Title: Bruises – Chapter Twenty
Author: Lucky Gun
Summary: Because Loki's possession of one of the sharpest minds in SHIELD wasn't easy. In fact, it barely worked at all. A better take on Clint's forced defection, return to the Avengers, and the aftermath. Contains whump, language, torture, and all the horrors of a POW. AU.
A/N: Writing near the end of a story is like trying to drive through a minefield. Thank God for my beta, because I keep hitting wall after wall after wall on this.
He defied common medical wisdom, as was his usual. He always did heal fast, but when he had a more pressing reason to be off the ward, fast tended to be too slow for him. The first time they found him out of his bed, he was curled up in a ball at the top of a maintenance ladder, a shiv crafted out of a part of a broken lunch tray in his palm. The second time, drugged out of his mind and fighting a raging fever, he'd disappeared for five hours, and no amount of searching by the Avengers on board and the medical staff could locate him. Then Natasha, Coulson, and Tony had returned from a visit to the Stark Tower in Manhattan, and the three had headed immediately for the training rooms. They'd found him at the archery range, huddled behind one of the targets, his bow and arrows wrapped in his arms, rambling in Arabic as he stared glassy-eyed at the ceiling. Disoriented as he was, he fought them tooth and nail when they took his weapons, finally losing the fight when Natasha had performed what Tony had affectionately and only slightly fearfully called a Vulcan neck pinch.
After his fever dropped, he'd disappeared for the last time from medical, and Deluca had let him. She'd spent enough time patching him up over the course of the years to know his habits and his biology. He was healing quick, and part of her thought it was possibly left over from Thor's intervention in his mind. But she didn't give it too much attention. He was healing, physically, at least, and she knew his team would take good care of him. So she had no qualms about him taking off.
The fact that a bottle of her favorite rum had appeared on her desk the hour he left medical was completely irrelevant. After all, CMO's could not be bought.
"How many agents are we still looking for?" Steve asked as he leaned over the conference table, staring at the jerky camera footage that he had probably memorized by this time.
Coulson rubbed at his eyes and tossed a manila folder on the table and said, "Six, we think. The systems are still so fried we can't get an accurate reading on how many people were with Barton when he infiltrated the carrier. We have conflicting reports of eight, ten, twelve, and fifteen, and we're operating on the larger number for safety. We know that five are dead, one is injured, and one fell from the carrier. Tracking the movements as best we can with the fragments of camera data we can still access, we think there were either five or six left on board after Loki took off. We've flushed out two, and we'd rather err on the side of caution with this. Until we can manually scan everyone's retinal ID, we've got to rely on the crew to help us sniff them out."
Nodding slightly, Steve asked, "Any updates on the vandalism? Anything new?"
Nodding his head, Phil leaned back a bit and stretched; apparently five hours in the same chair could take it out of you.
"We have surveillance on his old quarters and his locker, and there haven't been any new issues there. Some of the crew has found new threats in other parts of the ship, same wording, same handwriting. Given that we haven't released any information on the original attacks, they're not copycats. We managed to get Interpol to drop its warrant, but Germany isn't budging. Director Fury used an emergency government grant to buy off the bounty hunters' guild, so at least that's not a concern at the moment."
Thor shook his head and interrupted, "I cannot understand you Midgardians. While we on Asgard would share some distrust for the archer, we would challenge him to the Holmgang and give him the chance to reclaim his honor. Do your people not understand the concept of self-vindication?"
Steve shook his head and said, "We got rid of duels and honor killings awhile ago, Thor. They were seen as too barbaric, too uncertain. Strength should not be the deciding factor in a situation like this."
Tossing a frown over at the super soldier, Thor refuted, "Strength of arms is not the only merit we judge on my world. Strength of character, of will, of battle skill, of memory – there are many different facets of the Holmgang that your world has lost over the last millennia."
Coulson tipped back in his chair and stared hard at the alien, his face unreadable as his eyes darkened with thought. He was distracted when one of the resident geniuses in the room cleared his throat loudly from his area of the table.
After catching the agent's attention, Tony blinked down at the data scrolling over his own part of the table and asked, "You said something a minute ago about manually taking the retinal scans of everyone on board. So that's, what, five thousand troops? Give or take a few hundred? And about half a million hiding spots here on the helicarrier, right? And no one can explain to me why we're flying around instead of sitting this thing in the water and going through everyone by hand?"
