A/N: Hello everyone! I'm finally back after a much-too-long fanfic hiatus. Kudos and many many thanks to RedTigress of The Beta Branch for the prompt that inspired this story, beta reading (along with VleRoux), and for the lovely cover art. Entangled States is rated T for language and thematic elements. Additional warnings will be added to individual chapters as needed, in the author notes. I'm going to try to update regularly (about once a week), but there is a chance work will get in the way and I might not be able to keep to that schedule...I'll try! :) I hope you guys enjoy the story!
In retrospect, Clint should have known something was going to go terribly wrong. The mission had been more or less routine, at least as routine as things ever got with the Avengers. Portal opens in the sky. Aliens fall out of portal. Aliens cause chaos. Cue the Avengers.
The aliens themselves had been a pain in Clint's ass. Everyone's, really. They were vaguely insectoid and used some sort of weird energy weapons that Stark and Banner got all excited about. Clint didn't really bother with the details; he didn't really care what the things were or where they were from. Once the shooting started all he cared about was how to kill them.
Unfortunately they were armored heavily enough that Clint's arrows just glanced off unless he hit a crack or a joint, which meant they were more or less bulletproof (inconvenient for Natasha) and able to withstand all but the most direct blows from Rogers' shield. Even that didn't pose too much of a problem: the archer picked them off through gaps and eye slits and let Natasha and Steve finish them off hand-to-hand. Stark just swooped around blasting everything in sight. He was aided by the Hulk in causing as much mass destruction as possible. They let the assassins and Rogers finish the clean-up. Well, that was certainly mission-typical.
There hadn't been any movement for about half an hour, so Clint decided it was safe to shimmy down from his perch. A SHIELD cleanup team was due any minute, so now they were just waiting on Banner to de-Hulk. He strolled towards Natasha and Rogers. Stark landed near them with a metallic clunk of armor. Barton yawned and pulled his bow up across his shoulders. He draped an arm over either end and twisted from side to side to stretch his back. It felt good to move after being stuck up on that tower for so long.
He watched as the Hulk finally slumped to the ground a little way away. It was always weird to see the green monster go so quiet and still as Bruce fought to bring himself back to the surface, Clint thought. Slowly, the green began to fade and the Hulk began to shrink. Clint glanced at his watch with approval. Banner was really getting better at managing the transformations. The archer considered going to run the preflight checks on the jet. If they got a move on, he might just be able to catch the tail end of the game. That'd be nice, especially with a cold beer or three-
"Live one!" Stark suddenly yelled. "We've got a live-"
Clint's head snapped up. Stark's AI must've picked up a straggler. His eye caught a flicker of motion in the darkness and his bow was instantly in his hands. He reached for an arrow, drew it back, and let it fly in one smooth motion. The shot was good; it hit the alien right under the arm. Instead of going down, though, the insectoid figure staggered and raised its other arm. Something purplish glowed in its hand. Oh shit the thing had a grenade-
Another motion caught Clint's eye even as he raised his bow for a second shot. Somewhere not far from the alien, a pale human form moved in the darkness and he swore under his breath. Christ, Banner had picked a really bad moment to come around. The glowing grenade left the alien's hand in the same moment Clint got the second shot off. It flew towards them but he could tell by the trajectory there was no way it would reach the group. But Banner, Clint suddenly realized, was between the alien straggler and the Avengers. The weapon was headed right at him.
"STARK!" the archer bellowed, but Tony was already in motion. Iron Man streaked overhead towards the pulsing light, grenade, whatever it was. Bruce was still struggling groggily into a crouch, unaware of the peril he was in.
"Banner, move!" Steve yelled, but it was too late. Behind him, Natasha swore viciously.
Stark's metal fingers snatched the alien grenade out of the air. Somehow he had the presence of mind to catch himself with his stabilizers in mid-air and slow down so he wouldn't injure the scientist when he inevitably collided with Banner. The light pulses coming from the grenade rapidly increased in frequency; the fuse indicator, Clint realized. He could see Tony didn't have time to chuck it away. So could Tony. Stark rolled himself between the unarmored Banner and the grenade and clutched it to his chest-
The alien weapon exploded with a brilliant flash of light. Violet energy crackled over Stark and Banner, arcing between metal armor and bare skin. Tony howled over their earpieces, and Clint thought he could hear Banner yelling too. A moment later, the energy had dissipated. He blinked frantically to clear the bright spots from his vision. Stark and Banner were in a tangled heap on the ground. Smoke rose from the remains of the grass around them.
