There’s a hum that precedes the shock. It grows steadily in volume as the electricity ramps up, and maybe Clint can only hear it so early because of his hearing aids—background sounds bother him that the others never notice, like crinkling paper and the drag of pens in meetings, the sounds of chewing in restaurants. Whatever the reason he hears that hum way before he feels it, and his blood pressure spikes accordingly.
Don’t tense up, he tells himself, shaking out his limbs as he paces in restless anticipation. Don’t tense up. Don’t ten—
It startles a noise out of him each time, even though he knows it’s coming, and somehow that’s the worst part, that yelp of surprise and pain. It’s demoralizing for a trained SHIELD agent to make such a sound, but he doubts anyone will make fun of him for it later.
There’s a camera up high on the ceiling, about five feet higher than Clint can possibly jump, red light blinking innocently. Someone is watching. Watching Clint get shocked interminably by the electrified floor in their fucking kill room, watching him collapse and pant afterward. It’d be nice if he could make himself believe that only his captors were watching, or if any of this were about Clint himself. He’s pretty sure the person watching this is one of his teammates, a person suffering right along with him, watching Clint flinch and jerk painfully, listening to the sounds he can’t quite cut off.
So it’s for that teammate that Clint holds up his hands where the camera is sure to catch his movements. Tony and Steve know only the basics of sign language, so he keeps things simple.
I’m okay. Be strong. Don’t worry. I’m okay.
He runs his hands over the walls, searching. It’s smooth, no seams, nothing he can climb, nothing he can grip to hold himself off the floor when the shocks come. Certainly not anything as handy as a raised screw to wiggle out. Not that there’s even a lock to pick; the only entrance and exit appears to be from high above, the small opening that they'd unceremoniously dropped Clint through.
In that same opening dangles the camera, and beyond that, darkness. There’s probably a balcony up there somewhere, existing only so someone can stand there and peer down. So that they may threaten and gloat. Cackle evilly and rub their hands together. Maybe monologue a little.
Clint paces the length of the room (three long steps), turns on his heel and does it again (this time five and a half short steps). It’s a disappointingly small room—people used to make their torture rooms bigger back in the good old days. In fact, they weren’t rooms at all, but whole dungeons then, complete with human-sized boiling pots of water, furnaces for heating up pincers…all the classics. Now in this high tech WiFi kind of world the villains have taken the lazy route and just electrified the entire fucking floor. They don’t even have the decency to be present to leer and threaten while they torture; it’s probably all done by a dude sitting in chair, watching a monitor and mashing a button while munching morosely on a donut.
They also had better names for rooms like this back in the old days. Bottle dungeon. Oubliette.
Clint just calls it the kill box.
He doesn’t know where the others are. If they’re alive, even. He was zapped down off his perch—these assholes love electricity—not long into the assault, and hasn’t seen them since. The others must have been taken, too, or they would be here now, either as fellow prisoners or as liberators, fighting their way inside. Steve would rip off the doors, Tony would blast them away. Natasha would dismantle the facility and everyone in it.
Bruce is still at the Tower, happy to have been left behind. He’s undoubtedly absorbed in some experiment and almost certainly hasn't noticed that the team hasn’t returned yet.
No one comes to ask Clint any questions; he hasn’t even seen a guard since they deposited him here. Whatever it is they want, Clint doesn’t have it.
It’s likely that this whole thing is about Tony. It’s almost always about Tony. He has money, weapons, knowledge—the things that people want, but also the things he can’t just give away. He’ll try to stall and hold them off, keep up a running and looping commentary to try and diffuse the situation and mitigate any damage while they wait for rescue. He won’t like watching Clint get repeatedly electrocuted and might even eventually make a deal, bartering whatever he thinks he safely exchange in order to save his friend.
Or maybe this time they want Steve. Steve is very susceptible to guilt, to sacrificing himself for teammates. Watching Clint—and the others, because maybe it’s happening to Tony and Natasha too, maybe they are also being shocked to death—would be intolerable for Steve Rogers. He’d hold out as long as he can, but eventually he’d crack, but not the way their captors want. Instead he’ll do something heroic and stupid and self sacrificing, something that will probably bring the building down around them and leave it a smoking ruin, but free them all. Somehow Steve’s bullheaded strategies always pan out.
But if this is about Natasha, if she’s the one sitting in a chair in an interrogation room and watching the feed from that camera, then Clint Barton is well and truly fucked. They can show her anyone’s torture and she’ll watch it expressionlessly. Maybe—probably—she’ll scream inside but she’ll watch Clint die without ever giving an inch. Natasha never breaks.
Clint leans his back against the Shaky Wall, legs splayed out in front of him.
