Steve sat anxiously in the Quinjet across from Banner who had his chin resting against his fist and was looking out the window of the quinjet in a brooding sort of way. Natasha was flying the vehicle, Coulson and Thor sitting up front with her. Another quinjet with a medical team flew on their right, and a third with a science team flew back and to their left.
Back in New York, everyone had been been literally floored when a wave of images, thoughts and desperation invaded their minds. The next thing Steve knew, he was on his back on the floor, a worried Thor also on the floor next to him. "Clint Barton," he breathed. Steve nodded. Coulson had found them shortly afterward, telling them Nick Fury had also been affected as well as him, Natasha and Bruce, and they were sending teams to go find the missing pair of Avengers. Steve had accepted it all without a thought, only finding out on the flight South about the crystal Stark and Barton had been sent to retrieve, and its powers. The flight south had also given Steve time to contemplate the images they had all seen. The monsters, the falls, the caves...Steve would have chuckled at the hapless duo's misadventures, but there were also the images of pain, near-drowning...Steve's heart was consumed with worry for his friends.
And judging from the silence in the cabin, so was everyone else's.
"We're approaching the coordinates, activating sonar." They didn't have the exact location of the underground cave, but they knew it was somewhere near the base, and they could use the advanced sonar to find the cave network underground. Steve got up anxiously from his chair to watch the screen with everyone else. Natasha maneuvered the quinjet slowly around the area. The sonar pinged loudly and she smiled. "I think we have something." Steve pulled his cowl over his head.
Tony was a prisoner in his own body. He had ceased to feel any pain and could only move his eyes. It had been a while since he heard Clint's gut-wrenching scream, but he couldn't see anything or hear anything for fucking do anything about it, and it was killing him. He couldn't hear sounds of movement or breathing so he could only hope Clint was alive, and whatever he did help would be on the way.
But at what cost?
He couldn't stand his inability to get himself and Clint out of this terrible situation. He had become everything he had because he promised himself he'd never be weak again, never let others suffer, and turn every weakness into a strength.
But now they were here, and Tony was maybe laying in his grave with another friend who'd died for him, died so that he could live.
Goddamn it, Clint, I think highly of myself, but I'm not that important.
Tony swallowed thickly before he heard loud sounds coming from somewhere near the top of the cave. Great, now the cave was collapsing. Any hope they had had of escape, that Barton still lived, that he wouldn't die of trapped in his own fucking body with the taste of vomit still in his mouth was rapidly dwindling away.
Oh my god...was that fucking Steve?
He struggled to move again, but nothing happened except his breathing became a little louder. The sounds of Steve calling out to them were louder, and Tony could also here the sounds of something sliding down cables.
"I found Clint Barton," Thor's voice now. "He is alive but not responsive."
Tony should have shaken with relief if he could. Clint was alive.
He heard a splash, followed by crunching as someone moved quickly over rocks. A half0blue face invaded his vision. "Tony?"
He tried to give some sign, but he could do nothing. He just looked at the captain with wide eyes, trying to convey something.
Steve gently rolled him back onto his back. "It's gonna be okay, Tony, we're gonna get you out of here." He grasped Tony's hand supportively.
Tony wished he could feel it.
Time became Tony's worst enemy as he slipped in and out of wakefulness. Someone was always around whenever he could get his eyes to open - talking to him, reassuring him, touching his arms, patting his shoulder, squeezing his hand - even though he couldn't respond and couldn't feel their touch. They'd tell him that he was going to be fine, that they found an anti-venom, that it would flush out of his system soon. Soon was apparently the new definition for maybe sometime in the next century.
He couldn't move to see the clock on the wall, couldn't ask Jarvis for a time update, couldn't even properly keep count of the seconds ticking by in his head. His mind was too full of questions, but not questions about his own injuries. Everyone kept talking about him, telling him the broken arm would mend, that they were able to treat the flesh around the puncture wounds before it got too bad, but there'd be some scarring, letting him know that when feeling returned, it'd be slow and he'd need help getting around for a while. Fine. Whatever. Good for him. He didn't care. The big question was, why the fuck weren't they telling him anything about Clint?
