Assembled We Are Strong
AN: This time we have Natasha, Steve and Thor being chased by robot squid, Bruce has a moment, Tony gets annoyed and Clint has slept long enough.
There was a shout from below her. "Natasha? Are you okay?" It sounded more like Steve than Thor.
"I'm on my way down," shouted Natasha.
"Be careful, it's pretty treacherous," shouted Steve.
She took her time to negotiate a path down. Having only one fully working arm that she could hang her weight from hampered her progress a little, but eventually she made it down and landed beside Steve.
"Well, I guess we know where that submarine was going now," said Steve.
"I guess so," said Natasha. "Where's Thor?"
"I'm not sure, but he fell past me in that direction." Steve pointed towards a corridor to the right with his shield. It was poorly lit. "I could see you hanging above me, but something tells me that we don't want to go shouting about our presence in here."
"Agreed, they're probably already looking for us," said Natasha. "Come on, let's go find Thor." She noticed that Steve was holding his shield on his left arm. "What's wrong with your right arm?"
"I joined the bum wing club," replied Steve, and it took Natasha a moment to understand that he meant he'd hurt it.
"Is it broken?"
"I don't think so," said Steve. "Probably a dislocated shoulder."
"Put down the shield, I'll pop it back in," said Natasha. "I've done it for Clint enough times."
Steve put down the shield. "With respect, Clint's a little shorter than I am. Are you sure this is going to work?"
Natasha could now clearly see the way the right shoulder sat slightly lower than his left.
"Sure, it's easy," said Natasha. "Just relax and take deep breaths."
Natasha didn't give Steve any more time to think about it. She grabbed his arm and did the required combination of twisting and pulling that would pop the shoulder back in. It was definitely more difficult on Captain America than it was on Hawkeye, but still possible. However, she did wonder if Thor heard the loud, but quickly bitten off, yell that Steve made at the slightly sickening popping sound the joint made as it was re-seated properly. From the way that his complexion paled at her ministrations, perhaps she should have warned him that it was going to be very painful.
"I think I'm going to need a minute," said Steve. "Sorry."
"Not a problem, Captain, but I think a minute is the most we should hang around here," said Natasha.
Steve leaned against a bulkhead for a moment and got his breathing under control. Natasha was still on full alert as she gave him the time he needed to recover. Any normal man would probably have passed out from the pain of what she'd just done. Well, she revised, any normal man, except Hawkeye. Although, she often wondered if Hawkeye could be considered normal and she didn't just mean his apparently high threshold for pain.
Just as Steve was pulling himself back up to his full height and readying himself to move, she heard something. It was a sound of tapping, metal on metal. At first it sounded like someone drumming their nails on a hard table, but as it got closer it was more like hammers pounding on the floor. It didn't sound like footsteps. She turned to look and see if she could see what it was.
She was greeted by the sight of a heard of metal animals, heading in their direction. They each had two red eyes that glowed menacingly, on a body that looked disturbingly like a skull. Every single one had eight, metal, articulated rather tentacle-like legs.
Natasha knew how many bullets she had and that there were more robots than bullets. They'd be over-run before she could take out enough of them to make any kind of difference. She also had to take into account that Steve was injured and his shoulder would take time to heal. He wasn't going to be himself a several hours, even with his healing factor.
"I think we should run," said Natasha.
"Agreed," replied Steve.
"That will not be necessary," said Thor, from the other end of the corridor. Mjollnir flew between Steve and Natasha, smashing a swathe of the octopus robots.
"Nice shot, Thor," said Steve. Natasha could see that he was attempting to heft his shield onto his right arm.
She put a hand out to stop him, "you'll just dislocate it again if you try your usual trick with your shield." She pulled out her own gun, and now that the numbers were a bit depleted, felt like shooting a few of them might actually help. "We've got this, Steve."
Mjollnir flew back to its owner, taking out more robots in the process of its backwards flight to Thor's hand. Thor gripped it and threw it again, which took down the final few with a little help from Natasha's excellent aim.
"There's going to be more of them. We should keep moving," said Steve.
Thor gave a curt nod. "We need to find a way out of this metal trap."
