Clint was watching Dog Cops in his trailer the first time Bucky visited him. He was just about getting used to having strangers drop into his life at all times of the day and night after about a month of being unexpectedly psychic, but it still gave him a bit of a jolt to look up and find a soldier leaning against the bunk beds, arms crossed as he scowled at the screen.
"I thought Sergeant Whiskers was off the booze now."
"He relapsed after his nephew was murdered a couple of months ago," said Clint. "You must be Bucky."
The soldier nodded, still staring at the screen. "And you're Clint. The circus guy." The barman refused to serve Sergeant Whiskers another drink and there was a close-up of the despair in his eyes that made Bucky’s mouth twist unhappily. "Is it weird that this show is probably the thing I miss most from back home?"
"Nope," said Clint. "Makes perfect sense to me." He shifted along on the bunk he was using as a sofa and gestured to the space. "You're always welcome to come watch with me."
Bucky shook his head slowly. "I'm at least a season behind. I think I'll just have to wait until I'm back from my tour and marathon the lot."
"I've got them all downloaded," said Clint. "And I really don't mind watching them all again."
Bucky finally turned away from the screen to look at him. "Yeah? That would be pretty good."
Clint grinned back at him, then realised they weren’t the only members of the cluster hanging out in his trailer. Wanda had appeared as well, settled on the bunk next to him. "Sokovia is a season behind the US," she said, pointedly.
Clint spread his arms. "Hey, the more the merrier. What's the use in a weird psychic connection with people halfway around the globe if you can't use it to get ahead on your shows?"
"I can't think of any other benefits," said Bucky, shooting him a grin and, wow, was it going to make things awkward that Clint thought he was insanely hot?
"Let me," said Clint, crouching beside him and pinpointing where the sniper was. He was sheltered inside a hut, shooting from a window that looked straight up at the mountainside to where Bucky's unit were trapped.
Bucky snorted. "This ain't the big top, and a rifle ain't exactly a bow," he said, taking another shot. It missed, but not by much.
"I know," said Clint. "Trust me. C'mon, what've you got to lose? A bullet?"
Bucky raised his head to look down at the hut again, then ducked back as a bullet whined overhead. "Okay, fine."
Clint took over control of Bucky’s body. He took a moment to settle the rifle closer to his shoulder, then stared down at the flash as the sniper shot again and squeezed the trigger.
He didn't bother waiting to see it hit. He let Bucky take back control and stepped away.
"Holy shit, you got the fucker," said one of Bucky's comrades, clapping a hand to his shoulder. "Nice shooting, Barnes."
Bucky glanced up at Clint and gave him a nod of thanks. "Let's move out," he said to the others, and Clint left him to it.
"Seriously?" he asked.
Barney's face turned towards him. Even without enough light to see it, Clint knew what expression he'd be wearing. "Don't give me that tone."
Clint gave him the best shrug he could manage while lying down but didn't bother starting the argument they'd already had too many times.
Barney threw a dark jacket on, then glanced at Clint again. "You know you're welcome to come. Another pair of eyes is always useful."
Clint snorted. "No way in hell I'm getting out of bed right now."
"Your loss," said Barney, and slipped out of the trailer. Clint watched him go, then shut his eyes again, but he was way too awake to go back to sleep now. How the hell was Barney such an idiot as to have not realised that a string of burglaries that followed the route of the circus was going to stand out to the cops? Why the hell couldn't he see that this shit was only going to end badly, especially if he put his trust in a fucker like Trick?
Clint might have been taken in by the guy for a bit, but he’d been a teenager, and an idiot. As soon as he’d grown up a bit, he’d realised that he was putting his whole future at risk for a cut of what was never a whole lot to start with. Somehow, Barney had never had that realisation.
Barney’s life choices were his own, though. Clint needed to stop wringing his hands over them and just let him make his own mistakes.
Well, if he wasn’t able to sleep, he might as well find someone else who was awake to hang out with.
Bucky was in a hot, stuffy tent, doing what looked like an inventory of supplies. Clint settled down on a box and pulled his knees up to watch him.
"It's a lot warmer here than in the States."
Bucky snorted. "It's too damn warm here."
There was a radio propped by the door, quietly playing tinny pop songs. Clint rested his chin on his knees and watched Bucky work, letting the music send him back to sleep.
Now that he had the cluster, Clint had seven other places to be when things were dull. He broke up long drives by popping over to Moscow to watch Natasha's ballet practices, or to walk along the beach near Melbourne that Thor pretty much seemed to live on. When he got sick of eating the few things you could manage to cook in a trailer that only had a microwave as a kitchen, he could try the curry Bruce had picked up from a street vendor, or Tony's fancy-ass pasta.
Even watching Barney glare at him during practice stopped stinging so much now he had a new family waiting just at the edges of his mind to point out that his brother was a dick.
"I hate bullies," said Steve, watching Barney take off as soon as they'd finished shooting and leaving Clint to clear up all their equipment. He was in his NYPD uniform and holding a coffee mug, so he must be on a break.
Clint shrugged. "He's just sore cuz I'm better than him," he said, pulling arrows out of the target. "He knows that if The Amazing Hawkeyes break up, I'll be the one getting the solo act and he'll have to go back to shovelling elephant shit."
Steve wrinkled his face. "Bucky was always better than me at stuff, but I never used it as an excuse to be a punk."
"Yeah, you did," said Bucky, appearing behind the target. "You were a whiny little brat."
Steve and Bucky had been best friends since they were kids. Clint didn't know that much about this sensate thing, but he had a feeling that having two people in the cluster who already knew each other was pretty rare. Clint kinda liked that their cluster had that kind of longevity to it, but Tony had once told him that he thought it was cheating.
Tony had been pretty drunk at the time, though. Tony often seemed to be pretty drunk.
Steve shrugged. "I wasn't a dick about it."
Clint tucked his bow into its case. "Course not," he said. "We wouldn't let a dick into our cluster."
"How do you explain Tony, then?" asked Bucky.
"Fuck you," said Tony, appearing just long enough to aim a rude gesture at Bucky with the hand not holding a glass before he turned back to the fancy party he was at, surrounded by Rome’s business elite.
“I never had this problem,” said Wanda, glancing in as the political meeting she’d been at drew to a close. “I’ve always been better than Pietro at everything important.” She gave them a smug grin.
Clint wasn't that bothered about Barney's attitude. He was already well used to being hated by family and, if nothing else, the cluster was a great way to put things into perspective. He wasn't being shot at in a warzone or living in a Mumbai slum or going through the unbelievable hell that Natasha seemed to just accept as part of her ballet training.
As the months passed, it became very clear that everyone had their own shit going on. Shit that Clint was occasionally able to help with, but most of the time he was just in the background, watching as Tony used his tech magic to pull all the data off Steve's computer after a bent cop tried to kill his case by crashing it, or Bucky threatened the mugger who tried to jump Wanda on her way back from a political protest, or Bruce explained exactly what all the jargon on Thor's father's medical chart meant to him.
“Then he will not die,” said Thor, which had been about all Clint had understood from Bruce as well.
Bruce glanced back down at the chart. “He shouldn’t, not unless something changes. But, Thor,” he put his hand on Thor’s shoulder, “there’s no sign that he’s likely to wake up anytime soon, either. I’m sorry.”
Thor nodded, his eyes fixed on the still shape of his father in the hospital bed. “As long as he does not get worse, getting better will always be a possibility.”
That kind of optimism must come from having a stable and happy childhood, reflected Clint. In his experience, just because things weren’t getting any worse didn’t mean anything would ever change. Sometimes you just had to re-adjust to a new normal where even the best case scenario was pretty shitty.
He blinked, and he was on a balcony with a flushed-looking Tony, watching the sun rise over the Mediterranean with two giggling women tucked under his arms and another passed out on a table behind him.
"Hey, hey, it's my favourite archer!" said Tony, disentangling himself from the women. He raised the glass in his hand to Clint. "Here's to trans-Atlantic drinking partners!"
"Shouldn't you be asleep?" asked Clint, trying to do the mental arithmetic on what time it must be in Italy right now. He got as far as ‘too damn early’ and gave up. He wandered over to the edge of the balcony to look out over the view of red tile roofs descending to a beach, with the blue of the sea spread out to the horizon. It was certainly better than a field next to an industrial estate in the ass-end of nowhere.
Tony snorted. "Sleeping is for siestas."
One of them women turned towards him, stumbling over her heels. "Tony, Tony, you were going to show us your AI."
"Oh yeah," said Tony, turning back to them and spreading his arms. "This is going to blow your minds, so I think the best place to be would be the bedroom, so that you can blow me in return afterwards."
The other woman giggled. "Oh, naughty!"
Clint took one last look at the sea and left Tony to it. Out of everyone in the cluster, Tony’s life was the most alien to him.
Bruce was doing his morning tai chi in the tiny yard that was sandwiched between his brick hut and five others. He had a very set daily routine, which meant Clint always knew exactly what he was going to find when he came over here. He found that oddly relaxing.
Barney and Trick and a couple of others got up and headed towards Trick’s trailer. Barney glanced over at Clint and raised an eyebrow with a question that Clint pretended not to see.
“You can’t control your brother’s choices,” Bruce reminded him.
“I know,” said Clint, tiredly.
And Clint really cared about Bucky, possibly more than he cared about others, or maybe in a different way which, either way, was probably going to cause problems at some point. Until that point, though, he was just gonna slump on his bunk and watch Dog Cops with the guy, and pretend it was all gonna be fine.
"You know, my tour's up in a few months," said Bucky as they watched the end credits roll. "I'll be back in New York after that."
"Yeah?" asked Clint.
Bucky nodded. "I was thinking, Steve and I could take a road trip, come and watch your act in person."
Clint grinned. "Yeah, that would be good. I do like a chance to show off."
Bucky grinned back at him and nudged his shoulder. "I had noticed that tendency, yeah."
There was a heartbeat where they were both looking at each other, faces slightly too close for Clint not to be captivated by the glint in Bucky's eye. He felt himself stop breathing, wondering if Bucky was feeling the same thing he was, then Bucky's head turned to stare at nothing and he frowned.
"Gotta go," he said, and vanished.
Clint sighed and tipped his head back against the wall.
"You'll compromise yourself," said Natasha, mid-plie. Clint turned to take in the room of grim-looking dancers, all moving in perfect time together.
"I'm already compromised," he said. "We all are. That's the nature of this thing."
Her lips pressed together, reflected in the wall of mirrors. "There are levels. Don't sink too far."
Clint shrugged a shoulder. "I'm not very good at keeping my head above water."
There was a sudden, blinding pain, radiating out through the cluster’s link and crushing into Clint’s arm. In a blink of an eye, Clint found himself standing on rocky ground. Bucky's truck had flipped and was on fire, bullets whistling down around them. The whole cluster was there as well, summoned by the terror and pain lancing through the link from Bucky. Even Thor, who had been fast asleep but was now wide awake and just as scared as the rest of them.
"Bucky!" shouted Steve, crouching beside him as if he could do a damn thing about the bent metal that was pinning him down. There was another explosion and Bucky cried out as the truck shifted, bearing down harder on his arm.
Tony blinked and glanced around. "That was a Stark Industries missile. They shouldn't have those. Why do insurgents have my tech?"
Clint ignored him, dropping beside Steve. "Hold on, Bucky, it'll be okay."
"We need to stop the bleeding," said Bruce. "Bucky, listen, I need you to-"
He was cut off by another explosion. "Oh, they definitely shouldn't have one of those," said Tony. "What the hell?"
Bruce gave up on trying to get Bucky to listen to him and took over control, tying a tourniquet around Bucky's arm one-handed as his face bleached white with pain and blood-loss.
"You've got to hold on," said Steve. "Bucky, you ain't allowed to check out yet. End of the line, yeah?"
"Yeah," gasped Bucky, as a squad of soldiers rushed past, pushing back the insurgents. A moment later a medic arrived, dropping beside Bucky.
"Jesus, Barnes, what have you done to yourself?"
"Thought it might be nice to get to go home early," said Bucky through gritted teeth. "I'm missing Brooklyn, you know?"
The medic snorted as he injected Bucky with something. "Well, this was definitely one way to get a ticket home.”
A moment later, Bucky had lapsed into unconsciousness. Most of the rest of the cluster headed back to what they'd been doing, Tony still muttering about the weaponry the insurgents had been using, but Clint went to join Steve. They sat together on his couch in silence, trying not to think about Bucky being cut free of the truck and evacuated to the nearest field hospital by helicopter, and all the things that could still go wrong before he reached medical treatment.
Clint was only half aware of it when Barney came back to their trailer a few hours later, stinking drunk and clumsily falling up the ladder to his bunk.
"Clint, hey Clint," he said, kicking at Clint's bunk. "I'm gonna make it big. Barton boys are always on top, yeah?"
"Sure," said Clint, tuning out his ramble. Bucky had swum close enough to consciousness for Clint to feel his mind again and he was focused on Bucky's face as he was prepped for emergency surgery. He was still too out of it to be properly aware of what was going on around him though, which was probably a good thing. No one needed to see their own arm looking like that.
They amputated Bucky's arm before he woke up for long enough to know what was happening. During the surgery, Clint couldn't stand having to act as if everything was normal in front of the rest of the circus so he went to Melbourne instead, sitting on the sand of Thor's favourite beach and watching him surf, trying to let the sun and sea-spray push away the smell of hospital antiseptic.
He hadn't seen the sea before he'd started having instant access to Melbourne's surf scene through Thor and various Italian beach villas through Tony. The circus had been all over the centre of the US, but never near enough a coast for Clint to have found an excuse to head out there. Staring at the waves was far more calming than he'd have expected, especially when Thor came and sat next to him, tanned skin glowing in the sunlight.
"He will be well," said Thor, once a few minutes had passed.
Clint shrugged a shoulder. "Sure. Just, you know. Down an arm."
Thor didn't have a response to that.
Clint was pulled back to the circus by Barney shaking his shoulder. "Wake the fuck up, Clint, we're on next."
"Right," said Clint, glancing out at the acrobats, who were about three tricks away from finishing. He grabbed his quiver and threw it on. "Yeah, I'm ready."
"You better be," said Barney. "I'm not picking up after you anymore. You've been out of it for days."
Because one of the guys in my head has had his arm blown off, thought Clint, but he kept his mouth sealed shut. So far, the only one in the cluster who had trusted someone outside of it to not think they were crazy was Wanda, who had told her brother Pietro within days of them working it all out. Clint couldn't even begin to imagine trusting Barney with something like this.
The acrobats finished to a crescendo of applause, then rushed off stage. Clint pinned his brightest performance smile on and followed Barney out, catching sight of Natasha giving him an understanding look as he went. She knew all about putting a false face on when stepping out in front of a crowd.
Clint pulled his mind back from trying to connect with Bucky and shook his head. “Nothing important,” he lied.
Barney frowned at him for a moment, then sighed. “Okay, fine, then you’ve got no reason to be slacking off on your responsibilities. Get it together.”
He headed off and Clint watched him go, trying to find the will to get up and do what he was meant to be doing when he was still so sick with worry about Bucky. He should have woken up by now, shouldn’t he? How long did they keep you under after cutting your arm off?
Shit, he should have guessed that something like this would happen. Having the cluster was probably the best thing that had ever happened to him, and Bucky was the best part of that. He thought back to that moment just before the attack, when they’d locked eyes and there had been a definite moment between them. Had Bucky been just as close to kissing Clint as the other way around? Had he spent the last few months trying to work out how weird a long-distance relationship with a guy he was psychically linked with would be?
Clint took a deep breath and stood up. He’d already gone through the same thought process at least a hundred times since the attack. Time to push it away and go do what he was meant to be doing.
"Brothers are worrying," said Thor, and Clint found himself on a dark shopping street in Melbourne, watching Thor's brother walk away in the company of three men who gave off a very bad vibe.
"He would not come and visit my father in hospital," said Thor. "He's taken the information that he was adopted very badly."
"I wish Barney had been adopted," said Clint, and then considered his parents. "Wait, no, I wish I had been adopted."
"You have a new family now," said Thor. "Seven new siblings." He sent Clint a too-knowing look. "Or perhaps you would prefer six siblings and a different role for our soldier?"
Clint rolled his eyes but didn't answer because, yeah, okay, that was true. Not that he was going to be pushing anything like that now, with Bucky how he was. He needed friends he could rely on, not a guy like Clint trying to hit on him from half a world away.
“I warned you about becoming compromised,” said Natasha, taking a sip from her glass of water as she surveyed the room of elegantly dressed people.
“Yeah, I chose to ignore that,” said Clint, “on the theory that I don’t know what you think I can be compromised on. I’m a second-rate act in a third-rate circus.” He glanced around, taking in the wealth on display. “This looks like one of Tony’s parties. Where are we?”
“The ballet is having a reception,” said Natasha, her eyes fixed on a middle-aged man with a red face that spoke of too much alcohol, “so that the rich and powerful can pretend that they have an interest in the arts that goes beyond taking their chance to flirt with the dancers.”
“Oh, right,” said Clint. “I’m guessing it’s pretty much hell for the dancers, then.”
Natasha’s mouth twisted in a half-smile. “Pretty much,” she agreed. The man she was watching threw his head back and let out a booming laugh, then reached for another glass from a waitress’s tray.
“Who’s that guy?” asked Clint.
“The American ambassador to Russia,” said Natasha, then set her shoulders, pinned on a smile, and headed over towards him. Clint left her to it.