He drifted out again listening to Thor prattle on about...something Asgardian that he didn't give two shits about...and woke up to see Steve leaning over him with an odd smile on his face. And then there was pain. Tony's breathing increased at the odd sensation, not realizing how very weightless one felt when they were disconnected from their own body, and how regaining that awareness - no matter how little a level - could be so suddenly confining. He felt heavy, like he would sink down into the bed at any moment and just keep on going right through the floor. That coupled with his broken bone deciding to scream at him for attention made for a rather rude return to the land of non-paralysis.
"Easy, Tony, take it easy," Steve tried to sooth.
"H'rt," Tony was able to push out past the lead weight that was his tongue, and the lips that he was barely able to force open.
Why was Steve's grin getting bigger?
"Good. That's good, Tony."
"Fu'...you," he moaned.
Goddamn it, and now Rogers was laughing at him. "Sorry, sorry. I know it doesn't feel like it, but this is great, Tony. Honestly. The anti-venom was taking so long to kick in, we were starting to get worried it wasn't going to work, after all."
Great. So all those reassurances had been lies. Wonderful.
"I'll see what we can give you for the pain." Rogers smiled apologetically. "We were afraid to put you on anything without being sure. And since you couldn't feel anything, anyway..."
It was the most difficult thing he'd ever had to do, but through sheer force of will Tony managed to slightly curl the fingers on the hand of his not broken arm enough for Steve to get the rather crude memo that he didn't appreciate anything about his current situation.
"I know, but trust me, this is a good sign." Steve patted Tony's arm, and it actually was a bit of a joyful realization that he could feel it. "I'll be back with one of the medics. Don't go anywhere."
And then the joyful moment was over. Since when did Rogers pick up an asshole sense of humor? That was supposed to be reserved for the Stark/Barton duo.
Damn it, he hadn't had a chance to ask about Clint. That'd be the first thing he did once Steve got back. He needed to know what had happened to his friend, and why everyone seemed so intent on avoiding the subject.
Tony tried to stay awake until Steve came back, but he simply couldn't. When he woke up again, no one was there. His broken arm still ached, and it felt like his nerves were still slowly reattaching to his body. He tried to raise his hand to take out the oxygen tube in his nose, but it felt like he was trying to lift up 60 pounds of weight. He grunted, straining, before his arm collapsed back on the bed after only having lifted a few inches. The effort left him sweating and winded, and he sucked in oxygen through his nose. When his breathing had slowed somewhat, he gritted his teeth and tried again.
This time, as soon as he got his arm about an inch higher than last time, pain shot through it like a lance, and he dropped it back on the bed surface, a small cry escaping from his mouth.
"Tony, crap, what are you doing?"
Tony, still breathing heavily, moved his eyes over and saw Steve coming in the room. "Tony, just...take it easy. Okay?" Tony knitted his brow in frustration, but Steve seemed to understand. "You've only been awake for a day. Just rest, you shouldn't be trying to move yet."
Then Tony remembered what he had been going to ask him.
"Cl...nt..." he ground out.
Steve's eyes darkened and he looked at the floor for a moment.
"Where..." Tony pressed him.
"He's alive, Tony," Steve said quietly. Tony turned his head away, taking several deep breaths of relief. He turned back towards Steve, waiting for more. Steve still didn't look up.
Tony waited for a moment, but Steve still didn't say anything. "...but..." he ground out.
"But..." Steve hesitated, before sighing heavily. "...but, he used the crystal so that we could find you guys. And...as we know, its power isn't fully understood..." Steve looked at him then, brow furrowed and eyes pained. Tony couldn't remember seeing him so lost before. "He's in a coma, Tony. They don't...don't know..."
Steve sighed again. "Five days. We found you both five days ago."
