"You could've made that shot," His brother quips, trying to sound accusing but his smirk gives away his amusement. Clint sets his final arrow into the quiver, ignoring Barney just a moment longer before looking up to acknowledge his brother's harassment. It's nearly noon the day after a performance, so it seems about the right time for it.
"I told you during practice that morning-we weren't going to do that shot."
"But you can make it. I've seen you make it-the angle, the position, everything is perfect; it's staged! Just take the shot, it'll make the routine that much better if you just-"
"Barney. No," Clint ended, a hand signaling he was through with discussion. They'd argued enough in the past week alone about the final shot in Clint's act, and while Clint was satisfied with his double flaming arrow trick shot, his brother insisted he take a final curved shot that snatched two targets at once.
"People like fire-they prefer fire! Fire is good," He shrugged, trying to end the discussion on a light note. He wasn't mad at Barney. He just knew he was right, and Barney needed to accept that.
"You alright, bro?"
Clint paused, giving Barney a look over his shoulder that questioned this out-of-nowhere concern that Barney had materialized.
"I just mean, you've been on edge for a week now…you're not still having that weird dream, are you?"
"No," Clint lied. The dream where nothing made sense and Clint woke up, feeling a rush like they'd been all too real. The dreams of sky and light and voices that Clint didn't recognize from any show or circus, regardless of whatever influence he'd been under.
"You'd tell me if you were?"
"Course," he lied again.
Barney saw through it and shook his head, rolling his eyes. "Pain in the ass," he muttered.
Clint retaliated with the appropriate younger brother response of sticking out his tongue.
Barney motioned a threat that if he caught that tongue, there'd be hell to play. The moment his back turned, Clint made a face.
"Suit up, Hawkeye," Barney grunted, Clint smiling as his brother retreated.
"It's the Amazing Hawkeye, thank you very much."
"I suppose I owe you an apology, Clint…crowds do love fire!" Barney winks, tossing Clint a towel as the younger brother runs the cloth across his brow, smiling that his brother has finally accepted he was right. The show is ending as they speak, while the crowd still awestruck from Clint's last performance. Their eyes are alit, much like Clint's final arrow had been, and Barney had not missed this as he overlooked his brother's performance from behind the cast's curtain.
"I knew you'd see to reason soon enough," Clint jokes, taking a chug of water as well to calm his dry throat. Barney rolls his eyes and leans against the nearest post, watching Clint for a moment before casually mentioning,
"Do you like it here?"
"It's nothing but cornfields-it's home though, isn't it? We'll be down south in a week, though-just in time for Mardi Gras I think-"
"-That's next month."
"I meant here…apart of the circus."
Clint pauses, trying to read what Barney is getting at before setting his water bottle down again and rubbing the back of his neck, which is sore from sleeping on it wrongly.
"You…want to leave the circus?"
"I want to know if you like it here."
Clint winks an eye in thought, breathing heavily through his nose before scratching his forehead.
"Clint, it's just a question. C'mon, honestly, did you think, when we ran away to join the circus at our preadolescent ages, that we'd be a part of the circus until we were forty, fifty-? I just want to know if you really are…content…being here, and spending your whole life here. Will you be okay becoming the next Gary?"
Gary was well past his prime and was bound in contracted work to the circus on paper only.
Clint tried to nonchalantly shrug. "Gary seems happy-"
"That's because Gary is drunk."
"I…am happy. Barnes, the circus is fine-we work maybe three shows a week and we travel all across the country; it's a steady pay and it's not some desk job…" Clint trailed off.
"So you wouldn't mind wearing that ridiculous spandex for the rest of your life?"
"Purple looks good on me," Clint shrugs. "Why are you so against the circus now? What's got you thinking we have any other place out there in the world? It's not like we have a college education-hell, Barnes, you never graduated high school-"
"I've got some money saved up, it's not too late-"
"Money saved up enough for the both of us? To support us while we pushed at least one of us through education, working menial jobs-because that market is stable-"
"Clint, I just-"
"-The circus is survival, Barnes," Clint declares. "It's a paycheck and a roof over our heads and it's all we've got. So," He nods, not quite knowing what to finish with and just hoping that his message was received and that Barney will quit challenging his decision.
He's not sure, though, who he was trying to convince more; Barney, or himself.
The brothers turned to face Gary, the old stage direction manager who had self-demoted himself to free-loader drunk. The only reason the circus kept him around was that management had yet to hear of how little productivity Gary provided, and rarely did they interact or interfere with any of the lowly workers or cast of the circus.
"Gary, you look chipper as ever!" Barney joked.
Clint chuckled as Gary ignored him.
"The ringmaster'd li' a 'ord wit' you, 'Clin'…" Gary slurred.
"Just me? What does he want-"
"Te hell 'f I know.."
Clint looked to Barney. Rarely did management want to even acknowledge the circus brothers, and even odder yet did they want to acknowledge only half the pair. Barney smiled encouragingly at Clint, but twitched momentarily with surprise.
Clint stepped slowly after Gary, his eyes following Barney.
"It'll probably only take a minute. I'll just be here," Barney smirked.
Clint smiled in return, nodding.
"No you won't-you'll be chasing after the girls behind the elephant trailer."
"You know where to find me."
The Ringmaster could be found behind a flap, a tiny office, branched from the great tent of the show itself. They were an old school circus, in this day and age, with a classic stage of dirt and a roof of posts and fabric. Everyone slept amongst the animals and hay, the only difference between seasons being how close for warmth you slept to the strangers around you (No one was a stranger, though. They were a family).
Gary didn't follow Clint in, remaining outside the room's opening. Clint didn't suspect much behind it-Gary would avoid the ringmaster just as the ringmaster would avoid Gary. Their feud was infamous, but the man in charge would never fire Gary. Maybe some life debt or guilt kept him from it.
Or the paperwork wasn't worth the trouble.
Clint nodded to Gary, who scratched his beard and pretended not to see, and stepped inside.
The ringmaster, a middle aged man who only had his position because he was a distant relative of the owners of the circus, stood behind his fake wood desk. He looked irritated and Clint grew wary that perhaps a prank had come back to haunt him. He wasn't in the slightest aware of what this meeting entailed, but if he was about to be punished for something Barney, too, was accredited blame for…
Damn Barney, Clint thought. This would not be the first time he took the fall for his brother's schemes.
They were adults by now, surely they'd outgrown this stage in their lives where everyone lectured and berated them.
The ringmaster ignored Clint, raising a hand to silence his protests before he began.
"These gentlemen specifically requested your presence. I'll leave you to them," he finished, and with that exited the tent.
Clint, bewildered, turned his attention to the side of the tent that he'd neglected to notice before.
In two chairs sat the oddest pair Clint had ever seen (amongst a circus setting, no less).
The first man looked baffled to be here. Fidgeting and nervous, he pushed at his glasses apprehensively and tried to smile genuinely at Clint. His shirt was buttoned down and tucked into his pants. His hair looked like it once upon a time had been combed back into a proper, neat presentation but now it just fell loosely over the man's forehead, having been run through too many times with nervous hands.
The second man, dressed in a suit that cost more money than Clint had ever possessed, Clint instantly recognized from a time magazine cover.
"Clint Barton-the amazing Hawkeye, I presume?"
Mr. Stark spoke first, standing as though to take in Clint's appearance, fully weigh and judge him for size. Clint continued to gawk at how the billionaire, known for his weapon designs and technology, knew of Clint at all. He forgot to even respond.
Mr. Stark coughed and Clint quickly caught his mistake, babbling a short "yes."
Mr. Stark didn't smile, or scowl, but something in his eye gave away that he recognized Clint, like he'd found an old friend after years of searching.
Clint looked to the second man, who was slowly lifting himself from his own chair.
"This is my colleague, Dr. Bruce Banner."
Clint smiled. A doctor?!
"Spectacular show you put on, out there; loved the bit with the fire!"
Wait til Barney heard that!
"Sorry to take you away from your work, gentlemen," Clint started. All the manners he'd never been taught were flooding to him; he'd try his damn hardest to appear presentable to these two men, at all costs.
It was at this that Stark frowned.
"Barton, may I call you Clint?"
Clint nodded slowly, before caching himself and adding, "You m-may, Mr. Stark."
Mr. Stark narrowed his eyes momentarily before coughing and continuing.
"Clint, Dr. Banner and I…we've tracked you down because we have a dilemma."
Clint looked between the two. Banner had yet to say anything, and this meeting was growing in strangeness. He turned back to Mr. Stark, nodding for him to continue.
"We've…found ourselves very far from home," Stark continued, looking to Banner pleadingly as though requesting his help in explaining.
Clint scratched his head.
"I can't offer you money, sir; surely, that's not the problem? I mean, the airport is down on-"
"No, no thank you, that's not it. And believe me, I'll never run out of money," Mr. Stark chuckled, though only he saw the humor in the joke. Clearing his throat, he continued.
"No-by home, I mean…" Never one to keep a secret, he blurted, "-this isn't our world."
Clint thought he heard wrong, so he pretended to understand and nod. Dr. Banner caught this and sighed, finally intervening.
"Mr. Stark means…this dimension, rather. This…time continuum. It's not the one we're from-"
"I swear it was Loki or that bunch again. Gods," Mr. Stark scoffed. Clint continued to imagine he was hearing things, though it was becoming increasingly difficult to do so and continue to keep his composure.
"Barton," Dr. Banner continued, "Where we're from, our actual…world, I guess you could call it, though it's the same world, in a sense…ah, the point is, Barton-"
"We're not from here." Mr. Stark cut in. "Banner isn't, I'm not. And you. You're not from here."
Clint found his words, and the conversation, because all at once he interjected, "Excuse me, Mr. Stark, but you're accusing me…I-I'm from here," he laughed, nervously. "Me, and Barney, my brother, see-we've lived our whole lives together and a good chunk of it in the circus. I don't mean to accuse you of being wrong," but you're crazy, "But perhaps you have the wrong Barton. It's a common name, and I'm sure the one you're looking for maybe knows he doesn't belong-"
"Clint Barton? The Amazing Hawkeye? World's Greatest Marksman? From Iowa-"
"You read that from the fliers-"
"Yes, that's how we knew where to find you. You're the Barton we've been looking for, and thankfully you were easy to find."
"Yes, but you're saying I'm from another world-?!"
"We are," Mr. Stark corrected.
What a prank this was! A billionaire and a doctor trying to convince him he was an alien?!
"Did Barney put you up to this? I don't know where he found you, sir, because you're a dead ringer to be an impersonator of Stark, and I don't know how much Barney paid you both to pull this off, but I'll have him know if he blew our paychecks off for a little laugh-"
By this, Stark had had enough, cutting Clint's rant off short.
"Barton. You could not pay me enough to come down to this dirty, double-dealing circus tent with the intention of singling out one performer for a prank. You're circus itself is not worth enough money to pay me to do that. No, myself and Dr. Banner are here because we are not from here," He paused to frown, choosing his words, "from this dimension. No, this is going to sound crazy but you are going to believe us because it's the truth and I, as you know because I just told you, would not be here if it was a lie."
"Where we are from, where you are from, I am still a billionaire, and he is still a doctor and you're the greatest marksman in the world. But, I do not manufacture weapons-" again he hesitated, "anymore. And Banner has some.." again he struggled for believable words, "issues. Issues that do not come into play in this world because they did not occur in this world. See, the timeline here is different. Because at this point in your life, in your actual life back where we're all from, you are no longer apart of the circus."
Clint cocked a brow at this.
"If I'm not a part of the circus, where are Barney and I..?"
Mr. Stark almost answered that before catching himself.
"You…you are a spy."
Clint burst out laughing at this.
It was hilarious, Clint thought, collapsing hysterically into the chair nearest him. He folded himself to his knees, his hands weighing down his head as he either cried or laughed.
Finally, he looked up.
Barney would love to hear this.
Mr. Stark slowly nodded, wary of Clint's reaction.
Clint smiled, turned his face towards the exit, and stood.
"Well, it was a pleasure meeting you both. I enjoyed this conversation, though I feel awful sorry for the two of you, having wasted your time here-"
Before he could step, however, Mr. Stark had stepped in front of him. He was a short man, though built in build and with a dead, serious look in his eye.
"This is not a joke, and I'd thought I'd made myself clear this was no lie, either," he snapped.
"Tony," Dr. Banner warned.
