Rating: T (language)
Fandom: Avengers (movieverse)
Spoilers: Takes place after the movie. Follow-up to Refrain. #11 in Recruitment series.
Summary: How to say goodbye. How to try.
They'd decided on the rooftop at sunset.
For Clint, that seemed appropriate.
Since he'd officially left SHIELD, there had been no memorial service there. Even if there had been one, Tony would have insisted on another just for the team. Something private and personal. Something more suited to them and to Clint.
He owed him that and more.
Thor was still on Asgard and unaware of what had happened. They had no way to tell him and no way to know how he'd react when he did hear the news. Natasha was still in confinement on the Helicarrier but allowing visitors every other day. She wouldn't come, they had all asked. It was still too soon.
Jim had stuck around to lend a hand where he could and Jane had flown back from LA with Happy in tow.
Darcy, having decided that it wasn't so much a job she'd been offered, but a family, had decided to stick around. Dr. Selvig was there, between Darcy and Jane, having gotten creative with the excuses when he'd left the Helicarrier earlier in the evening.
Maria showed up despite the consequences she could face; she was still being monitored closely. Jasper Sitwell, whom most of them actually only knew by reputation, had flown in on a flimsy pretext of needing to finish up some financial paperwork in New York from his new station in Seattle. He was also being monitored.
Neither of them cared.
This was important.
"Okay," Tony said, speaking just above the general din of the small crowd that had gathered. "So, everyone here? Yes. Everyone have a drink? Excellent," he said, forcing a smile and spreading his arms in welcome. "Thank you for coming. We're here to remember Clint Barton who was a hell of a good shot, a sarcastic ass and, even if I didn't know him very long, a good friend."
Tony paused, giving himself a moment and everyone else one as well.
This sort of thing never got easy it seemed, no matter how much practice one had.
"Clint didn't leave much of a plan behind regarding services. His only request was that wherever his ashes were spread, and I quote, 'as long as it isn't in the goddamn water, I don't give a shit'."
Tony stopped again, glad to see that everyone had smiled. He'd laughed hard when Hill had told him; she'd actually laughed along with him. He'd begun to warm to Maria and that had finally clinched it for him; she was all right after all.
"So," he said, pressing on, "I did a little digging. We all know Clint hailed from Iowa. He never had much to say about it, for as loud as he could be, he was a private person. He didn't share much about his childhood but he had liked the place. I've never been, but that sounded like the right spot. Felt right. Did my research thinking that this shouldn't be hard. I'll pick the highest mountain and we'll do this."
"The highest mountain in Iowa?" Bruce asked with a friendly skepticism.
"There are mountains in Iowa," Tony returned. "Technically, there are mountains in Iowa. Nothing grandiose. Actually, nothing much taller than where we are right now. Still, I thought it would be worth the trip. I thought he'd appreciate it and it wasn't much work. Google was used," he admitted, stopping to take a sip of from his glass. "Do you know what the highest part of Iowa is called?" Tony asked, looking around and not really surprised that no one had the answer. "Hawkeye Point," he provided.
For a moment, Tony had to stop and even though it had been slowly sinking in now for days, it hadn't really hit him fully until this moment.
"It's called Hawkeye Point, and I'm not making this up, it is in the middle of a field," Tony continued, smiling because he knew Clint would have laughed. "It's so flat and even and flat, I said flat, right? But it is the highest point in Iowa and we will probably piss off a bunch of farmers tomorrow when we go, but we're doing it. That's where his ashes are going. It's not what I'd envisioned, I'll admit I was picturing something larger, but it feels right. It's still high up and it's level; Clint was level. Not level-headed, not in life. He had a nice little temper that made things fun. Fun for me at least, because I loved getting him riled up. Sometimes he made it so easy I suspected he liked being irritated. That he liked to argue. But, when it came to his work, his job, he was level-headed. When it counted, he could be counted on. When it mattered he was even and steady and solid. He didn't get rattled, he got results. His feet were always squarely planted, even when he was probably higher up than any person in their right mind would want to be."
Tony stopped as Pepper put her arm around his waist and gave him a squeeze.
"To Clint Barton," he said, raising his glass in salute as everyone around him did the same.
He hadn't been awake for days.
Not really awake or lucid for all it mattered.
There had been a few moments where he'd thought he'd opened his eyes. Once when he was certain he had, but the darkness around him had been so absolute, the air shallow and warm, and he'd just been too tired to keep his eyes open long enough to adjust in the dark. Another time he was certain he had, but then he'd had the opposite problem. There had been light, so much light that it was blinding and made him tear up almost immediately and slip back into unconsciousness.
There had also been pain but he'd gone back under so easily he must have been drugged.
Now, he felt awake.
Sort of awake, but still less than lucid.
