Angel In The Architecture
No-one thinks it when they meet him, but Clint really doesn't do all that well working alone. He can do it, if he has to, but only for a couple of weeks at most before the whole thing starts to make him a little bit crazy. Knowing it's the situational crazy only sort of helps, though, when he starts feeling like maybe he's the last person left on Earth, or like SHIELD's forgotten about him.
Even worse, sometimes he forgets that he's with SHIELD now, that there'll be a voice on the other end of the line eventually. Those are the worst days, but Clint pretty much owes SHIELD everything, and he definitely owes Fury his life. Solo missions and the occasional period of hazy dissociation are a price he's willing to pay.
Crawling through sewer tunnels, though? Really something he thought he'd left behind when he went legit.
"We need to find a better class of villain," Clint tells the stale air and damp walls he's picking his way through. He's having a decent day, for once - the kind where talking out loud makes him feel sort of better, instead of forcing him to focus on how there's no reply. "I definitely remember being promised that joining the Avengers would be all super-villains and fights for the safety of Earth."
Up ahead, a light flickers, followed by the sound of something much larger than a rat landing in the water. Silently, Clint slides a knife from the sheath in the small of his back, and creeps deeper into the tunnels.
Their intel said two guards, and Clint's prepared for five or six because things never turn out to be better than intel predicted. He's not prepared to peek round a convenient bend in the tunnel and find closer to fifteen heavily armed men and women scattered around the space, another dropping in from above as he watches.
And this is where he could use someone on the other end of the line, even if it's just someone who'll tell him to keep going, because isn't he a super-hero now, surely fifteen armed guards isn't too much for the Avenger Hawkeye? Which it's not, obviously, but right now, he's Agent Barton, alone without backup, the whole plan unravelling around him, a three hour window to get what he needs without being discovered so he can move on to the next stage of the mission, and a whole lot of risk that one of the guards has a comm. unit and will get a message back while Clint's fighting them all off.
Clint tucks himself into the shadows and thinks, keeping an ear open in case anyone says anything at all. Fifteen guards is bad; mostly, fifteen guards is bad because if their pre-mission intel is that far off true, then he might as well throw out everything else he was told before he flew out, and that kind of mistake hasn't happened in long enough that it feels new and unnerving all over again. In order of preference, his options given that are (1) go back the way he came, report into SHIELD and wait for further orders; (2) go back the way he came and find a better way in, if one even exists; and (3) cross his fingers, hope for the best, and try to fight his way through.
In the darkness and the underground, knife in one hand and gun in the other, Clint grins to himself and hopes that he lives to tell this tale to Natasha.
He knows within minutes that he isn't going to take down all the guards, overwhelmed as he is by numbers and tactics and team-work and pure strength. He lets the next hit connect, turning into it just enough that nothing vital breaks, and drops to the floor. He gets a face full of sewer water for his trouble, and several brutally solid keys to his kidneys, but at least the guards get bored of that fairly fast, and then he just has to worry about faking injury and a head wound while they drag him through their underground lair and throw him unceremoniously into a cell that's barely bigger than his closet.
On the bright side, sort of, at least no-one tries to monologue at him – there's been a definite increase in the amount of super-villain monologuing in Clint's life since he became an Avenger.
The first few days are bearable, in the grand scheme of Times Clint's Been Captured, Beaten Up and Interrogated. Sure, he's in a cell, but it's inside another, empty room, a glass front letting him see what's going on (usually, not a lot), warm and dry if not actually in any way escapable. And sure, they come grab him three times a day to beat him up and demand to know what he was doing in their sewers and why an American is interested in them, but they haven't yet graduated to anything beyond burns and bruises.
Except... except that SHIELD know where he is, and they know when he timed out on his twenty-eight days out of any kind of contact with the world, and they have to know he hasn't showed back up. There's no reason for SHIELD not to have come got him by now.
No good reason, anyway, and, checking every seam of the cell all over again, Clint can't help but worry. He tells himself he's being paranoid, because he knows, down in his bones, that Nick will never let Clint get left behind or forgotten about, but the only option that leaves is that something's happened to SHIELD so they can't come for him. It's a worse thought than that they've just forgotten about Clint; he can't imagine a world without SHIELD, the safety net and home that it provides.
Clint gives it another couple of days, as much to prove to himself that he still has faith, and then, when the guard comes for him, he stops faking compliance and strikes out. It's two against one, and even with a possibly broken wrist and a couple of bruised ribs, Clint can take down a two guards without much more than breaking a sweat.
He's been back and forth to the interrogation room enough times to know which way not to go, even if he doesn't know what he's going to find when he goes the other way. The moment he steps into a corridor he hasn't been in before, the familiar feeling of enemies creeping up on him settles over his shoulders. It comes of being alone, without a weapon, no comms and no-one to come for him.
Despite that, Clint makes it pretty far before someone realises he's gone and three guards track him down. Someone hits Clint in the head with what feels like a crowbar and he greys out for a second, just long enough for someone to beat him to the floor, arm wrenched up behind his back. The sharp, screaming pain of his shoulder popping out of joint brings Clint all the way back, just in time for the guards to cuff his wrists and ankles and drag him back the way he came.
Clint figures they'll dump him back in his cell, or take him down to their interrogation room, but they keep going, forcing him to stumble along dark corridors and down a flight of stairs before they come to a halt in a windowless room that Clint's never seen before. More worryingly, there's a man in a suit who Clint's also never seen before. In his experience, shadowy suited figures are a bad sign.
"More questions?" Clint forces a grin, ignoring the way the s slurs. The back of his head is throbbing, blood trickling down the collar of his shirt, his shoulder is making him want to throw up, and a smart attitude is all he's got left.
"Yes," the man says, a hint of Russian under the aggressively neutral accent, "But this time, I don't believe we'll have so much trouble in getting answers from you."
He steps aside, and it's just a chair, like something in a dentist's office, except for the straps, the padding right where someone would put their head, the electric cables running into it. Clint's never seen this, exactly, but Natasha talked about it once, a device that the Russians used to train their operatives – to more than train them, to force them into obedience. To take away their will to do anything but follow orders.