"Halifax said we were submerging, just before his coms went dead," said Natasha. "It might be difficult to get out of here, and I don't think we want to leave just yet anyway. This is a pretty sophisticated Hydra base. I'm beginning to think that Steve was right, the Red Skull is here. We need to take him down before he can carry out his plan and we need to take down this machine with him."
The three Avengers looked at each other, and it was clear that they all agreed.
"Okay, we evade capture for as long as possible whilst verifying that the Skull is here. Then we blow this place to kingdom come," said Steve, and Natasha didn't think she'd ever seen him look quite so determined.
It was the following day before the inhabitants of Stark Tower began to worry. It wasn't unusual for Natasha to be away overnight, so no one had worried when she and the others didn't return to the Tower that evening. When night began to fall, Tony put in a call to SHIELD. It only elicited some vague information about Romanoff's mission going wrong and Tony definitely got the impression that no one really wanted to give him the details of exactly what had gone wrong. When he finally got put through to Nick Fury, the billionaire was already on the warpath.
"Hey there, Nicky, want to tell me what the fuck has happened to the rest of my team?" asked Tony.
"I wish I knew, Stark," replied Fury. "I've got every man that I can spare out looking for them."
"Every man that you can spare? Why doesn't that comfort me? What are the rest of them doing?"
"They're the ones out looking for seismic devices," replied Fury, with barely disguised exasperation. "The ones who are trying to stop the back-from-the-dead super villain from killing us all."
"And you didn't think that the Black Widow, Captain America and Thor disappearing whilst out looking for the Red Skull might have something to do with that? I mean, really, how likely is it that it would be related to something else?"
Fury sighed. "I'm aware of the situation. I've deployed the modified sonar buoys that you created to find the Hydra submarine, but so far we haven't found anything."
"You know what? Just give me the information and I'll go out and find them myself," said Tony.
"I don't have time for an argument. Have it. If you find them, call for back-up. Halifax called the thing that took them a giant mechanical squid," said Fury. "That doesn't sound like something that you want to take on alone."
The screen went blank.
"I hate it when I don't get to be the one to hang up," said Tony. "Jarvis, display the file that Director Fury just sent."
"Yes, sir," said the AI and Tony watched the screen for a few minutes.
At the camera footage from the Quinjet, his eyes widened slightly. Unmistakeably, he had just watched an oil rig transform into a giant, metal octopus. Then it submerged itself and he realised the problem that SHIELD were now having. "Hydra have more toys than we thought. What even is that thing? Mark 12 armour at the ready, Jarvis. We may need to go swimming."
"Yes, sir," replied Jarvis.
The next information burst told him that, as Fury has said, SHIELD had tried to use his sonar buoys and the program he'd written to find the thing, but for some reason it wasn't working this time.
The armour was waiting for as he stepped into the Common Room. Bruce was there, pacing.
"Any news?" asked the physicist.
"Jarvis, put the footage up for Doctor Banner," said Tony, and Jarvis obliged by using the nearest holographic projector.
"What is that thing? An amphibious tank of some kind?" asked Bruce, studying the outlines as the octopus submerged.
"I have no idea," said Tony, "but that sounds like a pretty good guess. Whatever it is, I think it ate Natasha, Steve and Thor. So I need to go out and find it because SHIELD couldn't find their ass with both hands."
"Tony, before you go…" Bruce hesitated and Tony didn't have time to let him.
"Spit it out," said Tony.
"We finished the machine, Betty and I," said Bruce.
"You did? When?" asked Tony, for a moment more surprised by this than the giant, metal monster that they'd just seen.
"Whilst you were arguing with the SHIELD switchboard," said Bruce, slightly sheepishly. "Tony, we can cure Clint now, stop his headaches and wake him up."
"Great, well you can get going with that whilst I go out and find the tiresome three," said Tony. Bruce didn't look at all happy at this prospect though. He had his glasses in his hands and was staring down at his shoes.
"The last time I tried an experiment on a human being, it didn't go so well," replied Bruce. "I just can't… What if we kill Clint? I just don't think that I can make that kind of decision and Clint left it in my hands."