"Sergeant Barnes," said the nurse. "Welcome back. You're in Germany."
Bucky blinked up at her, then looked at Clint again. Steve appeared a moment later and Bucky’s eyes flicked to him next, pain creasing his forehead.
"You're safe," said Steve. "We're watching over you."
Bucky gave a tiny nod, then his eyes flicked to the empty place where his arm used to be. He froze.
"Ah yeah," said Clint. "And there's that."
Bucky didn't move, or show any indication that he'd heard. He just stared at the bandaging all around his shoulder without moving a single facial muscle, then very deliberately shut his eyes again.
"Shit!" said Wanda, and Clint was suddenly in the middle of a chanting crowd, surrounded by police as tear gas rained down.
"Wanda!" shouted Pietro from near-by, but he was the other side of the police line. Clint could see him being wrestled into a van.
Wanda started coughing as smoke closed in around her, then the police marched forward and she was grabbed by two of them.
"This isn't right," said Steve, looking around. "No police force should act like this."
Bruce snorted. "Every police force ends up acting like this," he said, sounding tired.
Clint saw Bucky’s hospital gown flicker beside them for a moment as Bucky took in the scene, then it disappeared. Clint followed him back to the hospital in Germany but he was still pretending to be asleep.
Staring down at his tightly-closed eyes, Clint felt horribly useless, wishing there was some way he could help.
“We’re all here for you,” he said, then squeezed Bucky’s remaining hand. “We love you, Bucky.” He hesitated, then added, “I was so scared we’d lose you.”
Bucky gave no sign he’d even heard.
"I really don't like this," said Bruce, as they got shut out of her mind. “Did you see the guard they posted outside?”
Clint thought back to his black uniform. “He did look fairly ominous.”
“He looked like secret police,” said Natasha, heavily. “If we let them take her, she may not be seen again.”
“We can not allow that to happen,” said Thor. “We must free her!” He actually raised a fist to punch the air as he said that, because he was the kinda guy who put enthusiasm into everything he did. Clint liked that about him.
“We can’t exactly just rock up in Sokovia and spring her,” said Tony.
"Pietro," said Clint. "Go through Pietro. Wanda trusts him."
“Excellent plan,” said Tony, snapping his fingers. “I can get his number, route a call through a few satellites to throw off anyone trying to trace me." He was already typing at his computer to do just that.
"If we wait until she's awake again, we can help," said Steve.
"I can pick her handcuffs," offered Clint, then shrugged a shoulder when Steve frowned at him. "Would you buy that we used to have an escapologist act?"
"No," said Steve, then rubbed at his forehead. "I guess it doesn't matter how you know how to do that, as long as we can get her safe. That’s the most important thing."
Clint hadn't realised just how much of a tech genius Tony was, possibly because almost every time he'd visited with him he’d been drunk, but given a problem to work at, Tony really knocked it out of the park. Pietro was more than willing to accept their help once Tony got through to him, and they had a plan in place within an hour, just waiting for when Wanda woke up and they could reconnect with her.
There was no one else in the room with Wanda when the cluster felt her wake up.
"Don't worry," said Bruce as they gathered around her bed. "We're going to get you out."
She managed a nod.
"Okay, I've given Pietro the go," said Tony, fingers clacking over a keyboard. "He'll be there in fifteen minutes. Clint, is that enough time?"
Clint bent to look over Wanda's handcuffs and nodded. "More than enough."
He stepped into Wanda and picked the locks, ignoring the disapproval emanating from Steve.
Wanda got up as soon as he'd freed her and crept to the door. Outside, two men in those worrying black uniforms were standing with their backs to the door.
"Not a problem," said Natasha. "Ballet and martial arts are very similar, you know."
She threw open the door and sent a graceful kick at the first guard, throwing him against the corridor wall, then ducked around as the other guard grabbed for her, punching him first in the stomach and then in the face, snapping his head back. The first guard had righted himself and came at her again, but she side-stepped his charge and sent him flailing into the room where he collapsed to the floor, then turned back to knock the second guard out with a swift punch.
Thor gave her a round of applause. "That was awesome."
Natasha gave a tiny smile and a nod of acknowledgement.
“I’m not sure I’m all that clear as to how that was ‘close’ to ballet,” said Bruce, frowning at Natasha. She just raised an eyebrow at him without answering.
"Okay," said Tony. "End of the corridor and down the stairs, and Pietro will be waiting for you."
Wanda made it into Pietro's car but they were chased by an unmarked black SUV as they pulled away from the hospital. Tony hacked into the Sokovian traffic system as Steve stepped in to drive, using the tricks he'd been taught on a police driving course. They went through green light after green light, all of which flicked to red behind them, until the SUV was caught in a line of traffic and they were able to get away.
"You need to leave Sokovia," said Bruce. "It's too small, they'll hunt you down."
Wanda hesitated. “I can’t abandon my country.”
“Your country wants to lock you in a dark room and label you as a dissident,” Natasha pointed out.
“You’ll be more used to your country alive and working to help them from the outside than you will in a prison cell,” added Bruce.
Wanda sighed, then nodded. “We have friends who can help us get across the border, but what then?"
There was a pause, then Tony shook his head. "I'm closest, but that might create more problems than it solves. The media watch me like creepy hawks with telephoto lenses."
"Bucky’s close as well," Clint reminded them all. “I reckon he could do with a friend right now.”
Steve nodded his agreement. “Seeing a familiar face in person might be just what he needs.”
Wanda nodded. "I'll head to Germany."
Tony had hacked the hospital systems so that Wanda was registered as an employee. She went in dressed as a porter and headed straight for Bucky’s room. Bucky had recovered enough to be awake through most of the day, but he spent most of his time just staring out of the window without seeing anything.
Clint was hovering in Bucky's room, watching him pull on a dressing gown one-handed.
"This is bullshit," he muttered. "Don’t need a visitor."
"Don't be a punk," said Steve, and earned himself a glare.
Wanda opened the door and there was a long pause as she and Bucky just stared at each other.
"Hi," said Wanda. "I'm the girl who lives in your head."
Bucky found a smile. "Good to meet you."
There was a crash and Clint opened his eyes to find Barney had burst into their trailer. "Clint!" he said. "Shit, Clint, I need your help."
"Not a good time," said Clint.
Barney sneered. "Because you're busy sitting doing nothing? C'mon, Clint. I'm in trouble."
Now that Clint was paying more attention to Barney than he was to a hospital in Germany, he could see that he looked paler than normal and he was opening and closing his fists in an agitated manner.
"What've you done?"
Barney scowled. "It wasn't my fault. That Kyle, he's an asshole."
"Yeah," agreed Clint. "We knew that. What has he done, then?"
"We did a job," said Barney. "The score was bigger than we were expecting, and when we got out, Kyle started kicking up a fuss about his share. Suddenly decided he should get most of it, and wouldn't give over my part, so I-" He paused and his scowl deepened. "I stabbed him."
Clint felt his eyes go wide. "You did what? Are you a fucking idiot?"
Barney glared. "He was being a dick," he said, as if that was enough of an excuse. "Anyway, he ain't getting up again-"
"You killed him?!" exclaimed Clint.
"Yeah," said Barney. "Well, when a Barton takes you down, you stay down, right?"
Clint groaned and put his head in his hands.
"Look, no need for drama," said Barney. Clint strongly disagreed, but didn't say anything. "Trick booked it once he realised Kyle was down for good. Just took his share and lit right out of there."
That didn't surprise Clint in the slightest. He strongly suspected that neither of them would see Trick again, which was something of a relief.
"Seems like you've managed to fuck that up pretty well on your own, then," he said. "What do you need my help for?"
"Don't be dense, Clint," snapped Barney. "I need to get rid of the body."
Clint stared at him. "You cannot be serious," he said. "I tell you that I'm done getting involved in burglary, so you decide I want to level up to aiding and abetting a murder? No fucking way. You made the mess, you clear it up."
"Don't be a brat," snapped Barney. "I can't do it alone and if the body gets found, do you really think the police won't come straight here? Who's going to believe that you didn't know shit about it? Besides which, I'm your fucking brother. Show some family loyalty."
Clint couldn't hold in a strangled laugh at that. Loyalty wasn't really something he'd ever associated with family.
Still, he could remember Barney showing him how to flick bottle caps when they were kids, stepping in front of him once or twice when Dad was in one of his rages, and shaking him awake in the foster home and asking him if he wanted to run away to the circus with him.
Somewhere in another part of the world, Wanda had sat down in a chair next to Bucky’s bedside, fingers resting on his wrist as they spoke.
Clint let out a long sigh. "Yeah, okay," he said, standing up.
Barney slapped a hand to his shoulder. "That's my bro."
"Are you kidding me?" asked Clint. "You just left him here? What if someone had come in?"
Barney rolled his eyes. "It's the middle of the damn night, who the hell is going to come in here?"
"What the hell are you doing?" asked Steve, staring down at the corpse with horror. "Clint! You need to call the cops."
Clint ignored him. "What's the plan?" he asked Barney.
Barney shrugged. "I've got a tarp in the back of the truck. Dump it somewhere?"
"That's a really shitty plan," said Clint.
"You got a better one?" asked Barney.
Clint didn't. He stared at the splayed corpse of a guy he'd been setting up the ticket booth with only yesterday. "Didn't we drive past a lake on the way into town?"
"Yeah, that's a plan," said Barney.
“Don't do this, Clint. Just walk away," said Steve.
Clint pushed him away, clearing his mind of anyone but himself, and then turned to the truck to get the tarpaulin. "You better have rope in here as well."
"Yeah, yeah, and a spade, so we can try and cover up the site," said Barney.
Clint didn't think that was going to be much help, but he just nodded. At this point, he was sort of resigned to the fact that this was going to be half-assed and that they just had to rely on the body not being found until the circus had moved on.
They had the body wrapped in the tarpaulin and were trying to tie it up so it wouldn't fall out when it was under water or make a mess in the back of the truck, when two police cars pulled into the rest stop with their lights flashing.
"Shit," swore Barney, stepping back, and for a moment Clint thought he was going to take off into the woods. If that rat bastard ran off and left Clint in this shit, he'd end up with an arrow through the face.
"Freeze! Hands where we can see them!” shouted the police, piling out of the cars with their guns raised, and Barney swore again, then raised his hands.
Clint followed suit. "You fucking asshole," he said under his breath. "What the fuck have you got me into now?"
"Shut up," said Barney, as the police moved in to cuff them. Clint glared at him.
When he looked up, Steve was there.
"Any suggestions?" Clint asked.
Steve glanced around the room. "I wish I could say that telling the truth will be enough, but..."
"No way in hell they'll believe I wasn't in as deep as Barney," said Clint. "Yeah." And they'd probably link this whole thing to whatever burglary Barney, Trick and Kyle had pulled off, and Clint would be on the line for that as well.
He took a deep breath, screwing his eyes shut against the surge of rage and frustration. "Fucking family."
They kept him waiting there for a couple of hours, which might have been irritating if he hadn't spent that time visiting with Bucky. Wanda had left, sneaking back out the way she’d come, and Clint had managed to miss most of their chat, but it seemed to have perked Bucky up a bit. A very little bit. At least he actually looked at Clint when he wandered in.
"You okay?" Clint asked Bucky, and got a curt nod that clearly meant 'not even a little bit'.
"Right," said Clint. "Cuz, you know you're allowed not to be, right? This shit all got pretty heavy."
Bucky turned to look at him, and they were back in the police station. "Just like this shit?"
Clint sighed and rattled his hands against the cuffs. "Yeah, pretty much.”
"We're gonna miss the Dog Cops season finale," said Bucky.
Clint groaned. "Aw, man, I hadn't even thought." He knocked his head on the table again. "Fucking Barney, why the fuck did I think it would be a good idea to get involved in one of his fuck ups?"
Bucky shrugged. "I guess you're just too loyal."
"Or too stupid," muttered Clint.
There was a light touch on the top of his head and he realised Bucky was stroking his hair. He lifted his head to find Bucky looking at him with a great deal of affection.
"Definitely loyal," he said, trailing his hand down to rest against Clint's cheek, stroking his thumb over his skin.
Clint froze where he was, wondering if kissing someone across the sensate bond would feel as easy and natural as touching them, and then the door banged open.
Bucky let go and stepped back as two detectives came in.
"Clinton Francis Barton," said one of them, sitting down and flipping open a file. "Man, are you in trouble right now."
"Yeah," agreed Clint with a sigh.
Which wasn't to say that it wasn't a long, difficult night anyway. Clint spent part of it in Melbourne on the beach, splashing through the waves, and then another bit of it watching as Bruce did a few visits to various patients. By the time morning came, he hadn't managed much more than an hour of sleep.
Things didn't get any better that day. He and Barney were taken off to court and charged, then packed off to jail to wait around until they got a trial date. Clint was given a bunk in an over-crowded cell, a new set of clothes that were even shittier than the ones he'd been in before, and a little speech from a guard about keeping his mouth shut when he tried to find out if they'd be likely to show Dog Cops in the TV room.
Time slowed to a crawl over the next few weeks. It turned out that being in jail was even more unbelievably boring than Clint would have imagined.
"Thank god I've got you guys," he said to Natasha as they strolled through an icy Moscow evening. "Gives me the chance to get out and about."
"Yeah," agreed Bucky. Whatever Wanda had said to him had pulled him out enough to start wandering into the others’ lives rather than just staring at the hospital walls all day. "Plus, you know, it means we can get Steve to TIVO Dog Cops for us."
Steve let out a long sigh in his tiny sitting room as he ran an iron over one of his uniform shirts. "I'm not having anything that portrays police procedure so inaccurately on my TV."
"Oh, come on," said Clint, settling on his sofa. "It's totally accurate!"
Steve sent him a glare. "It's about dogs, Clint. Dogs that solve crimes. How is that at all accurate?"
Clint just shrugged and grinned at him. "C'mon, take pity on the guy being wrongly imprisoned and the guy who lost his arm."
"Wrongfully imprisoned," repeated Steve, setting the iron down. "After being found rolling a corpse up in a tarp."
Clint shrugged. "I didn't kill him. Or burgle anywhere. Well, not in the last couple of years, anyway."
Steve let out a very long sigh that made it clear he was questioning exactly how he'd ended up with someone like Clint in his life.
"Don't be a killjoy, Stevie," said Bucky. "If you don't help us out, we'll get Tony to download it. Illegally. Internet piracy, Steve, you'd be the cause of a crime."
Steve glared at him. "That's not how it works. And don't you guys have bigger things to worry about than some TV show?"
"Nothing we can do anything about right now," said Clint, and then a buzzer went off in the prison and he had to pull himself away to get ready for lights out.
Bucky slowly healed up, enough that the doctors were talking about sending him back to the US. Tony had started working on prosthetics, telling his board that branching out into medical technology would look good to the media and that he had several ideas for revolutionising the field that would be very profitable rather than that he had a psychic connection with a guy who needed one.
That was abruptly put on hold when Tony found out that the reason the Afghan insurgents had had Stark Industries weapons was because Obadiah Stane, his CEO, was selling them on the black market.
There was an angry showdown in the boardroom that ended up with a window being smashed, and then a power struggle over who would end up being arrested for breaking international law. It looked pretty close for a moment, but Steve was able to send through some files Tony forwarded him to one of his contacts in Interpol, who had agents waiting for Stane at his house before he could put the final pieces of his frame job on Tony into place.
Tony celebrated by getting excruciatingly drunk and staying like that for a week. Clint wasn't sure he could blame him.
"Fucking trusting people is the worst," said Tony, sprawled out on a lounger next to his rooftop pool and swigging straight from a bottle. It wasn't even lunch time in Italy, but he didn't seem to care.
"Yeah," agreed Clint, listening to the chorus of snoring and quiet movement that was the closest the prison ever got to silence at night.
Some of them, of course, were just regular guys.
"So, if you're a circus performer, why can't you do, like, some kind of crazy trapeze thing and escape over a wall?" asked Benny as they hung out in the yard one day.
Clint rolled his eyes. "I wish."
"Well, can you at least juggle some shit?" asked Lester.
"Probably," said Clint. "Depends what shit you've got."
There was a few minutes of conferring, and Clint ended up with a couple of lighters, a copy of The Grapes Of Wrath and a pack of cards in a pile in front of him.
"O-kay," he said, standing up. "Let's see what I can do with this lot."
"Bet I can do more," said an unwelcome voice, and Clint turned to see Barney. His hands formed into fists.
"You got some fucking nerve coming over here," said Clint. "Piss off."
Barney had been put in another wing when they'd first got here, but apparently he'd been shifted around. Great, just what Clint needed.
"Hey, c'mon, bro, don't be like that," said Barney. "Don't be blaming me for your own life choices."
Clint gaped at him. "Seriously? Seriously?!" He took a step forward and suddenly Bruce was there, one hand on his shoulder.
"Keep it calm, Clint," he said quietly, and Clint took a deep breath and forced himself to turn away.
The other guys were watching with interest, clearly hoping for a fight. Clint gave them a tight smile. "Okay, let's see if I can still manage this," he said, and picked up the items.
They were all different sizes and shapes, but he hadn't spent the last decade in a circus for nothing. He threw them all up and settled into an easy rhythm for a minute or two, before starting to throw in some tricks: under the leg, behind the back, that kinda thing.
Benny gave an impressed clap. "Okay, that's almost as good as trapezing over the wall."