Clint panics, instant and unstoppable, because all he can think about is Loki, the nightmares and the memories of hurting his own people, of his own hands doing unspeakable things under someone else's control.
He lashes out without focus or thought, everything he knows about fighting gone in the absolute, sweeping terror of being forced into that machine, of being made to comply. He fights like he did as a kid, all elbows and knees made clumsy from being cuffed, his breath coming harsh in his ears, his teeth clenched to keep himself from begging, from pleading.
It doesn't make any difference. The guards tackle him down onto the ground, and then they lift him bodily, like he doesn't weigh anything, like he's not still fighting to get free, trying to bite, trying to scratch, because he can't let them put him in that chair, he can't let them take his will like Loki did, he can't –
They strap him down, and the man in the suit gets right into Clint's face, fingers tight on Clint's chin to hold him in place. "I see that you know what this does," the man says. "Perhaps you would rather answer my questions on your own, Agent?"
Maybe it's a lucky guess, but maybe it's not. Maybe they know he's SHIELD, and even if they don't, the only thing that's worse than being made to turn on the people who trust him is choosing to do so.
"No," Clint manages, his voice cracking like he's been screaming. It's possible he has; he definitely wants to, every muscle tense and taught with the urge to break free, to run until no-one can find him and he's safe. He'd give everything for a SHIELD team to come through the door right now.
"I see." The man nods to someone behind Clint. A moment later, the chair hums like a jet powering up. "But we may be able to convince you."
He doesn't sound crazy. That's what Clint thinks as the chair surges under him, his whole body arching as though he's been hit with a thousand volts of electricity. It's worse than Loki, it's terrifying and it hurts and this time he knows what's happening, he knows going in what it will be like coming out, and he screams, unable to stop himself.
It goes on and on, past pain and into the place where Clint can usually disappear into his own head and wait it out. This time is different, though. This time, it's like the pain swallows him up, takes hold of him and pins him down and he's never been anything except the pain, he's got no body and no mind, there's just the pain overwhelming him, endless agony that never changes and never stops and –
And he's tipping forward, he's on his knees, shaking so hard he's sure he's going to collapse. The whole world is gone, vision and hearing and taste whited out by the sudden absence of pain, but he can feel the floor under his bare palm, and that's enough to hold onto.
He breathes and blinks, he smells blood and tastes vomit though he doesn’t think he's throwing up, and in between all of that, he concentrates on the floor under his hand and knees, the rough texture and the solidity of it, the throb of pain in his dislocated shoulder.
He's kneeling on the floor. He was in the chair, and now he's on the floor, and he doesn't know why.
He smells blood, he maybe hears something like a gunshot, or maybe it's just left over.
He blinks again and there's shadow this time, not just light so white it hurts.
He's Clint Barton, Avenger and Agent of SHIELD, kneeling on the floor in the room where they tried to burn away his soul all over again, and when he thinks about sitting up, about figuring out what the hell just happened, he moves, like always, like he chose to do it then did it.
The relief that washes over him is so strong he thinks his knees would give out if he wasn't already on the floor.
Clint pulls the tattered fragments of himself back together, and lifts his head, chancing the movement against the throbbing pain that means he's got a concussion for sure.
The world, when he can finally bring it into focus again, consists of guards and the suited man, all on the floor looking more or less dead, and, standing in the middle of it all like an angel of death, a man dressed head to toe in black, a mask covering half of his face and long hair covering the rest, the gun in his hand not quite trained on Clint.
"Who the fuck are you?" Clint blurts out before he can think, because he was expecting SHIELD, he was expecting the Avengers, hell, he was expecting one of the guards before he was expecting a mysterious and deadly stranger.
"James," his stranger says. He might have some kind of voicebox in that mask, because his voice is completely expressionless, even more than Natasha can manage on anything but the worst days.
"You planning to kill me, James?" Clint asks, ignoring the way his own voice creaks and he needs to clear his throat halfway through the question. "Cos if you're not, you could point that thing at someone else."
James looks down at the gun like he'd forgotten he had it, but doesn't point it away from Clint. "You should leave," he says. "They're all dead."
Clint's not sure why he says what he says in response to that. Maybe because the guy just saved his life, maybe because he's honestly not sure he can walk himself out without help. Maybe because Clint's always had a soft spot for people in need of help, and despite being the one who just got saved from a mind-control machine, he feels like maybe James needs more help than he does.
Maybe a little of all three, or maybe just letting his mouth run ahead of his brain like he does sometimes, but Clint says, "You should leave with me," and doesn't let anything show on his face when, after a long beat of just looking at Clint, James reaches out, grabs Clint's still functional arm, and pulls him to his feet.
It's dark outside the compound, which feels wrong but makes sense – James is brutal and deadly and competent in all the ways that feel like home and family to Clint, and so of course he'd attack in the middle of the night. The darkness and the vague direction they're moving in are about all Clint manages to take in. He's more focused on putting one foot in front of the other and not falling over empty space, because his head is pounding, the whole world is spinning in a decidedly unfriendly fashion, and he's pretty sure that if he stops moving, he'll just keel right over. He hates having to get out of captivity under his own power, which he's counting this as, mostly, when James' only apparent concession to Clint's wrecked state is an occasional check over his shoulder that Clint is still behind him, and a brief pause for Clint to pop his shoulder back into place.
Clint stays behind him. He doesn't want to find out whether James would come back for him.
Clint doesn't really register that they're inside until a lamp in the corner turns on, illuminating a mostly bare room. Even for an emergency crash pad, it's pretty limited: a metal cot in one corner, a sink in the other, a small pile of clothes and papers, and not a lot else. On the other hand, it's inside, and no-one's going to try to mess with Clint's brain, so he'll take it.
"Sit down," James says, checking the small window, then moving behind Clint to lock the door.
Clint sits, and tries not to gasp too audibly when every single injury chooses that moment to make itself known. The mattress is kind of thin, but Clint thinks he could probably sleep on it anyway.
James is still prowling the room, gun in hand and mask firmly in place. His long hair is falling in his face, and he has the familiar air of someone who hasn't been taking great care of himself over the last few days. He's clearly dangerous, the kind of person who strikes fear into the hearts of even SHIELD agents, but Clint just can't get there, not when the guy saved him, something he'd been too sure wasn't going to happen.
