The first few days are the hardest because Steve's skin crawls whenever the others are out of his sight and even though JARVIS mostly keeps him updated on Tony and Bruce and Thor, medical hears drug experimentation and decides to keep Clint in what may as well be quarantine, running tests and limiting visitors.
"He's asleep most of the time anyway," Coulson tells them apologetically, when they lodge protest and are still kept out, but he pulls some strings and at least gets Bruce in.
"You're a medical doctor if they ask," he says.
Bruce says, "Been there, done that."
Soon after, Bruce gets Steve in.
"If they ask," he says over the phone, "you're Captain America."
They do ask, but all Steve says is, "Let me see him," and because Coulson is probably somewhere behind it, they do.
When he gets there Clint is awake, sitting with the bed adjusted to support him, and it's the first time Steve's seen him looking alert in far too long. The collar is gone, leaving marks that are surprisingly faint, but the bandages around Clint's arm and shoulder are bulkier than Steve remembers. Clint says, "Cap. Hey," and grins in welcome. His voice is as weak as Steve remembers, but the rasp has softened out of it. He sounds exhausted and confused still, but at least he doesn't sound like his throat is filled with gravel anymore.
The grin makes him look suddenly sick again. All at odds with the way his eyes are shadowed and he looks sort of wilted--his hair damp with sweat and his movements slow like he's moving through water. Steve can see how much weight he's lost, now that they're out of that cell and in the dubious comfort of medical, surrounded by monitoring equipment and bulky hospital furniture.
He's shivering a little, but he has an electric blanket spread over him and it makes Steve think of how hard they'd had to work to keep Clint warm, before. How he'd seemed pale and chilled, even tucked against Steve with all the blankets they could get their hands on piled on top of him.
"Hi, Clint," Steve says, and smiles, and lets himself feel glad that they got out, that Nat got them out, and that they're going to be alright.
And then Clint isn't alright.
Some kind of attack hits a few hours later and Bruce lets down the bed rail so he can slide in next to Clint and hold him while he makes awful choked noises and pants and eventually just slumps against Bruce and holds on.
"This happens sometimes," Bruce says, his tone even and calm, and Steve thinks it's probably for Clint's sake, because Bruce looks tense and brittle and scared. The whole is much too similar to how Clint had been before, after being taken and then returned to them.
And then, just as suddenly, it's over. Clint relaxes and blinks a few times and then rolls away from Bruce with a mumbled complaining sound and lies there on his back, staring at the ceiling. "Nat got us," he says, like he's reminding himself, and Bruce pulls the blanket back over him and touches Clint's face with the backs of his fingers, very carefully.
"She did," he says, "You're okay. You're in medical."
Medical checks on Clint a lot, bringing water that he barely drinks, and food that he won't eat, and administering pain medication that--Steve can tell--makes Clint nervous even though he can't really remember the lab. But he takes them at Bruce's urging and with Steve's assurance that no one will take him anywhere, and sleeps.
And even while he's out, nurses come and go, peering in to make sure they don't need anything. Steve would be glad of the attentive care, except that every time the door squeaks open, he slams to alertness almost faster than he can keep up with, halfway to his feet before he registers where they are, and that the figure in the doorway is just a nurse, a small dark-haired woman that he recognizes from previous visits to medical, come to take blood.
Clint should recognize her too, considering he spends a lot more time in medical, getting patched up after falling off things--"Thrown, Cap. Thrown off. I don't fall."--except he clearly doesn't.
He follows her movements with his eyes, weirdly intent considering how out of it he clearly is, tracking the needle and the vial until Bruce gets up and sits on the edge of the bed, blocking Clint's line of sight with his body.
"I've got you. You're fine," Bruce says, but even though Clint is quietly, passively cooperative, he doesn't really settle until after the nurse is finished and leaves.
They leave the door open after that, because they get tired of jumping whenever anyone enters--which is often--and the shock of the door squeaking open sets Clint shaking every time.
It's a bit better with the door ajar, with a view of the hall. They can see who's coming and going, listen to the chatter and catch snatches of conversation. They aren't taken by surprise, this way. Aren't isolated from the world until the moment that they're wanted. Clint still startles, but it's not as bad, once he gets used to the hallway traffic.
Steve relaxes as a nurses pauses outside to exchange a joke with someone and as the comments unspool into a conversation about the coming weekend, Bruce nods off, soothed by the rise and fall of normal conversation.
No one gets Natasha in, but she somehow shows up anyway, dressed casually in blouse and skirt and toting coffee and a book. Steve's sure no one asked her for credentials, that she just strolled on in unchallenged.