Lester snorted. "Hardly. One gets you free, the other's just a bit of fucking about."
"One gets you landing in a tree and breaking your spine," Clint pointed out.
"Not if you've got people on the outside to set you up with a net," said Bruce, thoughtfully. Too thoughtfully. Clint sent him a glare as he caught all the items.
"I'm not trapezing to freedom."
"Spoilsport," said Lester.
"Guess we'll have to find another why to get you out of there, then," said Bruce. Clint gave him a surprised stare and was met with a quiet smile before Bruce vanished.
Huh. He hadn't really stopped to think that the cluster might help him out of this. That was pretty cool.
"I think we need a group pow-wow," he said, and a moment later they were in the kitchen of Steve's flat in New York as he poured himself a cup of coffee.
Steve nodded as they all moved to Melbourne, where Thor was lying on his bed wearing only his boxers, staring out at the stars through his window.
"We do need to work out how to help Wanda a bit better than just moving her between an endless series of squats," agreed Natasha as they moved to Mumbai, where Bruce was sat on the edge of a wall, watching a group of children playing.
“I don’t need help,” said Wanda stubbornly.
“Yeah?” said Bucky. “So, you’re gonna pretend that you’re not living in a condemned building right now?”
Wanda scowled and looked away. “Not a lot of pay in being a political refugee.”
Clint sympathised. It had been a hard few months for most of them. "So, what?" he asked. "We find a permanent safe house for her and Pietro? I'd say it sounds expensive, but..." He gestured at Tony.
Tony sighed. "Why do I get the feeling I'm gonna be bankrolling a lot of stuff for you guys?"
"I want a Porsche," said Clint, giving him a grin.
"Some good that'll do you from inside a prison," said Tony. Clint scowled at him.
Bucky patted his shoulder. "Tell you what, get me a Porsche and I'll let Clint drive it. Sometimes."
"You're too good to me," said Clint, nudging him back.
"No one is getting a Porsche," said Tony, firmly. "Apart from anything else, I've already got two, so if we're just sharing cars..."
"If we're sharing cars, you've got enough for everyone," said Natasha. "I'd like the Bugatti."
"Do you have any bikes?" asked Steve.
Tony made an exasperated noise and threw his hands up. "Oh, sure, take advantage of the billionaire. And yes, I do have bikes, I have some epic bikes, but I've seen you drive, Officer Rogers, and you're not getting near them.” He shook his head. “This is besides the point. Wanda, do you and Pietro want to come to Italy? I can put you up, see about getting you guys jobs in the company, definitely not give you a Porsche...”
Wanda shook her head. “I will not abandon my country. The government there will only grow stronger if those of us willing to speak out just make a life somewhere else.”
Tony made a face, but nodded slowly, looking thoughtful. “You know, it takes a lot for a government to be shaken by a grassroots movement, but they get taken down by economic forces all the time.” He glanced at Thor. “You’ve got control of your dad’s company at the moment, right?”
Thor nodded. “He did not see fit to trust Loki with a seat on the board.”
Tony turned to a screen on the wall and started pulling up graphs and charts about Sokovia’s economy, talking a mile a minute about a load of stuff Clint didn’t understand. From the look on Bucky’s face, he was just as lost, so Clint pulled a face at him and won a twitch of a smile.
“How's being banged up?” Bucky asked Clint in a quiet voice as Bruce and Thor started to pitch in ideas to Tony.
Clint made a face. “It sucks. I miss doughnuts.”
“Yeah, me too,” said Bucky. “Hospital food doesn’t seem to come with doughnuts.”
Clint let out a sigh and shook his head. “Our lives are so hard, man. Hard, and doughnut-less.”
It was possible that Clint and Bucky should have paid more attention to the rest of the meeting, because when Clint tuned back into the conversation, they were already finalising the last of what seemed to be a plan.
"We can be in Rome by Tuesday," said Wanda.
Tony shook his head. "No, don't come here. Go to the marina in Fiumicino. I'll have everything ready to go."
"They’re going on a boat?" asked Bucky.
"We decided that Tony’s yacht would be a good hide-out until we can sort things out," said Natasha. "Haven't you been paying attention?"
"Not really, no," said Bucky.
"He's been too busy flirting," said Steve, giving him a grin.
Clint cleared his throat and crossed his arms.
"Oh, and you haven't?" asked Bucky, darting his eyes meaningfully at Tony.
Steve sent him a scowl and Bruce sighed. "Okay, can we focus?"
"No need," said Natasha, standing up. "The plan is set." She disappeared back to Moscow.
Clint caught Bucky's eye. "Man, I hope this is a good plan. I missed the whole thing."
"I guess you'll find out in a few weeks," said Tony, exchanging an amused look with Steve.
"Perhaps you should allow him the benefit of the doubt," said Thor. He was sat in hospital corridor, staring at the door that Clint knew led to his father's room. "Time and patience can work great miracles."
Clint settled into the chair beside him. "I don't need a miracle, I just need him to leave me the fuck alone before he ends up getting me into even worse trouble."
Thor was silent for a minute or two. A nurse walked past and gave him a nod of greeting that he was too preoccupied to see.
"Loki has finally come to see our father," he said eventually. "He is in there now."
Clint looked back at the door. "Oh, right," he said. "That's good?"
Thor nodded. "He has asked for privacy. I hope he is taking the time to remember that a father is more than blood."
Clint nodded. "Yeah, my Dad had the blood part down, but pretty much nothing else."
"Mine was the same," said Bruce, leaning against a wall and crossing his arms.
Clint squinted at him. "Why aren't you asleep?" he asked, because if this sensate thing had done anything for him, it had given him a pretty good idea of what time it was in other countries. Well, certain other countries.
Bruce just shrugged, and Clint let it go.
The hospital door opened and Thor's brother came out.
Thor stood up. "Loki," he said. "How is he?"
Loki rolled his eyes. "Unconscious," he said. "I must admit, being in his presence is a lot less trying when he's in that state."
Thor scowled at him. "How can you say such things about our father?"
"I suspect it's because he's not my father," said Loki. He flashed a grin at Thor. "See you around, brother."
As he sauntered off down the corridor, Thor stared helplessly after him, then went into his father's hospital room. He rested his hand on his father's shoulder for a moment. "I do not understand it. Our father was always so good to both of us when we were children. Why would Loki have forgotten that?"
"People find it easier than they should to forget these things," said Bruce, wandering over to glance at the chart.
"Loki seems to have a very short memory," agreed Thor. "Still, he has come today, so he must remember some of our childhood."
Bruce nodded distractedly, glancing over at the machines that were quietly beeping away by the head of the bed. "This isn't right," he muttered, then squinted at the IV bag. "Oh, god," he said. "Thor, you need to get someone in here. Right now."
Thor hit the nurse call button immediately. “What is it?”
Bruce shook his head as nurses rushed in and one of the machines started to make a panicked beeping noise.
Thor took two steps backwards, out of the way of the staff rushing to help his father.
"Loki," he said. "Loki did this?"
Bruce gave him a helpless look. "I'm sorry, but someone has tampered with his medication and-"
"And Loki was the only one in there," said Thor. His hands clenched into fists. "This is the final straw."
He turned and left the room, striding down the corridor in the direction his brother had taken.
Clint and Bruce exchanged looks, then Clint let himself return to America. He wasn't really in a position to advise someone on their fraternal relationships.
His breathing was coming out too fast, so he focused on slowing it down and pushing everything else away, all the memories of pain and anger that had been dredged up by the nightmare.
Around him, the constant murmur of the prison was at its quietest, but he could still hear the guy on the bunk above him snoring, and someone else shifting around under the sheets. There was enough light from emergency lighting and seeping in from the hallway for him to make out the shapes of the bunks around him, the drape of hanging clothes and the stack of books on top of one of the lockers.
Once his heart had slowed back down, he shut his eyes and tried to get back to sleep, but it quickly became clear it wasn't going to happen.
"You dreamt of your father," said Bucky.
Clint nodded. Bucky was sat up in his hospital bed, one hand pressed against the ball of his shoulder as if that would cut off the pain radiating up from his stump.
Clint glanced around for his painkillers and spotted several pill bottles on the night stand. Bucky followed his gaze.
"I can't keep taking them," he said. "They make my head fuzzy. I need to cut down. I can suck it up for a bit, it's fine."
"It's not fine," said Clint. "You're in pain."
Bucky shrugged one shoulder. "Life is pain, Highness."
It took Clint an embarrassingly long moment to place the quote, then he snorted. "Okay, fine, as you wish."
Bucky grinned at him, then gestured at the edge of his bed. "You're not getting back to sleep," he said, without needing to make it a question. "Stay and distract me."
Clint sat down. "Well, okay, but only because it's this or listening to the guy in the next bunk masturbating. Again."
"Prison sounds so much like basic training," said Bucky. "Except, you know, they gave us the weapons rather than going around confiscating them."
"And your uniform was better," said Clint. "I miss my purple hoodie."
"I miss your purple hoodie," said Bucky. "Made you very easy to spot when you did that randomly appearing in a crowd thing that we all started out doing."
"Anything not khaki would have done that," said Clint. "But yeah, that's an awesome hoodie." He made a face. "I expect one of the clowns will have pinched it. They're all thieving bastards."
"I'll get you another one," said Bucky. "You know, once we're on the same continent, and you're not in jail, and I'm not in hospital, and..."
"Sounds great," said Clint. "We can get pizza or something. Oh man, I miss pizza, proper pizza. The shit they have in here isn't worthy of the name."
"Sounds great," said Bucky, then gave Clint a wink. "It's a date."
Clint felt himself go warm, and hoped like fuck that it wasn't obvious he'd just melted into a gooey mess like a teenage girl being confronted by Justin Bieber.
"Yeah, sure," he said, as casually as he could. "Pizza and purple things. Two of my two favourite things."
“And me,” added Bucky. “Although, can I still be one of your favourite things if I don't begin with P?”
“What do you mean?” asked Clint. “'Prick' totally begins with P.”
Bucky sniggered and Clint felt like he'd won something.
“Mostly, we own other companies,” Thor told him. “You will have heard of some of them. Heimdall Opticians, Warriors Three Brewery, the Frigga line of medications.”
Clint blinked. He had heard of all those, they were international brands. “Oh,” he said, feeling displaced. He’d thought Thor was just a surfer bum, but apparently two of the guys in the cluster were unbelievably rich. He clutched at the cheap prison sheets he was lying on and took a deep breath. Just because he was a circus brat awaiting trial for murder and burglary didn’t mean he couldn’t be part of a group that contained billionaires, a doctor with multiple PhDs, one of the stars of the Moscow ballet and the leader of an underground political movement.
At least Steve and Bucky just seemed like a normal guys, although Clint was kinda bracing himself to find out they were related to royalty or something.
Thor and Tony worked some financial wizardry that put the key industries of Sokovia in their pockets, then Tony announced to his board that the factory for the prosthetics he was designing would be built in Sokovia.
“If you control the economy, you can control the country,” he said cheerfully, after shouting down a whole bunch of objections, steamrollering over everyone just like he had when he’d shut down the weapons division. Clint had a feeling that being on the Stark Industries board was a very different experience under Tony than it had been under Obadiah Stane.
"We will gut this government like a butchered swine!" announced Thor.
"You know, between his colourful phrasing and your bow, we're halfway to a Ren Faire," Tony said to Clint.
Clint snorted. "Does that make you the jester?"
He didn’t have much time to pay attention to the intricacies of what Tony and Thor were doing though, because his trial had started.
It didn't go well. Clint did his best to come across as the innocent bystander who was just trying to help out his brother, but Bartons didn't really have the faces for innocent and it was pretty clear that most of the jury had heard 'circus workers' and already made up their minds. He sat in the dock day after day, watching his future slip away, and tried to suppress the sick feeling in his stomach.
"If I get charged with this murder," he said to Barney as they were driven back to jail after a day of listening to guys in suits talking about them, "I'm gonna punch you so hard. Fucking leaving a body out in the open by the side of the road, and then coming back to it with your gullible little brother. What the fuck were you thinking?"
Barney scowled at him. "If Trick had just stuck around to help me-"
"Trick was never gonna do that," interrupted Clint. "Come on, man! He gives zero shits about anyone other than himself."
Barney's scowl deepened but he didn't dispute that.
“You’ll always have us,” said Bucky as Clint sat in the court holding cell, poking at his lunch.
Clint nodded, not bothering to point out that getting to watch seven other people live their lives didn’t make up for having his own put on hold.
“Yeah,” said Bucky with a sigh. “It still sucks.” He shifted his shoulders then winced as it pulled on his stump.
“Careful,” said Steve, popping in for a moment to distract himself from paperwork. Bucky pulled a face at him.
“Are you gonna nanny me this much when they ship me home?” he asked.
“Probably,” said Steve. “Are you going to stay with me or your folks?”
“Anyone but my folks,” said Bucky, with a tone Clint could empathise with.
“I’d offer my place,” said Clint, “but…” he gestured at the bars surrounding him.
Bucky grinned. “Frankly, I’m holding out for Tony to offer. Have you seen his swimming pool?”
“Which one?” asked Clint. “In which house?”
There was a clank as the door to the cell block swung open and Clint looked up to see the guards had come back for him. He glanced back down at the food in front of him and abandoned the fork rather than bother eating any of it.
His cluster were all with him as the judge read out the sentence and Natasha rested a hand on his shoulder to brace him, but he still felt it like a blow.
“This ain’t right,” hissed Bucky, and abruptly disappeared. Clint took a deep breath, then glanced over at Barney, who just gave him a half-shrug. Fury surged through Clint and he clenched his fists to contain it.
He got taken to a different prison, happily not the same one as Barney although that was probably the only good thing about it.
“At least there’s a library,” said Bruce.
“Yeah, great,” said Clint. “Guess I’ll have to cultivate an interest in reading to replace my archery. And Dog Cops.” And getting to look at the sky without bars in the way.
“Do they do Dog Cops tie-in novels?” asked Bruce, thoughtfully.
Clint just sighed.
“Welcome home, soldier,” he said. “How’s being back on US soil?”
“Fine,” said Bucky. “Woulda been better if I’d had a trip to the circus to look forward to.”
Clint made a face. “Yeah, I’m afraid my circus days are over.” Man, when he did eventually get out of here, what the hell was he going to do? What did washed up ex-carnie convicts do for a job?
Illegal shit, probably. Great.
“We could come visit you in here?” suggested Bucky.
Clint shook his head. “It’s a long drive to sit on the other end of a table and stare at each other.”
“Yeah,” agreed Bucky, with a sigh. “Not exactly what I’d want to do to you in person.”
Clint raised an eyebrow. “Yeah? You got plans?”
Bucky smirked. “Oh yeah,” he said, in a low voice, then gave Clint a telling look over. “I’ve been stuck in a hospital. I’ve had time to come up with plenty of plans.”
Jesus, a guy that hot shouldn’t be allowed to say things in that tone of voice. Especially not when Clint didn’t have a chance to do anything about it.
Aw man, their vague plan for some kind of date was never gonna happen now. Fucking Barney had taken that from Clint as well as everything else.
“You wasted your time,” he said, bitterly. “It’s not like I’m gonna be getting out for here any time soon.” He hesitated, then added, “You should probably make different plans.”
After all, it wasn’t like they had a real thing, just a bunch of flirting. If Clint was gonna be in prison for the next few years, he’d rather watch Bucky find someone else than have him put his life on hold.
Bucky snorted. “My plans are to work out how to be a civilian, how to cope with only one arm, and how to stop Steve mother-henning me to death. Everything else can wait.” He hesitated and then reached out to touch Clint’s hand. “I can wait. It’s not like we can’t still hang out.”
Clint couldn’t bring himself to meet his eyes so he stared at their hands together instead. How did that work, anyway? Was that just a psychic projection of Bucky’s hand, or was it his real hand but Clint was feeling it across the miles somehow?
Bucky let out a long sigh. “Clint, I’m serious. I’m in a pretty crappy place right now, but this isn’t part of that. You’re maybe the best thing I’ve got, on a pretty short list. If you’re not up for it though, I get it. We can just leave it.”
He started to pull his hand back, his shoulders slumping with disappointment. Clint couldn’t stand to let him look like that.
“No,” he said, reaching out and taking Bucky’s hand. “No, it’s- I do want this. Just, it seems like a crappy deal for you.”
Bucky looked at him and snorted a laugh. “You’re kidding, right? You’re saying that to the unemployed one-armed guy with PTSD?”
“I guess we’ve got unemployed in common,” said Clint. Bucky’s fingers closed around his and held on tightly and Clint found himself moving closer, leaning their shoulders against each other. They just sat like that, holding hands with their shoulders pressed together, until the buzzer went for lights out.
Clint went to hang out with them every so often but he wasn’t able to help much. What did he know about organising a revolution? He hadn’t even finished high school. Hell, he’d barely even started high school before Barney had had his bright idea to run off to the circus.
Maybe he should be using some of his free time now that he was locked up to get his GED. The thought just made him feel tired and old.
About a month after Bucky got home, Tony flew over to New York with a handful of prosthetic prototypes. He gave the media the slip at the airport in a limo, then hopped out to meet Steve as he came off-shift at the station.
Clint sat on the hood of Steve's car and watched as they just stared at each other in the car park.
"Okay, hi," said Tony. "I'm Tony, and wow, you really are very built. I thought that might just be a mental projection thing but, no, there really are just muscles on your muscles."
