"You want to do what?" Tony asked, rounding on Clint, temper flaring; Clint remained calm and closed off, a blank mask in place of his normally expressive face. Steve was worried; Clint was keeping his emotions on a tight leash, but his hands were clenched and he ground them against his thighs. The stress was going to catch up to the man eventually; Steve just hoped that someone was around to catch Clint when he finally fell off the tightrope he was walking.
"They'll attack again. We've proven to be unpredictable and a threat; now that they know the Tesseract is here, they'll want to take out the targets most likely to stop them. The Hulk's next up on the list. We should watch Carol as well. But they've taken all of our measures by now." Clint didn't stop walking, heading for the practice room where the Hulk had been moved; Steve had agreed that letting the Big Guy be part of this was crucial, even though he had his reservations about the Hulk's stability at the moment. The practice room had more space and offered more offensive options in case another sphere appeared. "The last two were clearly aimed at getting rid of us, knocking out the electronics and going for high value targets."
"You want to run into one of those things? Not a good idea." Tony stepped in front of Clint, blocking his way. "Look what's happened so far when someone was inside a sphere. That's how we got into this in the first place! If the Hulk hadn't plowed in without thinking, Bruce would be here right now."
The temperature dropped in the hallway; Clint's eyes went dark, his jaw clenched, and he swung a round house punch right into Tony's jaw, knocking him flat on his ass before Steve could step between them. "Don't you …." Clint stopped himself, dragged in an audible breath and settled his calm façade back into place. "They're coming for us. We either strike back or we all go down, and those spheres are the only way to do it." Stepping around Tony, Clint kept going, not even looking back.
Tony took Steve's offered hand and got up. He rubbed his jaw, shifting it back and forth to check for breaks. "Okay, hair trigger there. He's a time bomb waiting to go off. Wants us to go rushing into one of those things? We don't even know that we can communicate through it."
"Actually, I think he's right." Steve started after Clint. "So far, we've offered no resistance, just reacted. It may be time to send them a clear message that we can and will fight back. Besides, it's only been those exposed to the Tesseract or gamma radiation that have been affected."
"Don't forget that Clint was inside that one in the med bay, the one that came out of Bruce's body. If the damn things can make a brand new, non-hulked out Bruce, fuse Carol's DNA, what did it do to Clint?" Tony argued.
"Damn it, Tony. You of all people should get it; this is a suicide mission for him." Steve knew it was harsh even as it came out of his mouth, but he couldn't call the words back, nor did he want to. "The least we can do is make sure he doesn't succeed." They'd reached the door by then; Steve strode into the room, leaving Tony sputtering in the hallway. Thor, Jane, Natasha, and Carol were already there; Clint had drifted over towards the Hulk who was maintaining his distance from the others.
"Steve! Jane has brought the most interesting data. She believes she knows where these attacks originate," Thor's voice boomed across the room.
"M87. Clint said Eric mentioned it. The Hubble telescope recently discovered what might be a black hole there. What with the portal opening here in New York, and the verification of the Einstein Rosen bridge, Eric was working on a new project based on a fascinating theory from a young physicistChaoue out of Austria who posits that …."
"Jane," Thor gently interrupted. "Perhaps you could tell them about the relevant part first?"
She blushed, tucking her hair back from her face. "Sorry. I get caught up. Anyway, there's Tesseract type of energy coming from M87 and … here's the best part … a new unknown type of cosmic radiation that matches our sphere energy."
"They're coming through the black hole?" Steve asked, glad that Clint had introduced him to the show Stargate. There'd even been an episode about event horizons and time dilation. He'd never admit it to Tony, but he learned a lot more about the scientific concepts by watching something like that than reading the briefing files. "I thought nothing could travel through those without getting ripped apart."
"Unless it's a stabilized wormhole instead; even then nothing but the tiniest of particles could pass through, but that's all they would need. The Tesseract is pure energy, after all." Tony entered the conversation. No one mentioned the purple and red bruise blossoming on his face. "The problem is how they open the thing on this side."
