It’s funny what you remember sometimes, and what you forget. Clint remembers it happened on a Wednesday. Movie night. Stupid, right? Who cares about movie night when your teammate has disappeared?
But it’s Clint’s turn to choose, and he has the movie all picked out: Pulp Fiction. It’s the perfect revenge on Steve, who made them all suffer through The Little Mermaid the previous week. Clint is really looking forward to watching Steve wince at every swear word. He even warned Bucky ahead of time about a few scenes so he didn’t jump out of his skin like he had when DiCaprio got shot in The Departed—also one of Clint’s picks, which is why he was tasked with scraping Bucky off the ceiling. Clint learned his lesson on that.
When they get a call out halfway through the first scene, Clint is already annoyed, partly at the anonymous tipster who reported a hydra cell half-way up a cliff in the Adirondacks so they need all the flyers, and partly at Steve who insists Clint come along as spotter. Steve goes along too, which meant either he is going to be pestering Clint constantly for updates, or someone, probably Sam, is gonna to have to carry him around in that stupid harness thing, like an enormous baby in a front pack. Sam had offered Clint a ride one time. No fucking way.
Bucky declines (AKA throws a pillow at Steve) when Steve asks if he wants to come along, which proves to Clint that Bucky has more sense than the rest of them put together, even though they usually have to pry the words out of his mouth with a crowbar.
In the jet, before they even leave the helipad, Steve reminds Thor (for the umpteenth time) to keep his comms in and let them know when he’s going to be out of sight.
“Thor, we can’t help you if we can’t see or hear you,” Steve says in that overly-patient tone. Clint has been on the receiving end of that tone a time or two himself, so he’s got some sympathy for Thor.
“I am the god of thunder. I have no need for a nursemaid,” Thor replies mildly. Clint reflects that Thor is keeping his temper quite nicely, probably because he has no idea he already has a nursemaid. A huge Star-Spangled nursemaid who can’t even control his own fucking hair, much less a team of misfits such as the Avengers, but that doesn’t stop him from trying.
“Well, you got lost last time, so—“
“I was not lost!” Ah, there’s the heat. A trio of little puffy clouds scuttle past the windshield, so Thor is still keeping himself under control, which is a nice improvement from a few months prior. “I am not responsible for the simple fact that Clint moved the jet while I was away.”
Nuh-uh. No way is Clint letting Thor get away with that, even if it means risking a thunderstorm. “No I didn’t,” he throws back over his shoulder from his seat in the cockpit. “It was right where we left it.”
“When I returned, the jet was not where it had previously been.”
“That’s because you were looking in the wrong place!”
“Ok, ok, it doesn’t matter,” Steve says in that overly-patient tone, like both of them are acting like children, when it’s clearly Thor who is wrong. “Just keep your earpiece in this time and there won’t be any problems.”
“It is uncomfortable,” Thor grumps, then quickly adds, “But I will try to keep it in.” Clint can’t see their faces, but he assumes Steve used “The Eyebrows of Disappointment”, which are highly effective, even, apparently, with Norse gods.
It doesn’t take them long to figure out that their anonymous tipster was right. Clint has his hands full identifying hostiles and pointing them out to his teammates in the air, which is made more difficult by the fact that Tony will. not. shut. up.
“So, Point Break,” Tony says over the comms, “I was thinking tomorrow we could run some more tests on your new hammer. Maybe head out to the midwest and see what she can do. I was considering calling her Ultie. What do you think of that name? Better than ‘Ultimate Mjolnir’. Now that’s a mouthful.”
“Shut up, Tony. Sam, Two o’clock.”
“I see it.” Sam dodges and weaves while Clint looses a couple of arrows to take out the sniper.
“Ok, clear. Vision, do you—“
“Yo, Thor,” Tony interrupts, “you still haven’t told me what you think of my plan. Sound good to you? We could make a stop on the way back. I know this place that has homemade peanut butter and jelly ice cream that’s to die for.”
“Seriously, Tony, shut it. Vision, do you see the entrance to the cave about twenty feet to your right? I think that’s where they’re coming from.”
“I see it, Clint.”
“Ok.” Clint scouts the side of the cliff and spots another cave above where Sam is picking up Steve. No activity, but it’s worth checking out. “Sam, can you—“
“I’m not getting a response from Thor. Legolas, what do your elf-eyes see?”
“Tony, I’m busy!”
“Cut the chatter, Tony,” Steve interrupts. “Clint, finish your sentence.”
“Sam, there’s a cave entrance about fifty feet above you. Can you and front-pack baby go check it out?”
“On our way.”