Two women had dressed him and not with kindness. They looked like twins, but that had to be the lights or how they'd worn their hair or something. They'd worn surgical masks too, which didn't help to tell them apart. It also made it a good bet he was still in medical. They'd put him in what almost looked like pajamas or scrubs. Simple linen pants and a t-shirt without shoes or socks.
One of the women had been missing an arm. That made it much easier to tell them apart.
He was definitely drugged.
When they'd finished they'd pulled him to his feet with surprising strength. They hadn't waited for him to catch up, just lifted and dragged him to a door. When it slid open, they continued to drag him down one hall, then another, and then another.
His feet kept slipping out beneath him. He tried to talk but he could barely lift his head. Speech was clearly beyond consideration for the time being. So was escape, even if he wasn't sure he needed to escape just yet.
Finally they stopped and without ceremony, without words, let him drop to the floor at the feet of two heavily armed men wearing masks and full black tactical suits that left not an inch of skin showing.
That was when he got the feeling that maybe he wasn't in medical after all.
Had there been an attack?
Had he been taken prisoner?
As one of them turned and punched in a security code on the panel near the latest door, the other one took him by the right arm and yanked him upright with a vicious jerk.
It occurred to him, at that moment, that the movement should have hurt. It should have hurt enough to bring tears to his eyes, but it hadn't. It hadn't been fun, but...
How long had he been under if his collarbone was already healed?
The next hallway was brighter and cleaner than the last, but this time at least Clint had finally found some footing as he was marched down the very center of the corridor. When they stopped he realized it was lined with glass walled cells.
Glass lined cells were always a bad sign.
They shoved his back against what he assumed was to be his new home for awhile and held him upright with a firm hand to his chest. Clint caught a glimpse of someone across the way who had shuffled quickly out of sight towards the back of their own cell but didn't have time for more.
As soon as the door was open they pushed him inside and locked him up.
There was no sound.
Struggling to his feet wasn't initially an option. The best he could manage was to sit up and take in the surroundings.
It was three white walls and one made of glass with a sliding door and some kind of electronic key pad. In the center of the wall at ground level was a tray slot that also looked like it was operated remotely and was currently shut.
He had a mattress, but no frame; it was just a mattress. There were also no pillows or blankets. There was a sink and a toilet, but nothing more.
Clint wasn't even sure if the ceiling just emitted light or if the room was lit from the corridor. And the light, it was somehow different; filtered in some way that was just barely noticeable.
When he turned to look back out the way he'd came, he found he didn't have much to look at.
All his view afforded him was a glimpse into the two cells opposite. They were staggered like houses on a block.
In the one on Clint's left was a woman.
The other was empty.
The woman was looking at him and he couldn't help but stare.
She was tall and thin and a little pale, like she hadn't been outside in natural light for some time. Her hair was a unkempt, long and blond and tucked behind her ears in an effort to keep it off her face. She was younger than he was, but not by much.
It was while looking at her that Clint realized his own head had been shaved.
He scrubbed his hand over the top of his head a few times and looked up in time to see the woman give him a smirk and a shrug. Clint had a very bad feeling that she'd had her own head shaved once, a very long time ago. It didn't exactly feel him with optimism given the current length of her hair.
"What's your name?" he asked, his voice rough to his own ears.
She shook her head at him in response as she cupped her hands over her ears and Clint should have known she couldn't hear him. The cells were sound proof.
For a moment she looked at him thoughtfully, before finally taking a step back and making what he knew to be the ASL sign for 'sign language'.
Clint shook his head because, while he knew a little, he wasn't fluent.
However, there might be another way.
Pointing to his mouth and then back to her, in a gesture he hoped she understood, Clint tried to convey his message.
"You read lips?" she asked and he nodded vigorously before holding his thumb and index finger a part by an inch, to indicate that he did a little bit. Years behind a sniper scope hadn't always been about killing.
Clint pointed back at the woman and she shook her head.
"I'm good at charades," she said, giving him a friendly smile and carefully enunciating each syllable.
Clint laughed, and even though it hurt his throat, it relieved some of the tension he was beginning to feel.
What the hell was going on?
Apparently the look on his face was enough, because the woman shook her head and shrugged.
She didn't know.
Clint pointed at her and gave the room his most questioning glance.
"How did I get here?" she asked, waiting for him to nod before continuing on. "I don't know," she answered, with another helpful shrug and a bit of pantomime. "I woke up here."
Clint pointed at her again and waited.
This time when she didn't understand he knew it had been a poor attempt. However good she might be at charades, he was no expert.
Trying a different tact, Clint pointed first to himself and then said, as clearly as he could, "Clint."