"You got any painkillers?" Clint asks when James doesn't show any sign of relaxing. "Medical kit? Water? Some way of contacting my team to come get me?"
James looks at him, expression unreadable, for a long time. Clint only doesn't flinch under it because he's been friends with Natasha for a long time; no-one does expressionless like she does. "You didn't even say thank you," he says finally, and it takes Clint a second to realise that might have been a joke.
"Thank you," he says, meaning it to come out obedient but not entirely surprised when it comes out entirely heartfelt. "Don't suppose it's worth asking what you were doing there?"
James twitches, looking away for a moment, and doesn't answer. That's fair; Clint wouldn't tell James either. "You should sleep," James says.
Clint's not inclined to argue with him, except for one thing. "You going to skip out on me while I do?"
James blinks, but all he says in reply is, "You should sleep," again.
Clint wakes himself up with his own screaming, knowing he should stop and entirely unable to make himself. He's in a place he doesn't know, a person he doesn't know in the space, and the last thing he remembers is Loki's sceptre and his free will bleeding out of him.
"Shut up," someone hisses, too close, pinning him down and reaching out to cover his mouth before Clint swallows and chokes on the scream trying to break free.
He gasps out, "Tasha," even knowing it isn't her, too desperate for the reassurance to keep her name inside, and the man freezes completely.
"No," he says after a moment. "James."
James. The crash pad and the rescue and the machine and – Clint doesn't need to trace further back, because his brain helpfully throws the memories of the rest at him in one fell swoop. Instead, he sags back into the thin mattress and tries to catch his breath. "Sorry." His hands are shaking, every part of his body hurts, and he wants to be home more than anything. "What time is it?"
"You've been asleep an hour," James says. "We need to move."
Clint's grateful that James doesn't ask about the nightmares – that's why he has a SIELD mandated therapist that he does his best to actually talk to – but there's only so much not talking that any insane escape can sustain. He pushes himself mostly upright, ignoring the way his body screams in protest at the movement, and tries not to look too surprised when James doesn't move from where he's sitting on the edge of the bed, head down so his hair covers his face.
Clint wants to tuck it behind his ears, and only partly because he wants to know what's going on in James' head. "I appreciate you getting me out," he says, shoving the impulse away. "And I'm always happy to team up with guys who can take on a roomful of armed guards and win but – can you at least tell me what you were doing there in the first place?"
"Stopping them," James says.
"That's –" Not a lot to go on. "Why?"
"That's why you were there," James says, then, with just a hint of uncertainty, "Right?"
"Right," Clint agrees. "The organisation I work for wanted to know what they know." His stomach clenches again at the thought of SHIELD. Something's really wrong, worse than Loki, and he needs to get back, needs to figure out where everyone is. "You work for someone like that too?"
James shakes his head, slow and uncertain. "I don't – no."
Great. Clint's really not up for this level of cryptic non-answers. "You said we should move. This place isn't secure?"
"It is," James says, still unsure. "But we should go."
Clint wants to ask why, but he's afraid that James won't know the answers. He's afraid that James might not even realise yet that he doesn't know the answers, and it reminds Clint too much of how he was for weeks after Loki, his brain struggling to rebuild connections to stuff he never even thought about before.
"You got a place in mind?" he asks, carefully casual. "Next place you were planning to hit?"
"There's someone – I think I should find him." James' head twitches, like he's thinking of actually making eye contact with Clint.
"You got any idea where he is?" Clint asks, not holding out much hope.
"America," James says, and when he turns his head just enough for Clint to see he's not wearing his mask, Clint can also see a flash of humour in the corner of his eyes. Maybe that's why, but for a second, James looks oddly familiar.
"America." Clint could use a little more detail, but he'll take it, for now. "How about that? That's where I'm heading too."
James goes out, and comes back with a cell phone that he clearly didn't buy. Clint doesn't ask, just starts dialling his way through SHIELD's security to get a person.
On the other end of the line, it rings and rings, then finally cuts off.
Clint feels the bottom of his stomach drop out, his whole body going cold. Someone always picks up in Ops, middle of the night, Christmas day, even during the Chitauri attack. Ops always answers, it's one of the basic tenets of SHIELD.
"Bad news?" James asks quietly.
Clint nods, unable to tear his eyes away from the dark screen of the phone. Stupidly, he's waiting for it to ring and make his world make sense again. SHIELD didn't come for him, and now no-one is answering in Ops. He needs his personal phone, because then he could call – Natasha.
Clint's an idiot, and it's only partly explained by his head injury. He keys in Natasha's current number from memory and lifts the phone to his ear.
I'm sorry, the electronic voice tells him, But the number you are calling is no longer in service. Please hang up or try again.
"We have to move," James says, before Clint can think too much about what it could mean that Nat's off the grid at the same time as SHIELD. James is pacing back and forth, door to wall and back again, obviously anxious.
"You said this place is safe."
"We have to go," James says again. "I'm going."
"Wait!" Clint reaches for James in a moment of something like panic, needing to hold onto the one thing he can sort of trust right now. He's too far away to make contact, but James jerks back like Clint was coming for him, right hand coming up defensively, left hand dropping as James angles slightly away from Clint.
They stay frozen for a moment, both of them caught in their insecurities. "Sorry," Clint says softly. "We should go together."
James stares at Clint, eyes expressionless and dark, and then he nods, just once.
James has clothes and medical equipment that Clint's not going to ask about, and so Clint does his best to doctor himself, the hunched line of James' back making it clear that he'll be no help. All Clint's bruises have darkened so that he's literally black and blue all over. He's more worried by the couple of bruised ribs that he definitely has, the dislocated shoulder, seriously sprained ankle and possibly broken wrist, and the way the world is still fuzzy and blurred. He feels over the ache at the base of his skull, and sighs quietly in relief when there's no blood.
"You know how to hotwire a car?" he asks.
James shrugs, which Clint is pretty sure means yes. It's good; there's no way Clint's going to be able to walk out of this.
