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Alchemical Process

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The first time they take Clint and bring him back, he's not much worse for wear and goes pretty much directly back to bickering with Tony over who screwed up what and is ultimately responsible for their plan going south.

"Oh, I'm sorry," Tony says, "I didn't realize 'I'll shoot at them' counts as a plan now."

Clint says, "It's a better plan than 'let me talk to myself for twenty minutes then spontaneously lose power'."

Tony glares and Clint makes a rude gesture at him. Bruce says, "It'll go very badly for all of you if I lose my temper in this enclosed space."


They take Steve and it's not much worse than a doctor's visit, if he ignores the awful bedside manner. They take blood and scrapings and little squares of skin and scan him with a machine that makes his insides show up on a computer screen. He gets back to the others and shrugs.

Clint complains that Steve got a band-aid and he didn't.


Banner goes and is returned and it's pretty much the same. He doesn't get a band-aid either, but he complains about phlebotomy for a while.

"A dying art," Tony agrees, even though they don't take him for any tests.


Thor gets a lot of band-aids. He seems pleased. Clint doesn't think he understands irony.


Then they take Clint again and this time the inside of his elbow has gauze taped to it. He seems a little dopey, but otherwise okay. "Vampires," he says, and, "I was using that juice to run my brain."

"Oh please," Tony says, rolling his eyes, "tell us another one."


They take Tony, but they don't do any tests.

"They wanted me to explain my technology," Tony says when he comes back, "They have the suit. They want more suits."

"Did you tell them it randomly loses power?" Clint asks. Tony glares.

"They want all kinds of suits. And guns, cannons, laser blasters, bayonets" he says, "I used big words. I think it will slow them down a while."


They're left alone for a bit, undisturbed except by the guard who slides food and water in under the door.

Bruce spends the time plotting to transform into the Hulk as soon as he's not trapped in a small room with Tony and Clint, who Hulk could easily kill if things went sideways.

They take him for more tests, but he comes back and shrugs. "Nothing happened," he says, a little perplexed, "They must have done something the first visit."

It's a glitch in their escape attempt, but not that worrying. Their situation isn't exactly dire and Natasha is out there, hopefully in the process of bringing Coulson and all of SHIELD down on their heads.


Then they take Clint and they don't bring him back for two days.

"I think they asked me questions," Clint says, lying on one of the sleeping mats, unrolled on the floor, his head pillowed on Bruce's leg. His face scrunches up when he thinks. "Occupational hazard of spying. Everyone always thinks you know things."

"Boy, are they mistaken," Tony says, but Clint doesn't insult him back and the annoying smirk disappears off Tony's face to be replaced by a small frown.

Clint gets a little feverish later, but when they bring food he eats with the rest of them.


The next time they take him and bring him back, they just roll him through the door, unconscious, limbs flopping loosely in every direction. There's a bandage over his eyes and Clint wakes before they can get it off to check for injury and nearly panics before Steve can talk him down.

When they remove it there's no damage.

"What the fuck?" Clint says, looking at the gauze as if it held clues, running every inch of it through his fingers. "That's just. That's. What the fuck?" he tosses it away with an annoyed snort, but he spends the rest of the day and most of the night huddled up close to Bruce.


They pull Clint again, and this time he comes back conscious but dazed. Steve's pretty sure he recognizes them, but he doesn't answer any questions and other than his breath catching a little when Thor pulls up his shirt so they can give him a once-over, he doesn't respond to anything.

His battle gear is gone--all their battle gear is gone, replaced by flimsy cotton--and Clint shivers until he falls asleep, laid up against Steve to share the heat put out by his accelerated metabolism.

When the guard brings food, Bruce asks them for blankets and Steve is a bit surprised that they bring some. They pile them onto Clint and even when he wakes up he stays under them, subdued and quiet. He doesn't tell them what happened. By the confused look he has when Bruce questions him, Steve thinks he probably doesn't remember.


They take Steve and take more blood. He's gone for maybe twenty minutes and comes back frowning and unharmed. He feels the ridiculous urge to apologize to Clint, but squashes it when he sees how relieved they all look to have him back in one piece.