The walls are all metal, almost indistinguishable, but when one’s entire world has been narrowed down to four walls they warrant careful examination. They need to be quantified, catalogued. There’s the Bloody Wall, so named due to the spray of blood that erupted from his nose as his face collided with it in the throes of the shocks. There’s the Handprint Wall, marked by his bloody handprint as he staggered away from the same nosebleed incident. Then there’s the Wall with Nothing, which has nothing on it, and of course, the infamous Shaky Wall.
He doesn’t know why it happens, or what it means. All he knows is that every so often that wall starts shaking ever so slightly, trembling beneath his hand like something alive. It’s not quite like the hum that precedes the electricity in his cell, but something stronger, and Clint’s learned that whenever the Shaky Wall is shaking he won’t be shocked. That’s both a relief and a worry, because he’s also sure that there’s another prisoner on the other side of that wall, someone in a kill box all their own. Someone is suffering through their own kind of hell in those minutes when Clint is spared, and the conflicting feelings of dread and relief are a mindfuck all their own.
It could very well be one of his teammates on the other side of that wall. Tony. Steve. Natasha.
“I’m sorry,” Clint says.
Or maybe he just thinks it. Maybe his mouth just moves and no sound comes out, maybe the words just float up like a balloon and disappear. He doesn’t want someone else to suffer but, God, he needs to sit down, he needs to just lay here a moment, to sag against this wall and close his eyes. He hates himself for wishing suffering on someone else, but it’s just for a minute, that’s all. Just a minute.
I’m here. It’s a much weaker knock than he intends—he’s been having trouble curling his fingers into a fist—but he thumps on the wall anyway with weary companionship, wondering if the person on the other side can even hear. I can’t do anything for you, but I’m here.
There’s no answering thump in return. The wall is still shaking.
Clint closes his eyes.
The perimeter of the room is right around ten big steps. Sometimes it’s as much as thirteen; he’s limping a little, screwing up his count. Ten steps take about thirty seconds, if he paces them out just right, and it’s become his way to tell time. A pathetic way, sure, but currently his only way—Clint has always had an excellent inner clock, but it’s been reset so many times lately that the fucker is blinking a steady 12:00 at this point.
One minute passes. Two. That’s a hell of a lot of laps to take around a room on burned feet. He hasn’t looked at them. He knows the burns are there, he doesn’t need to see his skin black and seared and disgusting when there’s nothing to be done about it.
He’s edging along Handprint Wall when a short zap makes him cry out, stumble. Just a quick burst, low voltage. He pauses, bracing, for the next, because it’s coming, they always start coming one after anoth—
Harder this time, but still low enough that he can groan through it. There’s a pattern to the stop and go of it all, always beginning as quick bursts that grow in intensity and length until Clint is suddenly thrown into unconsciousness, blinking awake some time later, body contorted painfully and realizing that somewhere along the line he’s pissed his pants. Again.
He can well imagine the conversation on the other end of that camera feed; he’s been in that scenario enough times himself to know how they usually play out. There's probably someone with a villainous accent looming over a chained Avenger right now, alternating threats and demands.
Where is the (thing)? the villain sneers.
Clint doesn’t even bother forming a concrete idea for what that thing is; he just knows that there is a thing—an arc reactor, a weapon, a super soldier serum, intel that only Natasha has. There’s always a thing to want and there's always someone shitty that wants it.
I won’t tell you, the Avenger answers.
The villain then zaps Clint as a warning. The Avenger grits their teeth, steels their jaw resolutely. There's another demand, followed by another refusal. Another zap, harder this time, the pattern repeating until Clint is on the floor, dying. Dying while his friend watches.
Stop, the Avenger cries, struggling uselessly against their bonds.
Unless it’s Natasha; she would never say that. She wouldn’t struggle, either, unless doing so would lead directly to escape. But part of Clint still wants to imagine it, picture her crying out Don’t, not Clint, anyone but Clint, but he knows it's wrong. Even in his fantasies he’s limited by the burden of expected realism.
He taps his thumb against his chest wearily, his fingers out. I’m okay. Don’t worry.
He likes to imagine that the watcher can see and understand everything he’s trying to communicate. Likes to pretend that the camera feed is good enough that his friend can make out that small sign, while simultaneously being grainy enough to miss the tremor in Clint's fingers.
The jolt is the hardest yet, takes his breath away, his diaphragm and lungs seizing in the same horrible moment, feeling for all the world like they will eject his heart right out of his body, push it straight up through his throat. His clenched muscles drag him forcibly to the ground, the jarring impact inconsequential compared to the pain of the rest. His fingers hook into claws before curling further into fists, his wrists contracting in toward his arms, everything seizing and bending too far, much too far.
And then it’s over.
Then it happens again, and Clint doesn’t hear the hum, doesn’t hear anything at all as his SHIELD-issued hearing aids are finally overwhelmed and short out. There’s not even time for a proper breath before he’s zapped again, longer, the voltage higher still.
