If there was one thing he'd learned of the people of Midgard, it was that they could be surprising.
There was his dear Jane Foster who was surrounded by an air of naiveté but who nonetheless had a fierce love of life and a fondness for others and a passion for finding truth in obscurity that always seemed at odds with the carefree nature of her smile. There was Tony Stark, who on his own appeared and spoke as one who was nothing more than a trifle, but whose mind and machinery proved time and again as nothing to be trifled with. There was Dr. Banner, who carried himself with a quiet, nearly shy demeanor, and an innate genuineness, to speak nothing of the formidable secret he carried within him always. There was Agent Romanoff, a beauty and a mystery who seemed to possess no genuineness at all until those she considered her own were under threat. There was Captain Rogers, displaced as entirely as a man could be, and yet who carried within and without the ideals of teamwork and sacrifice and the many being able to function as one. There was Director Fury whose only predictability came in his capacity for being unpredictable. There was Phil Coulsen, infinitely, almost clumsily, approachable—a man who had perhaps seen everything and was rattled by nothing, not even his own death.
And then there was this young archer who stood before him. Agent Clint Barton—the one whose gaze could pierce more deeply than the talons of a winged bird of prey. The one whose hands were in his pockets, looking at him utterly unintimidated, waiting for a response to a question Thor could not have predicted had he been given a century.
"You just said you're not taking Loki back until tomorrow. Fury's got him squared away for the moment. So. You don't want to spend the whole day here, do you? They're gonna have construction people here. Do you know what a metal-cutting circular saw sounds like?"
Thor could hardly do more than stare. Surely he misunderstood…
"So come on. Last day of vacation. It's not raining. Well…" It absolutely was raining. "It's not raining everywhere. So grab your sunscreen, put your camera on a lanyard, we'll get you some socks to wear with your sandals, and let's go see some Earth."
"You and I?" It wasn't the request itself that was so strange. It was only that by all rights, the archer should have little more than contempt for him. This was the man who had been forced to drink most deeply the bitter gall of Loki's evil. And had it not been for Thor's frequent and spectacular missteps, it never would have been so. "I would have thought…"
"I'm just saying. If you stay here, they'll probably have you using your hammer to tack up drywall or something. I don't see that ending well for anyone."
Thor considered the offer. "Will not our friends be joining us?"
"Oh. Um…Tony's overseeing putting Humpty Dumpty back together again. Humpty Dumpty being…New York. He's got Bruce helping. Steve's at SHIELD. He didn't say so, but I'm pretty sure they're the only ones with the security clearance to dry clean his uniform. And, uh, Fury wanted a meeting with Natasha." He shrugged, and Thor wondered why the Director of SHIELD would meet with the one and not the other. He'd understood Agent Romanoff and Agent Barton to be a set. Perhaps the young archer wondered as well.
It didn't escape Thor, though, that Clint Barton had already located the other Avengers and would likely rather have made his outing with any one of them. So was it pity that brought him asking after Thor? The pity didn't offend the son of Odin, but it was unwarranted. Clint Barton needn't feel as if he owed Thor anything. He didn't even owe him forgiveness. "I am honored to be thought of, Agent Barton. But I believe it better for me to remain here should my brother…" he paused and amended, "should Loki be the cause of any more trouble."
Clint nodded once, mouth closed. That couldn't be disappointment, could it? Surely not. "Got it. Sweet. Well, enjoy. Tony teach you how to use the microwave?"
"His betrothed did."
"Wow. That's…Pepper? Probably you should never…ever call her that. Unless I'm there to watch. Anyway. Buffalo wings. In the freezer, ninth floor. If you leave before you try them, you have no concept of Earth." He turned suddenly, and was walking away toward the elevator, hands in the pockets of his jacket. "Bye, Thor."
"Goodbye, Agent Barton." Thor watched him go, and his confusion only grew. If the young man had only offered in pity, then why did it now feel as though he'd rejected an offered hand of friendship? Was that the look he'd seen in the archer? Rejection? His intention had only been to spare the man unwelcome company, not to imply the man was unworthy company himself. He sighed in frustration. In his heart, the realm of Midgard was as a second home to him. But he sometimes felt like such an alien.
Really, he wanted to see more of Earth. And pity or not, it was a kindness on the part of Clint Barton to offer to show him. Thor didn't understand. But he did owe this man a debt, and he wouldn't go furthering it by disappointing him now. He took the elevator up one floor, where the window had been broken, and looked down below. Few people milled about, most with portable canopies to shield them from the falling rain. The road had been blocked by debris and was inaccessible to vehicles. Thor swung Mjolnir and leapt.