He wanted to know her name so she could stop being 'blond woman' in his head. Clint had a feeling they were going to be seeing a lot of one another and despite the fact that all of his training told him he was not supposed to try and 'make friends' in situations like this he couldn't help himself.
This felt wrong and he needed something...
She still didn't get it.
Resting his hand flat against his chest, he slapped it twice before saying his name again and then motioning back towards her.
"Your name?" she guessed and he nodded, happy to no longer have to pantomime the question. "Is it Kent?"
He shook his head and tried repeating it.
He sighed and shook his head no again.
"Sorry," she said, shaking her head and actually looking a little sad. "How about I call you Ace?"
Clint smiled and nodded because really? What did it matter?
However, he still needed to call her something so he pointed back to her and waited.
"My name?" she asked, and he realized as he nodded back automatically that she was very good at this kind of back and forth. "Carol."
Clint smiled and waved hello.
Carol returned the gesture and then looked away.
She looked to Clint's left, at the other cell she'd be able to see into from her vantage point, and then began to rather rapidly sign to someone Clint could not see. Except it wasn't exactly ASL she was using. It was a mixture of ASL and some hand signals Clint recognized as being military.
He tried to catch her attention by waving, but it did no good, so instead Clint threw out a halt signal and Carol stopped.
"Military?" she asked, her eyes curious as they darted from Clint and the unknown and unseen person to his left.
Clint shook his head in the negative and her eyes moved away.
He watched her reaction. He watched as she obviously took queues from someone and waited.
Carol gave the person a nod and turned back to Clint.
"SHIELD?" she asked and Clint sucked in a breath and, against his better judgment, he nodded.
Carol watched him and began to nod along with him; she turned her attention to the other person and nodded more vigorously than before.
Clint watched impatiently as she conversed with the other person and his stomach began churn. He felt cold and anxious and something... something he couldn't quite put a finger on.
What in the hell was going on?
Before he could catch Carol's attention again, which was probably for the best because Clint had no idea how to gesticulate all the questions that had sprung to mind, the lights dimmed.
Carol turned to Clint and pointed up to the lights before holding up her hand while saying, "Five minutes."
Clint nodded and understood. It was the signal for lights out.
Slowly, his whole body seemed to ache, he shuffled back towards the mattress on the far side of the room and sat on it. It wasn't very comfortable, but he'd certainly slept in worse places. At least it was clean and free of rodents.
As he lay back the lights shut off and the dark was absolute.
Clint didn't really mind that either, or wouldn't if it hadn't been so quiet.
He'd planned on giving himself a chance to think. To work out ways to ask questions he really needed to ask and not just ones of convenience. That was what Clint meant to do, but he'd found himself so exhausted that he had fallen asleep almost immediately.
"Hello," Jasper Sitwell said, taking the floor and giving the group a nervous glance. "I don't actually think I know anyone here, not personally, but I do think that, out of everyone, I knew Agent Barton the longest."
He stopped and looked momentarily at his feet before glancing once more around the small crowd of friends that had gathered for the memorial.
Several had already spoken and he'd weighed the wisdom of doing the same, but ultimately felt he should.
"Clint Barton was a man of many talents," he began, pausing with a smile on his lips. "He could juggle. He could sing, and frequently did over the comm lines with the express purpose of annoying me. He was a terrible cook and a voracious reader. He fucking hated the water," Jasper said, nodding at Tony with a smile who raised his glass at him in return. "He was an amazing marksman. God knows where he learned how, but he could fence. He was professional, he never missed, but if at all possible, and whenever possible, Barton chose not to make the kill unless he absolutely had to."
Jasper stopped to collect his thoughts and reminiscence for a moment to himself.
"I could probably stand here all night and tell you all a thousand stories where Clint saved my ass, or Phil's... He was damn good at his job, but that's not what I want to talk about right now. Clint was more than that, even if he hid it pretty well. For a trained assassin, he was surprisingly soft-hearted. We used to joke that he kind of attracted strays in the field. Whenever he'd be in a spot for more than a week, Clint would sure enough find some cat or dog on the street, sometimes a few of them, and he'd just sort of adopt them. And these animals, they were always the most ragged ones imaginable. Like, the most abused or neglected creatures, and they were so foul tempered that Clint was the only one who could get near them. Phil was always trying to stop him from feeding them, not because he was some kind of animal-hating monster, but because Phil knew Clint couldn't keep them. Clint never had a... a home to go back to; didn't lead a life where he could keep a pet or take care of another living thing for any extended period of time. He lived on station, on base in quarters at various spots around the world, and regulations are pretty strict about those things. No pets allowed."