"The thing attacked specific targets in the lab," Carol said. "How did it know where we were? Or to go right for the computer? That means they'd have to have some way of watching in real time or close to it."
Tony bounced on his feet, the problem energizing him, the rapid fire conversation fueling his curious mind. Steve could see Tony's fingers in motion, tapping together in increasingly complex rhythms on his leg.
"I think I might be able to help you with that." Eric Selvig came through the door; he looked rumpled and unkempt. But then, Steve thought, Selvig always looked that way. Jane ran to hung him, and he smiled at her. "She said you needed me," Selvig said to her.
"Did you ask her out?" Jane teased, and he blushed.
"I think I can make one of those spheres open and keep it here, catch it in something like a net. If you have a computer I could use?" he asked; Tony pulled up a screen and Selvig began entering a formula, typing with two fingers on the keyboard that appeared on the bottom. Tony watched over Selvig's shoulder; within seconds, he was riffing on the basic structure, tweaking the numbers, completely engrossed.
"What if it's a small one?" Steve asked, not even pretending to understand what was going on with the scientists. He was thinking more about logistics and battle plans. Who would step in and what they might encounter inside.
"The unusual reading I mentioned in the med bay?" Hank Pym spoke from behind them; he must have come in with Selvig, but Steve missed him. Pulling up a chart on his tablet, he tossed it to Tony. "These specific particles. I know what they are; they're sort of my pet project, what I use for my suit. I've been working with them for a few years now."
"You discovered these?" Tony asked. "Can they enlarge as well as shrink?"
"Yes, given the right combinations. It's how the spheres change size." The doctor nodded. "They may also be involved with the Hulk's transformation; I'd need more time to study that to be sure, but I think …."
"I'll get you a whole floor of labs for that, but for now, I need you to get to work with these Pym particles so we can stabilize the size we want," Tony said, tossing some data back over. "Welcome to the team, Hank."
Clint was used to staying still for long periods of time; as a sniper, he often spent hours, sometimes days, in the same location, gathering intel, casing a target, waiting for a shot. He'd long ago learned how to let his mind focus, blocking out everything but the one main goal. As he sat cross legged on the floor, not quite up against the wall because of his quiver but close enough to still rest the top of his head on the smooth surface, he sank into a numb state of mind. Waiting was the worst part; being ready to move at any second while not drifting too far away; he'd mastered that technique through some training with Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka. Open mind, close thoughts, let the events and words wash over him. Clint knew he had to do everything to stop the memories and emotions from rising to the surface if he was going to make it through this.
The Hulk sat by him for a while, stroking his hand along Clint's arm, but the Big Guy couldn't contain himself long, filled with jumpy nerves and worry; Steve and Thor ended up distracting him on the far side of the room with a video game. Clint could hear the whoops and cheers – the Hulk played Halo the same way he watched movies – but he let it go, safe in the knowledge that the others would watch out for the Big Guy. Natasha slid down the wall and settled in next to him, her usual taciturn self; this was how she handled things, no talking, no 'how do you feel' questions, just a solid presence that would be there if he needed her. Which, he knew deep down, he didn't. No one – Tasha included – could help him.
Conversations ebbed and flowed around him; he picked out pieces here and there as he waited.
"… the co-efficient has to change for that to be possible," Pym was arguing. "They don't work the same with humans as they do with inanimate objects."
"Then we'll have to change the force applied …" Selvig's voice faded.
"… cover the retreat, there's more behind the hill," Steve said as he slammed his thumb on the button to fire.
"Hulk see them," the Big Guy growled as shots sounded from the scene.
"… cloning technique that Mar-Vell knows about. It wouldn't show up on any of our scans because we'd think it was just a residual effect of the sphere." Carol was keeping her voice very low, but Clint's hearing was sharp enough to pick it out. "The data supports the theory; the decay rate of his body is far too fast, and there's a troubling half-life reading."