"There's a safe house," Clint offers. "Maybe a day's drive from here, and we could try to make contact again." If they're lucky, an extraction team will be there, waiting. If they're really lucky, the kind of lucky that Clint really doesn't get all that often, then Natasha will be there waiting for him. She knows where he is, more or less, and they made a promise a long time ago, the kind that doesn't get broken for anything.
"No," James says. He's still got his back mostly to Clint, but he's radiating absolute certainty.
"Look, I don't know who you're working for," Clint starts.
He doesn't get any more out, because James jerks around, both hands up, palms out, his hair obscuring his expression. "No-one," he says, voice tight. "We can't go to your people."
Clint's exhausted and in pain and abandoned, and he can't any more with the cryptic super-spy bullshit. He channels Fury on his most pissed off days, and Hill every day that she faces down the crap that comes with being the assistant director of SHIELD and a woman, and Coulson in the early days when Clint drove him nuts, and says, "So tell me what you know. Right now."
James' eyes flick up and blink once. "Hawkeye," he says, expressionless. "Or Clint Barton, specialist with SHIELD since 2003, sniper for the Avengers since being taken by Loki two years ago. Born in Waverley, Iowa, ward of the state with brother Barney Barton after the death of both parents."
"How do you..." Clint's head spins, and only ninety per cent because he wasn't expecting James to mention Loki, and the whole evil chair is too close for him to think about Loki without reeling. "How do you know who I am?"
James shakes his head. "Hawkeye. The archer with the Avengers."
James is armed, Clint realizes, abrupt and cold. James is armed, and Clint is standing there in nothing but jeans, trying to keep himself from swaying. "Who sent you for me?"
Clint's good at what he does, and on a good day, he could definitely take James. This is not a good day.
"No-one." James looks the way Clint feels, tense and unhappy. "I didn't come for you."
"But you know who I am. How do you know?" James tenses even more, like Clint's asked the wrong question. "Why were you there?"
"They were Hydra," James says slowly, like he's picking through something for the words, lining them up one at a time. "I went there to stop them."
Clint hadn't known they were Hydra, but now James has said it, he finds he isn't surprised by the fact, no matter that Hydra is supposed to be dead and gone. The last few years, life has gotten too weird to be surprised by anything. "Why?"
"I had to be sure," James says. "I couldn't –"
He stops, and Clint gets it, all at once. "You were Hydra. You got free, and you had to get rid of all the cells you knew about, so you could be sure they wouldn't take you again."
James tips his head, just enough for his hair to fall back and let Clint see the surprise on his face. "Yeah," he says, so quiet Clint doesn't even hear it, just sees his mouth move.
If Clint could make himself smile, he would. "I know how that goes," he says, and doesn't think about never seeing Loki's body, about never being sure, when he wakes up breathless with terror in the middle of the night, that Loki isn't still in the shadows, waiting for his chance at Clint. "They told you about me? About the Avengers?"
James shakes his head, slowly. "I recognized you. There's a picture, at the museum."
He can only be talking about the Smithsonian, the exhibit about Steve and the Howling Commandos, with the one small panel at the end, talking about Steve coming back and the Battle. He's got no idea why an ex-Hydra assassin would ever have gone there. Hell, Clint only knows about the exhibit because Nat and Hill took themselves off to see it and reported back.
"So you know who I am," Clint says, feeling it all out. "You know I'm SHIELD, and you were Hydra – you think SHIELD's going to punish you?"
"SHIELD is Hydra," James says. "SHIELD's gone."
This is what Clint gets for trying to reason with the ex-enemy assassin. Just because it worked on Natasha, just because she got out and held onto her sanity, that's no reason to think James is the same. "SHIELD are the good guys. They're not – SHIELD's nothing like Hydra."
James blinks again, and for a moment, sympathy flashes over his face. It doesn't mean anything, except... Except Clint can't raise SHIELD, and no-one's come for him, and Natasha's dumped her phone. Something terrible has happened. "SHIELD's not gone," Clint says, hating the way his voice comes out thin and desperate.
James gets to his feet, moving slow, and digs in his pile of stolen goods until he comes up with a newspaper, folded and refolded into well-creased lines. It's in Arabic, which Clint struggles to read when the print isn't dancing in front of his eyes, but that doesn't even matter, because under the headline, there's a picture, a black and white image of a helicarrier smashing into the side of the Triskellion, and Clint's eyes don't lie to him, not ever. Not even when he wants them to.
It's awful, the news, made worse by how Clint has to piece it together from his own poor translating. SHIELD is corrupt, Hydra through and through, their secrets splashed over the internet like blood by the Black Widow, rumors that Steve's dead, rumors that Fury's dead –
Clint has to stop reading, his eyes burning. He wants to say that it's not possible, that it's not fair, that they're the good guys, they were trying to do the right thing, and maybe all that's true, but none of it matters, because it's real, it's happened.
And maybe, whispers that tiny voice in the back of his head, the one that he never quite manages to stop listening to, maybe this is why no-one's come for Clint. Because they think he's a traitor, he's a bad guy like the newspaper says so many of the people they trusted are. Loki took Clint for a reason, someone's saying, and Clint nearly took out the helicarrier, shot at his own people. Right now, they can't trust anyone, so why would they trust him?
He tells himself that Natasha wouldn't believe that, Fury and Hill and Coulson wouldn't believe that, but Coulson's dead and Fury might be, and there's no word on Natasha or Hill. So maybe there's no-one left to trust any more.
"I'm sorry," James says softly. He's moved closer without Clint realizing, almost close enough to touch, which says everything that needs to be said about how much this has knocked Clint sideways.
Clint shakes his head, sinking back down against the wall and resisting the urge to curl himself up small only because he knows it'll be hell on his ribs. "I don't understand," he says.
James touches his arm, a brush of skin against skin that's gone before Clint knows it's happening. "I know how that goes," he says.
They hide out through the daylight hours, but really, nothing's changed since they agreed that they need to get out of the country, and so that night, they gather what they have, wipe the room down, and slip out into the darkness. Clint's vision is still worryingly fuzzy from the concussion, which probably means the evil chair is still having a lingering effect on him.