He feels the same way when they take Thor later--all nerves and worry till he comes back looking as well as he had when he'd left and starts to question Tony and Bruce about Midgardian alchemy.

The relief is a warm flush that almost takes the strength out of Steve's limbs.


Steve and Thor make a desperate effort to keep them from taking Clint again, but using a combination of goons, guns and cattle prods they manage to drag him out anyway. When he comes back he's alert and doesn't seem further harmed, but he's also been fitted with a shock collar.

They find out what it does the next time they get in the way of the goons and Clint suddenly folds to the floor, muscles tight and twitching. There's no way to keep them from hurting Clint and the knowledge is cold in Steve's chest. They have no choice but to let them take him.

When they bring Clint back after that his arm is bandaged and he goes directly, wordlessly, to tuck himself against Bruce's side.

They try to pull the bandage apart, hoping he's unharmed underneath, like before, but Clint makes a soft pained sound and they stop.


They take Tony and he draws them some experimental blueprints.

"Bullshit prints," Tony says when he gets back, "I'm insulted that they think Tony Stark needs to experiment." None of them mention his attempts at invention that have ended in crash or explosion or both.


When Clint's a little steadier, both Bruce and Tony examine the collar, by turns and together, arguing over it and bemoaning their lack of tools. Clint's head is down. He doesn't contribute to the bickering.

Steve offers to snap it off, but it doesn't give. At least it's not really doing Clint any harm unless activated and there's no telling if removing it would just result in something more creative presenting itself. No telling what the retaliation might be.

"Better the devil you know," Bruce says with a bitter little smirk as he shrugs and lets Clint pull away.


Clint goes away and comes back without new bandages, but a few hours later he starts shaking and sweating and can't stop vomiting, gagging and retching long after his stomach is empty.

They get the blankets back around him even though Clint resists, afraid he'll make a mess of them. "Do not be concerned with that," Thor tells him, and puts his arms around Clint to keep him from shrugging them off, "Try to rest."

Clint tries, but he spasms painfully all night. By the time he sleeps, it's morning and he's limp with exhaustion.


Food and water keep coming, regularly but in fixed amounts. Paper cups and plates, sometimes. Sometimes flimsy plastic bottles. No silverware of any sort, ever. Tony takes stock of it and then commandeers the bottles.

Then he starts hoarding the water, keeping as many bottles full as he can without dehydrating the rest of them.

"For Clint," he says, stashing the bottles like he's afraid they'll be confiscated. Nobody requires the explanation, never doubting his reasons, but Tony seems worried they'll think it's an act of Stark selfishness. "We need to get as much water into him as we can."

It's all they can do, and even though he slept through the conversation Clint knows they're going without for his sake. He doesn't argue when they tell him to drink, and apologizes for the waste when it comes back up.

Steve tells him, "Don't worry about it. There's plenty."


"Maybe they said something about SHIELD," Clint says, lying on his back, staring at the ceiling. They have a routine now where Steve debriefs him as soon as he's able. Clint's memories of
what they do to him are hazy, and fade fast. Any information they can get out of him is a clue as to why they're here, what's wanted from them.

"Maybe?" Steve pushes and Clint nods.

"Can't remember, Cap. They put me on an IV and after that, everything always goes kind of," he makes a vague gesture, "watery."

"Okay," Steve says, mostly so Clint will stay still. They've shaved a patch of hair off behind his left ear, and Bruce keeps running his thumb over the faint scrape of regrowth, face troubled. There's no wound. They don't know what it's for. Clint doesn't remember when it was done or why or what they did after.


"This is the best I've been treated by medical professionals in a while," Bruce says after he's had a turn out of the cell again.

"I worry that you think this is professional behaviour," Tony tells him, but they all get the point.

There's a reason Clint is being singled out. Why Tony's left alone is clear--they want him to build and design for them and he needs to be well and coherent for it, but the rest of them haven't been required to perform any service and the only harm that's come to them is minor--just the taking of blood and other samples.