The impact of his landing caused fractures in the ground, but not large ones. Still, there were shouts from the few witnesses there were, and that meant little to him. Where did…
He turned, and there stood Clint Barton, holding a canopy of his own, eyes large as dragon-kept sapphires. "Wow. Pepper explain the elevator?"
"She did. I employed it to take me to a level where I could access the street without damaging the building."
"You took the elevator up," he pointed, "so you could go down," he clarified. Still standing and staring, and the canopy was held by a stick that leaned on his shoulder.
"So that I could come down quickly."
The canopy bounced when he shrugged. "That's awesome." It was not insincere praise.
"You brought your hammer."
"Of course," Clint Barton agreed.
"If I may, I've reconsidered your offer."
There came a smile amidst the gray dreariness of the day. "Really?"
"Aye. I wish to see Earth. Where shall we go?"
"First choice? Find the nearest Big and Tall." Thor's confusion must have been apparent. Clint Barton tugged on Thor's sleeve. "You need something with a little less chain mail, King Arthur. Renaissance Festival season is over."
"Ah. My attire." Thor looked down at himself. "Is it necessary that…"
"Thor. You're wearing a cape. You just can't…" he shook his head. "You just can't."
Thor considered this. "I'd like one of those canopies."
"Umbrella." For some reason, when Thor said it, Clint Barton chuckled. But it wasn't the least bit derisive, and though Thor was unsure why, he found it contagious as well. Although, "If we're going to acquire a new wardrobe, I'll not hear talk of a mother's drapes."
Clint Barton looked at him as they walked. "What are you talking about?"
Evening found them on the street again, and the garments Clint Barton had picked out looked not at all like the denim pants, green thermal and leather jacket the archer wore. What Thor now stood adorned in looked rather more like what he'd seen Agent Coulsen wear, but with more…pieces. He found he did rather like the hat.
It still rained, but they'd procured for him an umbrella of his own. As they walked, Thor saw that many vendors were closed, but still many were opened for business. There were things called hot dogs and churros and falafel, which were wonderful. Then there were gatherings and candles and photographs as a shocked and confused people mourned those who had fallen in the battle. The remnants of that battle were still being washed away, bodies of the invaders being removed for disposal, the bodies of the innocent to be prepared for burial. In the air was the taste of victory as well as defeat, of bitterness as well as relief. A strong people. Devastated and without answers or explanations, but also not without hopeful spirits. Unafraid to move forward but equally unafraid to mourn.
And Agent Barton walked through all this beside him and did not appear surprised by it. He was not somber. And he certainly was not silent. "The thing about New York is, it has like six different reputations. People are rude, traffic is bad, pizza is good, aliens are always landing here… anyway, you have to understand that the whole planet is not like New York. Or Puente Antiguo. There are a lot of different countries that have a lot of different…"
"Puente Antiguo?" That certainly garnered attention.
"Yeah. New Mexico. Last time you were here. Anyway, my point is, you can't judge our whole planet by two places. Like I'm sure Asgard isn't the same thing across the board…"
"How did you know I was in Puente Antiguo? Is it written about me?"
"Probably. Somewhere. But I was there."
"You were in New Mexico? You saw me there?"
"Yeah. When you were doing your whole attack bot thing to get Mojo back."
Thor could scarcely believe. He was so surprised he didn't even bother correcting the mispronunciation of Mjolnir. No one had told him. He well remembered that night, but he'd been focused on Mjolnir and not all of the combatant faces had been preserved in his memory. "Did I hurt you?" he asked, fearing he was even more in debt than he'd known.
"Nooo…" Clint Barton smiled easily. "I was up on a pole. I was gonna shoot you in the eye actually." He glanced over. "I didn't though," he assured.
"Why did you not?"
"Initially, because the entertainment factor was like a 9.9 out of 10 and I figured I could make a fortune if I figured out how to sell it on pay-per-view. And then after that, Phil just said I didn't have to." He shrugged. "So I didn't."