"So...we're on this mission. I didn't go on them often, but sometimes when a tech had to be on hand, Phil would ask me to come along. Mostly, with my job, I monitor lines and set up things from the comfort of my chair well and far away from the action. Far, far away from the action," he repeated with a grin. "It's rare for a tech to be in the field, but I'd worked with them before; was comfortable with Phil, he was... he was a friend. I was growing comfortable with Clint, with hearing him over the line, but this was the first time I'd actually worked with him in the field. Things went smoothly. Exactly as planned. Easy as one, two, three, and we were on our way back again. And it's all normal and fine, we'd loaded up the gear, we were getting strapped in to the jump seats in cargo ready to go and... and the thing was that Clint, as good as he was at keeping secrets and holding things close to the vest, he could not get a damn thing past Phil. Not one thing. Ever."
"The jet starts. I'm sitting there, kind of zoning out. Tired. We hadn't slept much and I was ready to be back in my chair, back to my apartment and my semi-normal life, when Clint sits down, buckles in, but it's at the far end of the hold. Like, as far as he could get away from Phil. And that's... Phil just knew then that something was going on. So, he gets up, changes seats and picks the one right across from Clint, determined to suss this thing out ASAP. There is zero eye contact made. Clint is starting to fidget and twist in his chair. Keeps adjusting the belt like it's bothering him and Phil just sits there and stares him down. Waits. He waits because he knows something was happening that should not be happening and at about that time, I realize something is happening too. I turn to watch thinking, 'this should be good', because the two of them together..." he said, with a laugh. "It was like gold."
"Phil waits a few minutes more and finally he's had enough and says, 'Agent, do you have something to tell me?' and Clint just gets this completely innocent look on his face, like he cannot imagine what he's about to be wrongly accused of now, and shakes his head. 'No, sir.' Phil sighed, kept looking right at him and waited another minute before saying, 'Are you certain, Agent Barton? There's nothing you want to tell me?' and Clint... Clint shakes his head again, 'No, sir.' And then Phil... and you've got to know that when Phil was really frustrated he'd smile. Not a big smile, not a nice smile, but he'd kind of bite his lip and nod at you and you knew. You knew he'd reached the absolute end of his patience."
"I've seen that smile," Tony added.
"You would have," Maria said.
"I'm sure you would have," Jasper agreed with another laugh. "That smile... that was always the last chance. It was like his only tell. So, he's smiling like that at Clint and waiting, but Barton isn't budging. He's not admitting to anything being out of place or wrong or anything. And, perfectly timed, that's when I hear it. I hear it; Phil hears it; Clint had to have heard it, but he's still pretending nothing is wrong. It's still all normal, end of mission for Clint. And for a moment I wasn't sure if Phil was going to hit him or hug him, but he just keeps looking at Clint and finally, dry as could be says, 'Agent, your jacket just meowed.'"
They laughed. They all laughed. Jasper maybe the more than the rest.
"And, hand to God, Clint is still denying it," Jasper said, once he'd settled down. "He says, 'Sir, I think you're mistaken,' and Phil is still rock steady and answers, 'No, Barton. Your jacket meowed.' Clint shakes his head and says, 'Well, sir, you are getting older. Maybe you should get your hearing checked.'"
"No, he didn't," Pepper said in disbelief.
"He did," Jasper assured her with a grin. "And that was it. That was it for Phil. He just reached over, grabbed the front of Clint's jacket and yanked the zipper down and sure enough, there was a cat. A kitten, actually. The tiniest, ugliest, little ball of fluff that Clint had smuggled in and had been carrying around, for no one knows how long, inside his jacket."
"Naturally, they fight. Phil is going on and on about how Clint should know better. Asking where this cat was going to stay. How there was no way that Clint could take care of it and no, he can't take it with him on missions. And Clint knows how to argue. He's telling Phil that he's worked it all out and it will be fine. The cat wasn't a cat, it was kitten, and Phil's very solid reasoning was that it would become a cat, which... Clint knew. I'm sure he always knew it wasn't realistic but... it was a kitten. It was this tiny runt that had been discarded either by its mother or its owner. Someone had left it behind. It hadn't been like all the other strays Clint normally collected. It couldn't take care of itself once they'd gone and all Phil could say after that was that he was sorry. And he was sorry, you could tell. He told Clint they could bring it back with them but then he'd have to take it to a shelter. That was the very best Phil could do for him. As it was, Phil was hardly at his own place any more than Clint was. He couldn't take on a pet. Phil couldn't keep a houseplant alive with his schedule back then."
"That was the moment that... well, I temporarily lost my mind a little and, without really knowing what I was getting myself into, I turned to Clint and said, 'Well, my building allows pets. I could maybe keep him.' And, you know, Phil smiled at me, a real one, not an angry one, but Barton... that guy... he still looks hesitant. Like, we didn't know each other well at that point, so he's kind of looking me over and finally says, 'That might work, but it's a she, not a he. And her name is Misty and... have you ever had a cat before?' And I look at Phil like, well, like... this can't be serious. Is this guy serious?"