"They're trying to make a super soldier god who can Hulk out, and then they'll put him in a super suit," Tony jokes.

It isn't funny.

Steve's suddenly sure that's exactly what they want.


Tony shakes him awake in the middle of the night, saying, "Cap? Clint's really sick. Bruce has it under control right now, but just in case." There's not much Steve can do, but Tony's right in guessing he'd want to know. He sits up, sleep falling away and looks around the dimly lit cell.

Bruce has a rag--a strip torn off a blanket and folded up--and is using it to wipe Clint's face and neck. Steve recognizes it as an attempt to lower temperature, when they don't have any ice or anything cooler than tepid water. Clint mumbles complaint at it anyway.

"Let the doc work, Clint," Steve says, coming to sit with Bruce. Clint doesn't respond. He's laying on his side, head propped somewhat awkwardly against Bruce's hip and if Steve hadn't seen some of the positions and places Clint's slept in, he'd have worried for his comfort.

Clint murmurs and shifts, pushing at Bruce a bit. He's fussing more than struggling, and Bruce rewets the rag and presses it to the back of Clint's neck. Moves Clint's hand away when he reaches for it with a distressed whine.

"He's out of it," Bruce says, as if apologizing for Clint's lack of cooperation, but probably just upset that he can't do more than try to cool Clint down. That his resources are a rag and bottles of water. "Tony should have let you sleep."

"I don't need that much sleep," Steve says with a smile he hopes is comforting. He touches Clint's shoulder and even through his clothes, he can feel that Clint is burning up, shivering and radiating heat.

He flinches at Steve's touch and Bruce drops an arm around him, says, "Easy. You're okay. It's just Cap," then, to Steve, "I got him to drink some, but--" he lets it hang and shrugs helplessly. Nods at Clint's bandaged arm. "It's not infected. I think this is from something they gave him." Infection would be disastrous, but Steve's not sure it's good news. Whatever they've been giving Clint could be just as bad, if not worse.

Clint's head slides from Bruce's hip to his thigh. He mumbles, then starts talking, words jumbled and slurring together and even though he'd been trying to cool Clint down, Bruce tugs a blanket up to his shoulders, temporarily putting comfort first, and Clint huddles into it.

And then he starts gasping like he can't breathe, and they can't do anything but get him up and hold him until it passes. It's the most terrified Steve remembers being in a while.


Clint rallies and doesn't die.

His fever breaks late the next day and he's weak and exhausted but coherent enough to eat a little. To drink. His breathing is better, not the labored wheeze it had been all night, but it's shallow and a little fast. He sleeps a lot.

"Getting a bit worried here, Cap," Tony says, as Thor helps Clint sit up to drink. He keeps his voice low. "They take him now, I'm not sure we'll get him back."

Steve nods. Tries to think of ways they can stop Clint being taken that won't result in Clint being hurt then taken anyway.

Mercifully, they take Tony instead, and Tony tries to explain the synergy of theoretical physics and engineering and calls their scientists throwbacks and begs them to please just try to keep up a little, please, and generally acts like he's trying to cooperate, if only they weren't so abysmally stupid.

"I actually did say 'synergy'," he tells Clint when he gets back. "They took notes. No one ever buys the synergy spiel. Well. Undergrads. Maybe undergrads." He looks pleased with himself. Clint smirks back, and it's weak, but he lifts a hand to offer Tony a high five.


They take Bruce and this time they want more than vials of blood. They want him to make what Tony calls 'the monster mix'. Bruce says, "I'm not a biologist or a chemist," but of course his own history shows he's dabbled enough in both.

"Anyway, I can't recreate the Hulk. The Hulk was a fluke." He has Clint's head on his lap again, thumb idly brushing over that weird shaved patch on the side of his head, where the hairs are growing back, soft and short. Barely longer than stubble. He's dozing, and even though his sleep is light, it's finally restful.


Clint goes, but he's back maybe an hour later. They watch him like hawks, but nothing happens. "They took blood," Clint reports to Steve, with a little shrug.

He's still in good shape when the food comes, so Thor passes him an extra portion, saying, "Do not argue."