Clint tries not to think too hard about that, because when he does, he feels like he's slipping away from the world. He can't afford that, not with James practically vanishing into the shadows every time Clint looks away from him, sparking an unreasonable fear in Clint that James will disappear completely.
Clint thought it was rough when he was alone knowing SHIELD was out there, waiting for him. He's just realizing that his memories of before SHIELD must have become oddly rose-colored, now that he's back there again; he definitely hadn't remembered how hard it was, before, when he didn't have a network of assured safe-houses, a way to contact an extraction team, a map of ways out and places he could pick up transport without getting too much hassle.
Now, he's got a walled-off, slightly odd renegade assassin from somewhere unspecified, and a stolen handgun.
And said assassin is right in Clint's face, frowning. "You with me?" he asks, fingers of his left hand brushing Clint's wrist. Clint's got the sleeve of his hoodie pushed up, but James is wearing leather gloves.
There's absolutely no reason for Clint to be feeling it right then, but that doesn't stop the shiver of sensation that runs up his arm from the touch. "Yeah," he says, keeping his voice low. "You got any idea where we're heading?" He ought to know this, ought to have already asked James this, or told him, but Clint's unpleasantly aware of how out of it he really is. He may not know much about James, but he knows he's safer with James guiding him than he would be on his own.
James tips his head, indicating south. "Goods train heading toward the border leaves in two hours."
Clint's life is turning into a spy movie. Riding out of the country in the back of a train wagon, seriously. Natasha will laugh her ass off at him when she hears about this. "S'the wrong direction for the US," he says.
"We need to get over the border," James says.
That, Clint did not need pointing out to him. "Then what?"
James frowns again, his whole face drawing into lines and shadows as he drops his gaze. "We need to get over the border," he says again.
Clint abruptly registers that they're tucked close together in the mouth of an alley in a hostile city where they stand out far more than is safe. It's not really the place for a lengthy discussion about this, especially when they're going to have a couple of days in a train carriage for the conversation.
He rests a hand on James' shoulder, feeling solid muscle that he tells himself firmly not to fixate on. "Train to the border, then the US, right?"
James looks up, his expression relaxing into something that could maybe one day become a smile. It puts their faces close enough that Clint consciously keeps himself from shifting back. "We should go," James says, stepping back slowly, Clint's hand falling away.
Clint drops, as carefully as he can, onto his back on the floor of the empty wagon, and stares up at the ceiling, trying to breathe. His ribs burn with the effort of hauling himself up, his sprained ankle and dislocated shoulder are bright, throbbing pains, and every bruise is hot and aching.
"You okay?" James asks. He sounds like he's moving around, but the wagon's dark, and Clint's not sure he can turn his head to track James without throwing up.
"You got any painkillers?" Or someone to clock Clint over the head and put him out of his misery. He hates extraction when he's injured; he hates it even more when he has to jump onto a moving train.
A lighter rasps and James' face flickers into view in the corner of the wagon. He's frowning, just for a change, and when he doesn't offer any painkillers, Clint waves his good hand in a c'mere gesture that James ignores. "Come on," Clint grumbles. "I need a hand."
James' face does something weird right before he turns enough for his hair to cover it up. "Is that a joke?"
"No?" Clint says slowly. "If it was, it'd be funny." James doesn't look over. "Okay, clearly I said something wrong, but seriously, I need you to help me up."
James lets the lighter go off, but he comes close enough to haul Clint up and help him lean against the wall of the wagon. The motion of the moving train is oddly soothing and it only takes Clint's eyes a few seconds to adjust to the darkness and flashes of light from around the door now he's upright. James is still moving about near the door, probably setting some kind of early warning system – well, as early as it can be when anyone coming for them will already be through the door.
"When we reach the border," Clint offers, "There's a couple people I can try to get hold of, see if they can help us get the rest of the way." Get home, wherever the hell home is, now.
James grunts, in what Clint decides to take as agreement.
The thing is, he refuses to believe that Natasha is gone. She wouldn't get taken out with SHIELD, not after everything else she's survived, and she knows that Clint was out when it happened, which means she'll be trying to get to him if she can. He needs a way to tell her where he is, and that's the problem, because none of the standard SHIELD methods are safe any longer, and Clint doesn't trust James enough to take him to any of Clint and Natasha's own safe houses.
Which means Clint needs another way to get in touch with her, and he thinks that, essentially, he has two options. Maybe only one option, because Option One is Steve Rogers, and last Clint heard, Steve and Natasha were running SHIELD ops together. There's absolutely no way Rogers would have been a part of Hydra, and Clint's pretty sure that the media would have mentioned if Captain America was dead, but it does mean that Rogers has likely gone off grid same as Natasha, and the couple of numbers Clint has for him won't work.
So Clint's left with Tony Stark.
This is what his life's come to.
James, it turns out, is really not one for conversation. Or sleep.
In a way that Clint would prefer not to think about too hard, it works right now – Clint knows that James is their best line of defence, when Clint's still feeling the side effects of being knocked hard in the head, and deeply unsure about the kind of movement that close quarter fighting requires. Plus, the motion of the train carriage and the dim light, even during the day, means Clint finds it all too easy to drift into sleep, half the time only realizing he was asleep at all when he jerks awake, trying to shake off the remnants of nightmares he hasn't had in months.
The SHIELD shrinks will have a field day with this. Well, they would, if SHIELD still existed. If they were SHIELD to begin with; maybe Natasha was right when she said they couldn't trust people who were paid to listen to your secrets all day.
Clint really hopes his shrink wasn't Hydra all along. Clint likes her; he likes how patient she was with how hard he found it to actually talk to her.
They travel through the day and night and most of the day before Clint persuades James to sleep a little. Well, persuades him to lie down and fake it, anyway; Clint's not kidding himself that James, lying on his back with his arms folded over his chest like a corpse, is actually sleeping.
It doesn't stop Clint from looking at him. After so long in the wagon, Clint's stopped noticing the lack of light, his eyes more than well enough adjusted to study James' features. James hasn't bothered with the mask since they left the safe house – too conspicuous on the street, and then not worth it, just him and Clint – and Clint can see his stubble growing in, dark and a little untidy. His mouth is a hard line, curled down at the corners. He looks unhappy, even more so than their current circumstances can account for, but then, he's an ex-brainwashed assassin. Clint wouldn't be happy in his place, either; Clint wasn't happy in his place.