Tony shut his eyes against the clenching he suddenly felt in his chest and stomach. The term "be careful what you wish for" never applied more fully to him than it did at that moment. He had wanted to feel, wanted to be aware of time, wanted to know what had happened to Clint, and now he just wanted it all to go away. He didn't want the heartache that came with the knowledge that his friend had put himself in a coma just to save his arrogant ass. That's not how it was supposed to work. Tony was fucking Iron Man, for Christ's sake, the one with the money and the near-invincible suit. Clint was just a goddamn normal guy with a fancy bow and stupidly good aim. The normal guy was not supposed to sacrifice himself to save the superhero. It was all ass backwards, and it pissed Tony off.
"T...t'k...me," he demanded, doing his best to give Steve the don't argue with me look.
Steve shook his head, clearly either not catching the look or blatantly ignoring it, knowing Tony couldn't do a damn thing about it. "There's too much involved with moving you right now. Give yourself another day to rest, for the anti-venom to keep doing it's job, and then we'll think about taking you to see him. Okay?"
"No." Tony swallowed and focused hard on forming his words clearly. "Please...Steve."
Kicked puppy eyes. He hoped the face he was making was kicked puppy, anyway, and not something hideous that looked like it needed to be kicked. The partially sad, partially amused look Steve was giving him in return didn't really clue him in either way.
There was a long silence before Tony asked again, putting more of a begging quality into his tone. "Please."
And there it was, the Rogers sigh. The man was caving. He was such a predictable pushover. "Let me get some people in here to unhook some of these machines. Don't try to help when we move you, okay? If you start being your stubborn self I'll see to it you don't leave this room for another week."
"Yes...Dad..." Tony managed a small grin, and waited patiently for the Captain to fetch the obedient little worker bees. He'd behave. Until he got into Clint's room. Then he was going to do everything in his power to make his fucking arm move enough to punch that son of a bitch right in the face. That'd wake him up.
Tony had kept his promise, mostly, and was still when they unhooked the machines and IVs from him. They didn't want to put him in a wheel chair since he couldn't hold himself up, but the did move him to a smaller gurney. It took five people to move him, Steve included, and it fucking hurt. Tony hoped he'd be unconscious when they moved him back. He was breathing through clenched teeth and sweating profusely by the end of the first move. Steve's face came into his view then, looking apologetic. "You don't have to do this, Tony," he said gently.
"Yes...I do..." he ground out. Thankfully, Steve seemed to understand, and nodded at the nurses who were looking annoyed that they had to bow to the whims of their sick as hell patients.
As they wheeled him into Clint's room, Tony's heart sunk. The man was strapped up to more machines than him. Underneath the monitors and the oxygen tubes and the IV lines, Clint's skin was completely pale, and Tony could already see his cheeks had begun to sink in. Tony just stared, breathing shakily through his nose for a few minutes. Banner, who had been sitting with a laptop at Clint's side stood up and moved over to the gurney. "How's it going?" Steve asked him, like Tony wasn't even fucking there.
Banner sighed. "Not well," he replied apologetically. Tony turned his head away from Clint to stare at Banner. Banner spared him a glance before continuing. "There's just not much information to take from this, other than what we know happened to previous users. Some wake up. Some it took hours, others weeks. There's just simply no way to tell. And since Clint made contact with all of us..." he trailed off. Tony was floored. How could the man be so blasé about their teammate? Clint might never wake up. And all because he had been too stupid to keep his helmet on. His breathing hitched, and he managed to curl his fingers around the sheets of the gurney.
"Tony?" Steve asked as he and Bruce bent down.
With a strength he didn't know he had at the moment, Tony shot his hand out, grabbing Bruce's jacket and gripping it tightly. The pain just made him angrier. "Fig...ure...out..." he demanded. He gave him what he considered his most irate CEO glare. Banner just looked surprised as Steve gently pried his fingers loose from his teammate.
"That's enough, Tony," he said quietly. Tony was breathing harshly through the waves of pain the movement had caused him. "Bruce is doing everything he can. And you need to rest."
As they wheeled him out of the room, Tony only looked at Clint apologetically.
The third day after he had regained feeling, Tony was lying still in his bed, staring up at the ceiling and doing his best to ignore the steady ache that had become his constant companion. It had dulled quite a bit over time, the result of the warring poison and subsequent antidote taking its fight outside of his body as his system was continually flushed with fluids. It still sucked, though. He could move around a lot easier now, but a lot of the times he just didn't want to. It hurt too damn bad.