Tony could see that Bruce was on the verge of panicking by the way that his fingers twisted around the bridge of his glasses. He was keeping it together, but only just and that was never good when there was the possibility of the Hulk making an appearance in the Tower. After everything that Bruce had been through, he wasn't that surprised to discover that the Doctor had a problem with this. He supposed that he should have been more surprised that Bruce agreed to the project at all, or that he was even able to set foot in a lab without hyperventilating and turning green.
"Maybe we should ask Clint," said Tony, suddenly getting an idea. "Erica said that he's healing well, we could wake him up and ask him. Either we put him back to sleep or the machine can do the rest of the job of healing his brain. The inflammation should go down pretty quickly after that."
Bruce frowned, but eventually nodded. "Erica's in with Clint now. If she thinks that it's safe enough for him, then I agree, we should ask him."
Tony decided that locating their missing team members might have to wait a few more minutes, and the two scientists went to find Erica and explained their plan rapidly. Erica didn't reject it outright as Tony had feared that she might, instead she was cautiously optimistic. This helped to ease Bruce's fears, especially when Erica pointed out that they'd run hundreds of simulations and in none of them had the subject died. There was always room for unexpected errors creeping in, but they'd been as thorough as they could be. And Clint's brain was healing, so Erica thought that although they'd still have to be careful about what they said, he could be safely awoken for treatment.
After this, Clint's doctor was summoned and persuaded into bringing Clint out of his coma a couple of days earlier than planned. Tony knew that he had a tendency to treat Doctor Henderson like and other paid employee and forget that ordering him to do something didn't always mean that he'd do it. There were stupid things like patient confidentiality and medical ethics that got in the way of that. However, Tony knew that he'd chosen the right man for the job when Henderson argued vehemently that Clint's health was his first concern and waking the archer early wasn't going to improve his recovery chances. Tony made sure the doctor knew that they had a plan to cure Clint and then explained it in as much detail as he could. Erica took over for the more technical bits with Bruce adding his own expertise to the argument. Finally Henderson was persuaded that Clint should be awoken and began the procedures to bring him out of his coma.
"Bruce, I've got to head out now," said Tony. He said it like it was a clear cut decision but in actuality, he was torn between finding the others and making sure that Clint was okay when he woke up. He wanted to be there when woke up, because he was, after all, the one who'd signed off on plunging him into the coma.
Bruce was now engrossed in keeping an eye on Clint's readings, but he looked up at Tony. "Be careful out there, and don't tangle with that squid tank alone. If it captured Steve, Natasha and Thor then who knows what it might be capable of."
"Don't worry, I'm actually pretty good at this superhero thing," smiled Tony, even though he didn't feel as confident as he sounded.
Pepper was waiting for him outside the Infirmary. "How's Clint?"
"Well, we're waking him up, so he's better than he was. Bruce just needs to convince him to actually take the plunge and let us rewrite his neural pathways. Should be a piece of cake for Doctor Banner," said Tony with a little fake bravado thrown in for good measure.
Pepper's face remained serious but she was definitely a little happier. "That's good news. You're sure the machine will work?"
"Absolutely," said Tony, because he was. Others might doubt his work, but he never did. "Look, Natasha, Steve and Thor are missing. I've got to go out and find them. SHIELD gave me their last known position, somewhere out in the Atlantic. I'll take the Mark 12 and be back in time for dinner. Date night, right?"
Pepper allowed a smile to creep over her lips. "Yes, and don't you dare miss it." She gave him a quick peck on the lips, and was then moving off towards Clint's room.
Tony grinned at her receding form. He was beginning to love date night.
"Sir, the mark 12 is awaiting your presence," said Jarvis.
"On my way, J," replied Tony, resuming his course towards the exit from the Tower onto the veranda. A few moments later he felt the reassuring feeling of metal closing around him and heard the clicks of seals locking in place. He blasted off from the Tower, ready to put his all into finding his team mates.
Clint never made life easy on himself, thought Bruce. He didn't come round from his coma gently, he jerked himself awake and then began coughing as he tried to speak. He'd been intubated for several days and Bruce had already anticipated that his throat would feel raspy and dry, probably a little sore too.