"Beach day?" Bruce asks, nodding at her attire. It's a little too tired sounding to really come off as teasing.
Natasha says, "You two need food and Banner needs a shower and a nap. Go."
They don't move.
Natasha sighs and hands over her personnel keycard. "You don't have to go home. Leave medical, go down two levels, and there's showers at the end of the hall, near the small gym. The cafeteria I think you can find. They'll feed you."
"I'll tell them I'm Captain America," Steve jokes and Natasha looks at him seriously. Maybe a little patronizingly, like Tony does when he misses references.
"They already know you're Captain America."
Clint's tired pliability doesn't last. He fights the next dose of pain medication, kicking and struggling, panicked and in serious danger of hurting himself. It scares Steve a little bit, because he hadn't been like that even in the cell, except when he'd woken badly. Like the time he'd knocked Bruce in the face.
They get the injection done, and Clint skitters away from them to lie half curled on the far side of the bed, back pressed against the rail. His breath comes in pained shudders, and he has a hand over the injection site, fingers gripping like he wants to tear the drugs right out of himself. His eyes are huge, but then he blinks a few times and his face softens. His eyelids drift shut. Bruce reaches for him as he makes a quiet, scared noise.
"It's alright, Clint. It's alright. It's for the pain." Clint draws back, and Bruce frowns and stops and leans away to give Clint space.
Clint looks past him, unfocused, then slowly centers his attention on Steve. "They're gonna cut me up, Cap," he says, an emotionless statement of fact.
Steve says, "No, Clint. No. Nat got us. We're alright now."
Natasha says, with quiet disappointment, "I didn't kill any of them slowly enough."
Tony gets in because he's Tony Stark, and when anyone questions him he just holds up a hand and makes condescending silencing noises at them. He's wearing sunglasses, and he pushes them up to frown at Clint, who's asleep again, doing better now that his pain is muted.
"I come here for conversation that isn't Thor, and I get this, Barton?" he says, but quietly. Then, to Bruce, "How's he doing, doc?"
Bruce shrugs. "Whatever they gave him is out of his system, but he's still hurting." Natasha had ransacked the lab and had SHIELD's agents retrieve whatever notes they could get their hands on, but medical's having no fine time piecing it all together.
Tony nods, and makes his thinking face. It's a know-it-all sort of expression that used to irritate Steve, but now he knows that it's also a cover for Tony feeling helpless, pretending that he has the power of knowledge behind him when he doesn't.
"Okay," he says, giving Clint a long, measuring look, eyes flickering over him like he's a mechanical problem that Tony can figure out, "We have a thing yet?"
"A diagnosis?" Bruce says, smiling wryly. "They have no idea whats wrong with him, but being drugged out of his mind helps."
"Well," Tony says, "that always helps."
Since they're all hanging out in or around medical anyway, no one even bothers to question Thor when he stalks in, annoyed that Tony didn't return as promised.
"Got distracted," Tony says, with a notebook open on his lap. Bruce is likewise occupied, seated on the bed with Clint leaning half-asleep into his side, hazed but comfortable, for now.
"Won't it just wear off?" Steve asks, continuing the conversation they'd been having before Thor entered, and both Tony and Bruce look at him.
"Evidently not," Tony says, and flaps the book in Clint's direction. The pages are full of diagrams and tidy line drawing, but Tony doesn't leave it still long enough for Steve to make out what any of them are of.
Thor stands there for a moment, catching up, then says to Steve, "Your potion has not worn off," and Steve hopes for Clint's sake that this isn't like that.
"There's no physical change," he says, because Clint's still the same size, color ,and shape as always, but Bruce makes a weird bobbing motion with his head, a here-nor-there gesture.
"Yet," he says.
Testing grinds to a halt as Clint's rebellion continues. Not so much panicked resistance now as stubborn anger, as he and medical come into serious disagreement about the importance of figuring out what's been done to him, medical's position being that the sooner they can sort everything out the better, and Clint's being that he doesn't want any of them to touch him, and the fact that he's been used as a guinea pig be damned.
The doctor keeps glancing at Steve as he tries to win Clint over, but Steve notices that Clint's gaze keeps flicking to the door, where a pair of orderlies hover. They're SHIELD's and friendly and quietly half-flirting with Natasha, but Steve's sure that they, more than anything, are contributing to Clint's frantic look. His eyes dart back and forth from them to the doctor to Steve. And then he stops and takes a breath and then another. Like he's preparing to be taken, and Steve says, "Do it later, doc. You can't pull him like this."