This time he bites through his tongue and his contracting muscles break several fingers. He doesn’t even notice, there’s only the feeling of fire, he’s cooking from the inside out, hot hot hot hot.
Days. He thinks it’s been days. Definitely two, maybe more.
Shaky Wall is doing its thing, a rattling hum against Clint’s outstretched hand. That’s a good thing. That means a reprieve, and also that the person—Avenger or stranger—inside the other kill box is still alive. There’s no point in torturing a dead body.
Clint is on his back, making a poor attempt at rest, when his eye catches the slightest movement in the darkness beyond the camera. He’s still straining to see, when something falls from the void and hits him in the stomach. He doesn’t have the energy to flinch away or even to be startled by it—thinks wearily that it’s just another thing that happens, that they’re also apparently going to be dropping shit on him now.
His brain catches up a couple beats later, when another something falls. It’s a bottle of water. He scrambles halfway up in sudden desperation, and snatches both bottles off the floor, curling them into the crook of one elbow as he looks hopefully upward again, watching for more.
Water is good, water is great—it means that if he dies, it won’t be of dehydration. But it also means that this is nowhere near over; his captors want to be sure he doesn’t die before they’re ready.
A third bottle falls and he has to lurch forward awkwardly on his knees to snatch it out of the air. Another falls a half second later, too soon and too far for him to reach, and hits the floor, the plastic cracking in the impact, contents emptying everywhere.
And that, somehow, is the moment when it becomes too much.
Clint is astounded, aghast, horrified—is every incredulous adjective all at once—to find himself wanting to sob over the unfairness of it all. He’s never been much of a crier, even as a child, but now there are tears in his eyes and his goddamned bottom lip is quivering as he stares down at that broken bottle, more upset by the waste of something he needs so badly than about the kill box situation as a whole.
You just have a concussion, Coulson says. All Clint’s more reasonable inner monologues are in Phil Coulson’s voice, always long-suffering and mildly scolding. Your concussion probably has a concussion. You, my friend, are concussed.
Coulson’s right, he’s concussed. Clint digs at his eyes with uncoordinated fingers. He’s definitely, absolutely, certainly concussed. He can hang a lot of hopes on the idea that this inexplicable weepiness and unclear thinking all stems from fatigue, hunger, and concussion. It’s certainly those things and not something more horrible, like brain damage from being systematically electrocuted. Or from something even more horrible, like the thought that they’ve broken him, that these people with their absence and their electricity and their stupid water bottles have accomplished what scores of horrible people in the past have failed to do.
It can still be okay.
SHIELD Medical works miracles as a matter of course, and if things are really bad they’ll call in Dr Cho. She’s all business and Clint’s all jokes, needling her about rebuilding people out of plastic. It’s not plastic, she always scolds, and Clint always agrees earnestly and then makes the observation a few more times, bringing it up accidentally on purpose.
It’s getting harder to get back to his feet in between shocks but he tries, running on determination and stubborn perseverance. At this point it’s all about protecting the skin he has left, trying to keep his legs and knees from joining that ruin of his feet, because, god, his feet his feet his feet.
His feet are fucked. There is no saving them as they are now; they’re scorched earth. A total loss. But he still lurches up onto them, getting as much of himself off the floor as he can, because his future might be one of a man that walks and runs and stands on plastic feet created by the lovely Dr. Cho, but the rest of him doesn’t have to burn, too.
When he makes the next pass by Shaky Wall, it’s thrumming. He slumps against it and slides down to the floor, sickly grateful that his hearing aids have died, that he can’t hear himself mutter thank god. He pushes away thoughts about the person on the other side of the wall. He's done his time; it’s their turn now.
He feels the floor start to hum again.
He thinks no.
Thinks words like help and Phil and fragments of sentences—I don’t and what if and there isn’t.
He wonders who it is, which Avenger is watching. Wonders who’s the holdout, the one not playing ball, the one that’s staying so strong that days later Clint is still being punished with escalating intensity.
He hates that person a little.
He would never admit that out loud, not now, and not later—if there even is a later—when they’re all free and home again. He’d probably never even admit it under torture. But to himself, here in the silence, Clint thinks it.
But it’s all only for a moment; he’s only a traitor for the space of a breath. A few heartbeats. No one needs ever know. Clint looks up toward the camera and tries to make his fingers form words, to say I’m okay and stay strong and don’t worry. He wants to say something reassuring, but he can’t. They don’t work. His fingers are burned and broken and don’t work anymore. Not a one of them.
It won’t last forever; someone will get them out. Someone will burn this facility to the ground and Clint will help. Maybe not with these hands, but he can still help. He’ll have plastic hands by then, courtesy of Dr. Cho, plastic hands to join his plastic feet, his whole body rebuilt into some kind of macabre Ken doll that walks and talks and shoots arrows. More plastic than flesh, so plastic that his skin won’t even conduct electricity anymore.