Steve rolled his eyes as he moved to open his car. "And apparently you just really don't have a brain-to-mouth filter at all."
"Yeah, but I have a totally sexy Italian accent, which makes up for it," said Tony.
Clint felt awkwardly like a third wheel, so he left them to it.
Bucky was in Steve’s apartment, frowning at the coffee machine. He glanced up as Clint appeared.
“You realise you’re gonna have met 3 of the cluster in person?” said Clint. “That’s pretty special.”
“Not met the one I really want to, though,” said Bucky, then took a deep breath and flicked the coffee machine on. “Didn’t realise I’d be this nervous, either. What if this prosthetic doesn’t work out?”
Clint shrugged. “Then Tony will change it so it does. Come on, it’s Tony Stark. He’s a tech genius. Everyone knows that.”
“Yeah, I guess,” said Bucky, but he didn’t sound sure. Clint gave his shoulder a squeeze, hoping that was reassuring.
“It’s gonna be fine,” he said. “I mean, you might get kinda sick of Steve flirting with him, but apart from that…”
Clint blinked back to the prison.
“What the fuck are you doing, freak?” asked a large, tattooed man, giving him a belligerent stare.
Clint realised he had his hand on his own shoulder and dropped it back into his lap. “Nothing,” he said. “What’s it to you, anyway?”
The guy’s eyes narrowed. “I seen you, just sitting there staring at the walls. You’re fucked in the head. You should be in Psych.”
Clint glared at him. “I’m fine,” he said. “Fuck off.”
That didn’t go down well at all. The guy took a step towards him. “I don’t like you, freak,” he said. “Watch your back.”
He turned and stalked off and Clint let out a long, slow breath. Fuck, so much for keeping his head down and not drawing attention to himself.
“Small men trying to make themselves large,” said Natasha, as Clint picked his lunch up from the floor after Jackson had knocked his tray out of his hands.
“Yeah, I got that,” he muttered. “Doesn’t stop it being annoying as fuck, though.”
He spent a few days avoiding visiting the cluster but it made prison life so very boring, particularly when Steve and Tony and Bucky were hanging out together and the others were popping in to join them.
Fuck it, what did Clint care if a bunch of criminals thought he was nuts? He settled on his bunk, propped a book in his lap to give himself a bit of cover, and let his consciousness move to New York.
Tony was strapping Bucky into something that looked more like a torture device than Clint was entirely okay with while giving a long monologue about the technical specifications and design details.
Bucky saw Clint arrive and gave him a look of desperation. “Clint, man, I’ve changed my mind. I’m totally okay with only one arm.”
“No, you’re not,” said Steve.
“C’mon, it’s not that bad,” said Tony, stepping back and looking Bucky over with an assessing eye. “Or is it? It’s not too heavy, is it?”
Bucky carefully rolled his shoulder, then shook his head. “Nah, it’s just weird.”
It was very shiny, made entirely out of metal, and there were various electrodes stuck over Bucky’s shoulder and tucked into his hair.
“You don’t look any weirder than usual,” said Steve, which made Bucky glare at him.
“This is all just for the prototype,” said Tony. “We’ll implant neurotransmitters for the real thing.”
“What,” said Bucky, in a flat voice.
Tony waved a hand. “Ah, don’t look like that, nothing scary about it, we’re just going to wire the arm up to your brain so that you can use it properly. Now, can you try moving it? Just something small to start - lift it up.”
Bucky frowned down at the arm. “I don’t-” he started to say, then the whole arm twitched and he blinked. “Oh,” he said. “Oh, man.” He slowly raised it up to shoulder height, staring at it with wide eyes. “That feels so fucking weird.” He winced. “And it kinda aches.”
“Yeah, it will,” said Tony, diving in to start taking readings. “Your shoulder muscles will be atrophying from lack of use. I’ll get someone to send you some exercises to do to help.”
Clint stepped forward and touched his fingers to the metal ones. “Bucky, that’s so cool.”
Bucky grinned at him. “Right?” he asked. A brief look of concentration passed over his face and the fingers took hold of Clint’s hand. Clint beamed at him.
Something hit him in the face.
“Fucking simpleton, grinning away to himself,” said Jackson, and launched another ball of paper at him.
Clint batted it away and glared at him. “I’m fucking reading, shitbrain. Or do you not know what that is?”
“Fucking little bastard,” growled Jackson. “No fucking way you’re reading when you’re staring at the fucking ceiling.”
Shit, Clint really had to get better at this. “What the fuck business is it of yours anyway?”
Jackson glared at him. “I ain’t putting up with living with a crazy,” he said, then stomped away.
Clint took a deep breath, glanced down at the book he hadn’t seen a word of and then leaned back to bang his head against the wall.
“This isn’t going to end well,” observed Natasha. She was wrapped up in a long coat, striding through a back street lined with shabby-looking apartment blocks.
“Maybe he’ll get bored of harassing me if I just keep quiet,” said Clint, without much hope.
She snorted her response, then met the eyes of a man standing in a doorway with a cigarette. “Maybe world peace will spontaneously break out,” she said, then shut Clint off as she headed over to talk to the man.
“Can’t help with that one, sorry,” said Clint. “Brothers seem to cause nothing but problems.”
Thor let out a long, heartfelt sigh. “He will not succeed,” he said, “but it hurts me to fight against him.”
Clint didn’t have much to say to that. He hadn’t spoken to Barney since the sentencing, and he was hoping he wouldn’t ever have to again. He was so done with family.
“Loki seeks to gain the trust of the other members of the board,” said Thor. “He claims that my acquisitions in Sokovia are foolhardy.”
“Yeah, but no one’s going to listen to the guy who tried to kill his own father,” said Clint. “Right?”
Thor managed to look shifty, which was quite a skill for a seven foot blond giant. Clint narrowed his eyes. “Right?”
“I did not inform the board of Loki’s actions,” said Thor, and Clint groaned. “There was no evidence other than my word against his,” protested Thor, “and I did not want to start a war of words.”
“And you’re still hoping he’s gonna come around and not be a shit any more,” realised Clint.
Thor gave a shamed shrug.
Clint sighed. “Thor, man, you’ve got to let it go. Your brother’s an ass, you can’t trust him.”
“It would break my mother’s heart to find out the truth,” said Thor, very quietly.
Clint rubbed a hand over the back of his head with frustration. “Yeah, okay,” he said. “But still. You can’t let him boot you out of the company.”
“I will not,” said Thor. “That is my birthright, and he shall not have it from me.”
“Are you fucking talking to yourself, Crazy?” said a voice, and Clint glanced around with resignation to see one of Jackson’s thugs staring at him.
“Fuck off,” said Clint, and sped up his steps, heading back towards the block.
Not fast enough. One of them grabbed his shoulder and threw him back against the wall, and the rest closed in around him like a pack of wolves.
Okay, this looked bad.
“You know, persecuting guys you believe are suffering from mental health issues is pretty hardcore asshole behaviour,” he said, glancing around for a guard without much hope.
“Shut up,” said Jackson, planting a hand on Clint’s chest and pushing. “I’m so fucking sick of you, Crazy. I wanna tear your limbs off.”
Definitely not good.
“Don’t worry,” said Natasha. “I won’t let him hurt you.”
“None of us will,” said Steve, glowering at Jackson.
Well, that was reassuring, but on the other hand, Clint didn’t really want to be the guy who took out four guys in the prison yard either. He had a feeling it would come with a long stint in solitary and the kind of reputation that put you in the line of fire from others.
“How about you just back off and leave me alone instead?” he said to Jackson. “I mean, it’s not like you have to talk to me if you don’t want to.”
Jackson growled and leaned in close. “I’ve gotta look at you. That’s enough.” He pulled back and formed a fist, and Clint gave up on a peaceful solution and let Natasha take control. She ducked under Jackson’s punch, knocked aside the hand on Clint’s chest and swept Jackson’s legs out from under him with a sharp kick. She threw a punch at the smallest of Jackson’s henchmen, knocking him back and opening a gap up in the circle surrounding Clint.
The other thugs were reaching for him but Clint had this bit. He rolled under their arms and threw himself into a handspring that put him out of their reach, then pegged it for the main building, not stopping until he was under the eye of one of the guards.
“Nice acrobatics,” said Bucky as Clint slowed his pace and went back inside. “You’re pretty flexible.”
Clint gave him a grin and an eyebrow wiggle.
“They won’t let this go,” said Steve. “Bullies don’t back down that easily.”
“I know,” said Clint, finding a seat in the corner of the TV room and slipping into it. “Not much I can do about it.”
“I’m guessing telling the guards won’t get you anywhere,” said Tony. Clint gave him a look that he hoped summed up his reaction to that.
“We’ll come up with something,” said Steve, with confidence Clint didn’t feel. The three of them faded back to New York to focus on Bucky’s new arm, but Clint didn’t go with them. He sat in the TV room for an hour, staring at the screen without seeing it and wondering just how the hell he was going to survive several more years in here without getting beaten to death. He couldn’t keep relying on Natasha to get him out of trouble.
Bruce was lying awake in his bed, listening to the noises of night-time in Mumbai and pretending he was going to be able to get to sleep at some point. Clint found himself perched on the end of his bed, looking out the window at the strange square shapes of the shacks and lean-tos around Bruce’s hut, and the stars glimmering overhead.
“You could try hiding,” said Bruce. “Keep to areas where there are guards, or where they wouldn’t think to look for you.”
Clint shrugged. “There’s only so long you can hide before someone finds you.” Living with his father had taught him that.
Bruce sat up and leaned against the wall. “Yeah,” he said, tiredly. “Or it ends up taking over your life, until you forget who you were before you were a fugitive.”
Clint raised an eyebrow at him but he got an exhausted headshake in response so he left it. If Bruce didn’t want to talk about it, there was no sense in pressing.
“Guess I’ll just keep getting in fights then,” said Clint. Until he’d said it, he hadn’t really come to terms with the fact that this was his life now. He was trapped in a block with a guy who wanted to rip his arms off, who was going to keep coming back regardless of what Clint did, and who he couldn’t escape.
The bottom dropped out of his stomach and he had to take a deep breath to force the surge of despair down. How had this become his life? Why the fuck had he thought it would be a good idea to help Barney? He should have just gone to bed and left him to it, and good riddance to the fucker.
Tears pricked at his eyes and he blinked, swallowing everything back and ruthlessly pushing it down. Okay, so his life was completely fucked, but if he started crying in a prison TV room, it wasn’t going to improve things.
Bruce let out a long breath. “Only thing I can think of is to play into it. If they think you’re crazy, be crazy,” he said. “If they think you might turn violent at any moment, they’ll keep their distance.”
“Pretend to be on the edge of a breakdown?” asked Clint, considering it. “I’d have to be careful not to end up in Psych.”
“Yeah,” agreed Bruce, “it’s not the best plan, and definitely not a long-term solution.”
Clint thought about it for another few minutes, watching as a cloud passed over the moon. What would be a long-term solution? Tunnelling out through the sewage pipe?
“You need friends to watch your back,” said Wanda. She and Pietro were in the cabin of Tony’s yacht, laptops in front of them. “You’re only an easy target when you’re alone.”
Clint frowned. “Not a whole load of guys in here that I want to bond with.”
“You don’t have to bond, you just have to hang out,” said Wanda. “Keep in a group so that they can’t isolate you, like antelopes.”
Clint considered that. Maybe he had been using the cluster as an excuse to keep to himself. He looked around the TV room at the scattered groups and wondered which he’d be able to work his way in with. None looked appealing.
Aw man, why couldn’t Clint be anywhere other than jail for this? Or even be with Bucky, so that they could be the ones sending waves of heated lust surging out into the link?
“One day it’s gonna be us,” said Bucky, his hand wrapped tightly around his erection. “Soon. God, hopefully so soon, Clint, I wanna meet you and touch you and kiss you and just feel you…”
He came and Clint felt it. He had to bite his tongue to keep himself from moaning, then turned over and curled up, clutching his hands into fists to stop himself just giving in and jerking off. Just because most of the guys in here had no shame about who heard them going at it didn’t mean that Clint was gonna lose all sense of dignity.
Well, not for at least another couple of months, anyway. Who knew how low he’d end up sinking by the time he got out of here? Unless Jackson shanked him before then, of course.
Bucky had relaxed back into his bed, his breathing coming down and his arm curled above his head. “Sorry, didn’t mean to freak you out,” he said. “Just, you know. Sex talk.”
“Not freaked out,” said Clint. “Just, really fucking frustrated.”
Bucky let out a long sigh. “Yeah,” he agreed.
Tony nodded. “I’ve got a meeting with the Minister for Business and Trade on the 19th. He thinks we’re gonna be talking about trading and taxation laws, but once you guys have had your say, I’ll pull the old ‘Stark Industries can’t seen to be working with a repressive government’ shtick and threaten to pull out of everything I’ve got our fingers into, which is a lot at this point, unless there’s a free election.”
“I will also contact them and say that we are having doubts about our investments,” said Thor.
“You know, I always thought that corporations attempting to manipulate governments like this was a bad thing,” said Bruce.
“If our government won’t listen to the people, then they deserve to be manipulated by corporations,” said Wanda. “Besides, they already are. The corruption runs through every level of the government, and has fueled the political repression.”
“I know,” said Bruce. “This just doesn’t seem right.”
Tony shrugged. “Better me and Thor manipulating the shit out of them than some of the other international conglomerates I know.”
Clint hadn’t gotten involved in the planning for the whole thing, but he did like to listen in. Plotting to take down a government was way more interesting than watching convicts wander about a prison yard, and it meant getting to be on Tony’s yacht with Wanda and Pietro. Even if it was just sitting tied up in a marina, there was something about hanging out on a luxury yacht that felt really decadent.
A basketball bounced loudly nearby and he came back to the prison yard just in time to catch it as it bounced up above the picnic table he was sat on, carefully in sight of the guards at the entrance to the block.
“Chuck it back!” called one of the guys who were gathered around the hoop, waving his arms.
Clint glanced at the hoop, which was about a hundred feet away.
“Come on, man!” called the guy again.
Clint shot him a grin, then shot. The ball soared through the air and straight through the hoop. Oh yeah, nothing but net.
The guys playing all turned to stare at the ball, then back at him.
“Holy shit,” said one of them.
“He’s on our team,” said one of the others, immediately. “Vinnie, you’re benched.”
Clint grinned and hopped off the bench as the guy who must be Vinnie slunk to the edge of the court. “I haven’t played for years,” he warned them as he headed over.
“Keep shooting like that, and you’ll be fine,” said the guy who had tapped him for his team.
It turned out that if you’ve got great aim and have spent the last ten years training for an archery show every day, not to mention learning tricks off acrobats in your free time, a lack of experience didn’t stop you being good at basketball. It also turned out that if you were good at basketball, then a gang of guys who played it most days would happily let you hang out with them.
“Friends will protect you,” said Wanda as Lang, the guy who had tagged Clint for his team, pulled Clint down to sit with them at dinner that night. Clint saw Jackson watching with a scowl and gave him a shit-eating grin.
Bucky took to escaping the apartment and going to hang out in the nearest park, which Clint enjoyed. It was nice to be able to see trees and grass, even if he wasn’t physically present.
“I need to get a job,” said Bucky, lying on his back and staring up at the clouds going by. “But I’ve got no idea what as. I always figured that when I came out of the Army, I’d join the police like Steve did, but they won’t take me now that I’m down an arm.”
“My advice is not to become a criminal,” said Clint. “Cos, let me tell you, they weren’t kidding about how much prison sucks.”
“What about the circus?” asked Bucky.
Clint snorted. “Also sucks,” he said. “And that’s my whole resume. You should ask one of the guys who has had an actual, you know, career and shit for advice.”
“I was thinking maybe about just asking Tony for a couple of million so I don’t have to ever work again,” said Bucky with a grin.
Clint perked up. “Oh hey, then you could look after me when I eventually get out. I could handle being a kept man.”
“I could handle being the man to keep you,” said Bucky with smirk.
“I could handle you,” said Clint, one-upping him with a lascivious wink. “Just give me a chance.”
“I would in a heartbeat,” said Bucky, “if you weren’t locked up.”
Clint sighed. “Fucking Barney,” he muttered, for about the thousandth time.
“Hard not to miss living on a luxury yacht,” said Pietro. Clint used Wanda’s hand to trail over the smooth wood of the table.
“I’m sure Tony wouldn’t mind you staying longer,” he said.
Wanda shook her head. “We need to get back to Sokovia. We can’t launch a revolution from exile.”
Pietro looked up, then around the room. “Is one of them here?”
She nodded. “Clint.”
Pietro gave a little wave at the wrong part of the cabin. “Hey, Clint.”
Clint took two side steps so that he was where Pietro was looking. “Hi, Pietro,” he replied, returning his wave. “Okay, now I’m feeling like a ghost. Wanda, do you want to do some frankly alarming pottery together?”
Wanda snorted, then shook her head when Pietro glanced over at her. “He thinks he’s Patrick Swayze.”
Pietro snorted. “He wishes.” He zipped up his laptop bag and hefted it onto his shoulder, then picked up his suitcase. “Okay, I’m ready.”
Wanda nodded and picked up her own bags, and Clint let himself move across Europe to where Natasha was eating lunch, ignoring the gaggle of other dancers around her. Clint slid into the seat opposite her and glanced at her plate, then made a face.