"Bruce," Clint managed, as the physicist offered him a sip of water. "What…?"
Bruce could see the archer assessing his body and finding it weak from lack of use and aching from past abuses. There was bafflement in his expression as he looked around at where he was, examined the drip line that ran into the back of his hand, and clearly began putting together how he got there. Everyone apart from Bruce had cleared out of the room. Erica had decided that it might be best to leave Clint with a person that he trusted as his first sight upon waking and Bruce had to agree. So Bruce had been sat beside the bed, waiting for Hawkeye to wake up as the drugs keeping in a coma left his system. It had taken about half an hour.
"Clint, you're in the Tower infirmary," said Bruce. "You had another bout of meningitis and it was more serious this time. We decided to put you in a medically induced coma to give your brain time to heal." He paused and then added. "I want you to listen to the music that's playing. Can you remember the techniques that Erica taught you to distract you from the memories that cause you pain?"
Clint nodded. "The next bit is going to need me to use them?"
"Yeah, I'm afraid so," said Bruce. "Do you remember being captured by Viper?"
Clint winced just a little before he began to hum. "Yeah, hard to forget. I remembered some more things about her and Hydra's plans. The…" he paused, starting on the next song and clearly finding this difficult to get out without it causing pain. His voice was scratchy and not at full volume. "The Red Skull's alive. Where's Steve? He needs to know." Clint made a half-hearted attempt to rise from the bed, but Bruce just put a hand on his chest and it was enough to stop him.
"He does," said Bruce. "You told him. Well, you didn't exactly tell him…" It was Bruce's turn to pause, but for entirely different reasons. Clint just gave him a look and Bruce knew that it was time to explain. He gave him the details of the memory reading machine that he and Tony had built using Howard's plan; then he explained that they'd modified that machine and they could now potentially fix Clint's head for him. The only problem was that it was dangerous and could possibly be deadly. They might cure Clint, but there was also a chance that they would kill him.
"Do you and Tony think it'll work?" asked Clint, meeting Bruce's eyes. He wasn't humming anymore.
Bruce inclined his head. "Yeah, we've run all the simulations and we think it will. We're as certain as we can be, but that's never going to be a hundred percent. In ideal circumstances we'd now be going into months of animal testing before we ever got to human subjects, but Erica's fairly certain that you'll have more recurrences of the meningitis if we can't find a way to help you. We also don't know what the side effects might be. Our simulations seem to suggest that memories not associated with the damaged areas will be unaffected, but you probably won't get back anything you can't remember now."
"Good enough," said Clint. "Do it. I'd like my life back and this is a big step towards it."
Then Bruce realised that he still had to break the news that half the team were currently missing. He'd been psyching himself up to ask Clint about the machine and hadn't really considered that Steve, Natasha and Thor going missing would be the hard part.
"There's something else that you need to know. Steve followed your lead and he, Natasha and Thor went out to investigate a possible Hydra outpost. They've been missing for about a day and a half. Tony's out searching for them in his suit, but at the moment things aren't looking too good. We think Hydra has them."
Clint's reaction to the news was understandable, and typical of him.
"Get your machine warmed up, Doc. I need to get out there and help Tony," said Clint.
"It's not going to work that way, Clint. You've been lying here for days and you're still recovering from the injuries that Viper inflicted," said Bruce, trying to be as gentle as possible.
"Then I'll look at maps or something. If I can remember the rest of the Skull's plan, I might be able to work out what he's up to," replied Clint. "It's got to be better than lying here."
Bruce couldn't help but frown at that; at least Clint was safe in the Tower infirmary and unlikely to accrue more injuries.
"Clint, you've just come off a ventilator after being in a medically induced coma for several days. I can only imagine how you must feel right now, but I know that you can't be feeling well yet. You're going to have to give yourself time to recover."
"That worked so well last time, Doc," said Clint, without a hint of remorse and a fair dose of sarcasm.
"Yes, because you're an idiot who doesn't know when to rest and let other people handle things," said Bruce.
"And if I hadn't then Natasha and Steve would have been the ones who got captured and tortured," said Clint.