"Stark!" Steve cried. "Banner!"
"Shit," Clint breathed, slinging his bow over his shoulder and sprinting towards the fallen pair. Natasha was hard on his heels. Rogers, of course, got there first.
Steve dragged Banner out first. He held his ear close to the unconscious scientist's face. "He's breathing, anyway," he reported.
Clint dropped into a crouch beside Bruce while Steve checked on Tony. He pressed a couple of fingers to Banner's neck, feeling for a pulse. Satisfied that the scientist was alive and not going green, he fished an ultrathin emergency blanket from one of his pockets and draped it over Banner's mostly-naked body. A few burns marred the scientist's bare skin, but nothing looked life-threatening. Clint glanced over at Steve and Natasha, who were leaning over Iron Man. "Stark?"
"Alive," Steve said. He'd popped Tony's faceplate and dropped it to the ground beside its owner. The arc reactor flickered once or twice but seemed to stabilize within a moment. JARVIS was still working then, Clint thought. Steve glanced up at him. "I guess we won't know more than that until we can get his armor off."
Clint rocked back on his heels. "Funny, I thought his armor would protect him from energy blasts. I mean, he can take a hit from Thor without any problems."
"And doesn't Banner usually Hulk-out from this kind of thing?" Steve asked. "When he gets hurt?"
"Must be something different about this tech," Natasha observed. She nudged the billionaire impatiently with her foot. They couldn't leave until they had enough help to move Stark in his heavy armor, or until he woke and could move under his own power. "Wake up, Stark."
Nobody was expecting Tony to actually wake. "Ow," Stark groaned and they all jumped. His bright brown eyes flickered open and darted from side to side. He looked…confused, Clint thought. "What…? Did I hurt anyone?"
"Welcome back," Steve said. He looked a little surprised by Stark's odd words, but relieved nonetheless.
Tony's eyes widened. "What?" he started, looking thoroughly lost. He blinked several times. "I'm not naked."
Stark reached for his head, but stopped partway and stared at his hand like he'd never seen it before. He waggled the gauntleted fingers experimentally. "Why…why am I not naked? How did I get in here?"
"Tony," Steve started. His expression had gone from relieved to alarmed. "Are you-"
"What is this, some kind of joke?" Stark interrupted. He levered himself awkwardly into a sitting position. There was a note of panic in his voice that bothered Clint. "Tony's idea? Tranq me and stuff me in his suit?"
"There's no prank, man," Clint said. Stark's eyes found him, and the sniper was surprised to see fear in them. "You got zapped by some weird alien thing, Tony. We better get the medics to check you out-"
"I'm not Tony!" the billionaire exclaimed. There was a plaintive note in his voice. "This really isn't funny, guys…"
Natasha's eyes narrowed. "What do you mean, you're not Tony?" she demanded.
Iron Man was struggling to his feet now. There was a weird, almost uncoordinated sense about his movements that reminded Clint of a puppy or a foal or something trying to learn to walk. The hell was going on?
"I'm Bruce!" Stark cried. "Bruce Banner! Why are you guys calling me Tony?"
Steve rolled his eyes. "Knock it off, Stark," he growled, sounding exasperated. "Look, Bruce is over there." He pointed at Banner's unconscious body.
The blood drained from Stark's face. His mouth worked but no sound came out. Clint looked from Steve to Natasha, confused. He couldn't remember ever seeing Tony Stark speechless before. Natasha's eyes were narrow with thought. Steve just looked irritated.
"But…how can I be over there if I'm here?" Stark (Stark?) sounded truly panicked now. He tried to take a step back and seemed to stumble over his own boots. He reeled a bit before regaining his balance. "I'm here. But there…what? It's not possible!"
Natasha figured it out first. "Oh, you have got to be kidding," she exclaimed. She turned to Tony. "What's Betty's birthday?"
"Tash?" Clint questioned her, but she shot him a look and he obediently shut up.