“Front-pack baby,” Tony cuts in. “Cute. I’m going to use that one. Are you done? Am I allowed to speak now? Or is everyone invited to this party except me?”
“What do you want?” Clint says distractedly, still scanning the cliff face for more hostiles. He spots two at the base of the cliff and looses a pair of arrows to take them out.
“If you had been listening, you would know I said I can’t raise Thor. Do you see him?”
Clint takes a quick look around. He saw Thor earlier, of course, but he’s been so focused watching for danger and directing Vision and Sam that he hasn’t even given him a second thought for several minutes. He always just assumes Thor will take care of himself, even if he often doesn’t answer his comm.
Thor usually moves so fast he’s just a red and gold blur, distinguishable from Tony by the flapping of the cape, but now Clint can’t spot him. Again, not unusual. Thor never thought he needed to report in to anyone, which gave Steve conniptions, but Clint figures there’s no point in trying to get him to change, given that he’s however-many-thousand years old.
“Don’t see him,” Clint says, just as he spots another hostile trying to get a bead on Tony with a grenade launcher, from the mouth of yet another cave higher up. “Tony, above you.”
Tony sends a repulsor wave that direction without even looking and takes out the shooter. “I’ve been trying to get Thor’s attention for at least three minutes,” he says, swooping up toward the entrance to the cave. “He hasn’t answered me at all.”
“He probably took out his comm again,” Steve says, in a tone that means Thor is going to get a tongue-lashing when they get back to the jet. “This cave is empty, guys. Anyone else have anything?”
“Empty here too,” Tony reports.
“The front section of this cave is empty,” Vision says, his voice echoing, “however, the second chamber of the cave branches off into multiple tunnels. Shall I explore them?”
“Go ahead,” Steve says, “maybe they connect up somewhere.”
Clint keeps scanning the cliffs for Thor and any hostiles, but everything has gone completely still. No movement, nothing. A few minutes ago he was spotting hostiles all over the cliff face, and now they have vanished into thin air, and isn’t that fucking suspicious?
“Hostiles all just took off. I don’t like the way this smells.” Clint says. God, he hopes Steve is right that Thor has just taken out his comm and is off exploring on his own. That makes sense, right? It’s not like something could have happened to him. The dude is a Norse god. He survived in open space without any gear; he’s damn near invincible.
“Captain,” comes Vision’s voice. He sounds. . . hesitant? Cyborg robot types aren’t supposed to sound hesitant.
“Go ahead, Vision. Did you find their base?”
“No, sir, I have found something else.”
“What is it?”
Two weeks. Two fucking weeks. No movie nights, no missions, no joy in Mudville. Just all of them either searching—for what Clint isn’t exactly sure, Tony just said “Weather anomalies”, and what the fuck does that mean?—or sitting around the tower moping and worrying. Natasha develops dark circles under her eyes. Wanda repeats over and over, “I should have been there. Why wasn’t I there?” until Sam tells her to shut up.
“We were there and we couldn’t even prevent it. What makes you think you could have done any better?”
But Steve—Steve is the worst. His eyes are haunted, and nothing anyone says can make it any better. Clint’s pretty sure he isn’t sleeping, because he keeps showing up in the common room at all hours of the night for coffee refills. And Clint only knows that because he too can’t sleep and has gone back to his little nest above the common room, the one with the good sight lines on the elevators and kitchen.
Finally, on the fourteenth night, as Steve is filling his coffee cup with industrial strength sludge, Clint drops lightly down from his perch behind him.
Steve jumps and splashes coffee on the counter. Clint is gonna pretend he didn’t see that.
“Couldn’t sleep?” he says casually, as if he didn’t already know that Steve spends nearly every night prowling around like a fucking ghost.
Steve wipes up the coffee with a dishtowel. No eye contact. “I was just. . . Tony asked me to look over some weather records. You know, for anomalies. I’m going to bed soon.”
Clint knows that with Steve, no eye contact = lying. He may claim to be all about Truth, Justice, and the American Way, but Steve is a horrible liar. Clint hoists himself up onto the counter and nods at Steve’s coffee cup. “That why you’re drinking toxic waste?”
“This is just. . .” Steve breaks off and squints into his cup. “Clint. . .”
“You don’t think he. . . you don’t think he left on purpose, do you?”
That surprises Clint a little, he has to admit. It isn’t something he has considered. Thor taking off and leaving his hammer behind seems highly unlikely. Maybe if you had asked him six months ago, after Bruce brought Thor back to the tower all beat up with his hair buzzed off and told them Loki was in the wind and Asgard had been destroyed. . . But now? Thor seemed like he was getting better. He didn’t seem likely to just up and run away anymore. And Clint can’t get out of his mind how all of the hostiles melted away just after they realized Thor was missing.