Thor nodded. It was another layer of guilt. That Agent Coulsen had died standing a few paces from him and he had done naught but stand and watch, caged and useless. He wondered how close young Barton was to the agent. Close enough, apparently, to refer to him not by title or surname, but with familiarity as well as respect. "I am sorry about Agent Coulsen's death," he said lowly. "Had I been more…"
"What?" Clint Barton had stopped on the sidewalk, confusion and horror laid bare on his face. "Wait. Wait, wait. Phil…" His eyes no longer looked at Thor. They were far away. All color drained from him. "He's…"
The horror descended upon Thor as well. He did not know. No one had told him. Thor had assumed Agent Romanoff or Director Fury would have told the young archer. If the look on Clint Barton's face was any indication, Thor had been woefully mistaken. And instead this young man had just heard the news from the one person on this Earth who had least claim on his trust. He may as well have heard it straight from Loki. "I'm sorry. It was not…"
"No. No, it was Loki," Thor was quick to assure. "Loki who did it. It was not you. You carry no blame, Clint Barton. It was not you." But instead of the reassurance his words should have granted, the building anguish and horror broke like a terrible wave, and in the time it took for Thor to blink his eyes once, the young archer already had a head start.
Moments passed while Thor remained unsure he should follow. After all, what had he to say? The young Avenger had a right to his grief and his privacy, and it was folly, it was laughable folly to believe Thor had any means of offering comfort. But he should see the archer safely back to the tower. Make sure that in his grief he did not do anything foolish or in forfeit of his safety. If Thor could do nothing to protect Clint Barton's soul, he could at least be less clumsy with his welfare.
Thor dropped the umbrella and ran, his shoes clicking on the pavement, in the direction Clint Barton had fled. The human was fast, very likely faster than most humans. Faster even than some Asgardians Thor knew. And he moved like a serpent.
Still, Thor gained. He would've gained more quickly had his shoes not been slick-soled, but he gained, and he gained steadily. The sun had set, and the rain still fell, and perhaps the intermittent lightning could not all be attributed to natural causes. Clint Barton disappeared around a corner, and it wasn't until a lightning burst illuminated the black leather of his jacket did Thor see him, climbing the iron stairway on the outside of a building toward its roof. Thor made it to the base of the iron structure, and at the same moment Clint Barton leapt from the roof, Thor's heart leapt to his throat. He'll not survive that. He is human. What is he doing; he'll not survive that!
The angle was odd, but Thor didn't have time to adjust. Mjolnir spun, and Thor leapt, and the accursed shoes put him further off-balance, and in the air, through the rain, he nearly missed the young archer altogether. His arm stretched out, and fingers only barely caught hold of wet leather as he passed Clint Barton in mid-air. He pulled the archer to his chest, and he could not be certain if it was pure reaction or purpose that made Clint Barton throw an elbow into his face. The blow was nothing in the heat of the moment, but it loosened his grip on the archer, and in his fight to keep his hold, it was his grip on Mjolnir that was forfeited. He began to fall.
Thor wrapped both arms around Clint Barton, and turned his body to absorb the impact. His back smashed into the metal railing of the iron staircase that adorned the opposite building, and it flipped his body around. He shifted his grip on Clint Barton, grabbing the archer's arm with one hand while the other caught the iron landing as he passed, stopping their descent, still perhaps 6 meters from the ground. The angle carried Clint Barton into the wall, and the force with which he hit was not unconsiderable. He dangled there, his arm in Thor's grasp, stunned, only for a moment. Then without warning, he shifted his body up and kicked Thor in the face. Thor released his arm.
The young archer grasped the metal railing and swung down until his feet touched ground. Thor gave him no chance to renew his escape. He let go of the metal and landed on the ground inches from the archer, fury turning red his vision. "Have you lost all hold on your senses?" he demanded loudly, angrily. He pushed Clint Barton back, pinning him against brick. Hands fisted in the soaked black leather, and they as immovable as Mjolnir.
There was a brief bout of coughing and breath returning before the mad archer rejoined, "Have you?" He moved to strike, but Thor blocked, and held him with his forearm pressed just beneath his throat.
"Agent Coulsen is fallen! What reason is that that you should fall as well?"
"What are you talking about?"
"You would not have survived that fall!"
"I didn't fall until you ran into me!"
"I saw, Clint Barton! I saw what you intended!" He removed his forearm from Clint Barton's chest, and struck the wall with both fists on either side of the archer's head. He hadn't intended it, but the bricks crumbled in the wake of his rage. He was more angry than even he could believe. This man he owed a debt. This man he fought alongside in battle. That made them as brothers, despite the short time they'd known one another. He'd lost one younger brother already. Why should he lose another so soon? Was he that much a failure? He was so so angry. "Is your life worth so little then? To be given up on a whim? What sort of honor is that to a fallen comrade? What sort…"
He put both hands, covered as they were by rain and by the much of brick dust mixed with water, on Clint Barton's face. "I. Will. Not. Let you." If only he'd been able to say that to Loki.