"I know it is difficult to believe. I had a hell of a time convincing Banner over here, but the point of it all is that it's the truth. You want to hear something that makes even less sense? You're a super hero. Well, no, I'm a super hero. You're a super spy who kind of joined us.."
"I am Iron Man," Mr. Stark continued, practically barking at Barton to shut up and listen to him.
"He is he Hulk," he pointed to Banner, who sheepishly nodded once in acknowledgement, though clearly he seemed uncomfortable with the title, whatever the hell it meant, Clint thought.
"We were a part of a rag tag group of misfits, of extraordinary people, who together make up a team called the Avengers."
Clint felt an unsettling in his stomach, but swallowed it down.
"There was Captain Steve Rogers, also known as Captain America." This caught Barton's attention, because he recognized the iconic name but could've sworn he'd read all about America's super hero and his demise back during the World Wars-
"-And there was Thor, and he's a demi-god from another planet-"
"He's an actual alien," Banner provided.
"Thor, as in mythology-?"
"Yes," Banner answered. Stark rolled his eyes and continued.
"And there was Natasha Romanov, the Black Widow and an assassin and your partner."
Barton cocked a brow at this, still fighting whatever his stomach was brewing.
"And you. You were Hawkeye, and you were one of us."
That was the final straw, and suddenly Clint had had enough. He pushed past Stark, determined that this was the end of that, until Stark called after him,
"Take one step out of this tent and Barney serves ten years in prison."
Clint froze, slowly turning to face the man.
"See, I didn't take it that you'd believe me so easily-"
"Stark," Banner warned.
"So I did a little research."
"The hell did you say?" Clint snapped.
"I hacked into the records of the circus-someone's been taking a larger cut of their share than they should. Enough that over the years it's become quite a sum, a debt."
Clint cursed under his breath. Barney had done wrong in the past, though Clint entirely blamed their master, Trickshot, and while Barney was trying to clean up, it was a habit hard to break. Especially when everyone in this circus was as corrupt and encouraging of the hustling on the side.
"With what I've collected of your brother, he could spend years in county. You don't have the cleanest record, either." Stark shrugged.
Clint almost decked him then and there.
"Leave Barney out of this. What the hell do you-"
"Don't mistake me. I didn't want to bring Barney into this. But I didn't expect you to believe me exactly right off the bat. The thing is, though, I need you to believe me. I need you to believe me, because I want to go home-back to the real home. Where I haven't caused the massacre of thousands of innocents with my own weapons and where I actually redeem myself for my past mistakes or at least I'm trying to. I need to go back to where someone is waiting for me. I need to go back because I don't belong here-neither does Banner, and, newsflash, neither do you."
Clint shook his head.
"This is my home-"
"No, it's not. You know how I know that? Because I read your file, your 'spy' file, and it says you left here. You walked out because you couldn't handle the corruption and the deceit-"
"I'd never leave Barney-"
"-He left you! To die."
Barton didn't hold back, socking Stark squarely in the jaw. And if he felt any regret about punching the man who held his and Barney's lives both by string, he sure didn't feel any of it.
Banner rushed to help Stark stand, but Stark waved him off. He didn't seem too shaken from the hit-perhaps he expected it. He sure as hell deserved it.
Stark turned his eyes back to Barton.
"Most of all," he continued, as though he'd never been interrupted, "I need you to believe. Because as much as I need to get back, so do you. So do all of us."
"I don't know what you want from me," Clint screamed, hysterically. It was infuriating, talking to this man.
"I need you to accompany us to a ballet."
Clint shook his head. He hadn't heard Stark right.
"I need you to come with Banner and I to a ballet."
Clint straightened his shoulders. Great, back to the pranking. Why was he still here, listening to these two again?
"Come with us to this ballet, and I'll personally erase the records on Barney."
"Please," Stark frowned. Banner shrugged, nodding for Clint to not doubt Stark's capabilities.
Clint thought for a moment.
"So…all I have to do is follow you to a ballet?"
Stark hesitated, looking to say more, but finally agreed, "Ya, sure, sure. Just…come with us to a ballet."
Banner seemed to shoot Stark a warning glance, but Stark ignored it.
"It's just one night. It'll be a great show. And, it's in Paris."
Clint nearly choked.
"France, yes," Stark rolled his eyes.
"I'll fly you out myself."
"And if I go…you'll leave Barney alone?"
"I'll do you one better, I'll even leave you alone."
That made up his mind.
"Clint! There you are! What was that all about? Gary said there were these two strange men-? Clint..?"
Clint's somber face said well enough for Barney to quit talking, which unnerved the older brother further.
"Come on, Clint-you're not getting arrested or something, are you?"
Of course that would be the first conclusion he comes to.
"I'm going to Paris."
"Paris? The across-the-pound Paris?"
"Sure as hell not the Texas one."
Barney scratched his head.
"Well, we'll start packing-"
"Just me, Barney." Clint scowled.
Barney laughed, confused.
"Clint, I don't understand. Some strange guys come up and you're going to Paris…with them, I presume?"
"It's just for the weekend, maybe a week. I'll be back, Barney. I'm not leaving-"
That took relatively no convincing. Clint frowned.
"Yeah, sure. I'm a little scorned you didn't invite me, but so long as you bring back a souvenir-"
"If you didn't tell me up front why, then that means you can't. Or just won't. And that's fine. You just better be back in a week." Barney winked and left it at that.
Clint smiled, because even if a part of him began to doubt this reality in favor of what those two had told him, he couldn't imagine it.
Clint had ridden in an actual limo to the airport, driven by some skeptical servant of Stark's. Clint didn't dare touch the mini fridge, too afraid Stark would charge him or that everything would somehow melt and he'd wake up on his familiar haystack beside a snoring Barney. As much as he maybe wanted to be back at the comfort of the circus, he didn't mind if this dream lasted a little longer. He'd never been on a plane before.
Mr. Stark and Dr. Banner were already on the jet (A private one, Clint gawked at) and barely acknowledged him when he entered. A flight attendant offered Clint champagne. He regretfully declined-he couldn't stomach it.
The moment the plane took off, Clint felt a lurch in his stomach. But it wasn't a fearful one, or even a sick feeling. It was like nervous twitch, like his muscles couldn't stand to be still. He stood, hoping to relieve himself in the bathroom. Somehow, without realizing it, he ended up at the front of the plane, walking in on the pilot and copilot.
He meant to apologize and quickly walk out, but instead found himself fixated by all the controls. Some looked familiar, though he swore he'd never been inside a plane, no less the front of one.
The pilot was understanding, switching to autopilot and pointing out a few basics controls to Clint. Clint had forgotten for a moment where he was, or where he was going, and by the time it occurred to him that Mr. Stark might not appreciate Clint snooping in his jet, Clint excused himself.
If Mr. Stark had been informed by a stewardess or not on Clint's appearance in the cockpit, he didn't reprimand Clint for it. In fact, Clint could've sworn Stark had smirked at him. Like he knew something Clint didn't.
Clint popped a few sleeping pills and shut his eyes tight for the rest of the half-day flight.
"You should see this city during the day!" Stark threw back as he led himself, Banner and Clint from the jet. It was a few hours after dusk and Clint couldn't quit yawning, only breaking the stream with the occasional gasp. Paris was nothing like any fields in the Midwest America.
"Come along, then. This particular ballet starts in two hours and I want to see the look on your face when we witness a real show."
Clint spat in offense. The circus was far superior to some girly dance recital.
Their balcony seats at the theatre looked to Clint like a golden Godiva chocolate box. The seats were red and the balcony itself was too warm for his liking. The suit Mr. Stark had rented for him cost more than his own life savings and felt tight and stiff. The collar was buttoned and a tie hung around his neck like a noose that he would periodically loosen whenever his companions weren't looking.
He shoes squeaked and the cuffs of his sleeves annoyed him. His hair had been greased back and Barton had to resist running a hand through it.
This was the most uncomfortable he'd ever felt. He was dressed like a monkey and was an entire ocean away from his bow and quiver, a sacrifice he'd made for the sake of getting past customs at the airport.
Clint decided to distract himself with conversation. He wasn't exactly warmed up to Mr. Stark, however, so he opted to speak to the more reasonable, he thought, of the two strangers.
"So…you believe Stark," He began, warily. He kept his voice down, hoping to avoid Stark interjecting.
Banner didn't hesitate.
"Because he's right."
Clint frowned. That approach wouldn't help convince him any. He might as well play along.
"So, in this other world…where we're all super heroes," Banner smirked at the word, "You're what exactly again? The Hotel-"
"-Hulk," he corrected.
The doctor smiled briefly.
"The Other Guy."
That answered nothing.
"Alright, you two. Take your seats and enjoy the show."
Stark called from in front of them. Clint sighed and slouched into his seat. "Yeah, wake me when this is over-"
Clint frowned, rolling his eyes as the theatre dimmed. All he had to do was sit through this show-sleep through, more like it-and when it was all over and done, he'd get one the plane and be home by tomorrow afternoon. He'd feel jetlagged at worst, and he kept reminding himself to stop by the airport gift shop before catching his flight out of here, for Barney's sake.
He closed his eyes for a second before a hand slapped his shoulder, jolting him awake. The doctor was pointing with his eyes to the stage, and Barton spared a glance at it.
Instantly, his eyes were drawn to a dancer, singling her out amongst the crowd leaping on the stage.
"That," the doctor whispered, "is your partner."
Barton wasn't very educated in any ballet. In fact, he only knew of the Nutcracker and Swan Lake, and just a year ago he'd been informed that Cinderella was in fact a play adaptation as well and not just a Disney movie that he'd seen at a drive in theatre when he was young and ignorant and still living with his parents, who at the time were also still living.
He hadn't finished a book since the summer reading the summer before he and Barney dropped out of school and ran away to the circus, and the last anything that he read all the way through was his contract, which Barney had read beside hind it'd taken them several hours to finally comb through and fully understand what they were signing.
Because of this fact, Clint instantly ruled out that his interest in this play stemmed from the plot, because to be perfectly honest he had no idea what was going on.
And he didn't care enough to ask either the doctor or Stark what it was they were watching.
His focus on the girl, rather woman, also wasn't as easily explained as he might've wished.
She was pretty, yes, beautiful, for sure. She had full lips and gorgeous eyes, even from as far up at Clint was perched could tell. Her skin was milky, smooth, and her hair was a deep red, pulled back into a bun and sleeked to fit her skull.
It was impressive, her flexibility and control. Years of practice had honed her body into almost a grotesque shape of muscle and bone. Clint wouldn't dare say she was unattractive.
But he'd seen prettier.
So to say he was drawn to her ethereal beauty wasn't it. And even if she was the first woman he'd ever laid eyes on, he still didn't think his attraction to her based from lust.
He was drawn to her like curiosity to a flame. Something about her was familiar and he'd sworn he'd fallen asleep, drifting in one of his strange dreams of late that he swore had flashes of her red hair dancing in the corners of his eyes. The ballet was silent but he swore he heard her voice. The lights were dim save for the blinding stage, but still he remembered fires and a bright sun and a clear sky with nothing beneath him.
"Ever been on something like this?" He hears himself ask, in his mind, and suddenly the theatre is no more and there's just the open sky.
"I've been on a ship before," says a voice he knows is hers.
"You might want to come inside," he quips, and now he sees her and she's giving him a look that challenges him to find any interest in her eyes that declares she actually gives a fuck.
"It'll be easier to breathe," and suddenly there's a large cranking noise and now he feels as uplifted as when he was on that jet of Stark's and she suddenly looks startled, frightened, and she whips her head around and he sees that flash of red as her hair follows.
Then there's a shake at his shoulder and the bright endless sky vanishes and the theatre returns. The doctor is looking curiously at Barton, searching his eyes knowingly as though he suspects. The woman's voice slips from his memory and he can't recall what he said to her or what she said back and he shakes his head and brushes off the doctor.
"Is it over?"
The doctor looks hurt, or disappointed, or both but he nods.
"Yes, it's over."
In the lobby, Barton seems to be the only one walking at a reasonable pace, ready to leave this stuffy music box and return to the jet.
The doctor takes each step of his hesitantly and Stark is practically dragging his feet, distractedly stopping at every wall mural and arranged flower pot on the way.
Finally, Stark barks up, "Hang on, one moment. I'd like to pay my respect to the company. Come with me, you two, won't you?"
Barton can feel a pool of sweat on his back and prays it won't ruin or stain the suit or else Stark will kill him, and for that very fear he doesn't speak up against Stark's detour. He wants to return home to Barney as soon as possible because he's still ruffled from that out of body experience and he refuses to think on it anymore. He just wants to touch back down on American soil and forget this night.
