s clenched fists, then back at Tony, who was frowning over at Steve with a worried look that Clint had a feeling he didn't want seen. “Just, don’t say anything to anyone outside of this room about it,” he said. “We don’t know who we can trust.”
There were nods from everyone, then Clint followed Steve out of the room, wondering if there was some excuse he could come up with to go to the other Clint’s apartment and see his dog.
He didn’t get a lot of smiles back, but that might have been because he was next to Steve, who marched through the base with his shoulders hunched as if he were heading out on a suicide mission.
He led Clint up to a room on the second floor that was filled with equipment. Clint immediately located Hawkeye’s locker, which had an arrow painted on the door in purple paint.
“Nice,” he said, throwing it open and taking in the array of arrows and two spare bows inside. He pulled the quiver off his shoulder and started clipping in arrows to replace those he’d lost in the fight with the Mad Thinker and his robots.
Steve opened another locker and pulled out a suit. He reached to take off his shirt, clearly intending to get changed now.
“Hey, don’t go getting changed until we’re at the tower,” said Clint. “We don’t want anyone wondering why Hawkeye and Captain America are suiting up.”
Steve hesitated, then pulled his shirt back down. “I’ll get a bag for it,” he said. “Wait here.”
Clint finished filling up the quiver, then stashed a few more arrows in a bag. He inspected the other bows, checking which was the best, but ended up keeping the one he already had. He shut the locker again, then traced his fingers over the arrow. His symbol was just the best. He glanced around and noted the shield on the locker Steve had opened earlier, a green fist that Clint was betting Bruce hated on another locker, and a red and black hourglass. He opened that one and took in the empty spaces that Natasha had left when she’d got ready for whatever mission she was on.
Should he leave a note in case she got back while they were taking Hydra out? It was probably going to put her in a bad position if they outed the Hydra elements in SHIELD while she was on a mission.
A note in the locker probably wasn’t the best way to communicate ‘the spy organisation you’re working for is evil and may try to kill you’. He felt around the pockets of the tac suit he was in until he found a battered cell phone. Finding Natasha’s contact on it was easy enough, but framing the text was harder. If Hydra had any sense, they’d be monitoring the other Clint’s communications in case he caught on to their existence. Would the codewords that he and his Natasha had worked out in his world be the same as the ones that the Natasha here knew?
In the end, he kept it simple. Call me when you’re back. I’ve been so bored, I’ve talked to no one, not even myself.
Even if she didn’t know the code not even myself, which meant trust no one, that should still get her calling him to see what was up.
The door opened and he glanced over his shoulder, expecting to see Steve. Instead, it was three agents, only one of whom he recognised although he couldn’t remember his name. From the looks on their faces, they knew him. But then, everyone knew him. He was an Avenger, and fucking awesome.
“Hey, guys,” he said. “What’s up?”
“Just checking you’re not about to blow the base up,” said one of them.
“Watch out, he’s armed,” said one of the others. “Don’t rile him up, you might get shot. Like Hank did.”
Clint stared at them. “Seriously?” he said. “You’re being dicks about the time I was brainwashed, which stands out as the single worst event of my life?”
From their frowns, that wasn’t the reaction they were expecting, but they persevered. “Pretty sure it was worse for Hank,” said the one Clint recognised. “Not to mention Hank’s wife.”
Clint could place him now. Agent Fowler, whose face he’d last seen on an ID board of known Hydra agents.
“Or his daughter,” added one of the others.
Clint gritted his teeth. He’d spent a lot of time coming to turns with what had happened when he'd attacked the helicarrier, trying to get his brain to place the blame on Loki where it belonged. He hadn’t fully managed that until he’d started trying to help Bucky deal with his own shit, so he had a feeling the Clint from this world wouldn’t be coping with this confrontation very well at all.
“She’ll be nine now,” said the first agent. “I wonder if she remembers her daddy much at all?”
Clint took a deep breath. “Okay, you know what? This is a dangerous gig, and Hank knew that. And okay, maybe no one was expecting a mind-controlling alien god to come bursting through a portal, but it wasn’t like Hank got a job as an accountant. Which is all beside the point, because what the fuck are you doing, putting this on me? The guy who killed Hank was Loki, who the Avengers beat to a fucking pulp and then sent to be imprisoned on another world. The Avengers including me, by the way, where the fuck were you guys when we were fighting off an alien fucking invasion?”
They all looked pretty taken aback by that, especially when Steve cleared his throat from behind them and they realised they were being watched by Captain America.
“I gotta say, three guys ganging up to bully someone who has proved himself a hero several times over seems a bit hard to me,” he said.
The agents glanced at each and clearly decided that discretion was the better part of valour, especially in the face of Captain America, and sloped off.
“That happen a lot?” Clint asked Steve.
Steve glanced after the agents with a frown. “I think it happens more than Barton lets on,” he said. “I should probably be paying more attention.”
Clint shrugged. “Or he should be doing something about it.” He slung his filled quiver over his shoulder. “C’mon, let’s get to the tower.”
This penthouse lacked all the personal touches that had accumulated over the years. The only sign that it was more than just a show home for the rich and famous was the handful of Starktech lying on the table, and the bar that took over half one wall.
“Oh, hey,” said Clint, looking at it. “We persuaded my Tony to replace that with a pool table so that I could kick Bucky’s ass. Also, Pietro and Wanda’s asses. And, actually, Tony’s and- you know what? I kick everyone’s ass at pool. I’m just that damn good.”
Steve twitched at the mention of Bucky, but didn’t comment. “Stark?” he called, hovering by the elevator. “You here?”
Clint walked further in and collapsed onto a couch. When had been the last time he’d slept properly? Or, Christ, eaten? “Yo, JARVIS, where’s Tony?”
“He’s on his way up from the workshop,” said JARVIS.
Clint nodded and stretched. “I don’t suppose he’s got anything in the kitchen that counts as real food? I’m not having one of those nasty smoothies he goes for.”
“I believe there may be some cereal,” said JARVIS, and Clint perked up.
“That’ll do,” he said, and got back up to head into the kitchen.
Steve followed him, frowning. “Shouldn’t you ask first?”
“Ask the billionaire if he’ll miss a bowl of cereal?” said Clint. “Hell no.” He put the coffee machine on as he went past it towards where the cereal was kept back home. “Plus, I’m gonna make him coffee, so he’ll be filled with gratitude anyway.”
The cereal was where he was expecting it to be, but it was all pretty dull and healthy-looking. Clearly the other Clint wasn’t over here often enough for Tony to stock up on Fruit Loops for him.
“Okay, it’s kinda depressing that that’s true,” said Tony, overhearing that as he wandered in. He waved at the cupboards. “Mi casa es su casa, man, eat whatever you can find.”
Steve frowned at him. “We should be heading to DC.”
“Not until we have a plan,” said Clint, pouring milk into the cereal just as the coffee machine finished. “What did the last Clint tell you about it all?”
“Not a damn thing,” said Tony. “I got the feeling he had some kinda grudge against me. There’s got to be some rule against being blamed for shit that your alternate universe self did. I really could do with someone filling me in, though. What’s all this about Hydra?”
“JARVIS, put us on the highest level of security lockdown,” said Clint, handing Tony and Steve their coffees and then settling down with his own and the cereal.
“Security lockdown implemented,” said JARVIS.
Tony gave Clint a faint frown. “You’re a lot more familiar with JARVIS than our Barton is.”
“Yeah, well, I live with him,” said Clint. “Okay, so, this is how it went down in my world. Fury found out that Hydra had infiltrated SHIELD and contacted us, then went off grid so that he could work out exactly how far in they were. Tony did some crazy hacking thing that revealed that at least half of SHIELD agents were Hydra, and that this big project, Project Insight, was being entirely run by them. They’d been within SHIELD pretty much from the beginning, decades of agents carefully manipulating SHIELD operations from within.”
“Jesus fuck,” said Tony. “That’s - decades? My Dad was part of setting SHIELD up, no way he’d have stood for that.”
Clint hesitated. “Right,” he said, slowly. From the way Steve had frozen up, it looked like the other Clint had already told him about this. “That’s why they had him killed.”
Tony flinched. “No,” he said. “Nope, no, not here. He died in a car accident. Both my parents did.”
“Are you sure about this?” asked Steve, looking at Clint with a frown. “The other Barton seemed pretty set that I shouldn’t mention this to Stark.”
“Too freaking late,” said Tony. “Tell me.”
Clint paused, looking at how Tony's hands had clenched into fists and wondered if there was some way to tell him this that was easier to hear. Probably not.
“Hydra sent an assassin after your Dad,” he said. “He had some samples or something that they wanted, and he was getting too close to working out what was going on within SHIELD. They made it look like a car accident.”
Tony’s face went very pale and Clint could see his teeth clenching together. There was a pause as he let that settle.
“I’m sorry, man,” he added, as Tony just stayed stuck like that.
“And you weren’t going to tell me?” Tony said, directing a glare at Steve. “You were just going to let me go on believing a lie? About my own parents’ deaths?”
Steve shrugged. “The other Clint said his Stark went off the rails. Tried to kill the guy responsible.”
Tony stood up, scraping the chair back. “Damn straight I’d go after the guy responsible, they were my fucking parents!”
“The guy who gave the order is long gone,” said Clint, carefully. This was where it would be much easier if Natasha was here, with her ability to manipulate anyone. The last thing they needed was for this Tony to go off on a rampage like the one in the last world apparently had, splintering the Avengers. “We traced it back up the hierarchy, but no one involved in that decision was still around.”
Tony shook his head. “Hydra’s still around,” he said. “Those assholes, fucking about, destroying all this shit. And the other me clearly found someone to- Oh.” Realisation lit up his face and then his glare darkened. “This fucking legendary assassin you mentioned. The one that’s Cap’s old buddy.”
“He’s been brainwashed,” said Clint. “This isn’t anything you can blame on him, he’s just as much a victim. If not more.”
“A victim? He killed my parents!” said Tony, throwing his hands out wide.
“If you lay a finger on him, I’ll take you apart,” said Steve.
“No!” said Clint, leaning in. Oh man, this must have been how it had fallen apart in the last world, he had to put the brakes on it right the fuck now. “No, you guys can’t make this a fight between you. That way ends in madness and exile in Wakanda, no one wants that. Tony, listen. Bucky, he’s a great guy. You’ll get on with him. You will, I know you will because I’ve seen it. You’re friends. At the moment, here, he’s had who he is ripped away from him, he’s been brainwashed and used as a weapon, and kept in fucking cryostasis when they didn’t need him. You can’t go blaming him for this, I swear to God.” He took a breath, then added, “Any more than you should be blaming your Clint Barton for the shit he did when Loki had his hooks into him.”
Tony gritted his teeth and made a snarling noise. “My fucking parents, man!”
“Yeah,” said Clint. “Yeah, I know. They took your parents, they took SHIELD, they took Bucky. We’re gonna take them down for all that, but we can’t get any of it back. None of it except Bucky.”
Tony thumped a frustrated fist down on the table, then stood up and strode out of the room. Steve scowled and stood up to follow him, but Clint caught his arm.
“Wait it out,” he said. “He needs to go be mad for a bit before he can be rational.”
Steve turned his scowl on Clint instead, but sat back down. “I’m getting Bucky out,” he said. “If Tony gets in my way, I’ll flatten him.”
“No,” said Clint. “We’re getting Bucky out. Seriously, there's no way I'm letting you do this alone.”
Steve took a deep breath, then nodded. “Okay. Okay, so, where will they be keeping him?”
“No idea,” said Clint, turning back to his cereal. “I do know that as soon as we attack Project Insight, they’ll send him after us. We just need to take him down, knock him out, drag him back here and lock him up in Tony’s Hulk-proof room until you can break the brainwashing.” He blinked. “Uh, your Tony has a Hulk-proof room, right?”
“Yeah,” said Tony, coming back into the room carrying a glass of scotch. “How are we meant to break through seventy years of brainwashing, though?”
Clint grinned at him for getting on board with the plan. “Steve’ll do it,” he said. “He just needs to be reminded who he is, given some time to remember, and he’ll be fine. Lots of talking about the good old days when they were young and penniless, that kind of thing.”
“That easily,” said Tony, sceptically.
“Yep,” said Clint. “I’ve seen two different Buckys who’ve thrown off the brainwashing now; it works.” Not that he had any idea how the guy in the last world had done it, but it seemed likely that it had been similar to what had happened in his world.
“Sir, Ben Grimm and Sue and Johnny Storm are requesting access to the penthouse,” said JARVIS.
“Yeah, send them up,” said Tony. “Unless they’ve got any long-buried secrets about my family, in which case they can piss off. I’m not in the mood for any more unpleasant revelations.” He downed the rest of his drink, then glared at the glass as if blaming it for being empty. He opened a cupboard and pulled a bottle out.
“Stark, I don’t think now is a good time for drinking,” said Steve.
Tony poured himself out another large drink. “Sorry, Cap, your opinion doesn’t hold any weight here.”
Steve frowned. “We’re about to go on a mission.”
“Yup,” agreed Tony, and raised his glass. “To the mission.” He took a sip. “Ah, quit looking at me with all that moral outrage, Cap. We both know I’ve gone on missions after drinking way more.”
“That doesn’t make it better,” said Steve, glaring at him. “We need you to be at the top of your game if Hydra are as deeply embedded in SHIELD as Barton says.”
“I’m always at the top of my game,” said Tony. “Just ask my competitors.”
Clint glanced between them. Tension was beginning to crackle in the air again, and Steve looked about three seconds away from punching Tony. Or doing something else stupid and impulsive, but he was holding himself back from that, vibrating with the tension. Clint should probably cut through that, somehow.
“So,” he said, taking a swig from his coffee, “I’m guessing you guys aren’t a thing here?”
Tony turned a startled look on him. “What?”
“What kind of thing?” asked Steve with a frown that meant he’d missed what Clint had been implying.
“You know, a thing thing,” said Clint, waving a hand. “With, you know, kissing and sex and the occasional awkwardly-timed declaration of affection.”
The look on Steve’s face was pretty much perfect. Clint really wished he had a way to take a photo that he could take home to show Bucky.
“The other me is in a relationship with Stark?” repeated Steve.
“Okay, no need to take that tone,” said Tony. “Being in a relationship with me is a joy. A total joy.”
“Not what I’ve heard,” said Johnny, as three out of four of the Fantastic Four came in. Did that make them the Fantastic Three? No, the Thrilling Three. Threatening Three? Okay, probably a good thing there had been four of them on the spacecraft the day of the accident. “And I’ve dated a couple of girls who used to date you, so I should know.”
Tony raised an eyebrow at him. “I think that says more about you than it does about me.”
Steve made a frustrated noise and smashed a fist down on the table. “This is all irrelevant,” he said. “We need to get Bucky back.” He glared at Clint. “Tell us everything you know about Hydra and Project Insight.”
Apparently this Cap was just as single-minded about the shit he cared about as the one Clint knew. “Okay, here’s how it went down in my universe,” he said, and settled in to try to remember as many details as possible.
The last Clint who’d been through this world had told Steve a great deal about how it had gone down in his world, so between that and Clint’s own memories they were able to build up a picture of the similarities. Tony hacked into the SHIELD IT systems as far as he dared, pulling out enough on Insight for them to track how far it had got.
“Shit, they look like they’re only days away from launching,” he said. “Seems like we’re just in time.”
“We’ll need to move fast then,” said Sue.
“Someone should contact Fury,” said Clint. “There’s a possibility Hydra will send someone to kill him before the launch, to clear the decks before they take over.”
Steve nodded. “I’ll speak to him.”
“Keep it low-key,” said Tony. “They may have his telephone bugged. We can’t let them know we’re coming, not if this is going to work.”
“There’s some code words that my Fury would recognise,” said Clint, pulling one of the scraps of paper that they’d been making notes on towards himself and jotting a few down. “They’re probably the same here, right?”
“Worth a try,” said Johnny. He sat back in his chair and stretched as Steve took the paper from Clint and went out the room to call Fury. “Man, who knew this detailed planning thing was so exhausting? Usually we just rush in and start breaking shit.”
“You rush in,” corrected Ben. “The rest of us jus’ go in after yer to try and keep yer from bein’ collateral.”
Johnny sent him a disbelieving look. “Dude, your slogan is It’s clobbering time. How’re you calling me the guy who breaks stuff?”
“And that’s why the World Security Council comes to us before you guys,” said Tony. “We’ve got tactical genius and strategy coming out our ears.”
“Well, Steve does,” said Clint. “We all know that a Tony Stark plan starts and ends with blowing stuff up.”
Tony raised his eyebrows, managed a half second of looking insulted, then his face collapsed into a grin. “Yeah, true. It usually works out pretty well though.” He glanced up at the clock. “Hey, how about take out for a plan that doesn’t involve explosions?”
“I like that plan,” said Clint. “I only got halfway through lunch in the last world before they got all paranoid and locked me up in case I was a some kinda robot spy for their Tony Stark, and that bowl of cereal earlier didn’t do much to help.”
Johnny snorted. “Oh man, the more I hear about these other dimensions, the more fun they sound.”
“Fun?” asked Clint. “Okay, clearly you’ve never been in a Wakandan prison cell. There’s not much fun about it.”
“Why the hell did they think the other me was spying on them anyway?” asked Tony.
Clint shrugged. “You know what? I never did get the full details. Something about you going after Bucky, some big fight, everyone ended up on the run from the UN…” He shook his head. “Pretty much a textbook case on how not to manage this.”
“And your way ends with me and Cap getting it on?” said Tony, thoughtfully, glancing out the door to where Steve could be seen on the phone.
Clint shrugged. “Could be. In my world, you’ve been getting it on since about a month after the Battle of New York. There was tequila, one thing lead to another, you know how it goes.”
“I really don’t,” said Tony.
“But it sounds like you want to,” said Johnny, grinning at Tony. “Hey man, go for it. He’s kinda grumpy, but the view makes up for it.”
“Johnny!” hissed Sue.
“I mean, he’s not wrong,” said Tony.
“My Steve isn’t even a little bit grumpy,” said Clint pointedly. “Sometimes he hums 1930s show tunes to himself.”
Tony caught his eye then glanced away, frowning. He knocked back the last of the whisky in his glass. “Right, pizza,” he said, rather than continue the conversation. Clint let him change the subject. “Everyone likes pizza, right? Awesome.”
“I had pizza for lunch,” said Steve, coming back into the room. He was frowning.
“Chinese, then,” said Tony. “JARVIS, put an order in, will you?”
“Of course, sir,” said JARVIS.
“Extra spring rolls,” said Clint automatically, and then realised Bucky wouldn’t be there to steal them off his plate. Man, he really wanted to get back to his Bucky so he could have a fight over take out with him. A fight that ended with them trying to distract each other with groping, and then just with groping, and a lot of kissing and-
Damn, he really missed Bucky.
“Did Fury get the codewords?” he asked Steve, trying to keep his mind on the task in hand, and not on how terrified he was starting to be that he’d never get home again. As long as he kept treating this like a mission, then it was no different from any other time he and Bucky had been split up on Avengers business.
Steve frowned down at his phone. “I think so,” he said. “He told me he was going to stay with friends tonight, and that I should do the same. There was some stuff about his wife?”
Clint nodded. “Okay, yeah, he’s on it, and sounds like it’s not a surprise to him.”
“The All-Knowing Spymaster knows all?” said Johnny. “Man, who’da guessed it?”
Steve sat down at the table, still clutching his phone in his hands. “We’re sure we shouldn’t be going now,” he said.
Clint sighed. They’d already been back-and-forth over this one several times. “Yes,” he said. “We go in just before dawn, when most agents are either off-site or asleep. It makes the most sense.”
Steve’s scowl deepened. “Just want to get him back now,” he muttered.
“Yeah,” said Clint, “I get that. But if we just rush in, we’re gonna mess it up.”
“There’s a reason we went with an Avengers plan and not a Fantastic Four plan,” added Tony.
“Fuck you man, I make great plans,” said Ben. “Just cuz Johnny’s a little hothead…”
Clint rolled back his shoulders and stretched as Ben and Johnny got into yet another pointless argument for about the seventeenth time. A yawn overtook him and he put a hand over his mouth to stifle it. Damn, he’d got too used to a regular sleeping pattern.
“You okay, Barton?” said Tony.
Clint nodded. “Yeah, just gonna need some shut eye before we head out,” he said. “Does your Clint have a room here, or am I going to have to use one of your hideous brothel-esque spare rooms?”
“Brothel-esque?!” asked Tony, deeply offended. “I’ll have you know, I have one hundred and four spare rooms, and none of them could be described as brothel-esque!”
Clint raised an eyebrow. “JARVIS?”
“Scanning databanks for images of brothels,” said JARVIS. “Compiling list of typical data. I believe that at least five of the guest bedrooms definitely fit that description, while another fifteen have at least fifty percent compatibility.”
Tony was giving Clint a very narrow-eyed look. “You just used my own AI against me,” he said. “Also, JARVIS, you’re completely wrong and I’m going to gut your databanks to prove it, but mostly, Barton, the other me clearly lets you spend far too much time hobnobbing with his AI and must be stopped.”
Clint shrugged, grinning at him. “The other you gave me a set of rooms to live in, full access to all his secrets except that one vault in the library and the ultra-top-secret lab he thinks we don’t know about, and remodelled the airducts so it was easier for me to get around in them. I kinda think it’s too late for him.”
Tony shook his head. “I can’t believe he let you guys all move in and clutter up his tower.”
“He likes it,” said Clint, then shrugged one shoulder, because fuck all this. These guys hadn’t even bothered becoming friends with each other when they could have been as close as Clint was with his team. He wasn’t about to listen to Tony act as if that wasn’t something he wanted. “I reckon he was kinda lonely before, just being the isolated genius in the Tower, building AIs so he had someone to talk to and pretending he was happy treating most people in his life like they were disposable.”
Tony actually flinched, and Clint wondered if he’d gone too far.
“Sir, the take out is here,” said JARVIS, giving Tony the perfect excuse to turn on his heel and escape to pick it up.
Clint sighed and rubbed at his forehead. Man, he really did need to sleep, before he let his tongue get the better of him and pointed out some other home truths.
“Do you really think Stark is lonely?” asked Steve, quietly.
Clint glanced up. “Oh yeah,” he said. “I reckon he’s just about as lonely as you are. Seriously, take my advice. When we get Bucky and come back here, move in and don’t bother ever leaving.”
Steve frowned and shook his head. “I can’t impose-”
“Yeah,” said Clint. “You really can. Impose away. Bucky’ll need a steady base for a few months anyway, you might as well take the chance to make a friend from this century at the same time.”
Tony came in with the take out and the conversation ended, but Clint hoped he’d said enough. He wasn’t used to being the one who had the good advice; usually he was the one that needed it. These two idiots wouldn’t continue to screw this up, right?
Going from crouched on a desk shooting at robots to standing upright without even a bow in his hands was enough to make Clint lose his balance, especially when combined with the force of being shoved from one dimension to another. He stumbled in place and was caught by a pair of hands, one of them made out of metal.
Barnes had a frown on his face as he steadied Clint, one that collapsed into an angry scowl. He let go of Clint and turned around. “This isn’t our Clint either!” he snapped. “You said you’d get him back!”
Clint glanced around to see he was in a lab with Tony, Steve, Bruce, Jane Foster and Reed Richards, all of whom were looking at Clint with varying levels of consternation.
“Um. Hi,” he said.
“You’re sure it’s not him?” said Tony, glancing over Clint with a faint frown.
Barnes made a frustrated noise. “Look at him! He’s got a tan, and his hair is lighter. He’s clearly been living somewhere hot. You need to try again.”
Clint glanced between them, noting that despite Barnes’s frustration, no one was trying to kill anyone, and Steve was standing next to Tony, close enough that their shoulders were touching.
“If it helps, this definitely isn’t my world,” he said.
They all looked over at him, then Tony let out a long sigh, deflating. “Christ. Okay, right, then we need to-” He turned away towards one of the many pieces of equipment that littered the room.
“Oh no,” said Steve, catching his elbow. “Tony, you need to sleep.”
Tony tried to wave that away but was hampered by Steve’s grip. “I’m fine, gone on much longer tech benders than this, I’ll just-”
“No,” said Steve, “don’t be ridiculous, you didn’t sleep more than half an hour last night. You’re going to nap, and then you can get back into it, with a fresh mind.”
Tony hesitated, then let out a long sigh. “Pain in my ass,” he muttered, relaxing back against Steve and, okay, that was pretty touchy-feely, especially when Steve draped an arm around Tony’s chest to hold him there and then pressed a kiss to the side of his head.