"Pull him?" The doctor says, and Steve realizes he's fallen into the same line of thinking as Clint. Lumping medical in with that cell, with Clint being taken from their company to undergo who-knew-what procedures. Steve ignores the question and plows on.
"If it can wait until he's calmer?" He knows it doesn't really come out as a question, and he can't say that he meant it to, because the deterioration of Clint's mental state had scared him at least as much as his physical condition.
The doctor sighs, and Steve knows they're treating medical like they're the enemy, but it's hard not to. His instinct is to put himself between his team and any threat of harm. Even if he has to admit that it's likely imagined harm.
"Alright," the doctor says, "But we do need to get it done." He nods at the stack of journals on the side table, that Tony and Bruce are still working through, "I don't want any nasty surprises."
Dinner comes and Tony eats Clint's jello, sitting cross-legged on the foot of his bed with one of the journals open in his lap. Bruce gives him a look.
"What? He's not eating it." Tony holds up the little plastic cup, "Barton, did you want this?"
"No. It's gross. Who the hell serves blue jello? It's red or green or nothing. Maybe orange."
"They put a little whipped cream bit on top of it," Tony points out, and Clint makes a gagging noise. "You eating that soup?"
Clint eyes it, then shifts the look to Bruce and back to the soup. "Yeah," he says, grudgingly, "In a bit."
He's sitting with the bed adjusted to support him, comfortable for now, with the blanket in his lap and his feet on Tony's thigh. Steve isn't sure they should be reading the journals in front of him. It seems indelicate somehow, but also like it might be frightening for Clint. But then, it's not like Clint doesn't know he's been pumped full of unknown drugs, or that they're still acting on him in ways none of them are sure of.
"How about a little now?" Steve pushes, because he's had that very same soup, and it's kind of disgusting when it gets cold. Clint grimaces like he doesn't think it's that great hot, either, but he picks up the spoon. His fingers are clumsy.
They take Clint for scans after dinner, to see whats been done in his arm and shoulder and neck, and Tony rides along as they wheel the bed out, still perusing journals. Clint rolls his eyes at it, but he's clearly relieved to have the company. Tony's running commentary makes the whole thing a lot less like being removed from his team alone.
"I can't believe they're letting him do that," Bruce grouses, but he looks amused. Steve smiles. The nurses are, for some mysterious reason, charmed by Tony and he gets away with murder, but at least it means that someone's staying with Clint. That they didn't have to throw up a fuss with medical staff about it.
They're already getting constant reminders that there's too many of them in the room, that Clint needs to rest, that they need to to be quiet or maybe go home and keep watch in shifts, but Steve will be damned if he lets his team out of sight right now, or lets Clint get separated from them again.
Clint comes back fast asleep, Tony walking alongside the bed instead of riding. The cheerful joking expression is gone from his face, and he just looks tired, the journal he'd had with him held closed by his side.
"Everything's okay," Tony says, waving with his empty hand in a never-mind gesture, when Bruce looks alarmed by his appearance, "Sit down, doc. He's fine."
"The results aren't back yet," the nurse--that tiny dark haired one again--clarifies, and smiles, "but it went smoothly." By which she means Clint just fell asleep, isn't drugged or unconscious or in some kind of unaware hazed state. Steve's glad of it, and he can see Bruce deflate a bit in relief too.
Tony tosses the journal onto a sidetable trading it for another. Scans the dinner tray. "Barton," he whispers, "I'm taking these mashed potatoes."
"You know there's a cafeteria downstairs," Clint grumbles, when Tony steals his pudding at lunch, but when Tony offers it back, he only takes a spoonful then waves it off.
The not eating worries Bruce, but Clint bristles when he tries to push, so all he does is frown over his glasses when Clint again pokes disinterestedly at his meal, but what they can convince Clint to eat comes up again, while Clint is gasping and frantic and confused, and it comes up all over Bruce, who's trying to get him to settle. And then Clint's face clears and he looks horrified and embarrassed, but it at least forces Bruce to go home for a bit, to get a change of clothes. Steve sends Tony with him to make sure he takes a nap while he's there, but they're both back way too soon for that to have happened. "You're not going to be too useful if you're exhausted," he tries to tell them, but they both look at him in annoyance and go back to their research.
"You go home, then," Tony says and when Steve tries to point out that he doesn't need sleep the way they do, waves one of the notebooks in his face, "Yeah, yeah. You're a party all night long. Save it and get me some coffee, would you?"