"But the bow didn't show any signs of that," Tony argued. "It's sitting in my lab waiting to be fixed."
"Tesseract power, that's what Clint used. Bruce was something different …" Carol turned her back and Clint lost the thread of the conversation as the Hulk cheered the completion of the level.
"…should hold, but it will take constant monitoring," Selvig was saying.
"We can use an oscillating scale …" Pym answered.
"…. know enough about what's happened to you. You're staying outside with Hank and Selvig," Tony insisted.
"The hell I am. You try and stop me, Tony Stark, and I'll …" Carol snapped back.
"Quite a motley crew you've collected … it's getting bigger, I see." Loki extended his long legs out in front of him, crossing his jean-clad ankles, resting his leather-coat against the wall next to Clint. "Selvig I know. Tall and skittish scientist? All human there. Must be here for his brain. Stark will be jealous. Lovely blonde? Now she looks promising! Something alien about her, isn't there? New toys are so much fun."
God, he'd thought he was done with these things; Clint closed his eyes and willed the bastard away, Neo style. He was already on his one last nerve; he didn't need Loki's bullshit.
"So the plan is to confront whoever is doing this? Typical." Loki just kept on talking. "Although the whole black hole thing is very informative, I must say. Ah, what have we here? Another new face …."
"Clint, dear, I need you to open your eyes for me. And Loki? You can go home now." The Tesseract stood in front of them, the woman Clint had dreamed of on the bench in Charleston, dressed now in a lovely blue dress that flowed over her curves. "It is time."
"Um, Clint? You want to introduce us to your new friend?" Tony was the first to speak.
"This is … Tessa. Used to be a shiny blue glowy cube. Now she's not." Clint stood, stretching his muscles and shaking out his body, bow in hand. "She's going to help us out."
"My lady," Selvig greeted her warmly, stopping short of where she was standing and inclining his head. "You look lovely in this form."
"Thank you, Eric." She nodded back. "But I'm afraid you've little time. They are preparing their next strike even as we speak."
That pronouncement caused a flurry of activity; questions flew, people stood and grabbed weapons, quick decisions were made. Clint ignored it all, standing with his feet apart, balancing on his toes, aware of the preparations, but separate from it all. After a moment or two, Carol moved beside him in her jeans and Queen t-shirt, determination in her stance. On the other side, Natasha stepped up, a silent presence. The Hulk moved in behind him, Steve on the back left, Thor, back right. Tony was still making plans with Pym and Selvig and Jane when Jarvis sounded the warning and the sphere appeared, a small one this time, tendrils already shooting out even as it materialized. Thor raised Mjolnir, and the electricity bent and collected around the hammer, not hitting any of its intended targets. Threads of light appeared from the room's laser system, trapping the sphere; it shimmered, expanded, contracted, then began to grow, sides undulating as it became large enough for them all to enter.
"Alright, let's do this smart, people," Steve said.
Clint didn't hesitate, crossing the filmy barrier with Carol and Natasha. He'd expected some resistance, but there was nothing, no sensation at all, as he stepped through into the circle. Cold sank into his bones; he'd expected that as he came to a stop far enough in for the others to follow. The sparks that jumped towards them were diverted to Thor who wrapped them around his hammer, lighting the dim space. The floor beneath was still the practice room or at least it looked the same.
"Okay. That was anti-climactic," Tony complained, his voice mechanized through his suit. "Helloooooooooo? Anybody home?"
"Really?" Carol huffed. "What's next, knock, knock?"
The Hulk let lose a ground-shaking roar, issuing a challenge.
"Okay. That might work," Tony said.
The mist in front of Clint churned, folding in and flattening until a face appeared. To say the image was hideous didn't do it justice. If someone had taken the scariest monsters in all of Earth culture and morphed them together, this visage was worse. Putrid skin festered with sores, misshapen eyes ran with greenish pus, the lump that passed for a nose slid down his face, overhanging a sewn closed slit that should be a mouth.