The young agent was breathing hard, eyes shocked and angry and disbelieving, and all of it with pain underneath. If there had been tears they were masked by the rain. For a long moment, Clint Barton only stared at him and caught his breath. Then, "You thought I was gonna off myself?"
That hadn't been what Thor expected. "I saw you leap from atop that structure. If you'd fallen…"
"I didn't," he said quietly, "plan on falling." He looked at Thor, and his expression was inscrutable. "Rooftop to the window ledge to the streetlight to the ground, Thor."
He'd had a plan? He'd had a plan that didn't end in death? Thor almost felt foolish. But he could hardly feel foolish at all because he'd been so certain, and he realized that the death of this young human archer, whose life to this point had taken place worlds away from his own, would have felt like defeat and would have been crushing. So more than foolish, what he felt instead was relief, and the relief was such that he could not immediately trust it, and he turned his head to see if the archer was telling the truth, and such a safe path for passage truly existed.
Then the section of wall to his immediate left exploded.
The blast and following airborne rubble knocked both men away from the wall. Thor landed mostly on top of Clint Barton, as pieces of brick rained down. He heard a cough and then "Ow," muttered from the archer. They looked up together. "Well, this keeps getting better."
There were four men. Four considerably foolish men. They stood in the rain with brash confidence, looking down upon the two Avengers. Four predators with little notion they'd just become prey.
Clint Barton groaned. "Is that a…?"
"Oi. Fury's gonna love this."
Three of the men carried small, personal Earth weapons. The man who stood second from the right held one of the alien armaments. It appeared to be fully operational. "On your feet," came the order from the man holding the threat. "You wanna walk away from this, you'll start emptying your pockets right now."
"Is this a stickup?" the archer asked as the both of them rose. He sounded disbelieving and not a little amused. "Day after the world's supposed to end, and you find a working piece of alien tech and become…desperados?" He smiled at them all. "You just went from being the luckiest criminals in the world to the unluckiest criminals in the world. Seriously. In like two seconds."
"Shut up. You. Al Capone." The man gestured to Thor. "Money. Jewelry. I want it all right now."
"You. Are a very foolish man," Thor said lowly.
"Making poor life choices," Clint Barton agreed.
The man chuckled at the archer. "Me? Who is this guy?" he gestured again at Thor. "Your pimp?"
Thor did not know what that meant, but Clint Barton straightened and made an impolite face. "Ew. If he was, though, I'll tell you right now you couldn't afford me."
"Okay, last time I'll ask. I don't really want to pick through your bloody remains. But I will."
Thor felt the smile that teased the edge of his mouth. He welcomed this battle. Perhaps he needed it. Perhaps it was unfair to these Earth men who knew not to whom they spoke. But it seemed as though they were not interested in fairness to begin with. Thor raised his right hand, calling to the fallen Mjolnir. But if there was one thing he'd learned of the people of Midgard, it was that they could be surprising.
The man shot him in the chest.
The impact sent him barreling through the brick wall and into a darkened shop where he came to a stop among shelves of bagged food products. Angrily, he stood, straightening shirt and vest and jacket, all of which now boasted a considerable hole, and searched about for his hat. As soon as it was firmly repositioned, he stalked his way back to the street.
As he stood in the newly-formed opening, the men looked on in amazed horror at his reappearance. Clint Barton shrugged without uncrossing his arms. "My friend's pretty death-resistant." Then without warning, almost too quickly to see, his arms were uncrossed, and the nearest man was disarmed and falling to the ground. Two others turned their shaking Earth guns on him. One was shot in the kneecap by Clint Barton, the other Thor rendered unconscious with a solid elbow to the jaw. It was then that Mjolnir returned to his waiting. Where was the man with the alien weapon?
He looked to his left to find Clint Barton break into a run. Thor joined him.
"He took off as soon as you went through that wall," the young archer explained as he ran. "I think he shot you by accident!"
"Did you see where he went?"
"Yyyep." He veered right and through a hollow metal rear entrance. They ascended a set of bare, rough wooden steps. It was barely light enough to see, but Thor could hear movement nearby. And…music? "Got him!" Clint Barton called. There was a flurry of movement, and the man shot up from his hiding place behind a wooden crate and shot at them, the blast missing by a wide angle and putting a hole in the wall behind them. Thor heard an unnaturally loud scream that gave the three of them pause.