Steve sighs, but he does, because Bruce and Tony are probably more use to Clint than he is right now, and it's not like he has to go far. There's a pot perpetually on by the nurses' station. A little nook with prepackaged cookies and donuts and cans of soda. An electric kettle is there for tea.
Steve finds where the paper cups are stashed in a drawer and stirs in creamer and sugar and thinks about what Bruce had told him about the lab. Wonders if he could casually fix himself a drink while taking a break from torturing a man. He looks down at the cup and considers throwing the whole thing in the trash, but a nurse glares at him and nods at the 'no liquids' sign on the bin, so he doesn't.
Instead he snaps a lid on and grabs a soda for Bruce and some cookies for Thor. A donut for Clint if he's awake and is up to it.
"And then my bones," Clint mumbles, face buried against Steve's ribs, "I said." It's nonsensical, but Steve can't tell if he's out of it or just so tired that he's garbling his sentences. Clint murmurs, and then his body tightens again and he makes a soft groaning noise. Pants. And then he's back and relaxed and blinking wetness from his eyes. He scrubs at them with a shaky hand.
"Easy," Steve says, keeping his voice low because Tony and Bruce are finally passed out, tired beyond the limitations of sugar and caffeine. He's taken Bruce's place on the bed because Clint seems to do better if one of them stays close. If he can feel them there. It's too much like being in the cell for Steve's comfort, where they'd handed Clint off to each other if they'd had to leave. It makes him feel tense and wary, taking what feels now like a defensive, protective position, but Clint calms faster than when they respect the boundary of the hospital bed and keep at a distance.
Steve fumbles for the call button and holds it up, showing it to Clint, "Do you want--" a hit of the good stuff, Tony would call it, but Steve can't bring himself to be that flippant, "something to help?"
Clint shakes his head, face still hidden. He's shaking, and Steve doesn't know if he's afraid of the drugs or if it's from the pain. "It's been a while, Clint. It will help." He's pretty sure now that Clint's not following, is about to tap the button anyway when Clint turns his wrist, and frowns at the IV needle. Touches the tape securing it. "You said you'd take it out if I wanted," he says, sullen and with a note of accusation.
"I know," Steve says, "I'm sorry."
The scans of Clint's surgical sites are back--which means only that medical's finally decided to share, Steve knows--and Tony and Bruce have been whispering fiercely to each other out in the hall for the last half hour, angry and shot through with what sounds like horror.
"Surgery," Steve hears, again, and glances at Clint, but he's too out of it. Eyes half closed and breathing steadily with only the slightest waver to it and Steve wonders if he'd be this shaky if they'd had any way to quiet his pain in that cell. If they'd been able to do anything for him other than hold him while he rode it out.
"You can come back," Steve calls, low but pitched to carry, "he's out," and Bruce and Tony poke their heads back in, almost comically.
"They implanted him with some kind of--" Bruce starts, but Tony cuts him off, and ushers him through the door with a series of fussy, impatient gestures, talking over Bruce's attempts to continue.
"Ports," he says, "They fitted him with ports. They were going to install hardware." His voice is tight and he comes fully into the room to snatch up one of the journals, flipping through it manic-fast and pointing out pages to Steve that Steve can't interpret. "Those fuckers."
Clint's finally healing and the idea of having to cut him up again makes Steve feel a bit sick. He reaches to carefully grip Clint's shoulder, but it's for his own benefit. Clint's fast asleep, drugged into relief and too tired to fight his exhaustion when he's not in pain.
"He won't feel a thing," Bruce assures him, but Bruce looks a little nauseous himself.
They roll Clint out early and Steve spends the next few hours quietly ignoring the weird discussions that break out now and then between Tony and Thor. Bruce is just as silent, sitting on the bed and leafing through one of the journals, eyes on his hands rather than the pages and letting his breath out in a long huff every so often.
Steve shifts. Scratches at the scars on the inside of his arm, where they'd taken skin samples. Tidy squares, maybe half an inch on each side, lined up in rows. There's a nearly matching set on the opposite arm, but Steve's accelerated healing is already working on them. He'll scar, but they'll be faded and pale and practically invisible by the end of the month. Clint's been in medical for over a week and he's popped his stitches twice. Is still bleeding, off and on, from the wound in his shoulder, an ugly thing that follows the curve of the joint, of his shoulder socket.
Was still bleeding, because now they've taken him to cut him back up again.
"Bruce! Lunch run!" Tony bosses, maybe to distract Bruce, or maybe to distract himself, but neither or them make a move to go.
Steve touches the inside of his own arm again, thumb running over the little healed squares and feels sick that that's the only damage he's taken.