"Damn," Tony exclaimed. "Dude, that is fugly. Okay, who thought of that? I was thinking of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man."
"I was going for the Great and Powerful Oz, myself," Carol replied.
It didn't matter to Clint what the damn thing looked like; he raised his bow, aimed an arrow straight at its face, and counted to 10. If he got to one, he was going for the shot. On 4, the thing spoke.
"Dare challenge?" The voice was chittering, like the sound of cricket legs rubbing together, with a high pitched edge. "Give the power, the Lingha. No more aggression"
"No." That was Steve. Simple and declarative. "Leave us alone, and we won't destroy you."
The sound might have been laughter, but it was acute and excruciating to human ears; Clint didn't flinch, just waited it out.
"Chaoue take, Nomin suffer. Give the Lingha." The face rippled, the mist moving across it like a disruption. Not real then, just a projection.
"No." This time, Tony answered.
The Hulk howled, dropping to his knees, hands clenched around his head. Carol gasped and doubled over, her hands beginning to glow blue. Clutching his bow, Clint fought the wave of nausea that rolled through him …
"Are we doing the Wizard of Oz now? Or that silly movie about ghosts and nuclear accelerator backpacks? I do not understand the appeal of that one." Loki stood at the end of the long hallway, black suit, white shirt, tie, dark shades covering his eyes. Green numbers ran down what should have been the circumference of the sphere, programming code that cascaded around them.
Inside room 303 in the Heart o' the City hotel, a phone was ringing.
"Are you going to help or stop me?" Clint asked the Asgardian.
"If I help, will you make Thor tell mother that I did? Perhaps see if I can at least get a visit from her?" Loki tilted his top hat.
"Yes." If he survived, Clint would do it. What difference would it make anyway?
Loki looked at him, seeing right through him, knowing Clint's intentions. He shoved his hands into the pockets of his leather jacket. "Answer the phone, and remember what he said to you. You have get them to close the connection. Once the Tesseract is fully evolved, they will not be able to control her power anymore."
Clint picked up the receiver of the ancient rotary dial phone.
"Follow the White Rabbit and pay no attention to the man behind the curtain," the familiar voice said.
"Bruce?" he whispered.
"The three of us can do anything, Clint. He can't hurt us anymore. Now get up. And go find me."
"Clint?" Steve's hand shook him again. "We need to find the weak spot and stop it."
Follow the White Rabbit. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
He let his eyes go out of focus, watched the rain of numbers crawl down the curved walls, found a place where they split, cascading around a darker shape. The EMP pulse arrow flew true and the floor trembled with the hit, arcs of blue lightning dancing through the mist, interrupting the coding, revealing a circular dark vortex. Turning, he found another spot, aimed and fire. Again and again, until he'd hit five different ones. Behind him, Thor launched Mjolnir and smashed one, energy releasing with a wounded screech that clawed at Clint's eyes. Steve's shield took out another, and Tony got the third at almost the same time. The last two moved, sprouting long tentacles that propelled them forward as the face in the mist disappeared.
"Cease!" A different voice, coming from one of the two. Carol pulled herself up, and the Hulk dropped his hands; blood ran from his ears and his nose. "Chaoue angry. Return for Lingha. Destroy Nomin. Why resist?"
"What makes you think you can destroy us? We're only a few humans. Imagine what the rest of us can do." Clint spat the words at the octopus-like figures. "The Chauoe might find this planet costs a lot more than you bargained for."
"Do not understand. Nomin not logical. Nomin fight. What is Lingha to Nomin? Just give."
"The Tesseract isn't ours to give. She decides what she wants to do. On Earth, people get to make their own choices," Tony said. "We don't traffic in humans. Not even to save the world."
The two aliens floated towards each other, their arms mingling, sharing blue sparks.
"Chaoue watch, decide. If Lingha is nomin now, must consult." They chittered between them; the walls of the sphere began to fade, raining down towards the floor.