“No, I don’t think he would just leave. I think it was an ambush like I said before. They wanted him for some reason, so they're not gonna kill him. He’s out there somewhere. We just need to keep looking.”
“Yeah, you’re right. You must be right. He was happier lately, wasn’t he? He wouldn’t just leave. Which means they snatched him right out from under our noses.” Steve shakes his head and takes a swig of his coffee. “Doesn’t make me feel a whole lot better, sorry.”
Clint is about to respond, some bullshit about it being not Steve’s fault, but Friday interrupts. “Captain Rogers, Boss would like to see you in his workshop.”
Steve’s head jerks up. “Did he say what it was about?”
“No, sir, just that it was urgent. Mr. Barton, you are invited as well.”
“On our way.”
Clint and Steve arrives at the workshop at the same time as Natasha, who’s wearing sweats and an oversized hoodie that make her look like a kid playing dress-up. Sam comes hustling in right after, dressed in Captain America pj pants and a ratty t-shirt; followed by Wanda, in plaid pajamas with her hair up in a messy bun. Vision and Bruce are already there. Vision looks as implacable as always, but Bruce’s hair sticks up in all directions and his shirttail hangs half-out, like he was interrupted in the middle of getting dressed. Of course, Bruce pretty much always looks like he was interrupted in the middle of getting dressed, no matter what time of day it is.
“Ah, excellent, so good of you all to join us,” Tony says. “Sorry to drag you all out of bed. Well, most of you, I guess. Cap, do you sleep in grandpa khakis and a baby-doll tee?”
“Cut the crap, Tony,” Steve says wearily. “I assume you found something?”
“Found something. Yes, we have indeed found something. Wanna show them, Friday?”
“Sure thing, Boss.”
The lights lower. Tony flicks his fingers (all show, Clint’s sure, because Friday is obviously in control of the displays) and a screen appears in the middle of the room.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Vardja, Estonia.”
Clint squints at the screen, which displays a satellite image of a wooded area. Most of the sky is clear, but in the bottom left corner he sees some kind of weather system, a dark bank of swirling gray. . .
“Does that look normal to you?” Tony asks the room at large, pointing at the corner. “Friday, center and zoom in.”
The image shifts and enlarges, and now flashes of lightning are visible mixed in with the clouds.
“Supercell tornado?” Natasha guesses.
“That’s what I thought at first, but they aren’t exactly common in this area. And there’s no organized cloud pattern. It looks more like—“
“Thor having a meltdown,” Bruce interrupts. “I may have seen that once or twice. . .”
“Friday, run it back forty-eight hours, one frame per hour.”
The landscape stays the same while cloud formations flicker, form, and dissolve all around, except for the storm in the center, which swirls and grows and shrinks, but never dissipates, and never moves from that spot.
“Forty-eight more hours, please, Friday.”
In the moment of silence while they all examine the very persistent storm, a rough voice comes from behind Steve. “Hydra base.”
Everyone’s head jerks that direction, where Clint is surprised to see Bucky. He didn’t even see Bucky enter the room, and yet there he is, standing behind Steve’s shoulder wearing all black: jeans, combat boots, hoodie, and baseball cap, like it isn’t the middle of the fucking night. His arms are tightly folded and his hair is hanging in his eyes like he’s hiding. He is hiding, Clint thinks. He’s always hiding, even in the tower where he’s perfectly safe.
“He can string two words together!” Tony crows. “Care to elaborate, Bionicle? Or do we get to play twenty questions until someone hits on your meaning?”
Bucky silently eyes Tony like he’s expecting a fistfight. Clint thinks Bucky pretty much always looks like he’s expecting a fistfight: not hoping for one exactly, just resigned to the inevitable. Nine months he’s been living here, and Clint hasn't heard more than one or two words at a time from him. He never laughs at Clint’s jokes, and Clint has worked HARD to try to get him to laugh. Nothing. And his shoulders always look like he’s tensing for a blow.
“Ok, twenty questions it is!” Tony claps his hands and rubs them together. “Do you mean—“
“There’s a Hydra base outside Vardja,” Bucky said, pronouncing the name like a native. “Underground.”
“Ah, a full sentence! Where exactly?”
Bucky jerks his head toward the screen. Tony just raises an eyebrow at him, obviously waiting for him to be more specific. When Bucky jerks his head again, Tony says, “Are you having some sort of seizure?”