Clint doesn't feel a thing. Medical sedates him long before they start prep, and he's relaxed and sleepy all morning, and doesn't fight when the nurse comes in to loosen his hospital gown and bandages or when the surgeon marks him up. Even the anesthesiologist doesn't get much more than a bleary watchfulness.
But when he wakes up after, he's terrified and shaken and Bruce climbs in next to him and carefully pulls him close. "It's okay, Clint," he murmurs, one arm loosely but protectively around him. Clint settles into it, or into Bruce's body heat, and huddles close. "You're alright now."
Clint isn't. As soon as the sedation wears off, the pain hits again, and Tony--who's again sitting on the end of the bed--nearly gets his computer destroyed when Clint lashes out.
Steve has him restrained in seconds, keeping his grip just tight enough to prevent Clint from hurting himself, but the need for it doesn't last long. Clint deflates almost the moment Steve's arms close around him, and then he curls in on himself, panting harshly.
"Easy," Steve murmurs, "We've got you."
"Getting kind of sick of this," Clint complains, his voice ragged, and he's aware enough that Steve lets him go and turns the hold into a comforting one instead.
"This just means they don't know what they're doing anymore," Clint says, when medical announces that they're letting him go home--with instructions and medication--even though the attacks keep coming. He sounds cheerful, though, dunking a donut into Tony's coffee with a grin. Tony snorts and moves the cup away. Clint, released from IV and monitors and glad to be freed from the constraint of medical equipment, leans over Tony to dunk the donut again. Bites off the soggy end and offers the rest to Bruce.
"You're getting crumbs in my coffee. And look at that. Grease rings." Tony complains peevishly, peering into his paper cup, "What the hell, Barton?"
Bruce ignores the whole argument. "It means you may as well be comfortable while they run the data," he says, as Clint steals the cup, slurping noisily to annoy Tony.
Tony shoves him, not hard enough to actually move Clint off him. Not hard enough for anything really. It's more of a rough pat than any kind of push. "That's disgusting," he tells Clint, then when Clint offers the coffee back, "Keep it. It's yours now, Barton."
Clint's back to arguing with Tony. Finally. Steve smiles as Bruce slumps a little in relief, chewing his share of the donut, and brushes sprinkles off his shirt.
Clint does better at the tower, sleeping in his own bed or sacked out on the couch. A lot more comfortable than he'd seemed in medical, most of the time. Calmer.
Bruce and Tony sit with him in the living room, journals and papers and Starkpads strewn between them, while Clint drowses with his head on Bruce's thigh, murmuring unintelligibly sometimes, half-asleep.
Either Clint's healing or whatever they'd done to him in the lab, while they were held captive, is wearing off. Or at least, Steve hopes so, because Bruce and Tony don't seem to making a lot of headway and the sense of frustration around them is thick. Almost as bad as the scared worry when Clint rolls himself to the floor--off the couch and away from Bruce--and huddles there, arms wrapped around himself, knees drawn up.
Tony shoves everything off the table in one angry sweep and stalks to the kitchen to get Clint's medication while Bruce and Natasha pull Clint back onto the couch and try to calm him.
"This has been happening less," Clint manages to tell them, contributing his own observations, sitting hunched on the floor in the hallway. "Sorry about puking on your rug."
"Christ. I don't care about the rug," Tony sounds put out rather than worried, like he's offended by Clint's assumptions about his priorities, but his face is serious and lined with concern. "How bad?"
Clint's already relaxing, and Steve contemplates trying to move him somewhere more comfortable, then decides against it. "A bit bad," Clint says, with a shaky grin. His pain scale is vague, but Tony seems to understand it. Steve measures by talking, coherent, at least sitting if not standing. But then has to add vomiting, and frowns.
"What were you doing?" he asks, because Clint is far away from the couch or his bed or any other place he's supposed to be.
"Nothing. Walking. I--" he leans against the wall and looks down, intent on his own hands, "You know Bruce's lab is kind of--"
Steve knows. Bruce's lab is kind of lab-like. "I'm gonna get you up, okay?" he says, and at Clint's nod gets a careful grip, avoiding his injuries. He has a vague sense of something becoming clear, and he'd say he had a bad feeling in his gut, except that it's his chest that feels tight.
It solidifies when medical sends someone over to check up on Clint's progress and they use Tony's library as an examination room, for privacy purposes and to avoid invading the privacy of Clint's room. The door closes behind them and then re-opens only seconds later, because Clint blinks twice at the gear coming out of the medical bag, then shudders hard and ends up near-incoherent with pain.