"Oh, I think I know what this place is," Clint Barton said, suddenly whispering.
"Is it to our advantage?"
The perpetrator, his movements desperate, dodged around a corner. And then the screaming began in earnest. As Thor and his comrade rounded in pursuit, they heard more weapons blasts. It was a large room, almost as a stadium. It was filled with people. And the man stood on the platform, weapon armed. People were already running toward the back of the room, toward exits and escape. Thor raised his hammer, but Clint Barton stopped him with a hand on his arm.
"That'll take his head clean off. We got an audience. Let's keep this PG."
"He may kill one of…"
"Trust me." Then he turned around toward the darkness behind the stage. "Just hold his attention." Then he disappeared.
Thor did not like it. But the plea for trust surprised him. He walked onto the platform, into the lights. The man jumped and turned the weapon on him. "Stop! I'll…I'll shoot you again."
"Did it seem to work the last time, coward?"
"I'll shoot someone! Where's that kid? Where's that kid that was with you?" He looked unsure.
The man shook his head, backing away, nervous, eyes twitching this way and that. "What…What are you people?"
"Better men than you."
A young girl knelt hiding behind a box with some large sort of plant life on it. The man looked at her. He looked at her, and Thor could see the war being fought within his mind. It was a war briefly fought and quickly lost, and there was nothing inside this man. "What about her? You…you leave now. Or it's her who gets hurt. She'll get hurt, and it will be your fault." Mjolnir bounced in Thor's hand as the frightened girl began to weep.
"Is that what you are?" Thor asked. "Is that all that you are, all that there is of you?"
The man's jaw stiffened. "You bet." He turned the weapon on the girl. She could scarcely scream. "Now back off."
Thor's grip tightened. "I will always fight against men like you. Even those as pathetically weak as you are. Those who would steal and lie and kill for that which would never be theirs as though somehow they are owed something. You are owed naught but the repayment for the ills you've committed, you sick, slithering, soul-twisted monster." And his words were only for this quivering man before him, except that Thor had nearly forgotten him altogether.
The man's eyes were glassy and bulging. And he turned to Thor, the barrel of the weapon coming level with his head. And then, without a sound, Clint Barton, dropped from above, silent until the moment he landed with his feet on the weapon, freeing it from the man's grip and likely breaking the man's arm as he did so. The girl screamed. The man would have shouted as well, but a quick, short thrust to the throat, choked it off, and then a clean blow to the face sent him into the first row of seats, unconscious.
Clint Barton, still soaked through, his face dirty with mud, looked at him as though there were nothing out of the ordinary at all in anything that had just transpired. "Thor, you look so good on stage, man. I mean, if I knew somebody, I would call somebody right now and get you out to California for some serious screen time."
Thor didn't pretend to know what the young archer was talking about. He went to the girl instead, kneeling before her. "Are you unharmed, miss?"
She sniffed and nodded mutely. Thor looked back at Clint Barton, who had picked up the weapon and already had his phone out.
The paint around the girl's eyes had smeared about her face from the tears. Thor offered her a hand, which she took. "Perhaps more than you bargained for on this evening, hm?" he tried to smile. She returned it weakly, but her eyes were mostly on the still form in the front row of seats.
Clint Barton put his phone in his pocket, tossed Thor the weapon, and jumped from the platform. "We're just going to get this guy taken care of, and then it's good to go. What, um, what is it you're…doing here?" he asked the girl, gesturing to the stage and the odd wild plant.
"Little Shop of Horrors," she replied meekly.
He shook his head. "Did you guys not hear what happened yesterday?"
"We're giving people hope." Her insisted answer held a bit of stubborn desperateness itself.
"Oh, awesome. That's…that's a noble…thing. Little Shop of Horrors. I've never seen that. Are you guys, uh," he looked around at the empty seats. "Are you going to finish?"
"I…I guess…" Several others peeked their heads out from behind the screen at the back of the stage.
"Perfect. Thor? You want to stay for the show?"
Thor hadn't the basest construct of an idea what he was talking about.
"Please? It's culture and stuff."
"Yes," Thor answered slowly, not entirely sure to what he was agreeing.
"Great. We'll take care of this," he took the man by the collar and began dragging him up the aisle. "He's fine. Really. I mean, he's not…He's fine. You guys reset. Start from where you were. Or, if you're not too far in, run it back. Run it back a little. We've never seen this. That'd be great. Thanks."