Fury walked into the conference room at that moment, catching the last part of Stark's sentence. He leveled an impatient look in his direction and crossed his arms.
"I've explained that to you, twice. We are at DEFCON three at the moment, and we are not allowed to be a stationary target. Not while the UN has any say on it. The fact that we possibly have half a dozen magically brainwashed agents on board my ship doesn't seem to be making them lose any sleep. So it's our job to make sure they stay well rested, according to the Council," he groused, and Thor sighed deeply as he paced the back of the room.
Bruce dropped the paper he was reading and glanced around the group, eyes concerned behind his glasses.
"Speaking of, has anyone seen Barton lately? He's been missing for a few days now. We haven't told him about any of this. Shouldn't he know that there's a warrant out for his arrest along with a half million euro reward for his capture posted by the German military, and the entire world is trying to collect on it?" the doctor asked, almost rhetorically.
Natasha was sitting silently at the end of the table, listening quietly to the proceedings, her face betraying nothing, though the corner of her eye twitched slightly.
"Agent Barton was released from the infirmary, granted it was AMA; he's not missing, Stark. He's in a corner somewhere, licking his wounds, trying to figure this out from his side. You think he doesn't know about any of this? He probably heard me talk about it back at the tower three weeks ago, even though he was unconscious," Phil berated, and Tony turned a hard glare at him.
"We're supposed to be a team, and you're supposed to be the man's handler, Coulson. I don't understand why everyone is so nonchalant about this. We've got credible death threats against one of our own, and we're sitting around with our thumbs up our butts while Barton does his Ringling Brothers thing somewhere we can't protect him," he snapped.
Blinking, Natasha finally said, "He doesn't need protection, Stark."
Steve and Bruce looked up from their reading as Tony surged to his feet and leveled a finger in her direction.
"Yes, he does. He protected us the whole damn time, fighting Loki with everything he had and even some stuff he didn't. Even if he doesn't need protection, he deserves it. We ought to be a second skin on him right now, the Trojans of his life," he cracked, his serious words dissolving into a ridiculously off-topic drawl.
There was the slightest chuckle from somewhere above them, and the occupants in the room zeroed in on the sound and moved towards the table, gazes searching.
Her lips quirking slightly, Natasha finally raised her eyes up towards the ceiling, her focus training on the vent hidden in the paneling above the middle of the table where she knew her partner was. Unnoticed until then, the rest of the group became aware of the fact that the airflow grate had been removed at some point. Peering out from the gloom were two stormy blue eyes, the light barely catching them. It was Clint, laying on his stomach, resting his chin on his crossed arms, his gaze focused on nothing as he listened to the conversations below him. In the soft illumination that reached him, the people in the room could see he had his regular communicator in one ear and he was monitoring a frequency scanner in the other. There was a glint of something metal in his hand, and his quiver was just visible on his still-healing back. They had no doubt his bow was somewhere very close by.
Even recovering from being half dead, Clint was still protecting them; it was his job, his only job, one of two things he let himself care about anymore.
Steve grinned up at him and Tony just shook his head, passing his hand over his face. Bruce smirked slightly and dropped his eyes back to his paperwork, while Thor just cocked his head at the man's location. Fury pulled his attention from his agent currently doing an HVAC technician impression and looked at Coulson as he stood and walked over to him, conversing with him in low tones.
Natasha spared her two supervisors a quick glance before she looked back up at Clint. He didn't care that he'd blown his cover; after all, he'd been there for four hours, watching their comings and goings, keeping track of everyone else over the comm system. He knew it was dangerous to be around them when he had a target painted on his back, but he didn't have a choice. Mentally, he couldn't be anywhere else. He had to protect them. And they seemed to realize he needed to do it at a distance.
Well, most of them.
"Barton, you horse's ass! How long were you going to let us ramble on about this while you hid up there?" Tony snapped, his words lacking any bit of heat.
But Clint let his eyes slide shut and he relaxed into a light doze. He didn't figure the team would be surprised; Barton had been doing in three weeks what most people wouldn't do in ten, pushing himself through a month's worth of midnight rehab sessions in less than two weeks.
"Back to the main issue, here. We've got five thousand troops to manually scan, we can't land even to make repairs, and it all boils down to an increasingly dangerous security situation. We don't have too many options here. We need a game plan," Steve said, eyes darting upwards.