"Everyone falls the first time, Clint." Standing near the ledge, Bruce looked at him. The gap between the buildings yawned before him, far too wide to be crossed.
"Wait." Clint pointed an arrow at the head … the vortex … of the nearest Chaoue. "You changed one of us, split him, made him something else. Fix it."
The blackness of the alien's center swirled faster, blue mixing with the white lines. "Experiment. Nomin strong. Resisted."
The mirror moved, silver wavering, whirling into a pattern, then reaching out for his hand, curling around the tip of his finger and covering up to his wrist, pulling him in.
Red hot rage poured into Clint's chest, a volcano of it rising up and swamping his very soul. "Fix it or die."
"Clint," Steve warned.
A gun cocked and aimed at the second Chaoue's head. Natasha said, "You heard him. Fix it."
The Hulk growled. "Want Little Guy. NOW."
No bottom to the chasm, no bridge this time, nowhere to go but down. He held his breath and lifted a foot to step out.
Chittering, the whole body swirled, presenting a different view of the blackness. "Pain. Hurt. More than before. Choose with wisdom."
He took the red pill, leaped off the roof without a line, let the mirror pull him down the rabbit hole.
All in the same second, Steve started to speak, Carol's hand grasped Clint's shoulder, Thor shifted Mjolnir, readying it, Tony lifted off the ground, and Clint said. "Yes."
Tentacles whipped out, and the Hulk roared as one burrowed its end into his chest and another circled his throat, squeezing tight.
"Fucking son-of-a-bitch," Clint ground out between clenched teeth as he reached for the one burning a hole near the Big Guy's heart; fingers closed around it and razor-sharp needles sank into his flesh, an agony so intense that he screamed as they pierced his skin and blazed their way into his veins. Someone was pulling him away, there was an explosion, blinding light, another high-pitched squeal, and then he was sagging down into Natasha's arms, barely able to keep conscious.
"Clint!" Thor was shouting but sounded so far away. The room receded as the needles spiked into his body, ripping through his control, forcing the truth upon him. There was still screaming – it might have been him, he couldn't tell – and a boiling wave of emotion smashed into his chest, driving all the air out of his lungs, hot tears in the corner of his eyes. Natasha was there, her head bent over his, shielding him from the others, eyes wide with concern.
"Get me out of here," he whispered. "Don't let them see me like this."
She lifted him, linking under his good arm to keep him upright. "I've got him. Let's go, Big Guy."
Feet, feet were needed for walking. He managed to move one, the physical pain of the motion almost welcome because he had to focus on it. A second step by will alone, a third and then his head was spinning, all his carefully built walls starting to crumble, the hellishly deep pit of despair that he'd been ignoring gaping open. There was the door and then the blessedly quieter hallway; boxes of locked torment rattled and shattered as Natasha almost carried him. Another door, a room, a bed – and big green arms were holding him, easing him down as the shudders racked his body, great heaving sobs bursting out of his throat. The smell of burned flesh, the crooning voice of the Hulk as he rocked Clint, Natasha shutting the door and Clint could only repeat, over and over again, "He's not coming back. He's not coming back." He was lost in his grief, and there was nothing to do but let it take him down into the darkness.
The Hulk was falling and Clint couldn't reach him; brown eyes pleaded as the shift took him, green skin morphing back into paler flesh, Bruce's hands outstretched.
"Hold on!" Clint shouted. "Doc. You with me? Damn it, can you hear me?"
Clint shot the grappling arrow and launched himself after Bruce, catching his sweaty hand, the pain from his injury unbearable.
"Hold on!" he shouted then watched with horror as the line unspooled and snapped, flapping away from them and leaving them in free fall, the street rushing up to meet them.
His eyes were dry, his throat sore, muscles cramping in his chest from crying, and he woke screaming Bruce's name, reaching aimlessly for his bow, cursing the goddamn aliens. Hands stroked him, a simple song hummed in a deep voice, and Clint sank back into the dreams.