Banner smiles slightly, catching what Stark's doing and eagerly picks up his pace in pursuit. Now it's Barton's turn to lag from behind.
How they manage to get backstage is beyond Barton. Stark has connections or speaks Russian (He thought it was French, until Banner explains this is a touring Russian dance company) or pays off the security, because then the three of them or stepping over sand bags and behind curtains and Stark is collecting bouquets from unsuspecting dancers which he snatches when they look away, piecing together his own makeshift arrangement as his eyes dart for some target.
His eyes lock on something, but by the time Barton gets in position to see what it is, a door has closed. It's a changing room, with some scribbling on the name plate that Barton can't read.
Stark thrusts the flowers in Barton's hands and pushes him towards the door, aloofly looking away.
"Pay my regards to Miss Romanova-she was fantastic. Tell her Tony sent you, which will get her blood boiling," he shrugs, "or would, rather."
Clint, confused, looks back to Banner.
"What..?! Aren't you both coming in-"
"I think you'll do just fine to get the message across-" Stark winks, further pushing Barton forward.
"You're not still going on about that alternate universe, are-?"
Stark grabs Clint by the shoulders and faces him squarely.
"Inside that room is Miss Natalia Romanova, except you know her as Natasha Romanov-"
"I don't know her at all!"
"-So it's your job to convince her she does."
Stark reaches for the door's handle.
"Me? Why me? I'm not even convinced-shouldn't you be the one to throw your crazed theory at her-"
Stark side-stepped in his way. Around them, couples dressed for the occasion filed from the booths and chairs, talking of the performance and paying no attention to the three men. They looked pleased, satisfied, though the expression did not mirror on Stark's face, who contrary to usual looked in no gaming mood.
"You may be comfortable with your little pick-pocket life as some flimsy side-show act, but you were and are more than that. Where we are from, you use your talents for good, to save the world; not entertain a crowd while you rob them. You want to pretend that the circus is your family, fine-but family never sells one another out and it never forces its own to steal and cheat and lie for them. This may be hard for you to believe, but back where we, you, are really from, we were a family. And we were there for each other, for you, and likewise. And now someone has separated our family and we're trying to get back. Because right now, a piece of our family is on another planet, or left back in the forties, or has trained her whole life as a ballerina in Russia. So the odds aren't looking great-which is why we need everyone in our 'family' to be on board and help us gather our merry band back."
Clint watched Stark, but his face never faulted. Finally, giving on, Clint ran a hand through his hair. It was getting long, he needed to cut it.
"Trust me," Stark mutters, "This way will be more convincing. Perhaps for the both of you."
Barton shakes his head, thinking this prank and these madmen are too much, but before he can push his way out of hit, the door is opened and he's thrown in and then it's shut again.
Natalia Romanova was dressed in her robe, a flimsy little silk thing that allowed her skin to breathe momentarily after having stripped from that suit and skirt. Her desk had been adorned with flowers and cards from fans and friends alike, and she had smiled through reading each and every one. She was well loved within her dance company, and had just thanked her choreographer moments ago, who had brought her a photograph of the company, signed by everyone and gifted to her.
When the door opened, she'd assumed it was Alexander returning, having forgotten something or announcing a cast appearance on stage or some client or other who was important enough to warrant a personal greeting and acceptation of some gift or gratitude or other.
What she wasn't expecting was some scruffy man who looked out of place in his own suit, let alone her dressing room, holding a mismatched bouquet and wide eyed with terror that appalled her.
She stood quickly, closing her robe tightly as she crossed her arms about her chest, glaring at the intruder before quickly demanding at him why he was in her dressing room.
She had initially done this in her native tongue, but quickly caught on by his blank stairs that he didn't understand.
She asked again, in French, this time lowering her voice slightly, to appear less threatening.
Again, he said nothing. She tried again, impatiently, but he cut her off mid-sentence, babbling,
"S-sorry, I don't-"
"English?" She tried, her accent a little rusty but still impressive, having not been to London in several months.
He nods slowly and glances at the flowers.
"They're, ah, for you," he awkwardly adds.
"American!" Natalia adds, her brows rising. She hasn't been to the Americas in several years, a quick trip to New York that had left her curious for the rest of the country but never fulfilling that thirst.
The man nods again and fidgets with his hand cuffs. Is he an agent of some sort, she thinks. Perhaps he's the new guy, or inexperienced or perhaps he's just a fan with enough cash to land himself an audience.
There's an awkward silence between them until finally they both move to speak, at the same time.
"No, you go ahead first," he offers, but the brief look in his eyes shows he regrets the offer immediately.
She just nods, and continues, "You…you're with a company or..?"
"Ah, I'm…representing Stark Industries!" He babbles. She recognizes the name-a large American company that has come up in several of the discussions of parties she'd attended recently, but it still leaves much to be left explained.
"Mr. Stark sends his regards…your performance was incredible," he's rambling, and again he outstretches the flowers towards her.
"These are fore you," he mumbles.
She accepts the bouquet and finds a card stashed into the petals. It's addressed to another dancer, and the man seems to catch on to that fact when she skeptically looks back to him.
"They…ran out… " He mutters, and she's not sure what he's referring to.
"Sorry, I didn't catch your name?"
He scratches the back of his neck, hesitant to offer it. Perhaps he's worried she'll press charges.
"Barton," he finally offers. The name strikes her as familiar, and she gives his face a good, hard look. He keeps looking down so she can't make out his features very well and his eyes are a mystery, but he looks possibly familiar, or in any case goofy.
As if reading her mind, he runs a hand through his hair and the illusion of the gel breaks, ruffling his short hair as it stands up straight, no longer greased to his scalp.
She takes a deep breath and crossed her arms again.
"Thank you, for the flowers," she motions to them, but her voice is forceful and what she doesn't say but is left understood is that she's asking him to leave.
He nods, understanding, and turns, but stops to hesitate and glances back.
She catches a glimpse of his profile and she hardly hears what he says next because she knows that face.
"Do you believe in alternate universes…other realities?"
She's never even thought about them.
"No," she blatantly responds.
The man nods slowly, and then seems to laugh to himself.
"I'm not with Stark Industries."
She's still trying to glimpse his eyes, which refuse to look up from his hands.
"I mean, I'm with Stark, at this moment. The Tony Stark-"
That name annoys her, for some reason.
"-And he's just outside this door, or should still be," he mutters. Does she even understand him? He's mumbling quite a lot and while her speech is flawless, maybe he's giving her too much credit and she's actually not as eloquent in English as he thinks she is, but then again neither is he.
"Along with Dr. Banner, but…it's alright if you've never heard of him. I haven't."
You'd have to be a scientist to ever have, he thinks.
"And…and they approached me, much like I am to you now, twenty four hours ago with this…ridiculous theory," he laughs, "that…that they, and you, and I-we're all from some different time continuum. That we were transported to this alternate timeline…" and he's giggling now, because this sounds insane and she hasn't said anything.
"It gets better!" He offers, his voice rising in confidence because this is all some big joke to him and she should really feel worried but doesn't.
"Because…they went on to explain, to me, that in this alternate universe…we were all some bunch of super heroes!"
He chokes up a little, trying not to cackle to himself but damn he could go for a beer right about now or something stronger. Still, she says and does nothing.
"Stark is…I don't remember what Stark is, Money Man or something-" he chuckles, "And Banner can transform into a beast or a bear…I don't know, 'The Other Guy' he called it-some evil twin.?"
They really should have done a better job explaining to him.
"Oh, and Captain America was with us!"
He winks, "But I guess that doesn't appeal to you," because what stir of patriotism is a Russian going to feel for a man named Captain America?
"Do you know Norse Mythology? I don't, not really. But I know Thor, the God of Thunder…apparently, we have him too?"
He's certifiably insane, he thinks. He wonders if her room has one of those secret desk buttons that she can press and security will barge in at any moment. He prays the American embassy can save his ass from the French law, but doubts it.
"And you're probably wondering, well, with guys like that, who were we? Well, we were spies-"
He pauses to see if she reacts, but still she doesn't.
"I mean, we were partners. I think," he frowns, "I think that's why Stark sent me in here…he thinks, because we were partners, that maybe that bond or something will help either of us remember, because him and Banner seemed convinced and they're trying to convince…" he trails off.
Natalia still is looking at him with a blank expression, and a part of him believes she could be a spy. He can't read her worth a damn.
In any case, she must be good at poker.
"They called you the Black Widow," and finally her eye brows perk up and it's something, though not much.
He admires her face and he can't deny she looks familiar, but probably because he's seen a thousand faces like hers in the crowds across America.
"…and your hair used to be shorter," he whispers, and she almost doesn't catch it. She reaches for her aforementioned hair, which she had released from its bun and brushed through a few times but still needed to wash to fully remove the gel.
She looks flustered, but he continues to stare at her, forgetting everything he was supposed to say, if there was anything he was really meant to say anyway.
"…I'm sorry-" He finally offers, turning to leave.
And he stops, because he never told her his first name.
"You think this will work?"
Stark shrugs, watching the cast strip of costumes and laugh amongst themselves. He's guarding Natasha's door, just in case someone tries to interrupt, or Barton tries to make a run for it.
"Not sure," he finally answers Banner, who nervously leans against the wall. Banner sighs, rolling his eyes.
"I'm putting my faith in their relationship," Stark adds, looking at Banner straight on.
"That's what I did with you."
Banner thinks a moment, then smirks.
"And then what? If either of them finally remembers, or they both do? What then?"
Stark doesn't answer.
He's going off on a whim that if he can convince their team, that it'll break this spell or nightmare, or whatever, and they'll return home. Because as much of his life, his real life, as he can remember, he can't for the life of him piece what happened in those final moments that sent them here and erased their memory. He's not sure if this is time travel or a mirage, but it's not how things are supposed to be and he'll fix that.
He doesn't catch what she just said because his mind is still replaying his name being called by her.
"What did you just call me?"
"B-Barton," she catches herself, "y-you said…you were saying!"
She motions for him to continue, impatiently. He just stares at her.
"This other world…continue, please!" She hugs herself again and refuses to look at him. Clint nods slowly and tries to think of everything Stark and Banner ever told him.
"They mentioned…we were here, in this universe that we're apparently not from, because…of the gods or something? Loki, I think they said?"
He feels uncomfortable saying that word and she looks as unnerved as he, but he shakes his head and can remember no more.
"Look, they're just outside the door, and I could ask them to come in and tell you all about it if you think you'd believe them-"
He nods. Well, he didn't either.
"But I believe you," she adds. That surprises him.
"I don't want to hear them. Tell me more about what you remember."
He shakes his head.
"That's it-I don't. I…I don't believe it," he finally admits to himself. "I don't think I can. I remember my life, and I remember living with my brother and my parents until they d-died," he stutters, "and after that, running awake to the circus with my brother. I can tell you about every show I've ever performed in because I remember them that well, and I can tell you everything you've ever wanted to know about the circus. And I thought I knew everything there was to know about me until a day ago, when my brother approaches me with the proposition that perhaps I don't want to live and die under a circus tent, and that night I'm having this crazy theory thrown at me and two strangers tell me my brother tried to kill me in this other world, when twelve hours ago he was just looking into my best interests and wanting me to get out of this miserable life as a carnie-!"
This isn't what she asked to hear, but it's all he has to say.
"And now I'm in Paris! I've never even been to Canada, though I've been by the border plenty enough, yet now I'm here in fucking Paris, France! And I'm at a ballet, in some monkey suit, and if Barnes ever found out he'd never let me live it down-!"
"Barnes is your brother?"
He slowly nods, hesitating before picking up,
"…And when I saw you, for a second maybe I did believe those two lunatics outside this room. Because you look familiar and because I thought I'd heard your voice before I'd even met you, but I don't want to believe them. I can't."
"Because your brother," she half offers to him and to herself, a small whisper. He slowly nods.
She's a pretty little thing and to still be listening to him after all this says wonders of her character. But he's overstayed his visit and now he's wasting both their times. He needs to get back to Barney.
"I'm…sorry," he finishes, and regardless of whether she calls out to him or not, he needs to leave. He makes his way towards the door, but it's opened before he even reaches it.
"We need to leave-" It's Stark, and he looks irritated.
Barton says nothing, but quickly nods. He didn't need to be told twice.