Clint still wasn't moving at all. Every day Tony insisted on multiple visits with the archer, and each time it killed him to see that his friend was still slipping away. It wasn't fair that he felt a little better, hurt a little less, regained more mobility with each new morning, while Clint died a little more with each setting of the sun. It was even less fair that the anger he felt towards his teammate for doing something so idiotic got away from him every time he entered the room, that he couldn't bring himself to give the asshole that very well-deserved face punch. The only thing Tony could feel when he took in the slack features of his friend, his mind unconsciously tracking all the beeps and whirs of the machines that were keeping Clint alive, was a strange emptiness. A hollow void would simply take over, unwilling to let him be angry, or to grieve, or to do things like pray or feel hope. It was like he just went into a limbo, just waiting to see one way or another what would happen before he was allowed to feel emotion again. It was unnerving, and always left him a little exhausted when they returned him to his bed.
"I got it!"
Tony opened his eyes at the breathless yell coming from the hallway. It had sounded like Natasha, but that couldn't be right. She didn't sound...bitchy. In fact, she sounded a little excited.
There was more commotion in the hall as people ran by. Curious, Tony moved to push the little call button that was always near his fingertips, often easier to use than trying to talk to someone through Jarvis. Talking still winded him more than he liked to admit.
Thor appeared in the doorway before he got the button pressed all the way, a smile on his face. There hadn't been a lot of those lately, not with the melancholy that had settled on everyone as they waited for Clint to decide whether he was going to wake up or not. "Natasha retrieved some information from Dominique Santano," the god told him excitedly. "There may be hope, yet, for our sleeping friend."
Tony's eyes grew wide, and he pressed the control on the bed to raise him up closer to a sitting position. "I wanna see," he grunted.
"I thought you might. I will get assistance."
Good old Thor, always thinking of everyone else. Tony fidgeted impatiently while he waited to get disconnected and settled in the chair that he was now allowed to ride in. For now, he completely forgot about his pain, instead doing his best to will Thor to push him down the hall a little faster. It had felt like ages since he'd allowed himself to feel hope, and now it was almost overwhelming.
The feeling vanished as soon as he got in the room as saw that Banner was carefully attaching the last of a series of probes to Clint's head.
"What are you doing?" he asked in alarm, seeing the console with large electric dials that the series of wires led to.
Steve shot an accusatory look at Thor. "What's he doing in here?"
The Asgardian stood his ground. "He should be allowed to see this. Clint is his friend, too."
Banner ignored them all and looked again at the page Natasha was holding up for him, studying it closely. "You're sure this is legitimate? If this is a false lead..."
"I'm sure." And damned if Natasha never sounded more sure about anything in her life.
"Guys," Tony started in, trying to get a little more volume in his tone to no avail.
Everything was happening so fast, everyone so eager to do whatever they could to bring Clint back to them. Steve took a step towards Tony and Thor, probably ready to continue arguing that Stark shouldn't be there; Fury had suddenly appeared in the doorway, pushing his way into the room with Coulson hot on his heels; Natasha read off a quick series of numbers to Banner on his order; dials were turned, the readouts on the machines went haywire, Clint's body twitched as jolts of electricity were pumped straight into his head; breaths were held as everyone in the room froze and fell silent with the exception of Banner and Natasha, playing mad scientist and assistant. It went on for hours...or, in reality, just a couple of minutes...but to Tony it might as well have been years. When Bruce eased the dials back down and Clint's muscles instantly went lifeless again, everyone's eyes flew to the machines monitoring his brain activity. There was a little hitch here, a small dip there, a flutter of something that may have indicated a thought, or possibly just some lingering electrical energy, and then it settled out to where it had been sitting for the last eight days.
"It didn't work..." Banner whispered. "I'm sorry..."
