Chapter 22: Five-Ever
Looking after his sister was second nature to Clint. It’d taken one look. One look and he’d been profoundly changed in ways his pre-teen mind accepted instantly even if he’d been too young to comprehend the scope of it.
When Charlie brought him to the hospital to meet her, he’d contented himself with observing everyone around him. He wasn’t sure he wanted to be a big brother, truth be told, but he’d told mom he’d give it a chance before deciding one way or another. He’d at least meet her first which was more than fair of him since his parents hadn’t even asked if he wanted a little sister before they’d gone out and got him one.
Isabella, they’d named her, was just a tiny, wrinkled pink bundle fussing in Renee’s arms when he first walked into the hospital room. She was a restless baby. They passed her along like they were playing hot-potato, Isabella’s little sniffles increasing from person to person, though it seemed he was the only one bothered by her increasing distress. Didn’t they realize she didn’t like being handed around? It wasn’t like she was being subtle about it; she was very clearly telling them to stop. Clint couldn’t blame her for it, either – all those adult faces cooing into hers…? Hadn’t they ever heard of personal space?
He started growing restless himself and when another grown up nuzzled Isabella’s nose and then went to pass her off to yet another person despite her little cries of protest, Clint decided enough was enough.
Not quite ten year old him shot to his feet and moved to intercept Isabella while saying, “She doesn’t like being tossed around, okay? Just give her to me!”
“Clint!” Renee gasped, though she looked more amused than upset.
Stubbornness set his jaw as he held out his arms imperiously. “I want to hold her. I’ve been practicing on those stupid dolls you bought, mom, and I can do it. She’s my sister and I want to hold her.”
Charlie’s mustache twitched with good humor. “Alright, alright – go sit down in the chair and I’ll bring ‘er over, son.”
Giving the woman holding his sister – some friend of Renee’s from work – a triumphant glare he saw no need to hide, Clint returned to his seat and looked at his father expectantly.
Laughing, Charlie reclaimed his daughter. Hushing at her as she gave another hiccuping cry, he helped settle the bundle into Clint’s arms. With a parting reminder to support her head, he stepped back a bit and Clint finally got his first good look at what all the fuss was about.
She was tiny. So, so very small. Her little nose was scrunched up like she still wanted to cry, so Clint reassured her, “It’s alright, Bella. You don’t gotta cry anymore because I got you and I won’t pass you around like a hot-potato.”
Then, he leaned back in the chair and simply held her. No baby-talk annoying nonsense and no tickling her poor abused toes. He was curious about her little fingers (they were so small next to his own), but he left them alone in deference to all she’d already suffered. He wasn’t gonna treat her like some toy doll and poke and prod at her appendages, thank you very much. Stupid adults.
She calmed almost instantly. Small, snorting cries turned into easy breathing and Clint knew that when she wiggled again, she was trying to get closer to him. She wasn’t trying to escape like she had been doing with the others. He shifted her even better against his chest and brought his hand down lightly to her belly so she could feel that he was there. So that she would know he had her and no one would stick their smelly faces against hers anymore because he wouldn’t let them, no sir.
Her little baby arm twitched and her hand fell onto his. Her fingers scratched against him like a kneading cat and he knew she was thanking him. That it was her own little way of hugging him because she didn’t know what a hug was yet. He’d have to teach her, he realized. There was a lot he was gonna have to teach her.
Being a big brother would be a lot of work. When he looked down into her beady little eyes, though, Clint couldn’t help but smile. He was the one that got her to stop crying. She clearly liked him best. He liked her best, too, he decided. Especially now that she was calm.
“You can be my little sister, Bella,” he allowed. “And I’ll teach you everything you need to know. I won’t let those adults bug you no more.”
Her hand flexed around one of his fingers and curled tight. She was pretty strong for a baby. He grinned down at her, knowing that she understood him just as he understood her.
A sudden flash of a camera had him flinching, ruining their talk. Pulling her tighter to his chest, he looked up to find the culprit. Renee’s friend had taken a photo and without even asking! He frowned at the adults around him. They really should no better. They were sniffling and wiping tears from their eyes, he noticed – probably jealous that Bella liked him best. That fact filled him with smug satisfaction and pride.
“You all can go,” he said. “I got Bella now and Imma take care of her.”
They laughed at him and Clint frowned. For the life of him, he couldn’t figure out what was so funny.
With every fiber of his nine – almost ten, thank you very much – year old heart, he’d meant what he’d told them. He was going to take care of her and no one would make her cry ever again.
Not while he was around.
“-BUT IT DOESN’T MAKE ANY SENSE!”
“Is yelling really helping?”
“IT’S BETTER THAN ACTING LIKE EVERYTHING IS HUNKY DORY!”