Clint doesn't.

"Besides," Thor adds, "I have been eating yours."


"I like these sandwich things," Clint says, the next day. He's a little stronger and back to arguing with Tony.

"Meatball things," Tony counters, off-handedly. He's working on his next complicated but contentless science lecture. He thinks he might have to actually build something to demonstrate his theories and he wants it to be impressive, but as useless as the explanation that goes with it.

"What? Gross. You don't know what goes into those. They could be made of anything." Clint holds up one of the odd little sandwiches. It's not quite what Steve thinks of when he thinks of sandwiches, the bread too thick and chewy, the combination of the filling somewhat odd, the slices smaller than he's used to. "This? Identifiable ingredients," Clint says.

"Right. Like you care about identifiable ingredients. I've seen you cook."

There's a sound in the hall.

They freeze, tensing. The scrape of the door is loud in the sudden silence. It opens slightly and the guard on the other side nods at Clint.

Clint quietly puts the sandwich down and gets unsteadily to his feet.


He comes back late that night, and the patch behind his ear is shaved to the skin again. There's no injury.

Bruce says, quietly, so no one will hear but Steve, "I don't know why, but that stupid thing scares the shit out of me."


In the morning, they come back for Clint.

Then they take Bruce to play chemist, and he tries to take a page out of Tony's book of creative bullshitting, but he doesn't have the gift for it. Instead, he spends the time analyzing their analyses and calls it prep work.

"Like how a co-pilot doesn't just accept that the pilot's entered the flight plan correctly," he explains to Steve, later, "You have to verify data. That's how science works."

Clint's still not back.


"I'd say they were torturing him to get our cooperation," Tony says, "but there's no correlation between their taking Clint and our enthusiastic helpfulness."

"And no threats," Bruce adds.

Clint is a shuddering mess. There's bandage taped to his belly, and that scares the shit out of Steve, because he's seen stomach wounds. He's afraid to untape it to see whats been done. Instead he rubs Clint's shoulder, hoping he knows he's back with them, and says, "Shh, shh." He looks away when Bruce peels the edge of the bandage up, not wanting to see if the injury is worse than what they can deal with.

Bruce lets his breath out in a relieved huff and presses the bandage back. Sits back and smiles at Clint. "It's not that bad," he says, even though Clint isn't really in any condition to understand. He strokes Clint's head, patient and gentle, waits the long, long hours until Clint comes back to himself.

"Bruce?" he says, finally, and tugs at Bruce's clothes until he scoots closer and leans over so Clint can see him.

"Yep. Hey."

Clint makes a relieved sound. Sleeps.


It's Thor and Steve's turn again--one at a time, Steve in the morning and Thor in the late evening--and again they take blood and skin and other samples and send them back. Thor looks offended and angry and Steve can't blame him.

At least they never take Clint on sample days.


Bruce discovers what the shaved patch on Clint's head is for by accident, when they take him to play serum cocktail blender and he catches a glimpse of what's going on in the lab next door.

They have Clint on a table, the light restraint more than enough in Clint's weakened condition. Have a monitor hooked up, sensors stuck to his head there, and on the back of his neck, his forehead. Bruce has no idea what they're monitoring but he recognizes the pinkish liquid in the IV bag as one of the compounds they wanted him to work on.

Clint's struggling against the straps. Weakly, but continuously, his breath a whine in his throat. He's in pain. Clearly in pain, and the lab coats around him pause occasionally to make absently soothing gestures--a pat, a murmur--but mostly go about their business.

"Like he's a lab animal," Bruce rages when he's brought back to the cell, "If I could change, I swear there wouldn't be a brick left of this place."

It's strange to see Bruce angry. Genuinely furious. Usually he'd be green and rampaging by now. Thor's clearly disconcerted by it. He puts a blanket around Bruce and strokes his back with one big hand and at least it stops him from restlessly pacing every few minutes.