“Okay,” said Clint. “This is definitely not my world.”
Tony glanced over and took in his expression. “Oh man, seriously? Your Steve and Tony aren’t together either? What the hell is wrong with the Tony Starks of the multiverse?”
“I was just asking myself the same question,” growled Barnes.
Steve sent him a look. “Calm down, Bucky.”
Barnes let out a frustrated noise, then spun and punched the wall with his metal hand, denting it. “You calm down, Stevie! My boyfriend is lost somewhere in another dimension, and yours is doing jack shit to help!”
Wow. Okay, yes, this was definitely not Clint's world.
“Hey!” said Steve, letting go of Tony to turn on Barnes. “Don’t blame Tony for this. He’s doing everything he can. We all are.”
Barnes made a strange noise that was practically a snarl, then strode out of the room.
There was a brief pause as everyone glanced at each other, then Clint cleared his throat. “Boyfriend?”
Bruce glanced at him. “He’s pretty attached.”
Clint glanced after him. “Yeah, I can tell.” He let out a long sigh and rubbed his hands over his face. He wasn’t quite ready yet to try and get his mind around the idea of Bucky Barnes as another Clint’s boyfriend, or Tony and Steve snuggling rather than trying to kill each other, not to mention that he'd just watched Steve defend Tony to Bucky, rather than the other way round.
“Sorry, you’re gonna have to give me a minute to catch up,” he said. “I was just fighting robots in the last world. Guy called the Mad Thinker was attacking your lab there,” he added, glancing at Reed.
Reed frowned. “He attacked yesterday in this world.”
Clint nodded. “Yeah, there too, and then he came back. He left some device behind that was apparently the cause of all this,” he said, gesturing vaguely at himself, “although they thought it had just done a straight swap.”
“Yeah, so did we,” said Bruce, tiredly.
“Which is why I told Bucky we’d get his boy back,” added Tony, and then made a face. “I probably could have managed his expectations a bit better.”
“If there’s a whole bunch of Clints travelling between dimensions, we’ll need to find some way to establish which belongs where,” said Jane. “The inter-dimensional radiation will be on all of them.”
“That’s a problem for after you’ve slept,” said Steve, giving Tony a stern look.
“Yeah, yeah,” said Tony. He glanced around the lab, then shrugged. “Okay, meet back here in a few hours, then.”
Steve tucked an arm around his back as they left. Clint couldn’t help watching them go, then turned back to Bruce, who was giving him an interested look.
“You’re really thrown by that.”
“The last time my Steve and Tony saw each other, they tried to kill each other,” said Clint. “And in the world I was just in, they were pretty much just snarking at each other the whole time. So, yeah, seeing them all snuggly and shit is a bit weird.”
Bruce blinked. “Yes, I can imagine. As weird as it is for me to try and imagine them attacking each other.” He didn’t ask any further details and Clint was reminded how much he appreciated the way that Bruce never pried into anything, just quietly let it be unless you made it clear you wanted to talk.
Man, he missed Bruce.
Reed pulled over a piece of equipment. “Do you mind if I scan you?” he asked, not waiting for an answer before he started setting it up.
Clint let out a sigh and held his arms out. “Go nuts,” he said, resigning himself to yet more scientific prodding.
“Sorry,” said Clint.
She shook her head. “Not your fault.”
Natasha was another one he hadn’t seen in too long. This version of her looked good, and he wondered how his Natasha was doing. Or even what she was doing. Was she just lying low, or was she busy coming up with some plan that would end with everyone just hugging out?
Unlikely. Clint wasn’t sure that there was any way for that to happen, not with Barnes’s arm a splintered wreck and Rhodey still learning how to walk again.
“How’s Bucky?” asked Bruce.
Natasha rolled her eyes. “Destroying gym equipment. I take it Steve took Tony to bed?”
Bruce nodded. “Apparently, it’s naptime for scientists,” he said, then glanced at Jane and Reed, who didn’t look even a little bit exhausted. “Or maybe just coffee time. Come on, Clint, there’s not much else we can do right now.”
Reed’s head snapped up as if he was about to protest, but he subsided in the face of Natasha’s glare.
As they headed out of the lab, it became clear that they were in Tony’s tower and not some other base. Clint guessed that if Tony and Steve were living together, it made sense to run the Avengers from where they were.
They had to go through the main living room to get to the kitchen, where the TV was on and two people were slumped on the sofas in front of it.
Clint stopped dead where he was.
Wanda and Pietro glanced over at him. “Oh, hey, it’s another new old man,” said Pietro.
“Hi,” said Clint, then cleared his throat.
Pietro’s eyes narrowed and he disappeared from the sofa in order to reappear right in front of Clint. “Why are you looking me like that? Like you’ve seen a gho- oh, not cool. Am I dead in your world?”
Clint managed a nod and Pietro made a face, glancing over at Wanda, who had stilled in place. “Oh man,” he said. “At least tell me it was heroic and all that?”
Clint cleared his throat. “Yeah, pretty much. He saved my life, and the life of a kid.”
“That sounds acceptable,” said Pietro.
Clint shook his head. “No, it really wasn’t,” he said, and his voice sounded unnecessarily hoarse. He took a deep breath and couldn’t help reaching out to clasp Pietro’s arm. “You should take better care than he did.”
“I second that,” said Wanda, and Pietro looked over his shoulder at her.
“Don’t give me that look, I’m not the one who died.”
She didn’t look mollified. “You rush about taking stupid risks, is it really such a surprise that you might be dead?”
Pietro huffed a sigh and headed back over to her, saying something that sounded conciliatory in Sokovian. Natasha caught Clint’s eye and nodded in the direction of the kitchen, and Clint followed her in there, trying not to turn to stare back at Pietro.
Damn, that was definitely the freakiest part of this dimensional travel thing. He’d carried that kid’s lifeless body onto the rescue craft in Sokovia, and washed his blood off his hands. He’d stood beside his sister at his funeral; there was no way he should be able to have a conversation with him now.
Natasha gave him a concerned look as he sat down at the kitchen table. “You were not expecting to see him?”
Clint shook his head, then leaned forward to rest his forehead on his folded arms. “I’ve seen a lot of shit I wasn’t expecting,” he said. “This inter-dimensional travel is fucked up.” He looked up at Bruce, who was putting the coffee on. “Please tell me you’ll be able to get me home next go. I can’t cope with this turning into some kind of shitty crossover between Sliders and Quantum Leap.”
“We’ll do our best,” said Bruce, which wasn’t entirely reassuring, but at least he wasn’t offering false promises.
Clint had just got his hands around his coffee mug when Barnes burst into the room. He’d clearly been working out and looked a little sweaty and dishevelled, which was a good look on him. Clint blinked at him and tried not to think about the other Clint having regular sex with this guy. It didn’t work so well.
“You!” he demanded, jabbing a finger at Clint. “The me in your world, where is he?”
Clint blinked at him. “Um. Wakanda?” he offered, but it didn’t seem like that was what Barnes was looking for.
He shook his head. “Does Hydra have him?”
“Oh, no,” said Clint, catching on. “He’s not still brainwashed. He got out a couple of years ago and has been lying low since then. He’s with Steve now.” He hesitated, then added. “Although, uh, he insists on spending most of his time in cryostasis. The scientists defrost him once a month for medical checks.”
Barnes stared at him for a long moment, then his eyes darted over to Natasha and Bruce before heading back to Clint. “He insists on it? Cryostasis?”
Clint shrugged. “He’s got issues,” he offered. “He worries about being taken over again and hurting people.”
Barnes stared a bit longer, then snorted. “Don’t we all?” he asked darkly, then turned on his heel and disappeared again.
Clint looked back at Natasha.
“He hasn’t had a lot of sleep,” she said, diplomatically. “What are you guys doing in Wakanda?”
Clint sighed. “Getting a tan?” he offered. “Jesus, Nat, it’s such a mess, I wouldn’t know where to start, and it looks like you guys have missed out on it all.” He glanced over his shoulder again and thought about how Barnes and Tony had interacted earlier. “Does, uh. Does your Tony know what happened? With his parents?”
“That Hydra sent the Winter Soldier after them?” asked Natasha. “Yes.”
Clint shook his head. “And there was no violence and histrionics?”
“There were some histrionics,” said Bruce. “There usually is, with Tony. And violence towards his liver, definitely.”
“But not Barnes,” said Clint.
Natasha shook her head. “By the time we caught up with Bucky, he’d had a while to get used to it. And Steve wouldn’t have let him, anyway.”
Clint snorted. “Yeah, that’s for fucking sure,” he muttered, then rubbed his hands over his face. He had a sinking feeling that this universe had coped with the whole thing a lot better than his had, and he’d just look like an idiot if he revealed how badly they’d fucked up.
Would it have made such a difference if Steve and Tony had been fucking when all this shit went down? Or would it just have made an even bigger mess?
Clint had no idea. This whole thing was making his head hurt.
“Is Wakanda not a closed country in your world, then?” asked Natasha, and Clint gratefully leapt on the change of subject.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “Just, you know, we’re pals with the King.”
“T'Chaka?” asked Natasha, and Clint winced.
“Um. No. His son, T'Challa.”
“Ah,” she said, and there was an uncomfortable pause as Clint plotted causes and effects and realised T’Chaka must still be alive here. Man, his lot really did fuck up everything they got in contact with.
“It’s pretty nice there,” he said, pushing that aside. “Lots of sun and hanging out in the palace gardens. Makes my apartment in Bed-Stuy look a bit on the shitty side.”
“That’s what our Clint said when he moved in here,” said Bruce.
Barnes came striding back in again. He fixed Clint with a glare, then headed straight to the coffee machine, where he set about making coffee with sharp, violent movements.
Natasha sighed. “We all want him back.”
“Sure,” snorted Barnes, dismissively. He turned back and glared at her. “Except you all still kinda have him.” He gestured at Clint. “You’re still best friends, you’ve still got a lot of the same history. The last one was afraid of me, this one barely knows me, I ain’t got any of the same shit in common with him.”
“I am actually in the room,” said Clint, and got another glare. He sighed and sat back. “Look, I get that it’s shitty. It’s pretty fucking shitty for me as well, but we’ve got incredible scientific minds from several different dimensions working on it. I don’t think it’s overly optimistic to think it’s going to get sorted out sooner rather than later.”
“Your faith in us is appreciated,” said Bruce, raising his coffee as if in a toast.
Barnes shook his head. “That ain’t how my life goes,” he muttered. “Good shit only happens so that it can be ripped away from me.”
“Oh, don’t be so melodramatic,” said Natasha, standing up and taking her mug over to the sink.
Barnes’s scowl deepened.
Clint sighed and stretched. “Y’know, I think you’re even grumpier than my Barnes, and every time I talk to him he’s got a cryostasis headache.”
“I wonder if that has anything to do with the fact that this one’s been up since 2am,” mused Natasha and, wow, if Clint had thought the glare before was dark, that was nothing on the murderous look Barnes sent at her for that.
“O-kay, before we all end up stabbing each other,” said Bruce, “let’s just take a moment to remember that no one here is responsible.”
“Yeah, that’s all on a guy who thinks ‘Mad Thinker’ is a good name,” said Clint, then shook his head. “So fucked up.”
“You don’t have him in your world?” asked Natasha.
“Nope,” said Clint. “But then, we don’t have the Fantastic Four either, I only found out about them in the last world.”
“Does anyone else want to sit down and map out every difference between our worlds and plot out exactly how the big ones came about from tiny changes?” asked Bruce. Everyone gave him blank looks. “Okay, just me then.”
“Doctor Banner, I’ve been asked to remind you that Sir does not want Mr Richards left unsupervised in one of his labs for longer than half an hour,” said JARVIS. “He does not deem Doctor Foster adequate supervision, I'm afraid.”
Bruce sighed. “Yeah, okay, JARVIS. I’m heading back down now.” He looked at Clint. “We’ll try and come up with a way to match you up with the right universe.”
Clint nodded. “Yeah, okay,” he said. “Good luck.” He might not be the science guy, but he knew enough to know just how tricky that was going to be.
God, he really wasn’t going to get home any time soon. He glanced at his watch and did some calculations to work out what time it was in Wakanda right now. His Barnes would already have been put back into cryostasis for another month, so he’d missed the only interesting thing that really happened in his world at the moment.
He wondered if he’d make it home in time for Barnes to be woken up next month, and sighed.
“So, how long have you and the other Clint been together then?” he asked Barnes, because if they didn’t make small talk about some shit, he was going to end up just getting caught in a spiral of depression over being bounced around the multiverse with no way home.
Barnes’s scowl deepened. “Just over a year.”
Clint couldn’t keep the surprise off his face. “A year? And the other me hasn’t fucked it up yet?”
“Well, he got himself sent to another dimension,” pointed out Barnes.
Clint shook his head. “Doesn’t count.” Most of his relationships had broken down for much shittier reasons than ‘I’m trapped in another dimension’.
Barnes shrugged one shoulder. “I guess we both work at it. Communication and all that junk.”
“Communication disguised as shooting shit together,” said Natasha.
Clint snorted. “Yeah, that’s pretty much the best way to communicate.”
“Plus, the sex is really good,” added Barnes, and the scowl melted off his face into a shit-eating smirk.
Okay, if he looked like that around the other Clint, no wonder they’d ended up fucking. He really was impressively hot.
Natasha sighed. “I really don’t need to know about any of the team’s sexlife, why does everyone keep oversharing? There’s almost nothing I don’t know about Steve and Tony’s sexlife.”
“Don’t go putting Tony’s love of unnecessary details on me,” said Barnes. “Me and Clint are the souls of discretion in comparison.”
“Except that time in the range,” said Natasha.
Barnes’s smirk grew into a grin. “The range holds a special place in our hearts,” he said. “Sometimes that spills out over into a special place in our pants.”
Clint snorted his amusement and got a dark look from Natasha. “You wouldn’t be laughing if you’d been the one to walk in on them.”
“Walking in on myself having sex?” asked Clint, and considered it. “I might see if I could join in. Pretty much just an elaborate form of masturbation, right?”
“I reckon I’d be okay with that,” said Barnes. “I’d definitely be enjoying this inter-dimensional bullshit more if it meant more than one Clint at the same time, rather than losing mine indefinitely.”
“More than one Clint on the same place would just end in an archery competition,” said Natasha.
“Yeah, probably,” Clint agreed. “Been a long time since I got the chance to shoot with an archer as good as me.”
Not since the last time he’d seen Barney, although that probably didn’t count because it had been less of a friendly competition and more of a fight to the death.
“Well, I ain’t much of an archer, but I reckon I could give you a run for your money with a gun,” said Barnes.
Clint hesitated, glancing at Natasha, who shrugged. “Nothing else for you to be doing right now,” she said. “Not until the science team come up with something.”
“I guess shooting some shit would make me feel better about this whole clusterfuck,” said Clint and stood up, nodding at Barnes. “Let’s do it.”
After a couple of hours had passed, neither of them were really ahead and Clint’s shoulders were beginning to ache in the pleasant way that meant he’d done a satisfactory amount of shooting today. He paused and rolled them back, and Barnes set his gun down.
“I should start doing this with my Barnes,” said Clint, and then made a face. “When he’s awake, that is.” He thought about the stump of Barnes’s arm and added, “And with a handgun or something so he doesn’t need both hands.”
Barnes frowned. “What’s wrong with his hand?”
Ah, right. Clint shrugged and turned away to start packing up the bow and arrows he’d borrowed. “He lost an arm.”
“Yeah, me too,” said Barnes, holding up his metal arm.
“Nah, I mean, he lost that arm,” said Clint, nodding at it.
Barnes frowned. “The prosthetic? How the hell did he manage that? I always figured it was pretty much indestructible.”
“It’s not,” said Clint, shortly, hoping to leave it there, but Barnes kept an expectant gaze on him.
“I kinda think I should know what could do something like that,” he said when Clint kept his mouth shut.
Clint made a face. “Doesn’t seem like it’ll be a problem here. You’re on pretty good terms with your Tony, right?”
Barnes paused for a moment and a stony mask took over his face. “Tony took off your Bucky’s arm.”
“Things got kinda messy,” said Clint with a shrug.
Barnes’s frown deepened. “And now you’re all living in Wakanda, and your Bucky spends all his time in stasis,” he said. “Sounds a bit more than messy.”
Clint didn’t have a response to that. He concentrated on putting the bow back in the other Clint’s locker.
Barnes let out a long breath. “Yeah, okay,” he muttered. “Because not talking about shit always works really well.”
That one stung. Clint turned to glare at him. “Whereas as telling you about some fuck up in another dimension is, what? Going to solve the whole thing?”
“Do you have another plan to solve it?” asked Barnes.
Clint took a deep breath. “Don’t.”
Barnes shook his head, holding his hands up defensively. “Okay, man, whatever. Just thinking that this is pretty much the best chance you’ll get to ask someone outside the situation but who might have an insight.”
Clint snorted. “Not sure about an insight,” he muttered, then turned back to Barnes. “Look, just- there’s no way in hell my Tony and Barnes would be living together. Not after Tony found out what really happened to his parents.”
Barnes flinched and turned away with his shoulders hunching over. “It took a bit of time for him to not just glare at me the whole time here,” he said. “Not that I really noticed, given the state I was in. It took a while for me to break through the programming.”
“Glaring is a bit different to attempted murder,” Clint pointed out. “I guess the Tony here cared more about not upsetting Steve. My Tony was already pretty pissed with Steve.”
Barnes considered that. “Plus, the Tony here was getting laid.”
Clint laughed. “Yeah, okay, there’s some serious motivation to think things through before acting like a dick and ripping a guy’s arm off.”
Especially if they weren’t having to deal with the Accords and all that mess as well, which didn’t seem likely if Pietro was still alive, and JARVIS was around but Vision wasn’t.
Barnes touched his fingers to his arm. “He just ripped it off?” he asked, horrified.
“Ah,” said Clint. “Yeah. Well, I wasn’t there and Steve and Barnes aren’t all that keen on talking about it, but whatever he did just kinda left a stump and jagged edges.”
Barnes’s jaw tightened and he flexed his metal fingers, as if making sure they were still there.
“Guess he was really pissed,” was all he said.
Aw man, and now Clint felt bad because he’d put the shadow of something horrific in this guy’s head, something he shouldn’t have ever had to worry about.
“I’m guessing your Tony is a bit more laid back, though.”
“Yeah, seems so,” agreed Barnes. He glanced around the range to make sure everything had been put away, then headed towards the elevator. Clint followed him, wondering what the plan was now. He kinda hoped it involved a nap. What time was it in Wakanda now? Nearly midnight? Maybe a bit more than just a nap, then.
As the elevator headed up, Barnes leaned back against the wall and crossed his arms. “Barnes,” he said, thoughtfully. “You call the other me Barnes.”
“Well, yeah,” said Clint. “I mean, it’s his name, right?”
“Yeah,” agreed Barnes, “but you call all the others by their first names. The last Clint, he called everyone by their surnames. I kinda get the feeling the Avengers in his world weren’t that close, but you’re obviously pals with some of them, just not the other me.”
Clint shrugged. “He spends all his time in the deep freeze,” he pointed out. “And when he’s awake, he either hangs out with Steve or, you know, stands back and silently watches the rest of us.”
“All of you, or just you?” asked Barnes. “Cuz, I spent some time watching my Clint and trying to work out how to strike up a conversation.”
“If he wanted to start a conversation, he could start by being awake,” said Clint, then wondered why that had come out sounding so bitter. It wasn’t as if he could judge the guy for wanting to avoid being turned into someone else’s pet assassin, after all. “I mean, I get why he thinks he’s safer asleep.”
Barnes snorted. “He’s putting his head in the sand.” He took a deep breath and ducked his head, then shrugged. “I guess I can understand too, but it’s not gonna get him anywhere. You've got to get him to start living again.”
“By sleeping with him?” asked Clint. “I mean, I’m not saying it’s the worst plan I’ve ever been part of, and I can definitely see an upside to it, but...”
“Nah,” said Barnes. “Well, if you want, don’t let me stifle your sexual creativity, but I just figure he could do with getting out and about, having some fun, that kinda thing.”
“Oh, he definitely could,” said Clint. “Scott and I had a plan to get him playing frisbee with us this time round. Just, I ended up skipping between dimensions instead.”
The elevator dinged open on the main floor. “I guess that counts as an excuse,” said Barnes as he walked out. “I mean, just about.”
Clint followed him towards the kitchen. “How about next time I go world-hopping I take him with me?”
Maybe this Barnes had a point. Clint had been keeping a step back from his Barnes, even when he was awake, putting in distance by thinking of him as ‘Steve’s friend’ rather than one of the team. Maybe he should start trying out calling him Bucky, if he was going to make friends with the guy. He could start by practising with this one.
“Oh, hell no,” said Bucky. “No way am I being pinged into the lives of other versions of me and finding out how many of them are still with Hydra.”
Clint had to admit that was a good point. “I’ve been an Avenger in both the worlds I’ve been to,” he realised. “There’s gotta be one where I’m not a superhero, right? I mean, unless I’m just so awesome that a Clint Barton has saved the world in every single dimension.”
“Unlikely,” said Richards, who was having coffee in the kitchen with Bruce. Okay, that was kinda harsh for a guy who didn’t even exist where Clint came from. “It’s more likely that you’re travelling between adjacent universes which are fairly similar.”
“The differences that caused this world to split from the last, for example, will have been relatively recent, so that much of it is still the same,” added Bruce.
“Oh, okay,” said Clint. “So that’s why none of them are being run by communists, or controlled by hyper-intelligent lizard creatures, or anything totally nuts.”
“Exactly,” said Bruce.
“Hyper-intelligent lizard creatures would be cool,” said Bucky, heading for the coffee machine.
Clint frowned. “If things are similar cuz I’m close to where I came from, is it going to get weirder if I just keep going?”
Richards shrugged. “That depends on if you’re moving in a straight line through the multiverse, or if you’re just bouncing wherever.”
“If we had control over the direction you were moving in,” said Bruce, and locked eyes with Reed. “We need to map the multiverse and-”
“-plot his course so that we can see if it can be controlled,” finished Richards. They both leapt to their feet and disappeared out of the room.
Clint sighed and sat down. “Scientists,” he said, shaking his head.
“Tell me about it,” said Bucky, putting a cup of coffee in front of him. Okay, yeah, maybe Clint could see what the other Clint saw in this guy. He cradled the coffee in both hands, took a long sip, and sighed.
“I should get some sleep after this, if I don’t need to be awake for science.”
Bucky glanced at the clock with a frown.
“It’s after midnight in Wakanda,” Clint pointed out. “I’ve been awake since 2am, New York time, in one dimension or another.”
“I guess you can use the same guest room as the last Clint,” said Bucky. “You don’t want to wait until after dinner? We’ll probably be getting take out.”
“Nah,” said Clint. “Fuck knows when I’m gonna be shunted on again, or where I’ll find myself when I am. I should get some sleep while I’m not being enslaved by those hyper-intelligent lizard creatures.”
Bucky snorted. “I thought you had faith in the collective scientists of the multiverse to sort this out.”
Clint raised an eyebrow. “Dude, there are multiple Tony Starks in charge of my future right now. Of course I’m preparing for the worst.”
“Hard to argue that one,” said Bucky.
Leaving Wakanda at around 2 in the morning then flying 7 hours west meant that it was still the middle of the night when they arrived in New York. Most of the team had managed a few hours sleep, but they all still looked pretty whacked when Clint started the descent down towards the base Wilson had directed him to.
“This is nice,” he said, looking down at the buildings surrounded by open grounds. “We've just started building this in my world. At the moment, we just work out of SHIELD, or sometimes Tony’s tower.”
“We needed somewhere after SHIELD collapsed,” said Rogers. “I think it’s going to be best if we don’t tell Tony about you. No mention of other universes or anything. We don’t want him getting distracted.”
“So, I shouldn’t mention to him that the Tony Stark from the last world asked me to pass on that he should get drunk and compliment your biceps so that you’ll end up fucking,” said Clint.
Barnes’s laughter at that was well worth the glare Rogers gave him. Clint just grinned back, unrepentantly. From the surprised look Wilson gave Barnes, he didn’t laugh very often, so he probably needed it.
Stark was waiting for them on the runway in the Iron Man suit with the helmet held under his arm, with Vision standing a pace behind him.
There was a long moment after Rogers disembarked when they just stared at each other, then Stark gave him a nod.
“Stark,” returned Rogers.
“Oh, seriously?” said Stark. “Using the surname like we’re at boarding school or some shit? Nice.”