"I didn't notice this," Tony says accusingly, like that's Steve fault. Or maybe like he thinks Steve has no business making observations, "Why didn't I notice this?"
"Maybe I'm wrong," Steve offers, and glances at Bruce. Bruce looks like death warmed over, gray like all the blood has gone from his face, and horrified. Steve takes his shoulder and gives him a little shake. He blinks like he's been somewhere else and adjusts his glasses.
"No," Bruce says, "I think--" he looks back towards the next room, where Clint is sleeping sprawled on the couch, out like a light. "I think you're probably right. We didn't notice in medical because it was medical. Everything was freaking him out."
"So he has a scared Hulk thing instead of an angry Hulk thing, and no Hulk," Tony says, "That's...that's really not useful."
"It was an experiment. It doesn't have to be." Bruce's voice is broken, the horror of Clint being used that way suddenly fresh again. Steve gives his shoulder another squeeze and Bruce turns his head to look at him, sharp and sudden, "It doesn't hurt when I become the Hulk," he says, and he sounds like he hates it.
They don't tell Clint. A part of Steve disapproves, but if whatever is happening to him is triggered by fear, the last thing he needs is to think about how the things they did to him in that lab are still acting on his body, or to worry about what will happen.
Bruce has the journals and notebooks spread out on the table, and is jotting notes into his own. "They have pages of experiments here," he says, spreading his hands to indicate the stacks strewn over the table, "hundreds of pages--"
"Most of them stupid," Tony puts in, "and poorly thought out," but Bruce ignores it.
"There's no way to know what's actually having an effect. They could have done--"
"Experiment log. They have to have it. How would they know what's working, otherwise? Why haven't we found one?"
They stop and look at each other, then at Natasha. "You have to break into SHIELD," Tony says.
Steve leafs through one of the journals, the data laid out neatly inside them indecipherable to him, and thinks of Tony's they're making a cyborg super soldier god remark in the cell, and wonders about this experiment log they haven't found.
He doesn't know if he wants their suspicions confirmed.
"We're keeping medical up-to-date, so whoever has the log is going to be on Clint's case. Our case," Tony pauses meaningfully, with a weird quirked expression he probably thinks is driving some kind of point home, "So," he drags the word out as his fingers tap on a keyboard, then flicks an index finger at the screen in an up and down motion, indicating a list, "These guys. Security clearance medical officers."
Steve lets his breath out in huff. "Can't you narrow it down? We get caught, they'll know we're after it."
Natasha looks insulted, "I won't get caught. I don't get caught." Steve's not sure if that was a dig about the rest of them getting themselves captured or not. Coming from Tony it would have been, but Natasha's all business and even more so with Clint on the line.
Natasha doesn't get caught, and Steve doesn't question her ways, but the small stack of copied notebooks and the thumb drive she brings back doesn't really give up any answers. Tony leafs through one and tosses it back onto the table, open to a diagram of a human body, simplified and annotated.
"I'm going to need a drink," he says.
Bruce looks pale. "Thank god," he says, "that he doesn't remember much of anything."
They put off looking at the thumb drive until they've given all the hand-written notes at least a once-over, but eventually Tony picks it up and holds it fisted in his hand. "You know this is going to have video," he says to Bruce, "probably."
"I know," Bruce says, and very deliberately closes the notebook he has in his hands. His mouth is a hard line. "Put it in."
"Are we going to be okay if I do that?" Tony asks, and for a second Bruce looks offended. Then he takes a deep breath and another and looks down at the cover of the notebook between his hands, considering.
"No," he says, "Maybe not."
His chair scrapes against the floor as he pushes back to leave.
Steve could use his probable lack of understanding in things surgical, technological, and pharmaceutical as an excuse to leave, too, but he doesn't think it's fair to leave Tony alone with whatever images might be on the drive. And even if Natasha comes in a few seconds later, alerted by Bruce's exit, and takes a stubborn seat on the edge of Tony's desk, he stays.
"Okay," Tony says, "First one to blink loses."
"I know what you're doing," Clint says, sounding annoyed even though the pain medication makes him a little dopey. He's not as opposed to it now that he's at the tower instead of at medical, and Bruce tells Steve that he likes to think it's because he's steadier in general. "I want to know what they did to me."
Bruce changes tack, "Do you feel weird? Anything out of the ordinary?" He gestures vaguely, "Notice anything different you're worried about?"