"New mission," Tony says, pouring water from paper cups into bottles then handing them to Thor. "Whatever they give you to work on, try to make it safe. If they're testing this stuff on Clint--"

"Yeah," Bruce says. He has Clint tucked against his chest, and he hasn't stopped the agonized shifting and whining Bruce had seen in the lab. The hand of his good arm is tangled in Bruce's shirt, gripping like he's afraid Bruce will leave.

Or maybe afraid he'll be pulled away.

Bruce folds his arms protectively around him, and Clint quiets just a little, but he's clearly hurting too much to really settle. Steve wishes there was something he could do to ease it, but there isn't. Thor looks like he shares the feeling--helpless frustration, anger, fear for Clint.

There's nothing to do but wait it out. Steve hates that their game plan's been reduced to something so useless, but they have nothing to work with. Water and blankets and Clint could be dying.

He slides in next to Bruce like the last time Clint was this sick and waits.


Clint's quiet by morning, but it's hard to tell if he's feeling better or just worn out. He's limp, hair and clothing soaked with sweat and sticking to him. He reminds Steve of a wrung-out rag, but he's a little more aware. Enough to resist when Bruce pushes him towards Steve, saying, "It's okay, Clint. Stay with Steve. I have to go to my forced labor."

It's obvious he's reluctant to go, not without confirmation that Clint knows where he is, knows that he's temporarily safe.

"I've got him, Bruce," Steve says, and glances pointedly at the guard and then at the shock collar, dark against Clint's neck. Bruce scowls and nods. Goes.


Bruce comes back triumphantly holding a paper cup full of something that rattles. He gives Tony a little nod and Steve thinks that probably means he's managed to turn something potentially deadly into something benign.

Bruce rattles the cup again and says, "I found some ice, if Clint can manage. They have a--a fucking coffee corner. Outside the lab."

"Jesus," Tony says.

Bruce smiles that twisted smile he gets when the mundane is suddenly bizarre and awful. Steve thinks he sees too much of that look.

"How's Clint?" Bruce asks, even though it's obvious he's not doing well, turned into Thor's chest, hands tucked between his body and Thor's, like he's trying to protect them or make distance. He's shuddering in something that isn't quite sobs, choked and dissipating sometimes into exhausted panting. "Tell me he hasn't been this way the whole time."

"He hasn't," Tony says. There's a hollow sound to it that Steve knows comes from fatigue. Tony needs sleep in a way he and Thor don't, and he's had precious little, between racking his brains and worrying over Clint. Bruce looks about as bad, haggard and pale as he goes to his knees next to Thor, hands going carefully to Clint's face.

"He was better for a while," Steve confirms, voice low and gentle because Bruce looks like too much volume might be enough to shatter him. "The pain got worse again a couple hours ago."

Clint doesn't take the ice and Bruce doesn't push it, afraid that he'll choke.


Eventually, whatever poison had been pumped into Clint's veins wears off and Steve is relieved and grateful and tries not to think about what might have happened if the effects had lasted for even a little while longer.

If Clint had reminded him of a wet rag before, it's worse now. He's a boneless weight, breathing so shallowly that Steve keeps checking to make sure he hasn't stopped. Clint's eyes are open, but barely, slitted and unfocused. He drifts off then blinks awake at any sound, into a sort of wobbly awareness that he can't maintain for very long.

Thor pats him with one big hand, very carefully, and says, "Rest," and Clint subsides back into his half-doze.


"If Nat doesn't get here," Clint says, later, shivering against Steve's side. His voice is a dry rasp, barely louder than a whisper.

"She's coming," Tony snaps, "Here. Drink something."

Clint frowns. Brings a hand up to scratch at that patch by his ear, a gesture Steve thinks he's probably picked up from Bruce. Says, "Of course she's coming." He sounds scornful. Offended that Tony thinks he might doubt Natasha. "Just. If she doesn't get here."

"What are you even saying? Your brain is scrambled, Barton, you know that? Drink the water or go to sleep, but for the love of god, stop talking." Tony has that angry tone he gets when he's freaking out and trying to cover it up.

Steve says, "You're going to be fine, Clint."