And there was the divide Clint always felt around his Stark, the difference between being born to a world of privilege and spending your childhood being knocked from one fucked up, dirt poor existence to another. Surnames were what you called the guys you served with, whether in the Army or in prison. Boarding school was something that happened to characters in books.
Stark glanced over Cap’s shoulders at the others, who were all hovering on the quinjet as if preparing for a sudden getaway. “Good to see you guys, I promise the UN have no idea you’re here and if we do this right, they won’t ever find out. I cleared all non-essential personnel off the base an hour ago.”
Clint followed the others down the ramp, trying to look like he was part of what was going on. Barnes held back, staying on the quinjet ramp with his arms crossed. Rogers turned and glanced at him, then looked back at Stark, who raised his hands defensively.
“Seriously, I said you guys would be okay here, I meant it. For all of you. Just don’t expect me to throw a parade for you anytime soon.”
“I’m not really the parade type,” said Barnes, coming down.
Stark’s eyes fixed on his new arm, then tore away and looked back at Cap. “I’ve got a briefing room set up with all the intel we’ve got. You want to come by and add this intel you’ve got, and we can plan an assault?”
Rogers nodded, then glanced at the others. “Clint, you’re with me,” he said. “The rest of you, stay close.”
Vision moved forward as Clint followed Rogers inside. “Wanda,” Clint heard him say, “it’s good to see you. All of you. Come inside and have a drink.”
Clint kept his mouth shut as Stark led them inside to a very fancy-looking briefing room that was already covered in notes and maps tracking AIM’s movements over the last few days. The less he said, the less chance there was of fucking up pretending to be the Clint from this world. Plus, he needed to pretend that he was meant to be pissed at Stark, silence would probably do that.
“There’s coffee,” said Stark, waving at a machine in the corner that looked like it had already done heavy service over the last few hours. Clint beelined towards it.
“Cap?” he asked, and got a distracted nod as Rogers looked over the incident photos hanging on the walls.
Not Rogers, Steve. Everyone in this world seemed to be on a first name basis, unlike back where Clint came from. It was the same as the last world from that regard, even if they weren’t playing happy families together in Stark’s tower. Clint thought about the size of the base they were on and the stylised Avengers logo he’d seen on one of the walls, and wondered how close they’d all been before the big bust-up.
Close enough that he needed to call them by their first names, or risk outing himself as an imposter. Well, except for Stark, he could probably call him whatever insult he wanted and that would be in keeping with how the Clint from this world felt, if the impression he'd got was accurate.
“Have you worked out what that gun they’ve been using against Vision is yet?” Rogers asked.
Stark shook his head. “I’m not even sure how it works. It disrupts his ability to change his density which makes him vulnerable to other weapons, although they haven’t had a lot of luck hitting him yet. We’ve more been focusing on trying to track them back to their base than breaking down their weaponry.”
Cap snorted. “You’ve been firefighting,” he said. “As long as they keep attacking, you’re not going to have resources to go after them.”
“Yeah, well, we’re a few men down,” said Stark. “Whose fault is that?”
There was an awkward pause during which they both glared at each other. Clint thought about the constant bickering that went on between his Stark and Rogers, and wondered if it was going to end with this kind of cold war or a hearts-and-flowers sex marathon like in the last world. As annoying as the lovey-dovey stuff had been, it had to be better than this.
“You said you knew where their base was,” said Stark, breaking the moment.
“Yeah,” said Cap, glancing over at Clint.
“I need a map of the docks,” said Clint, carrying two mugs over and handing Rogers one. Stark blinked at him, realised there wasn't a mug for him, then let out a sigh. Clint gave him the same smirking grin that he'd have given Ned Baldwin after the talcum powder incident.
“Friday, put a map up,” said Stark, and went to get his own coffee.
One of Stark’s fancy holographic maps came up and Clint looked at it for a moment, trying to remember exactly where they’d gone to in his world. He hadn’t been part of the planning of the mission, but he could remember where SHIELD had dropped him off. “Here,” he said, pointing at a warehouse that the computer obligingly zoomed in on. “The entrance is in here, behind some racking. It leads down into a basement with a sort of monorail thing that heads out under the harbour for about half a mile. The base is built into the seafloor.”
“How the fuck did they manage that without anyone noticing?” asked Stark. “And how many James Bond films have they been watching to think that kinda fancy shit is a good idea?” He shook his head. “Not the point. I take it this intel is reliable?”
“It’s been confirmed by someone who’s been there,” said Cap, “but there may have been changes since then.”
Or AIM in this world might have built a completely different base somewhere else. Just because their attack had seemed the same didn’t mean it was.
“What kind of defences are we talking?” asked Stark. “Do we know how many they’ve got on-site?”
“That depends on how many you’ve already taken down,” said Clint, “but this is what we were told.”
He found a pen and a piece of paper from somewhere in the mess, ignoring Stark’s sigh at his low-tech methodology. He sketched out the design of the base as well as he could remember, putting in the major defence points. With something to focus on, Stark and Rogers managed to settle into a discussion of the best way to attack the base without any more sniping, so Clint just kept quiet unless more information was needed.
When they were all done, Stark stood back and looked at him. “So, how is she then?”
Clint blinked. “Who?”
Stark snorted. “Don’t mess about. You’re clearly the one with the intel, not Steve, and it must have come from someone who’s been there. Who do you know who’d be able to infiltrate an AIM base, and who’d go to you before Captain America?”
“Loads of people,” said Clint, cagily. “I was a member of a spy organisation long before you were anything other than a playboy.”
Was he talking about Natasha? Hoped bloomed in his chest. But if she was around in this world, and on their side, why the hell would she go to Clint before Cap, and where the fuck was she? There was no way Clint’s Natasha would duck out on a fight like this, why the hell would any other Natasha?
Stark raised an eyebrow. “Really? We’re going to get into who was most useful member of society in their youth, Mr. Juvenile Delinquent?”
“Tony,” snapped Rogers, sending a warning look at Clint, who kept his mouth pressed shut and wondered just how the other Clint would be reacting to this.
Stark made a face. “Yeah, yeah, okay, totally my fault for asking after a mutual friend, won’t make that mistake again.”
“This will probably go easier if we keep conversation to the mission,” said Cap.
“Right,” said Stark. “Of course.” He glanced away, back at the map they’d laid out. “I guess that means it’s time to brief the team.”
“Do we have a plan?”
Rogers nodded. “We’re going to hit them just before dawn, so we’ll be leaving in about an hour.”
“Friday, put the map up,” said Stark. The map of the base was projected onto the nearest wall.
“Okay, the plan-” started Stark, just as Cap said, “We’ll split into-”
They both stopped and glanced at each other. There was a tense pause, then Stark threw his hands up.
“Fuck it, go ahead,” he said, and turned away to throw himself at the nearest sofa, which creaked ominously beneath the weight of the suit. Clint wondered if there was a reason he hadn’t taken it off, because it really couldn’t be that comfortable.
Cap sent him a frustrated look, then turned back to the others. “Okay, we’ll split into two groups. One group will go in through the warehouse while the other will go straight down into the water and get in through the submarine dock at the east end. I’ll lead the group in through the warehouse; Clint, Bucky and Sam, you’re with me. Tony will take charge of the second group.”
Which meant that Clint would be fighting with two guys whose fighting styles he didn’t know but at least he wouldn’t be on a team with anyone who thought he was the Clint from this world. Or part of the group who was going to have to dive underwater for 30 feet before fighting their way inside an AIM base.
“I’m on Stark’s team?” said Lang, and made a face. “Anyone want to swap?”
“Oh, great,” muttered Stark. “I’m the unpopular kid.”
“No one will be swapping,” snapped Cap. “You’ll be on the team that needs to be able to breath underwater, because you have breathing apparatus as part of your suit.”
Lang made a face, but nodded. “I guess that makes sense.”
“And we’re all going to keep our attention on the mission,” added Rogers. “Taking out AIM is the focus. Don’t let anything personal get in the way of that.”
His glare took in the whole room, and they all nodded with varying degrees of reluctance. Clint tried to look just as sulky as the others. He caught Barnes looking over at him and gave him a faint shrug to express his confusion. Barnes was leaning against the wall with his arms crossed, looking about as defensive as it was possible to get. He returned Clint’s shrug with an eye-roll and Clint noticed the tension in his shoulders drop down a notch.
The door opened and everyone’s attention diverted to it, half of them straightening up as if expecting to be attacked. Colonel Rhodes rolled through in a wheelchair and glanced around at everyone before turning to look at Stark.
“Something you should be telling me, Tony?”
Clint stared at him. He'd only met the guy a couple of times in his world, but seeing him so badly injured was like a shock of cold water, even after Barnes had told him about it earlier.
Stark held his hands out. “Hey, Rhodey, Cap’s gonna bring his band of outlaws over to help take out AIM. Oh, don’t give me that look, I was totally gonna tell you as soon as I had a moment when you weren’t asleep.”
“Sure you were,” said Rhodey. He glanced around. “Hey everyone. Do me a favour and keep to fighting the bad guys this time, yeah?”
The atmosphere grew even more awkward. Clint hadn’t thought that was possible.
“You were walking in the press conference,” said Wilson.
“Yeah, well, it’s the middle of the damned night and I didn’t really feel like putting that much effort into coming to see what the noise was,” said Rhodey. Wilson nodded, pressing his lips together. “Oh man, don’t go all hang-dog,” said Rhodey. “I get enough of that from Tony. I’m getting better, it’s just slow. And it’s not like we weren’t all being damn idiots that day.”
Cap looked like he was biting his tongue as he glanced over at Stark, who scowled back at him.
“Do you want a drink?” asked Wanda, interrupting the moment. “I think there’s still coffee in the machine.”
“Nah, I’m good,” said Rhodey. “I won’t get any sleep if I start downing coffee now.” He glanced over at Stark. “I’m guessing you’re ODing on the stuff again, rather than just getting some sleep.”
Stark rolled his eyes. “Don’t worry, cupcake, I know my limits, and I’m not at them yet.”
Clint wandered over to where Barnes was and leaned on the wall next to him. “How’re you doing?” he asked quietly as the others started sorting out another round of coffee.
Barnes shrugged. “Just want to get going. All this sitting around pretending to be friends is bullshit.”
Clint looked around at Vision hovering awkwardly next to Wanda, Wilson perching on the arm of the sofa nearest Rhodey to talk to him, and Rogers and Stark starting in on bickering about something. “I don’t know, seems like it might be a start on sorting the mess you guys made.”
“Wasn’t me,” said Barnes, grumpily. “I was just trying to-”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Clint. “I know. It’s never anyone’s fault, just somehow these things happen anyway.”
“Quit being so smug,” said Barnes. “At least we ain’t sending people spinning through other dimensions.”
“That was all on Reed fucking Richards,” said Clint. “Well, and the Mad Thinker, I guess.”
“The Mad Thinker,” said Barnes, then shook his head. “You know, I’m not sure our bad guys have stupid enough names.”
“Maybe you should send a memo,” said Clint. “Cuz, I mean, you haven’t lived until you’ve tried to fight a guy called Paste-Pot Pete without getting the giggles.”
“Paste-Pot Pete,” repeated Barnes, slowly. “I don’t even know what to do with that.”
“And his hat was fucking ridiculous as well,” said Clint. “I really hope he turns up here one day so that you get to see it.”
“I won’t be fighting him if he does,” said Barnes. “I’m not an Avenger.”
Clint raised an eyebrow. “You’re in the Avengers base about to go fight AIM.”
Barnes shook his head. “This is a one-off. I’ll be going back into stasis just as soon as we’ve got our Hawkeye back.”
“Right,” said Clint, trying to sound less sceptical than he felt about that. He wasn’t sure he succeeded.
“Hey, Cap,” called Rhodey, “if you’re going into battle, are you taking the shield? Because it’s pretty much just gathering dust at the moment.”
There was a deep silence, as if everyone was holding their breath. They all turned to look at Rogers. He frowned, and then looked at Stark.
Stark sighed and went to rub a hand over his face, then realised he was in his gauntlets and dropped it again. “Fuck it,” he said. “Sure, why not? We’ve let Hydra’s assassin on base, why not hand my father’s shield back as well?”
Barnes tensed and then straightened up. “I’ll go if I ain’t welcome.”
“If he goes, I go,” said Cap immediately.
Stark grimaced. “No need for that.” He fixed Barnes with a look filled with more hatred than Clint would have thought possible, then blinked away. “Taking down AIM is the priority, right?”
“Right,” said Cap. “I don’t want the shield, anyway. You can carry on keeping it in a glass case as your prize. I’ll be fighting as Steve Rogers, not Captain America.”
Stark nodded, mouth twisting with unhappiness as he looked away. “Great, whatever.”
Okay, maybe Clint had been wrong. Maybe this wasn't a start of anything.
Cap led their team to the warehouse next door to AIM's and they crouched down in the shadow of it.
“Hard and fast,” he said to them in a whisper. “Special forces are going to be here in about half an hour, so we need to be through the tunnel and into the base by then. We can’t let them see us.”
“You think AIM aren’t going to tell them exactly who hit them as soon as they get a chance?” asked Wilson. He was wearing the fancy metal backpack, but Clint still hadn’t worked out what it was for. Given that he’d also strapped on a couple of guns, he didn’t think it was a weapon.
“We’ll be long gone by then,” said Cap. “They can’t do much more than get the UN to add more charges to the list.”
Clint frowned. “Are we going to get Stark into trouble?”
“Oh, now someone asks that,” said Stark over the comms. “Thanks for caring, Hawkeye.”
Cap sent Clint a glare that made it clear he’d put a step wrong in his impersonation of the other Clint. He shrugged back; how was he meant to know how much or how little the other him cared about Tony Stark being investigated by the UN?
“How do you know he’s not counting it as an extra bonus?” asked Lang. “He’s still pretty pissed about the prison thing.”
“He’s not the only one,” said Wanda, darkly.
“No bickering,” Cap reminded them all. “Concentrate on AIM.”
“We are in position,” said Vision. “My scans indicate a mass beneath the water that is consistent with the size and shape of the base.”
“We’re ready here,” said Cap. “Tony, do you want to call it?”
“Oh sure, that’s good of you, thanks so much,” said Stark. “On my count then, Team Awesome.”
“I thought you were Team B,” said Wilson.
“We voted to change it,” said Lang. “Team Awesome won.”
Clint glanced at Barnes, then at Wilson, before looking at Cap. “I vote for Team Snipers And Soldiers.”
Cap sent him a harsh glare. “We’re Team A.”
“Team Stark Is An Ass?” suggested Barnes.
“Hey!” protested Stark. “If we’re going to get personal, I reckon I can come up with some names for you.”
“Can we just get on with the mission?” asked Cap through gritted teeth.
“Yeah, yeah,” said Stark. “Team Awesome, everyone suited up? Okay, let’s go.”
There was a pause, then four loud splashes over the comms.
“Let’s go, Team Stark Is An Ass,” said Cap, and headed out towards the warehouse with Barnes on his heels. There was an outraged noise over the comms from Stark, which everyone ignored.
Clint followed a step or two behind Rogers and Barnes, notching an explosive arrow and sending it at the main door, blowing a large hole in the warehouse.
A shadow passed overhead and he glanced up to see Wilson fly over on a set of metal wings that didn't look like they should work at all. Huh, so that was what the backpack had been.
“Snipers on the roof!” Wilson called down as bullets started to rain down and AIM agents boiled out of the hole Clint had blown.
“Take them out,” said Cap. “Then join us inside.”
“We’ve got to get inside first,” said Clint, dodging as he ran to make it harder for the snipers, then sending another explosive arrow into the middle of the mass of AIM agents.
“No problem,” said Barnes, shooting up at the snipers on the roof and sending at least two falling to the ground. Wilson swept over the roof, sending a shower of bullets down on them, and then Clint had closed with the agents on the ground and was too busy fighting to pay attention to what anyone else was doing.
They made it inside the warehouse to find yet more agents lying in wait, and more coming out of an entrance at the back. Clint had been in this situation before, though, and he knew that most of them were just grunts, barely capable of putting up enough of a fight to slow them down for more than a second or two.
Barnes fought with a deadly kind of efficiency and grace that Clint kept finding himself distracted by. He’d had the same problem the first couple of times he’d fought with Natasha, until he’d got used to her acrobatics enough to concentrate on his own fight.
The bow he was using was fancier than the one Clint had back in his world, and transformed into a quarterstaff for close quarters combat. By the time Wilson had finished taking out the AIM agents on the roof and had come inside, Clint had knocked out enough AIM agents for their scattered bodies to have become a trip hazard.
“There’s the submarine bay,” said Stark over the comms. “Team Awesome, prepare to engage the enemy. Team Losers, I’ve sent a message to Special Forces that we’re engaging AIM, so they’ll be at your location in 15 minutes.”
“We’ll be underground by then,” said Rogers, punching an agent in the face so hard he flew backwards and knocked over another two agents.
Most of the opposition had fallen back inside the entrance to the tunnel, so Clint took advantage of the pause in fighting to retrieve some of his arrows from various AIM agents. Barnes pulled a fresh clip out and reloaded his gun, raising an eyebrow as Clint started clicking the arrows back into his quiver.
“Reuseable ammo,” said Clint. “Makes it harder to run out.”
“Right,” said Barnes. “You realise I can fit about fifty times as much ammo into the same space as you, right?”
“Please tell me you’re not about to try and claim guns are better than a bow,” said Clint. “You’ll lose that one. The bow is the single greatest weapon ever built.”
Wilson landed next to him, his wings folding back into the pack. “Seriously? We’re doing this now?”
“I’d like to point out that my suit counts as a weapon,” said Stark. There was the sound of bullets firing followed by an explosion.
“Yeah, but it has you inside it,” said Clint.
Barnes snorted with amusement and sent Clint a grin that lit up his eyes. Clint really needed to keep telling crappy jokes if they put that look on his face.
Cap gestured at them and they started to advance on the entrance to the tunnel. Clint set another explosive arrow to his string, then sent it flying at Cap’s nod, exactly the same way he had the last time he took this base down. This whole thing was feeling a bit like deja vu, even with Barnes and Wilson with him and Cap instead of the rest of the guys from his team.
They made short work of the AIM agents in the entrance to the tunnel, then headed down the stairs. Wilson swooped down over their heads and landed behind the rough barricade that AIM had put up, shooting three agents before they'd manage to react enough to turn and attack him. Barnes just barrelled down the stairs with his metal arm braced in front of him to at least partially fend off the spray of bullets and then leap-frogged over the barricade, driving his feet into the stomach of an agent as he went before he threw himself into the fight. Clint stayed back, partially shielded by the stairs as he sent arrows curving over the barricade and into the AIM agents.
By the time Cap had joined Barnes and Wilson, most of the agents were either down, or surrendering.
“Tony, we’re through to the entrance of the tunnel,” Rogers reported over the comms as Clint helped the others tie up the prisoners for special forces to pick up.
“Excellent,” said Stark. “We’re having a lot of fun on base, you should join us.”
Barnes took hold of one of the heavy metal doors, digging his metal fingers into the gap and pulling it open with a squeal of metal. On the other side was the underwater shuttle that would take them straight out to the base.
“We’re on it,” said Cap, then glanced at Clint, expectantly.
Clint looked back. “What?”
Cap gestured at the shuttle. “How do we make it work?”
“I have no idea,” said Clint. “Last time-” He stopped himself, all too aware of the comms. “I’m not exactly the guy on the team you go to for techno-wizardry.”
Cap frowned, then glanced over at Wilson. “Don’t look at me, man,” said Wilson. “Unless it’s got a big button saying ‘Go’, I’m stumped.”
“Oh, this is going well,” said Stark. “Hang on, I’ll see if I can find a control room this side.” There was an explosion, followed by cursing from Lang. “Ah, it just might take a few minutes.”
“We don’t have a few minutes,” said Cap. “We need to get out of here before special forces arrive and arrest us as well as these guys.”
“Oh, for crying out loud,” muttered Barnes, and he climbed onto the shuttle then pulled a panel off from underneath the controls, revealing a mess of wires.
Barnes did something Clint didn’t see and the shuttle engine started with a hum. He glanced over at Rogers. “Just because you ain’t been paying attention to technology doesn’t mean I’m as clueless,” he said. “C’mon, you think Hydra wanted an agent who was stumped by electronics?”
“Okay, okay, smart alec,” said Cap, stepping onto the shuttle. “Just shut up and drive this thing.”
Wilson and Clint got on the shuttle as well and the doors slid shut behind them, then it started moving, shooting through the tunnel slightly faster than Clint was comfortable with. He occupied himself with checking over his remaining arrows.
“What’s your status?” Cap asked over the comms.
“Team Awesome are living up to their name,” said Stark. “We’ve infiltrated almost as far as the main control room and taken out most of the labs, but we’re close to the shuttle station at this end so we’re going to divert and meet you there so we can take on the welcoming committee they’ve got waiting for you together.”
“Sounds good,” said Cap. He glanced at Barnes. “You doing okay?”
“No, I’m on the verge of a mental breakdown,” said Barnes blandly. “The violence, Stevie, I just can’t cope.”
Cap rolled his eyes. “No need to be an ass.”
“That’s Starks’ job,” added Clint, and earned himself another grin from Barnes. Seriously, if the Barnes from the last world gave his Clint those looks rather than the perma-scowl he'd had when Clint had been there, no wonder the other Clint had fallen for him.
“I can hear you, you know,” muttered Stark.
“That’s good, that means I won’t have to repeat it for you,” said Wanda. “Steve, I’ll put up a barrier for you guys when the door first opens, but I won’t be able to hold it for longer than a few seconds.”
“A few seconds will be all we need,” said Cap with the kind of confidence that was apparently built into every Steve Rogers's DNA.
The shuttle began to slow and they all moved into position, bracing themselves for the moment the doors slid open.
AIM were arrayed in a semicircle around the door in two rows, the first kneeling so that the one behind could fire over their heads. Bullets descended on them in a hailstorm that bounced off the faint red shimmer of one of Wanda’s forcefields.
Barnes and Wilson pushed their guns through the forcefield so that they could fire back and Clint notched three arrows on his bowstring, ready for the moment the forcefield dropped. The instant it did, he sent all three arrows flying into the crowd, then ducked back inside the shuttle as they all exploded.
There was the whine of a repulsor and Iron Man darted into the fray, followed by Vision. Clint couldn’t see Lang, but he didn’t have time to look for the tiny dot that he’d have shrunk down to.
“Now!” ordered Cap, and they all burst out of the shuttle, Clint clicking his bow back into a quarterstaff as they attacked the front row of AIM agents.
Caught between two teams of Avengers, AIM didn’t stand much of a chance at all. They fought back with the mindlessness that all hirelings of evil organisations seemed to have, as if they hadn't realised they were just cannon fodder while the big cheeses hopped into escape vehicles or whatever.
“This would be more fun if I thought they were actually trying,” said Barnes, punching an agent in the face and wrenching his gun out of his hands so that the bullet he’d been aiming at Clint went wide and hit the ceiling instead.
“Be careful what you wish for,” said Rogers, kicking the agent next to him in the stomach, then grabbing him by his hood so that he could spin him around and send him stumbling into another agent.
“Incoming!” shouted Tony, and a bright blue flash exploded through the room. Clint threw himself out of the way, panic sending adrenalin rushing around his system as images of Loki’s sceptre flashed through his mind. No, no, no, not in the middle of a fight, concentrate, Barton.
He glanced back to see that another squad of AIM agents had arrived, two of them carrying the guns that targeted Vision’s ability to manipulate his density. They fired again, catching Vision as he aimed a beam of laser at the guns, obviously trying to cut through them before they could hit him. The twin blasts knocked him back and the rest of the unit advanced, firing at him with normal guns that sent bullets pinging off his body.
“This is very uncomfortable,” observed Vision.
“Chill, dude, I got it,” said Lang’s voice from wherever the fuck he was.
Clint left them to it in favour of backing away from the fight far enough to get his bow back into play. Barnes glanced at him then positioned himself so that any AIM agents trying to get to Clint would have to go through him, leaving Clint free to pepper the others with arrows.
There was another blast of blue light, then one of the guns started to make a worrying whining noise.
“Brace yourselves!” called Lang through the comms, then the gun exploded, sending the AIM agents flying like skittles.
“Whooo!!” called Lang. “Oh yeah, that’s how….oh shit.”
The second gun exploded as Clint ducked down to avoid flying debris.
“Ant-Man, are you okay?” said Cap as he took advantage of the dazed AIM agents and darted into the mass, punching out those that weren’t yet unconscious.
There was silence on the comms. Wanda and Stark advanced from their position, circling the AIM agents and pushing them towards the centre of the room.
“Report, Ant-Man,” repeated Cap again as the AIM agents started to surrender, going to their knees.