"Wait!" Natalia calls out again, and Barton spares her a glance because Stark is blocking the door anyway.
It's that moment that she catches his eyes and they're grey and light and she's seen them before.
"How did we meet?"
Stark scratches his chin and begins to answer, but Natalia cuts him off.
"Clint. How did we meet?"
Barton shakes his head.
"Stark never told me-"
"I don't know that one," Stark admits, and Clint looks at him with surprise, because after having fabricated every other detail, he'd suspected Stark would have that covered as well.
"It wasn't explicitly revealed in either of your files," Stark shrugs, "-when I hacked into them at the time."
Clint looks back to Natalia. "I don't know…sorry."
He turns to leave again, but she yells back at him, "That's it? That's the best you've got in trying to convince me?"
"I told you. I don't remember…I don't believe!" Now he's irritated, because the fact she's playing along with this whole charade just prolongs it. "If you want to hear more about it, ask Stark here-"
"He doesn't know how we met."
"And neither do I! So no one does!"
"…I do," she whispers. Her accent clears up a little, and she stutters out, "At least…a bit. You said my hair was shorter then-what did you mean?"
"I don't really know."
"You meant you remembered seeing it shorter-"
"Maybe," he whines.
"Sure!" God, this is pointless! Just yell things she wants to hear, he thinks.
"You also said you've heard my voice before-"
"I thought I did. Hearing it now, though, I can't remember. It was some fantasy, I don't-"
"And I knew your name!"
So, she had noticed.
"That doesn't mean much-"
"-But it could?! Tell me how we met!"
"I don't remember!" He yelled, and he knew this was going to draw attention to her dressing room, what with Stark still silently propping the door open.
"Try to!" She yells, and out of pure anger and irritation, she throws the bouquet down and it hits the nearest desk on its way, which rattles the table and knocks a vase over. The crash is crisp and loud and the shattered shards spread across the floor in a mix of water and stems.
Barton stares at the mess for a moment before responding.
"I…don't remember how we met. But I knew who you were before then," he pauses, adding, "I think." He glances up at her. "And I think you knew who I was, before then, too."
She slowly nods, and he lips twitch, threatening a sad smile.
"…I was your target. And you had spared me. I owed you a debt for that…" Her eyes come alive with tears and she's beaming up at Clint, but he looks frozen in horror because he doesn't recognize her or anything.
"And then I joined Shield-"
Hadn't Stark mentioned that? Or not?
"-And we were partners."
She clasped a hand over her mouth, and something seemed to overwhelm her as she fell to her seat, gripping the back of the chair briefly before glancing back up to Clint.
"Clint!" She looked to Stark, recognizing, and back to Clint, but her smile faltered when she did not see the same recognition reflected in Barton's eyes as her own.
Stark sighed, between the two.
"Natasha," he finally supplied, and she whipped her head to face him again.
"Stark…Tony, Clint doesn't remember-"
Now Clint felt out of place, like everyone was in on something that he wasn't because he had sworn a moment ago that Natalia….Natasha…had been in as much disbelief as he had been. And it was like a joke, that suddenly he was, again, the only one who didn't remember something that apparently did exist.
"Natasha," Stark warned again, and suddenly she was standing, looking almost angry.
"Why doesn't Clint remember?"
"I'm right here-" Clint offered, angry.
"How come I remember and he doesn't?!" She yelled, and she sounded desperate.
Like she couldn't handle loosing Clint again.
"He doesn't believe," Stark muttered.
"Look," Clint began, "I tagged along, just like you wanted, and I talked to Natalie-Natasha. And it seemed to have worked great-she remembers. But, see, I'm not so convinced. I'm not your guy, so just let me go back to the circus and you can go find the rest of your jolly family-"
"Clint, what're you talking about..? Clint, please believe me, you're one of us-"
"Saying my name over and over won't change anything, sweetheart."
Banner suddenly stepped into the room, as frantic and hastening as Stark had been.
"We need to leave. Now."
"Natasha, we can talk about this on the go," Stark warned. "We need to leave. Now," he reiterated.
Natasha, still distraught, nodded, stepping after Stark.
Clint shook his head.
"No. I'm not going anywhere with you bunch anymore. You're taking me to an airport, and then I'm taking the first flight out of here for Louisiana-"
"-Change of plans. You're still coming with us. And we are leaving, but not for," Stark cringed, "Louisiana."
Clint shook his head.
"You asked, no, forced me to attend one ballet. One ballet-"
"Right, think of this as Act II."
Clint wishes he put up more of a fight because in all honesty, he really wanted nothing more than to brute his way from the theatre to the airport. Except Stark had the money and offered transportation and knew this city and the language and still had Barney's fate on a whim.
For those reasons, but mostly only the latter, Clint followed Stark and Banner and now Natasha, who a minute ago had been Natalia, as the four of them weaved throw the dancers and crew. Several people greeted or praised Natasha as they made their way through, and she would politely accept their appraisal and then carry on. Clint was amazed at how she was handling herself, for moments ago she looked ready to breakdown.
As rushed as they appeared, each one of them managed to hastily walk through the lobby without causing a panic. Barton was completely baffled, because here was the star of the ballet walking around in nothing but a robe, casually in the company of three strange men who screamed that they were up to something.
Clint also wondered if someone was chasing them, and whether that was their reason for leaving so quickly.
Stark called up his valet and under a minute, Barton found himself crammed into a limo with Banner beside him and Stark across from him.
Natasha stared at him from her seat, her face in a mixture of interest and pain.
It was quiet at first, before Clint finally broke it.
"Where exactly are we going?"
Stark seemed to think on it before responding, "Jarvis?"
Clint frowned, turning to Banner. Was his name Jarvis?
Without warning, a fifth voice spoke up, seemingly from the car itself.
Clint was the only one surprised.
"How's that list going I sent you?"
"I've located three of the five names you requested. A miss Maria Hill resides in New York City, New York. A Dr. Jane Foster currently is stationed at a research facility in Baltimore, Maryland. A Phillip Coulson resides in Buenos Aires, Argentina."
Stark didn't seemed pleased with the information the stoic voice presented, but he continued.
"The final two?"
"A Dr. Selvigg has been traced to three possible conventions currently-scanning security footage for a match is occurring."
"And the last?"
"Nick Fury whereabouts remain unknown. Are you certain that is his real name?"
Stark didn't answer.
"Right. Thank you, Jarvis."
"What happened?" Natasha snapped, turning sharply to Stark.
"I don't remember."
"Why the hell are we here?"
"Natasha, we don't know…" Banner offered, trying to calm her down.
"Did anyone else hear that?" Clint muttered, still perplexed over the robotic voice. Surely that wasn't the car speaking! Was he in some television show?! Was this Knight Rider?
"Why the hell are we here and how come we remember everything and why doesn't he?" Natasha snapped, again returning her attention to Clint. Clint frowned. He was getting real tired of this shit.
"Stop the car."
Stark whipped his head to face Barton, who hadn't sounded this threatening or serious since before he'd decked Stark back under the tent.
"Stop this God damn car, Stark!"
No one said anything.
"I humored you. I went with you to Paris and hell, I even pitched your crazy ass story to this lady. And you all must be in on some joke, or maybe you're all just crazy and finally giving in to it, but I don't have anything to do with this! I don't know what any of you are talking about and I don't understand how I'm involved-"
"-you're involved because you're one of us-"
"-But I'm not, am I? I don't remember like you all do."
"You were remembering," Natasha pleads.
Barton shakes his head.
"No. No, none of this makes sense to me and I want out. Now, Stark."
Stark eyed Barton, finally mumbling, "Clint…"
"I'll take prison over this. Hell, Barney can hate me from here til hell, but I won't sit through another damn minute of you three yelling at me to-"
His sentence was cut short when the car hit impact.
Natasha comes to almost immediately. Stark, beside her, is wide alert and gripping at anything he can, which includes her hand. She yanks it back and looks across from her at Banner, who is settling his glasses properly before he, too, turns his attention to the window as has Stark.
Natasha looks to Clint, who looks unconscious with his head slumped against his shoulder.
"Banner!" She snaps, and the doctor looks beside him, quickly checking the pulse, before sighing in relief.
Natasha leans forward, as though she needs to see for herself, while Stark fumbles with the door.
"I think we have company."
"Friend or Foe?" Natasha snaps, pressing her fingers under Clint's jaw for a pulse.
Stark smiles at her.
"Put on your rain coat. A storm is coming."
There's a playfulness in his eyes and she catches it. She knows exactly what he means.
Banner, too, catches on, whispering to himself,
Natasha lays Clint down, once Banner and Stark exit the car. She'll join them in a moment, but Barton still hasn't woken and she wants to make sure he's alright.
She sits back and sighs, wondering what's going on outside but more importantly what's going on in general. Where are they? That somehow the clock has been rewound for all of them and that Clint still hasn't remembered that. That they, at least Stark and Banner and herself, still have their memories is proof enough that whatever life they lived before existed-so what does that make this one? An illusion? A dream? And they can't wake from it, and Barton is so engulfed by it that he doesn't believe they need to wake up?
"Romanov, you might want to see this."
Natasha hisses under her breadth, because she hates having to leave Clint but he looks peacefully asleep so maybe she can.
She slides out from the car and follows Stark and Banner's eyes to look up at the sky.
She's no astrologist or scientist, but what she's looking at doesn't look natural.
"Clint's still out," she mentions.
"So is Happy," Stark responds, and Natasha feels a bit remorseful that the driver is being wrapped into all this. When they return, she'll personally buy him some coffee. For everything Stark put him through that he doesn't even know about.
If they make it back, she corrects herself.
Thunder cracks through the sky and a trail of lightning immediately follows. The wind picks up and the howling of it nearly shatters whatever glass hasn't already been broken by the impact of the storm.
And it seems almost in an instant that there, before them, lies a circle of runes, burned into the ground, and standing in the center is a familiar face Natasha did not expect to see in this life again.
"If the news I bore was not so ill, I would happily greet thee, my friends." His voice is solemn and he sounds heavy with regret.
"Alas, I believe we need to speak."
"I'll say," Stark frowns.
"Who the hell is that?"
Everyone turns around to face Barton, stumbling from the car with a hand to his head, applying pressure to the bump that is quickly bruising.
"Barton!" Thor beams, eyeing between his friends.
"It had been a sore sight to see thy lady companionless, but you are here indeed! This warms my heart! Now only is the Captain missing-"
"Who are you?" Barton mumbles, looking between the others. Thor, confused, turns to Natasha.
"Do my friends not recognize me?"
"We do," Stark explains. "Barton over here…"
But Clint stops listening, shaking his head. "No, no, not another God damn one of you! He believes you? Who is this, then? Hm? Captain America!"
"Have your eyes failed you? Do I not look to be myself?" Thor asked, convinced Barton could not see, therefore identify, him.
Stark sighed, "Of really only two options, you think he looks like Captain America? Try again, Mr. Deductive Reasoning."
"…Thor? This is the God of Thunder?"
"I am," Thor boasted.
Barton stumbled backwards, still shaking in disbelief.
"No, that's enough. I'm going home now. It's been a hell of a night, and you all are crazy! Enjoy making up stories amongst yourselves!"
"Man of Iron, I do not understand. Why is Barton so…dismissing?"
"He doesn't remember," Stark frowned, "And how do you?"
Thor narrowed his eyes, "I believe this to be the work of my brother, if not directly than by some part. This…other world he has designed, cast us to-it cannot be explained lightly. I did not suspect any difference, but dreams were my allies that revealed his intentions and I now remember. I sought out the rainbow bridge to cross to your realm to find you, my friends, for I do believe this involves us all."
"So…you do or don't remember how or why we're here?"
"I do not."
"But you suspect Loki had something to do with this?"
Natasha cursed. "The last thing I remember, the last real memory I have, is of being at Stark's Tower. And there was a call, by Fury himself I think, but I…I don't remember what he said."
Banner nodded, "Yeah, I remember that too...Is there a reason we can't remember beyond that? Like what exactly happened that sent us…here?"
"Perhaps my brother did not wish for us to remember his involvement, or our dilemma."
"In case it had some way of helping us return," Stark moaned, more so annoyed with that damned trickster god.
"Did you mention something about dreams?"
Everyone turned to face Barton, who now leaned against the trunk of the dented car, trying to piece what everyone said.
Thor nodded slowly.
"It's just…I've been having…weird dreams, lately. These past few weeks, really-"
"What of?" Stark cut in.