"Deluca gave me a warning that the Council is pushing for a forceful debrief, too. I don't know how much longer she can stall them," Bruce added softly, avoiding looking in the direction of the man in the ceiling, wincing a bit as he pared down her more colorful language to something a little more appropriate.
Before anyone could toss out any ideas, at the sound of squawking in his earpiece. Clint dropped out of the vent and landed hard on the table. His eyes were wide and his hands scrambled for the bow slung over his shoulder. He rolled off the table to the floor and half limped, half jogged out the single entry to the room. He knew the others were following; he could hear them, and a quick count of the steps confirmed that even Fury and Coulson were hot on his heels. Clint said nothing to them as he rushed down the corridor as quickly as he could manage, his steps a staggered run as he pushed away the pain. He pressed one hand to the frequency scanner in his left ear and glanced up at the white markings on the bulkheads as he went by them, taking sharp turns without a word of warning.
Within a minute, they found themselves spilling out of a door into the bright sunlight of the lower flight deck. Whipping his head around, Clint spun, the rest of them following his lead as they heard the high pitched whine of a quinjet's engines winding up about three hundred feet from them on the upper flight deck. Cursing, Natasha reached for her guns while Steve glanced around for something to throw. Bruce clenched his fists tight as he tried to determine whether to let Hulk come out and play, and Thor held out his hand, calling his hammer to him. Tony turned back to the door, contemplating running and grabbing his armor. Fury and Coulson were both shouting into their earpieces, barking orders.
Clint, however, just reached back and pulled an arrow from his quiver and strung it, wincing as he started to pull the bowstring. Sweat broke out on his forehead as his back screamed in protest, his left side stretching at the movement. Invisibly, blood started to seep through the dozens of stitches all over his body, soaking parts of his black tee shirt. His arms trembled as he pulled the string halfway, pausing for a second to inhale sharply.
The sound of his harsh breathing simultaneously caught the attention of the entire team, and they whirled, freezing when they saw his movements. Clint ignored them and finished pulling back the bowstring, flinching as he felt something unnatural pull in his shoulder blade. But he trained his eyes on the twin sweet spots on the quinjet, both a meter from the turbines, the panels covering the fuse clusters for each engine obvious to him. He had to take them both out; he knew from experience, some of it recent, that it was possible to safely land one of the jets with a blown engine. All they had to do was get it moving enough to drop off the side of the helicarrier and they could be home free.
So he lined up his shot and focused, tracking the wind, the slight forward momentum the quinjet already had, compensating for the slight shake in his hands, and released the bolt. He didn't wait for his body to give him hell and immediately reached back to grab the next arrow in his quiver. Barton blinked back the black dots that swarmed his vision as he strained whatever wound he'd reopened in his shoulder and aligned his second shot. He actually staggered back a foot, almost dropping his bow, as his side gushed heat and his left leg throbbed as he shifted to accommodate the pain.
But he couldn't let them get away. Who knows what danger his team would be in then?
So he forced his body to move, demanding its obedience, and he loosed the second projectile. Both struck their marks perfectly, sparks shooting out of the camouflaged boxes, the engines abruptly losing power. As the quinjet dropped two feet back to the deck, dozens of guards swarming it and forcing the entry ramp open, Barton felt hands pulling his bow from his lax fingers and murmurs near his ear.
He zoned out as he watched the movement from the upper deck, eyes clouding as he heard the telltale pepper of gunplay. The cockpit windows of the jet lit up from within as guns on both sides discharged, shouts accompanying the sudden splatter of blood against the inside of the glass. Clint felt hands pulling him away, back towards the doors, and he went, unresisting, his ears ringing with the constant sound of coded orders and static. His mind was fuzzy, and he felt like he was walking through thick fog. He heard distant reassurances from voices he couldn't care to name as they repeated the same words: it wasn't his fault, he did what he could, he was a hero.
But he couldn't unsee the crimson spray, and he couldn't unhear the dying screams of the possessed agents as they committed suicide by cop.
Everything he'd been working towards since he'd awoken on the helicarrier was gone in that instant. The consequences to himself be damned, he had been hell bent on two things: protecting the team, and finding the blue eyed tell of the demigod's influence. He had been pushing himself to the extreme, overcoming everything thrown at him, beating every odd in the hope that he could find the embedded agents and rescue them from Loki's poisonous grasp.