“And I thought prison food was bad.”
“Prison food is a lot less healthy than this,” she said. The woman sitting next to her glanced over with a frown but Natasha just levelled a cool glare at her until she looked away.
The prison buzzer went off and Clint reluctantly headed back to his real life. At least he had people to sit with at meals now, even if he didn’t have much in common with them other than a willingness to spend as much time as they could throwing a ball at a hoop.
Well, that wasn’t quite true. He’d found he had a sense of humour in common with Lang, even if he wasn’t a secret electrical engineering genius.
Of course, he did have access to an a genius, but it kinda felt like cheating to use Tony in order to look like he knew jack shit about electrical engineering.
“So, I heard that Jackson wants to kick in your head,” said Lang as he settled at the table with his breakfast tray.
“Yeah, he’s mentioned that to me a couple of times,” agreed Clint, poking at the pile of what was probably meant to be eggs and wondering why it was such a vibrant yellow. That couldn’t be natural, right?
“Have you got a plan to deal with it?” asked Lang.
Clint shrugged. “Hide?”
“Yeah, okay. Good luck with that,” said Lang.
“You got a better suggestion?” asked Clint.
Lang poked at his own neon eggs. “Nah, not really. I mean, we’ve got your back, but sooner or later he’ll get you alone.”
“And then I will crack his skull like a nut,” said Natasha. She squinted down at Clint’s breakfast. “And you thought this looked better than my lunch?”
Clint ignored her intrusion as well as he could. “Well, I hear the hospital wing is nice this time of year.”
“Sure,” said Lang. “The food’s definitely better there.”
“Barton!” called a guard, and Clint glanced around. “You’ve got a visitor.”
Clint just stared at him. “Seriously?” Who the fuck would come and visit him? No one from the circus would give a shit about him and Barney now they weren’t able to perform, and he didn’t know anyone else.
Well, no one except his cluster. For a split second he thought it might be Bucky before his common sense kicked in. Bucky was in Brooklyn, trying to ignore the noises of Steve getting up for his shift and pretending he was still asleep. There was no real way for someone to surprise you when you had a psychic link with them.
“I ain’t got time to hang about,” said the guard with a glare. Clint got up to follow him, abandoning his breakfast.
He got led to a small room and shown inside, then the door was swung shut behind him and locked. Waiting for him inside were three men in nearly identical suits, one of them sitting at the table and two others standing behind him with the unmistakable look of minions.
“Hello, Mr. Barton,” said the seated man. “Please, sit down.”
Clint eyed him and his minions suspiciously as he sat down, then crossed his arms. “Okay, I’m guessing you’ve got the wrong guy because I haven’t the faintest clue what this is about.”
The man put down a stack of photos, pushing them so that they fanned out. They were all of Clint. Most of them were from the circus, showing him shooting at various targets, but there were a couple from the confrontation with Jackson in the prison yard.
“How the hell did you get those?” Clint asked, pulling them towards himself and leafing through them. “Wait, have you been spying on me? Jesus, that must have been dull as fuck.”
“I don’t like this,” said Steve, appearing in the corner as he buttoned up his shirt.
“Me neither,” said Wanda.
“My name is Agent Coulson,” said the man, gathering the photos back together and putting them back in a file that was printed with Clint’s name. “I belong to an agency who would like to offer you an employment opportunity.”
Bucky appeared next to Steve, glaring at Coulson. “Fucking assholes in suits,” he muttered, but Clint wasn’t really listening because he was only wearing boxers and, wow, that was a lot of bare skin, how was he meant of focus on anything else right now?
Natasha sighed and snapped her fingers in front of Clint’s face. “Focus,” she hissed. “Ask him which agency he’s from.”
Clint pulled his eyes away from Bucky’s chest. “And which agency is that?”
“I’m afraid that’s classified,” said Coulson.
“Of course it fucking is,” muttered Bucky. Clint resolutely kept his eyes on Coulson rather than glancing over at him and get distracted again.
“What the hell would a super-secret agency want with me?”
Coulson opened the file again. “You’re an excellent marksman, and we have evidence that you also have hand-to-hand combat skills.”
“Those are my hand-to-hand combat skills,” said Natasha.
“I’m an excellent archer,” Clint corrected. “Please tell me you’re not about to reveal you’re, like, the Robin Hood agency or something.”
“Those skills are transferable,” said Coulson. “In my experience, people with good aim with one weapon have good aim with other weapons.”
“So, what?” Clint asked. “You want to recruit me as a sniper or something?” He spread his arms to take in the prison around them. “I’m not exactly a free agent.”
“Don’t do it,” said Bucky. “Clint, seriously. These kinds of agencies just swallow people up. You can’t let that happen to you.”
Coulson folded his hands on the table in front of him. “We would be able to offer you an immediate release from prison, in exchange for signing a contract for a seven year term of service with us. You’d also receive a generous yearly salary and various other benefits.”
Immediate release from prison. That meant getting away from Jackson and his goons, and maybe even going to see Bucky in person.
“They still haven’t said what you’d be doing,” Natasha pointed out. “Who are they going to have you shooting at?”
“Okay, as great as that sounds,” said Clint, “you really are going to have to tell me what I’d be doing. Seven years is a long time to sign up for a mystery.”
“My agency protects America from threats both foreign and domestic,” said Coulson. “You would be trained in a variety of skills, but ultimately we see you joining one of our strike teams.”
“No,” said Bucky. “No, don’t do it. They’re gonna make you a killer.”
“If even the name of the agency is confidential, your whole life will become a secret,” said Natasha. “You won’t get it back after seven years.”
Clint hesitated. This whole thing was dodgy as fuck, but the idea of getting to walk out of prison and be a free man was really tempting.
Coulson clearly noticed his indecision, because he leaned forward. “We’re offering you a future, Mr Barton,” he said. “Otherwise you’ll spend the next few years in prison, only to get out and find just how unsympathetic the world is to an ex-convict. This is a good offer, you should take it.”
“No, you fucking shouldn’t,” said Bucky. “Think! You do this, you’re gonna be shipped all over the world just to kill people.”
“They’ll be watching you the whole time to make sure you’re not compromised,” said Natasha. “You won’t be able to explain how you know the cluster, so you’ll have to hide all trace of us from them.”
“That means not coming to see us,” said Steve, quietly.
Bucky slammed his hand against the wall. “Fuck it, Clint! They’ll make you into someone else!”
Up until a few months ago, Clint would probably have said that was a good thing. At the moment, he was an ex-carnie convict with no qualifications, no family he could stand to be around, no friends he’d actually met face-to-face, and no real chance for a future that looked different to his past.
What he did have, though, was the cluster.
Coulson gave Clint a smile that said he thought Clint’s silence was a sign he was about to agree and pulled out a heavy wad of papers. “If you sign this contract now, you can walk out of here within a few hours.”
Fuck, that was tempting. Clint glanced at Bucky, at the frustration lining his face and the way his hand was balled into a fist, and sighed.
He sat back in his chair. “Sorry, man, no can do. See, I’ve kinda got a boyfriend.”
Bucky’s whole body relaxed and he sank against the wall.
“There was no mention of that,” said Coulson, frowning down at the file as if it had personally betrayed him. “However, that’s not a problem. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has been repealed, and it never applied to our agency anyway.”
“Okay, great,” said Clint. “Good news for the eradication of institutionalised homophobia, but I actually meant that I have a boyfriend who would kill me if I signed up to some shady government agency and disappeared to kill terrorists for seven years, or whatever it is you guys do.”
“Damn straight he would,” said Bucky. Clint restrained himself from the beaming smile he wanted to give him.
Steve sniggered. “Tony’s gonna really regret sleeping through this.”
Coulson’s expression didn’t change. “You think he’d be more upset about that than you spending several years in prison for killing a man?”
Clint shrugged. “He’s fully aware I didn’t kill anyone. He’s not going to hold wrongful imprisonment against me.” He raised an eyebrow. “Or use it to try and leverage me into signing my life away.”
Coulson nodded and tucked the contract away again. “Very well, Mr. Barton.” He pulled a business card out and slid it across the table. “Feel free to call me if you change your mind.”
“Don’t hold your breath,” said Clint, but he took the card. It seemed rude not to.
Clint rolled his eyes. “What else was I going to call him? There isn’t exactly a name for ‘hot guy who lives in my head’.”
“Are you saying that Bucky is the only hot guy in your head?” asked Thor with mock hurt, and then did a thing with his abs that made them ripple in an extremely distracting way.
“Fine,” said Clint, “okay, he’s the only hot guy in my head who isn’t straight or already fucking one of the other guys in my head. Better?”
Thor grinned. “Much better, friend.” He slapped a hand on Clint’s shoulder that threatened to drive him to his knees.
“I can hear you, you know,” said Bucky, turning away from where Tony and Steve were saying goodbye. Tony had finally run out of excuses to stay in New York and was flying back to Rome.
“Are you saying I’m wrong?” asked Clint, then he took his chance to glance around at what a departure gate looked like when you had a private jet. Fancy. “Cuz, if you hadn’t realised you’re smoking hot, I’ll happily fill you in on the details of just how smoking hot you are.”
Bucky rolled his eyes, but Clint noticed the twitch of his shoulder on the side missing an arm. Right, okay, clearly that was something he needed to work on, because being an arm down hadn’t had any impact on just how breathtakingly good-looking Bucky was.
“Please save us that,” said Tony, finally pulling away from Steve like he had any right to talk. “I mean, let’s be honest here, we’re all pretty hot, has anyone else noticed that? Do you think that’s some kinda Homo Sensate thing, we’re all just naturally buff compared to Homo Sapiens?”
“So, what, we get awesome mind powers and model good looks?” said Clint. “Man, those poor fools really lucked out.”
“You mean, the guys who are the dominant form of life on the planet, and who currently have you locked up?” asked Bucky. “Yeah, totally sucks to be them.”
Steve sighed. “I don’t think we should be making this into an us versus them thing, we’re really more similar than we are different.”
“Yeah, yeah, sure thing, Captain Reasonable,” said Tony, then glanced at his watch and winced. “Okay, so, I really do have to go. It’s been fabulous spending time with you in person, especially for the kissing and the, you know, other stuff-”
“Listen to him being coy when we all ended up tuning into it and know exactly what they got up to,” muttered Bucky to Clint. Steve went very faintly pink.
“You wait until we get our chance to spark an international orgy,” said Clint, giving Bucky what he hoped was a sexy smirk.
“You know,” said Lang, and Clint came back to where he was sitting on his bunk with a snap, “I kinda thought Jackson was talking shit when he said you just sat around staring at nothing and mumbling to yourself and yet, here you are.”
Clint thought about going for straight out denial for a moment, but it was probably way too late for that so instead he just rolled his eyes. “You’re not about to tell me I’m crazy and then beat me up, are you?”
“Nope,” said Lang. “I kinda like the crazies.” He patted Clint’s knee. “I am going to make you come play on my team though, because Randall brought out Allen for his side and he’s, like, thirty foot tall so we’re gonna need all the help we can get.”
Clint put down the book he’d been using as a cover while he went visiting and hopped down off the bunk. “Sure,” he said, putting aside the farewell taking place in New York right now. It wasn’t as if it made any difference to him if Tony was in America or Italy, after all. He was still only ever a thought away.
The government weren’t completely unaware that something was planned, but it seemed that the scale of the protests took them by surprise. Wanda and Pietro walked at the head of the crowd, waving banners and chatting slogans, as the police gathered on street corners and glared at them. They didn’t move to stop them, apparently cowed by the size of the crowd.
For now. Clint wasn’t willing to bet anything on it staying peaceful.
“Hey, Barton, snap out of it,” said Lang, snapping his fingers in front of Clint’s face. “Jeez, are you going to be spacing out all day?”
Probably, thought Clint, but he refocused his attention on his surroundings for now. At least until the water cannons and tear gas came out.
He spent the next few hours with most of his attention focused on Sokovia as he wandered through the routines of prison life. Once the crowd reached the square, they chanted slogans for a bit and then Pietro helped Wanda climb onto the base of a statue of some long-dead Sokovian royal so that she could give an inspirational speech.
“She’s good at this,” said Bucky.
Clint nodded. “I guess there was a reason the government wanted to take her out.” He ganced at Bucky and realised he was dressed up in a jacket and tie with his hair tied back. Oh, that was way more interesting to look at than the birth of a revolution. He turned to give Bucky a proper once over. “You’re looking good.”
Bucky rolled his eyes, pulling uncomfortably at his collar. “I’ve got a job interview.”
“You’re gonna blow their socks off,” said Clint.
“Right,” said Bucky. “No one they want to employ more than a disabled guy whose only practical job experience is with shooting people.”
“Rubbish,” said Clint. “C’mon, think confidence. You’re incredible, and they’d be lucky to have you.”
“Yeah, okay,” said Bucky, but he didn’t sound convinced.
A hand grabbed Clint’s shoulder and wrenched him backwards, slamming him into a wall, and he realised that he’d let himself get distracted whilst walking down a corridor, and now he was alone with Jackson and one of his friends.
“Hey, Crazy. Seems like you’ve left your friends behind somewhere,” said Jackson, gripping Clint’s collar and leaning in close.
“Not all of them,” said Bucky.
“The ones that aren’t imaginary, anyway,” added Jackson, making Bucky roll his eyes.
“I ain’t a fucking pink elephant,” he muttered. Clint did his best to ignore him. He didn’t think that getting involved in a chat with a guy Jackson couldn’t see was really going to go down so well right now.
“Whereas you seem to be surgically attached to yours,” he said to Jackson, glancing at his cronie. “Be honest, are you scared of being alone? You can admit it if you are, this is a safe space.”
For some reason, that only seemed to make Jackson angrier. “I’ve been looking forward to this,” he growled, and threw a punch at Clint’s face.
Clint did his best to duck it and succeeded in moving so that it only glanced off his cheek. “Jesus, man, come on!” he said. “What the fuck did I do to you?”
“Fucking asshole!” growled Bucky.
“You existed,” gritted Jackson through clenched teeth, and hit him again. Clint wasn’t able to avoid this one and took it full force to the face. “Maybe that’ll teach you a lesson about being a fucked up little freak.”
“Clint, let me fucking take him apart,” said Bucky, which was sweet of him, but if anyone was going to take Jackson apart, it was going to be Clint. He was the one with bruises forming, after all.
Or Natasha could do it, that was fine with him too. She had a vicious streak that Clint approved of.
“Hey!” came a very welcome shout from down the corridor. Clint glanced over to see Lang and his friend Luis heading towards them. “Jackson, you’re fucking up our best player. Fuck off.”
Jackson gave them a dark look, then fixed Clint with a glare. “This isn’t over.”
He and his friend sloped off and Clint took a deep breath. Fuck, he really was going to end up getting beaten to death in a prison fight at some point.
“You okay?” asked Lang and Bucky at almost the same time. Bucky sent Lang a glare.
“I’m fine,” Clint told both of them. “All cool, just gonna have some bruising.”
“I guess that can only improve your looks, right?” said Lang.
Bucky scowled after Jackson. “We’re gonna need to find a solution to that fucker. We can’t rely on it staying at some bruising.”
“I’m fine,” insisted Clint. “You worry too much.”
Lang gave him a long blink and Clint belatedly realised that he’d replied to the wrong person if he wanted to appear sane.
“About my looks,” he added. “You worry too much about my looks. I’m always going to look hot.”
“Well, that’s true,” said Bucky, then let out a long breath. He pointed a finger at Clint. “Stay close to these fellas for a bit, yeah?” he said, and then disappeared.
“I really don’t think I do,” said Lang, slowly. He glanced at Luis. “Hey, have I been hitting on Barton without realising it?”
“No, man,” said Luis. “I mean, not that I noticed, maybe you’re going up to him and talking about his pretty blue eyes and shit when I’m not around but I don’t think so, doesn’t seem much like you, man.”
Clint rolled his shoulders back and pinned on a grin in the hopes this would get forgotten about. “Is there a game starting?”
“Nah,” said Lang. “We were gonna go hang out in the TV room, if you wanna come? We don’t mind if you chat to us or to, you know, someone else.” He raised his eyebrows meaningfully at a blank patch of air.
“Guess that depends on what’s on,” said Clint, trying to ignore the way his ears felt hot. Apparently, he was just going to have to embrace his reputation as the guy who talked to imaginary people. Excellent.
They started with a loud announcement asking the crowd to disperse, then they marched into the square in full riot gear.
“Stand firm!” Wanda called to the crowd. “We are the people, and we demand to be heard!”
The crowd roared, the police moved in, and everything got very confusing. Tear gas exploded and Pietro grabbed Wanda’s arm, pulling her down off the statue. Their friends closed in around them and started to hustle them away, all too mindful of the punishment the government might have in mind for the organisers.
It was a close thing. Wanda got separated from Pietro and the others and ended up trapped in a section of the crowd that the police surrounded and drove right up against a wall, riot shields held edge to edge like Roman soldiers as they squeezed everyone together. Wanda was right in the centre, a scarf tied around her mouth and nose to keep the gas out, everything around her a confusion of people and shouting.
Clint glanced around, trying to work out how they were going to get her out of this, but all he could see was chaos.
“Quick! This way!” called someone and pulled Wanda’s wrist until she followed them, squeezing through packed bodies to the wall, where someone had lowered a rope. She grabbed hold and it started to rise, taking her up out of the crowd.