“Right fucking there.” Bucky points with his flesh hand at the swirling clouds on the screen. His temple twitches from grinding his teeth. Clint understands the sentiment.
“Buck? Can you get us in?” Steve asks.
Bucky’s only response is a curt half-nod, as if the effort required to produce those few words has exhausted him.
“All right, everybody suit up. All hands on deck in ten minutes. Let’s go bring our boy home.”
Clint ends up facing Bucky on the jet, who is sitting slumped in his seat with his arms folded tightly across his chest, gaze fixed somewhere over Clint’s shoulder. His mouth doesn’t move, but his face speaks pretty clearly.
It says Don’t talk to me.
Clint’s happy to comply. Now that the uncertainty is over and they have a plan of action, Clint’s insomnia evaporates and he is asleep within seconds anyway.
When he opens his eyes nearly eight hours later, still exhausted even though that was more sleep than he has gotten at one stretch in over two weeks, Bucky is still sitting in exactly that same position, except now Wanda’s head rests against his shoulder, eyes closed and mouth open. Clint tries not to react, but he feels his mouth tug up at the corner anyway, because come on. Bucky just scowls back at him, clearly unamused.
The one nice thing Clint can say about the weather surrounding the Hydra base is that it makes it really easy to sneak in. No guards are apparently willing to brave the hail-and-thunderstorm to hang around outside protecting the entrance, so they just stroll right in.
And one nice thing Clint can say about having two ex-Soviet Assassin types on his team is that they are really good at killing without drawing attention to themselves. Bucky dispatches the first hostile inside the entrance before Clint can even raise his bow. Just snaps the dude’s neck without even breaking his stride. Natasha takes care of the second one with a Widow’s bite.
They find the surveillance control room easily enough. Steve mouths “Three, two—“ but before he can finish the countdown, Bucky and Natasha are already in the door, and a second later Natasha sticks her head out and whispers “Clear.” Ex-Soviet Assassin types are handy like that.
Two bodies lie bonelessly over the chairs facing a table, where remains of their lunch is still spread out. A bank of security monitors lines the walls behind them, which they obviously weren’t watching, or they would’ve sounded the alarm already. Lucky for us, not so lucky for them, Clint thinks as he takes up a position by the door where he can keep an eye on both the hallway and the monitors.
Retracting his faceplate, Tony sits down at a workstation and starts messing with the keyboard. In just a few seconds, different rooms in the compound enlarge on the monitors. The first two show views of a room with tables where several people sit calmly eating. The third holds a man and a woman in lab coats working over a rack of test tubes. The fourth contains two tables, one empty and another cluttered with unidentifiable equipment, but apparently no people.
Clint hears a low cry on the other side of the room, followed by a thump and a scrabbling sound. He turns to find that Bucky, who had been watching the monitor over Wanda’s head, is now on his backside, backed into the corner with his arm over his head. Shit. One of the downsides of ex-Soviet Assassin types, especially the ones who are capable of crushing windpipes one-handed, is when they lose their shit, they go all out.
“Bucky?” Steve says cautiously, reaching a hand out toward him. “Buck? What is it?”
Bucky curls in on himself more tightly, making a small sound like a wounded animal. Double shit.
“Steve, don’t touch him,” Natasha says. She is looking back and forth between the monitor and the scary assassin/terrified POW on the floor. “Bucky,” she says in a matter-of-fact voice, like it’s totally normal for him to be curled up on the floor practically shitting his pants, “do you recognize anyone?”
Bucky wordlessly points toward the third screen, where the woman is using some kind of dropper or whatever (Clint doesn’t know how to science) to transfer a red liquid from one test tube to another. The woman has a mousy face and grayish hair pulled up into a ponytail. She looks very ordinary, harmless, like someone’s grandma, until Clint realizes the red liquid in the tube is probably blood, maybe even Thor’s.
“Her?” Natasha asks, touching her finger to the screen.
Bucky nods jerkily. Steve, kneeling by his side, looks like someone is squeezing his head. He reaches out his hand like he really wants to touch Bucky, but stops before he makes contact.
“Hey, guys,” Tony says, leaning in toward one of the other monitors, the one that shows an apparently empty room. “Whaddaya think of this?” He points to a corner of the screen, where Clint can see a little sliver of something red, maybe fabric. Tony taps a button and zooms in on the corner—definitely fabric. “It moved a second ago. I’m thinking that’s Thor’s cape. Shall we go find out?” Tony spins the chair around. “What do you say, Cap?”
But Steve is too busy staring anxiously at Bucky at the moment to give orders. “Hey, Bucky, it’s all right, pal,” He says. Bucky has lowered his arm but is still scrunched into the corner with his gaze focused on the far wall.