There was a flash, and then suddenly Lang was there, somersaulting through the air and crashing into a wall. He groaned and held up a hand. “I’m okay, I’m okay.”
“It’s fine, no one was worried,” said Wilson.
All the AIM agents left conscious had surrendered by then. Clint slung his bow over his shoulder as he helped the others restrain them, rolling his shoulders back and wondering how many more there could even be. It felt like they’d either knocked out or arrested half the evil henchman in the northern hemisphere, and yet there was still the main control room to take.
Stark had flipped up his faceplate as they corralled the AIM agents. Clint noticed that he spent more time looking at Rogers than he did dealing with the agents, and wondered if he should point out that it was more subtle to perv on Captain America when he was hidden behind a mask.
“Ah, crap,” Stark muttered. “Special forces are at the warehouse, and they’re asking questions about where the arrows came from.” He sent Clint a glare that Clint returned with interest.
Stark rolled his eyes and turned away. “Stark here. I’ve no idea what’s been going on over there, we came in the other way. As far as I was aware, the warehouse was still under AIM control.
“Hawkeye? Nah, don’t be silly, he'll be on the other side of the planet. Must be some other archer. Hang on, gotta go, bad guys attacking.”
“Some other archer,” repeated Wilson. “Sure, because there are that many highly-skilled agents who think an archaic weapon is the best thing to use.”
“Fuck you,” said Clint. “You’re hanging out with a guy who thinks a shield is a weapon.”
“Speaking as someone who’s been hit in the face by that shield,” said Barnes, “it’s definitely a weapon.”
“Better than being hit in the face by an arrow,” said Clint.
“Perhaps we should ask these guys which they disliked the most,” said Stark, glancing at the AIM agents that Wanda and Vision were herding into the shuttle where they could be locked in and sent off to where special forces were waiting in the warehouse.
A telephone rang.
Stark blinked and glanced around. “Seriously?”
Cap pulled a phone out of one of his many pouches and glanced at it, then answered.
Stark spread his arms. “Seriously? We’re in the middle of a mission and you’re answering your phone?!”
Cap turned away from him to make it clear he was ignoring him. “Professor Nugud?”
He listened for a moment, then offered the phone to Clint. “It’s for you.”
Clint took the phone and tucked it to his ear. “Hawkeye,” he said, then caught Stark’s eye. “Yeah, I can talk,” he said. “We’re just chilling.”
Stark made an exasperated noise and turned away.
“Somehow I don’t think that’s true,” said Nugud. “I have good news for you. We have made contact with the other dimensions affected, and there’s only three involved in this. We think they might all be clustered together, which formed a circuit for the trans-dimensional force to travel around.”
“Right,” said Clint, hoping it sounded like he knew what that meant. “You made contact?”
“Yes, we built a trans-dimensional communication device. It’s not got the force to send you through, but we don’t need to. Because there’s only three universes, the next jump should take you back home. One of the other universes has built a device that can do that, so they’re going to activate it in ten minutes.”
“Ten minutes?” said Clint, glancing at his watch. “Jesus, okay. And then we should all be back where we should be?”
“Yes,” she said. “Unless there’s a fourth dimension involved that haven’t responded to the pings we’ve been sending out, but there’s no trace of one.”
“Well, fingers crossed then,” said Clint. “And, thanks, you know, for sorting it out.”
“Are you kidding?” she said. “This kind of science is fascinating, and the data we’ve collected has opened up all kinds of new research areas.”
Clint was never going to understand scientists. “Okay, well, glad to have helped then,” he said, and hung up. He handed the phone back to Cap. “They’ve worked out my little problem,” he said. “Ten minutes, and then everything will be as it was.”
“What problem?” asked Stark.
Rogers turned a glare on him. “None of your business.”
Stark made an exasperated noise. “It is if it’s gonna have an impact on the mission we’re on right now, come on, Steve, stop being so-”
“So what?” interrupted Steve. “What were you expecting? We’re not going to be playing happy families just because we’re taking down AIM together. You still tried to kill my best friend, Tony!”
Clint glanced over at Barnes, who had a stony expression on his face.
“Oh, get off your high horse,” snapped Stark. “You’re the one who decided the best way to deal with all that shit was by just going off and doing your own thing rather than taking a moment to stop and discuss it, like rational fucking adults!”
Clint glanced at his watch, then walked over to Barnes. “Hey, can you hold this for me?” he asked, unslinging the bow from his shoulder. “There’s always a bit of a jolt, and I don’t want to be the asshole who fucks up your Clint’s weaponry.”
Barnes nodded, taking the bow and holding it a bit awkwardly. “I hope everything goes okay back in your world,” he said. “Getting the other me back from Hydra and all that.”
Clint nodded, ignoring the argument that was going on behind him. “Yeah, me too.” He hesitated for a moment, thought, Fuck it, and said what he’d been thinking since the talk they’d had on the plane on the way over. “So, the Barnes in the last world, the one who’s shacked up with the Clint there, said that he didn’t think that Clint Barton and Bucky Barnes were destined to be together in every universe in a, you know, starcrossed, ultimate romance kinda way.”
“Uh, right,” said Barnes, frowning as he clearly tried to work out why Clint was bringing this up.
“Thing is,” said Clint, “I think he’s wrong. I mean, maybe not starcrossed or whatever, but I reckon any Clint Barton and Bucky Barnes that spend enough time together are gonna end up wanting to do this.” He summoned all his courage, reminded himself that he was about to leave so even if Barnes reacted badly he’d only have a couple of minutes to beat Clint to a pulp, then leaned in and kissed him.
He kept it brief, despite how much he wanted to back Barnes up against the wall and properly get into it.
“So, you know,” he said when he'd pulled back, “I reckon you should try staying awake and spending time with the other Clint, so that you can prove me right.”
Barnes stared at him for a long heartbeat, then reached out for Clint’s shoulder, pulling him back in for a longer, far more satisfying kiss. Oh man, yes, why the hell was Clint leaving again?
“What the fuck?” he heard Stark say behind him, and he became aware of the silence that probably meant they had an audience. He ignored it, but pulled away anyway. This wasn’t his world, or his Barnes. He couldn’t go poaching another Clint’s shot at having this, that would be a dick move.
“Yeah, okay,” said Barnes, sounding hoarse. “Guess maybe I can give it a try.”
Clint grinned at him. “Awesome. Cuz, I’m gonna have to hunt down the Barnes in my world, then sic my Cap on him, then make friends with him and see how that goes before I’ll get anywhere close to doing this again. I don’t want to think about you putting it off when you could be giving it a try.”
Barnes nodded. “I guess that makes sense,” he said, then kissed Clint again. “One for the road.”
Clint laughed and gave him one last kiss before he stepped back and glanced at his watch again.
“Oh, hey, Stark,” he said, turning to face Stark’s look of exasperated shock. “I’ve got a message for you, from a Tony Stark from another dimension who’s been fucking Steve Rogers since about a month after they met.”
Cap made an aggravated growling noise that Clint entirely ignored.
“He said, just get drunk and compliment his biceps,” said Clint, then glanced at Rogers’s red face. “I’m thinking you might have messed things up here too much for that to work, though. You might have to tell him he has pretty eyes or some such shit as well.”
“What the fuck-?” started Stark, then shook his head. “Okay, someone better be planning to clue me in on what the fuck is going on soon, because I thought we were just taking out AIM.”
“We will be,” said Cap, clearing his throat. “Just, give us a minute or two to get our team fully back together.” He gave Clint a nod. “It was good to meet you, Hawkeye.”
Clint nodded. “You too, Cap.” He glanced around at the others. “And you guys as well. Good luck with the base, and don’t forget about the booby-trap on the third floor.”
He glanced back at Barnes, who was still holding the bow in one hand and staring at Clint.
“Good luck,” he said, and Barnes nodded.
“You too. Just remember, don’t get too close, let Steve punch him in the face a bunch of times before you try anything else.”
“Yeah, yeah, I got this,” said Clint. “I do my best work from a distance, remember?”
“And don’t let him run off,” added Barnes. “He’ll wanna disappear into the wind, don’t let him.” He swallowed. “I was just treading water when I was hiding out.”
“Bucky,” said Steve quietly, then shook his head, clearly not wanting to say whatever he’d been intending to add in front of everyone. “If we’re doing advice on how to handle all this crap better than we did,” he said to Clint instead, “then I reckon you should maybe tell your Steve not to keep anything hidden from Tony, even if he thinks it’s just gonna upset him. The truth always comes out, and mostly it makes a mess.”
“Wait,” said Stark, “wait, wait, is that you admitting you’re wrong? Oh MAN, I better have a recording of that from my suit’s systems, because I am-”
Clint was slammed by the force of trans-dimensional travel before he could hear the end of Stark’s rant, and everything disappeared in a flash of green.
After dinner, the Fantastic Three headed back to the Baxter Building.
“If I don’t make sure Reed goes to bed soon, he’ll just keep going until he passes out,” said Sue, then offered an apologetic shrug at Clint. “I’m sorry, I know you want to get home, but he’s been working on it since last night without stopping.”
Clint waved that away. “Nah, it’s cool. I guess it’s not something that’s gonna happen immediately.” Which really fucking sucked, because he wanted to get back to Bucky and tell him how fucked up the other universes were and how they totally lucked out with the one they were in. “I guess I’ve just got to hope I’ll actually get home and won’t just keep bouncing from world to world like some kinda fucked up mix of Sliders and Quantum Leap.”
“I’d watch that,” said Johnny. “I mean, I bet it would be kinda trashy, but I’d still watch it.”
Clint considered that for a minute. “There’d probably be an episode where I’d get to take out dinosaurs with a bow. That would be fun.” More fun if he had his team with him. He really wanted to see the look on a t-rex’s face after it had been smashed in the nose by Captain America’s shield.
After they’d gone, Tony showed Clint to a spare bedroom and gave him some sweatpants and t-shirt to sleep in, then left him alone. Clint stretched out, let out a long breath, and tried not to think about how empty the bed felt without Bucky’s quiet breathing beside him, or the familiar weight of his arm resting over Clint’s stomach.
He shut his eyes and forced himself not to think about how long it might take for him to have those things again. If he was going to be any use on this mission, he needed to get some rest.
He dropped off fairly quickly, and was woken up by the soft sound of JARVIS’s voice.
“Agent Barton, Captain Rogers has asked me to inform you that you will be leaving in half an hour.”
Clint groaned. That had not been nearly enough sleep. He rolled over to grope at where Bucky should be, then remembered exactly why he wasn’t, and groaned again. “Tell Cap I’ll be up in a mo,” he said, then stayed where he was, eyes screwed shut as he tried to persuade himself to get up from the warm nest of blankets he’d wrapped himself in. It took a few minutes.
He had a shower and pulled his combat suit back on, then headed upstairs to where Tony and Steve were in the kitchen. He slumped at the kitchen table.
“Please tell me there’s time for coffee.”
“Nah, we’ve got to go right now,” said Tony. “Up and at ‘em, Hawkeye, time to go, go, go.”
Steve just passed over a mug that Clint wrapped grateful hands around. “This is why you’re my favourite,” Clint told him. “Well, other than Bucky, obviously,” he added without thinking.
Ah crap, he was still too asleep for this. Steve’s face shuttered and he stared down at the table as if trying to set it on fire.
“It sounds like you’re very close to the Bucky in your world,” said Tony, sending him a raised eyebrow.
Clint shrugged, took a sip of coffee, and gave up on discretion as a plan of action. For a spy, he was pretty shit at it. “Yeah, you could say that,” he said. “Given he’s my boyfriend and we live together, and all that.” Steve’s head whipped around and Clint offered him a weak smile. “Probably should have mentioned that earlier, huh?”
Tony laughed. “Okay, this is just great. There’s another universe where both me and Barton are getting laid by super-soldiers.” He held a fist out to Clint. “Put it there.”
Clint rolled his eyes, but bumped his fist against Tony’s. “Just so you know, that’s almost exactly the same reaction my Tony had when me and Bucky got together.”
“You, and Bucky?” asked Steve, incredulously, then shook his head. “How the hell does that work?”
“It works great, thanks,” replied Clint with a sharp edge to his voice. “We’re sickeningly in love, and that’s a direct quote from Stephen Colbert so you can take that to the bank.”
“Sorry,” said Steve. “Didn’t mean that to sound like that, just- I don’t know. I guess I’m still finding it hard to think of Bucky being alive, let alone in love with another guy.”
Clint gave his shoulder a pat, which made him flinch as if expecting a blow. “We’ll get him back,” he said. “You’ll have plenty of time to get used to having him around again. And to develop the long-suffering expression my Steve uses when me and Bucky are winding him up.”
Steve just nodded, then drained the last of his coffee. “We should be going,” he said, standing up.
“Yeah,” agreed Tony, finishing his own coffee. He was in the black undersuit he wore with the armour and Clint realised with surprise that the arc reactor wasn’t shining through it.
“Do you not have-” he started, then realised he didn’t want to have to go explaining the mess that had led to his Tony embedding an electro-magnet in his chest if he didn’t have to. Instead, he just vaguely tapped at his own chest in the place where the reactor should be.
Tony glanced down at himself. “I had surgery,” he said. “Stopped needing it.”
“Huh,” said Clint, filing that away. He wondered if his Tony knew that was an option.
“I'll head down to the basement to get suited up, then meet you up top,” said Tony, heading off for the elevator that went all the way down.
Clint and Steve got in the other one and headed up to the roof. Steve had his jaw gritted so tightly that Clint was worried about his teeth cracking. Of course, they were super-soldier teeth so they were more durable than the average set. Except the jaw was super-soldier as well, so that probably balanced out.
Steve's brow was still furrowed by a frown and Clint remembered what the others had been saying about him being grumpy all the time.
“You okay, man?” he asked.
Steve jerked a nod. “Just want to get on with it.”
“Yeah, I get that,” said Clint. “The waiting before a mission is always the worst.” Steve's jaw just tightened further which, wow, Clint would not have thought that was possible.
“Listen, I was gonna say, go easy on Tony,” he said. “I know you want to protect Bucky, but it's gonna take Tony a bit to adjust to finding out about his parents, you know?”
Steve shook his head. “If he lays a finger on Bucky-”
“Whoa, Steve,” said Clint, grabbing at his shoulder and dragging him around to meet his eyes. “C'mon, man. I get that you're very focused, but take a moment. The guy just discovered his parents were murdered by people his father worked with and trusted. Just, put the issue of Bucky to one side and think about that, will you?”
Steve's frown darkened as if he was going to object, so Clint shook his shoulder. “Take a moment to be in his shoes.”
Steve huffed a sigh but Clint could see him doing it, his face clearing off as he took a moment, followed by a wince.
“Yeah, okay,” he said. “I guess I have been a bit focused.”
Clint let go of his shoulder, satisfied that he'd got his point across. “It's okay, I get it,” he said, because he did. It was pretty clear that this version of Steve was miserable, and had been for a very long time. Clint could remember how that felt and how hard it became to take in anything outside of that misery, especially not other people's emotions.
The elevator doors opened to reveal Tony waiting for them, already in the suit but carrying his helmet. “Ready to rock and roll?”
“Definitely,” said Steve. “Let's go take back Bucky and avenge your parents.”
Tony's grin was sharklike. “Two excellent goals, Cap.”
They only had a few minutes before the others arrived in the Fantasticar to pick them up. Clint was relieved to see Ben was flying it; he might jump off roofs on a regular basis, but he wasn’t stupid enough to get into a vehicle that Johnny Storm was flying.
It was as dark as it ever got in New York, with the stillness that only really happened right in the very deepest part of the night. As they flew towards Washington DC, Clint looked up at the stars and reflected that they weren’t any different from the ones in his universe. He wondered why he’d thought they would be.
They landed on the roof of the DC Stark Industries offices then took a service elevator down to the ground, where it was a short walk to the Triskelion.
They paused in the shadow of a warehouse, looking at the bridge leading out to the island.
“Everyone got the plan down?” said Steve.
There were nods.
“Remember, this needs to be stealthy,” he added. “We need to stop the alarm being raised until we’re ready for it.”
“We’ve got it,” said Johnny. “C’mon, Sue.” He gestured at himself and she rolled her eyes.
“Impatient,” she muttered, raising her hands and sending him, herself, Ben and Tony invisible. Clint shifted his quiver higher on his back and slung his bow over his shoulder, trying to look as casual as possible as he and Steve headed towards the main security gate.
Steve nodded at the guards as they got close. “Hey, guys.”
“Captain America,” said one of them, with the wide-eyed look of a fanboy. Clint felt a bit embarrassed for him.
“We weren’t told you were coming,” said the other, suspiciously.
Steve shrugged. “They don’t tell us where we’re going to end up, most of the time.”
“Yeah, I know how that one goes,” she said, pressing the button to open the gate. Clint gave her a nod as he and Steve headed through, followed by the troop of invisible superheroes, hoping like hell that Tony’s heavy metal footsteps weren’t as obvious to her as they were to him.
Once they reached the grounds, they paused under the guise of Steve readjusting the shield on his back. “Okay, guys,” he said quietly. “Go for it.”
“I’ll let you know when I’ve made it into the right systems,” said Tony’s voice, then footsteps headed away from them, into the main building. Steve and Clint followed behind, waving at the guards trying to stay awake at the security booth inside.
“I’m telling you,” Clint said loudly, “Fury’s definitely going to retire in the next few months.”
Every head in the lobby turned towards him, away from the elevator at the back whose doors dinged open quietly for four invisible people to climb inside.
“No way,” said Steve. “He’ll be here for a good few decades yet.”
Clint shook his head. “He’s getting tired. You saw him at the last briefing.”
The elevator doors slid shut and the numbers started to climb upwards.
Steve glanced around as if only just realising they had an audience. “Let’s talk about this later.”
They headed for the elevators and Clint took careful note of the eyes that followed them. There were several that looked more suspicious than they should. Were they Hydra?
“We’re in the computer room,” said Tony over the comms. “Give me three minutes and I’ll have control of the elevators.”
Which, of course, was when the elevator in front of them dinged open and Rumlow came out, flanked by two of his Strike team. Did the guy never sleep?
“Cap!” he said, grinning. “Didn’t expect to see you here.” He glanced at Clint. “And Barton. Always a pleasure.”
His tone of voice made it very clear it wasn’t. Clint wondered just how much shit the other Clint had to put up with day-to-day within SHIELD if Rumslow felt like he could treat him with that much disdain and get away with it.
“Brock,” said Clint, plastering on a smirk. “I see you’re still not able to go to the bathroom without a couple of guys to help out.” He nodded at other two guys and got glowers.
Steve sighed. “Clint,” he said, then rolled his eyes at Brock. “You’ll have to excuse him. He’s in a shitty mood today.”
“I think I’m entitled,” said Clint. He moved to push past Rumlow to get in the elevator, but was stopped by a hand on his chest that he really wanted to just break off.
Not yet. They couldn’t blow their cover yet.
“We’ve had a really long night of it, fellas,” said Steve. “We just need to get to debrief and then we can go to bed, so if you’d just-”
“Debrief,” said Rumlow slowly. “Funny, I hadn’t heard about any Avengers missions going on tonight, and I know Fury and Hill are both off-site. Who’s leading the debrief?”
Clint groaned and turned to Steve. “If Fury has made us come all the way down here and now isn’t even here-”
“He’ll be here,” said Steve firmly. “You’re not ducking out on this now. Do you really think these guys have any idea where Fury is at any given moment?”
That made Rumlow’s jaw tightened, which made Clint feel better.
“Guys, I’m into their systems,” whispered Tony. “All their systems. Wow, okay, there is a lot of shit here. I’m backing it all up so we can pick it apart later, dig up all their smudgy little secrets.”
“We’re in place as well,” said Sue’s voice.
“If you’ll excuse us, gentlemen,” said Steve, and he pushed past Rumlow with slightly more shoulder than it really needed. “We don’t want to keep him waiting.”
Clint followed him into the elevator, gave Rumlow a smirk, and waited for the doors to close.
When they did, he let out a breath. “Well, that’s gonna have made all kindsa flashing lights go off,” he said. “Rumlow's pretty high up in Hydra and he definitely knew something was up.”
“Was it enough to get them to send Bucky after us?” asked Steve.
Clint shook his head. “No idea.”
“If it didn’t, this will,” said Tony. The elevator, which had been steadily rising, halted. The control panel lit up with red lights and then the elevator abruptly started descending, a lot faster than it had been going up. Clint caught hold of the railing to steady himself.
When the door slid open, he had to blink a couple of times to make sense of the massive space in front of him, even though he'd seen it before, in his world. Seriously, how the hell had they managed to keep a sub-basement this large secret from everyone?
The elevator opened onto a balcony that overlooked the three massive helicarriers and had a handful of computer terminals and not much else.
“Hey, you shouldn’t be down here,” said one of the technicians, turning to glare at them as they stepped out.
“Spot inspection,” said Steve with a grin.
Another agent stepped forward, putting his hand on his gun, which was a pretty ballsy move when confronted with Captain America in full uniform. “You don’t have clearance.” He glanced at Clint. “You definitely don’t have clearance.”
Clint rolled his eyes. “C’mon, I’m an Avenger, why don’t I get any respect?”
The agent stepped forward, followed by another two. “I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
Steve glanced at Clint, who gave him a shrug. “I guess that’s about as much stealth as we can manage.”
“Understood,” said Tony.
Steve pulled the shield off his back and set it flying at the agent, dashing across the balcony to punch another in the face, then snatching the shield out of the air as it ricocheted off the first agent’s face.
Clint unslung his bow and notched an arrow, aiming at the technicians. “Step away from the computers.”
Instead of doing that, three of them pulled out guns and started shooting at him. He ducked back, sending the arrow into someone’s shoulder and immediately notching another one. Steve ran forward, ducked behind his shield as bullets flew at them, and Clint used his move as cover to send a couple more arrows, then launched himself at the nearest agent, sending a high kick at his stomach.
“Attention, SHIELD,” crackled the intercom. “This is Iron Man. The Avengers are in the process of taking charge of this facility. The whole place is riddled with Hydra double agents, so we’re gonna try and sort that out. If you’re not a Hydra double agent then, hi, sorry about all this, you should probably not trust any of your co-workers.”
“Shit,” said one of the technicians, darting over to a computer. “We need to-” He was cut off by Cap’s shield hitting him in the back of the head.
“I’m guessing you’re all Hydra,” said Clint, ducking under a fist. “Awesome, Steve, we can just beat the shit out of them.”
“Already was,” said Steve, doing a very impressive backflip over a computer in order to kick a guy in the face.
“Oh, and before he comes on after me and makes up some story about me being drunk or crazy,” Tony added, “Be aware that the head Hydra honcho is Alexander Pierce. And don’t trust Brock Rumlow either, or any of his team. Iron Man out.”
There was a click as the intercom went off.
“Okay, I’m heading out,” said Tony over the comms. “Sue, are you guys okay?”
There was the sound of fighting, along with something very large being smashed. “We’re a bit stalled in the outer office, but I can see Pierce inside. We’ll get him.”
Between them, Steve and Clint had managed to subdue all the agents on the balcony. Clint could see more agents milling about on the floor below, around the helicarriers, but they didn’t seem to be coming for them right now. He paused to take a breath as Steve clipped his shield into place on his back.
The intercom clicked on again. “This is Alexander Pierce. It appears Tony Stark has already spoken for me, so I suppose all it remains for me to say is that Project Insight is launching now. Crush the Avengers! Hail Hydra!”
Clint could hear a chorus of Hail Hydra coming from around them and let out a sigh. “So much for hoping they hadn’t got as deep as they did on my world.”
A warning siren went off, then there was a heavy thunk from the ceiling.
“They’re opening the bay doors,” said Clint.
Steve was looking over the balcony, frowning. “They’re preparing to launch the helicarriers. We need to move fast.”
Clint nodded, pulling out a zipwire arrow and sending it at a girder that looked like it should be able to take his weight. Steve just hopped over the railing and dropped to the floor below, of course, because super-soldiers didn’t bother worrying about little things like thirty foot drops.
He was already well into it with a gang of agents when Clint swung down, taking as many as he could out with arrows before dropping into their midst.
He took out the nearest two agents then somersaulted out of the way as another pulled a gun on him, only peripherally aware of Steve kicking ass next to him.
They were just about to get the better of the agents when a shower of automatic gunfire sent them both running for cover, ducking behind a gantry supporting one of the helicarriers. Clint glanced up to see Rumlow and his team on the balcony, accompanied by an incredibly familiar figure in black, wearing goggles and a facemask.
“Is that-?” asked Steve.