"That doesn't make running out on Tony and I the right thing to do either. Steve actually used sarcasm, that's how angry he was with us for letting you go off on your own," said Bruce. "You made Captain America use sarcasm. I hope you're proud."
"I kind of am," replied Clint with a touch of a burgeoning smile. "Look we both know that I'm a workaholic with no concept of slowing down. I've been forced into downtime and it's driving me up the wall. There are only so many books that I can read, and so much training that I can do, whilst attempting to avoid thinking about things that I shouldn't and seeing SHIELD psychiatrists for PTSD counselling that has so far yet to work. We both know this, Bruce, but I'm the only one that's being honest."
Bruce rolled his eyes. "Like I said, that doesn't make what you did right. This time I've got Jarvis on my side and he's not letting you out of the building unless Tony or I give him a password. You left us with your medical proxy, which incidentally freaked out Tony just a little, so this is what we decided to do for your best interests."
"And how long are you planning to keep me in lockdown?" asked Clint, now getting a little annoyed.
"As long as is needed to get you to a point where you're not going to get yourself killed by going out in the field," replied Bruce.
"Awesome," replied Clint, making it clear that it was anything but. "Fix my head and then we'll discuss this again."
Bruce took this as something of a victory, even though it was only a temporary one.
After that it was simply a matter of getting Clint to the scanning machine in Tony's lab. Bruce had planned to just wheel his bed into the elevator and down to the correct floor but, of course, Clint wanted to walk. When Bruce wouldn't allow that, not least because the cuts on Clint's feet were still healing, they compromised on a wheelchair which Betty pushed (after a brief introduction) and Bruce walked alongside to ensure that Clint didn't decide to try anything stupid. This was rapidly becoming less likely as Clint was tiring, simply from being awake for an extended period of time. Bruce had meant it when he said that Clint was still healing from his injuries from Viper's torture of him, and that alone was tiring enough without the added complications of meningitis recovery.
They'd given him his StarkPod back and he had his earphones in again, listening to his songs and occasionally humming along. It kept him from thinking too much about Viper and his injuries, whilst also ensuring that he didn't end up relapsing. Betty and Bruce eventually got a sleepy Clint onto the bed of the neural regenerator, with a little help from Erica. Clint looked at the machine with clear trepidation.
"I know it looks scary, but we're just going to do some more scans to begin with," said Betty. "We'll use this data to calibrate the regeneration process and compare it to the previous scans that we took whilst we were mapping your memories of Viper."
Clint nodded. "Whatever you say, Doctor Ross. I trust Bruce and, by extension, you too."
"Then you should probably call me Betty," she replied with a smile. She gave his hand a squeeze in reassurance.
"Betty," said Clint and even managed to give her a smile.
The machine did its work, running new scans of Clint's brain. Clint lay as still as he could on the bed whilst the scanner's ring shaped sensor moved down to encircle his head. The last time they'd done this, Clint had been asleep. This time he was aware and Bruce watched the monitors record the fact that his heart rate increased just a little. Clint wasn't enjoying this, so Bruce worked as efficiently as he could to get it over with as quickly as possible.
"About another minute, Clint," he said. "Then we're done with this part."
Clint said nothing, but his heart rate slowed until it was back to normal by the time the scanner had finished working.
The Doctors then began the process of comparing the earlier detailed scans that they had taken to Clint's current state and then programming the machine to fix them. Clint struggled to stay awake, clearly wanting to be aware of what was going on.
"We've nearly completed the analysis, Clint," said Erica. "We're about to start the regeneration phase."
"This might not be pleasant, and we're going to need you to be completely still. We're going to have to strap you down and sedate you to be on the safe side," said Bruce. He wasn't exactly sure how Clint was going to take this.
"I just woke up," said Clint. It wasn't a complaint, more of a resigned statement.
"I know, but it's necessary," said Bruce. "We're dealing with gamma radiation and trust me, you don't want this to be imprecise."
Clint gave Bruce a nod. "I'm trusting you. Don't make me regret it." It was said with warmth, and meant to be a joke, but Bruce heard the undercurrent of worry beneath it.