Like this, enclosed together, and as safe as they're probably going to get for a while, Clint lets himself day-dream, just a little. Just about smoothing James' long hair back from where it's half-covering his eyes. They're both exhausted, and starting to smell kind of bad, and Clint hurts all over, but he thinks it might be nice, maybe, to sit next to James and lean into him, just a bit, let James lean into him.
It's stupid; it's a crisis, escape mission, he saved me, in it together attraction, the kind Clint's had with mission partners before. That, and James looks like he needs someone to rescue him, now he's rescued Clint; someone to hold him still and walk him into something safe, something other than better-than-what-I'm-running-from.
Fury gave that to Clint, and let Clint give it to more than one person after that. Clint's always gotten a little too attached to the people he's done that for, and James doesn't seem like he's going to be an exception.
Maybe Clint sleeps more deeply that night, or maybe it's all the thoughts of what'll happen when they hit the border and have to head back out into a world he doesn't trust any more. Whatever it is, he dreams of Natasha, wielding Loki's staff not to close the portal but against Clint, touching it to his chest and watching with a smile as she sucks out Clint's free will and hands him over to Loki.
He wakes up trying to scream, with a hand over his mouth, and the shock of it is the only reason he doesn't break James' arm trying to get free. "Be quiet," James whispers, harsh and close enough that Clint can feel the ends of James' hair against his face.
He nods, as much as he can with James' hand firmly over his mouth, and then James lifts his hand away and before Clint can move, leans down and kisses him.
It's so utterly not what Clint expects that he freezes for a moment, long enough for James to shift like he's going to pull away. And that is utterly not what Clint wants, so he hooks a hand around the back of James' neck and holds him in place so Clint can press up into the kiss.
James is pressed sort of awkwardly against Clint, and they're neither of them daisy fresh, but James is also warm and close, kind of sneaky with the kissing, shifting so their stubble rasps together, and it feels really good. Clint's done this before, kissed mission partners, kissed on missions, so it's familiar, if a little less frantic than he's used to; so familiar, in fact, that he notices when James doesn't start trying to get their clothes off, because mission making out has never once failed to turn into mission sex, a pattern that Clint is totally on-board with.
He's limited by his lingering injuries, but he manages to get his good hand between their bodies, fingers skating over the top button of James' shirt.
"You want to?" he asks when James registers what's happened and stops kissing him. This close together, Clint can see the uncertainty as it flicks across James' face. "Don't have to," Clint adds. "Kissing's good."
James looks down, probably at where he's got one hand on Clint's shoulder, thumb pressed into the bare skin at the neck of Clint's shirt. "I want to," he says, sounding less than completely sure. "Shirt stays on."
Clint can work with that. "Pants?"
James raises his eyebrows and almost sounds like he might be smiling on the inside when he says, "Pants can come off."
By which, apparently, he means Clint's pants can come off, and also Clint's underwear – which he somewhat regrets, lying on a cold floor – and that James' pants can get shoved down to his knees before James apparently gets distracted by the prospect of playing with Clint's dick and balls.
Clint lets it go on for a while, since he's still in enough pain to know he probably won't be able to get off, even if he does get more than halfway hard. He can feel James' cock against his thigh, though, so he knows James won't have that problem, and it's not like Clint isn't enjoying the way James' gun calluses feel against his sensitive skin, or the way James will remember that they could be kissing and go back to that for a while, then get distracted all over again.
It's almost kind of fun. If they were anywhere else, it would definitely be fun.
"I could join in, you know," Clint offers eventually, only a little breathless.
James blinks up to him slowly, and Clint clarifies, "Use my hand on you. Or –" It's a stupid suggestion to make, the kind of careless thing that Coulson used to despair of when Clint inevitably told him about it, but that doesn't stop Clint from making the suggestion anyway – "Or you could fuck me."
"Yeah," James says slowly, looking a little dazed. "We could do that."
He doesn't ask about condoms, which is maybe a little more cavalier than Clint's one hundred per cent comfortable with, but then, Clint was the one to make the suggestion, and it's not like they don't both know they don't have anything. In for a penny, and Clint's just gonna hope that whatever organisation James has left was as rigorous about testing as SHIELD has always been.
He pretty much forgets about it when James spits into his hand and works a couple of fingers into Clint, too distracted by the stretch of it and how James' knuckles rubbing at his rim make him want to shake out of his own skin.
James doesn't bother with much prep before he's sitting back on his heels and easing Clint's legs over his thighs, careful of Clint's injured ankle and the pressure on his bruised ribs. Clint tucks his injured arm tight into his body, and just watches as James slowly slides into him.
James is thick, and it seems to take forever before he's all the way inside of Clint, both of them panting a little, sweat lining James' hairline. Clint wishes he was in better shape for this; he wants to get on top of James and ride him till they both fall apart, but this is working too, a bit more than Clint was expecting it to.
He tips his head back, meeting James' eyes, and gets a kiss in return. The movement shifts James inside of him, and Clint makes a high noise in the back of his throat, then again when James shifts on purpose, like he can't help it. "Do it," Clint says.
James, apparently, doesn’t need to be told twice. He's cautious of how Clint's injured, but not gentle, fucking him deep and strong, head thrown back and hair falling away from his face. Clint can't stop looking at him, at the pleasure that seems to soften his features and the way his throat flutters like he's got noises trapped there, not making it out into the open.
Clint's getting close, stroking his hand over the base of his dick and enjoying the stretch and drag of James inside him, when James makes a sharp, startled noise, and freezes. The shudder that rolls through his body is unmistakeable, and disappointing, not that Clint would be rude enough to say so.
James pulls back, making Clint moan, and right as Clint thinks James is going to slip out of him, he pushes back in again, maybe even deeper than he was before.
He's still hard, or hard again, because Clint felt him starting to soften up, he's sure of it. Clint hasn't slept with anyone who has that kind of refractory period since he was a kid, but he's not complaining, not when James picks right back up where he left off, fucking Clint like he didn't just come.