“Yep,” said Clint, grimly, as the Winter Soldier finished emptying his clip in their direction, took another gun from one of the team and jumped down to the level they were on. “Remember, he’s gonna be doing his best to kill you. Knock him out as quickly as you can. I’ll deal with Rumlow.”
Cap nodded. “On it,” he said, and dashed across to another gantry, drawing the Winter Soldier’s attention. There was a heavy clunk from above them and the roof started to split open.
Clint took a moment to push down the tangled mish-mash of emotions that came from seeing Bucky -any Bucky- still under Hydra’s thumb, then notched two arrows to his string, stepped out from cover for a second and shot them both, stepping back before they’d even found their targets.
He could hear the engine of the helicarrier furthest away starting to warm up. “Tony, we could do with some help down here.”
“I’m on my way” said Tony. “Just run into a tiny delay in the form of the whole damn place descending into a riot.”
“Barton!” Rumlow called down from the balcony. “You annoyingly little shit! I’m going to enjoy taking you down.”
“You’re gonna have to come down here and face me to do that!” shouted back Clint.
“Shit,” said Sue over the comms. “Pierce got away. He had a helicopter.”
“I’m on his tail,” said Johnny.
“Sue, Ben, see if you can identify any groups still loyal to SHIELD and help them take down Hydra,” said Steve, sounding out of breath. Clint glanced over but couldn’t see much of his fight with Bucky with the helicarrier in the way.
All three helicarriers had their engines running now, preparing for take-off. Man, they were cutting this damn fine.
He looked back around at the balcony and realised that Rumlow and his men were already halfway to the main floor, rappelling down ropes. Clint sent an arrow right through one of the ropes, sending two guys tumbling to the ground, which just left Rumlow and two other guys. Clint could totally take them, no problem. Right?
Rumlow sent a shower of bullets at his location, keeping him pinned as the other two STRIKE team members advanced on him. Well, okay, maybe a small problem.
There was a flash of red and gold from above and Iron Man soared in, ducked close overhead, then landed on the deck of the furthest helicarrier. Great, at least someone would be working on keeping them grounded while Clint took on these guys.
He notched an explosive arrow and sent it in Rumlow’s direction as well as he could without stepping out of cover, which at least put an end to the hail of bullets even if he didn't actually manage to hit the fucker. The other two agents were pretty much on top of Clint by then, so he shouldered his bow and stepped out to take them on.
It became clear pretty quickly that they weren’t expecting him to be as good as he was, but Clint had spent the last five years sparring with super-soldiers and Natasha, learning new tricks on how to hold his own against someone faster and stronger than him. Taking on two guys was easy compared to that, especially when they were the kind of ham-fisted fighters that STRIKE tended to encourage, who thought force was more important than technique.
“Okay, I’ve made it to the main tracking computer on this bird. The good news is that I can hack it and keep these things from being a problem. The bad news is that it’s going to be a few minutes, which we may not have,” said Tony.
“Just do what you can,” said Steve, then there was a thump and he let out a pained noise.
Clint did his best to block out the distractions and had both guys knocked out before Rumlow had made it over to join in.
“Impressive,” said Rumlow, and Clint gave him a grin.
“They didn’t just make me an Avenger on account of my pretty looks.”
Rumlow snorted. “I thought they made you one out of pity, after you were stupid enough to let an alien take you over.” He’d lost his gun at some point but pulled out a club, squaring off to Clint.
“Mostly they just needed a pilot,” said Clint with a shrug, then darted in, trying to get close enough to hit Rumlow before he could use the club.
He almost made it. He gave Rumlow a hard strike to the head and followed it up with one to the ribs, just as the club came cracking down on his arm. Goddamnit, that hurt. Clint fell back, trying to hide that the whole thing had gone numb from the elbow down.
Rumlow sneered. “There won’t be a need for the Avengers in the new world order, once these helicarriers are in the sky. You will be taken out in the first wave.”
“They’re not going to make it into the sky,” said Clint, just as there was a whirring sound and the furthest helicarrier, the one Tony was meant to be grounding, took off. Clint sighed. “Okay, maybe they’ll make it into the sky, but they won’t be creating any kind of new world order before they crash and burn.”
Rumlow grinned. “Sure,” he said, mockingly, then stepped forward and struck at Clint again. Clint danced out of the way and swept a kick at his legs, grabbing the club as it came down on him again. He gave it a yank, pulling Rumlow off-balance, then swung around to smash him in the jaw, sending him reeling.
“First helicarrier is ours!” announced Tony, and there was a red-gold blur at the edge of Clint’s vision that he didn’t glance at, too focused on keeping Rumlow from regaining his balance.
“We’ve got Hydra’s forces on the run,” reported Sue. “Well, most of them.”
Rumlow ripped the club from Clint’s grip and scored a solid blow on his side, driving the air out of his lungs. Clint skipped back out of the way of another blow. Shit, he needed to end this, and quickly. He could see Steve still fighting the Winter Soldier off to one side and it didn’t look as if that was going to end soon. The second helicarrier was in the air as well now and the one just behind Clint was gearing up to lift off. They couldn’t leave Tony to deal with all three of them.
“You are doomed to fail before the might of Hydra,” said Rumlow, with a fervent look in his eyes.
Clint groaned. “Oh man, you sound like every idiotic fanatic ever. Could you really not get any original lines?” He stepped back as if giving ground then, when Rumlow stepped forward to take advantage, dived back in at Rumlow’s torso, knocking him backwards and punching him squarely in the face as they landed in a heap on the ground. It took another punch to knock him out completely, and a third to make Clint feel better about how long that had taken.
He pulled himself back upright, checking his bow was still undamaged. “Okay, I’m heading for the final helicarrier,” he said, jogging towards the nearest gantry. “Tony, please tell me the computer shit is easy.”
“Well, it’s easy for me,” said Tony, which wasn’t a lot of help.
Clint climbed up the gantry to the main deck of the helicarrier and found a way inside, trying to remember the route to the main tracking system from two years ago, when he’d last been on one of these things.
“I could just blow it up,” he suggested.
“No,” said Tony. “Trust me, I’d like to do that too, but there are fail-safe systems in place that we really don’t want activated.”
Clint sighed. Of course.
“Uh, guys, did we need Pierce alive?” asked Johnny. “Because his helicopter a little bit, um, exploded.”
“If he’s responsible for this being done to Bucky, I ain’t too cut up about it,” said Cap and, wow, he really sounded winded.
Clint ducked to look out of the nearest window and located the fight going on below. Steve was looking tired while the Winter Soldier just kept coming, although he’d lost his facemask somewhere along the way. Seeing the blank, resolute look on Bucky’s face made Clint’s stomach turn over.
Not your Bucky, he reminded himself. His Bucky was still at home and well and knew who he was, and was probably cursing Clint’s name for not having managed to make it back to him yet.
Knowing that didn’t help much.
As Clint watched, Steve threw his shield and the Winter Soldier caught it in his metal hand, flinging it back with twice as much force. Damnit, Clint should have foreseen this. Steve wasn’t fighting with everything he had, he was holding back. He might not even realise he was doing it.
Clint clenched his hands into fists. He’d been afraid it would come to this from the minute he’d realised he’d be going up against the Winter Soldier. He reached back into his quiver and pulled out one of his arrows fitted with an electro-magnetic pulse and fitted it to his bow, taking aim.
“Steve, get him to turn to his right,” he said. Having Bucky in his sights felt wrong on just about every level, but he took a deep breath and pushed all his emotions away. This was the mission: bring the Winter Soldier in alive. If Steve couldn’t manage it, then Clint would have to. If Bucky, his Bucky, was here, he’d want him to do this.
Steve circled around so that the Winter Soldier followed him, angling him sideways on to Clint’s location. He took a deep breath and a moment to sight, then let the arrow go.
It flew exactly how he wanted it to, burying itself in the Winter Shoulder’s shoulder at an angle along his collarbone, the head tucked up right against the socket of his metal arm. When the EMP went off, it was inside of the shielding that covered the rest of the arm. The pulse travelled right down to his fingers, killing the electrical systems in the arm and leaving it as nothing but dead weight.
It was a solution to taking him down that Bucky had once whispered to Clint in the middle of the night, back when he’d still regularly woken up from nightmares of being taken over again and killing the people he cared about. Clint had hated the idea then and he hated it even more now as he watched the Winter Soldier stagger backwards, trying to adjust to the sudden weight of the lifeless arm and the pain of an arrow buried in his shoulder.
“Knock him out as quickly as you can,” he said to Steve. “He’s still dangerous, even like that.”
“I’m on it,” said Steve, grimly.
The deck of the helicarrier shuddered beneath Clint and he stepped away from the edge to prevent himself from falling. “Ah crap,” he said. “I think I’m taking off.”
The engine noise grew and the shuddering grew, then the helicarrier lifted up, into the air.
“Get to the targeting computer,” said Tony. “I’m nearly done here, I’ll come get you.”
Clint sprinted down the corridor towards the computer. When he got there, he pulled it open and stared. “Okay, this is above my paygrade. I’ve still got an EMP arrow?”
“No,” said Tony. “Just do exactly what I say.”
What followed was a set of instructions that was possibly dumbed down more than it needed to be, but Clint preferred that to a string of techno-babble that he’d have had to try and decipher. As he worked, Steve knocked out the Winter Soldier, although not before trying to talk to him.
“Bucky. Bucky, it’s me.”
“Who the hell is Bucky?”
“You are, and I’m Steve. Steve Rogers, your best friend.”
“You’re my mission,” growled Bucky, and Clint had to take a deep breath to force down yet another wave of unwanted emotion.
Steve made a quiet noise that Clint felt like a voyeur to overhear. “Until the end of the line, Bucky,” he said, then there was the sound of a punch.
Tony landed beside Clint and flipped up his mask so that he could exchange a look with Clint, but neither of them mentioned it.
“Okay, this pretty much done, just need to-” said Tony, and did something complicated to the computer that Clint didn’t bother paying attention to.
“Everything’s under control here,” said Sue. “All the Hydra elements have either been neutralised or run off.”
“We can pick them up later,” said Steve.
“The SHIELD agents have all evacuated off the island,” said Sue. “Fury’s here, and Agent Hill.”
“Cap, you’re gonna need a quick getaway when this all goes up,” said Tony as he finished whatever he was doing and shut the computer back up. “Get yourself and your guy out of there, yeah?”
“Already on it,” said Steve.
Tony glanced at Clint, then put his mask back down and held out an arm. “Shall we?”
“Hell yeah,” said Clint, stepping in to balance on the Iron Man suit’s feet and wrap an arm around him.
He didn’t fly with his Tony as often as Steve did but he’d done it often enough to know that the key was to press as closely as possibly, hold on as tightly as he could, and try to ignore the way his stomach tried to turn itself inside out.
They landed just outside the main security gate, where a group of SHIELD agents were gathered, most of them looking a bit shell-shocked. Fury and Hill were at the centre of the group, talking to Sue, Ben and Johnny with frowns on their faces.
Tony landed beside them. “Hey, fancy seeing you here,” he said to Fury. “You’re a bit late to help.”
Fury ignored that. “I take it you’ve done something about them,” he said, nodding up at where the three helicarriers were starting to circle around the Triskelion, following whatever automated path they’d been programmed with.
“Yup,” said Tony. “Give it three, two, one…”
The nearest helicarrier suddenly lurched, all its weapons systems coming up to aim at the next helicarrier along, whose guns were already moving to point at the third helicarrier.
“This is going to be messy,” said Fury.
“Oh yeah,” said Tony, with satisfaction. “But, come on, you sent me to deal with it. What were you expecting?”
The guns all geared up and fired at roughly the same time, sending shots echoing across the sky, followed by loud explosions as the shots hit the other helicarriers. There was the squeal of weakened metal, another series of explosions, and then the first helicarrier began to fall from the sky, right into the middle of the Triskelion.
“You couldn’t have kept the base in one piece?” asked Hill, but she was barely audible over the explosions and crashing metal as all three helicarriers came apart, falling out of the sky and into the Potomac.
“Steve, you got clear, yeah?” said Clint into the comms, moving away from Fury and Hill so he wouldn't be overheard.
“Affirmative,” grunted Steve. “We’re on the shore down river, but I’m gonna need a pick up.”
Johnny took a step away from the others and lit up with flame. “I’ll get the Fantasticar and come meet you.”
He took off and Clint twitched with annoyance at how easy it was for him. Most of the time he didn’t mind that he’d missed out on superpowers but there were times when it would be handy to be able to get from point A to point B a lot quicker than walking.
“Hawkeye,” said Fury, and Clint turned back towards him. “Agent Romanov has been extracted from her current mission and is on her way back to New York. She should arrive some time tomorrow evening.”
Well, that was good. Clint gave Fury a nod, then wondered if he was playing this right. What would the other him have done?
Apparently that was enough because Fury carried on without waiting for more of a response. “I also wanted to apologise to you. I know we haven't utilised your skills to their full potential over the last few years.”
Jesus, how bad must it have been for the other Clint if Fury was giving him an actual apology?
If it had been that bad, then other Clint should definitely be hearing this, not him. He'd be in a much better position to know whether or not he should be telling Fury to shove it. He glanced at Tony, who clearly caught his thoughts because he stepped in.
“Hey, Mad Eye, we just spent a few hours clearing up your mess. Mind if we take a moment to enjoy the destruction we've wrought before you start up on your layers of bullshit? You can talk to Barton tomorrow, once he's had a shower and a nap.”
Fury directed a look at him that Clint would have guessed would cause spontaneous combustion. “Fine,” he bit off. “Barton, when we have a new base of operations, I'll be in touch.”
“Sounds good, Sir,” said Clint, and waved off a salute.
Tony grabbed Clint's arm and dragged him further away and Clint let him, ignoring the suspicious look Hill gave him. It wasn't as if even she would be able to guess what was going on just by looking at him.
Once they were far enough away not to be heard, Tony turned his attention back to Steve. “How’s Sleeping Beauty?” he asked over the comms.
“Still sleeping,” said Steve with a tone that implied he wasn’t impressed with the nickname.
“That won’t last,” said Clint. “We need to get him to the tower before he wakes up, cuz the minute he does, he’ll start going after you again.”
Tony glanced at him. “You think Cap needs back-up?”
Clint hesitated, then nodded. “Yeah, maybe. If he wakes up, it'd be better if there’s a gang of us to contain him.”
Contain him. Clint took a deep breath and reminded himself that he wasn’t talking about his Bucky, he was talking about the Winter Soldier. He couldn’t let his emotions get the better of him.
Tony nodded and held his arm out to Clint. “Cap, we’re on our way over.” He glanced at Sue, who was still talking to Fury. She gave them a nod to show she’d heard what was happening over the comms, then turned back to Fury and pulled his attention away from their direction, talking about the clear up and whether they could rebuild SHIELD or if they needed to just start again with a new agency.
The flight down river didn’t take long. Steve was slumped on the bank next to Bucky’s unconscious body, one hand resting on his shoulder as if he had to touch him to make sure he was real. Bucky looked horribly pale and the arrow still sticking out of his shoulder made Clint feel sick. He’d done that.
Damn, this whole thing was providing all kinds of sights that he had a feeling would be coming back to haunt his nightmares.
Tony flicked up his face mask. “He doesn’t look that much like an unbeatable assassin right now.”
Clint spared him a glance. Tony was glaring at Bucky with a look that didn’t bode well, his jaw clenched and a fervent look of hatred in his eyes that needed to be nipped in the bud.
“Trust me,” said Steve, rolling a shoulder back with a wince, “he does when you’re fighting him.”
Clint went to his knees next to Bucky but stopped himself from doing anything too stupid, like brushing his fingers through his hair. Not your Bucky, he reminded himself, and wondered how long it would take for that to sink in.
God, he didn't want to be in this world long enough for this to sink in.
“If we do this right, you won’t ever have to fight him again,” he said. “And he won’t ever have to be Hydra’s assassin, either.” He glanced up at Tony. “Once he gets himself back, he’s gonna hate having been that more than you ever could.”
Steve tore his eyes away from Bucky to glance up at Tony, apparently just realising there was a problem. He frowned. “We took Hydra down, Stark. The people responsible for your parents’ deaths are all gone.”
Tony made a face, then let out a very long sigh. “Yeah, okay, easy for you to say, but from where I’m standing-”
“From where you’re standing nothing,” said Clint, firmly. “C’mon, don’t be like those dick agents who keep having a go at the other Clint for shit that Loki is responsible for.”
Tony made a face. “Fine,” he allowed, grumpily.
Johnny arrived with the Fantasticar, landing it close by. Steve and Tony carried Bucky to the car together, then Steve collapsed down beside him with a sigh.
“How long is that EMP gonna last?” Tony asked Clint as he got into one of the other compartments of the Fantasticar.
“About two hours,” said Clint, glancing at his watch. “We definitely need him to be locked up by then.”
Tony nodded and put his faceplate down. “I’ll go on ahead and get things ready for him,” he said, and took off.
Steve glanced at Clint. “Do you think he’s going to cause problems for Bucky?”
Clint shrugged. “I think it’s gonna take him a while to get used to the idea, but I think if he was going to get violent, he’d have done it by now.”
Steve nodded, but didn’t look happy about the idea. Fair enough, there wasn’t a whole lot about this situation that was worth being happy about, not in any of the universes that Clint had seen so far.
Tony had got the room set up for them and was waiting at the landing pad to escort them down to it, leaving his suit on in case Bucky woke up. Clint kinda got the feeling that Tony was hoping he’d wake up so that Tony had an excuse to hit him with a repulsor blast at least once.
The room was basically a glass cell inside a larger room, with a massive door. The only furniture was a bunk that they laid Bucky on, then stripped him off his weapons and boots. Tony collected them all up and took them out of the room where they would be out of reach if Bucky woke up, not that he’d need much more than his metal arm to cause some serious damage.
Steve hesitated over unbuckling Bucky’s body armour. “We’ll need to get the arrow out first.”
Clint nodded and knelt on the bed beside Bucky. “I’ll need a medkit to take the arrow completely out, but it’ll be easier if I take the shaft off first,” he said.
“I’ll get a kit,” said Tony, and left the room.
Clint kept a small hacksaw in one of the pockets of his pants, along with a handful of other fletching supplies, and was relieved to discover that this world’s Hawkeye did the same.
“You’ve done this before,” said Steve.
Clint snorted. “Well, yeah. You put enough arrows in people, sometimes you find you need to take them out as well.” He started to cut away Bucky’s shirt around where the arrow had gone in.
“You ever put one in your world’s Bucky?” asked Steve.
“Hold the arrow here,” Clint instructed Steve. “Keep it as still as you can.” He started cutting through the shaft as carefully as he could before he answered the question. “Never shot Bucky, but I’ve helped him extract enough bullets.” He glanced at Steve. “He gets shot almost as often as my Steve does.”
Steve frowned. “I don’t get shot that often.”
Tony, coming back in with the medkit, snorted. “Okay, that’s pretty much bullshit, Mr. Oh-This-Is-Just-a-Flesh-Wound.”
“I’ve definitely heard that one from my Cap,” agreed Clint, as he made it all the way through the shaft, leaving just the head buried in Bucky’s shoulder. He took the medkit from Tony and opened it up, pulling out what he needed. Steve took the arrow shaft and tossed it to Tony, which was sensible. Just because it was only a broken part of what had once been a weapon didn’t mean they wanted the Winter Soldier getting his hands on it.
Clint was just getting ready to pull the arrow head out when Bucky pulled in a sharp breath, his eyes flew open, and his real arm shot out to clasp Clint around the throat. Crap, crap, crap.
“Who are you?” he demanded, then his eyes darted around the room. “Where am I?”
Steve had started forward with a curse, but Clint held up a hand to stop him. “I’m the guy giving you medical attention,” he said around the grip of Bucky’s arm.
Bucky blinked and his arm dropped, as Clint had known it would. Hydra had put in a couple of fail-safes to make sure that he didn’t beat up their doctors while he wasn’t quite with it.
“You’re not Hydra,” he said.
“Nope,” agreed Clint, turning back to what he was doing. He needed to get this arrow out and Bucky patched up as quickly as possible. “Hydra’s gone. Brace yourself.”
He pulled the arrow out as quickly as he could. It must have hurt like fuck, but the only sign of it from Bucky was a faint frown and an intake of breath.
“Gone?” repeated Bucky.
“We took them down,” said Steve, stepping forward as Clint pressed down on the wound with a dressing, trying to work out if it was going to need stitches or not. “You’re free of them, Bucky.”
Bucky’s eyes turned on him, then his frown deepened. “Free? I’m not-” He shook his head. “And quit calling me Bucky.”
“It’s who you are,” said Steve, insistently.
“I’m the Asset,” said Bucky, stubbornly. “You’re my mission.” His weight shifted beneath Clint’s hands as if preparing himself to get up.
“Hold still,” said Clint. “You’re losing enough blood as it is.”
Bucky subsided, but the frown didn’t go away.
Clint decided that stitches were unnecessary given how fast Bucky healed, and set about applying a dressing instead.
“I know you’ve got no reason to trust us,” he said as he worked, “but we’ve got your best interests at heart. There’s two ways this can go. Either you cling on to your mission, to being the guy Hydra forced you to be, or you let yourself listen to the niggling doubt you’re trying to ignore, the one that says you know Steve as more than a mission, the one that knows he’s got your best interests at heart. The one that sometimes wonders if there’s not something deeply wrong with all the tests and the chair and the way Hydra used you.”
Bucky sent him a fierce glare. “What the hell do you know about it?”
Clint had just about finished the dressing but he kept one hand on it as he spoke, carefully smoothing over the edges of the bandage. “I know a guy who went through all this,” he said. “He told me about it. And I know you're not gonna listen yet, but when you’re able to, I hope you remember this. The next few months, maybe more, are gonna be rough as hell whatever happens, but if you work on remembering who you really are without their programming, if you do your best to think beyond the box they put around your thoughts, I swear to god, it’ll be worth it. A year from now, not even that, six months, you’ll be able to look at your life and be genuinely content, maybe even happy.”
Bucky snorted at the idea.
“Yeah, I know,” said Clint, quietly. “Happy ain’t something you understand right now, but you will. I swear, Bucky, you can get there.”
The first time he and his Bucky had spent the night together, not just for sex but for sleeping as well, Bucky had curled up around Clint with a sigh of contentment and stayed there for a long time, one hand gently stroking over Clint’s shoulder.
“Never thought I could feel like this,” he’d confessed, so quiet in the dark that Clint had nearly missed it as he slipped towards sleep.
“Like what?” he’d roused himself enough to ask.
“Just, happy,” Bucky had said. “Like everything is exactly how I want it to be. They made it so I didn’t even know that was something I could feel.”
Clint had leaned over to kiss him. “Sure proved them wrong, huh?”
“Definitely,” Bucky had said with satisfaction, and then they’d both drifted off to sleep.
This Bucky scowled and knocked Clint’s hand aside. “I’m patched up,” he growled, and Clint got up, taking a couple of steps back out of the way, just in case.
“He’s right,” said Steve. “And, Bucky, I’ll be right here with you until you get there, and after. Until the end of the line.”
Bucky sent him a scowl that didn’t quite hide his confusion and Clint decided that was as good a start as any. He glanced at Tony, who had watched the whole scene with his arms folded and a deep frown on his face.
“I’m thinking now’s a good time for coffee.”
Tony blinked, then plastered on a grin. “It’s always a good time for coffee.”
“Damn straight,” agreed Clint and they headed out, leaving Steve to lock Bucky into the cell then drag up a chair to the window nearest the bunk and settle in.
“You’re sure it’ll work?” asked Tony as they headed back up to the kitchen.
Clint shrugged. “It did for my Bucky,” he said. “I’m pretty sure things here are enough the same.” He sent Tony a sideways glance. “Even without you and Steve being together.”
Tony rolled his eyes. “Still not sure I believe you on that one. No way Steve Rogers can take the stick out of his butt long enough for anything as earthly as a relationship.”
The elevator opened on the penthouse floor and they headed towards the kitchen, Tony pausing to step out of the suit and leave it standing by the wall like a sentry.
“See, you’re only saying that because you’ve never watched him play Mariokart,” said Clint. “No sign of a stick in anyone’s butt then, and I think you should appreciate just how damn hard I’m working not to make an anal sex joke right now.”
Tony snorted. “Hard,” he repeated, and then they both giggled like teenagers for a bit because, fuck it, it was stupidly early in the morning, they’d been up most of the night fighting, and sometimes a guy just had to appreciate terrible innuendo where he found it.
“Agent Barton,” said JARVIS as Tony started the coffee machine running. “I have a call from Reed Richards for you.”