Natasha was the first to move. She threw the clipboard hard enough across the room that it chipped the wall on the other side, then stormed out swearing she was going back to rip Dom's legs off his body. Fury simply clenched his jaw, nodded once at Banner, and stiffly moved out. Coulson took an extra second to rest a hand on Clint's arm before following. Steve placed a supportive hand on Bruce's shoulder.
"Why don't you take a break? Maybe we missed something. Think on it a little and we'll try again later. I'll sit with him."
"No," Tony snapped. "I'll stay. I need..." His voice trailed away, the words catching with all the emotion he hadn't allowed himself to feel for the past three days.
Steve seemed to think it over a bit before nodding. Without a word, he stepped in behind Thor and pushed the chair right up next to the bed, turning it so Tony could reach Clint's one free arm with his own. With that, he, Banner, and Thor slipped out of the room, simply leaving instructions with Tony to push the call button on Clint's bed when he was ready to go back to his own.
Once he was alone, Tony really didn't know what to say. He checked the monitors again, glad to see that the probes at least hadn't messed with Clint's vitals. His temperature was still normal (the fever caused from a slight inner infection in his broken leg taken care of on day one), his heart rate was reasonably slow, blood pressure on the low end - all normal coma patient symptoms. That extra blip on the brain wave meter was-
Tony watched intently as it happened again...then again a few seconds later.
"Clint?" he whispered.
Then the machine went nuts.
Clint's eyes shot open, then immediately clenched tight again, and he brought his free hand up to his head. The right arm struggled inside his sling, and he kicked his legs against the bed as he tried to curl up on his side.
Tony tried to grab at Barton's arms so he wouldn't hurt himself, but the man was panicking. He opened his mouth to scream, but nothing but a weak, cracking, whimpering squeak came out. Tears were streaming out of the closed eyelids, and Clint turned his body even more in an attempt to bury his face into his pillow.
"Jarvis, kill the lights!" Tony hissed, not wanting to aggravate Clint's headache even more by shouting. He was getting tired from trying to hold Barton still from his awkward position in the chair, and the extra effort he was putting out hurt like hell. Clenching his teeth, he pressed the call button again and again, desperately needing someone to help him. At this rate Clint was going to mess up that shoulder and leg again...not that he'd notice. Tony was pretty sure the only thing Barton was aware of at the moment was the feeling that his head was about to explode right of his neck; and as much as that scared Tony, he couldn't help but feel a tiny sense of relief.
Clint was awake.
There was a searing pain in his head and Clint tried to bring his arms up to clench his skull. It felt as if something had drilled into him and left a crack in his head.
Something was restraining him, pinning him to the bed.
They'd been captured, was his first thought. Jesus Christ.He had to escape, had to tear out of the restraints.
Clint threw his arms up, grunting as his arm jarred from the painful blow. Someone cursed, and Clint realized he must have hit whoever was holding him down. The pain was making it hard to think, to anticipate, but he had to get out of this. If he was captured, then Tony could be in danger.
He yanked his leg up, sending his knee into whatever was on top of him.
The pain was unbearable and it choked a sob out of him as he tried to escape what was pinning him down. Didn't they see that all he wanted to do was curl up and die?
No. Tony. He had to protect Tony.
The lights around him clicked off, and the pain marginally decreased to the extent where Hawkeye was aware of the pain in his arm and ankle. He had to drown it out though, he had to get free. Clint bucked again on the bed - wait, bed?- and lashed out with his elbow.
The sound of the cursing resuming made him flinch and give a small whimper again.
His brain felt as if it were trying to burst out of his skull. Voices were beginning to enter into the room he was held in, and every sound made him writhe in pain.
"Stop it!" he heard a voice that he knew he should recognize squeak out. "Can't you see it's hurting him?" Clint tried to pull away once again, and the voice continued in a low whisper. "Stop it. Goddamnit Clint. I'm trying to help you."
The voices around him cut off and Clint stilled under the heavy weight over him. He couldn't think. He wished something would kill him, put him out of his misery, or give him enough morphine to send him into happy land for a long time. The pain reminded him of the time he'd sent a screw through his hand while building a platform, but this time it was a hundred thousand screws drilling into his cranium and it wouldn't stop.