“Yelling has been known to relieve certain stressors…”
A distant part of him registered the voices; the desperate words strung together as they all sought sanity where there was none to be found.
Clint remained silent, staring passively at a nearby wall as he lost himself to thoughts of his sister once again.
He’d been the first one to call her Bella. Renee tried correcting him on it numerous times once they’d finally come home from the hospital… “It’s Isabella, Clint – a classy name for our classy little girl!” But it’d never been a good fit for her, he thought. Isabella was a beautiful name, of course, but it’d always sounded a bit stuffy to him. Like the name of a queen who’d grown out of touch with her people. Classy, for sure, but far too hoity-toity for his girl.
And Bella hated her name, even more than he hated being called Clinton. So Bella it was. The second Charlie had placed her in his arms the name had slipped into his mind and he’d called her it without a thought. It’d just felt right to him, just like holding her felt right.
Even at only a day old, Clint had been unnaturally attuned to Bella.
“We have to be missing something – anything! This is not over. We can get her back!”
“Back from what exactly? Even if we stop Loki’s army we still have that fucking bond to worry about.”
“How could she agree to something like that?”
“Clearly she was desperate.”
“‘Tempt not a desperate man…’ Or woman in this case.”
Clint’s connection with Bella had always been a curious mixture of parental, sibling, and friend. It wasn’t that they’d had bad parents, because Charlie and Renee had loved them both completely even if they weren’t the best at expressing it. Their marriage had been terribly strained by what-ifs, though, and it had eroded the foundation of their family. What if they hadn’t gotten pregnant so early with Clint? What if Charlie had been more willing to leave his hometown so that Renee could chase the sunshine? What if Bella hadn’t come along after so many years of an already strained marriage…?
They’d simply grown apart and fallen out of love. As a kid, he hadn’t known that could happen. The very concept was inconceivable and horrifying. How can you just wake up one day and decide you didn’t love someone anymore? It didn’t register with him.
“I’ll always love you, Clint,” Bella had told him the night he’d had to explain to her why they didn’t live with both mommy and daddy. Her little toddler face was solemn as she held her sticky hands on either side of his face. “I’ll love you, five-ever.”
He didn’t want to cry in front of her, so he pushed the feeling down and smiled. For her, he could be strong. For her, Clint could find it in him to smile even though his heart was aching. “Five-ever?” he questioned with a watery laugh.
“Yes,” she said, patting his cheeks. “It’s one more than four-ever. It’s a super longer time.”
“Five-ever,” he agreed. “I’ll love you five-ever, too, kiddo.”
She was too young to understand the concept of divorce, but Clint would make sure she’d never feel as alone as his parents had inadvertently made him feel.
They’d always have each other. Bella and Clint – Clint and Bella. Forever constant.
“Start from the beginning again-”
“Perhaps if we find her we could make her see reason.”
“Have you not understood a thing I’ve said? They are bound. It is unbreakable.”
“Oh, we heard you – we just reject it.”
“We can fix it – annul it somehow. There has to be…”
When she was nine, she’d tried to run away from home to join the circus.
“You ever think things would’ve been better if I hadn’t been born?” she’d asked him when he’d caught her trying to sneak out. “Like, maybe mom and dad would still be married and you could do whatever you want instead of having to worry about stupid me all the time…”
“No, no Bella – absolutely not. Why in the world would you think something like that?”
Her shoulder hitched to her cheek in a self-conscious shrug. “I dunno,” she murmured, unable to meet his eyes.
Such a terrible liar, he thought fondly, pulling her into his arms.
“Tell me, little bird,” he said, smoothing his hands down her arms. “Tell me what happened.”
“Renee’s boyfriend broke up with her,” she mumbled into his chest.
Good riddance, he thought. He loved his mom, he really did, but she had horrible taste in men. Charlie aside, of course.
“Rick the Dick?” he asked, smiling into her hair when he felt her silent laugh. “Why would that bother you, Eyas? Dude is an asshole.”
“He told her he didn’t want to deal with another man’s kid,” she whispered, and he froze against her.
With Clint old enough to be considered an adult, they both knew he’d only been referring to one of them.
“It made her cry, Clint,” she sniffed. She sounded so sad – so fucking guilty – that it made Clint’s arms flex with the need to find Rick. Find him and punch his fucking teeth in.
“I ruin everything for everyone,” she said, tears soaking through his shirt.
“Fucking bullshit, Isabella,” he hissed. “You make everything better. Mom loves you. I love you. That guy was a fucking dick and you know it. If he doesn’t want to take the time to get to know you – to get to know us as a family – then it’s his fucking loss. Not ours. Mom is better off without him.”
Holding her until her sniffles subsided, he nonchalantly added, “Besides – you’d make a shit carnie. No coordination.”
Pulling back from him, Clint grinned as she scoffed, “I would not! I’d be a great carnie. Better than you, anyway!”