“Put him through,” said Clint, leaning back against the kitchen counter. “Hey, Reed. Please tell me you have good news.”
“I have excellent news,” said Reed. “We’ve managed to get in contact with the two other universes that are involved with the inter-dimensional transfer-”
“Only two?” asked Tony.
“Yes,” said Reed, “that’s part of the good news. It looks as if there are three universes in a bit of a loop, and we’re the only three that have been affected, so the next transfer should take Barton back to his original world.”
“Yes, please,” said Clint. He bounced on his heels. “When can we do that?”
“The Tony Stark in one of the other worlds has built a machine that will transfer you,” said Reed. “If you’re ready, we can tell that Stark to activate it in ten minutes.”
“I was born ready,” said Clint. Relief rolled through him. “Oh man, I was starting to worry I wouldn’t get to go home at all.”
“I’ll pass the message on,” said Reed, and hung up.
Tony passed Clint a mug of coffee and he grinned at him. “I’m going home!” he said, and couldn’t stop himself bouncing again.
“Yeah, I heard,” said Tony. “Hey, JARVIS, let Cap know that this version of Barton will be leaving us soon, yeah?”
“Of course, sir,” said JARVIS.
Clint took a gulp of his coffee, glancing at the clock. Ten minutes, and then he’d be back with his Bucky, the Bucky who’d give him a hug and a kiss, and then probably yell at him for a bit, at least until Clint could distract him, possibly with sex. No, wait, definitely with sex.
“Well,” said Tony, “it’s been...interesting, I guess. Hard to say ‘fun’ when we’ve been running around punching bad guys, but-”
Clint snorted. “Like we both don’t know that that’s exactly what we both think of as fun.” He held out his hand to shake Tony’s. “It was good to meet you,” he said. “And, seriously, I really think you and Steve should try hooking up.”
“I’ll take it under advisement,” said Tony, sounding amused. “Maybe wait until, you know, we don’t have a badass assassin living in the basement.”
Clint shrugged. “I guess you could give it until he’s in one of the spare rooms instead.”
“You’re that certain he’ll come round?” asked Tony.
Clint nodded. “Oh yeah. C’mon, Hydra’s best brainwashing techniques versus Captain America’s stubbornness? I know which my money is on.”
“You make an excellent point,” said Tony as the elevator pinged open and Steve came out.
Clint shook his hand as well. “Good luck with Bucky.”
Steve nodded. “It’s comforting to know that there’s another world in which he comes back to himself.”
Clint hesitated. “Yeah, but he’s not gonna be exactly the same as you remember him,” he said. “Too much shit has happened for him to go back.”
Steve’s jaw clenched. “None of us are who we were,” he said, quietly.
Clint drained his mug, glancing at the clock as he set it down on the table. “Man, I really hope those eggheads don’t fuck up the science,” he said. “I am so done with being kicked around the multiverse.”
“It’ll be fine,” said Tony. “Reed said it was a Tony Stark who built this machine, you really think any Tony Stark would fuck this up?”
“Um,” said Clint, glancing over at Steve, who seemed to be biting his tongue on that one as well.
Tony looked between them. “Oh, fuck you guys, seriously,” he said. “I don’t fuck up when it comes to science, c’mon!”
The kick of inter-dimensional transfer came before Clint had to find an answer to that, which was something of a relief. He shut his eyes against the green light, and prayed that this was the one that would take him home.
The spare room Bucky had shown Clint to was dark and quiet when he woke up. He stretched lazily, wondering if he could get away with another couple of hours sleep.
“JARVIS, what time is it?”
“3.37 am,” said JARVIS.
Clint considered that. “Is there anything going on that I should be awake for?”
“Most of the residents of the Tower are currently asleep,” said JARVIS. “Mr Stark, Doctor Banner, Doctor Foster and Doctor Richards are still at work in the lab.”
“They coming up with anything exciting?” asked Clint.
“They are investigating a number of possibilities,” said JARVIS, “some of which may yield results, but there are no breakthroughs as yet.”
Clint thought about that for a bit, staying relaxed and comfortable. He wasn’t sure he was going to get back to sleep now, not now he’d make the mistake of waking up enough to talk to JARVIS.
“Is Bucky asleep?” he asked, then wondered why he’d singled Bucky out. He’d had fun hanging out with him earlier, but he’d have had fun hanging out with any of the others, surely?
“Sergeant Barnes is in bed, although not currently asleep,” said JARVIS.
Clint snorted. “Let me guess, he’s lying awake, staring at the ceiling and pining for his boyfriend.”
“I wouldn’t be able to say,” said JARVIS in a tone that meant yes.
Clint spent a few minutes thinking about that, about the fact that there was a Clint who’d managed over a year in a relationship without fucking up, whose boyfriend missed him after little more than a day apart. Man, he’d liked to be able to manage that.
There had to be a way to persuade his Bucky to stay awake longer than one day a month, right? Or should he not be basing his relationship decisions on what was happening in another universe?
Or was that the best way to decide? After all, if it worked here, that must mean it could work in his world.
Except Steve and Tony apparently worked here, and in his world they’d had a knock down fight in a Siberian bunker. Unless that had been just an excess of unresolved sexual tension?
Clint had a nasty mental image of Steve lying awake in his room in Wakanda, pining after Tony, and sat up. That was more than enough of that.
He headed into the bathroom and turned on the shower. If he was going to be awake, he might as well be up and awake.
He showered and dressed and then headed down to the lab that Tony, Bruce, Jane and Reed were holed up in. There was a general atmosphere of distracted science combined with the clutter of three people having been in the same room for several hours. There was a glass screen up that was covered in diagrams, to which Reed was adding something as Clint came in.
“Hawkeye,” said Tony, gesturing him over. “Come here, let me show you this, it’s gonna blow your mind.”
Clint doubted that but he headed over anyway.
“Look, look,” said Tony, gesturing at the board. A series of small circles were scattered across it in a variety of clusters. “This is the multiverse. Each circle represents a universe. We’re here,” he jabbed at a circle that was nestled next to a couple of others. “We believe your original universe is one of these two,” he said, gesturing at the other two circles. “And the one you were just sent to is the other.”
“What we don’t know is if these universes here are involved,” said Jane, pointing at another set of universes that were close by. “If they are, this is a lot more complicated.”
“We have a plan, though,” said Bruce. “We’ve put together a way to scan another universe for traces of the inter-dimensional radiation that we detected on you and the other Clint, so we can tell if they’re involved. That’s what that’s doing,” he said, gesturing at a machine that was making a low humming noise and occasionally emitting a flash of green light.
“It’s a bit slow,” said Tony, “but we reckon we should have a clear picture of what’s been going on in a few hours, and then we’ll be able to work out how to reverse it.”
“Right,” said Clint. “That all sounds good.” He couldn’t quite manage to say that without a question in his voice. The whole thing sounded like a bad 80s B movie but he wasn’t stupid enough to say that out loud.
Tony slapped a hand on his shoulder. “No need for that tone, we’ve totally got this.”
Clint flinched away from him and took a step back. “Yeah, sorry, heard that too many times from my Stark to be convinced.”
Bruce laughed. “Does it help or hinder that I’m also involved?”
“Depends,” said Clint. “You helping him build an all-powerful robot AI that’s meant to create world peace?”
Bruce blinked. “No,” he said slowly, then glanced over at Tony, who was looking shifty.
“Oh man,” said Clint. “Why do all you Starks think that’s a good idea?”
“Hey, it could be a good idea,” protested Tony. “I haven’t had a chance to get very far with it. It’s kinda on the back burner, I kept getting distracted.” He considered that. “Mostly by Steve’s abs.”
Clint stared at him. “That AI killed hundreds of people in my world, including Pietro. Are you saying that they’d still be alive if my Steve had just taken his shirt off a couple of times?”
“It killed people?” said Tony, looking horrified. “It was gonna be designed for peace.”
Clint shrugged. “It went all Skynet, decided the best way for world peace was to wipe humans out.”
“Christ,” said Tony, looking shaken. Well, at least he was taking this seriously, and maybe it would make him think twice before doing something big and stupid next time.
Or maybe it wouldn’t. This was Tony Stark, after all.
“Just another of Stark’s arrogant projects that ends up costing everyone,” Clint added to drive the point home, which earned him a glare from Bruce and a huff of air from Tony, who turned away, back towards the screen, before Clint could read his face.
“Okay, well, I suppose that’s a lesson to learn from then,” he said, in a falsely light-hearted voice. “JARVIS, do me a favour and delete the files for that project off the server?”
“Files deleted, sir,” said JARVIS.
“Okay, good,” said Tony, turning back and clapping his hands. “One less catastrophic fuck up on the cards. Shall we get back to this one which, let’s be very clear, is nothing to do with me?”
An alarm went off.
“Sir, the Baxter Building is under attack,” said JARVIS.
“Okay, we’ll deal with that, then we’ll get back to the inter-dimensional Hawkeye problem,” said Tony.
Richards, who had ignored the conversation so far, was already up and moving. He grabbed a comm unit out of his pocket and fitted it in his ear. “Sue? Ben?”
There was a pause. He grimaced and looked at Tony. “It’s the Mad Thinker again,” he said. “He’s brought a lot more robots this time and attacked my lab.”
Tony nodded. “JARVIS, wake up the others and tell them to suit up.”
Reed nodded his thanks, then headed for the door. “I’ll meet you there,” he called over his shoulder.
“I’ll stay here with Jane and keep on with this,” said Bruce, nodding at the machine that was scanning for inter-dimensional radiation, or whatever. “Probably best to keep the other guy away from Reed’s lab equipment.”
“He does get so tetchy when it gets smashed,” agreed Tony. He glanced at Clint. “You coming, Hawkeye? We can lend you some equipment or, well, the other Clint can, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind.”
Clint didn’t need to be asked to go shoot robots twice, especially not if they were as easy to take out as the ones in the last world had been. That sounded like a nice bit of stress relief after all this science crap.
He followed Tony to a locker room that was filled with Avengers changing out of their pyjamas and into their combat gear, most of them looking as if they were desperately trying to wake up enough to fight robots.
Tony directed him to the locker next to where Bucky was stripping off a pair of sweatpants. Clint did his best to keep his attention at eye level, but he couldn’t help appreciating the muscular lines of his legs and the way his boxers clung to his ass.
Nope, no, he wasn’t gonna start perving on another Clint’s boyfriend, that was just too weird.
He opened the locker in front of him, took in the combat gear, selection of bows and stocks of arrow and couldn’t keep in a grin. This bouncing around the multiverse thing was shit, but getting to use other Hawkeyes’ equipment and compare it to his own was great.
This one had a whole lot more trick arrows than Clint did, he’d have to see about getting more made up. Expect, of course, they were almost certainly Stark-made, and Clint didn’t have a Tony Stark who would make him weaponry any more.
He pulled on the combat gear in the locker and got himself kitted up, grabbing as many EMP arrows as he could spot.
“It’s just a couple of blocks, so it’s quicker to run there than get the quinjet out,” Bucky said to him as they all headed out to the elevator.
Clint nodded. “Running through the streets in full tac gear while tourists and commuters gawp at you? Sounds like great fun.”
“It’s not even dawn yet,” Steve pointed out. “I know New York is the city that never sleeps, but I’m pretty sure most of the tourists will still be in bed.”
“Bet you ten bucks we end up on Twitter,” said Pietro.
“No bet,” said Tony. “We always end up on Twitter. Even when we’re just going for coffee.”
The streets were pretty deserted but there was enough traffic for them to have to run down the sidewalk rather than the middle of the road. Tony took off as soon as they were outside, followed by Wanda, and then Pietro disappeared in a blur. The rest of them pelted down the street, Clint and Natasha dropping a few feet behind as Bucky and Cap put on a burst of speed that was pretty much super-soldier specific.
It only took a few minutes to travel the few blocks down to the Baxter Building, and they could see the battle ahead of them for most of it. It looked pretty much identical to the attack Clint had seen in the previous dimension the day before, but with less light. The dark shadows of robots were circling around the Baxter Building, spotlights flashing out in front of them, and he could see several holes blasted into the walls of the building itself. As he hopped up on a car roof to get a better angle, he saw a rock-like fist send a robot flying back out of one of the holes and across the road into the building opposite.
The property prices for the buildings within robot-throwing distance of the Baxter Building must be pretty low, he thought as he notched an arrow and sent it flying up into the air.
With Tony, Wanda and Johnny Storm in the air, Clint, Natasha and Bucky firing up from the street and the other Fantastic Four members, Pietro and Cap inside the Baxter Building, preventing the robots from making any headway inside, the Mad Thinker wasn’t able to get very far before he started to run out of robots.
“Curse all superheroes!” he shouted, retreating back and pulling his robots out of the combat area. He gathered them around him as he rose up into the air, firing indiscriminately at the Baxter Building and blowing a few more holes in the walls. Whatever that gun he had was, Clint was pretty impressed by it. Although it wasn’t as elegant as a bow, of course.
“Cursing you right back!” called Tony after him, darting to avoid a shot and then heading down to the street.
“I will vanquish you, Reed Richards!!” shouted the Mad Thinker, then threw something towards the Baxter Building. Something metallic and emitting a green glow, and that Clint recognised immediately.
“Everyone get down!!” he shouted, throwing himself backwards off the car as the device sent out a burst of green light as it fell. He was damned if he was going to get sent back to another dimension just as it felt like Tony, Bruce and Reed were getting somewhere with getting him home.
There was the sound of several superheroes hitting the deck, then the crash of an expensive electronic device being smashed apart. Clint glanced out to see that Steve had caught it with a throw of his shield, sending small bits of metal showering over the road.
“No!!” cried the Mad Thinker, with all the melodrama that marked out a super-villain who had decided to give it his all. Clint had to respect that kind of dedication to a role. “I will see you undone yet, Reed Richards! You may defeat me in this universe, but you cannot defeat me every universe! There will be one where my device catches you, and then every Reed Richards in the multiverse will suffer!!”
“Ah, shut up, meathead!” said Johnny, looping around the building in a burst of flame. “You’ve been trying this one for a couple of days and look around you, everyone is still from this universe.”
Clint did his best to look like a Hawkeye who had been in this universe the whole time, living in Stark Tower and sleeping with Bucky Barnes and not being an international fugitive.
“It kinda smacks of laziness to rely on someone from another universe to deal with your problems for you,” added Cap.
The Mad Thinker made a noise of mixed rage and frustration, then he and his remaining robots flew off.
“Oh no, you don’t get away that easy,” said Johnny, and set off after him, fire lighting up the sky.
Tony let out a sigh and followed him.
The rest of them hung back, starting to clear up the wreckage of robots that had been scattered across the road. Clint could see police at either end of the block, keeping back the traffic.
“Was that seriously his plan?” Clint asked Ben as they dragged a decapitated robot off a parked car. “Just hope that his stupid device would work somewhere and that having the wrong Reed would cause enough disruption to give him an edge?”
Ben shrugged. “He calls himself the Mad Thinker, but he’s always been more mad than a thinker.”
“Remember when we used to have villains around who didn’t have a stupid name and a stupider costume?” asked Natasha.
“I started out fighting guys named after a mythological creature who had snakes as their badge,” said Cap, “so, no.”
“And a really fucking stupid slogan,” added Pietro. “Cut off one head and two more shall take its place...it’s just kinda asking you to cut off the head right in front of you.”
Bucky dropped an armful of robot parts onto the pile they were making. “I reckon I’d be cutting their heads off even without the slogan.”
“Well, yeah,” said Pietro. “Obviously. But why encourage us, you know?”
“Are you seriously asking for logic from the bad guys?” asked Natasha. “I like it when their plans are bullshit. Makes them easier to defeat.”
Pietro considered that for a moment. “Okay, that’s a good point.”
Clint dropped his armful of robot parts then glanced around. There wasn’t much more they could do. There were a handful of police taping off the sections of the sidewalk that had been damaged or were underneath a part of the building that was looking a bit dodgy, structurally speaking, and Sue was on the phone to a contractor who must make a fortune out of the Fantastic Four.
“What’s the plan?” he asked.
“Coffee,” said Bucky immediately, glancing at Steve.
Steve glanced around at the street, then waved a hand. “Okay, fine, coffee.”
Bucky grinned and turned to share the look with Clint. There was a split-second where his face was lit up and then he clearly remembered that Clint wasn’t the right version of himself, and it dimmed. Right, okay, Clint had to work at his Bucky until he got a smile like that out of him because that had been blindingly gorgeous.
Tony and Johnny came back, landing in the street as Clint gathered up the last of his arrows.
“He got away,” said Tony.
Ben groaned. “Why d’they always get away?”
“I don’t see you chasing after them,” said Johnny. “We took out some more robots, if it helps?”
“Not particularly,” said Ben. “It ain’t like he doesn’t just make new ones.”
Johnny huffed. “There’s no pleasing you.”
Ben considered that, stone eyebrows drawing down into a frown. “Nah,” he agreed. “Not when it’s you tryin’, anyway.”
Clint realised that Bucky was trying to catch his eye and glanced over. Bucky tipped his head down the street and raised his eyebrows. Coffee? he mouthed.
Clint glanced back at Cap, who was distracted by Ben and Johnny’s argument. Well, he’d already given his permission, right? Clint nodded back at Bucky and they quietly slipped away, leaving the others to deal with the rest of the clear up and the rapidly growing cluster of reporters.
Bucky seemed to know where he was going so Clint followed him, down an alley that got them away from all the media attention and then down another street. Somewhere over in the east he could see light starting to haze on the horizon.
“Where’s gonna be open at this time?”
Bucky sent him a disbelieving look. “You’re kidding, right? In New York?”
Okay, maybe Clint had spent too long in Wakanda. “Fair point.”
Bucky turned away from him, speeding up his steps so that Clint was half a pace behind him. “Me and my Clint have got a place we go,” he said. “I figure you probably need coffee about as badly as he would, at this point.”
“You’re not wrong,” agreed Clint. “And it felt like we picked the right moment to go, if Ben and Johnny were going to keep at it.”
“Oh yeah,” said Bucky. “Those two bicker all the damn time. I don’t know how Sue and Reed put up with it.”
Clint considered that. “It seems like Reed is pretty good at tuning stuff out. Unless it’s science stuff.”
Bucky paused at the door of a coffee shop. “That’s very true.” He opened the door and held it for Clint.
Inside was pretty much deserted, although there were a couple of women hunched over a table in the corner, looking exhausted. The barista looked up as the door opened and gave them a grin.
“Let me guess,” he said. “The post-fight special?”
Bucky grinned back. “If you could, Carl.”
Clint turned to a table but Bucky caught his elbow and nodded at one by the window. “That’s our usual,” he said, quietly.
Clint nodded and headed towards it. Right, okay, so somehow he’d ended up in the other Clint and Bucky’s date spot, where he was going to to have to pretend to be the Clint from this world. How had this happened?
He sat down and frowned at Bucky. “There are a reason you brought me here?”
Bucky blinked and glanced around, then shrugged. “I don’t know, I guess I was just working on autopilot.”
Clint nodded, leaning back in the chair and clasp his hands behind his head to stretch his shoulders out. “I’m guessing you guys come here a lot?”
“Yeah,” said Bucky. “I figured out pretty early that if I wanted Clint to have a good time on a date, all I needed was either coffee or pizza.”
“Or a dog,” said Clint. “The Clint in the last universe had a dog. I’m so freaking jealous.”
Bucky snorted. “Yeah, no way Tony would let a dog into the Tower.”
“C’mon,” said Clint. “You think an ex-SHIELD secret agent and an ex-assassin couldn’t keep something as small as a dog secret in a building the size of Tony’s tower?”
Bucky shook his head. “Not a chance. Not when JARVIS exists. Plus, Clint gets this look on his face when he’s around a dog. No way no one wouldn’t notice that.”
Clint had to concede that with a shrug as the barista brought over two mugs of coffee and two massive slices of pie.
“Thanks, Carl,” said Bucky.
“Breakfast of champions,” said Clint, looking at the pie. Oh man, this was gonna be good. And this time, there was no Steve around to steal it from him.
Carl snorted. “Guess I should put that on the menu. ‘Breakfast of Avengers’.”
“Not all the Avengers,” said Bucky. “Tony insists that vile green smoothies count as breakfast.”
“He agrees on the coffee though,” said Clint, cradling his mug.
“Well yeah, he’s not an idiot,” agreed Bucky.
“Good thing that the bad guys haven’t worked out that choking off the Avengers’ supply of coffee is the easiest way to defeat you,” Carl said, and then headed back to the counter.
Clint concentrated on his coffee for a few, beautiful minutes. Bucky seemed to understand that he needed some time alone with it because he stayed quiet, keeping an eye on the street out of the window as he started on his own breakfast.
It was nice to just quietly unwind from the fight in his company and Clint was reminded of incident a few months ago, when Bucky had been awake on the day it was Clint’s turn to clean the kitchen. Steve had got pulled away by T’challa for some reason and Bucky had settled at the kitchen table with a mug of coffee and a newspaper to wait for him. He and Clint had exchanged a few words, but mostly just let the time pass in silence. It had felt nice. Companionable.
Clint remembered this world’s Bucky saying that he’d spent time watching his Clint, trying to work out how to talk to him, and wondered if he’d just been really oblivious. Nah, no way, if the Bucky in his world wanted to have a thing with him, he’d start by not spending most of his time in cryostasis.
The city started to wake up around them, the street lights dimming as the sun rose higher. More people started to come into the coffee shop for their morning fix, some of them giving the two superheroes in full tac gear with weapons stashed under their chairs amusingly wide-eyed looks.
No one came over to them though. Bucky noticed Clint glancing apprehensively over as more people came in, and pressed the toe of his boot against Clint’s.
“They won’t come over,” he said, quietly. “Carl knows that me and my Clint come here to unwind, he won’t let anyone bother us.”
“I wasn’t aware there was a way to stop people pestering you once you were an internationally famous superhero,” said Clint, then considered. “Well, other than going on the run to Wakanda.”
Bucky shrugged. “We come here a lot, we’re pretty familiar.” He cast his eyes to the ceiling and pressed his lips together. “Also, I may have lost my shit at the media a little bit when we were first dating, and the video possibly went kinda viral.”
“Ah,” said Clint, “so they’re all terrified of you going Winter Soldier on them.” He nodded to himself. “Makes sense.”
Bucky scowled. “They were getting in the way of our date. How was I meant to impress the guy if we just spent the whole time fighting off reporters?”
“Clearly you managed it,” said Clint.
“Well, yeah,” said Bucky, and raised his mug. “Coffee and pizza, right?”
Clint had to concede that one. “Okay, so if, hypothetically, I was gonna try and woo the Bucky in my world, what’s your equivalent to coffee and pizza?”
A grin burst out over Bucky’s face. “You’re gonna go for it?”
Clint shrugged one shoulder. “Might do. Seems to be working out pretty well for you guys.”
“It’s worked out great for us,” said Bucky. He glanced back out the window. “I don’t even have words for how well it worked out,” he added, clearly trying to make it sound nonchalant and not quite managing it. He cleared his throat. “And, I gotta be honest, coffee works pretty well for both of us, and it’s not like I’m ever gonna say no to pizza. I guess I didn’t really need anything more than just spending time with my Clint to be won over.” He considered. “Oh, shooting together, that’s always my favourite.”
Clint nodded. “Okay, noted. Next time he’s awake, I’ll drag him down to the range.” That sounded like fun if it was anything like shooting with this Bucky earlier had been. No one else in Wakanda was really that interested in spending hours every day shooting at targets, although Clint could sometimes talk Sam into it, if he was bored enough.
Bucky nodded and drained the last of his coffee. “Unless he’s wildly different from me, he’ll appreciate that.” He glanced at his watch. “I should get you back before the scientists start to worry they’ve lost their inter-dimensional marvel.”
“Yeah, okay,” said Clint with a sigh, getting up and slinging his bow and quiver back over his shoulder. “Time to go be a lab rat again.”
“Did the scanner thing work?” he asked, and Tony turned towards him with manic excitement blazing out of his face.
“Did it ever?!” he asked, leaping up from his chair. “We got a ping back!”
“Uh,” said Clint. “Good?”
Tony shook his head. “No, no, you don’t get it. Someone in another dimension was doing the same thing, and caught our signal. We’ve sort of been able to communicate with them.” He waved a hand at the terminal. “It’s morse code, totally old school.”
“Wakanda,” said Bruce, glancing over his shoulder. “They’re saying they’re in Wakanda.”
Clint brightened. “Hey, think they’re the Wakandans from my world?”
“Seems likely,” said Tony. “I take it they’d be the ones looking into the alternate yous dropping in?”