"Phil says nothing. He's shaking his head and saying nothing and Clint is still completely earnest. He's not joking at all, he wants assurances, background checks and qualifications for how I would be fit to take care of this stray that he picked up and, hell, I thought I was doing him a favor. I didn't want a cat. I didn't ask for a cat and he's grilling me, just raking me over the coals about animal care, feeding and grooming, and really ridiculous shit and I just didn't know how to respond. I didn't know what to say or... and you know, when he wants to be, Clint is intimidating. He could be a scary guy, when he wanted to be. And if you don't know better... and I didn't. Not then. Not yet, because finally Phil is laughing, just flat out laughing at me, and he reaches over and slaps me on the leg and says, 'Jasper, he's fucking with you.' And I turn and look and Clint is smiling too and saying, 'Shit, Phil, you ruined it' and I just... I laughed. I laughed along with them because, he'd got me. Clint had fooled me good and that's... that's what friends did."
"I lost two good friends this year," Jasper finished with a bittersweet smile. "I'd like to think that wasn't in vain. That there's some reason... And if there isn't, because I've seen enough of the world to know that sometimes there just isn't... Well, then I like to think that, wherever they are and whatever happens to us next... I like to think the two of them are together, looking in on the rest of us and laughing, happy and at peace. I like to remember them both that way."
The sound of a tray sliding across the floor woke him.
Still groggy, Clint yawned and stretched and slowly, very slowly, he got to his feet and crossed the room to see what he'd been left.
The tray was plastic. There were no utensils but there were a few napkins included. The food was all precut in bite-size pieces and consisted of some overcooked vegetables, cubes of wheat bread, some kind of tofu and a carton of milk.
Carol was awake and picking up her own tray from across the corridor. Instead of taking it back with her, to sit more comfortably on her bed to eat, she sat right there at the front of the cell like they were having a meal together.
Clint supposed they were.
He sat too, and began to pick at his plate.
Carol opened her milk and lifted the carton up to him, as if to toast, a gesture he returned before she made the same move in the opposite direction.
It was easy to fall into a routine.
For the first few days it was the same. They got two meals a day which were both, more or less, identical. Clint noted the absence of meat and tried to work out what that could possibly mean to no avail. The first plate always came with milk and the second with water. Aside from meals, they saw no one. When the food was delivered, it was by two men who were fully armed and covered from head-to-toe in black. It wasn't a uniform Clint recognized but he did note the fact that there were always only three trays.
There were just the three of them on the block.
Try as he could, Clint couldn't work out the exact number of hours they had of light or darkness in the cells. It was just too easy to lose track. That and, after another few nights of falling into a deep and immediate sleep, he realized that they were gassing them at night when the lights went out.
He also learned practically nothing from interacting with Carol, but that was really more his fault than hers.
She spent a lot of time 'talking' to the person beside him. It was hard not to feel a little left out, but since most of the time their communication was very one-sided, Clint couldn't blame her for choosing the person who could respond over the one who could not. His own responses were rudimentary at best, but he could still read her conversation. Carol didn't appear to mind. She knew he read lips and didn't turn from him or attempt to hide the things she was saying.
He did learn a few new things though, like the person in the cell next to his was a man. And that Carol called him Bug. She was really bad with names, and apparently even the two of them hadn't had enough sign language between them to sort that out.
The worst part was the boredom.
It was incredibly dull.
Once a day Carol would exercise, and seeing the benefit to that, Clint joined in. It was a basic routine. Some stretches, sit-ups, push-ups, basically anything that could be done with limited space and zero equipment, but he felt better for doing something. It felt good, even if he realized that he was a bit out of practice.
Clint felt a little out of shape for the first time in years and again, with concern, he wondered how long he'd been under.
He knew there was a way to check, a sure fire way, but he was hesitant.
Clint remembered why he'd been in medical. He recalled the events that had led up to him waking up here, even if he didn't know exactly how or why it had happened. Clint knew Natasha had stabbed him when she hadn't been in her right mind. The scars would tell; would give him an idea of how long but...
He hoped that this had nothing to do with that.
On the third morning he'd woken up in his new accommodations, there was no tray for him.
Carol seemed as fixated on the fact as he was; she looked a little worried even, and Clint knew that whatever it did mean, it couldn't be good.
As he paced with nervous energy around the room, she sat very still and hardly touched her food.
It wasn't long before the guards came.
By then, Clint had already decided to fight.
The first thing they did was motion him to the side of the cell. He obliged. Then they motioned again for him to turn around and face the wall. Again, Clint obliged.