The slide is a little easier now, but James' thrusts are longer, the head of his cock catching on the rim of Clint's hole every time he pulls back. It feels so fucking good, kind of dirty in a way Clint couldn't explain if he tried, and Clint can't keep from wrapping his hand around his own cock, bringing himself off to the rhythm of James moving within him.
Orgasm shakes through Clint like low voltage electricity, James fucking him through a handful of smaller peaks after the main event, until Clint's limp and spent underneath him.
Clint drifts a bit, coming around enough to notice that James comes twice more before he pulls out and slumps on the floor beside Clint.
He's not quite breathing hard, but his rhythm is definitely a little off, and when Clint tips his head to look at him, James is looking back, pleased with himself. They lean in at the same moment to share a kiss, and when they part, they're close enough that their arms just touch.
"James," Clint says, soft and sappy, nothing more in his head than the man's name.
"Bucky," James says, slowly, a frown starting to take over his face. "Not James, everyone calls me Bucky."
"Bucky," Clint echoes, hating how stunned he sounds – how stunned he feels. "Bucky like –"
And that's when the trapdoor in the roof of their wagon opens and Natasha's face appears, perfectly placed for her to see the two of them in all their semi-naked, post-coital, entirely confused glory.
"So," Clint says, trying to focus on the guy treating his injuries instead of watching the way Rogers and James (Bucky? Clint's gonna stick with James for the moment) are eyeing each other. "Who are you?"
The guy does something to Clint's ankle that hurts kind of a lot. "Right now, I'm the guy who's going to get you fixed up. Or Sam works, too."
Clint nods like that means anything at all, and wishes Natasha hadn't been the one to go retrieve the quinjet from wherever they left it. Life is too weird right now to deal with without Natasha.
Sam rests a comforting hand on Clint's good shoulder and offers a reassuring smile. "Rough month?"
"Yeah," Clint agrees, before his brain catches up. "Wait, month?"
In the corner of the warehouse they're hiding out in, James and Steve have definitely moved closer together, the air practically buzzing with some weird kind of tension. Maybe Clint's just reading into things, maybe he's finally lost his mind, but James said his name was Bucky, and the only Bucky Clint's ever heard of, the only one that could have some weird thing going on with Steve Rogers is Bucky Barnes, Captain America's best friend who fell from a train and died.
Or didn't die, but even allowing for how he obviously survived in some kind of messed up way, Clint can't really think about that, because all he's got in his head then is that of course Steve gets to have his friend come back from the dead, when Phil's just gone.
"Hey, you with me?" Sam asks.
Absolutely every part of Clint hurts, SHIELD is gone, and Clint's pretty sure he should never have fucked Bucky, should never have gotten attached to someone he knew was messed up in the head.
"Sure," he says, too tired to come up with anything else.
Clint wakes up in a hospital bed, Natasha sitting cross-legged on the foot of the bed, a paperback open in her lap. She looks up the moment Clint blinks his eyes open and touches his foot lightly through the covers. "Good morning," she says.
Clint checks – yeah, light coming through the window, sure, okay, morning. "We're home?"
Natasha tips her head side to side. "We're in the US."
They're not at SHIELD, which Clint would know even if SHIELD did still exist – SHIELD's idea of a private hospital room is a repurposed closet – but knowing they're back on home soil is good enough for now. "You okay?"
Natasha makes the same equivocating gesture. "Been better. Been worse."
They've got a rhythm to this, the two of them, which says that now is when Clint asks if he's okay, especially since he doesn't remember how he got from rescue to hospital bed, but he feels basically fine, not even like he's been drugged up, and he's got more pressing concerns right now. "You were there?"
"I was there." Natasha rests her hand on Clint's foot again. "Could've used you."
Clint nods slowly. He remembers Sam, asking if Clint's had a rough month, and how well-creased James' newspaper article was. "Shoulda called me."
"I tried. After the worst was over, when I knew you'd have heard, even on an op. When I couldn't get you, I figured you were in trouble, like usual, and I'd best come and fish you out of it."
"Like usual." Clint offers a smile that feels kind of broken. "You don't usually bother with backup."
"Steve was bored. He took down Hydra and SHIELD in less than a week, we didn't have a mission, he needed something to do. Sam tends to tag along where Steve goes."
"Nat," Clint says, quietly.
Natasha goes very still, and when she looks at him, her eyes are dark and troubled. "The man you were with when we found you, do you know who he is?"
Clint wants to tell her no, but the thing is, the thing is that it should be impossible, but he's pretty sure it isn't. More than he wants to tell her no, he wants to not have to hear it explained. "Could take a guess."
"He came after us – after Steve, when everything was happening with SHIELD and Hydra. I've met him before, and Steve –"
"Steve knows him from before the ice," Clint finishes, because he worked with Phil Coulson for over a decade, he knew about James "Bucky" Barnes, Captain America's best friend before he was Captain America, and now that James isn't right in front of him, he can see how James is Bucky, even with the mask and the long hair.
"He tried to kill Steve," Natasha says. "Almost succeeded, but someone pulled Steve out of the river before he could drown, and Steve thinks it was him. I wanted to find you, Steve wanted to find him. It turned out you'd both gone to the same place. We can't have missed you by more than a day or two, but we found a receiver, for a tracking implant in his arm. It took us right to you."
"He was Hydra," Clint says, putting it together as he speaks. "They... is he like Steve? He got frozen too?" Except that makes no sense, because Bucky didn't get the serum, he couldn't have survived being frozen. And they had the chair, the one they tried to use on Clint, the one that Bucky recognised.
He feels the world start to tip sideways into memory and horror that he can't bear to contemplate, and then Natasha's hand is in his, holding tight enough to push it back.
"He broke partly free of the conditioning when he was fighting Steve," Natasha tells him. "Steve says he never kicked anyone in the head, but he essentially stole the move from me."
Clint laughs, ignoring how weird it sounds. "He told me his name was James, when we met. And, er, right before you found us... he said he was Bucky. Like he didn't realise till then."