"Cupid okay?" The Hulk was slipping into unconsciousness, big gaping wound in his chest, so it was easy for Clint to hide the numbness that was spreading through his hand.
"I'm coming," Clint promised as a pressure like a tight band was sweeping up his arm, constricting his chest; as his heart pounded hard against his chest, he struggled to drag in enough air. His body started trembling, and it took all of his will to open his clenched palm; two slivers of the plastic dispenser were embedded in his skin, and blood welled from cuts. The rest of the pieces fell to the ground, drops of the drug rolling down his unresponsive fingers as his ears rang.
Fighting it, Clint woke up, throwing punches, hearing the Hulk grunt as he hit the already healing wound. Dripping sweat, he dropped back onto the mattress, feeling the effects of whatever drug they'd given him to help him sleep. He didn't want to sleep.
"Clint." The tiniest of murmurs. "I …" Bruce's eyes drifted closed, too long between breaths.
"I know, doc. I love you too." Clint brushed his lips over Bruce's colder ones and rested their foreheads together, eyes closed, no need to do more than exhale to be heard. "Always will."
Drifting up, an easy rise from the depths. Body curled around his, legs tangled together, heavy arm weighing down Clint's middle, stirs of breath on his neck. Little by little, awareness of the soft cotton sheet, the warm hollow in the mattress, the fold in the pillowcase just beneath his cheek filtered into his sluggish brain. Gossamer brush of lips just behind his ear, along the edge of the lobe, fingers tracing patterns above his hip bone; body stirring, Clint cracked open his eyes and turned his head.
"What the fuck?" He shot up and scrambled away, shock pushing adrenaline through his system, pain flaring up his arm when he put his weight down on his hand.
Bruce blinked, sleepy and confused, and lifted up on one elbow. "Where are we? What happened?"
"Oh, no, no, no, no. How do I know this isn't another damn dream?" Clint was shaking all over, unable to believe.
"Last thing I remember is … fish men? The Other Guy came out and had a good time ripping them apart. I think there was a fire hydrant? Then … it gets really fuzzy from there. Some sort of meetings with Maria Hill and … Coulson and Carol? That can't be right." He rubbed his hand over his eyes then through his hair and noticed he was wearing only his miracle Hulk pants. "Oh. How long was I the Other Guy?"
"Three days, give or take." Clint slid back and cautiously laid a hand on Bruce's chest. It felt real, hair curling around his fingers, heart beating steadily under his palm.
"The Other Guy … he was hurt. I couldn't help him. I wasn't …" Bruce was getting agitated, sensing that something was wrong.
"Jarvis?" Of course, Clint could dream of the A.I. too. It didn't prove anything when the familiar voice answered.
"Could you locate the Hulk for me, please." He started to curve his hand around Bruce's neck, needing to feel the warmth of his skin, but Bruce caught it and looked at the burns marring the skin.
"The Hulk is there in the room with you and has been since yesterday when Agent Romanoff brought you here. He has not left at any point."
Bruce was surprised by the question and answer, but said nothing.
"And Dr. Banner? Is he still in medical?"
"I am sorry, Agent Barton, but I must be malfunctioning as I have two readings for Dr. Banner, the one for his body in medical as well as there with you."
"I think you're fine, Jarvis. I'll take both of them." Clint pulled Bruce's hand up to his mouth, dropping a light kiss on those fingers, each one, reveling in the feel of their palms together, uncaring of the ache as he held on.
"The Big Guy?" Clint asked Bruce. "You're both in there?"
Narrowing his eyes, Bruce answered. "Yes. Where else would he be?"
"Doesn't matter now." Clint gave a real laugh then leaned in and kissed him on the lips.
"You are going to explain all this, right?" Bruce said between kisses.
"Sure. Later. Maybe. Tony might be better at it than me, though." Clint pressed Bruce back into the bed with a heartfelt sigh and settled on top of him.
"Wait. Did we … with the Hulk …" Bruce started to ask. "That's impossible."
"Not impossible, doc. Pretty damn hot."