Unsure what else to do, Thor took up the alien weapon and followed.
Another hour and a half saw the man and weapon securely in the custody of SHIELD and the show well underway. Once Thor understood it was a musical play being put on by players, he settled in. They had such things on Asgard. Admittedly, none such as this.
The two sat midway back in the large room, and there were perhaps as many as six others sitting closer to the front who'd come to watch the end of the play.
Thor winced as the character known as Seymour let out another sour note. In all honesty, he was paying little attention to the players onstage. His attentions were on the young archer who sat still and oddly silent next to him. The expression was too much like the one he'd worn when they'd first met—it expressed hardly anything at all. Thor wished he knew the young man better. But in the hours they had spent together, he felt he'd learned a fair amount. At least enough to confuse him.
Compared to Thor, all of the Avengers were barely children in terms of years. But Clint Barton was the youngest of all of them. Had an astounding skill set for that of a human being, but nothing that made him…advanced. He didn't have the hastened healing ability and superior strength as Captain Rogers and Agent Romanoff did. He didn't have a suit of armor. He didn't have…whatever it was that made Dr. Banner the Hulk. He had a bow. And he had special arrows. And evidently he could see things from a good distance. And he had so far been adept at not dying. Was that what made him an Avenger?
"Could you stop looking at me? It's really unsettling."
"I wasn't looking at you." He hadn't thought he'd been. But then this young archer had a propensity for noticing things.
"I apologize," Thor amended.
Clint Barton looked askance at him. "Are you trying to figure me out, Thunder?"
Thor sighed. He may as well, "I also apologize for…"
"Thinking I was trying to take a header off a building?"
The young archer also had a propensity for seldom letting him finish a sentence. "Something like that."
"For the record, I wouldn't. Also for the record, that was like a sixty foot drop. I could've survived that."
"I thought surely for a human…"
"Most humans, yes. But I'm not as fragile as I look. I'm circus people. I know how to fall."
"Perhaps," Thor allowed. "But you do not know the first thing about how to be caught."
When the young man quieted, Thor wasn't certain whether he'd scored a point or done more damage. He dared to risk it. "Why did you run?"
Clint Barton's jaw tightened and twitched. "Sorry. I…freaked out. It's under control." He took a series of deep breaths, and Thor gave him time. "I don't…" he paused and licked his lips, and Thor had already learned there was not much this archer feared, but whatever he wanted to say, it was clear he feared it. "I don't remember…doing it. Did I…hurt him pretty bad?"
Thor looked over, dismay and confusion welling within him. The young archer sat still as stone in the darkness, eyes glinting brightly in the light cast from the stage and staring straight ahead. "Agent Coulsen?"
He got a single nod in response.
"Why are…I already told you, you are not to blame. It was Loki. Loki did it."
Clint Barton shook his head. "He might've been steering, but it was me Phil had to look at while he died." His voice had suddenly become very, very quiet. "Did I say anything to him? Do you know?"
Oh. The young archer thought he meant...It suddenly made horrible sense. "I was there, Clint Barton," he said slowly. "I was there when Agent Coulsen stood to face Loki. Alone. In my defense. And I could not get to him. I could not help him. I could do nothing but stand a helpless witness as Loki took up his scepter, and Loki ran him through."
Clint Barton was staring at him now, glassy eyes huge and round, face open and openly shocked. "What? But no, I thought you meant…like how Tasha said it. Like it was me, but it just wasn't my fault because of Loki. I thought…I thought I killed him and couldn't remember…Wow." He took deep breaths, always deep breaths. Painfully deep. "Oh wow," he breathed.
Thor clasped a hand around the back of the young archer's neck, and he tensed but didn't shrug off the contact. This was what made this archer an Avenger, he realized. This heart. This thing he could disguise beneath humor and quick words. This thing he could put away long enough to get the job done. This thing that sought to spare an innocent audience the horrors of war. This thing that most men who'd been through war after war either lost or had cut out of them. This thing that cared. Deeply.
"It was not so," he soothed. "It was not you."
Clint Barton nodded and was silent for a time. The muscles along his jaw still twitched. "I thought that would make it better," he whispered with helpless honesty. And Thor's hearing was superior to most, but he almost missed the words. "It doesn't."
"Tell me." He waited until young archer looked at him. Trust me.