“Right, all right,” Tony says, spinning around in the chair. “Ok, Barton, Vision, you go with Cap and Barnes to find Thor. Romanoff, Maximoff, Wilson, you go drop in on those so-called scientists. I’ll stay here and monitor for hostiles.”
“Right. Let’s go,” Natasha says. She squeezes Steve’s shoulder and heads out the door with one of those scary intense expressions on her face that Clint knows well. Wanda and Sam follow on her heels.
As they head down the hall, Clint hears Wanda say, “Just to be perfectly clear, we’re going to kill them, correct?”
“Oh yeah, they’re dead,” Natasha replies.
“Oh, don’t kill them both at once, girl. I want in on that action,” Sam says as they disappear around the corner.
Bucky pries himself out of the corner and shakes off Steve’s offer of a hand up.
“Are you all right?”
“Fine,” is all Bucky says, “let’s go.” He edges past Steve out into the hallway.
“Bucky? Do you know where to go?”
“Yeah,” Bucky says flatly. They all follow him down the hall and down two flights of stairs into subterranean levels lit by flickering bare bulbs. Bucky’s combat boots are completely silent on the stairs, as is his knife when he slits the throat of a guard who is unlucky enough to come upon them as they exit the staircase.
When they get to the room at the end of the hall, Bucky doesn’t even check to see if the rest of the team are ready, just kicks in the door and stalks in with his gun in front of him. Steve follows, then Vision and Sam. Clint, taking up the rear so he can monitor the hallway, sees the tables first. The one nearest the door is empty—no, not quite empty; it’s smeared with dried blood and what might be vomit. Chains dangle from the sides, with smallish metal cuffs attached to the ends. Those wouldn’t fit Thor—that table must have been used for someone else
The table in the back holds something glowing orange—maybe a ball?—that wasn’t visible on the security camera. Clint narrows his eyes at it, but then he’s distracted by a little whimpering sound coming from the other corner of the room, too high-pitched to be Thor, so maybe another prisoner is being held here?
He look toward the source of the noise, and sees, not Thor, but a little boy wrapped in Thor’s unmistakeable red cape—frightened blue eyes; matted, dirty-blond hair; filthy face streaked with blood and tears, one eye ringed with a dark bruise; one small fist clutching the cape with the corner stuffed into his mouth. The wrist has a metal cuff on it attached to the wall with a length of chain. Those little cuffs on the table—this kid is who they were meant to fit. Clint wants to vomit.
Steve exchanges a glance with Bucky, then they both just sort of stare at the boy, who makes a frightened sound in his throat. A dirty bare foot appears, little toes pushing against the floor as he scrabbles backward further into the corner.
“Um. . . Hey there, buddy,” Steve says. “Hey, it’s all right. Um. . . What’s your name?”
The boy’s wide-eyed gaze darts from one to the next, as if trying to decide who is the biggest threat. He’s terrified, Clint thinks, of course he is; somebody chained him to a fucking table and tortured him.
Steve glances at Bucky, who gives a minute shrug, then he crouches down and tries again. “What’s your name, pal?”
After a pause, the boy pulls the corner of the cape out of his mouth and says in a hoarse, scratchy little voice, “Four.”
Four? What kind of name is Four? And then suddenly Clint remembers Cooper at age three, trying to say “thumb” and it coming out as “fum.”
“Thor?” Clint says. “Is your name Thor?” This. . . is Thor?
Steve blinks. “Thor?” he says incredulously.
“Dat’s what I said. Who are you?”
“I’m—I’m Steve, this is Bucky, Vision and Clint.” Steve gestures to each member of the team in turn. “We’re gonna get you out of here.”
“Did my mother and father send you?”
What are they supposed to say to that? Sorry, kid, your parents and everyone you ever knew are dead. Oh, and your whole planet’s been destroyed too. Sorry.
“Yes, they sent us,” Steve says, without making eye contact. Dead giveaway. Goddammit, Steve, you're a terrible liar.
The boy narrows his eyes suspiciously. “What are the secret code words?”
Shit. They all just kind of look at each other, because how the hell are they supposed to know?
“By the power of Odin,” Clint jokes, because he has this problem where he says the first thing that pops into his mind. Stupid.
Everyone freezes. As Steve shoots him The Look, the kid pipes, “Yes, dat’s right.”
Steve’s eyebrows fly up in almost comical surprise. He turns back to the kid and opens his mouth, but the boy is looking past him at Clint with these bright blue, trusting eyes. “Will you take me home?”