A quick glance towards Carol's cell showed him her genuine concern. She was on her feet and bouncing nervously on the balls of her feet. When their eyes met, she shook her head; her eyes were pleading for him to just go along.
Carol really didn't know Clint very well.
He felt the first guard crowd his space. Clint sensed the man moving in to take physical control over him, but even a little out of shape or out of practice, he was still fast.
Clint whipped around and took the man by the arm, yanking it up and away as he kicked out at his knee. It worked, at first, as the man stumbled backwards, but that wasn't what Clint wanted. He didn't want to incapacitate the man more than he wanted to take away his gun.
He knew he needed a weapon if he was to have any kind of chance.
The other guard in the hall drew his gun level but didn't fire it, watching instead as Clint tussled with the first guard.
The man was strong.
The man was insanely strong and Clint was realizing that this was not a fight he was going to win.
The guard wasn't a skilled fighter, it was more pushes and shoves instead of dodges or jabs, but his strength was unreal. Without much effort, and once he'd regained his baring, the man tossed Clint back across the cell as if it was nothing.
Clint hadn't even shaken the fog from his head before he was being picked up by the back of his neck and dragged out into the corridor.
The guard who had remained in the hall immediately kicked him in the ribs, but still Clint struggled. Clint tried to get back on his feet. Tried to catch his breath and keep fighting. He had to. He couldn't stay here and he wouldn't go quietly to whatever fate they had planned.
It was a mistake.
Within moments they were both on him, beating him into submission. As long as he kept moving, they kept striking. And even after it was clear he couldn't fight back, they continued.
"BARTON, CLINTON F," a loud voice boomed overhead. "STOP RESISTING."
It sounded like a beta-version JARVIS. It was robotic and cold. It was proof they knew exactly who he was and it was supremely unnerving.
Clint lay, bruised and panting on the floor with his palms spread flat against the ground in a gesture of submission.
"I'm not resisting," he managed, making the mistake of trying to lift his head as he did.
Immediately they set about striking him down again.
"I'm not fucking resisting," he shouted, blood spraying from his mouth.
His eyes met Carol's again. She looked frantic and was shouting. He couldn't hear her, but she was shouting for him to stop. She was begging him to stop and go along with them.
He knew she was right.
He didn't want to die and they would surely kill him if he kept it up.
After a moment of eerie silence, the only sound in his ears the beating of his heart, Clint felt the guards lean down again and yank him back to his feet. One on each arm. They weren't afraid of him fighting or breaking free. They had him beat and they knew it.
As Clint stood there, head down and attempting to school his breathing, one guard took hold of both of his wrists and pushed them up his back for better control as the other one reentered his cell to ensure that nothing had been left behind in the struggle.
As he stood there, Clint looked up.
From where he stood he could see into the other cell, into Bug's cell, except the man wasn't anything like he'd expected.
It was Phil.
Clint started to move forward but Phil immediately shook his head, looking stern and very clear with his body language and gestures that he was not to approach. Clint was not to acknowledge Phil in any way. He was not to fight back.
Despite the warning, a myriad of emotions danced clearly across his face and were reflected back to Clint in Phil's own expression.
And it was him.
Clint knew it was really him, standing there alive and whole and looking a little like he had in that damn picture that had somehow ended in this mess.
He looked thinner and tired, but not sick. Phil looked well enough and it was almost more than Clint could take.
What in the hell was going on?
It ended too soon. The guards, unaware or ignoring what had taken place, pulled Clint away and he knew better than to look back.
He didn't need to.
Somehow, just knowing Phil was there was a comfort. It was awful, whatever had happened to him and however he'd ended up here, it was awful and unfathomable. In his wildest imaginings, Clint couldn't begin to think how this had happened. But it had. And it was a horrible, selfish thought... it was almost cruel, but he couldn't help but to think it.
At least they were together.
The night had wound down and everyone had spoken. Everyone had shared a story about Clint whether it was something small they'd remembered or something profound. Steve, Pepper, and Tony had all taken turns. Tony, in fact, had taken several. Everyone there had something nice or funny to say. Something that reminded them of Clint.
Everyone but Bruce.
He hadn't meant to go last, it just ended up that way.
So, as the night wore down and Tony gave him a questioning glance, he knew it was time.
"I'm not a public speaker," he began, clearing his throat and looking down as he shuffled his feet. "And I really don't know what to say other than that this has been a strange year."
"You're going to have to speak up some, Bruce," Tony chided.
"Sorry," he smiled, clearing his throat again. "I was saying that this has been a strange year. A better year for me in a lot of ways. A worse one in a lot of different ways. It has... changed me."
"I didn't have any expectations when this whole thing started. And if I did it was that I would do what I could and go. That was supposed to be it for me. That is not what happened. You've all met Tony," he finished with a slight chuckle. "He had other ideas and well, I ended up here. Steve's apartment was..."