The young archer dropped his eyes to his lap, fingers picking the loose threads from the hole in the knee of his pants that hadn't been there when the evening began. There, profiled in the dim light, he looked very much like the child Thor had to remind himself he was not. "He found me. Nobody else…" he shook his head but still did nothing to dislodge the hand at the base of his neck. "He's the one who brought me into SHIELD. I was…I was a bad bet."
As someone who had seen how this man carried himself, Thor wondered how that could be. He would label anyone who wagered against this man a fool. "Apparently not."
A small smile graced his features, but it was a brief thing. "I don't like that he's dead," he admitted. And it was a raw, painfully honest statement. And the truth it contained was so simple it stole his breath.
"No," Thor agreed quietly. "No. But I do like that you're not."
The young archer snorted and rubbed his face. "Sounds like something he would say. Which is sort of hilarious because you're probably one of the people I'd vote most likely to never sound anything like Phil. You. Fury, definitely, and…I don't know…Adele."
The young lady onstage suddenly shrieked out a note that sounded like something straight out of Helheim. The both of them winced.
"Man," Clint Barton said next to him, shrugging off his hand and swallowing several times. "This is terrible."
Thor hid a smile and sat back. "Then this is not your typically preferred form of entertainment?"
"I find that a relief."
"To be fair, this is like Off Off Off Off Off-Broadway."
"Well, it sounds Off-ful."
"Thor. You made a pun."
Thor did not hide a smile. "Indeed I did."
The two stayed to the end of the show, and it had entirely to do with the young archer's refusal to leave because "There are only like six people here, and they'll notice, and I am not gonna make that girl who plays Audrey start crying again. They're under a lot of stress!"
By the time they made it back to the tower, it was after midnight, and the moment he stepped off the elevator, hat in hand, there were four sets of eyes leering their way with expressions that ranged from amusement to utter disbelief.
"Thor's wearing a suit," Dr. Banner stated, and Thor wondered at the way he took his glasses off and cleaned them and replaced them a moment later.
Captain Rogers crossed his arms. "Is that a fedora?"
Stark looked at the young archer. "Clint, did you dress Thor in a suit?"
"Of course I did."
Stark blinked. "Clint, why did you dress Thor in a suit?"
"Why wouldn't I dress Thor in a suit?"
"He's wearing spats."
"You say that like I had a choice."
"He looks like a gangster," Captain Rogers pointed out.
Dr. Banner had taken several steps closer for examination. He smiled an overly bright smile as though his day had somehow been made. "His cufflinks are little hammers," he announced.
"Clint," Agent Romanoff had not participated in this interplay. She did not look as though capable of processing humor in that moment. Thor had an idea why. "Talk to you?"
Clint Barton raised his eyebrows and glanced at Thor. Then he looked at her. "Sure." He followed her from the room.
The remaining Avengers hardly seemed to notice the exchange. They were still wholly focused on Thor's attire. "Tell me the truth," Tony Stark said. "Did I pay for that?"
Thor looked at each one in turn, letting the silence become uncomfortable. Then in one smooth motion, he rolled the hat, flipped it up, and settled it on his head "He made me an offer I was unable to refuse," he said seriously. The faces of his comrades were utterly still. Then, one hand in his pocket, he sauntered past, down the hall to his room.
He still managed to hear a bewildered Dr. Banner say, "You guys saw that, too, right?"
Privately he smiled.
Thor found no rest in his quarters that night, lying in bed and thinking of Clint Barton and the conversation he'd no doubt had with Agent Romanoff, thinking of Phil Coulsen, mostly thinking of Loki and their impending return to Asgard.
He hadn't heard the door when he heard the voice. "You told him." The woman could move silently as death.
Thor sat up and found her accusing eyes in the darkness. He wasn't surprised that she'd come, only that she'd come so quietly. His response was unrepentant. "You didn't."
"It wasn't your responsibility to…"
"I agree. It was not. It was yours. That is the reason I assumed it had been done." She still looked angry. But perhaps she was not angry with him. "Why did you not?"
She took a deep breath through her nose. "There was no good call. It was just a bad day."
"Aye. I will gladly concede that." He looked at her, standing by his door in the darkness. "Why have you come then? Only to chide and reprimand? You've not so far done either."
"No." She swallowed, and her demeanor was still utterly professional, even cold. But her words suddenly changed. "I came to thank you."
He gazed, confused, waiting for more. But that was in fact, her entire message. She turned for the door. Before she reached it, however, another figure slipped through. This one turned on the lights. Everyone blinked.