His body shivered and he gave a small cry as his shoulder jerked at the sensation.
"Can't you give him something for the pain?" he heard Tony hiss almost inaudibly, and Clint couldn't help it. He whimpered again and tried to bring his hands up to his head, but someone gently caught them.
"We don't know what will react in his system. The nutrients were enough of a risk," Banner said apologetically. When Clint winced, the man's voice dipped lower. "Can someone bring a laptop in here so we don't have to talk?'
Clint tried to curl up again, but was stopped again. The archer tried to remain still, because even twitching doubled the pain, but he felt hyperaware of every noise and feeling around him. Even someone's small, light footfalls nearby made him flinch.
A hand gently ran over his hair, startling him at first. Someone was murmuring by his head in a low, soothing voice that was just deep and low enough not to make another lightning bolt pierce him. He couldn't understand the words, but he didn't need to. Clint shivered again - his body was confused he realized. Hot, cold. Hot, cold.Either that, or the temperature was fluctuating to an insane degree.
"Sedatives?" Clint heard Natasha breath.
"No," Banner said, sounding miserable. "We can't risk it."
The hand continued to stroke gently over his hair, but a weight appeared at his throat after a few seconds. The soothing voice continued softly, and Clint tried to relax despite the overwhelming need to curl up and die. The pressure on his throat was steadily increasing. At first it was at a rate gentle enough to make Clint take no notice, but then he realized he couldn't breathe.
"Natasha, what the hell are you-" Tony's angry voice began, making Clint jerk.
He was bringing up his arms to start struggling again when he blissfully passed out.
Tony was breathing heavily, clutching his broken arm to his chest and seething at Natasha. Clint had hit it particularly hard and trying to hold down the struggling archer had aggravated his injuries. "Why'd you...the fuck!" She stared back at him cooly.
"The sedatives can't be given to him yet," she explained, like that settled everything. Bruce was just staring as was Steve who had just run into the room in time to see Natasha cut off Clint's air flow. "I didn't do any permanent damage."
Tony just sputtered, overcome by an irrational anger towards his teammate. "You..." he lunged out of his chair at her, falling on the floor with a crash.
"Tony!" He heard Steve's shout as Natasha nimbly sidestepped him before locking her arm around his neck and pulling him up off the floor. He then realized he had been on the receiving end of the same treatment Clint had just suffered.
When Tony woke up, he was in a darkened room on a bed again. Across from Clint. Good old Steve, he thought. He hoped he had chewed out Natasha. Tony ached all over, and the headache from the lack of air was not helping.
Clint shifted slightly, moaning.
"Clint?" Tony whispered very quietly.
Clint flinched and Tony instantly shut up.
"...Ton..." he whispered. Tony couldn't help it. A huge grin spread across his face and he lay his aching head back in relief, feeling the weight lifting off his shoulders.
"Clint...I hate you," he whispered, unable to keep the mirth and relief out of his voice.
There was a deep pained breath from across the room. "...same."
Clint awoke, feeling trapped as he opened his eyes to pitch darkness. His aching head still throbbed with each heartbeat, but he could think clearly this time.
It didn't help that he felt trapped.
"Clint," Tony sing-songed softly. "You awake?"
Clint grunted, still trying to figure out how to work his vocal cords. Tiredly, he raised a hand to touch his eyes and found a thick cloth wrapped around his head.
"You probably don't want to take that off, buddy," Tony laughed, sounding ridiculously cheerful as he spied on Clint from somewhere in the room. "Banner got tired of tripping over things in the room and just blindfolded you so he wouldn't end up sharing the room with us."
Clint made a noise that was partly inquisitive and partly accepting.
"I know, it's terrible right?" Tony said, probably waving a hand around. Clint blinked in confusion as Tony went off on some tangent. "I got stuck in hereafter I hit Natasha."
Clint made a strangled noise in response. "You…. what?"
"I. Hit. Natasha," Tony carefully enunciated each word as if Clint was the idiot in the room. "And she hit back."