"I…didn't really know. If I had to guess…" He hesitated, because he knew the second he spoke the word, he'd doubt himself all over again and he'd slowly begin to suspect that maybe this band of crazy was right. "…you guys."
Natasha seemed to brighten with hope, but Clint gave away nothing on his face. He was still skeptical, and he prayed she'd stop looking at him like he was going to suddenly remember her, or any of them.
Stark dragged a hand down his face.
"Right, I need coffee. Anyone else? Is Happy up yet? Let's find the nearest Starbucks-Paris has one of those, right?"
Happy sits baffled at the back of the plane, laid out on a cot as stewardesses attend to him. He doesn't understand what hit the car and caused him to black out, and he also doesn't understand how Tony can so calmly summon the airport transport to lift them back to his jet. He doesn't even ask where the newest cosplay clown addition came from. He didn't ask questions when he picked up the circus performer, and he got the hint not to mention the ballerina as well.
Natasha was now dressed, thanks to a suit Pepper kept onboard in case of emergency, and had seated herself between Thor and Clint. While she leaned towards the later, she also kept her hand from his (a restraint that on impulse she found to be difficult) and remained aware of his distrust and space.
Stark gasped between chugs of coffee (Crappy and black, despite several packets of cheap creamers) while Banner faced a window, as though willing himself anywhere but here.
"Right, so our plan of action is..?"
Stark opened the floor to discuss, but no one spoke up.
"Come on, you always complained I talked too much. Here's your chance to overrule me."
"You can start by taking me home-"
"Not you, Water for Elephants. You're in this for the long haul."
"Was that a circus joke?"
"If Loki is the source of the problem-"
"-then why not find him? Force him to revert all this!"
"Loki has been…lost."
"You killed your brother? In a few days, you kill the very brother we've been fighting for, quite literally, years-"
"My brother is not demised!" Thor sighed, his eyes heavy with a sadness not spoken, and Clint quickly realized what the others had not. Thor had gone through much more than simply piecing a few dreams together. There had been a confrontation.
"Loki is your brother?"
Thor looked up at Barton, everyone turning to face him as well. Thor smiled sadly.
"I forget, my friend, that nothing that transpired reaches you yet…You know nothing of Loki….or the grief he caused you," Thor added, mumbling, "and for that, I'm almost grateful. Yes, Loki is my brother."
Barton shot a glance to Natasha, thinking perhaps she understood what Thor meant. She looked down quickly and Barton ignored it for the most part.
"Well…" Barton thought a moment, shifting in his chair, "I have a brother too, you know."
Thor frowned, "This I did not know," and turning to Stark, he added, "was this so where we come from?"
Stark rolled his eyes.
"He's the same Barton, big guy, he just doesn't remember it as so. But, yes, he had a brother." Stark waved it off. "It was…briefly mentioned in his file. A minor detail, he never spoke about it…to any of us, anyway," he added, glancing at Natasha who glared in return.
"And he means a lot to me-" Barton continued. "He's my big brother, but I have to look out for him. Especially when he gets into trouble, because even if he thinks he's only affecting himself…he's not. Where he's involved, so am I."
Barton glanced at Stark, and Tony quickly understood Barton was referring to the overlooked detail of leverage that had forced Barton on this ordeal in the first place.
"And you think you're protecting him, your brother, by not confronting him. By cleaning up the trail of mess he leaves behind. But, it's only hurting him. You have to…you've got to call 'em out sometimes, brothers. Because you care, you know what I'm saying?"
Natasha and Banner shared a look that revealed they didn't understand a word of what Barton had said. Stark ordered another glass of liquor.
Thor, however, nodded.
"I understand. But, this does not mean I know where my brother is. I am afraid he has abandoned our father's hall in favor of exile, no doubt to plot his revenge."
Clint settles back into his chair, frowning in his failure before announcing his resignation to the bathroom.
Once he'd excused himself, Barton filled the sink to the brim, securing the drain, and dunked his head into the water.
Flashes of blue and light returned and he felt his mind being strained; pulled and pricked at. Endless knowledge that made no sense seemed to flow through him until he resurfaced, gasping, as the images faded.
The rush was painful, was twisted, and without hesitation he returned. He heard voices speak to him, barking orders and asking questions in sly, distrustful voices, yet willingly he gave answers.
Barton threw himself back, slamming against the wall before sliding to the floor, gripping at his head. It hurt, like he'd just been hit on impact, and he suddenly felt tired. Like he hadn't slept in days.
There was a knock at the door and Clint faintly heard Natasha's voice calling after him. He blinked but couldn't clear his mind. Everything was dark, but not the same. He wasn't in the airplane's bathroom anymore, but rather a hall. A dimly lit metal walkway, with rafters and pipes-and someone was behind him.
In a flash he had drawn a bow and arrow, and it was the least foreign feeling he'd experienced all day. Except, in this vision he had taken aim, and his target was a person.
Clint had never shot at a person before. Not with such killing intent, such hatred as that which was boiling in him. He'd shot a target set upon a showgirl's head plenty of times, but never a heart.
And worse, he saw the flash of red. He knew this target. It was Natasha.
The he felt his body twitch, the memory of the muscles as he lunged and gripped at her, and he felt the surge of pain where she bit his arm. Then the world spun and the pain surged in his forehead and he heard the door click open as Natasha rushed in.
"Nat..?" He asked weakly. He wasn't sure if this was in his vision or in person.
"Clint! Clint, what's wrong..?"
Barton's eyes rolled back just as he muttered one final word.
When Clint came to it, the first thing he noticed was Natasha looming over him. She had a hand hovering just above his brow, like she was hesitating to touch him or not. Her face didn't show much, but her eyes danced with worry. Clint blinked twice, but he still felt so tired, and allowed himself to slip back into unconscious.
Images of Barney teasing him met him in sleep. Barney had crossed his arms across his chest and was laughing and whistling to a tune Clint didn't recognize.
Then Barney steps aside and Natasha is standing there, looking down at him and frozen in transition from pity and mercy, with malice slowly retreating from her face as it relaxes.
Then she's landing a blow to his head and he jolts awake.
Natasha jumps up when Clint throws himself into a sitting position, sweat soaking his back and brow. He's breathing heavily and he shakes his head to clear the pain.
Natasha watches his eyes intently, so much that she's the only one who catches the faint trace of electric blue that fades from his pupils as he blinks himself into awareness.
"Barton? Try to calm down, breathe slowly. How do you feel?"
Clint takes the doctor's advice, trying to settle his breath-he doesn't pay any attention to Natasha, who sits in horror beside him, the ghost images of blue in Clint's grey eyes still haunting her. He nods finally, when he's calmed down, and Banner stands.
Natasha jumps aware, looking to Banner.
"Are you coming, Natasha? Let's give Clint a minute to breathe…"
Natasha nods slowly but she's not all there. Clint and Banner both notice, but say nothing. She follows the doctor out of the room, and Clint curls his chest to his knees and tries to remember.
"Banner-" Natasha warns, just as they exit the back room where Clint has slept for several hours. The plane is expected to land in another two or so. Banner stops, just outside the door leading to the others, and Natasha refuses to meet his eyes as she hastily whispers,
"When I found Clint, when he collapsed in the bathroom, he…he had said 'Tesseract'…a-and I'd seen something, but I didn't think I had until just now, when…I saw it again."
Banner shifted on his feet.
"His eyes," she confessed uncomfortably, "I was…I was thinking, do you suppose…that we're here because of the Tesseract? That it has something to do with this…world, we're in?"
Banner frowned, then shook his head.
"It's a possibility, but…Selvigg's studies, if I recall correctly, perceived the Tesseract to be a condensed energy source-a powerful one, but raw energy at that. But, then again, we humans probably couldn't tap all the potential of the Tesseract…"
"It opened a portal before. What if it opened a portal to the past this time-and what if Loki changed it." Natasha brightened. "Rogers! What if Loki got ahold of the Tesseract, and used it to open a portal back in time, to when the humans found the Tesseract-back with Hydra and Rogers! If he, if Loki stole the Tesseract from then, then that would alter the course of history…"
"The Captain never would have crashed that plane in the arctic…" Banner mused.
"-Shield never would have been created, so Clint and I never were recruited…"
"…Thor never was banished to earth…"
"…Stark never was held hostage and forced to build Iron Man…"
"…I never became the other guy…"
The door opened suddenly, causing the duo to jump. Stark solemnly looked on at the other two.
Natasha took a deep breath.
"He's awake, but we have something we need to talk about."
It didn't take long for Natasha and Banner to express their theory. There was a long pause before Stark started questioning holes in the theory, all the while Thor said nothing as he contemplated the severity of the accusation.
"So, you think in our time, the real time, Loki got his hands on the Tesseract and created a portal to the past, and he altered it. Except, if he had altered it from the beginning, then why do we remember? Wouldn't we all be just as mindlessly accepting of the past as everyone else?"
"In theory, one who traveled through the past would remember. Perhaps we had gone through the portal with Loki..? That might explain why we still have memories of a past that, essentially, doesn't exist anymore..?"
Natasha bit her lip.
"Would that explain why Barton doesn't remember? Maybe...maybe he didn't go through the portal with us?"
Banner sighed, mumbling to himself, "This would make more sense if we could just remember what happened right before everything…changed."
Stark shook his head, addressing Natasha. "He remembers, he knows. Barton's had the dreams, just like Thor, just like we all have, I suspect. The memories are there, he's just refusing to see them, to believe them."
"But why? Why is Clint so much more skeptical than the rest of us?" Banner questioned.
"I wonder," Thor finally spoke up, "Is it really that Barton can't remember..? Or is it that he's forgetting."
There was an uncomfortable silence, broken finally by Stark, "What do you mean, Power Circuit?"
"I think I understand what you mean," Banner acknowledged, nodding in Thor's direction. "Where are our memories coming from? The memories from the past that didn't actually happen? Maybe it's not time at all. I don't understand the Tesseract, and I don't pretend to know time and space, but…But what if this is another dimension, a different time line."
"-An alternate universe, we've been over this before," Stark hastened.
"-Yes, so imagine this is another dimension. And Loki transported us all here, in place of the us that already existed in this world. Our memories are competing with the us who already were living our lives, and we're calling on our memories from the other time line, trying to replace what we know of this world-"
"You're not making very much sense, doctor."
"Alas, I, too, am lost in your speech."
"What I mean is, what if something is hindering Barton's memories, Barton's original self, and stopping the original him from competing against the new him-"
The door clicks open and everyone stops spit-balling theories for a moment. Barton stands, leaning against the frame of the door and looking pale, but awake.
"Clint-" Natasha stands up, but Barton doesn't acknowledge her.
"I…I had a dream-"
Clint shook his head, still refusing to look at any of them.
"I…it's fuzzy, I don't remember much of it, but…but I still had a dream. And don't think for a second I believe any of you. But…but I'll accompany you, because as much as I don't believe I'm one of you, I'm starting to believe you all don't belong here. And I'd like to help you get back to your…" he couldn't say home, "where you came from. So, I'll go wherever y'all want to go. I'll try to help, in whatever way I can."
"-But I won't believe you," He warned, finally nodding in emphasis with his finger pointed at Stark. Natasha sighed. At least he was willing to come with them now.
Stark mumbled something along the lines that it didn't matter whether they had Clint's blessing or not-he would have dragged the marksman along with them regardless. Natasha remarked it was a comfort knowing Clint was willing to help. He didn't answer her.
"So, where is our destination?"
Thor spoke up to answer that.
"If we are in agree that my brother in the source of our problem, then it is he we must seek out for."
"B-but you said he was lost..?"
"Then we shall start searching for him where he was seen last."
Nearly everyone tensed, save for Clint who, baffled, looked about the room.
"Is that a city in Europe..?"
"Wait, let me get this straight..?"
"Heimdall, do you hear me?"
The plane had landed not but a minute ago, on a private stretch of land Stark himself owned. Happy had been sent home for the day the moment the plane had touched ground-he still was woozy from the accident. Thor had led the remainder of them several yards from the plane, or anything, to a back landing strip not being used. There, they stood in a circle and awaited as Thor screamed at the sky.
Everyone looked calmly on, save for Clint who was skeptical and jittery and had no idea what was about to happen.
"Heimdall-" By the third call, Thor was met with a boom of thunder and the wind picked up, circling in a dangerous formation above him. Stark looked bored. Banner stood at attention, and Natasha shifted from heel to hip.
"Wh-where are we going? What's he doing?"