"No, I'm not worried about anything," Clint snaps, "What could possibly be different. Those piles of pills medical's left me are for when I party with Tony. same old, same old." He lets his breath out in a huff, and deflates a little. Gives Bruce an apologetic look, complete with wavering grin. "I know you and Tony aren't reading each other's diaries, so why won't you tell me what the hell's in all those," he gestures, like he doesn't know what to call the journals, "books?"
Steve's not used to seeing Clint look so unsure. He's sort of huddled on the couch, covered in blankets, hair a bit damp with sweat. Scaring himself, but maybe not in the way that triggers the attacks because he doesn't look like he's in too much pain. Or maybe it's the drugs interfering. "It's bad, isn't it?" he asks, of Steve, which isn't fair because the argument is between him and Bruce and Steve doesn't really want to be in the middle of it.
"We don't know," Steve admits, even though what he and Tony and Natasha had seen on the thumb drive had been more than enough to make him want to lie to Clint. To say it's over and it's alright and you're going to be fine. "We're working on it."
They really had attached robotic parts to Clint, at least temporarily. Tony has the photo evidence scattered across his screen in little boxes, and Steve wants to click the little x on all of them, and clear them away. They can't see Clint's face in any of them, except partially, sometimes, and that's a mercy because Bruce looks sick as it is.
Even Tony has nothing to say, and Steve is glad of it, because he doesn't think he could stand any kind of making light about this. Clint's arm is opened up in one of the pictures, wires snaking out, attaching to something metal and mostly out of frame. In another, Steve recognizes the incision on the back of his neck, the dark of the shock collar. There's metal gleaming wetly in the cut, and he has to remind himself that medical had removed it. All of it.
Tony says, quiet and sounding wrecked, "I worked on some of that." He pours himself a drink, and sets the bottle down with a loud thunk. Doesn't touch it. Instead, he jabs a finger angrily at one of the boxes on the screen, "I built that. And then I came back to you guys and told Clint all about it."
"You didn't know," Bruce says, gently, but he'd worked for their captors, too, and what he'd created had maybe done worse to Clint.
Steve says, "We did what we had to. They'd have killed him otherwise." Or at least tortured him incessantly with the shock collar. There was no way to know what would have happened if they'd made different decisions, and no way to take back the ones they had made.
Tony downs the drink in one gulp and puts his face in one hand. Says, "I fucking built that."
Clint, getting nowhere with Bruce, goes to Tony and sits himself in Tony's work chair and Tony doesn't chase him out of it, because it's big and comfortable and Clint probably won't tip out of it.
"Talk, Stark," he orders and doesn't seem to care that Steve is within earshot.
"This is different from your usual request," Tony observes, and Clint grins briefly, then sobers, but traces of humor still linger about his face.
"No one will tell me anything. Come on." He shoots Steve a look, challenging him to interfere, and Steve doesn't. He's not about to second guess Bruce's medical decisions, but he isn't going to stand in the way of Clint's disagreeing with them, either.
Tony looks at Clint and then at Steve, and then says, "Okay. Are you--"
"I took the fucking pills. Jesus."
Clint sounds more like he's freaking out than angry and Tony quickly pulls up another chair and spins Clint's to face him. Steve watches Clint go very still as they talk, face pale, but he doesn't have an attack. "Keep me updated?" Steve hears him ask, and Tony nods and grips his shoulder.
When Clint does have an attack a couple of days later, it's triggered not by Tony and Bruce's research, but, oddly, by Thor injuring himself, trying to work off the antsy restlessness that had been hanging over all of them, and somehow managing to tear his hand open. He doesn't need much more than a local and a few stitches, but Clint blinks owlishly as Bruce dresses the wound and Steve can see when the tremor starts, in his hands first, then spreading until he shudders hard and goes down.
Steve catches him, but only after he's hit the floor, and pulls him close, forgetting that they're at the tower. That they have resources and help available and that Clint's pain medication is as close as the kitchen counter.
"Easy, easy," Steve tells him, "everything's alright. What happened?" Clint would object to the gentle tone, normally, but Steve can't help himself. He knows something's terrified Clint, or this wouldn't have happened.
Bruce leaves Thor to come and crouch in front of both of them. Says, "Clint?" and then, "Steve? Come on, Cap. I've got him. You okay?" He sounds too calm, and it brings Steve back. He lets Bruce take Clint and look him over to make sure nothing else is wrong.
"They're not supposed to hurt Thor." Clint sounds angry, more than anything, and Steve's not sure if that's a good sign or not, then decides not because Bruce looks kind of helpless as he rubs Clint's back.
"You're fine. Thor's fine. We're at the tower. We're home. Do you remember?"