Clint carefully imagined Banner directing the doctor as he stitched pieces of Tony back together. He had a feeling it hadn't happened quite like that.
"Did she Hulk out on you?" he asked carefully as he began to shake with laughter. After a few moments, his pained body couldn't take the extra moment and the laughter turned into a hoarse sob.
"Are you okay?" Tony asked carefully.
"I'm good," he tried to say, and he ignored Tony's snort of disbelief. "Why'd… you try to hit Natasha?"
"She told me the crystal broke," Tony admitted sheepishly, then he added, "Shit. I should not have said that."
"What did you say?" Clint asked, but Tony ignored him. "Tony!"
"I'm going to turn off the lights so you can take off the blindfold," Tony said with forced cheer.
"Tony!" Clint snapped as he heard the light switch click on the other side of the room. Angrily, Clint ripped off the blindfold and winced as the small amount of light in the room jarred his headache to the forefront of his mind. "Tony," the word came out more as a plea than a demand this time.
A heavily bruised, but wholly intact, Tony Stark appeared at the side of Clint's bed as the archer winced at the light.
"Clint," Tony said with a sigh. "Look. It's not your fault, okay, and you don't have to go through with it if you don't feel like if you have to. We don't need the damned thing to function, so if you don't-"
"Tony," Clint whispered. "Stop screwing around and just spit it out."
Tony looked like a kicked puppy as he stared at the wincing archer. "Look, Clint," he said with a sigh. "It's not your fault, but the crystal's… sort of broken. It's attuned to you and well, frankly, if we plan to ever going to have it work for us again, you're going to need to hook up to it again."
"Tony, I don't-" Clint began as softly as he could.
"Goddamnit Clint," Tony snarled softly as the archer flinched again. "Don't you get it? Fury wants you to use the crystal again to deactivate it because it bonded to you."
If he wasn't agitated before, that certainly did the trick. His breath caught in his throat, bringing his current headache up to the next level as the memories of the pain he had felt over the past few days flooded into his mind. Every time he had woken up it had been to agony in its purest form, instantly driving him to a quivering mass of tears and desperate pleas for someone to just fucking shoot him. It had been a harrowing few days for everyone, and they were all exhausted from it by the time the worst was through. The first time he awoke to feeling like his head was only splitting in four pieces instead of six, it had been like a breath of smoggy air polluted with toxic waste, but at least he could breath. Now that he was down to his brain consistently feeling like it was in two places on opposite sides of the room, almost back to a human level of migraine control techniques, Fury wanted him to try the crystal again?
"Nooooo," he begged, his voice coming out as barely a whisper as he shook his aching head from side to side. "No, Tony, please."
God, was he crying again? He had probably cried more in this past week than he'd ever cried in his entire lifetime. He was such a wuss. But god it just hurt so damn much.
"Hey, hey, take it easy," Tony whispered back, and it was awkwardly soothing considering it was coming from Stark. "You think I got beat up for no reason? Huh? I was very clear on the fact that you get to make the decision. If they try to force the issue I'll have to blind them with my boot flares, seeing as how I can't get my gauntlet on over my cast, but it is a tried and true method of attack. It worked on that cat, right?"
Clint let out an airy chuckle that ended with a breath hissed in between clenched teeth. "For like...five seconds..." he murmured softly once he was able to speak again.
"Yeah, well, sometimes five seconds is all you need."
Tony watched as Clint nodded, then seemed to sink back into his pillows as sleep took him again. Very gently, Stark placed the blindfold back around the archer's eyes, but didn't bother turning the lights on. He didn't want anyone wandering in to see the concern or the anger written all over his face. Actually, anger wasn't even the proper word for it. He was livid. Times all his billions.
Clint was still at a phase in his recovery where just the thought of food made him throw up, anything louder than a mumble was like having a gun going off next to his ears, and the soft glow of Tony's arc reactor was almost too much for the man to bare. How could anyone even consider asking him to use that crystal again?
If the thing was broken, let the damn thing stay broken. Then nobody could use it, and therefore nobody would want it. If nobody wanted it, it couldn't be used as a weapon. Done. The world could stay safe. It was just that simple.