"We're going to Asgard," Natasha repeated, like that answered everything.
"Have you…have any of you ever been?"
"So, Thor's what…summoning some lightning for us to ride or..?"
Thor turned to give Barton a look that questioned his intelligence.
"I do not believe you can ride lightning, my friend. No, Heimdall shall summon the Bifrost, and we will take that to Asgard, of course."
"Of course," Clint sighed.
Before he could ask any more questions as to why the weather was so strange and who was Heimdall or what the hell was the Bifrost, a blinding light seemed to lift Clint and in an instant, the rolling hills and flat concrete runways had disappeared, zapped away to be replaced with a blinding array of colors and light that Barton had to close his eyes in fear of having them burned from him.
"Do not cringe, friend Barton! You are in Asgard! In one piece, might I also note!"
Barton blinked his eyes open.
"Was there doubt that we'd arrive in one piece?"
Thor didn't answer, instead smiling and clapping Clint on the back before stepping off.
Barton stood in a circular room, rimed with gold and looked much like the inside of a telescope, he thought. He was so mesmerized by the room, twisting around it and gawking at gold (This room alone could set him and Barney for life! Clear them off all their debts, pay off any of Barney's mistakes! They wouldn't need a future, an education), he didn't noticed everyone filing outside until Natasha whistled at him.
Clint nearly tripped over himself, running to catch up with the others as they exited the room, only to stand on a bridge of pixelated colors, with light dancing up and down. Before Clint stood a city so fair, so majestic and foreign that he was lost for words to describe it. The air was pure to breathe and the light came from no sun-it merely was there, and it lit the city with a glow that caught every glimmer of gold and silver and color.
"Welcome, friends, to Asgard!"
Stark muttered something, and Banner rubbed at his eyes. Even Natasha looked impressed, smiling in a way Clint hadn't seen her do yet. Clint himself had to admit, after seeing this it was difficult to not believe in at least the possibility of other worlds-wasn't this one?
"Heimdall!" Thor called for again, and Clint rolled his eyes.
"Why do you keep calling for this-?"
"You returned, Thor. And with company,"
Clint gawked, turning to meet a giant of a man, with dark skin and fiery eyes. Thor, the only one not intimidated by the presence of the newcomer, smiled warmly at him.
"Heimdall, I present to you-"
"I know who they are," Heimdall cut him off, eyeing each of the humans before settling his eyes on Clint, "even if they do not."
"Then perhaps you already know why we are here-"
"-You seek Loki, the banished prince."
Thor soured at the title.
"We seek the way home. This dimension, this is not where we belong-"
Thor frowned, "You do? Then why did you not speak so when I first came to you, seeking to travel to the realm of the humans-?"
"-You sought to be brought to the humans-you did not seek answers, therefore I gave none."
"We seek answers now," Stark cut in, irritated. "Where is Loki-he's the reason, right? The reason we're here in the first place-"
"Loki does not possess the power to cross dimensions, to create other worlds and to send anyone, including himself, through them-"
"The Tesseract does, though," Natasha added. Clint felt a pang of pain run through his head, and reached for it hesitantly. That word…
This action did not go unnoticed.
"Heimdall, do not withhold information from us," Thor warned.
"-I do not have the answer for what has transpired. If Loki truly has found the power within the Tesseract to jump worlds, then he has done so and I know not how. But, if he had done so, would not he have gone through further precautions to separate the only ones to have defeated him?"
"That is strange," Banner noted. "If Loki had the Tesseract, and could jump back to any time, of course the first place he'd go is to collect the Tesseract from the humans before it could be passed down to Selvigg. He'd want to get to it before it was lost…"
"Right, we already thought that, remember? He must have gone back to the forties, somehow wrangled it from Hydra-"
"But why stop there? With that power, he could have jumped forward and conquered Asgard."
"-Unless he doesn't have the Tesseract. He never did."
Everyone turned to Heimdall, realization dawning in each one of them.
"Heimdall," Thor started, "You do not know where Loki is…perhaps, do you…Do you know where the Tesseract is?"
Heimdall didn't respond for a moment, gazing over all who were gathered, before settling his eyes finally upon Clint.
"You all are gathered here, yet one of you does not belong."
"You mean only one of us belongs," Stark frowned, shifting in impatience. "Yes, we are all human, save for Your Prince, Thor here. We shouldn't be here in Asgard, realm of the gods, spare us that speech. Now tell us, where is the Tesseract?! Is it the key to returning home?"
"I meant what I said," Heimdall snapped in his low, deep voice.
"Of those whom the Tesseract sent, one is not here. Perhaps the missing one can provide the final answer."
Again, Heimdall rested his glance on Clint, as though weighing him in his mind before turning to Thor.
"But, the bearded one speaks the truth-they are not from here, nor allowed. Their presence upsets the balance-they must return. Immediately."
Stark looked insulted.
Thor nodded, slowly as he thought on everything Heimdall had provided.
"I understand. Thank you, Heimdall."
It was a solemn good bye, and with that, Thor led the others to return within the golden room. Clint stumbled behind the others, caught between a bitterness of not getting to extend their stay and further see the marvel that was this other world, and the growing foreboding sense of what Heimdall meant.
"So where to now?" Natasha asked, just as the lightning picked up around them, crackling about the room as Heimdall directed the Bifrost.
"We find our final companion," Stark spat, bitter just as the flashing light caught the end of his words.
Clint remembered hitting the ground, sprawled on his chest. His head burned inwardly from the impact, and he'd thought it would be much less painful to simply go to sleep.
So, he did so.
Asleep, he dreamed of those flat, golden corn fields he'd been surrounded by just a few days ago, and of the giant circus tent pitched in the center. He heard people cheer from within and though how curious it was that he wasn't inside, performing or even preparing to go on. Had his act already ended? Had he escaped clean up duty?
Behind him, he heard a hiss, trying to catch his attention, and turned to see Barney winking at him from behind a crate. But Barney was a mere child, and it dawned on him that he, too, was much younger than he'd been when he'd fallen asleep.
"Come on, follow me!" Barney whispered, turning on his heels to sprint off.
"W-wait!" Clint called, stumbling to keep up. "Stop, Barney! I can't keep up! I'll lose you!"
Barney scoffed, not slowing down.
"Of course you won't! Keep your eyes on me-you won't lose me!"
Clint wakes up moment later to Natasha shaking him awake. He blinks and slowly sits himself up, with her help, before looking around him. Everyone is as jumbled and bent over backwards as he is, save for Thor who is standing amongst the sprawled out humans and baffled at how they could have ended up on the ground.
Clint then turns to their surroundings, and they're neither in Asgard nor at the airport runway.
They were amidst a field of wheat, though it was night and therefore everything was dark and blue and alive with the croaks of crickets and silence.
"Where are we?" Banner coughs.
"Nowhere good," Stark mutters, brushing himself off as he stands.
"Let's find out," Natasha answers, standing on her own and leaving Clint to collect himself to his feet. She immediately makes to leave the fields, and everyone slowly follows her.
Clint lags in the back of the group, still thinking of the dream. All the dreams he's had of late, he cannot determine whether they're memories or dreams, and he has to think hard to recall if he remembers ever chasing after Barney on a lazy summer day as he dreamed.
He finally reasons that is was more than just a dream, but he finds it out of place, when lately all he's dreamed of have been memories of his adulthood which conflicted with the past he knows, he was once sure of. This childhood memory he can't quite place if it's from this time or the other.
Natasha has made her way to the back, Stark taking over in leading their rag tag bunch through the stalks, and he pushes his thoughts aside to acknowledge her.
"Natasha," he greets, but it's awkward and forced. She smiles at him, but that, too, seems out of place.
"How are you?"
"I…I-" he laughs between his thoughts, "I don't know what to think. I'm questioning everything and I don't have any answers-Everything is just fuzzy and I don't know if I'm going crazy or you all are just rubbing off on me-"
Thor's words echo in Natasha's head, and she wonders if Clint is forgetting, rather than remembering.
"T-tell me what you remember," she tries to coax him. Clint frowned, in concentration, before beginning-
"I remembered…back then, before we'd met-at the theatre," he adds, and this whole time line fiasco is more confusing by the minute-"I…I told you I thought I heard your voice before. We were…somewhere. I was looking up at the sky, and I told you we should go inside-but I don't remember being by a house or anything. I just remember telling you it'd get hard to breathe soon."
"Sounds like we were on the Helicarrier."
Natasha shook her head.
"You'd have to see it to believe it."
"Right…" Clint sighed. "Then…then I remember…I think we were fighting? This memory always hurts, though," he admits, tapping his forehead. "And I think it has something to do with the Tesseract…"
Natasha nods, grimacing as she does so.
"Yes, Loki, he…he once used the Tesseract to…control you. We fought, you and I, while you were under its influence. I won-I freed you from its-his, control."
Clint nodded like he understood but he didn't remember much of that and if anything he was more confused. This Tesseract controlled him and sent them all here?
"And...and then I dream about Barney. About our childhood-being in the fields and running around during circus shows. Because we knew the show inside and out, and so we'd sneak off sometimes to run through the fields-"
Natasha didn't know this memory, and her face showed as much, but Clint continued.
"I was slower than Barney-I was always afraid he'd leave me, because he was faster. That I'd get lost, but…"
Clint smirked, "But, he always told me I'd never get lost, I'd never lose him, as long as I watched him. So long as I could see him, as long as I could follow him, I wouldn't get lost."
"Cheeky bastard-I got faster, thanks to him, from trying to keep up with him and never lose sight of him. I'm faster than him now, even, too! I guess he was just trying to help me the whole time…"
"You really love Barney, don't you?" Natasha finally spoke, to which Clint didn't even acknowledge. Of course he did. Hell, he was tagging along to Paris and the realm of Gods all for Barney's sake, wasn't he?
"You light up when you talk about him. You did the same thing, back in Paris."
Clint scoffed. He must sound like he was talking about a lover, the way he praised Barney!
"He's an idiot, don't get me wrong," Clint laughs. "But…he's the reason I'm even here today. He saved my ass, back then and even now, too. Before all this, he even mentioned leaving the circus. I bet he'd be loving this, right now; adventure and travel. He just wants what's best for us, best for me…"
Clint trailed off, slumping slowly. Natasha smiled, staring up at the stars. She opened her mouth to speak, but stops when she noticed how Clint isn't walking forward anymore.
She catches him just as he sways to hit the ground, and in an instant she's yelling for Banner because Clint has fainted.
"Tell me a happy memory…"
Clint sighs, thinks a moment, then smiles.
"How about the first time you smiled?"
"Hm? When was that?"
"The day we recruited you for Shield. And you stepped on the Helicarrier for the first time-"
"I remember. And you told me we better head inside. It'd get hard to breath."
"And when I looked back at you, you were smiling-"
"-I don't remember," she says quickly, to cut him off; to stop him. He doesn't mention how he plays out her smile in his mind constantly, but in that instant, he can't remember it. Her smile-what she looked like.
He can't see her now though; it's all darkness. And somewhere in the background, he hears Barney, as a small child, whistling a tune Clint can't quite name.
Then there's the pain in his forehead again and Clint hears a foreign hiss call for the 'Tesseract', but now he knows the name. He recognizes the word, because Natasha has said it before.
Except now the pain has spread and no longer does he feel it just in his forehead, but his chest as well. He feels a swelling of pain and it's hard to breath, and he tries to cough but all that comes out is her laughter and Barney's whistling.
Clint shivers awake, and instantly he notes the dim light of a motel room. He's on some stiff mattress, under a quilted comforter, and Natasha is sitting beside him. His eyes dart around, and in the corner sits Banner and he sees Thor's shadow on the wall but not Thor himself. He can't hear Stark, but he's sure he's somewhere nearby.
"Clint, are you alright?"
Clint nods, but he doesn't actually know what for. He feels terrible, he feels on fire. He can't hear half of what Natasha says, and he's comprehending even less of it. Finally, he gains an understanding that she's asking if he wants water and he accepts it eagerly.
"Are you sure you're alright?"
No, no he's not. In the last forty-eight hours, he's gone from a happy, if not meek, living with his brother sleeping on hay under tents and open sky to jet-setting across the globe, twice, in monkey suits with complete strangers who are preaching their crazy and dragging him to other worlds of gold and sunsets and now his head hurts and every time he closes his eyes, he's engulfed by the same memories and the same pain-
"Where's Stark?" He mutters, taking a head count of the room for the fiftieth time it seems.