“Yeah,” said Clint. “Well, we don’t have a Reed Richards, Bruce is in hiding, and Tony kinda wants to arrest us all, so there’s not a lot of choices.” He glanced at Jane. “I lost track of where our Jane Foster is after Thor went back to Asgard the last time, but I doubt she's in a position to help out.”
“Then she is missing out,” said Jane, her eyes not leaving the screen. “This is fascinating.”
“Okay,” said Tony. “I've got a plan to build an inter-dimensional communication device, and then we can talk to them properly and come up with a plan together.”
“Tony, there’s another ping from another universe,” said Jane excitedly.
“Awesome,” said Clint. “Okay, I’ll be upstairs then. Let me know when you have a plan.”
“Sure thing,” said Tony in a distracted tone of voice, leaning over the computer.
Clint left them to it. He went back upstairs to find that most people had gone back to bed. Natasha was the only left, stretched out on a sofa, eyes half-lidded as the news played on the TV in front of her.
Clint slumped down on the other sofa, watching as blurry footage of their earlier fight played on screen. “They started bitching about the property damage yet?”
“About half an hour ago,” she said.
“At least some things don’t change,” said Clint, thinking back to the news reports they used to get before the media really started to have it in for them.
Natasha just nodded and Clint settled in to watching the ticker tape repeating the same information while the talking heads all tried to come up with an opinion on an attack of killer robots masterminded by a megalomaniac that sounded intelligent.
He was just starting to doze off when JARVIS announced, “Agent Barton, Sir has requested your presence in the lab.”
He jerked awake, blinking rapidly and glancing over at Natasha, who didn’t seem to have moved. “Okay, yep,” he said to JARVIS. “On my way.”
He levered himself up off the sofa, hoping he wasn't about to get another blitz of scientific excitement. He wasn't sure he could cope with it.
“Do they think they’ve got a solution?” asked Natasha.
“It would seem so,” said JARVIS.
She looked over at Clint. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I hope this is the last time I see you.”
Clint grinned. “The feeling is mutual.” He gave her a sloppy salute. “Thanks for having me, I guess.”
“No problem,” she said. “Thanks for not turning out to be Hydra or a Skrull or something else worrying.”
Clint frowned. “What’s a Skrull?”
She stared at him for a moment, then gave a slow blink. “Nothing important.”
Somehow Clint doubted that, but it was clear she wasn't going to give him anything else. He headed for the elevator and went down to the lab.
Bucky was already there, standing over Tony as he fiddled with some equipment.
“And you’re sure it’s gonna be our Clint this time?”
“As sure as we can be,” said Tony, then caught sight of Clint and ducked around Bucky to greet him. “Hey, Hawkeye, we’re gonna be able to get you home.”
Clint grinned. “Awesome. How long?”
“You don’t want to find out how?” asked Tony. “You don’t want to hear about the amazing feats of genius that we reached? The incredible scientific breakthroughs-”
“Not really,” said Clint. “I kinda just want to get home so I can nap for a bit, then tell my Steve that his alternate self is sleeping with an alternate Tony and watch him have a complete mental breakdown.”
Tony raised an eyebrow. “Not just sleeping with him,” he said. “Make sure and tell him that we’re, you know, deeply in love and intending to spend our lives together. It might prompt him to make up with the other Tony.”
Clint silently doubted that. Given how stubborn Steve was and how much Tony liked to be right, he couldn’t see anything getting them to make up, not completely. At least one of them would have to apologise, after all, and he really couldn’t see that happening.
“And tell your Bucky that there’s no point in being safe if it means you don’t get to be anything else,” said Bucky. “And then take him to the range and wear one of your sleeveless shirts, yeah?”
“I do have excellent biceps,” agreed Clint.
Jane looked up from the computer she’d been typing at. “The other two universes have acknowledged that we’ll be sending our Clint on in ten minutes.”
“That will start a domino effect that will push on each of the Clints again,” Tony said to Bucky. “We’ve worked out that there are only three universes in this chain, so our Clint should get pushed on to end up back here.”
“He better,” said Bucky in a growl.
“This isn’t exactly tried and tested,” said Bruce. “We’re doing our best.”
Bucky nodded at him and crossed his arms, but the scowl didn’t clear off his face.
“Okay, if you could just stand here,” said Tony, guiding Clint to a cross marked on the floor. “We’ve given the other universes a few minutes to make sure the other Clints are in okay positions to be moved on, so hopefully you won’t find yourself in the middle of anything messy.”
“Fingers crossed,” said Clint, standing on the mark.
Bruce glanced at his watch. “Seven minutes.”
Tony fiddled with the settings on a machine that was pointed at Clint. “All ready here.”
There was an awkward pause. Clint shuffled in place. Bucky let out a frustrated sigh. Tony and Bruce ignored them both.
“Okay, time,” said Bruce after three or four ice ages had passed.
“Awesome,” said Tony. “Hold on to your breeches, Hawkeye.” He hit a button, there was a burst of green light, and Clint felt the familiar impact of being shunted between dimensions. Oh man, please let this get him home.
The Asset had been in this cell for a week now, but was no closer to an escape. The cell was built to withstand far more force than even his metal arm was capable of dealing out and, for all they were treating him as an old friend, his captors were careful about keeping it locked.
And even if he had been able to get out of the cell, the Captain was almost always in the outside room, watching the Asset and talking until his throat was hoarse.
He went over old memories that the Asset was apparently meant to share, calling him 'Bucky' and acting as if the Asset should know him. The Asset did his best to block it out, sitting on the bunk and not thinking about how familiar some of those stories felt, or that he could picture the guy as he must have been when he was younger and scrawnier.
Memories were not pertinent to the mission. The Asset had to hold on to that and keep ready, so that the minute he had a chance he could take it.
“...had the best ball on the street, but if anyone talked back to him, he used to just take it and go home, you remember? Somehow it always used to be one of us two upsetting him.”
The Asset pushed away an image of a handful of boys kicking about a ball and tried to concentrate on how he’d break down a Dragunov if he had one in front of him right now.
There were footsteps outside and the archer came in. His eyes went to the Asset before they flicked to the Captain, and the Asset felt an odd kick in his chest. He wasn't sure how the archer fitted in to this. He never claimed to know the Asset but he often smiled at him as if there was more to their relationship than captive and jailer, and the Asset could remember what he'd said when he'd taken the arrow out of his shoulder. He'd spoken as if he knew more about the Asset than the Asset knew himself.
“Yo, Steve, we’re getting pizza for dinner,” said the archer.
“I’ll have mine down here,” said the Captain. The Asset couldn’t let himself think of him as Steve Rogers, even if he knew that was his name. It felt too dangerous, as if there was something tied to that name that he wouldn’t be able to control.
The archer shook his head. “Nope. Tony was very clear that if you wanted to eat, you had to go upstairs. He’s worried you’re gonna burn out if you don’t start taking breaks.”
The Captain made a frustrated noise. “I’ll be fine. I gotta do this.”
The archer held up his hands. “Just the messenger, but Tony seemed pretty set on getting to eat with you. Something about putting the suit on and dragging you if you didn't go?” He glanced over at the Asset. “Hey, Barnes, how you doing?”
The Asset glowered back at him. “I am in optimal physical condition,” he gritted out.
“Okay, awesome,” said the archer. “And your mental condition?”
“Irrelevant,” said the Asset. The way these guys kept fussing over his mind, what he remembered and who he was, were really starting to grate. He didn’t need a name in order to complete his mission.
Worse, it was starting to make him wonder about it. Part of him was questioning what it meant if he had been this guy the Captain remembered, if he was more than just the fist of Hydra, and it made him feel itchy inside his skull.
“It seems pretty relevant to us, wouldn’t you say, Steve?” said the archer.
The Captain sighed. “You could say that.” He looked over at the Asset. “Don’t worry, Bucky. We’ll care about it for you until you can do it for yourself.”
The Asset just sneered at them and they left. The Asset let himself relax a bit, but not all the way. Just because no one was in the room didn’t mean no one was watching.
Half an hour later, the archer was back.
“I brought you pizza,” he announced. “Because, frankly, no one should go without the joy of pizza. Also, Steve and Tony’s flirting is getting kinda out of hand and I needed an escape. I’m giving it less than a week before they start boning, and I’m only giving it that long cuz Steve’ll be spending most of that time down here with you.”
The archer interested the Asset more than he wanted to admit. He couldn’t keep his mind from flicking back to waking up with the archer's hands on his shoulder, pulling out the arrow that had shut down the Asset’s arm and allowed them to capture him. There had been something in his eyes that the Asset couldn’t remember ever seeing before, something that stayed even when the Asset had closed a hand around his throat.
The archer opened up the hatch in the door that they were feeding the Asset through and pushed in a box. “I’da asked your favourite toppings when we ordered but I didn’t think I’d get much of an answer, so I just went for all the meat. It's hard to go wrong with meat, right?”
The Asset stood up and took the box, flipping it open and looking at the food inside. He couldn’t remember eating pizza before. “This is acceptable.”
He raised his head to look back at the archer, who was less than a foot from him with only the glass door between them to stop the Asset attacking him and getting out.
Something was wrong. He frowned, eyes darting over the archer and taking in the details. Two days ago, his hair had been more neatly trimmed and he hadn't had those purple bags under his eyes. He’d had steady hands as he’d patched the Asset up and a reassuring note in his voice.
Now, his hair looked overdue for a haircut and there was a pale tone to his skin, as if he hadn't been looking after himself properly. He had an edge of tension that said he was wary of the danger that the Asset represented.
“You’re not the same person,” he realised. “It was someone else who shot me.”
The archer blinked, then laughed. “Man, you’re really observant, you know that? Yeah, that was another guy who just happens to share my startlingly good looks.”
“Twins?” asked the Asset, but that didn’t seem right.
“It’s never twins,” said the archer. “Well, not in our line of work. It’s always something way more out of whack. I went on a bit of an inter-dimensional tour of the multiverse and some other versions of me dropped in while I was away. He was one of them.”
The Asset felt himself frown. “Inter-dimensional,” he repeated. “He was from another universe?”
“Yup,” said the archer. “Crazy, right?” He hesitated, then added, “He was from a world where Bucky Barnes is an Avenger, and has been for a couple of years.”
Bucky Barnes. That was the name the Captain kept calling him, the one that made something in the Asset's mind flare, like lightning seen through a cloud bank.
“He never worked for Hydra?” he asked, interested despite himself. He understood the concept of alternate universes but he'd never stopped to consider that there might be other versions of himself out there, ones who weren't an asset but a person.
Who had he been before he was the Asset? Had he really been this Bucky Barnes? What sort of a man had he been?
“Oh no, they had him, same as they did you,” said the archer. “Decades of brainwashing and torture, all that. He got out a couple of years ago and went through all this,” his vague waved hand took in the cell, as well as the Asset within it, “and then got himself back. I mean, he was kinda grumpy as fuck most of the time I was in that universe, but he was having a bad couple of days. As far as I could tell, most of the time he’s pretty happy.”
Happy. Yeah, I know, happy ain’t something you understand right now, but you will, the other archer had said. If what this guy was saying was true, he’d known what he was talking about.
The Asset’s head hurt. It felt like there were several different voices, all shouting at once, so he shut them down and shoved the whole thing aside. He took the pizza back to his bunk and sat down to eat it. Keep up physical fitness through adequate nutrition. Await the opportunity to complete his mission. Maintain focus.
The archer sighed. “Yeah, okay, just think about it, okay? We’re all on your side.”
He left, leaving the Asset to puzzle over that one. He didn’t have a side. Did he?
It took him most of the pizza to realise that if he did, having the Captain and the archer on it gave him a strange feeling of security that he wasn’t sure he understood.
It took another couple of hours, until the lights had been put out and he was lying in bed staring up at the ceiling, to realise that he liked the feeling.
The door to the outer room opened and the Asset had to struggle to keep himself from tensing as another person entered.
“You should go to bed,” said a quiet voice.
“Can’t sleep,” said the Captain.
“Right, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go to bed. Lying awake with insomnia is pretty much tradition in this tower, you know.”
“I needed to be able to see him, Tony,” said the Captain. Tony. He must be the other man the Asset occasionally saw, the one who hovered in doorways and glared at him, but never spoke. “To be sure. It still doesn’t seem real, you know?”
“Yeah,” said Tony. “There’s something about a guy from the forties turning up now without having aged at all that takes a bit of getting used to, right?”
The Captain snorted. “Yeah, okay. That works both ways, you know, being the one waking up takes a bit of time too.”
There was a silence that made the Asset’s skin crawl. What were they doing? Were they looking at him? What were they planning?
Tony cleared his throat. “Okay, so, I’ve been talking to Clint about his crazy adventures, and I reckon I’ve got an apology to make.”
“You don’t have to-”
“No, stop,” said Tony. “Don’t interrupt, I’m not great at apologies, I need a bit of a run up and I’m easily distracted, so just, let me. Yeah? Yeah.” He drew in an audible breath. “Okay, so, you know the world with everyone is living here and it all sounds a bit like a drippingly sentimental sitcom or, well, half of them are fucking so maybe it’s more like a porno, nothing but orgies all round and, wow, you realise that the multiverse means that there must be a universe somewhere where the Avengers do have orgies, my mind is blown, that thought’s going to say stay with me.”
He paused and cleared his throat. “So, apparently the major difference between this world and that one, or at least what came out as the major difference while he was there, who knows what other changes there were, we’re talking mind-blowing levels of quantum- Not the point, sorry, told you I got distracted, hang on. Right, yes, so, they all went for shawarma after capturing Loki, and apparently that, you know, made them all buddies and led to the rest of it. Living here together, hanging out, hot monkey sex, all that stuff.”
“Yes,” said the Captain. There was a note in his voice that made the Asset think that he was finding the rambling amusing. He didn’t understand that at all; it was making his fist itch. Was this man incapable of being succinct?
“And here we didn’t and, well, we’ve just been colleagues, right?”
“You don’t need to apologise, Tony,” said the Captain. “I made no effort to form friendships either.”
“No, no, it’s- listen, I thought about shawarma. After the wormhole, when I woke up, I was staring up at you guys and I can remember thinking, ‘oh, hey, here’s a gang of guys I’ve just saved the world with, we should get dinner’. I’m guessing that was exactly like the other Tony, but unlike him, I didn’t say anything.” He drew in another ragged breath and there was the shuffle of a foot against the floor. “See, the thing is, I called Pepper. When I was going through the wormhole. We were going out then, I don’t know if you knew that.”
“I did,” said the Captain.
“Okay, so, I kinda thought I was going to die when I flew into the wormhole, so I called my girlfriend,” said Tony. “And she said all the stuff you’re meant to say when your boyfriend is heading to certain death in order to save Manhattan from nuclear disaster, but I couldn’t help hearing other stuff behind it. See, she hated this whole superhero thing - she still does although it’s easier now we’re not going out, kinda why we’re not going out actually, but that’s another story, let me-”
He cleared his throat again. “Yeah, so, she tolerated it when it was just me going out on my own and doing stuff, but when the idea of a team was first floated and they decided I wasn’t gonna fit on a it, she told me that she was actually glad about it, because I had already had so much stuff going on: CEO of Stark Industries, crazy tech genius driving most of our R&D, Iron Man, all the playboy celebrity crap, as well as being her guy, and I wasn’t doing great at balancing it all. She said if there was a team, I’d get all caught up in that as well, and she reckoned that the bit that would suffer would be her bit. I mean, she was kinda right, but… Anyway, I was thinking about that, about how I’d tried to balance things better by passing all the CEO stuff over to her and cutting out a bunch of the bullshit celebrity stuff, and it was still a struggle, and then I’d nearly died again and I knew that was exactly what she hated about the whole Iron Man thing, watching me get hurt or being in danger and, well. And I kept my mouth shut on shawarma, and just went home and called her instead.”
He paused, and the Asset felt his lungs ache a little in sympathy. He hadn’t realised it was possible to say so much in one go without stopping for breath.
“It’s okay, Tony,” said the Captain. “No one else made an effort to be more than a team either, and of course your girlfriend should have come first.”
“Yeah, well, she didn’t stay my girlfriend long,” said Tony. “And I was an idiot, I should have realised that you’d lost everyone and probably needed a friend. That’s why I’m sorry; I should have tried harder. We should have been friends, not colleagues.”
“Turns out I haven’t lost everyone,” said the Captain. There was a pause during which the Asset could feel them looking at him. He continued the charade of being asleep, keeping his breaths slow and even.
“If you want to make a new friend at the same time as getting an old one back, I’d be okay with that,” said Tony.
“Yeah, that sounds good,” said the Captain, then cleared his throat. “Of course, the other versions of us aren’t just friends in that other world.”
“Are you asking me out, Cap?” said Tony, and there was a grin in his voice. “Cuz, I mean, I’m not saying I haven’t spent a good amount of quality alone time thinking about what those guys might be getting up to, but the annoyingly sensible part of me thinks we should try being friends first.”
“No, I agree,” said the Captain. “I’ve kinda got my hands full right now anyway. Friends, then.” There was the sound of skin pressing against skin. A handshake? That would seem most likely. “For now, anyway,” added the Captain.
“Never say never, right?” said Tony.
“Well, apparently we work pretty well together in at least one other dimension,” said the Captain, in a quiet voice that should have sounded tentative, but there wasn’t some other tone to it, one the Asset didn’t recognise it.
I’m giving it less than a week before they start boning, the archer had said. The Asset thought he might understand what he'd meant.
“Something to keep in mind,” agreed Tony, with the same tone. There was a long pause, then Tony spoke again in a much brighter voice. “Okay, good talk. I’m gonna go to bed now. Enjoy watching your BFF sleep like a creeper.”
His footsteps headed back towards the door.
“Enjoy masturbating to the idea of a world where the Avengers have orgies,” said the Captain.
The footsteps stumbled. “Jesus fuck, Cap!”
The Captain started sniggering and there was something incredibly familiar about the sound. The Asset had heard him amused like that before, many times. The memories the Captain had been bringing up floated through his mind and the Asset pushed them back down, wondering how long he'd be able to keep doing that before whatever he could feel lingering deep down erupted through the mission targets the Asset was still clinging to.
“Jesus, the mouth on you, some kind of moral upstanding hero you are,” muttered Tony as he walked out.
The Asset felt himself settle down as the Captain fell back into silence. He felt a lot less tense with him in the room than he had with Tony, as if part of him thought he could trust him. An image came to him of a tiny room with two beds squeezed in, and waking up to see the figure in the other bed sitting up, silhouetted as he looked out the window at the night. There was a sense of calmness with the image that should have been completely out of his experience.
Maybe he shouldn't be fighting this, but chasing after it like the Captain and the archer wanted him to.
“No, see, you’re chatting shit,” said Clint, heading towards the target to pull his arrows free. “There’s no way Steve wouldn’t have mentioned that if it were true.”
“Steve likes to pretend that we were boy scouts,” said Bucky. “We got up to some crazy shit.”
“Well, you did punch Hitler in the face,” agreed Clint, glancing back down the range and giving Bucky the shit-eating grin that was probably his favourite of Clint’s expressions. He could never keep himself from returning it.
“Nah, that was all Steve,” he said. “C’mon, look at me.” He spread his arms, both the real one and the one Hydra had given him as a weapon, displaying the gun stuffed into his belt and the three knives strapped around various parts of his body. “Do I look like the kinda guy who goes around punching people?”
Clint gave him a very slow look up and down, eyes lingering at various points as he walked back up the range to him. Bucky felt himself getting hot under the collar just from the look in his eyes but held in place, letting him look his fill.
Six months since he’d woken up in a cell and been told that he’d spent decades being brainwashed, and he just about felt like he’d got himself back together. Six months of Clint grinning at him and looking just a little too long, making excuses to hang out with him even when Bucky wasn’t in the kind of mood that anyone would want to be around.
Six months of slowly starting to look back, and realising he wanted more.
He wanted. There was a time when he wouldn’t have even known how to do that.
That said, after a few months of watching Steve and Tony all over each other every chance they had, he had a pretty good handle on how wanting someone, and getting to have them, was meant to go.
“You look like the kinda guy who’d do a lot more than punching,” said Clint, once he’d finished looking him over.
A year from now, not even that, six months, you’ll be able to look at your life and be genuinely content, maybe even happy, Bucky remembered the other Clint saying, the one who’d already watched his Bucky go through this, and he’d been right. Bucky was content now, but he had a feeling he could manage to be happier.
“Yeah?” he asked, stepping closer to Clint. “Got any suggestions?”
“One or two,” said Clint, and then there was a moment when Bucky could almost see him thinking that he needed to either back off or commit. He’d seen the same look a few times before, when they’d both let the flirting get a bit out of hand, and he’d let Clint back off every single time. He hadn’t felt like he was ready for anything more, but he was done waiting now.
Screw it. He leaned in and kissed Clint, who immediately grabbed hold of his waist and kissed him back, moving closer until they were pressed together.
“Maybe something like that?” asked Bucky when they’d managed to pull their mouths apart.
“Pretty much,” said Clint, sounding breathless. “Although I really hope that’s not what you did with Hitler.”
Bucky snorted but didn’t waste time on more words when he could be kissing him again. Time to prove that other Clint right and grab hold of happiness with both hands.
Bucky knew the second that the latest Clint blinked his eyes after the transfer that he was the right one.
“Thank fuck,” he said, striding over and wrapping him up in his arms. Clint clung back just as tightly.
“Oh man, this better be the right Bucky or I’m gonna have some explaining to do when I finally get home,” he said into Bucky’s neck.
Bucky pulled back so that he could look into his eyes. “Can’t you tell?”
Clint stared at him for a long moment, then grinned. “Oh yeah, that’s you.” He leaned in and kissed him with the same desperate relief that Bucky was feeling. Bucky pulled him as close as he could and kissed him back. Thank fucking god, he’d got his boyfriend back.
Tony cleared his throat somewhere in the distance that existed beyond the way Clint felt in Bucky’s arms right now. “Uh, if I could just-”
Bucky pulled a hand away from Clint for long enough to send him a rude gesture, then wrapped it back around Clint’s shoulders. Like fuck he was going to interrupt this for any of Tony’s bullshit.
The heavy weight of fear that had been pressing down on him ever since he’d woken up to find that the Clint in his bed didn’t know him had finally vanished. His Clint was back and in one piece, and he didn’t have to worry that bad shit was happening to him in another universe where Bucky couldn’t help him, or that he’d never see him again, only an endless parade of Clints from worlds where they didn’t have this.
He spared a split-second to feel sorry for any Bucky in a world where he and Clint weren’t together, then returned his attention where it belonged, on the way Clint’s body was pressed against his and the feel of his lips moving with Bucky’s. Clint’s hands were fisted in the back of Bucky’s shirt, clinging on as if he was just afraid of being swept off again as Bucky was.
“Okay, great, I guess I’ll just-” said Tony, and then Bucky became dimly aware that he was hovering around behind Clint, running a sensor of some kind down his body. “Okay, good news, this Clint has the right kinds radiation to be our Clint, so this isn’t about to get seriously awkward. So, you know, you can feel free to stop making out at any point.” He paused a moment, during which Bucky and Clint both continued to ignore him. “Seriously, just at any time at all.”
Bucky decided that meant he could slide his hand down Clint’s back to his ass and give it a squeeze. Tony let out a long sigh. “Jesus, okay, fine, just don’t start taking clothes off, okay?”
Clint pulled away at that and Bucky reluctantly let him. “As if I’d give you that pleasure,” he said to Tony, then looked back at Bucky, his face flushed with pleasure. “C’mon, let’s go up to our room. I kinda want to celebrate how much less fucked up we all are than the other two versions of us I’ve seen.”
“You didn’t get hurt, right?” asked Bucky, pulling away so that he could look Clint over for injuries.
Clint rolled his eyes. “Oh, that’s definitely my Bucky,” he said. “Quit fussing, I’m fine. I just really need to be in bed with you.”
Bucky nodded. “I think we can manage that.”
He glanced at the gathered scientists. “Thanks for finally getting him back,” he said, then pulled Clint towards the elevator with an arm around his shoulders.
“Man, I’m so glad to be back,” said Clint once they’d finished and were curled up together, Clint resting on Bucky’s chest just in the right place for Bucky to be able to stroke his hands through his hair. “I really wasn’t kidding about how fucked up the other universes were.”
“I kinda got that from the Clints that came through,” said Bucky. “You were in the worlds they came from, right?”
“Yeah,” said Clint. “One lot hiding in Wakanda and so paranoid about their Tony that they locked me up until they could prove I wasn’t a some kinda robot spy; the other lot barely even friends with each other and still working for a SHIELD that was pretty much all Hydra.”