And he knew, in a way, he had. Given the choice between the Asgardian's continued control and his own death, he'd chosen death and almost received it. He knew the other agents would feel the same, because he knew almost everyone on the boat, at least to some extent. They were patriots, through and through, swearing to live and breathe and die for what was right.
With a dark heart, Barton realized he had held them to their oath.
The team stood quietly around the waiting room, their eyes trained on the door that led to the soundproof examination room. It was quiet in the hallway, maybe a bit too quiet, filled with a silence that not even Tony was willing to break. Instead, he paced, and no one paid him any attention; after all, it wasn't out of his character to be incapable of standing still.
It was, however, slightly out of his character to engage in openly suicidal behavior, which was what he appeared to do when he changed the direction he was going and stepped right into Natasha's personal space.
She looked up at him, eyes dry but ringed with red, and there wasn't any venom in her voice as she halfheartedly threatened, "I am armed, you know."
He nodded slightly and cast a glance over his shoulder at the rest of the team, calculating distance and acoustics silently as he shifted. There was a marked soberness in the air, one that was easy to understand but difficult to breathe through. Coulson was standing at the far end of the hall, leaning against the wall, his arms crossed and his eyes down. He'd brought them the report only minutes before: five SHIELD field agents, their bodies all bearing the same signs of malnutrition and dehydration Barton's had, all in the quinjet, which is nowhere they should've been.
And all dead.
None of them were fools; they all knew what Clint had been doing. Ever since his disappearance from the medical bay, the team had only seen him a handful of times, always from a distance, and he never spoke to them. He was shielding them with his absence while protecting them from five hundred yards. Only Natasha seemed to break through whatever mental barrier he'd formed, but they spoke in Russian over the open comms, something that no one else on the team understood, something that Jarvis would be able to translate if he'd been uploaded to the helicarrier. But the AI wouldn't make any difference, really. It was obvious what the two were speaking of.
On her side, it was reassurances of trust, of faith, of his innocence in the whole matter. It was reprimands of his actions in signing himself out of the infirmary against medical advice and pushing himself too hard in rehab. It was an unending stream of normalcy, the only thing she could give him without looking into his eyes and hearing her own heart break.
On his side, it was nothing.
He only ever answered her in quick, clipped tones: "Да. Нет. Я не знаю."
Unsurprisingly, her partner's responses of yes, no, and I don't know weren't very satisfying to the Russian spy, and Tony had caught her destroying a punching bag on more than one occasion. They'd come to an agreement, the Iron Man and the Black Widow, regarding the Hawk. For some reason, Tony had found himself taken under the protective wing of the archer. Maybe it was because he was the only other simply human Avenger on the team. Maybe it was because, for some reason, Clint had realized what Tony had: they had similar lives, similar nightmares, similar slices of humanity. They both wore their sarcasm and humor like a shield to protect what little of themselves the world at large hadn't yet destroyed.
So Tony and Natasha had decided that she wouldn't kill him and he wouldn't hit on her, and they'd both be there for Clint whenever he decided to be Barton again.
"Yeah, I see that you've got two of them. We need to talk," he murmured lowly, and she cast him an incredulous stare. Waving away her look, he kept his voice low as he said, "Yeah, I know. Place and time and something about propriety. Jarvis translated what Barton said back in the tower. You never asked. Did you want to know?"
She said nothing, and Tony felt the strain of the day pull at him as he snapped quietly, "Stop acting like a teenager, dammit! 'Oh, look at me! I'm a master assassin! I'm all broody and Russian! I'm going to slit Misha Collins' throat because he prances around in a gay trench coat making fluffy puppy noises!' Will you stop it already?"
Natasha blinked at him, and the genius mentally reviewed how many shots of espresso he'd chugged in the previous twelve hours; it was in the double digits.
"I already talked to Jarvis, Stark. He was begging for something to stop, saying he wouldn't survive. He was asking for forgiveness from his brother," she said, tone pitched to carry to him only, and he nodded and added, "His brother, Barney Barton. The same Barney he thought he was talking to afterwards. The same Barney he was asking when the beatings would stop, when they would leave again. He's not okay, Stalin. We've got to figure out something else. We were giving it time, letting him track down Loki's other flying monkeys, but they're dead. And he's not okay. The Council is going to destroy his mind trying to figure him out. We have to give them another option."