"June 14," Stark said without hesitation. Clint froze. There was no way in hell Stark would know the answer to that question. He couldn't even remember his own girlfriend's birthday, let alone Banner's ex. So that meant-
"That's not Stark," Natasha said, folding her arms across her chest.
"Of course that's Stark!" Steve snapped. "Look at him."
For answer, she pointed at Stark. "No, that's Banner," she said simply. She pointed at Bruce's body on the ground. "That's Stark." She shrugged. "Somehow they seem to have switched bodies."
There was complete silence for a few beats while Clint and Steve processed that information. They spoke together.
"What?" Steve exclaimed.
"What do you mean switched bodies?" Clint demanded. The hell was going on? He had to admit that it made some sense…especially with the way Stark was disoriented and stumbling around. That he somehow knew Betty Ross' birthday. But come on, switched bodies? That was just insane.
Stark (Banner?) looked around uncertainly. "I'm Bruce. My consciousness, Bruce's, I mean, is here in Tony's body. I'm assuming that Tony's in my body right now," he explained. "At least that's what I think happened."
"How is this even possible?" Steve asked. He sounded completely bewildered. He took a step forward and peered closely into the scientist's face, as if to see the change.
Bruce took an instinctive step backwards. The whir of the servos in the armor seemed to startle him and he glanced nervously from side to side at the plates covering his shoulders. "Uh, wow, I'm not used to being at eye level with you, Steve."
Clint stared. Now that he thought about it, he sure didn't sound like Stark. Something about the speech pattern or something was just off. He didn't act like Stark either. "That is weird, man. You sound like Tony but…not."
"A very astute observation, Barton," Natasha said with more than a hint of sarcasm. Clint shot her a dirty look. What was she all worked up about? Worse things had happened on missions.
"You're telling me," Bruce said dryly. He picked up the faceplate from the ground and turned it over in his hands to avoid looking at anyone. Clint got the impression he was trying very hard to keep his cool. Well, if anyone was good at that, it was Banner. "Um, am I…is Tony…?"
"He's got some burns, but he's more or less unhurt. Should probably get him checked out back at base," Natasha said. She shot the scientist a quizzical look. "How do you feel?"
Banner's eyes kept flicking down to his body on the ground. He looked thoroughly unnerved by the sight, but he couldn't seem to avert his gaze for long. "Uh, tingly."
"Tingly?" Steve exclaimed. He looked like he needed a drink, Clint thought. The archer smirked.
"Yeah," Bruce said with another shrug. "And everything tastes like…coconut." He made a face. "I hate coconut." He smiled sheepishly, and in that moment it finally sunk in for Clint that it really was Banner in there. Tony Stark didn't do sheepish. "What happened exactly?" the scientist asked him.
"We missed a goon," Clint said with a shrug that looked a lot more nonchalant than he felt. He was kicking himself mentally, and he was pretty sure Rogers was doing the same. "Threw some kind of energy grenade at you; Stark grabbed it but it went off before he could get rid of it. He tried to protect you from the worst of it."
"I guess that's debatable," Banner quipped. He still sounded nervous, but Clint thought the fact that he could attempt to make a joke out of his bizarre situation was encouraging. The archer smirked again, and the corner of Rogers' mouth twitched reluctantly.
Natasha, however, was not amused. "What about the Hulk?" she asked coolly, but Clint could hear tension in her voice. So that was what she was worked up about. He hadn't even thought about the Big Guy. He trusted Banner to keep a handle on that.
Banner paled, the skin whitening around Stark's dark beard. Clint felt his gut twist unpleasantly. That was not a good reaction.
"He's…not here," Bruce exclaimed, sounding stunned. He glanced rapidly between his teammates. "I didn't notice before, but he's not here. He's…gone." His bright eyes flicked downward to the unconscious physical body of Bruce Banner, now occupied by Tony Stark. They widened suddenly in understanding. "Oh god. You guys might want to, uh, move back."
It took Clint a second to understand what Bruce was saying. "You mean he's in there? With Stark?"
Banner cringed. The movement looked ridiculous in the Iron Man armor. "Uh, yeah, I'm afraid so."
Natasha took a hasty step backwards. Steve had that look of pained responsibility that he always got when faced with the prospect of dealing with a miserable situation. Clint just swore under his breath.
So much for a routine mission.
To be continued! Please review; I love hearing from readers. :)