Chuckling, Clint shook his head. “And what would your act be? Tripping over air?”
Snorting, she gave his chest a useless shove. “I’d be the magician’s assistant or something. I like helping others.”
His teasing smile turned fond as he looked down at her again. “Then you can help me – the amazing Hawkeye and Eyas! The marksman and his lovely assistant.”
“You can shoot an apple off my head again!” she exclaimed, eyes bright as she fell in love with the idea.
It was a testament to both his skill with a bow and her trust in him that they both knew for certain he could do exactly that. Charlie just about had kittens when he’d caught them last summer, Bella with her back against a tree and an apple perched on her head while Clint stood about fifteen feet away taking aim. He’d caught them mid-shot, Clint obediently lowering his bow while Charlie railed at him in his relief at catching them in time.
His fury had turned apocalyptic, however, when he’d finally turned away from Clint to start dressing down Bella and saw a small pile of apples, all pierced with arrows dead center, lying at her feet.
“-Of all the stupid, dangerous… I can’t believe you both… How could you put her at risk… Waste of food!” Charlie sputtered, his face alarmingly red.
But there’d been no risk to Bella, Clint had known. Archery was like a sixth sense for him. Nothing felt as natural or as right to him than a bow and arrow. Both were an extension of his own limbs. And while it’d been Bella’s idea to try the trick shot, Clint never would have agreed if he thought for even one millisecond that he could miss and hit her. There’d been no doubt on either of their part. The shot was child’s play to him.
“That’s right, Eyas. You and I make quite the team,” he grinned at her. “You and me, kiddo – if you’re leaving, you’re taking me with you and we’ll be carnies together.”
“Hawkeye and Eyas – together forever,” she yawned against his chest.
“Five-ever,” he corrected, arms hugging her to him again.
“And just why the hell is he just sitting there?! Can’t be bothered to snap out of it to help his own sister?!”
“That’s a low blow, Tony. All this yelling is hardly helping her anyway.”
“We have to do something! We can’t just give up!”
Forcefully pushing back the memories, Clint’s head whipped up and around. It was time to get his head back into the game.
Pinning Tony with a fierce glare, he spat, “We’re not giving up.” Each word hammered into the room.
The voices stopped. Quiet at last.
Clint’s cold eyes slid from Tony and fixed them all with his steely glare. “No one said anything about giving up.”
Everyone seemed to wither under his fierce gaze. Seldom had his new friends ever seen this aspect of his personality, Natasha notwithstanding. They were used to Clint the jokester; the man with a level head and a steady hand. Now they were facing the assassin; the soldier who was not afraid to get his hands dirty if it meant completing his mission.
Finding Isabella was his mission now.
Shoulders slumping, Tony looked away and asked, tone much more reasonable than before, “Then what exactly are we gonna do, Robin Hood? Because you’re the only one here with even one iota of insight into the inner workings of that mad man.”
Breath hissing inward, Clint leaned forward and said, “Here’s what we’re going to do: we find the tesseract – Loki will no doubt be en route to it if he isn’t already. There’s more at play here than we originally thought.”
“What does that mean?”
Grimacing, Clint looked at the wall again. “The mind-spell can be corrupted,” he said, no beating around the bush. “For the most part, Loki is in charge, but there’s another player in the shadows pulling the strings.”
“What in the actual fuck – ? We have some other alien god to fight now?” Tony rasped, hands pulling up his glasses and swiping at his eyes.
Clint frowned, lips flattening into a hard, forbidding line. “Loki would take strolls around in my head, gathering information.” Mostly about Bella, he thought, but didn’t say aloud. “I am very aware of what his presence in my mind feels like. When I was in her room,” here, his voice choked off.
“When I was in her room,” he cleared his throat and continued hoarsely. “Something foreign took over. Loki was pushed aside and I was flooded – completely overwhelmed by the need to- to…” he took a shuddering breath before he pushed it out, “To kill her. I almost killed her. If Loki hadn’t done whatever it was he did to her with that scepter of his, I would have.”
Another moment of silence.
“Are you sure it wasn’t Loki influencing you? Maybe he was seeking a way to destroy the Soul Bond before it grew too strong,” Natasha carefully questioned, her hand smoothing down his arm.
Clint’s eyes closed as he remembered the feel of his hands around his sister’s throat, her eyes bloodshot as she pleaded with him. Then he remembered Loki holding him up in the air, the fury in his gaze as cold and treacherous as the arctic tundra. He’d been haunted by that look in Loki’s eyes ever since he’d woken. He hated it. Hated it because he recognized it all too well.
It was the look of a man protecting a loved one.
Then, Clint thought of the apology writ across his sister’s face as she’d taken her place beside Loki, her hand clasped in his. The way he had taken a protective step in front of her presenting unified front.