"Destroyed," Steve provided with a grin.
"That is the most accurate word for it," Bruce agreed, still smiling. "So I had nowhere to go, and for the first time no real inclination to go anywhere. Steve was homeless, and I think we all can agree that Captain America shouldn't be homeless. More to the point, Tony invited us in. Pepper welcomed us to their home. They both graciously allowed us into their lives. They let a Norse myth crash on their couch, too, like it was nothing. I wasn't use to acceptance on that level, which you'd think would make me more accepting of others but... but I have to admit that a week later when Tony told us Clint and Natasha would be staying I was... I wasn't happy."
"Clint initially made me very uncomfortable because he represented an unknown. I didn't know him and had no history with him, just the organization he worked for. The most we'd spoken was a few words after the battle we'd fought and improbably won. A bit naively, I couldn't understand why he was sticking around or why he'd want to stay here, in the Tower. You'd think I'd be better at empathizing, but when you spend so much time worried about what's happening to you, you tend to care less about what's happening to others. And looking back, in the aftermath, Clint was clearly a wreck."
"He didn't so much get over it as he pushed through. Clint was a big believer in pushing through things, of working with what you had and not regretting what you'd lost. We'd talked about that a few times once we'd stopped avoiding each other. And we had been avoiding each other, maybe not purposefully, but at first. I hadn't been happy to have, what I saw as additional oversight in my new home, and he had felt that. It wasn't that I disliked him, I just didn't know him. And after we'd all sat down and sorted out our... our problems, I think Clint set about trying to know us. He set about trying to make things easier; to make things better. To make this his home too. I wish I'd gotten the time to know him better."
"Truthfully, I don't have much to share tonight," Bruce said after a lengthy pause. "I have a few stories, a few jokes shared over meals and at the lab, and one very serious conversation... Just the one, but... but, if you'll excuse me, I think I'll keep that for myself."
There was silence.
"I'm going to miss him."
It wasn't torture.
Clint wasn't sure what it was, but it wasn't torture. It wasn't like anything he'd ever experienced before. It was a little like dreaming.
But it wasn't a dream.
And he couldn't remember even a little bit of it after the fact.
They'd taken him to a room and strapped him into a chair. The nurses were back with needles and a mask. It wasn't an oxygen mask, although he was given oxygen through it; it was more like a gas mask, large and unwieldy. There was more than one chair, and it was all mechanical and very sterile. They'd strap him in, hook a needle in his arm, lean him back and then...
He always woke up back in his cell.
It felt like hours he'd lay there afterwards just worn thin.
Clint's body felt numb and used. His head wouldn't hurt, but it felt heavy. He knew he was being drugged, but he couldn't figure out why or with what.
Three days after he'd been taken, they'd come for Phil.
It became the new routine.
Roughly once a week Phil or Clint would get taken back for these sleep sessions. They knew they were coming when they didn't get a tray of food in the morning. They were never fed on the day it was their turn to go and Clint assumed that was just in case they became nauseous during the sessions. The sessions took nearly the whole day, but by the end of each they'd be back in their cells, bathed and changed and heavy and empty.
It was surreal.
On the days Clint went, it was fine. He didn't resist. And, compared to some of the things he'd lived through, it was fairly unobtrusive.
On the days Phil went, it was anything but fine. Clint was anxious. He was unable to rest or sit or do anything but pace until Phil was brought back whole and in one piece.
On the days they took Carol, it was completely different. Four guards came for her, not the usual two, and there was clear hesitation in how they approached.
Also, she was never gone for long and she was always fed, so there was never any warning of what was to come. Carol never did the sessions, she just showered and changed and was back in as little time as possible.
When Clint tried to ask her why, she either did not understand him or she would not understand him.
Through Carol, Phil and Clint managed to talk, but it wasn't the same as it would have been face-to-face. Clint still had little luck communicating what he wanted to say to her and when he did it was a painstakingly slow progress. Phil seemed to be similarly stymied, but there was nothing to be done. They had to make it work.
Mentally, he was exhausted and it was still too easy to lose track of time.
It was too easy to get lost in thought.
Clint didn't dwell on the past. He didn't like to relive it or rethink it. He didn't need to. Most of his life he'd learned his lesson and moved on. Of course that was easier to do when you had something to move on to. This endless, tedious, nonexistent existence was...
They had to get out.
He had a plan.
It took three days to explain. Four including the day he'd spent in session. Three full days to act out and gesture his plan with enough certainty to Carol and for her to relay it back to Phil.
Neither of them were impressed.
Clint didn't care. If they didn't like it, they could come up with something on their own. He was going through with it, despite their protests.