Bucky couldn’t keep in a shudder at the idea of that. Clint lifted his head. “Hey, don’t- We took them down. That’s why I’m so tired, I’ve been up all night fighting Hydra. We took down Project Insight, I got to beat up Rumlow, we got hold of their Bucky and took him back to the Tower.”
“Well, those all sound like excellent reasons to be tired,” said Bucky, and couldn’t resist kissing Clint again.
Clint shrugged. “Couldn’t just leave a Bucky Barnes under Hydra’s thumb, could I? Besides, the moment that Cap found out who the Winter Soldier was, he was pretty much champing at the bit to go after him. He’da gone alone if we hadn’t joined him.”
“Yeah, Steve can be like that,” agreed Bucky, running his hand down the back of Clint’s head to his back, tracing a lazy circle with his hand. Clint rolled his shoulders and pressed closer to him, pressing another kiss to Bucky’s lips.
“Seriously, I’ve got the best damn universe,” he said. “And the best damn Bucky.”
Bucky grinned at him. “Yeah,” he agreed. “I am pretty spectacular.”
So was this Clint. Not that he hadn’t liked the other two Clints he’d met, but he knew which one was his clear favourite.
“You’re not allowed to do that again,” he said. “I can’t handle not being able to get to you.”
“Not really something I can promise,” said Clint and kissed Bucky again. “I can promise that whatever happens, I’ll be trying to get back to you as soon as I can.”
That should have been enough, but Bucky itched to be able to do more. He wanted to be able to tie Clint to him somehow, chain him down so that he didn’t have to risk losing him again.
“You better be,” he said. “I wanna spend my life with you, not some other version of you.”
It wasn’t until after he’d said it that he realised how it sounded. Clint pulled away from him, raising up on his elbows so that he could look down at Bucky’s face. “You wanna spend your life with me?”
“Yeah,” said Bucky, and then realised just how true that was. He really, really wanted to know that the rest of his life was going to happen with Clint beside him. He screwed up his courage and took the obvious step to ensure that. “How about it? You wanna marry me?”
Clint just stared at him and Bucky wondered if he shouldn’t maybe have put a bit more thought into this. Maybe dinner somewhere fancy, with a speech he’d actually planned rather than just gone for on impulse. Shit, he probably should have got a ring or something.
“Fuck,” said Clint in a quiet voice, then leaned in and kissed Bucky. “Fuck, yes,” he said, and Bucky felt a surprisingly large amount of tension melt away. “Of course I’ll marry you, you idiot. I’m stupidly in love with you, didn’t you know that?”
“I kinda did,” said Bucky, putting both his arms around Clint and pulling him closer against his body. “Just, you know, making sure.”
“Fucking hell,” said Clint and kissed him again, then couldn’t seem to stop, raining quick, excited kisses on Bucky’s mouth while muttering in between them, “Fucking proposing to me just like that, without giving me time to brace myself, Jesus, you asshole, of course I will, can’t imagine being with anyone else now, how are you so fucking perfect?”
Bucky just lay back and enjoyed it. Man, this really was the best of all possible worlds.
Neither of them were the big, fancy ceremony type, so they just put on their best suits and went down to City Hall. They’d waited six months because Clint had rushed into his first marriage without much time spent engaged and then regretted it, and wanted to make sure that they were both still sure once some time had passed.
Not that he’d told Bucky that, of course, but he hadn’t had to.
Six months hadn’t done a thing to change how Bucky felt about it. He still knew he wanted to spend his life with Clint and that he wanted to sign his name to a certificate proving that.
The Avengers came with them but they didn’t need any more people than that, no matter how much Tony tried to persuade them that it wasn’t a wedding unless there were 200 people all gawping at you. He could do that for his own damn wedding, if he could persuade Steve to go for it, but Bucky and Clint didn’t need more than each other, their team, and a guy to say the words and make it official.
From the look on Steve’s face, Bucky had a feeling that it wouldn’t be too long before he and Tony would be hashing out a compromise between Tony’s love of a big spectacle and Steve’s desire for privacy. In fact, he was willing to bet that the hand that had been shoved in Steve’s pocket for most of the ceremony was wrapped around a ring box.
“I now declare you married,” said the officiant, and Bucky pulled his thoughts away from Steve in order to kiss his husband.
He spared a moment to feel sorry for all the Buckys in other universes who weren’t getting to live this moment, then his thoughts were swept away by a surge of happiness.
One Clint become another was a weird sight. Nothing about him actually moved, but somehow he gave the impression of doing so, and then the lips that Bucky had just kissed were replaced by an identical but completely different set.
Clint wobbled slightly and blinked a few times, glancing around.
“Hey, Barton,” said Bucky.
Clint looked at him, his eyes dipped to his new arm, and he let out a groan. “Aw man, how am I still not home?”
Steve and Stark had stopped arguing for the moment and Stark had flipped his face mask up so that he could look at Barton.
“Okay, seriously, am I ever getting the full story on this one?” he complained. “I’m so sick of you guys keeping secrets.”
Bucky ran his eyes over Barton, noting the tan that said he’d spent several months in a hot country and the peel on his nose that said he still hadn’t learnt to prepare properly for the sun.
“You’re expecting me to be down an arm and in deep freeze,” he said. “You thought you’d be in a palace, not an AIM base, and you definitely weren’t expecting to see Stark here.”
Clint stared at him. “That’s right,” he said, then glanced around again. “Wait, I am home? What the fuck is going on?”
“Tony and Vision needed some help with AIM,” said Sam.
“And we went for it?” said Clint. “Are you guys insane? This fucker put us all in prison!”
Sam just gave him a shrug. “One of the other Hawkeyes talked us into it.”
“We made Stark promise not to do that again first,” said Scott, “and, hey, look! He’s kept his word. So far.”
Stark let out a very long breath. “No one is getting arrested,” he said, tiredly. “Seriously.” Bucky wondered if he should be feeling for him, then remembered the sensation of his arm being ripped apart.
“With the exception of the AIM agents we have captured,” said Vision, glancing around at the bodies covering the floor.
“Maybe we should finish dealing with them before we get into who decided to trust who for what reason?” said Wanda, glancing towards one of the doors.
Steve nodded, his shoulders going into Captain America’s firm stance. Bucky hadn’t expected to find the sight of that, something that had been so familiar during the war, bringing a lump to his throat, so he looked back at Clint instead and realised he was still holding his bow. He held it out to him.
Clint looked at it, then sighed and took it. “Fine,” he said, checking it over then glancing at the quiver on his back. “Okay, let’s take these bastards down and then someone can explain what the fuck is going on, why the fuck we agreed to this, and where the fuck Bucky managed to get a new high-tech robot arm in less than two days.”
Bucky glanced down at his new arm and flexed his fingers. “T’Challa,” he said, and then realised what he’d heard. He gave Clint a frown. “You don’t usually call me Bucky.” Was it the wrong Clint after all?
Clint made a face. “Yeah, I know. Just, I spent a lot of time hanging out with one of your alter-egos in the last universe and I figured the last name thing had got a bit old. I can stay with it if you want.”
“No,” said Bucky, “that’s fine. Clint.”
Clint grinned at him and the look in his eyes made Bucky want to kiss him, to see how close to kissing the other Clint it would be.
No, no good. He couldn’t start something with this guy if he was going to go back into cryo as soon as they got back to Wakanda, that was a dick move. He needed to decide what he was going to do before he made a move.
Of course, just because the last Clint had been interested and the one before had spent a year going out with the Bucky from his world, didn’t mean that the one here and now had any interest in Bucky.
Clint's eyes skimmed over his body as they all headed further into the base, then darted away to fix on the corridor ahead instead. Okay, maybe those two things were more than a coincidence, and Clint Barton and Bucky Barnes really were into each other in every universe.
By the time the last AIM scientists had surrendered, he was thinking that he wouldn’t mind doing it again, especially if he had Clint on his team. And Steve, of course, fighting by Steve's side was so familiar that he’d barely even needed to think about matching his moves to his.
“Well, that was fun,” said Stark, pulling off his helmet and ruffling his hair. “Thanks, guys.”
“When are special forces getting here?” asked Sam. “I kinda want to be gone by then.”
“Uh, we do have an escape plan, right?” said Clint, glancing out of the nearest window at the murky water outside.
“Oh yeah,” said Scott. “We’re gonna steal a submarine.” He bounced on his heels. “It’s gonna be James Bond as fuck.”
“We gonna be having sex with a beautiful woman at the same time?” asked Clint. “And wearing tuxes?”
There was an amused pause. Bucky carefully didn’t look up to meet any of the gazes he could feel on him.
“Well, someone has already managed a make out session on this mission, so I guess anything could happen,” said Scott.
Clint frowned at him, then followed everyone’s looks to Bucky. “You’re kidding,” he said. “You’ve been out of deep freeze for just over a day and you’re already having a romantic subplot? Who the hell did you find to kiss in an AIM base?”
He looked over at the nearest AIM scientist, who was cuffed to a chair. The scientist gave him a wide-eyed look and shook his head frantically.
Bucky cleared his throat. “It wasn’t my idea,” he said. “It was the other Barton.”
It felt like maybe the distance of calling him by a surname would come across better. From the look on Clint’s face, that hadn’t really worked.
“You kissed a me from another dimension,” he asked, slowly.
Bucky shrugged. “Seemed like the thing to do at the time,” he said. “Gotta take your chances where you find them, right?”
Clint’s stare narrowed. “Says the guy who spends his life in deep freeze, avoiding any chances he might have.”
Okay, that was a good point, but that didn’t mean Bucky had to admit to it. At least not yet.
“Special forces are making their way through the tunnel to the base,” reported Vision.
Stark sighed. “Okay, as much as I kinda want to watch this domestic unfold, if only so I can get a handle on what the fuck is going on, you guys should probably get going.”
Steve nodded, glancing around the room as if checking they hadn’t forgotten anything. “Agreed. Which was the quickest way back to the submarine dock?”
“That way,” said Stark, gesturing at one of the doorways. “And, uh. Thanks, I guess. Your help was appreciated.”
“Some things are more important than personal disputes,” said Steve.
“Right,” said Stark, glancing away from Steve with an unhappy look. Bucky glanced at Steve’s face and saw that he was just as unhappy, but covering it better. Slightly better.
In another dimension, these guys were dating. Bucky had tried to imagine that several times since he’d found out but hadn’t had any luck, not when the only times he’d seen them interact had ended with a fight. Now, though, for the first time, he thought he could see it. They were both clearly cut up over this thing, and missed each other more than they were ever going to admit.
“It was good to fight on the same side,” said Vision, which was probably a bit too on the nose. He held out a hand to Wanda and she shook it.
“Yeah,” she agreed. “Let us know if you need us again.”
Stark glanced over at her, then back at Steve. “Yeah, okay,” he said. “Next time we’re facing something too big, I won’t wait for you to call.”
Steve nodded. “Okay,” he said, and then, more hesitantly, “I still don’t agree with you, but it means a lot that you’ve not-” he hesitated, then clearly decided not to beat around the bush, “that you’ve been okay with Bucky being here.”
Bucky felt himself tense up. He’d really been hoping to get out of here without anyone mentioning that.
Stark glanced over at him with a grimace, then back at Steve. “I gave my word,” he pointed out, very quietly, then a moment of decision played on his face. “Okay, you know what?” he said, suddenly becoming more animated, “here’s the thing: this whole thing sucks. I reckon we can all agree on that. So, how’s this for a plan? You get gone now, we deal with special forces and the clear up and the media and, yes, I am maybe going to hold a teeny-tiny grudge that I’m having to deal with all that crap with just Vision as back-up because we all know that it’s the shittiest part of a mission, but after that, when we’re all done here and you’re back in Wakanda or, you know, whatever other mysterious hide-out you’ve been at where you’ve all been able to get stunning tans except Barnes, who must just be immune to the sun or something, some kind of Winter Soldier aesthetic, I don’t know, anyway, after that, I’m gonna call you.” He took a deep breath and fixed Steve with a determined look. “And you’re gonna pick up, and we’re gonna try talking this out like adults.”
Steve’s jaw clenched and he jerked a nod. “Yeah, okay.”
“Awesome,” said Clint. “I go away for a couple of days and suddenly everyone starts acting all mature and shit.”
“It’s pretty surprising,” agreed Sam. “Now, can we please get out of here before we all end up arrested again?”
“Definitely,” said Scott and to Bucky’s relief, the emotional moment was broken.
Or maybe he didn’t. Maybe he could just try being awake a day at a time and see where it got him.
He glanced over at where Clint was sitting across the aisle from Bucky and looking rather more awake than everyone else. No, that wasn’t fair. He needed to know if he was going to stay awake for the long-term or he couldn’t go trying something with Clint, that wasn’t fair.
Clint must have felt Bucky’s eyes on him because he glanced up and met his gaze, then gave him a small smile, and just like that, Bucky decided. Screw it, he’d spent enough time, enough decades, having his life put on hold. Time to start living.
“So, you and the other Clint, then,” said Clint. “I’m guessing it wasn’t the one in the serious long-term relationship, because I met his Bucky and he didn’t seem the type to share.”
“Nah,” said Bucky. “His version of me was still with Hydra. I gave him a bunch of tips on how to get him free, but it’s gonna take a while so…” he shrugged.
“So, he figured he’d kiss you instead,” said Clint, sounding amused, which was good. Better than annoyed, although maybe Bucky should be hoping he was annoyed, or jealous, or whatever. Or maybe he was over-thinking this. “To, what? Tide him over?”
Bucky shrugged. “I guess.”
Clint tipped his head to one side and the tip of his tongue darted out to wet his lips. “And you? What were you doing it for?”
This was it. The moment. Bucky thought about the cold safety of being frozen, the certainty he felt as he shut his eyes that no one was going to be able to mess with him or make him into someone he didn’t want to be, and what it had felt like to hear Zemo chanting those words while he was trapped in a cell, unable to protect himself from having his mind taken over, and then compared all that to the look on Clint’s face right now. The kiss from earlier had been good, but he already knew it would be so much better with this version of Clint, the one that he’d spent one day a month getting to know and who he’d hopefully be spending a lot longer than that with from now on.
“I figured I’d explore my options,” he said. “I mean, seems like the multiverse has decided we make a pretty good couple, right?”
Clint’s smile spread into a grin. “Yeah,” he agreed. “The last Bucky I met was pretty set on the idea.”
“Well, he’d know, I guess. Hard to argue against another version of myself when I know how damn smart he must be,” said Bucky.
There was a groan from behind them. “Are you two gonna flirt the whole way to Wakanda?” asked Scott. “Cuz, I was trying to sleep.”
Clint grinned at Bucky, and then moved across the aisle to sit next to Bucky. “We’re gonna flirt all the way to Wakanda,” he said. “Deal with it.” He leaned in and kissed Bucky, ignoring the pained groan from Scott behind them and Bucky happily kissed him back. Yeah, this was worth staying awake for.
He was slumped on a sofa in the lounge with a copy of The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy, which Clint had sworn blind was essential for understanding modern culture but which Bucky had a feeling was just one of his favourites, when Steve came in.
It was the middle of the night and Bucky had assumed everyone else was asleep, but he should have figured that Captain Insomnia would be up. With the back of the sofa sheltering Bucky from his view, Steve didn’t notice him and headed straight for the window. Bucky was about to greet him to alert him to his presence when the phone clutched in Steve’s hand rang.
“Tony,” said Steve, answering before it had time to ring more than once. Bucky immediately shut his mouth and silently sunk down further on the sofa so that he was completely out of sight.
Tony and Steve had been trading phone calls for the last couple of weeks, ever since the AIM base, although Bucky was pretty sure no one was meant to know just how often they spoke.
“Not today, but there’s always hope for tomorrow,” said Steve, then laughed at whatever Tony’s reply was.
“Funny how there always seemed to be someone around worth punching when I was fighting Nazis,” said Steve. “How was your day? Invented anything that breaks the laws of physics today?”
Oh man, he was talking about punching Nazis, that was Steve’s form of flirting. Bucky really shouldn’t be listening to this. He traced the distance between his sofa and the door, but it was too far to make it without being spotted.
“No, I don’t think that counts,” said Steve, laughing again.
There was an air vent directly above Bucky’s head. He wouldn’t have even thought about it if he hadn’t spent so much time with Clint recently, listening to him talk about the joys of an air conditioning system with enough space for a person to crawl through. He’d told Bucky that he’d made sure all the vent covers in the communal areas were unscrewed enough for him to get inside easily. Was that Bucky’s escape route?
“Yeah, everyone else is fine. Scott and Clint bullied us all into a game of frisbee that got a bit competitive, but we didn’t actually break anything so I counted it as a success.”
Bucky peered over the sofa again. Steve had his back to him but he was looking out of the window and any movement in the room would reflect in the glass.
“I’m not talking to you about the team’s love lives, Tony. No, no, listen. That kinda thing, that’s private. You want to know, you ask Clint.”
Okay, well, that was good to hear. Bucky wouldn’t want Steve to be telling Tony all about him and Clint. Not that things with Clint weren’t worth boasting about, they were actually fantastic. Bucky reckoned if he’d had just one session of shooting with Clint before being put in cryostasis, he’d never have gone. Getting to match skills with someone just as good as him, not to mention someone hot as hell with shoulders to die for, was possibly the best thing that had happened to Bucky in decades, especially if you factored in getting to make out with him at the end.
“How’re Rhodey and Vision?” asked Steve, turning away from the window and wandering back towards the door. Bucky ducked down again, wondering why the hell he hadn’t just come clean when Steve first came in.
Now that Steve was away from the window though, maybe he could make a break for the vent.
“Well, that’s good. Are they saying he’ll make a complete recovery?”
Steve paused for a moment with his back to Bucky, and Bucky took his chance. He moved as quickly and as silently as he could, abandoning his book because it would only slow him down.
“That’s excellent, I’ll tell the others.”
The vent cover was loose and opened silently. Clint must have oiled it. Bucky would have to thank him for that.
“No, Tony, that’s not- Look, I get what you’re saying, but it’s not going to be as easy as just popping over for a visit. The guys here are still pissed, you know. Plus the UN-”
Bucky grabbed the edge of the vent and pulled himself up and in.
“It’s easy for you to say that, your name isn’t on one of their warrants. No, don’t, Tony. Tony. Tony. Tony! Stop talking and listen.”
Bucky pulled the vent closed behind him.
“The guys here have been in exile for months, unable to see their families and with nothing to do but brood over being locked up in maximum security while staring at the stump where Bucky’s arm used to be. You can pretend we can just hug it out all you want, you’ve got to know there’s gonna be more to it.”
Mission Escape Steve was successful, and Bucky had only heard about three things he reckoned Steve would have wanted to keep private.
“This isn’t about whether or not I want to hug you,” said Steve, and he sounded exhausted. Right, make that four things.
Bucky started crawling, taking care not to bang his metal arm against the walls. “C’mon, Tony, this isn’t-” He was silent for a long moment and Bucky paused, not wanting to be overheard.
“Yeah, well, missed chances are gone forever. We’ve got to focus on not wasting any others.”
Bucky began crawling again and made it out of earshot, although not without hearing Steve laugh again. Man, he hadn’t heard him sound like that since the forties. Maybe he needed to rethink his policy on Stark, if he could make Steve sound like that.
Of course, he’d also made him sound like he had when they first got to Wakanda, worn down and brittle, as if he was on the verge of crumbling apart.
Bucky made it back around to the vent in the main corridor and dropped down, then headed back to his room. He glanced at the time and decided, with reluctance, that it was far too early to go bothering Clint. He’d give it a few hours then wake him up with a cup of coffee, that would put him in a good mood.
He pulled another book off the shelf and stretched out on his bed with it.
About an hour passed, then the door opened and Steve came in. He tossed The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy on to Bucky’s bed. “Just so you know, I can hear your arm whirring when you lift something heavy, like yourself, with it.”
Bucky considered embarrassment and then decided life was too short. “Just so you know, the guys here aren’t as fragile as you seem to think. They’d understand if Tony came to visit. I think most of them would welcome it.”
Steve gave him a long look. “Would you?”
Bucky shrugged one shoulder. “You like him. Clint does too, although he’s doing his best to pretend he doesn’t. He must have some saving graces.”
Steve snorted. “You’d think,” he muttered, then shook his head. “Okay, fine. I’ll tell Tony that if he wants he can come over in the suit so we can talk face to face. He’s been speaking to the UN, you know. He’s got them to drop most of the charges against you, and he’s got a round of talks about the Accords next week.”
Bucky considered that. “Maybe he’s worth having on side then. And not just for you to flirt with.”
“I don’t-” started Steve, then stopped himself, presumably because he realised just how outrageous the lie would be. “I don’t think you’re one to be complaining about flirting, anyway,” he muttered. “You and Clint are nauseating.”
Bucky gave him the widest, smuggest grin he could. “Yup.”
Steve rolled his eyes as he left and Bucky glanced at the clock again. Three hours until he could wake Clint up.
Bucky kept a tight grip on Clint’s hand as Tony showed them around the base. Just because he knew that they were as safe here as they had been in Wakanda, that the UN had dropped all charges and Tony had promised several times, to several different people, that his homicidal tendencies were completely shelved and he wouldn’t be coming after Bucky again, Bucky was still finding it difficult to deal with the transition. Having Clint’s hand firmly in his and seeing the way Steve’s shoulders were relaxing a tiny bit more with each moment they were here was a help.
“And I figured this suite would do for our snipers,” said Tony, throwing open a door. “I mean, I’m guessing you’ll be wanting to share if the way you can’t keep your hands off each other is anything to go by.”
Clint pulled Bucky inside to have a look. “Don’t be jealous just because my super-soldier is better than your super-soldier,” he said over his shoulder, heading straight to look out the window with Bucky in tow.
Steve let out a long sigh. “I’m not his-”
“Bullshit,” said Clint. “Oh cool, you can totally get up to the roof from here.”
Bucky had a look, noting the handholds and the drainpipe Clint had spotted. “We could put in a nest up there,” he agreed.
“What?” said Tony. “How would you- why would you, no never mind, not asking, but if you fall I’m gonna laugh at you, be aware, and, more importantly, what the hell do you mean yours is better? Mine’s the original!”
Steve cleared his throat. “I’m not your-”
“Oh please,” said Sam. “Like we don’t all know exactly what you guys were doing in the briefing room when you said you were ‘hashing out the final details’ of the agreement. Dude, we’re not stupid.”
“Yeah, come on, buttercup, let’s not insult their intelligence,” said Tony, and patted Steve’s chest in an affectionate way. “Don’t worry though, I put aside your own rooms for you, I didn’t think we were at the stage of sharing a sniper nest just yet.”
Bucky glanced over his shoulder at Steve who was looking at Tony with a conflicted frown. He cleared his throat to get his attention and then gave him a meaningful look that he hoped would remind him of the words he’d said on the flight over here.
If you’re gonna do this thing with Stark, Stevie, you gotta do it 100%. No sense in holding back.
Bucky had wasted months when he could have been with Clint by holding back, not just from him but from his whole life. He didn’t want Steve to make the same mistake.
Besides, the more Tony was getting laid, and the closer he was to Steve, the less likely he was to suddenly snap and go after Bucky again.
Steve returned his look with a bit of a glare but when he looked back at Tony he took his hand. “Actually, if you’re up for it, I think I’d rather enjoy sharing rooms with you,” he said. “I think we’ve spent enough time with distance between us.”
Tony just blinked at him for a moment, then a blissfully happy smile spread over his face. “Okay, yeah, let’s do that then.”
“Oh hey, and look, that's probably for the best, because we're gonna need another set of rooms,” said Clint, still looking out the window. Bucky turned to follow his gaze and saw a black-clad figure with red hair emerging from the woods at the edge of the compound.
“Who the hell have you dragged along now?” asked Tony, heading over to look.
“Just an old friend,” said Clint, waving down to Natasha with the hand not still holding Bucky's.
Natasha glanced up at them and gave a flick of her fingers that might have been a wave.
“Guess the gang's all here, then,” said Tony.
“Nearly,” said Clint, then turned to give him a shit-eatingly smug grin. “I'm gonna get a dog, and then we'll be set.”
“Oh, hell no, no way,” started Tony, but Clint interrupted him.
“Maximum security prison, Tony. We didn't even have windows.”
Tony deflated. “Oh god,” he said. “Fine, okay, a dog. But that's the last time you get to play that card.”
“Sure,” agreed Clint, far too easily.
Bucky gave him a knowing look and got a smirk in return, which Bucky wiped off his face by leaning in to kiss him. Their first kiss in their new home, but only the first of many.