In that moment, he knew he’d lost her. For whatever reason, Isabella had made her decision and she would cling to it stubbornly with all her strength, no matter the consequences. She had chosen to free Clint at the expense of herself. She had chosen Loki.
You brave little fool, he’d called her.
But she wasn’t a fool. His sister was smart. Impulsive, yes. Naive, not anymore. No, Isabella was amazingly observant and aware. She wouldn’t have sealed the bond with Loki if she didn’t believe she could handle it – handle him. After all, she knew the God of Mischief far better than any other being in existence. Their souls had met and sought the other out long before they’d even laid eyes on each other. That sort of intimate connection guaranteed she knew far more about Loki and his motivations than any other person did. She had to have seen something redeemable in him. Something worth saving.
Belatedly, he cleared his throat and answered, “No. No it wasn’t him. It was someone else. Someone who didn’t want her around to influence Loki – which means she has been influencing him on some level.”
Another beat of silence.
“Before the All-Father gathered enough magic to send me here, I sought the council of Heimdall – Guardian of the Bifrost and watcher of the Nine Realms. Grief and madness has all but claimed my brother, but he is not without hope. Heimdall told me one thing as I left – a name – and in that name lies our answer,” Thor said.
“Isabella,” Clint breathed, closing his eyes in defeat. He was losing count of all the ways he’d failed his sister.
“Yes,” Thor nodded.
The two of them shared a commiserating glance. Thor looked tired, his wide shoulders hunched down with an existential weariness Clint knew all too well. Keeping a younger sibling out of trouble was exhausting.
Tony’s fist slammed against the table. “But it’s not her job to save him – to save any of us. We’re supposed to be the Avengers. It’s our job, and I’m not about to outsource it to someone else. Especially not her.”
“It’s not for us to decide that,” Steve spoke up, taking command of the conversation. “We all care about Bella and none of us want her in the middle of this mess. But she is and we just have to have faith that she knows what she’s doing. That she can handle herself. It’s what we’ve all been training her for.”
Natasha smirked, eyes glinting with pride. “She sure handled Laurent.”
It pained him to admit it, but – “Steve is right,” Clint said. “It’s not fair that it’s her, but it is. Bella made her choice.”
She chose Loki over you, a tiny voice whispered in his ear.
No, he shook the thought off. No. She chose Clint by accepting Loki.
“So we leave Hells Bells to outwit the God of Mischief,” Tony sighed. “And we handle the puppet-master, whoever he is. We’ll cut the strings and if Pinochio doesn’t turn into a real boy who deserves our girl, then we’ll handle him too.”
“However this plays out, Loki is no innocent. He needs to pay for what he’s done,” Natasha said coolly.
“Loki will face Asgardian justice,” Thor agreed. “He will not get away with his crimes against Midgard – you have my word.”
“But first, we need to find him. We need to find the tesseract.”
“Bruce’s algorithms should be able to narrow it down for us, but we’ve already wasted so much time. We can’t afford to waste anymore.”
“So what do we know, class?” Tony opened his arms out, looking at them expectantly.
“He’s made this personal. He hit us hard and hit us fast. He knows he needs to take us out if he wants to succeed,” Natasha shot off.
“He doesn’t just need to take us out,” Steve interjected. “He wants to. He has a superiority complex and has to prove himself smarter – better. Not only to himself, but everyone else too. He wants to be seen doing it. Like in Stuttengard.”
“Loki always did enjoy a good show,” Thor murmured.
“And that was just his opening act. Now it’s showtime,” Tony said. “He’s a diva and wants his name up in big lights for all to see – son of a bitch!”
Clint and Tony looked at each other, eyes wide in remembrance.
“…a day at most, and I’ll have something we can start testing in my lab tomorrow. You know where it’s at, right, sweetheart?”
Bella snorted. “Kind of hard to miss that eyesore.”
Tony grinned. “That’d be the point.”
“Stark Tower,” Clint said.
“I’ll ready the Quinjet,” Natasha jumped to her feet.
“Everyone suit up. We leave at oh-nine hundred,” Steve ordered.
It wasn’t soon enough for Clint, but he went to do as ordered anyway. He was spoiling for a fight, muscles thrumming with the need to hit something. But at least they had a direction now and they were one step closer to finding his sister. Even if he had to sit on her, he’d keep her out of trouble until the dust settled and everything got sorted.
Then, Clint thought grimly, he’d sort out the god she went and got herself hitched to because one thing was for certain: soul bond or no, nothing was going to keep him from shoving an arrow up that arrogant son of a bitch’s ass.
(A/N): Clint had a lot to say this chapter, but don’t worry – Volterra and Loki POV is up next. As ever, thanks for stopping by. Love you all five-ever.