No one was in a position to stop him.
It took another week to carry out.
Having just had a session, Clint knew it would be at least that long before he was scheduled another. He watched as Phil took his turn. He watched as Carol took her turn, in her own way. He acted as normal as he could. Clint acted as normal as was possible. He took his meals at the front of his cell. He did his exercises. Occasionally he'd check the room, as he was like to do, looking for weaknesses to exploit but by then it was more for show or out of boredom.
Clint did nothing he hadn't been doing except for one thing. Clint began to hide some of his food.
It wasn't a lot, there weren't a lot of places to hide things in the cell, but it was enough. And, by the time it was his turn again, on the day the guards didn't show up with a tray for him at the morning meal and it was a sure thing that he'd been lined up for another session, Clint ate every bit of what he'd stashed.
Everything went as it normally did. The guards came. They took him from his cell. They stood back and watched as the nurses did their job and Clint felt himself slip away...
He woke up vomiting into his mask.
He would have drowned in it if the nurses hadn't been there.
Quickly, and with still surprising strength, they wrenched the mask away and unbuckled him from his chair.
The room was loud and full of light in ways he'd never seen before. The walls were illuminated with pictures and images and flashes of... It was crazy. It was madness.
It could wait, he reasoned.
Whatever this was, it could wait. Now wasn't the time. He had plans. This might be his only opportunity.
Clint lashed out.
With a vicious shove, as soon as his arms were freed and while they still assumed he was docile, Clint struck. He pushed the first nurse hard enough so that she stumbled away and into the wall. The second nurse, the one with just the one arm, was alert now to his deception and grabbed him around the throat.
Clawing and scratching, Clint tried to push her away as well, but she was so strong. She was inhumanly strong, he realized. Nothing he did was working. He was flailing about and failing.
He was losing consciousness.
With one last attempt, one last push to do something, Clint reached up and went for her eyes. If he couldn't pry her hand off of his throat, he could at least gouge an eye out. He could at least fight.
Instead, as he began to slip away, his hand slipped too. Clint's hand slid down the woman's face, over her own mask and brought it down and screamed. He screamed, terrified like he hadn't been since he was a child.
This was a nightmare. This wasn't real. This was impossible.
She had no mouth.
He woke up back in his cell.
When he could get up, when his legs would support his weight without shaking, Clint crossed the cell and stood waiting for Carol.
"Bug was worried," she said, words he read clear as day from her lips and from the expression on her face. "What happened?"
Clint shook his head.
Even if she could hear him, he didn't think he could ever explain or would want to.
The look on his face must have been enough, because she nodded.
"We have to get out of here," he said, maybe just to remember what his own voice sounded like.
"Ace," Carol said, a few times maybe, eager to catch his attention again. She looked anxious and maybe even a little excited. "How long do you need?"
Clint stared at her, certain he'd read the words right but not really understanding what she could mean by them. It was endlessly frustrating, this back and forth between them. Frustrating, but all he had.
"Are you okay?" she asked and reluctantly he nodded.
Phil wasn't the only one worried. Carol was too.
Clint gave her the universal signal for okay and hoped it would suffice.
She smiled back at him and it was different somehow. This smile was brighter. It felt real.
"While you were gone, Bug and I talked. But you need to be okay first. We talked and you need to be good."
Again he signaled he was okay and she nodded.
"Bug has a plan," she confided, still smiling. "It's really good."
Clint nodded, because of course it was. It was Phil. All his plans were good. It was Clint's plans that always went to shit.
"You have to be well first," Carol continued talking, slow and deliberate so that Clint could catch every word. And honestly, it was a struggle but...
"Are you in?" she asked.
It was a struggle. He was tired and defeated. Clint had never felt more defeated. He was a little afraid of whatever this place was, because it was clearly nothing like they'd encountered before. Still... He wanted out. He wanted away from this nightmare. He had to try. With Phil... He owed it to Phil to try. He owed himself that much as well. He owed Carol, for even the brief time he'd known her.
And the thought of making it out was so unbearably sweet. The thought of being out of the cell, with no more sessions and back among his friends. Back to everything and everyone he loved. Back to Natasha, with the thin hope that she was there to go back to. The people he wouldn't even let himself think about most days because it hurt to be reminded of what he'd lost.
But he wasn't made for quitting. If there was a chance, however remote, he knew what he had to do.
He looked at Carol and nodded.
Clint had to take it.
End Notes: I can't promise when the next installment is coming, just that it is coming. I didn't want to leave anyone hanging too much, so it was important for me to stop here. I've outlined and have started the next part, but I may finish off a few other fics I've got out there first before I continue. I want to thank everyone for commenting and reading and everything and I hope you continue to enjoy these things as much as I enjoy writing them!