Bruce smiled at Clint's humour, and he looked over to Erica who added the sedative to Clint's IV line. It only took a few seconds for Clint's eyes to slide shut again. He'd barely been holding on to wakefulness anyway. Bruce was very glad that Clint wouldn't be awake for the next bit, as they then proceeded to strap down their patient and put his head into a specially designed bracing device that would keep Clint's head in the right place, and totally still. Bruce could only image the reactions that a conscious Hawkeye would have had to having his freedom of movement removed. Clint's PTSD had always manifested itself in all the little ways that he needed to do things for himself and this would probably have triggered all of those fears.
"I think we're ready," said Betty.
Bruce checked the settings again. He'd already done it twice but this was Clint's life on the line.
"Bruce, we've done all the tests. This is as safe as we can make it," said Betty. "You know it's not going to be like last time. The doses of gamma radiation are a thousand times lower and in much shorter bursts." She put a hand on his shoulder.
"I have to agree with Doctor Ross," said Erica. "This is as ready as it's going to be. Clint will be fine, and hopefully on the road to a full recovery."
Bruce sighed. Apparently he was being rather obvious in his anally retentive repetitive checking. He looked between the two women, each brilliant in their own fields and realised that he'd worked with the best on this project so there was no reason for it not to succeed. There was no army general pressuring them for more, better and faster. Bruce had run all the tests that he could think of and then Tony had run a few more. They had done everything that they could.
"Okay," he breathed, a little more calmly. "Okay, I've calibrated the regeneration to match the pinch points that Erica identified and hopefully we can repair those areas. Here we go." He pressed the button that would initiate the sequence and the machine came to life, whirring gently as it worked.
The rest of Clint's treatment was thankfully uneventful. The three doctors monitored Clint's vital signs and his brain activity but nothing gave them cause for alarm. In fact it was exactly the opposite. The precise scanning ability that the machine possessed meant that they could keep an eye on just how well the treatment was going and, although it took some time, Bruce, Betty and Erica could detect the beginnings of new cell structure and regrowth. The treatment was working, Clint's brain was regenerating exactly as they had predicted.
When the machine was finished, they returned Clint to his infirmary bed and then a new period of waiting began. The one unquantifiable thing was how Clint would feel when he awoke. How much of his time as Loki's right hand would he remember? They expected a bit of confusion from their patient, but the degree was their next problem. The sedative was left to wear off naturally and Bruce settled into the chair beside Clint's bed again.
Tony walked in whilst Bruce was waiting. He looked tired and then worried.
"Did you find Steve, Natasha and Thor?" asked Bruce. Tony just shook his head. He clearly hadn't been able to locate them.
"What's up with Legolas? I thought he was supposed to be fixed by now," said Tony. He was still wearing his under suit from his armour, so had most likely come straight from landing.
"He's not a car, Tony," snapped Bruce. "He should be waking up soon."
"Hey, I'm just asking, not judging," replied Tony. "It was my idea, remember?"
"Sorry," said Bruce, pinching the bridge of his nose, as he took his glasses off with his other hand. "We've done all we can, we just need him to wake up."
Clint groaned and then he tried to roll on to his side, but wires and IV lines made that tricky. His eyes snapped open and suddenly he was on the alert, pushing himself away from the perceived threat of the people in the room.
"Hey, hey, it's okay," said Tony, moving quickly to Clint's bedside, his hands out so that Clint could see he had no weapons. "You're in the Tower, it's Tuesday and Bruce just fixed your brain for you."
"Tony, that is not helpful," muttered Bruce, as he too made it to his friend's bedside. "You're fine, Clint. I don't know how much you remember, but the treatment went well."
Clint looked up at the two men who were crowding around his bed, clearly recognising them and relaxing just a little as he blinked his eyes sleepily at them.
"Did it work?" he asked.
"Only you can tell us," said Bruce. "Think about Viper. Any pain?"
Clint frowned and took his time thinking, before shaking his head. "I think it worked. No pain."
Bruce breathed a sigh of relief. "Good, but we'll have to keep an eye on you for the next few days in case there are any unexpected side effects."
"I told you it would work. It was my idea after all and they always do," said Tony.
Then Clint asked a rather troubling question. "What's "the Tower"?"