“Hey! Stop her!” shouted a policeman and rubber bullets bounced off the wall beside her head. Her hands slipped on the rope as she tried to keep hold.
“Let me,” said Clint and took control. He readjusted her grip and then started to climb up, hand over hand, just like he did to get to the top of the Big Top.
At the top, someone grabbed her hand and pulled her up and he stepped to one side.
“Hey, sis,” said Pietro, and Wanda grinned at him.
“Let’s get out of here.”
They ran over the rooftops, avoiding the police cordon, then ducked inside a building and made it down to the street.
“The good news is, the media footage is great,” said Tony, flicking between screens, “and it’s getting a lot of international interest. The bad news is that your police service really does contain a lot of thugs.”
“We already knew that,” said Wanda, bitterly.
The rest of the cluster were there in a heartbeat as well.
“Shit, what do we do?” said Clint. “Natasha?”
She shook her head. “I can’t risk anything with all these guns.”
“Tony, you need to talk to them, get as much information as you can,” said Steve.
“Hey, c’mon guys, I know it’s always exciting meeting a celebrity, but-” started Tony, and then was abruptly silenced by another heavy blow to his head, one that knocked him out for good.
“Tony!” shouted Steve, from his bedroom in New York, but it was too late. They’d lost their connection with him.
“We need to work out who has him,” said Bruce, hurrying across a busy road while trying to avoid a moped. “Where would they take him?”
Wanda let out a long, shaky breath, glancing over at Pietro in the basement they were holed up in together. “They looked like government men,” she said. “Those are the outfits they wear when they don’t want their uniforms to be recognised.”
“It appears our plans have come to their attention,” said Thor, “and they are not pleased with them.” He’d been sitting down to dinner with a large crowd of his friends, but had stormed out to the hallway of the restaurant at the first sign of trouble.
“What do we do?” asked Natasha. She was mid-way through a rehearsal and still perfectly balanced on her toes, but Clint could feel the tension running through her.
“There’s nothing we can do,” said Bucky. “Not right now. We’ll have to wait for Tony to wake up.” He pushed aside his blankets and got out of bed, heading into Steve’s bedroom.
“We’ll be ready when he does,” said Steve, glancing up as Bucky came in and shifting over so that he could sit next to him on the bed. “We can’t let anything happen to him.”
That was easy enough to say, but what exactly could they do if these guys decided to shoot Tony, or even just to torture him a bit? They might be able to visit him, but if he didn’t know where he was, how the hell were they meant to get him out? Most of them were on the other side of the planet.
Tony was out of it for long enough that Clint was in the shower when he came to with a gasp, blinking around at concrete walls. He was tied to a chair in what looked like a basement cell, behind a door made of heavy steel bars.
“Guys,” he said, shaking his head gently as he came to, “I’ve changed my mind, let’s just leave Sokovia to its own devices.”
“I think it might be a bit late for that,” said Clint. Tony glanced over at him, realised he was naked, and did as much of a double take as he could manage while tied to a chair.
“Wow, Barton, warn a guy would you? This isn’t a good time for me to be getting all hot and bothered.”
Clint rolled his eyes and started to wash the shampoo out of his hair.
“Concentrate, Tony,” said Steve. He was in uniform now, so he must have started his shift. “Do you know where you are?”
Tony shook his head. “No idea.”
“What can you hear?” asked Natasha.
“Nothing,” said Tony. “No windows, no sounds, nothing but concrete. Also, it’s kinda cold.”
Clint glanced around at the cell and spotted Bucky, who was just standing in the corner staring at Clint with a glazed look. Clint gave him the best smirk he could manage, then headed over to inspect the door, which put his ass into Bucky’s line of sight. Not that that had been the point of doing so or anything. Bucky made a quiet, low noise in his throat.
The lock was large, but not particularly complicated. “If you can get free, and get a bit of metal about so long,” Clint said, gesturing, “I can probably pick this lock.”
“Excellent,” said Tony. “I’ll get right on that.”
“What about the ropes?” asked Bruce. “Can you get him out of them?”
“You know, I’m not actually an escapologist,” said Clint, turning away from the lock.
Tony let out a long-suffering sigh. “What kind of a cluster doesn’t have an escapologist in it?”
There was the clang of a heavy door somewhere in the distance, and he froze. “Oh man, here we go,” he said, and took a deep breath, relaxing his shoulders and slumping until he looked like he was lounging in the chair and the ropes were just incidental.
Three men came into the cell, two of them still in balaclavas but the third had taken his off to reveal a broken nose and a cold glare.
“Mr Stark. You have been meddling in Sokovian affairs.”
Tony gave a shrug. “I meddle in a lot of affairs, it’s kinda my thing.”
One of the masked men backhanded him across the face. Steve started forward, clenching his fists as he realised there was nothing he could do.
“Do not be flippant, Mr Stark. I am not,” said the man. “You have threatened the sovereignty of our nation.”
“Bullshit,” said Tony, which earned him another hit. “If anything’s threatening your nation, it’s your oppressive regime.”
Clint had to respect Tony’s complete inability to keep his mouth shut. From the look on Steve’s face, he definitely wouldn’t say the same, especially not when Tony got hit again.
“Just tell him whatever he wants to hear,” said Natasha. “Once they let you go, we can take revenge.”
Tony ignored her. “Seriously, you’re getting upset about being called oppressive when you have dark basements in which to torture foreign nationals? Which, by the way, really isn’t going to go down well with my government, they’re kinda big fans of me and the economic growth provided by my company, not to mention that the Prime Minister has a soft spot for hanging out on my yacht. And, hey, weren’t you guys bidding to get into the EU? This kinda stuff really isn’t going to help.”
He got hit again.
“Mr Stark, you’ve come to our country to foment unrest, in collaboration with a terrorist organisation headed by the Maximoff twins,” said the man. “We are within our rights to detain you for questioning.”
“There’s not been a hell of a lot of questions,” said Tony. “And who the hell are the Maximoff twins? I’m just a guy who’s concerned about the wellbeing of his employees.”
That earned him another punch and Steve made a frustrated noise. “This is getting us nowhere.”
“Hurry the fuck up, Barton,” groused someone outside Clint’s shower cubicle, and he flicked back to the prison bathroom. He turned off the water and reached for a towel, leaving the others to keep an eye on Tony for now. He wasn’t going to be much help if he got in a fight over hogging a shower.
He got dressed as quickly as he could and then headed back to his bunk rather than to breakfast. By the time he was in a position to go back to Sokovia, Tony was being dragged through a corridor between the two masked men, with his hands tied behind his back and looking the worse for wear.
Clint fell into step with the rest of the cluster as they followed behind him.
Bucky glanced over at him. “I’m not gonna lie, the clothing is kinda disappointing.” Steve sent him a disapproving look and Bucky shrugged. “Well, it is.”
Clint patted his arm. “I’ll make sure to come visit you next time I have a shower.”
“As long as you only visit him,” said Natasha. “I have seen more than enough of your ass already.”
“I haven’t,” said Bucky, giving Clint a careful look. Clint winked back at him.
Steve let out a long sigh. “Could we please concentrate on helping the kidnapped guy right now and leave the flirting for later?”
“We can do both,” said Clint. “We have crazy-good multitasking skills. Ooh, window.”
Tony glanced over at the dusty window as they passed it and Wanda darted over to look through. “I know where we are,” she said. “That’s St. Matthew’s church. We’re in the buildings opposite.” She frowned. “I thought this was part of the agricultural ministry.”
Tony got pulled into another room and dropped into a chair opposite a desk where a man in a suit was sitting.
“That’s Strucker,” said Wanda, with a frown. “He’s deputy defence minister. Why would he be here?”
“Mr Stark,” said Strucker. “My men report that you are being difficult.”
Tony sat back with a sigh. “They haven’t really been very clear on exactly what they want from me that couldn’t be done by a punching bag,” he said. “I came here in good faith to negotiate with you guys about bringing new economic possibilities to your astonishingly tiny country, and then you kidnapped me and beat me up. If you were looking to kill all Stark Industries investments in your country, you’re going the right way about it.”
“I want to kill all Stark Industries meddling in the political systems of our country,” correct Strucker. “We know you have been communicating with the terrorists Wanda and Pietro Maximoff. They were living in your yacht when you started buying up Sokovian investments, do you really expect us to believe that was a coincidence?”
“Terrorists,” muttered Wanda, angrily.
“What interest can you possibly have in disrupting our government?” continued Strucker. “Are you the kind of billionaire that decides he wants his own private country? Because Sokovia is not an easy mark.”
“Jesus, why would I want my own country?” asked Tony. “Politics always seemed like a massive ballache. Nah, I’m just trying to make good business decisions.”
“You have not been,” said Strucker. “Allow me to help you change that. You will go ahead and open this factory, and maintain all your current investments in Sokovian interests, but you will not come here again and you will not pass comment on the way this country is run. There will be no snide comments to the media about so-called human rights abuses.”
“Yeah, that ain’t happening,” said Tony.
Strucker leaned forward. “In addition, your factory will produce more than just prosthetics. The Sokovian military could use much of the equipment that Stark Industries became renowned for.”
Tony stared at him. “Oh, hell no. Stark Industries doesn’t make weapons any more. Seriously, you really think you can just rough me up a bit and I’ll just open up a secret weapons factory for you?”
Strucker sat back. “No, I think if I point out that your alternative is to be charged with espionage and treason against the Sokovian state, both of which are punishable with death, you will agree to a compromise.”
“We need to get him out,” said Steve.
“My people aren’t going to be able to break someone out of a secret defence ministry base,” said Wanda. “We don’t have those kinds of resources, and if we got caught...I can’t ask them to risk it.”
“Starks don’t compromise,” said Tony. “It’s what makes our tech so good.”
Strucker gave him a cold smile. “I’m sure we can change your mind.” He nodded at the men, and they dragged Tony up out of his chair and back out of the office.
“Shit,” said Bucky.
“Yeah,” agreed Clint. How the hell could they stop these fuckers from torturing Tony into submission? He clenched his hands into fists, feeling just how useless and impotent he was, trapped in prison on the other side of the world.
“You’d think at least one of us would be connected to, like, an international strike force or something,” muttered Bucky.
Clint blinked. “I still have Agent Coulson’s card.”
Steve jerked around to look at him, then shook his head. “Tony’s not a US citizen. One of our government agencies isn’t going to care about him.”
“No, but an Italian or EU one would,” said Natasha, “and these agencies all have links with their international counterparts.”
Not for the first time, Clint thought that Natasha had some interesting knowledge for a ballet dancer. As if hearing the thought, she gave him a long, cool look, then glanced back at Steve. “Not that we can rely on him acting on information coming from Clint. He’ll know there’s no way for him to know about it.”
“He might act if a cop said it,” said Steve. “If I told him I had an anonymous source.”
“And another one who gave you this secret agent’s number?” asked Bucky, then shook his head. “I don’t think he’ll buy it. Too many questions over where the intel came from.”
“We have to do something,” said Steve, as Tony was dropped back on the floor of his cell, and then punched again.
“Just wait here while we get set up for you, asshole. We’ve got plans for you,” said the man with the broken nose with a grin as they left, locking the door behind him.
Tony slumped back on the floor with a sigh. “Okay, just so everyone’s aware, I’m completely with Steve here. We do have to do something, preferably before those guys come back and do unspeakable things to me.”
Steve crouched down next to him and put a hand on his shoulder. “It’s gonna be okay, Tony,” he said quietly. “You’re not alone.” He leaned in and kissed him, and Clint wondered how that looked if they were monitoring him on cameras.
Tony let out a long breath, resting his forehead on Steve’s. “Yeah, okay,” he said. “Call this agent. The worst he can do is blow us off.”
“Hey, Sam, can we pull over in a bit?” asked Steve. “Gotta make a call.”
Sam rolled his eyes. “Let me guess. It’s another top secret chat with someone you can’t tell me about.”
“Something like that,” said Steve as Sam found somewhere to park. “It shouldn’t take too long.”
He started to get out of the car, but Sam stopped him with a hand on his arm. “Steve, you know you can trust me with anything, right?” he said. “I get things have been tough with Bucky coming back and all that, but it seems like there might be more going on with you.”
Steve hesitated, then glanced down at his phone. “Yeah, I know,” he said. “It’s just kinda complicated.”
Sam let go of his arm and sat back with a shrug. “Most things are.”
“Yeah,” agreed Steve in a low voice, and got out of the car. Clint followed him out as he went a couple of feet down an alleyway.
“Okay, what do I say?” he asked, looking up at Natasha.
She thought for a moment. “Allow me,” she said, and took control of Steve in order to dial.
Coulson answered within three rings. “Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division.”
Jesus, that was a mouthful. Clint really had dodged a bullet if that was who he’d have ended up working for, because there’s no way he’d have been able to remember that.
“Pietro,” said Wanda, turning to her brother, who was already hunched over a laptop. “Look this up. Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division.” Pietro started typing so fast that Clint was expecting smoke to fly from his fingers. Wanda glanced back at Natasha. “Keep him talking for a bit while we check it out.”
“Good morning,” said Natasha with Steve’s voice. “Is this Agent Coulson?”
“Who’s calling?” asked Coulson, carefully.
“My name is Steven Rogers, badge number 10717 with the NYPD,” she said. “I can wait while you look me up.”
“How did you get this number?” asked Coulson. “This is a private line.”
Watching Natasha’s facial expressions on Steve’s face was very strange. If that was anything like how Clint looked when he was visiting, no wonder Jackson thought he was a crazy person.
“An associate passed it to me,” said Natasha. “I’m afraid I can’t reveal their identity, but they thought you would be better placed to know what to do with the information I have to pass on.”
There was a pause, during which Clint could hear the tapping of keys through the phone. Coulson was checking out Steve’s credentials, which meant he was at least interested.
“I’m afraid I don’t have much to do with law enforcement, and New York isn’t my area of operations,” said Coulson. “I think your associate has misled you.”
“If it were in New York I’d be able to deal with it myself,” said Natasha. “This is rather bigger than that.” She hesitated. “If I can trust you.”
“Any information you pass on to me will be treated with the strictest confidence,” said Coulson. “That does not mean I’ll be able to help.”
“I’m hoping that even if you can’t, you’ll know someone who can,” said Natasha. “At least, that was what my contact said about you. He said you had international connections.”
There was a snort. “I’m afraid flattery doesn’t get far with me,” said Coulson. “My agency do work internationally, but I still don’t believe I’ll be able to help you.”
“Have we got anything yet?” Clint asked Wanda. “I’m not sure she can stall him much longer without pissing him off.”
Wanda nodded, “Just, one more minute, we just— Yes, okay. Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division, they’re a US agency but they work globally, handling espionage, special law-enforcement, and counterterrorism of the kind that could become a global threat. They seem to work with the UN as much as they do the US government — they were the ones who handled all that HYDRA stuff a couple of years ago.”
“Do we think we can trust them?” asked Clint.
Wanda paused, then gave a shrug. “Can we trust any such agency? I think we can trust them more than we can the Sokovians.”
“That’s not hard,” muttered Steve, then he sighed. “I remember the Hydra thing, that was a mess, but it got handled well. I guess we have to trust them.”
Clint made a face. “We don’t have a lot of choice,” he pointed out.
Natasha glanced at them, then nodded. “It’s about Sokovia,” she said to Coulson. “And Tony Stark, of Stark Industries.”
There was a long pause. “I’m listening,” said Coulson.
Every time they ducked his head back under the water, everyone in the rest of the cluster felt their air get cut off, leaving them gasping and choking in sympathy with him. Clint was out in the yard and ended up on his knees, clutching at his throat while the other inmates gathered around him.
“You okay, man?” asked Kurt.
Clint waved a hand, hoping to convey, ‘totally fine, nothing to see here, just choking on the psychic feedback from a guy getting drowned five thousand miles away’. He wasn’t sure he managed it.
The Sokovians plunged Tony’s head back into the water and Clint found himself scrambling for air again.
Through the link, he could feel everyone in the same state, falling to the ground wherever they were. Thor, who had been asleep, had woken up with a start, flailing uselessly against his sheets as if they were the thing cutting off his air. Bruce had been walking home from a family who had offered him dinner after he’d treated their daughter, and crumpled down into a doorway. Clint could hear Sam calling for help as Steve collapsed against the wall of an alley they were patrolling down, echoing the frightened voices of the other ballet dancers as Natasha fell from her dressing room stool. There was a brief pause as the Sokovians pulled Tony up again, shouting at him to just give in and agree to Stucker’s terms.
“Sorry, guys,” said Tony across the link to the cluster, then told his torturers to go fuck themselves. A moment later, he was plunged back under the water.
Bucky had been cleaning the bathroom, knelt over the bath with a cloth. Clint reached out for him almost instinctively, clinging to his hand as the air was caught off for both of them. His throat and nose were burning as if he’d actually inhaled the water Tony was choking on, and he could see from Bucky’s wide eyes that he was starting to panic.
“It’s gonna be okay,” he said, the next time Tony was pulled up and allowed to gasp in some air. “They don’t want him dead.”
“I know,” said Bucky. “Just, sure feels like they do.”
That was all they had time to say before they were drowning again.
Some of the other prisoners had called for the guards. Two of them were trying to move the crowd on while another crouched by Clint, clearly trying to work out what the hell to do.
“Barton? Barton! Can you hear me?”