"Working out the bill. We're in a motel." He'd figured as much, Clint thinks but doesn't say.
"Stark is having Jarvis trace where we'll find Rogers. In the morning, if you're feeling better, we'll head out. Stark's rented a car and everything-"
"I'm feeling better now-"
"We could all use a night's rest, I think," Natasha cut in, a gentle hand firmly keeping Barton from rising.
Clint looks about the room. There's a cot, no doubt wheeled in from storage, and two beds. He does a quick head count and his eyes seem to ask for him, because Natasha responds, "You and I get this bed-" He almost questions if that's alright with her, but then recalls she's probably more comfortable with the idea than him. They had been partners, at least she recalls them being.
He wonders how close their relationship had ever been, and if they'd ever been romantically involved. How much did she mean to him? And in his dreams?
"Stark agreed to take the cot-" He can tell, with the strain laced in her voice, that that must have been an agreeable argument, and he was almost surprised by Stark's compromise. No doubt he threw a fit about sharing a bed-perhaps an even greater one on staying in this dingy motel in the first place.
"Banner and Thor will take the other bed."
Clint nodded, but found he didn't care anymore where everyone slept. He closed his eyes and settled back into sleep before Natasha could say anymore. He just felt so tired…
Natasha sighed, settling under the comforters beside Clint, wary to give him as much space as she could but for her own selfishness, reaching a hand just out of reach of his arm. She turned to face him, watching his still figure sleep, his chest hardly rising and falling. He looked pale-paler than when she'd first met him, in this world at least. Memories flooded to her by the minute. Memories of Clint and her, of the Avengers and Shield and everything from her life, her real life. She'd almost forgotten that they weren't in their original time line, and that in this world Clint and her had really only met a day ago.
Banner was snoring on the mattress beside her. Thor, too, had fallen asleep, but not after exploring the several channels offered on the television, none of which were good connection or programming. Stark, too, had finally returned, having vented his dissatisfaction of their predicament, and settled to sleep, curled up on his cot.
Natasha prayed that they'd find the Captain tomorrow. That somehow Clint would remember everything, would remember her, and they'd find the Tesseract and make it back home. She couldn't remember how they'd gotten here, but she knew in her gut that Loki was behind it. And she swore she'd get her revenge, in some way or other, for tearing her and Clint apart. For doing the worst thing possible-making him forget her.
Making him replace her. With Barney.
Clint never spoke much of Barney. But where she came from, where they all did, Barney had long ago broken the brotherly bonds that held their allegiance together. Barney had betrayed Clint and left him to die. Clint didn't like to mention Barney. Yet here, in this world, it was the only thing that he held onto. The love for his brother was all that held him back, held him from believing the truth that he belonged with her-them. That he belonged with them.
Flustered, but with no reason to feel so, Natasha turned onto her other side and closed her eyes. Tomorrow, she willed, they'd find the Tesseract and Rogers and Clint's memories and they'd go home.
Natasha woke slowly, until it dawned on her where she was. She was not in some glorious, five star hotel, on a floor bought out by her dance company. She was not in her quarters back at Shield, or in her personal room at Stark's tower.
She was in a motel, and she was alone on a rather uncomfortable bed.
Natasha was on her feet at 'alone' and had whipped around only to find her attention drawn to the window, upon which sat what, or rather whom, she was looking for.
Barton sat, looking worse for wear, with his knees drawn to his chest and his tired eyes looking beyond the pool and parking lot. Below him, Stark still slept, sprawled out amongst his cot.
Natasha nodded in Clint's direction, hoping he'd have seen her silent inquiry of his well-being.
He responded as much.
"Couldn't sleep," he muttered, though Natasha didn't know what to make of it. It seemed she couldn't keep him awake, with how many times he'd passed out or how many hours he'd slept through.
He didn't admit that the dreams had become more real, more painful. The pain in his chest had spread, and her words were louder, clearer, but still he couldn't imagine her smile, the one he told himself he knew so well. He couldn't see it.
Stark gasped awake, clutching at his chest, feeling for something that wasn't there. Grumbling, he stumbled from the cot, looking as disgruntled as Clint felt.
"Right, let's see how continental this breakfast is."
By Stark's urgings, they were out of the motel in less than two hours. The rental car was crammed, and Stark insisted on driving-he claimed it'd calm his nerves. Natasha amused herself, imaging him to be the father of a remarkable family, leading them on the platonic family road trip yet irritated without his frequent smoke breaks. Banner sat in the passenger seat, dozing off to the faint tunes of the radio and warm sun that shone through the window.
Thor and Barton took the window seats, with Natasha herself between them. While Thor slurped at some drink or other, frequently trying to lighten the mood with some memory or speech or other, Clint rested his head against the window and seemed to sleep further, which Natasha monitored. Occasionally he'd jolt back into awareness, clutching his chest but saying nothing, and only Natasha saw as much. She said nothing, but made note to ask him later.
It became painfully obvious that this whole ordeal was taking its toll when Stark made mention of a bathroom and snack break at the gas station approaching. Thor, brightening at the thought of food, inquired if perhaps there were the glorious foods known as pop tarts present. The word seemed to call up some memory, no doubt of Jane, and rather quickly the mood of the car darkened.
Tony gripped at his collar bone, and Natasha realized just then how vulnerable Stark must feel. In this world, Stark wasn't Iron Man. Iron Man hadn't even been invented yet. Stark's heart was fine, safe, and functional. There was no Arc reactor pumping and keeping him alive.
Banner could relax because there was no hulk. He was just a regular scientist with some amazing friends. Natasha wondered if Banner even wanted to return-to go back to a life where he was constantly on the run. Where he couldn't get close to anyone he wanted to-or anyone, rather.
Thor had never met Jane; he'd never been banished. But, he'd still lost his brother. It was all the pain of before but without the love he'd found on Earth. He was alone on Earth, save for them.
And she? What really was waiting for her, back in the other world? She was a tool, used by a spy agency. Her past was nothing but blood and fires. She had parents here, in this world. A normal life, and friends amongst her dance company. She had everything she could ever have wanted in her past life.
Except for Barton.
And Clint? He had everything he'd ever wanted in this life. He had his brother back. He was happy and oblivious, and he didn't kill for a living.
"Stark, where are we going..?" Banner finally asked.
"To find Rogers."
"You know where he is?" Natasha asked, leaning forward.
There was some hesitation, then finally, "..yes."
"And we'll find him at the capital."
"The one and only. So buckle down and lean back-it's still a few hours away."
Clint didn't need to be told twice-he was asleep in under a minute.
"Tell me a happy memory."
"The first time you smiled."
But I can't remember it, he thought. Barney was whistling in the background. Everything was so dark, but Clint knew Natasha was beside him.
"Tell me a happy memory."
Barney stops whistling and he hears someone scream. It sounds like Natasha but he still can't see her.
"Keep your eyes on me," Barney calls after him, and Clint tries to look forward, tries to find Barney. He can't follow him if he can't see him.
"Keep your eyes on me," Natasha whispers, in the same pleasant and soft voice that asks him to tell her of a happy memory. He nods slowly, but his head is nodding off because it's heavy, not because he agrees. He feels his body slump forward and the pain in his chest is overwhelming.
Clint sits up, jolting awake as Natasha nudges for him to exit the car. They've come to a stop, but he doesn't know where. Clint struggles to open the door and stumbles into the gravel parking lot.
They're at a grave yard.
Natasha grips her hands to her mouth, and Banner is rubbing his own through his hair. Thor looks like he's about to perform a vigil, yet Stark stands staring forward.
"Banner wasn't the first I approached, when my memories returned…I…I sought after the Cap first, but…"
"It'd been seventy years," Banner mumbles, because this is no one's fault. It's what he's silently telling them. Stark glances between Banner and Thor, as if to say it is someone's fault, and he knows exactly whose fault it is, but out of respect of his brother he won't call him out openly for it.
Stark steps forward, leading them on. Clint steps after him next, because he's the most collected and because he doesn't want to see the other's tears or the pity on their faces. He watches the back of Stark's head and follows him through the lines of graves.
Their footsteps echo amongst the rocks and Barton kicks with his feet. The last cemetery he remembers visiting was that of his parents, and he swore never to return. He wonders how many funerals he'd been to in the other world, if he believed in it, or how many friends he's had to bury.
Then he wonders how many people he's put in early graves themselves. How many deserved it.
How many didn't.
"We're here," Stark finally mutters as they stand before a mausoleum.
To Clint, it's a large concrete block, gated and with steps and columns like a tiny house, but he can't imagine anyone living in it-the irony doesn't go unnoticed to him.
The door is bolted closed and atop the pillars reads some inscription, some quote or other that exemplifies the war or the courage of a single soldier and it's all very beautiful and poetic and patriotic but Clint can't help but thinking it's not very humble. Perhaps the state at the time thought it was the burial site fit for a hero, but something in the back of Clint's mind argues he wouldn't have wanted this.
Hell, maybe Captain America would just want to be buried in a box with a flag over his coffin and leave it at that.
Something about this whole scene seemed unnatural-unnecessary.
"So this is it?" Natasha finally mutters, and she sounds bitter. She sounds upset, and Clint feels as in pain as she sounds. But his pain swells from his chest and he grips at it.
"We came all this way for his grave? This can't be it, he can't be-"
"World War II, Natasha. Remember, Loki jumped back to when the Tesseract surfaced, maybe even before then. Without the Tesseract, Cap never-"
Slept for seventy years, Clint finishes. The Cap…
He grips tighter at his chest, because the pain is spreading and he swallows down a cough.
"Did he remember?" Banner finally asks. No one notices Clint, whose turned away from them. "Do you think…he remembered, like we do?" Like all of us but Clint.
"But none of us were alive at that time. He…He would have lived out, remembering people who didn't even exist-"
"-forget people, he saw the future. He saw what and how everything became. It would have driven him mad…"
Thor sighed, before humming out a low tune, some hymn for a fallen warrior. Banner rubbed at his eyes beneath his glasses. Natasha shook her head, not accepting any of this, before storming off. Stark stared at the grave, his eyes fixated on the reliefs above the bolted door.
Clint felt his knees wobbling. The pain was unbearable.
"Hey, hey look now-" Stark pointed to the relief. "Who does that remind you of?"
Natasha was by his side, still fuming but directing her attention to the grave. She squinted, then smirked.
"Doctor, Thor, Clint-you all may want to see this."
Thor halted his musings and ponder the images, Banner stepping beside her as well.
"I'll be…That looks like Mr. Thunder himself!"
Thor smiled despite himself. "The likeness is reasonable!"
"-And that's Stark! See? It's Iron Man!"
"And that gargoyle-It's the Hu-Other Guy!"
"And there's us! Clint, look, it's us! It's your bow and everything-" Natasha whipped around, just as Clint fell to his knees. "Clint?!"
"Look! The Sonabitch!" Stark chuckled, shaking his head. "I came here and didn't notice it before- he designed this his damn self. Look, that's him! And-" Stark reached forward, passing the rusting gate and approaching the column image where a stone carving resided; a patriotic Captain dressed with a star on his chest, and looking in the same direction that they all did.
"The stone's loose here!" Stark prodded, pulling at the white brick. Suddenly, a glow lit from behind him. Banner straightened and Thor gasped. Natasha, however, had directed her attention to Clint, instantly by his side.
"It's here! It's the Tesseract! The Bastard buried it with him, he knew we'd come looking for it-"
"Saved me the trouble of searching, you mortals did."
Everyone, save for Natasha and Clint, whipped their heads to face the new comer, Thor's heart sinking as he recognized his brother.
"So, it was you," Stark quipped, the Tesseract still gripped in his hand. "You did send us back in time, or rather yourself. What happened? You lost the Tesseract- the Cap here wrestled it from you?"
Loki looked less pleased as Stark spoke, but instead turned his attention to Barton.
"Oh? Why is he here?"
Natasha gripped Barton's shoulders protectively, snarling at Loki.
"Send us back-"
"I am by no means in any position to take orders from you. Any of you," Loki snapped back. "Rather, it appears the opposite." He held out a hand, the other gripping his scepter.
"Give me the Tesseract."
"Over all our Mausoleums," Stark mocked without a moment's hesitation.
"Two of you are already there-what's four more?"
Stark barely ducked as a blue light shot towards him. Thor instantly jumped after his brother, who proceeded to dodge.
"Banner, Tony, stand back! Under the circumstances, I do not believe you are capable to fight!"