Clint doesn't get it, not when Natasha makes the half-snorting sound that means she's trying not to laugh, not when she starts giggling, not until her shoulders start shaking and she says, "Clint, tell me you didn't –"
And then Clint gets it, and he can't help cracking up with her, because of all the weird things that've happened lately, the weirdest, hands down, has got to be that he basically just said he healed a guy's Soviet brainwashing with his dick.
They keep Clint overnight at the hospital, for no reason he can figure, and then Natasha turns up to take him home. Which, apparently, is now Stark – sorry, Avengers – Tower, at least for the next couple of weeks.
Clint doesn't ask where Steve and James are, even though he wants to. He trusts Natasha to tell him if she thinks he'll want the actual answer, and then he's distracted anyway, because Maria Hill is standing by the security desk at the Tower, alive and fine, and it makes Clint shake, just a little, overwhelmed with relief at a familiar face who's entirely SHIELD, or was.
"You'd better not be thinking about trying to hug me," Hill says. "Because I'm still armed, and I still know more ways to kill you that you've broken bones."
It's true, despite the number of bones Clint's broken, so he just grins at her and decides not to push his luck.
"Nice work," Hill tells Natasha, who gets that almost entirely hidden look of surprised pleasure that praise from Hill always puts on her face. Clint has honestly no idea how most of SHIELD failed to notice what's going on with them.
"I've had a lot of practice," Natasha says, which triggers the slight twitch towards her that is Hill's tell. They're so cute together, it's kind of sickening, and it makes Clint wish for Phil, who'd have smiled back if Clint rolled his eyes.
He's not thinking about Phil, though, because that's never going to not hurt, and because he can't, not with everything else, the thought of what Phil would think of SHIELD's downfall, and how thrilled he'd be over James. Clint knows Phil would understand about being put in a box until Clint can deal with it, which almost makes things feel okay.
Clint has an apartment in the Tower, which he guesses could be called modest, as long as he remembers it's the Tony Stark kind of modest, not the normal human kind. Natasha is next door, and Hill, who's apparently working for Stark Industries now, is two floors down, though she mostly stays at her own place in Brooklyn, or with Natasha.
Steve and James, and maybe Sam if he hasn't gone back to DC, are three floors down from Hill, but none of them come to see Clint, and he can take a hint.
Stopping the elevator on their floor, just in case one of them happens to be in the corridor, totally doesn't count.
Things settle into a tentative sort of rhythm, one that's nothing like SHIELD but still has echoes of it. Even after he's physically fit enough to be back out on missions, Hill doesn't say anything to Clint about actually going out, and he's grateful for it, still too shaken by the whole thing to slip into the kind of head space he needs for missions. Instead, he spends most of his time with Hill and Natasha, if she's in town, sketching out mission plans to bring in the last few SHIELD agents and scrubbing through endless files to figure out what's still useful, and what they have to burn.
The burn pile is terrifyingly large, and by mutual agreement, they don't start an actual pile.
It's workable. On the best days, it even feels kind of good.
And then, long after Clint figured it was never going to happen, someone buzzes his apartment, and when Clint opens the door, James is standing there, looking at Clint and asking if he can come in.
He hasn't cut his hair, just pulled it back in a ponytail that makes him look young and cool like he did before (all right, so Clint went to the exhibition in the end, and spent more time than he's willing to admit watching old news reels of Sergeant Barnes), but he looks better in some indefinable way that's more than just how his face has filled out and his eyes aren't as dark and the look he's giving Clint is almost flirtatious.
"Um," he says, rubbing the fingers of his right hand against his left wrist. His arm's basically hidden, between the long sleeved shirt and his hand tucked in his pocket, and Clint still can't quite believe he went on the run with a man with a metal arm and never even realized.
"Right." Clint's brain finally catches up with what's happening, and he steps back enough for James – Bucky? probably it should be Bucky – to slide past him. "Come in."
Clint sucks at hospitality even when he's expecting people, so he just waves towards the couch and lets Bucky take it from there. Which he does, sitting on the edge of the couch, then shifting, leaning back, crossing his legs, uncrossing them, and looking expectantly at Clint, who throws himself down next to Bucky and forcibly restrains his own instinct to fidget.
There's a long moment of very awkward silence, which Bucky better not be waiting on Clint to break. Especially since Clint's a little distracted by how he can feel Bucky's body heat and has to try real hard not to lean into it.
"Steve said," Bucky starts, staring at Clint's blank TV like it's in any way interesting. "Um, that I should – that probably having sex and then disappearing was kind of weird."
Clint would bet that that is not how Steve put it at all, but Clint also wants to think about Steve discussing his sex life about as much as he wants to think about Fury doing so. "Extenuating circumstances," he says, shrugging.
"Yeah, but..." Bucky shifts again, and he's definitely, unquestionably Bucky now. So much so that he half seems like a different person from the one Clint met. It's endearing in a way that makes no sense whatsoever. "I don't remember it all that well, but – I remember I liked it."
He glances sideways at Clint, head ducked and the edge of a smile visible on his lips as he says it. It's cute as hell, and Clint is completely fucked. "I liked it too," he says, then, because that's too high school even for someone who never really went to high school, "I'm glad you decided to knock on my door."
Bucky blinks. "Was that some kind of anal sex pun?"
"Oh my god." Clint feels himself turning red and doesn't even know why – he's definitely not shy about sex, or talking about it. "Seriously?"
"Steve says language changed since we were... that it's different now."
He looks uncomfortable in his skin, some of the teasing draining away, and Clint just wants to hold his hand. Which, he's pretty sure Bucky didn't come round to say he never wants to see Clint again, and he can probably risk offering a hand to hold.
He does, reaching over careful and slow and Bucky, looking like he's not totally convinced Clint isn't offering him a live hand grenade, very slowly reaches back, until their hands are pressed palm to palm between their bodies, fingers sliding together. More importantly, the hand curling in Clint's – it's Bucky's left hand, his metal hand, and he'd not meeting Clint's eyes, but he's holding on, and there's a smile hovering round his expression, a shy downward cast to his eyes when Clint looks at him.
Clint smiles back, doesn't let go, and figures, not matter how much the last few months have sucked, it's gonna get better from here.