That will be a good thing. That will be a very good thing.
In movies and television—hell, even in some books—death is often accompanied or immediately preceded by a series of flashbacks, bits of relevant plot points of life, usually strung together in some beautifully poignant narrative. Clint’s having those flashbacks now, but there’s no poetry to it; just a random series of images and memories, jarring and dissonant. And he well may be dying, but that’s not why they come; it’s just a side effect of his brain being forcibly and repeatedly shut down and rebooted, neurons firing haphazardly.
The shock comes and the pain follows and Clint sees himself in Louisiana with Natasha, the two of them in a crowd of tourists, watching a man in bibbed overalls wrestle an alligator. There were plenty of shady animal practices in the circus, but even Clint had to admit that this was beyond the—
Then Louisiana is gone and Clint relives, in vivid technicolor, the first time he’d had ice cream. He can even taste it. His hands are small and his mother’s large, and her face is so close because she’s holding him and smiling and asking Did you like—
Mom is replaced by Phil Coulson, or his back anyway, standing in front of Clint in the dinner line. Phil shakes his head with a world weary sigh and says Salisbury Steak, every damned Tuesday. You can set your calendar—
Then the walls are shaking, not just Shaky Wall but all the walls.
Clint doesn’t even realize the lights are off until they come back on again, tries to roll away from the sudden blinding onslaught and can’t. His body won’t let him, and neither will Natasha, her hands like a vice against his shoulders. She calls up to someone above and then her face returns, inches from his, her lips forming the words Clint and Keep still and Come on.
Dr. Cho is rebuilding Clint with excruciating slowness, citing such bullshit concerns as not wanting too much shock to the system. In between sessions he gets to live full time at SHIELD Medical, with Steve as his next door neighbor. There’s also a revolving door of visiting Avengers, though Clint isn’t very good company, either the pain or the painkillers resulting in mostly incoherent conversation.
“You can call me Sparky, if you want.” Clint offers up the idea as a kind of get-well-soon present. Or as a peace offering for a conflict that never existed. “Or…or you could call me…” He flounders for a moment and then gives up, unable to think of anything moderately clever.
Tony pats awkwardly at Clint’s leg. “Sure. Whatever you want.”
“Or you could…reference Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla and…” Clint gestures vaguely “…and…and…I don’t know any other electricity guys.”
“You know, I think I’m gonna hold off on the nicknames till you’re all healed up. But after that it’s on, Barton. It’ll be brutal.”
The teasing lilt in Tony’s voice is almost perfect, and his eyes are alight, but it’s an artificial light. He’s working at this, grasping for the levity and humor that’s usually so effortless. It’s still hard for him, hard in a different way than it is for the others. Clint and Steve are healing, but Tony’s still stuck in a kill box.
No one has told Clint the whole thing, probably out of kindness, probably thinking to spare him painful details, but he’s cobbled together enough from bits and pieces to understand. He’s learned that Natasha was never captured at all, that she assessed the situation and determined herself unequal to the task of a solo assault, made her way home and scrambled a team.
He also knows now that it was Steve on the other side of that Shaky Wall, and the vibrations Clint felt was the rush of water as it filled Steve’s cell. Clint got to rest while Steve drowned, Steve got to gasp and cough while Clint burned.
And Tony—bound and threatened by villains almost exactly in the way Clint had pictured—was the one that had to watch the whole thing.
Clint doesn’t ask what the bad guys had wanted, what thing they were after; it doesn’t matter now. Whatever it was, Tony didn’t give it, and no Avengers died. Clint counts it as a win, or at least he will once Tony comes all the way back.
“We should get ice cream,” Clint says.
“Uh huh, sure,” Tony says, in that coddling, gently patronizing tone that people at hospital bedsides always seem to use. He misunderstands, thinks Clint means they should get some now when he actually means later. The team always goes out to eat after a mission, especially after a bad one.
This definitely counts as one of the bad ones.
“I mean after I get new feet,” Clint clarifies, probably clarifying nothing, if the way Tony’s eyebrows shoot up is any indication. “And after you find your way out of the box.”
“Oooookay,” Tony draws the word out before leaning forward and unceremoniously mashing the button for Clint’s pain medicine. “Someone’s getting a bit punchy again. Maybe a nap, huh?”
Clint rolls his eyes, but figures he might as well rest as long as the drugs continue to neatly cut off his brain to mouth filter. Tony’s still too preoccupied to really hear them anyway. Clint sinks back into the pillows and as always sleep comes like a freight train the moment he gives into it, but before it takes him Clint gestures as much as the bandages will allow—
Don’t worry. I’m okay.
“Yeah yeah yeah, keep telling yourself that, Sparky.” But this time Tony’s voice is almost just right as he settles back into the chair, ready to keep watch a little longer.