Clint huffs a little, frustrated, but he doesn't have the strength to argue. He lifts a hand stiffly to rub at his eyes and Steve pulls the blankets closer around his shoulders, hoping he'll start to warm up soon. Hoping his morale will improve if he's a little more comfortable.

"Just tell her it was quick," Clint says, after a few moments, "That it wouldn't have made a difference."

"Shut up," Tony says, and Steve thinks he might actually hit Clint if he keeps talking.


"I spent today," Tony announces, "fine tuning a cyborg arm." He sounds exasperated. Like it's the stupidest idea he's ever come across. "Why, I said, would you want to put an arm on a man who already has an arm? Then they tried to compare it to the Iron Man suit. The suit, I said, is more like apparel. That's why it's called a suit. It's clearly totally different."

Clint's asleep against Bruce again, one arm draped loosely around his middle, the other limp over Bruce's leg. Steve watches as Bruce's eyes go to the bandage on it, then flick away. Notices Tony do the same. They don't look at each other the way they usually do when they think they've had the same idea.


The problem is that they're only ever pulled from the cell one at a time. Steve thinks he or Thor could do some damage when they get pulled if only there was some way to get the others loose. There was no point if they fell to superior numbers while the others were still locked up.

"That plan sucks," Tony says, when Steve muses out loud, "That plan is worse than Clint's plans."

"You never have a plan," Clint says, "You just crab about everyone else's. That's not actually 'contributing', by the way." He's slouched low, leaning against Tony's side. His voice is still soft and un-Clint-like, but the attitude is coming back.

Tony looks down at him for a second, "You're making air quotes in your mind, aren't you?" he says, and Clint uses both hands to make little bunny ear gestures at Steve as if he still needed the clarification.

Then there's a scuff out in the hall. Footsteps. They all go still, Thor looking like he wants to grab Clint or maybe storm the hall. Steve hears his own heart beat, his own breath.

And then the footsteps are outside the door and then they're gone, fading down the hall.

Clint doesn't stop shaking for hours.


The next time they come they take Thor, and Clint huddles against the far wall, eyes fixed on the door, panicky and breathing hard. When he doesn't move, Steve comes and sits next to him.

"I was glad they took Thor," Clint says, blurting it out as soon as Steve's seated, like a confession. He rubs his face with his good hand and it's such a miserable gesture that Steve puts his arm around him.

They're all glad that it was Thor. Or at least, glad it's not Clint, who's shaky and weak and recovering slower each time. Thor will probably have another batch of samples taken, and be sent back to them. Nothing to worry about, and Clint has to know it, except Clint looks like he's personally walked Thor to his execution. "He'll be fine," Steve says, "You know he'll be fine."

Clint picks at the bandage on his arm, fraying the edges of the gauze, flicking loose threads away. "That's not--" he says, "It isn't--" Then he stops and just nods and Steve's not sure what's going on in his head.

He doesn't push it.


They run them all down to the labs again for new samples. Steve goes next, then Bruce, then Tony, and it gives Clint a respite, but he's too on edge to rest. When Tony comes back, it's the end of the rotation and Clint goes quiet again, barely picking at the food when it comes, and not sleeping. Jerks awake easily when he does drift off, fighting and disoriented. He gives Bruce a black eye, one night, then nearly does the same to Thor.

"Sorry," Clint pants, pale and hollow-eyed. Thor has him pinned in case of further attack, waiting for him to get his bearings, but Clint doesn't struggle other than to try to adjust the way Thor is gripping his bandaged arm.

"Clint?" Steve tries, and Clint's eyes flicker, a glance over and away.

He says, "Here, Cap." He sounds tired.

Steve nods and Thor lets him up slowly, with a hand at his back, the other hovering, ready to catch a thrown fist or elbow. Clint gives him a humorless smirk and says, "Thor," like a greeting, like they were meeting on the street.

"Clint," Thor says, with the same intonation, but waits until Clint's recognition is solid before he lets his guard down. Bruce hadn't gotten boxed in the first seconds of Clint waking.