"You guys up?"
"Clint, I will kill you."
"I brought you coffee." The young archer handed her the beverage as an offering of peace but then whispered conspiratorially and in fact rather loudly behind his hand to Thor, "It's decaff." Before she'd rolled her eyes, he was ten paces away from her with the bed between them. He was no great fool.
He went to the chest of drawers and pulled out a black t-shirt, and Thor had to catch it before it reached his face. The archer looked suspiciously at him then. "Are you wearing pants under there?"
"Yes," Thor said. He wore the pants Ms. Potts had told him were designed specifically for sleeping. She'd called them "flannel." And it was with resignation that he surrendered to whatever the young archer was planning, and pulled the t-shirt over his head.
"Great. Nat, we're watching anything that's not a musical. Care to join?"
"I'll tell the others I found you in Asgard's bedroom."
"He was shirtless."
Her smile was as reluctant and resigned as a smile could be whilst still being labeled a smile. "You're not even funny." And a great deal of all that was cold and professional about her evaporated as she stepped out of her shoes.
Clint Barton sat on the bed, motioning him to move over until there was room before settling back against the headboard next to him. "So." He raised his eyebrows. "Did you do the thing with the hat?"
He smiled brightly and pressed and gestured for the remote as Agent Romanoff settled on the bed beside him, and then pressing buttons and talking about things like televisions and movies and Netflixes and something called a blu-ray, which sounded dangerous.
The feature's length was not unendurable, and the program itself was very informative. "This film took place on Earth then?"
Clint Barton's eyes were open but heavy, though he seemed content enough, Agent Romanoff's head resting on his shoulder, her eyes closed. "Yep."
"That Humperdinck was a foul and nasty fellow."
"Yeah. He got his."
"The Fire Swamp reminded me of the tales I've heard of Muspelheim."
"That's what everybody says."
"Agent Romanoff appears to be asleep."
"She can never stay awake for these sorts of documentaries."
"You can call me Clint. Or Hawkeye." The young archer blinked at him sleepily.
Thor smiled. "What did Agent Coulsen call you?"
"Called me Agent Barton in front of other agents. Clint when it was just us and Natasha or Fury. Hawkeye when he thought I did something awesome or when he thought I was dead and I wasn't." The grief was so carefully kept in check, but the truth couldn't be.
"Did you know," Thor asked, "that there is a creature on Asgard rather like the hawks of Midgard?"
"How could I possibly know that?"
"There is a word, I think, for what I would call you were you my brother on Asgard."
That made the young archer take a bit more notice. "What?"
"Is that like a curse?"
"No. It means…'the best of hawks.'" He looked over in time to observe the end of a very tired, very private, very honored smile. Then a nod.
Thor smiled. "It surprises me that Agent Romanoff remains asleep even with the sound of our voices. Yours I would understand, but mine would still be unfamiliar to her."
"I put a little sedative in her coffee," the young archer nodded alongside his explanation. "She hasn't been sleeping well."
"It's how we show affection. Also, if you tell her I'll deny it."
"And she does this to you then?"
"Nah. I have weird reactions to sedatives."
"I get really…fatigued."
"Ah. You should rest, my friend."
"It'll be morning soon. Field trip day." He glanced at him sideways. "You ever coming back you think?"
"Of course. I hope it to be soon."
"What does soon translate to in mortal years?"
He thought of Jane. Her lovely face. Her remarkable spirit. How he missed her. "That is the question," he said quietly. And it surprised him that this young man would ask, that it would matter to him. This was an honorable man. With remarkable heart. "I apologize for shouting at you. Earlier."
"I'm sorry I made you think I was suicidal." And there wasn't much humor to it, but they chuckled anyway in their weariness.
And hours later, standing out of doors, with Loki bound and in tow, he looked about and found himself surrounded by those he would be proud to call brothers and sister. He'd said goodbye to Tony Stark and Dr. Banner and Agent Romanoff and Captain Rogers. And when he'd clasped the young archer's hand, he'd heard "See you around, Thor. Take care," and the eyes were hidden behind dark glasses.
"And you also, my friend. Take care of yourself, Hábrók." It had earned a small smile as the young archer stepped back. Thor stood beside Loki and prepared to engage the Tesseract. A moment before he left this realm behind, he heard a sudden shout.
"Oh, hey! Thor!" And he caught the fedora as it spun toward him, and it made him laugh.
If there was one thing he'd learned of the people of Midgard, it was that they could be surprising.