It sounded like his voice was coming from a distance as black spots formed in front of his eyes. The grip of Bucky’s hand in his felt far more real than anything else, their fingers squeezing at each other as they both struggled to breathe.
The Sokovians pulled Tony from the water and dropped him to the ground, then one of them leaned in and spat in his face as he struggled to pull in air. “You will give in,” he said. “We’re only getting started.”
As ominous as that sounded, they seemed to be done for now, because they dragged Tony back to his cell. Clint sat up, getting his breath back. “‘M ‘kay,” he said as he desperately sucked in oxygen. He waved a hand. “Don’t worry about me.”
The guard snorted. “Yeah, no such luck. You’re coming up to the med wing with me and getting checked out. The last thing we want is a lawsuit because we ignored a health problem and you ended up dead.”
Clint wasn’t sure exactly who they thought would bring a lawsuit on his behalf, but he submitted to being taken up to see a doctor, who examined him and said he was physically fine, then asked a series of probing questions clearly intended to find out if it had been a panic attack or not.
Clint ducked that as best he could, downplaying the whole thing as if it hadn’t felt like he was on the edge of dying.
When he was eventually let go with strict instructions to come back if he had any other symptoms, it was lunchtime. The prison was pretty much empty as he headed to the canteen and most of his attention was in Sokovia, where Tony had been dumped back in his cell and given a bottle of water and a bowl of some kind of goulash thing.
Steve had told Sam that he wasn’t feeling well and gone home to join Bucky, who had finished stress-cleaning the bathroom and moved on to the kitchen. Steve just sat on the couch so that he could visit Tony, keeping next to him as he ate. When Clint glanced in on them, they were slumped, shoulder to shoulder, while Tony rambled about the possibility of creating a weapon out of the water bottle.
“Probably not practical,” said Clint.
Tony let out a long sigh. “You guys are always spoiling all my fun.”
“Yeah, it’s totally us doing that, and not the Sokovian secret police,” said Clint. “We’re such assholes.”
Tony gave him a very tired look and Clint thought he probably wasn’t helping. He glanced around and took in the spoon they’d given Tony for his goulash. It was cheap-looking and thin, with a tapered end.
“I don’t know about the bottle, but I could pick the lock with the end of that spoon,” he said.
Tony’s face lit up and he picked it up to examine it, then glanced at the door. Through the bars, Clint could see a guard leaning against a wall and staring at the floor with a look of stone-cold boredom.
“Might need to get rid of him first,” he said.
“Allow me,” said Natasha. “I’ll need the water bottle.”
“Hah!” said Tony, pointing at Steve. “I knew it.”
Clint didn’t get to find out exactly what she needed the bottle for because at that moment, back in the prison, Jackson and five of his friends came around the corner, took one look at him, and burst into malicious grins.
“I hear you had some kinda fit this morning, freak,” said Jackson. “You finally starting to crack up?”
“I’m surprised they didn’t send him straight down to Psych,” said one of his henchmen.
“C’mon, guys, do we really have to do this?” asked Clint. “I’m just trying to get some lunch.” And rescue a guy from evil government dudes, but he didn’t think it would go over so well if he said that.
They’d spread out to block the corridor, so there was no way through. Clint briefly considered just turning around and running for it but, fuck it, he wasn’t a coward and he was getting sick of waiting for the inevitable beating. Maybe if they just had it out, Jackson would get over this and Clint could get back to keeping his head down and waiting his time out.
It took him about ten seconds to realise that was a terrible idea and he should have just run, ten seconds in which they all circled him, then Jackson shoved at his shoulder, pushing him back through the bathroom door and then throwing a punch at him then sent him reeling back against the tiled wall.
Aw, fuck, that hurt, and now he was trapped in a bathroom with six guys who wanted to rip him apart.
“What the fuck, Clint?” asked Bucky as Clint pulled himself off the wall and tried to square up to them. “Are you trying to get yourself killed?”
Clint ignored him, ducking under another punch and trying to get a few hits of his own in, without much success. For all the roughhousing and casual violence that had gone on at the circus, he’d never really spent much time actually learning to fight, and especially not against six guys.
It was a relief when Natasha slipped in and took over. “I’ve got this,” she said. “Help Tony.”
Clint left her sending a kick at Jackson’s face, making his body move with a speed and grace he wouldn’t have thought possible.
In Sokovia, the guard outside was now unconscious on the floor, and Tony was crouched by the lock, holding the spoon.
“No, like this,” said Clint, adjusting his grip and setting to work, trying not to think about what might be happening to his body right now. Natasha could handle it better than he could.
The lock was trickier than it should be, or the spoon wasn’t the amazing lockpick he’d been counting on, and it took him several minutes of quietly swearing to himself before it clicked open.
“Thank fuck,” said Tony, stepping out of his cell and glancing both ways down the corridor. “What now?”
Steve’s phone started ringing. “It’s Coulson,” he said, and disappeared to answer it, just as three guards came bursting through the door at the end of the corridor, took one look at Tony and the unconscious guard, and started towards him with violence on their faces.
“Shit,” said Tony.
Clint whisked himself back to prison, where Natasha had managed to knock two guys out but was still facing off against the others.
“Tony needs you,” he said, taking back over and fixing a glare on Jackson. She nodded and disappeared without a word.
“You fucking asshole,” said Jackson, glancing at where one of his guys was quietly groaning in a heap on the floor. “We’re gonna tear you apart.”
“You keep saying that,” said Clint. “You don’t seem to be getting too far with it.”
“Are you seriously antagonising him?” said Bucky as Jackson let out a roar and threw himself at Clint again, throwing him against a wall and landing two hard blows on his chin. “Clint!”
Clint roused himself to hit back, but one of the other guys caught his wrist before he could connect, wrenching it back with a crack that sent pain spearing down Clint’s arm, making him cry out.
“Shit!” said Bucky, and stepped in, headbutting the guy to get him to let go and then backing up. With all that Army training under his belt, he was a better fighter than Clint but even he wasn’t able to hold up against four angry convicts with a broken wrist, although he got a few good blows in before Clint ended up on the ground, trapped up against the wall as they all started kicking him.
He heard at least one rib crack as he tried to protect both his wrist and his stomach, then Jackson caught him hard in the head, cracking his skull back against the wall, and everything went black.
He blinked up at the ceiling, then twitched his eyes around the room, taking in the bored-looking prison guard slumped in a chair, the cuff chaining his unbroken wrist to the bed, and the stream of medical personnel passing by through the window in the door.
“This ain’t prison,” he mumbled, then cleared his throat and had another go.
The guard perked up, peering at him with a frown. “No,” he agreed. “You got yourself pretty messed up. We’re at St Anne’s Hospital.”
Clint took that in for a moment, then another moment when it didn’t immediately sink in. Wow, these drugs were good.
Tony, Tony had been in trouble. He felt out for his cluster, but there was nothing but fog. Huh, apparently the drugs were too good for him to reach through their crazy psychic link. He didn’t know drugs could affect it.
That was annoying, he could do with seeing Bucky’s face right now. He let his eyes shut again, thinking that he’d have a nice nap, and hopefully he’d be able to talk to them when he woke up. He really hoped Tony was okay, it would be bad if something had happened to him.
The next time he woke up, there was a different guard slumped in the chair, eyes shut and chin resting on his chest. Clint blinked at him for a few moments, his sluggish thoughts taking a while to present him with the information that he’d had the shit kicked out of him and was now in hospital.
There was a movement and he realised that he and the guard weren’t the only ones in the room. He shifted his head and found Bucky, standing over him with a worried frown.
“Bucky,” he said, and smiled. He’d been worried the drugs would keep him locked away from the cluster for a lot longer.
“Hey,” said Bucky, resting his fingers on top of Clint’s hand. “How’re you feeling?”
“Everything’s fuzzy,” Clint told him. He took a moment to take stock. “And I think there’s gonna be a lot of pain once it’s not fuzzy any more.”
Bucky’s forehead creased. “You got pretty messed up. Bruce winced when he saw your chart.”
“Bruce,” said Clint, thinking about him. “Bruce is great.” He tried to reach out to him but the link was still dead. “I can’t reach him,” he said, frowning. “I don’t- Tony! How’s Tony?!”
“Sssh!” said Bucky, glancing at the guard, who was still asleep. “Tony’s fine. You missed all the excitement. Your agent guy had a team going in for him at the same time as we were getting him out. He met up with them and they helicoptered him off the roof. He’s back in Rome already.”
Clint relaxed. “Good,” he said. “That’s good.” He tried to reach for Tony, but there was nothing. “I don’t like these drugs,” he told Bucky. “I can’t reach anyone.”
“I know,” said Bucky. “It’s okay, they’re all here. We’ve all been worried about you.”
“They’re here?” asked Clint, glancing around at the room. “I can’t see them.” Why could he see Bucky but not the others?
The guard shifted and Bucky straightened up, stepping away from Clint and reaching for a mop, and Clint realised he was dressed as a cleaner. The guard’s eyes opened at about the same time as Clint’s very slow brain put all the clues together and he realised Bucky was actually, physically present.
“Hey, what’re you doing?” asked the guard.
Bucky shrugged. “Cleaning,” he said, unhelpfully.
The guard glared at him, then turned his gaze on Clint. “You finally awake, Barton?”
Clint stared at him. “I guess.” Bucky was actually there and present, and he’d missed his chance to take advantage by being an idiot and not realising. He could have finally kissed him.
God damn it.
Bucky sent Clint a pointed look, then wheeled his bucket and mop out of the room.
“If you’re gonna stay awake longer than a minute, I guess we should let the doctor know,” said the guard, and Clint tore his attention away from Bucky to look at him instead.
“Uh, yeah,” he said, “yeah, good plan.”
“We’ll have to keep you in for a few days,” she said.
Clint blinked at him. “You mean I’ll have to put off going back to prison? Aw, snap.”
The doctor managed a smile at that. “Well, I guess it’s not all bad news.” She glanced at his IV. “How’s your pain? I can give you something else to help.”
“Nope,” said Clint. “I’m all good.” That wasn’t quite true, the drugs were wearing off and he was starting to feel just how fucked up he was right now, but he was damned if he was going to let himself be cut off from the cluster any longer than he had to be.
She raised an eyebrow. “Don’t be a martyr. You’re going to spend plenty of time in pain recovering from this.”
Clint managed a shrug, wincing as it pulled on his ribs. “Life is pain, Princess,” he said.
Apparently she wasn’t as up on her eighties children’s movies as he and Bucky were, because she stared at him as if he was as crazy as Jackson thought he was. Clint was kinda getting used to it now, so he just grinned at her and let it go. What the fuck did it matter what she thought of him?
The first guard was back, fiddling with his phone and looking mind-numbingly bored. Now that Clint was a bit more with it, he recognised him as a guy called Malloy who had always seemed about as decent as prison guards got.
“Hey,” Clint asked him. “What time is it?”
Malloy glanced at his watch. “Nearly 4am.”
Jesus, no wonder he looked like shit. There was a movement outside the room and Clint realised that Bucky was out in the corridor, a hoodie bundled over his cleaner’s outfit and slumped on a chair a little way down as if he was there for someone in another room. He caught Clint’s eye and gave him a nod.
Christ, had he just been hanging around the hospital all night, watching over Clint? Clint felt a surge of affection. How had he been so lucky as to get someone like Bucky in his life?
There had to be a way to get rid of Malloy so that Bucky could come in and actually talk to Clint.
“You’ve just been watching me sleep?” asked Clint. “I mean, hard to blame you, I am stunning to look at.”
Malloy gave him a very unamused look. “It’s better than doing strip searches. Not by much, though.”
“I guess I am a serious escape risk,” agreed Clint. “What with feeling like my insides have been pulped, being pumped full of a shit-ton of drugs and, of course, these,” he said, rattling the cuffs attaching him to the bed.
“You’d be surprised,” said Malloy. “Some convicts will take any chance.”
“Hard to imagine why when the alternative is getting the shit kicked out of us,” said Clint. “Oh, hey, have bad things happened to those guys?”
“They got sent to solitary,” said Malloy.
Clint guessed that would have to do. He glanced over at Bucky, whose eyes were still fixed on him. It seemed so weird not to be able to just reach out with his mind to talk to him.
Malloy let out a long yawn, then rolled his shoulders back wearily.
“You look like you need coffee,” said Clint.
Malloy snorted. “Yeah, that’s pretty much always true.”
A guy after Clint’s own heart. “Do you think hospital coffee is better than the shit we get inside?” asked Clint. He considered that. “Yeah, probably not much difference in it.”
“There’s a Starbucks in the lobby,” said Malloy. Clint felt his face light up. “Not that it’ll do you much good,” added Malloy. “You’re not meant to be eating or drinking anything right now, and I’m guessing that goes double for coffee.”
Clint made a face, then fixed him with his best beseeching look. “Doesn’t mean I can’t smell it if you got one, which you should definitely do. You get a coffee, I get to at least be in the presence of good coffee, win win all round.”
“And while I’m down there, you sneak off,” said Malloy. “Sure, no problem.”
Clint raised an eyebrow. “Sneak?” he repeated, and rattled the handcuffs again. “I think you’re massively overestimating my escapology skills. Besides, what the hell would be the point? I’m not so dumb that I think wandering around in a hospital gown with a stupid amount of injuries is a good way to break out of jail.”
Malloy looked at him for a long moment, then glanced at his watch again. “Yeah, okay,” he said. “But I swear to god, if you go AWOL…”
“You’d find me in the Starbucks,” said Clint. He relaxed back against the pillow and gave him a sloppy grin that probably spoke too much of just how many drugs he was on. “Or you could set up a trap with coffee as bait in it.”
Malloy snorted as he stood up. “I’m thinking you were probably right the first time, when you said you were too high to escape.”
“Yeah, probably,” agreed Clint.
Bucky hunched over into his hoodie as Malloy left, then got up and darted into Clint’s room. “How the hell did you manage that?”
“Magic,” said Clint, reaching out and wiggling his fingers at Bucky. “C’mon, come over here, I want to touch you. Can’t believe I didn’t realise you were really here earlier.”
Bucky was next to the bed in a heartbeat, taking hold of Clint’s unbroken hand. “Maybe because you were kinda high,” he said.
“I’m still kinda high,” said Clint, closing his fingers around Bucky’s and clinging on. Actually feeling Bucky’s skin against his was making him feel even higher, and he beamed at him. “Can’t believe you came out here.”
Bucky shrugged. “You went offline and didn’t come back. I didn’t really fancy just waiting around to see if you were dead or not.”
“I’m not dead,” said Clint. “I don’t even feel like I am, with all these drugs being pumped into me.”
Bucky snorted. “Yeah, I’m kinda getting that.” He glanced over to his left. “Bruce says that you should enjoy it while it lasts, because they’ll start cutting them down soon.”
Clint made a face. “I hate not being able to see everyone.” He glanced around the room. “Who else is here?”
“Tony and Thor,” said Bucky. “Tony said to tell you that he’s not impressed with you trying to steal his moment of drama by getting beaten up during his escape.”
Clint snorted. “Tony should shut up and take down the Sokovian government already.”
“He’s working on it,” said Bucky. “He and Thor, and Wanda and Pietro, they’re all working on it. There’s been a lot of international fuss and bother about the Sokovian government kidnapping a foreign businessman. Various European governments are putting a lot of pressure on them to call an election.”
“Awesome,” said Clint. “Elections are awesome.” He beamed at Bucky, who seemed to be on the verge of laughter, although Clint couldn’t have said why.
“Oh man, you’re just too fucking much, Barton,” said Bucky, then leaned down and kissed his forehead.
Clint blinked at him, then felt his grin grow even wider. He squeezed Bucky’s hand. “I’m so glad you’re here,” he said. “I got to meet you! That’s so great.”
“It is pretty great,” agreed Bucky. “I guess every cloud, and all that.”
“If I keep getting beat up, I can keep seeing you,” said Clint, which was apparently the wrong thing to say, because all trace of happiness was wiped off Bucky’s face and replaced with a frown.
“No way. You’re not allowed to die in a prison fight.” His hand tightened around Clint’s hard enough for him to think it would hurt, if he wasn’t dosed up on drugs.
Clint let out a sigh. “Fine, okay, I’ll do my best.”
Bucky’s head flicked around to the door. “Tony says the guard is on his way back. He’s tapped into the cameras. I’ve gotta go.” He leaned down and kissed Clint’s forehead again.
Clint made a face. “Wish you could stay.”
“Yeah, me too,” said Bucky, then glanced over his shoulder again. “Shit, okay, I’ll see if I can sneak back in later on.” He kissed Clint again and dashed off, making it back down the corridor as Malloy came back from the other direction, cradling a Starbucks cup.
“Oh great, you stayed put,” said Malloy as he came in.
Clint grinned at him, because it wasn’t his fault that his presence meant Bucky wasn’t able to stay longer. “Guess I’ll leave slipping my cuffs and scaling from the window with a broken wrist for tomorrow.”
“Okay, I’ll warn whoever comes to relieve me to watch for that then,” said Malloy.
Clint let his eyes fall shut. There wasn’t any point in staying awake if Bucky wasn’t going to be around to talk to.
“It is good to see you again, my friend,” said Thor. He was wearing a business suit, which was extremely incongruous. Clint wasn’t even sure where you got a suit large enough for Thor.
“I guess we now have conclusive proof that drugs are bad,” agreed Clint.
Once Bucky could reach Clint’s mind, he’d headed back down to the Starbucks to hang out rather than stay in the corridor attracting attention. “Is it the drugs or the getting beaten up that’s bad?”