"He has a point, Stark-" Banner yelled as Stark sprinted beside the doctor.
"Well, we'll leave this between two brothers then. Romanov, pack up the bird boy and let's go-we need to get out of here!"
"Clint, Clint please! Come on, Clint-we need to go!"
Clint didn't hear Natasha, his vision of her looming frantically over her blurring into a soft image of her smiling down at him, with a yellow light brightly illuminating from behind her.
"Clint, we need to go!"
"Clint, tell me a happy memory."
"Natasha, get him on his feet!"
Clint felt two hands grip his arms and yank him forward. He couldn't feel his feet moving but he supposes they had to be. All his felt was the beating of his heart, throbbing in his ears, and the pain spreading in his chest, which was becoming unbearable. How they made it to the car, Clint doesn't even remember. He recalls being slipped into the back seat, with Natasha shaking him, and then slipping into unconscious.
He doesn't hear her, through the sound of his own gurgling as blood boils through his throat. His mouth gawks open and a pool spurts from within him, his lungs collapsing and contracting, trying to force the blood from them to breathe again.
He looks beyond himself and sees Loki, caught between maliciously pleased with his final accomplishment and the sting of pain at having lost the Tesseract. All around him, wind is ripping at the scene and at everything. It's howling around him and the sound of walls crumbling and tearing is deafening.
The Cap looks horrified, standing somewhere between Loki and Clint, and his eyes are trained on Clint's chest, the wound gaping from it fresh and flowing.
Natasha is just beyond Loki, screaming his name that he can't hear. And she's desperate to reach him but she can't reach for him. Because both her hands grip at the metal beam, keeping her from falling back into the portal, suspended briefly. He needs to close the portal, he thinks.
He's just out of reach of it-he can see everything being drawn to it and he knows someone has to close it. So why not him?
He stumbles to stand, and with the sway of his body another gulp of blood lops from inside his mouth, gathered to be a handful of crimson, and unceremoniously splats at his feet, some spilling over his boots and pants.
Natasha is crying, and it's the worse sight to behold, he thinks. It's as painful as watching Barney turn his back on him, over and over. It's his worst nightmare-seeing Natasha, helpless, and being unable to help her. He feels sentimental and wishes she didn't have to had lived like this. Being used and broken and tortured and torturing. He wonders why her only solace was him-the only thing that kept her human was another broken, soulless man. And he hates that her only comfort, her vulnerability, is now being used against her, dying and crumbling away; drowning in his own pool of blood yet still soldering on.
Loki hisses but that threat is as unheard as Natasha's wails. Clint stumbles to the Tesseract, gripping with blood stained fingers at its hold. He tries to muster strength in his numbing fingers to pry the object loose, free.
Loki is on his feet again and making a go at Clint. But Steve catches sight of this and makes a dash to intercept.
Tears clear the dirt and grime and blood from Clint's cheeks as he envisions his fingers fiddling with Natasha's hair. That might explain the red.
"Tell me something happy," Her face says, and she's smiling. He smiles back, and how silly he must look, dying and holding the Tesseract but smiling at it like he's looking into the eyes of a lover on a summer afternoon.
Because to him, that's exactly what he's doing.
"Tell me about your brother. The good memories with him."
"About cornfields…" He mumbles in reply, because he still holds on to the memories of two small boys running around a circus tent in the middle of a golden no-where while crowds roared with cheer behind red and white tent curtains, and the sound of his brother egging him on keeps him running.
"What did he say to you, Clint?"
Clint smiles, just as his eyes close and he feels his body go limp and dark. The Tesseract slips from his hand and tumbles away, just as Rogers picks it up. Loki reaches Rogers, making a final grasp for the object, but Rogers fights him off, and with a well-landed punch, they both trip and suddenly the portal, fast closing, picks them both and in a flash they're gone.
Natasha's grip is all but gone and in horror she watches Clint, laying on his side, open his eyes one last time. And the fading image of her being pulled into the portal is the last thing he sees, while his mind (Still lost in the day dream of a smiling Natasha asking him for a happy memory, and the happy memory of his brother prodding him ever on behind him) wills his final words to be,
"Keep your eyes on me…Follow me."
When Clint comes to, his head is in Natasha's lap and she's crying. He sits up, despite the pain in his head and chest, and he looks about him. The car is flipped-they're outside on the ground, the pavement, and there are small fires all around him. Thor stands before him, like a shield, and just behind him sits Banner, who hovers over Stark whom is sporting a large gash on the side of his head.
"Hand me the Tesseract," Loki snarls, several feet ahead and facing Thor. Clint looks around and notices Banner now grips and cube, though his hands tremble and he's considering handing it to Loki, if nothing but to ensure their survival. But he knows better than to trust Loki.
Clint ignores all of this and turns to face Natasha, gripping her tear-stricken face with his hands.
Her breath hitches and she tries to smile. She smiles like she did in his memory.
"I remember why we're here. How we got here. I remember the moment…"
"What do you all see? A past you cannot forget. Yet, you…You, Clint Barton, are suspended in a moment; the present. Why you do not remember, save the moment of the present? It is because you are suspended there; you are dead. Complete this task, remember, and you will die. You can live here, with your brother, or die there."
Natasha shakes her head, "What does he mean, Clint. What is he talking about?"
"Tell her, Clint. Ease her suffering."
Clint ignores Loki, gripping Natasha's hands in his own.
"Loki, he…he escaped, with the Tesseract, from Thor's world. But, that wasn't enough. The defeat, the humiliation, from before…it wasn't enough to have it now. He was greedy. He…he went back, for us. He ambushed us, tricked us into a trap. And he…he unleashed the Tesseract, he created a portal. A portal to another universe, another time line. And he sent us here. Thor first, then Stark and Banner-"
"Clint, I don't understand-"
Clint laughed at the irony. Here, finally, he was trying to convince her of a memory she didn't recall.
"The portal he opened, I knew someone had to close it. So, I did-I separated the Tesseract from his scepter, and that ended it. The Cap, he…He got to the Tesseract first-"
And he kept it. That explained it. He lived the life he was meant to live, in the forties, through the fifties and he kept the Tesseract. And when he died, he had it buried with him, hidden until the day the rest of his team sought after it, and hidden so Loki never could find it.
"I thought you had the Tesseract?"
"I-I dropped it." How do you tell someone you died? Or were dying?
"You, the Cap…Loki too, I suppose-all went through the portal, as it was closing."
"And you?" Natasha sniffed. "You went through too, didn't you?"
That he wasn't sure of, but slowly he nodded.
"I…I think I followed-"
"-Yes. Yes, me too. We all fell through, as the portal was closing-"
"-So it's his scepter. We need his scepter, and we'll return? That's it's?"
Clint smiled, nodding, but couldn't find the words. Finally, he stuttered.
"N-no. No, that's…it's not it."
"Tell her," Loki jeered, snarling like it was his victory. "Why is it, what did Heimdall say? That you are forgetting, rather than remembering? Because the memories you have, you all have, you are pulling from your lives in the other realm.
"So? Clint, what does he mean?"
"I mean what I say, wench. Your memories come from your lives-"
"I'm dying, Natasha."
Natasha shook her head, like she didn't understand. He looked fine-he was breathing before her.
"In fact, I may…I may already be dead-"
"No, no, you're fine. Look at you, you're-"
"Loki, he…he got me. Before I got to close the portal, he got to me. Before we even all got pulled in, I…" He tapped at his chest, at the center of the pain and if Natasha remembered anything, she refused to acknowledge it. She refused to believe.
"Do you remember what Heimdall said? That one of didn't belong…he meant me, Nat. Because I'm-"
"No," she commanded. She wouldn't hear of it. But she knew. He saw it now, in her eyes. Perhaps she was finally remembering.
"These dreams, my memories; why they're all the same-it's my final memories. It's the last thing I remember, before…" dying, he finishes in his mind.
The image of Natasha screaming as she clung desperately so as not to fall through the portal, screaming as she watched Clint break the link between the Scepter and the Tesseract and as he fell.
The image he'd conjured of that sunny summer afternoon where Natasha had felt truly happy, when it'd just been the two of them. And she'd asked him to share his happiest memory. At that time, he'd thought of the first time she'd smiled at him. Of that day aboard the Helicarrier with her. He hadn't said that. He didn't even tell her that that moment, sitting there with her smiling down at him in that light, was his happiest moment. She asked again, and he'd told her his third happiest moment-a moment in time with Barney, before his brother had left him without looking back as he lay dying. A moment where Barney had told Clint to keep going, as long as he saw him.
And Clint kept going, so long as he saw her.
Loki was so absorbed with the scene before him, of Natasha suffering and Clint dying on the inside, he didn't notice Stark having snuck around. Stark used the loosened brick from Steve's grave, slamming it against Loki's wrist. The scepter flew forward, landing at Thor's feet.
In an instant, Loki had shifted his attention, turning his wrath to Stark and gripping at his throat, throwing him carelessly backwards. In an instant, Thor was on him, their brotherly brawl beginning again and Banner scrambled for the scepter.
"I don't-I can't work it! Barton, can you? Barton!"
Clint looked pleadingly at Natasha before turning to Banner.
"I think I can-"
"-Wait!" Natasha cut in. "Wait, just…let's talk this through-"
"What's there to talk about?" Barton snapped. Women! Always wanting to talk things through!
"Clint, if…if we go back now, back to how things were left-"
"Natasha, I can do this. I was under the Tesseract's control-I think that gives me some kind of connection, I can use that to maybe create the portal, open it so we can go home-"
"So you can die?"
Clint shook his head.
"You don't belong here-we don't, remember? That's what this whole quest was about-"
"If we go back now, then you'll have your wounds again and you'll die, if you're not already dead."
"Then I'll stay," Clint offered, and Natasha choked on her breath. "I'll stay here, and I'll live-"
Natasha shook her head, cutting him off. "No, no, those aren't our only options-"
"We don't have time for others."
Clint made a move to go, to reach Banner and the scepter, but Natasha held him back.
"Don't. W-we can stay, all of us! We can live-"
"We don't belong here! Natasha, you told me yourself-"
"That was before I knew you had died!"
"And here the Captain's dead!"
Natasha bit her lip, tears freely streaming from her eyes. Damn, he hated to see her cry. And she rarely ever did. Except for him.
"Tasha," he muttered, gripping her chin. "This is a mission. Let's finish it-"
"No," he argued, weakly. "No, we go through that portal, and there is no return. You die over there, Clint."
"I don't want to lose you! Not again!"
His options already were shot to hell. If he stayed, then she left him-they all did. He'd return to the circus, to a life that wasn't his, to Barney.
If he left now, he'd never see Barney again. He'd never bring back that souvenir, like he promised.
Scratch that, if he left with them he'd die.
But this wasn't about him.
A thunderous crack was a distraction enough for Clint. The battle between Thor and Loki wasn't going so well, and Clint used the moment that Natasha's attention had been pulled from him to escape her grip. In a second he had pushed off from her, sprinting to Banner as she scrambled to catch up to him.
The moment the scepter was in Barton's hands, it had come alive, glowing with his intent. Banner tossed him the Tesseract, and just as Natasha reached his shoulder, Barton collided the two.
The wind whipped around them and the space in front of Barton split, creating it's own plane as a portal broke free. Barton whipped around in the same instant, gripping Natasha's wrist.
"Keep your eyes on me-you won't lose me."
With an apologetic smile, he winked at her and shifted his weight, throwing her forward and first through the portal.
She screamed his name until she disappeared.
Banner didn't hesitate, leaping after Natasha. Stark was sprinting after him, and moments later made the leap of faith into the vortex.
"I am busy-" Thor remarked, throwing his brother off of him.
Thor swung his hammer, sending his brother crashing. As his brother hit the ground, Thor set his hammer atop his brother and made a dahs towards the portal.
Clint moved to break the connection between the Tesseract and scepter, eyeing the distance between himself and the portal and the dash it would take to reach it.
"If you go through, you'll die!" Loki snarled.
Barton hesitated, then smiled.
"She's waiting on the other side for me."
Barton threw the scepter aside, tucking the Tesseract like a football under his shoulder. As Thor reached the portal, he turned, calling forth his hammer which flew to him just as he passed through. The collapsing portal seemed to shift as it shrunk, and Barton aimed himself like an arrow to a moving target.
He leapt at the final opening, the sound of Loki cursing behind him.
He could here Natasha, through the portal and over Loki's scream and the wind-
"Keep your eyes on me. Follow me!"