"Sorry," Clint says again when Thor finally drops the blocking hand, leaving the other on Clint's back, patting him gently like one might a child or a spooked animal. Thor's face twists at the apology, but Clint's head is down and he doesn't see it. Doesn't see Bruce make a similar expression.

Hasn't, in fact, looked Bruce in the face since punching him in it.

It doesn't stop Bruce from coming over or Thor from nudging Clint over to him with a last firm pat and a quiet, "Stay. Return to your sleep," and Clint doesn't pull away or argue, but he doesn't really acknowledge Bruce either, other than allowing himself to pulled closer.

Bruce ignores it and wraps an arm around Clint. Meets Steve's eyes over his head, his mouth a hard line. Clint's unraveling.


"So I have new toys," Tony says, sounding like he's bragging.

Clint says, "I have new stitches." They've taken him again, and returned him drugged and half-asleep. Steve feels sickeningly grateful for it, because Clint doesn't remember anything. Wouldn't have known he'd been taken if it wasn't for the new bandage immobilizing his shoulder, or the neat incision over his spine, hidden by a gauze pad taped on just below the shock collar.

He's shivering--from exhaustion or an effect of the drugs he'd been given, Steve isn't sure, but he has Clint lying by him again, again trying to warm him. Clint seems almost steadier than he had before he was taken back to the lab, but he also seems a little drunk. A little too bright-eyed considering the new injuries.

"I feel so good," Clint says, unfocused and slurring a little, when Steve asks how he's doing. "M'doing great."

Bruce smiles, sort of fond and sad at the same time. Whatever they've dosed Clint with so they could cut him up is still working, numbing pain, leaving Clint hazy but giddy with relief. More comfortable than he's been in a while.

Tony gives him a bemused look and says with a grin that's too soft around the edges,"Whatever they gave you, Barton--" and lets it trail off.

"S'nice," Clint tells him, "Should try it."

"Clint," Tony says, and like his grin his snark has no bite to it, "let's get away from your burgeoning narcotics addiction and back to my toys, hm?"

"Everything's about you," Clint huffs, but Tony's already going on.

"They are building...wait for it. A remote controlled. I don't know robot something. It's stupid and beside the point. The point is that yours truly," he jerks a thumb at himself for emphasis, "is working on the whole damn thing. Seriously, I have my hands all over it."

Bruce's half-hearted smile becomes a grin. It's not quite genuine, and doesn't effect the worn-out look he's been wearing, but it's something. "And?" he asks.

"And, I think I can hijack it to build a transmitter," he says, "Natasha's probably scanning our frequency, but those jokers have our gear. They've probably blocked it." He glances at Clint. Frowns. "I was going to ask for SHIELD frequencies Natasha might be scanning, but--"

Clint grins and slides lower against Steve. High as a kite. "Please," he says, "I can remember those any day."


Now that Tony has a plan, they don't take him and he paces and seethes and to fill the time he and Bruce spend hours with their heads together, whispering about electronics and how to not get caught repurposing their projects.

The drugs wear off and Clint goes back to being quietly miserable, sleeping a lot, huddled protectively with one hand over his newly injured shoulder. He shivers at any sound in the hall, and Steve tries again to find a weak spot on the collar, determined to find a way to keep them from taking Clint again.

"Hurts?" he asks when his fiddling makes Clint shudder awake beside him, even though there's nothing they can do about it. He feels more than sees Bruce's attention flick over, leaving whatever Tony's talking about and coming to settle on Clint, who's still not really talking to Bruce. Who flinches away from the bruising around Bruce's eye, even though he's given all of them worse in training. It's going green and yellow now around the edges.

Clint makes a soft, "Mm," sound that means yes, but that also means he's not up to talking about it.

"Want me to leave it alone?" Steve asks, rhetorically, already taking his hands off the device, but Clint shakes his head a little.

He says, "S'fine, Cap."

"Yeah? You need anything?"

Clint shakes his head a bit. Steve thinks he should probably drink something, because he's taking less and less water as he feels less well, but Steve doesn't quite have the heart to make Clint move.