His voice rose a bit near the end of his rant, and Thor and Coulson exchanged a glance.
"We have spoken on this, the Man of Fury and myself. We believe we have come up with an acceptable solution," the Asgardian said as he took a few steps forward, drawing everyone's attention.
Steve cast a glance at Banner as they both stood, the scientist frowning at the alien.
"An alternative solution to the forceful debrief? Let's hear it," the super soldier encouraged.
Phil spoke up, "Thor believes a trip to his home planet is a good idea."
The dead silence in the room was heavier than it had been previously, and Tony's eyebrows met his hairline.
"We're going to take a field trip on the Magic School Bus, Ms. Frizzle?" he asked rhetorically, and both Thor and Steve exchanged a quizzical look as Banner shook his head slightly, a small smile on his face.
"We have mindhealers in my city, and it is safe, secure, peaceful. The war with Jotenheim was avoided a year ago, and Bifrost is almost entirely rebuilt. There is no calmer realm for the Hawk to regain his wings, if he so wishes," Thor explained.
Before anyone could respond, the entry they'd previously been focused on opened, and Deluca walked out, shutting the solid steel door behind her. She held up a hand to forestall the questions that were about to spill through the room and took a deep breath.
"He's fine. Tore a few stitches in his back and side, stressed his fracture a bit, but he hasn't put himself behind in his recovery. He didn't say a word while I was patching him up, though, except to refuse an analgesic and visitors. What the hell happened out there? Why did you drag him in here right as I got the call for five body bags upstairs?" she asked, curiosity more than obvious in her voice.
Coulson cleared his throat a bit and answered, "Loki's moles tried to take off in one of the quinjets, and Barton stopped them without deadly force. The security team engaged them and there was a shootout. No survivors."
Pursing her lips, Deluca just said, "Shit."
Quiet for a few moments, Natasha finally nodded and said, "We won't give him a choice, Thor. Let's go to Asgard." Turning to Deluca, she asked, "How long until he's cleared for field duty?"
Eyes hardening, Ann checked, "Wait a minute. You're taking him to the home planet of the man who destroyed who he was? You're taking him to the planet where Loki is imprisoned? And you think this is actually a good idea?"
Tony shook his head and said, "We don't have a choice. The Council isn't going to let up after this. Forget how long until he's cleared for field duty; how long can you hold those bastards off?"
Her jaw tight, the doctor crossed her arms and allowed, "Maybe two weeks, on the outside. They've got a few other things on their plate right now, so they're a bit distracted. I still don't think this is the best idea in the world, just for the frigging record."
Steve said, "It'll have to be enough time. Dr. Banner, can you and Dr. Deluca coordinate Barton's records so we can keep track of his healing progress while on Asgard?"
Nodding, Bruce replied, "Shouldn't be a problem, so long as he's not suffering any lingering effects from the concussion."
Deluca shook her head in a negative, and Coulson nodded as he turned to leave.
"It's settled, then. Two weeks until you head offplanet. Better pack a toothbrush," he called over his shoulder.
The team coalesced and started murmuring to each other as they followed, their voices low. Natasha glanced over at the door as she walked away, desire clashing with respect before she finally dropped her eyes and continued down the hall. Banner nodded once towards Deluca with a quick promise of coordination while Steve spoke to Thor regarding their method of travel. Tony hesitated as the group continued on, their voices and footsteps growing dim, and he turned to Ann, who was guarding the examination room like a pit bull.
They stared at each other for a moment, eyes clashing, before Deluca finally shook her head and walked away, her steps heavy. Tony watched her go and edged towards the door, his hand reaching for door handle. But then something caught his ears, a soft sound that was just on the edge of hearing, and he paused, his fingers an inch from the knob.
He stood silently for five minutes, gaze focused on nothing, his breaths coming slow and steady through his parted lips as he listened. Then he swallowed hard, turned, and walked away, mind running over everything he felt he ought to pack, forcing himself to forget everything he'd heard through the supposedly soundproof door.
Cussing, screaming, glass breaking, the repeated thuds of fists against metal.
And the heart wrenching sobs that echoed over all of it.
End Chapter Twenty