Clint just shrugged at him. “It’s not like I could avoid either.”
“We need to do something about that,” said Steve. “We can’t just leave you in a situation where you’re going to get hurt.”
“Stevie, are you suggesting a jailbreak?” asked Bucky. “You crazy rebel.”
Steve huffed. “Just because I’m a cop doesn’t mean I think the justice system is infallible,” he said. “Sometimes, you have to take matters into your own hands.” He disappeared.
“I’ve seen that look before,” said Bucky. “He’s got a crazy plan.”
“What plan does this cluster have that is not crazy?” asked Thor, and then went to talk his board into putting pressure on a foreign national government to call elections.
Clint had tried to persuade him to go home, without much luck.
“It’s not like it’ll make much difference if you’re in New York or downstairs, and I’ll be sent back to prison soon.”
Bucky shook his head stubbornly, his hand gripping Clint’s. “Makes a difference to me. Besides, not like I’ve got anything to be in New York for right now. Nothing that’s more important than you, anyway.”
“Sap,” said Clint, and gave up. Having someone who cared with him, even if they couldn’t physically be there, was a whole hell of a lot better than just being surrounded by medical staff and whichever prison guard had drawn the short straw on keeping an eye on him.
It was a lot more interesting, as well. After several days of being stuck in hospital, Clint was just about well enough to be bored to tears, even with Bucky hovering over him. Luckily, he had the rest of the cluster to bother as well.
“See,” said Tony, tapping away at his computer with the light in his eyes that meant he was doing something he probably shouldn’t be, “people think that they tell computers what to do which, okay, did used to be true, fair enough, but things changed about twenty years ago, and they haven’t realised it yet. Now, it’s way more likely to be the case that a computer tells a person what to do. For example, if I hack the US Department of Justice network and get a computer at your prison to tell the warden that you’re being transferred...like that,” he said, pressing enter with a dramatic flourish, “then he’ll do all the work of telling the guards who are watching you to hand you over, he’ll amend all their systems so that no one expects you back there, and we can quietly slip you out without anyone noticing anything wrong.”
“Wait, we’re actually doing this?” asked Clint. It was the middle of the night for him, but he’d spent to so much time sleeping that he wasn’t even a little bit sleepy.
“Oh yeah,” said Tony. “C’mon, you think we’d take down a government for Wanda but not engage in a jailbreak for you?”
Clint had thought exactly that. He shrugged. “They’re not really the same thing.”
“But the motivation is the same,” said Tony. “We need you both to be safe. C’mon, bro, you know the cluster has your back. That’s kinda the point of the whole thing, right?”
Clint didn’t know what to do with that. He didn’t have a lot of experience with people caring about whether or not he was safe.
“It’s happening!” announced Wanda, dashing through Tony’s workshop on her way through to Moscow. “The prime minister has resigned and they’ve announced they’re calling an election!”
“I hope you’re going to run for a seat,” said Bruce. “The only way you’ll be able to truly change things is if you have good people in the system, working to better things.”
Wanda nodded. “I know. We have several people lined up already to run for positions, including me.”
“You will be a most excellent candidate,” said Thor, beaming at her. Most of the cluster were gathered now, other than Steve and Bucky, who were asleep.
“I hope so,” she said. “Sokovia deserves some good leadership for a change, so we can see what we can become.” She looked around at everyone. “I wanted to thank you all. You’ve done so much to help.”
“Eh, don’t mention it,” said Tony. “Just, you know, build us a massive statue when you’re prime minister.”
Wanda rolled her eyes. “That won’t be happening.”
Tony gasped and clutched at his chest with betrayal, which elicited pretty much no reaction from anyone.
“I mean, isn’t this the Department of Justice’s job? Why the hell are we playing glorified taxi drivers?”
“I asked to do it,” said Steve, which at least shut Sam up for a moment as he gaped at him.
“Not sure this is the best plan,” said Clint, from the back seat of their car. “I mean, Sam’s a good guy and all, but it’s not like he’s gonna understand why letting me go is a good idea.”
“Of course he will,” said Bucky. “I’ll make sure he does.” There was a note of threat in his voice that made Clint reach out and take his hand.
“Hey, no beating guys up for me. Not unless it’s completely necessary.”
Bucky scowled at him, but his grip on Clint’s fingers was gentle. “Not as if I could beat up the guys who did this to you.”
He sounded bitter, which Clint wasn’t okay with. “Neither could I,” he pointed out. “Six against one aren’t exactly easy odds.”
“Right,” said Bucky, but he didn’t meet Clint’s eye.
“Okay, so, explain it to me,” said Sam. “Why the hell did you want to drive all over the country for the sake of a convict?”
Steve hesitated for a moment, then glanced over at Sam. “Because he’s Bucky’s boyfriend.”
Sam stared back. “When the hell did Bucky find the time to get a convict boyfriend? Oh man, please tell me this isn’t one of those prison penpal things that always end in tears?”
“Nope,” said Steve. “They met...Well, it’s complicated.”
Clint snorted and glanced at Bucky. “I’m beginning to think we should just get that tattooed on our foreheads.”
“Don’t know that Stevie gets to claim this is complicated when he’s dating an Italian tech billionaire,” said Bucky. “At least we’re in the same timezone.”
“We are now,” said Clint, thinking back to when Bucky had been in Afghanistan. God, that felt so long ago now, back when he’d just been the sexy soldier who came by to watch Dog Cops.
Oh man, they’d be able to catch up on Dog Cops once Clint was free.
“Look, Sam,” said Steve, “do you trust me?”
Sam let out a long sigh. “Yeah, man, of course. Well, I trust you to always do what you think is the right thing, I don’t trust you not to get us into a shit-ton of trouble along the way.”
“No one will get in any trouble,” said Steve. “But there’s a wrong going on, and we’re in a position to right it. I can’t let that pass me by.”
“Oh god,” said Sam. “Of course you can’t. Please tell me I’m not going to end up getting fired.”
“You’re not going to get fired,” said Steve.
“Bet you ten bucks he gets fired,” Bucky said to Clint. Steve directed a glare at him through the rear-view mirror.
“With Tony doing the hacking?” asked Clint. “No way, man. Your money is gonna be mine.”
Bucky shrugged. “You can use it to buy me a drink then.”
“Okay, guess he’s all yours, then.”
Clint did his very best not to grin madly at Steve. Holy shit, this was actually happening.
“Great,” said Steve. “Any idea if the doctors have okayed him leaving?”
Malloy shrugged as he shrugged his jacket back on. “They said sometime today but I’ve no idea if they’re done with him yet.”
“I’ll find a doctor,” said Sam, and slipped out.
Malloy glanced at Steve, then back at Clint. “So long, then, Barton.”
“Bye,” said Clint, and then Malloy finally left. And, just like that, Clint was out of the prison system.
He grinned at Steve. “Hey, look, it’s another of the guys that lives in my head. And, wow, now I see what Tony meant about your muscles, man, you are built.”
Bucky turned away from the bag he was packing in his motel room and cleared his throat pointedly. “I’m right here.”
Clint patted at him. “And you’ve got great muscles as well but, seriously, wow.”
“You know, I could still just leave you here,” said Steve.
“Not if you wanted to live,” said Bucky.
Sam came back with a doctor, who did a last check over Clint and then declared him fit to go.
“Just make sure you take it easy,” he said to Clint, who nodded as if he wasn’t planning to jump Bucky the first chance he got.
Steve wheeled him out of the hospital, past the Starbucks where Bucky had spent so much time.
Sam flicked through the paperwork once they were all in the car, Clint locked in the back seat as if this was a real prisoner transfer. “The transfer order just says ‘into the custody of the NYPD’. Where are we meant to be taking him?”
Steve shrugged, then glanced at Clint. “Brooklyn sound okay for you?”
Clint grinned back at him. “Sounds great.”
Sam frowned. “Wait, we’re just letting him go? Steve, we can’t—”
“Sure we can,” said Steve. “The paperwork is all filled in, no one’s expecting him anywhere else, and he’s paid his debt to society and learnt his lesson, right, Barton?”
“Oh yeah,” agreed Clint, doing a little hop of excitement in his seat and then regretting it as his injuries complained. “I’m never gonna make the mistake of trusting my asshole brother again.”
“Oh man,” moaned Sam. “You know what? New plan. You’re going to tell me as little as possible, and I’m gonna have plausible deniability when Internal Affairs come for you.” He tossed the paperwork onto the dashboard. “Let’s get back to New York.”
“Definitely,” said Steve, pulling out of the hospital parking lot. “Just got to make one quick stop.”
Sam sighed. “It better include lunch,” he muttered.
“Sure,” said Steve, glancing at where Bucky was slumped next to Clint. Bucky rolled his eyes, but obligingly disappeared.
Sam glanced at Clint in the rear-view mirror. “I hope you appreciate what Steve’s risking for you,” he said. “He’s the best damn cop I know, he deserves better than getting messed up by something like this.”
“Hey, trust me, I get it,” said Clint. “I was kinda just resigned to staying inside for the next few years. Or, you know, until I got beaten to death.”
“We weren’t gonna let that happen,” said Steve.
“Apparently not,” said Clint, gesturing at the car then wincing as he pulled on his ribs. Five hours in a car back to New York was going to be a lot of fun, maybe they hadn’t properly thought this out.
Steve pulled up in the parking lot of the motel Bucky had been staying. Bucky strode over from the diner next door and tapped on Sam’s window.
Sam wound it down. “Of course you’re here,” he said. “Jesus, is there anything about this that follows procedure?”
“Shut up and eat your burger,” said Bucky, passing a stack of take out boxes through to him. He then opened the back door of the car, climbed in next to Clint, and just stared at him for a moment.
“Hey,” said Clint. “Check it, we’re not only in the same time zone, but the same place. And I’m fully conscious and only on the boring kinds of drugs.”
“It’s like same kind of miracle,” said Bucky. “Jesus, Clint.” He apparently gave up on words and reached out for Clint, pulling him in for a kiss that Clint happily reciprocated, unplugging his seat belt so that he could do his best to crawl into Bucky’s lap.
Oh man, he’d been waiting for so long for this, this was fucking perfect. Bucky was actually there, right there with him and under his hands where he could hold on and not let go.
“Oh Jesus, they’re not going to do that all the way to New York, are they?” asked Sam.
Clint didn’t need to look to know Bucky was giving him the finger. He smiled against Bucky’s lips and kissed him again.
Clint had been living with Bucky and Steve ever since they’d got back to New York, which had been fun to start with but was rapidly becoming a bit over-crowded, especially given how often Tony found an excuse to fly over. Not that Clint was really in a place to complain when Tony had managed to do something to the online records that meant there was no record of Clint’s criminal record at all now. He’d got himself a job at a local range, teaching a few archery classes and manning the front desk the rest of the time.
“You’re pretty married to Brooklyn, aren’t you?” Tony said to Steve. They’d settled on the roof with a few beers, looking out over the buildings to the harbour.
“Well, I grew up here, I work here, and all my friends are here,” said Steve, then shrugged, “well, the ones that aren’t in another country. So, yeah, pretty much.”
Tony nodded. “Okay, I can work with that, I guess. I mean, Manhattan makes more sense for the company, but it’s not exactly a million miles away and I can totally sell locating here instead as a savings measure, I can talk the board into it.”
“I think you’ve missed the starting point on this one,” said Bucky. He was relaxed back against Clint, nestled into the curve of his body, where it felt like he’d been designed to fit. Even after a couple of months, Clint couldn’t get over just how easy this had all been with Bucky, how neatly they matched up together.
Tony rolled his eyes. “C’mon, guys, you didn’t think I wouldn’t find an excuse to end up living in the same place as Steve, did you? And we all know there’s no way in hell he’d move to Rome, so Stark Industries are expanding their American operations, which we were probably past due doing. That includes building a new head office over here, one which includes a penthouse apartment for me as, you know, I’ll need to pay a lot of attention to it during the early stages of the expansion, and probably the later stages as well, and then, well, I might as well just move here permanently.”
Steve stared at him. “You’re moving to New York?”
“Yep,” said Tony, grinning at him. “Hope that’s okay.”
“Are you kidding?” said Steve. “That’s definitely okay.” He leaned in and gave Tony a long kiss that Tony quickly turned pretty filthy.
Clint cleared his throat and then, when that had no effect on them, glanced at Bucky with a raised eyebrow. Bucky turned in his arms enough to kiss him as well, clearly thinking on the same lines of Clint, which was that if you can’t beat them, join them.
“I’m beginning to think you guys just spend all your time making out,” said Bruce, settling cross-legged on his own roof with his breakfast, the early morning light tingeing the sky over Mumbai gold.
“Can you blame us?” asked Tony. “Have you seen how hot we are?”
Natasha was at Moscow airport, setting off on a tour of Sleeping Beauty through North America. It was horribly early there, which Clint chose to believe was why she made such a disbelieving noise at Tony’s statement.
There was a surge in noise from the crowd Wanda was surrounded by, in the headquarters of the reforming political party that she and Pietro had transformed their protest movement into once the election had been called. They’d managed to find candidates to field in every political district, opposing the traditional parties that had caused the government to get so corrupt in the first place.
“They’ve declared another two seats for us,” she told the cluster, cheeks flushed with excitement. “We’re only one away from a majority.”
“Have they declared the results for your district yet?” asked Bruce.
She shook her head. “The word from the office is that it should be in the next half an hour, though.”
“I am sure you will prevail,” said Thor. He was strapping his surfboard to the roof of his car after a long morning on the beach. Since his father had woken up from his coma and recovered enough to back control of Valhalla, Thor had spent most of his time at the beach. Loki had disappeared somewhere once it became clear that he wasn’t going to get anywhere with taking over the company, although Clint didn’t think they’d seen the last of him. “You will make a truly excellent minister.”
Wanda grinned at him. “I really hope so, but we can’t count on anything until the announcement.”
“You don’t want to jinx yourself,” agreed Natasha, then turned her head, distracted, as a man in a long coat met her eye then tilted his head towards the Duty Free shop. Her jaw tightened and she met Clint’s eye for a moment, then blocked the cluster out as she started to follow him.
“Do you think she’ll ever let us in on what that’s all about?” Bucky asked in a quiet voice, shifting back around so that he could rest his head on Clint’s shoulder.
Clint shrugged. “When she’s ready, I guess.” He drained the last of his beer and set the bottle to one side.
Tony made a face. “I hate not knowing shit.” He pulled a beer out of the case and passed it to Clint, then grabbed a new one for himself. “I mean, we’re all pretty certain she’s, like, some kind of spy, right?”
“You’ll feel like a fool if it turns out she’s just ashamed about being an underwear model or something,” said Bucky.
Natasha stepped out of the Duty Free shop with a blank look on her face. “I’m not ashamed of that,” she said. “I can let you know what to Google to find the shots, if you’re interested.”
Tony sat up with interest, then deflated when Steve levelled a glare at him.
Natasha’s flight was being called, so she started towards the gate. “Clint, do you still have Agent Coulson’s number?” she asked.
“No,” said Clint, “but I think Steve does.”
“I’ve got it saved on my phone,” said Steve. “Just in case.”
She nodded herself, then took a deep breath. “I’ll need it once I land in the US.”
“I knew it!” said Tony. “I totally said she was a spy.”
She shook her head. “I’m not a spy, I’m a spy’s tool, and I’m sick of it. They came to me when I first made it into the Moscow Ballet, when I was still more of a child than an adult. They flattered me and told me I was important enough to warrant their attention, and then they set me to collecting information from foreign diplomats. The ballet go on tours that always seem to involve receptions at the local Russian embassy, not to mention all the receptions we hold for the diplomats in Moscow, and they all let their guards down around ballerinas.”
“Who doesn’t?” asked Tony, and earned himself seven glares. He raised his hands. “Okay, okay, shutting up.”
“You’re ready to get out?” Bruce asked Natasha.
She nodded. “They’ve started asking too much and,” she hesitated, then pushed on, “I haven’t just been gathering information from the targets they’ve given me. I’ve been collecting things from them as well, and it’s started looking bad. I think they might be involved with Hydra.”
“Well, that’s not good,” said Clint.
“You think Coulson and his lot are the best bet for tackling them?” said Bucky. He considered that for a moment, then made a face. “Yeah, okay, they probably are. Fucking spooks.”
“Guys, they’re about to announce my seat,” said Wanda, and they all settled back in Sokovia, standing next to her on stage with the other candidates.
“With 19,246 votes, Wanda Maximoff is elected to the seat for West Vokos.”
Wanda blinked for a moment in disbelief, but the rest of the cluster were already celebrating, arms around each other’s shoulders as they jumped up and down.
“I told you that you would succeed!” boomed Thor, punching a fist into the air.
“You’re going to be a great politician,” said Bruce. “Well done!”
“Guys, guys!” said Tony, reaching into his pocket. “I bought party poppers.” He handed them out and the four of them set them off over Wanda, the streamers falling over the edge of the roof in Brooklyn as she stepped forward to take the microphone and make her victory speech.
“This is awesome,” Clint said to Bucky. “Check out how awesome this is!”
Bucky laughed, and kissed his cheek. “Better than being in prison?”
Clint beamed back at him. “So much better,” he said, and kissed him back, then turned back to Sokovia just as they released the balloons to celebrate having won enough seats for a majority. Fuck yeah, balloons were awesome.