They take Clint again, shaking and non-resistant in a way that really worries Steve, and the rest of them sit in silence and wait. Clint's sick enough that they're scared as hell of what condition he'll come back in. Of what they'll have done to him now.


They take Bruce and he raids the lab's amenities again, coming back with another cup of ice chips in case they need it for Clint, but when they bring him back, Clint's still gone.


Eventually, they push Clint back through the door, and he's wobbly but awake. Looks comparatively undamaged, if badly shaken. He goes quietly to Bruce and sort of topples, and only Thor's quick hands keep him from falling.

"Sorry 'bout the eye," he says, and Bruce snorts because it's ridiculous that Clint's still worried about that. That he worried about it at all.

Bruce says, "Clint. It's fine," and pulls Clint against him, hands roving over him, carefully checking for damage. "What did they do? Do you remember anything?"

Clint shivers against him. Tucks his head against Bruce's shoulder. "Dunno. It hurt."

It's the first real complaint of pain Clint's made, and Bruce furrows his brow at it. Gives Clint another once-over. Clint lets him, tired and pliable. He looks almost drugged, but Steve thinks he's just fading, his endurance stretched too far.

Clint shivers again and Bruce shoots Steve a frantic look across the room. It's always worse when they've tested drugs instead of whatever Clint's physical injuries come from. They're not sure how much more he can take.


There's noise in the hall, but the door doesn't open. Instead they shove tubing and a couple of clear bags of liquid in through the slot where their meals usually come through. Bruce says, "Thank god," and slides Clint over to Steve so he can go inspect it.

They want Clint to stay alive now, which probably means that they're making progress with him, whatever progress might mean. Or maybe they just want their test results.

Clint blinks awake while Bruce is figuring out how to hang the IV bag, and goes very still against Steve's side. "It's okay," Steve tells him, watching him follow Bruce's movements as intently as he can manage, "It won't hurt you."

"Just fluids," Bruce agrees, checking the label again, "nothing weird."

Clint nods, and he lets Bruce slide the needle in, but he's pressed up against Steve side like he'd get away if he could. Bruce touches his cheek to make him look up, says, "If you start to feel bad, say so and we'll take it out. Okay?"

Clint touches the tubing, not pulling it out, just putting his finger tips to it. The he lets his hand fall away and says, "Alright."


Tony goes, with Clint's SHIELD frequencies in his head and is gone for over a day and a half. Then he comes back and throws himself down on the mat next to Thor and says, "Alakazam," and does an exaggerated finger wiggle with both hands, like a magician.

Steve knows he's been successful and smiles, but Bruce just strokes Clint's sweated hair and his face never changes.


Steve spends his next visit to the lab being friendly and smiling at the technicians. Then he steals medical supplies and surprises himself at being so good at it. It's not much, just what he can grab when they turn their backs on him for a moment--gauze, tape, what he thinks might be pain meds.

Tony raises both eyebrows at Steve's theft and says, "Steve, really now," in a scolding tone.

"They're having a bad security day," Steve says, as Bruce smiles and shakes his head.


Tony's the next to steal something. A little electrical appliance that he spends the night poking at.

"They turned their robot on," he says and hands the little device to Steve, pointing out the button, big and red and obvious and probably Tony thinks that's funny even under the circumstances. "We're now broadcasting on Romanoff FM. How's your morse code?"

"Pretty decent," Steve says and sends out their SOS code followed by Hawkeye down over and over until he can't feel his thumbs.

"And just like radio," Tony apologizes, "they can't really send us an answer."


They do send an answer, and the answer is Natasha.

There's an unusual amount of noise drifting up the hall, getting closer and closer, and Clint's beyond being troubled by it, eyes dull and tired as he murmurs feverishly into Bruce's side.

Then there's a series of deep rumbles, the distant concussion of explosions, and then, somehow, the door of their cell is swinging open and Natasha is standing there, agents at her back. "Really boys, I leave you alone for five minutes," she says and then she's picking her way across the room to check on Clint, reporting to Coulson as she goes, requesting medics and evac and snapping SHIELD jargon.

Tony grins at her. "I see you got my message," he says.