The only thing Clint needed to worry about was getting better, and Tony would step in anyone's path that tried to say otherwise.
Fury sat with Steve, Thor, Natasha, and Bruce in the meeting room, Coulson standing behind him.
"Look, I don't like it anymore than you do, but I don't see that we have a choice," Fury was explaining.
"We don't have choice," Steve snapped. "Clint does. He's the only one who does."
Steve and Thor were equally as pissed off as Tony was about the news, with Banner doing his best to keep his own anger at bay. He could feel the stirrings of the monster inside him as Fury spoke, and if this kept up, he'd have to excuse himself from the room. As it stood, the only reason any of them were even willing to listen to the argument was because they didn't want to watch their whole team be torn apart by this incident.
"He'll say no," Natasha said quietly.
Thor leaned forward. "As would I. It would be madness to put him through that again."
"We almost lost him the first time," Banner pointed out.
"And we still could," Nick argued back.
Steve furled his brows. "What do you mean?"
Phil piped up from behind Fury. "Dom wasn't exactly thrilled about losing what he considered to be his rightful property. He let it slip to some of his more violent buddies that we have possession of the crystal."
"So?" Steve replied. "If someone comes after it, we stop them. What does that have to do with Clint?"
"The crystal doesn't work without Barton," Coulson continued. "They come after it, they come after him."
Fury spoke again. "Until his bond is broken with that thing, he's in danger. More so than usual. It's in his best interest to sever his connection with it."
With a sigh, Steve leaned back and folded his arms across his chest. He looked to both Thor and Banner, both of whom gave him a slight nod, before he answered. "No," he said firmly. "Nobody even knows Clint's tied to it except for us-"
"And everyone in the lab," Natasha interrupted. "People talk. Maybe not on purpose, but things slip through the cracks. Someone will find out."
"And we'll stop them," the Captain bit out. "Just like we do with every other villain. Nothing's changed."
The meeting continued, this time with Steve pretty much laying out the new ground rules.
"What happened?" Tony asked, intercepting Steve as he moved down the hall towards Clint's room.
"I told them to bury it," the Captain answered.
Tony stopped walking. "What?"
"I told them to bury it. Put it back in the ground in a lock box somewhere as far away from here as possible."
"Which probably means they'll tuck it away on a shelf in some S.H.I.E.L.D. base in Antarctica or the Sahara Desert or somewhere ridiculous but possibly locatable," Tony argued. "If someone finds it-"
"Then it'll be a long time from now, and someone will send out an alert that it's missing before it even becomes an issue for us. It's the best we can do, Tony, and it's a hell of a lot better than the alternative."
Stark sucked in a breath to argue more, but realized Steve was right. The odds of someone tracking down the crystal weren't good, not when S.H.I.E.L.D. had a hold of it, and if it did happen, there'd be plenty of warning to enable them to keep Clint safe. Not that he really needed them to to play bodyguards. He could clearly handle himself; but still, they could watch his back a little closer if need be. It would be good enough, and yes, it was definitely better than the alternative.
Satisfied, Tony followed Steve into the darkened room where they both sat in protective silence over their friend, like stone sentries guarding their property. Thor joined them after a short time, followed by Banner who didn't even complain about the lack of light. A bit later, Natasha hesitantly stepped through the door, her face showing obvious relief when the boys didn't immediately kick her out.
"Fury's working on securing the crystal right now for transport," she whispered.
With a nod, they accepted the unsaid apology they could hear in her tone, and the silent request to help watch over their teammate. Until the cursed shard was gone for good, they had all just taken on the task of keeping Barton safe when he was unable to do so for himself.
And unbeknown to them, as each footfall into the room sent tiny little daggers into his skull, alerting Clint to each person's entry, he smiled passed his pain just a tiny bit. They'd watch out for him, and he'd be okay soon enough, and then life as one of The Avengers could continue on as usual until he and Tony screwed themselves into another misadventure.
And somebody else. He was keeping to at least that one thing on his list of "if I get out of this alive." He was never, ever going anywhere with Tony Stark alone ever again.