Clint says, "Shit. Oh, shit," and tries to push Bruce back.
Bruce doesn't let him go, saying, "Hold on. Stay still a second."
And then the lightbulbs pop and Bruce's laptop blows out.
"Experiment part one," Bruce reads, "sample taking. Part two, testing resilience to existing failed serums."
"He's paraphrasing," Tony puts in, "That's not how lab notes actually work."
Bruce ignores it and keeps leafing through his notebook, but Natasha levels Tony an annoyed look, preferring her information not segmented by commentary.
"There's no way to know what actually took," Bruce says, helplessly, "Not until he's symptomatic."
"All the robot shit didn't work," Tony says, and the relief of it is thick in his voice. Steve wishes he could take himself off the list of things that have caused Clint harm. Wishes he could take Bruce off it, but the emotional component of what's been happening to Clint is too similar to the Hulk's triggers for any of them to pretend that the samples taken from Bruce weren't somehow involved.
"Testing resilience," Natasha repeats, and gives Bruce a tight, questioning look. Bruce shrugs, and Steve thinks of those first times when Clint came back to them slightly off, or running a mild fever, but otherwise well enough. A good candidate for further testing.
"I worked on those serums," Bruce says, "Probably after they gave them to him, but I--"
Steve expects to have a Hulk on his hands in a second, but nothing happens. Bruce just tosses his notebook back to the table and shoves his glasses up so he can scrub tiredly at his eyes. "I'm going to go sit with Clint," he says, "I just need to--to not look at this for a while."
"Don't stress, doc," Clint tells Bruce, the next morning, sitting at the kitchen counter and letting Steve redo his dressings, "It's not like it's your fault."
Not your fault, wasn't an argument that had ever worked particularly well with any of them, but Bruce's face softens into a faint smile. Clint grins back, then holds his free hand out. "Pills? Watch me cooperate, Bruce."
Clint's not usually that happy about taking the medication, or about the way they make him drowsy and sluggish, but he seems willing enough now, if it's to reduce the things Bruce has to worry and argue about.
Bruce gets the container and shakes two pills out into Clint's hand, then sets a glass of water nearby and Clint takes the medicine and drains the glass. Sets it down with an accomplished thump. Bruce snorts, a helpless exasperated laugh, and says, "Well. My work here is done."
"For today," Clint says, serious, like Bruce is the patient, "Stark, too. No more notes and--and shit. Just take a break." He tugs his arm free of Steve and finishes wrapping the bandage himself, then lets Steve tape the loose end.
Steve agrees and even Tony grudgingly leaves the journals and files alone, but later Clint goes down, and just as he's coming out of it the television makes a loud electrical snap noise and the screen blows out and scatters shards of glass everywhere.
"I didn't do that," Clint says, later the same day, when a computer suddenly spits sparks and starts to melt. He's sitting next to Thor, with Thor's arm subtly steadying him. From his face Steve thinks he doesn't believe it either.
"You've wiped the whole thing!" Tony accuses. He has the melted laptop hooked up to his laptop, not so much trying to salvage the data as assess the extent of the damage, fruitlessly tapping away at his keyboard.
"I didn't. That's not possible. Bruce--" Tony shushes him with a waved hand followed by a raised index finger and a tut-tut motion, then turns back to his work and starts taking Bruce's computer apart.
"Don't get all worked up, Barton. I don't want you to accidentally delete JARVIS."
"I can't do that," Clint insists, "I'm just. I can't do that. I'm human." Then he looks at Bruce like he thinks he's misspoken, and shifts his gaze to focus somewhere on the floor. Glances up at Tony. "It was probably a coincidence. Maybe there was a power surge."
Tony lifts pieces of electronics from inside the computer and waves them at Clint, "Oh, there was a power surge, alright."
"Stop, Tony," Steve says, and nods at Clint, whose face is set into stubborn, angry lines, but who's also gone glassy-eyed.
And then the bashing, shouting music Tony is blaring all over the tower cuts out, followed by a loud pop and the hiss of sparks.
"When you declare a vacation day, maybe you could leave us some entertainment to fill the void, huh, Barton?"
Clint says, quietly, "I didn't do anything," but when Tony's gone again he slides away from Thor and goes to find Bruce, then quietly hovers until Bruce catches him by the shirt and tugs him close. And then he sits pressed to Bruce's side, staring at his hands like blowing out Tony's sound system had taken touch.
Tony and Bruce start tearing pages out of the notebooks, collecting what seems familiar. Gathering the experiments that sound or look similar to things they'd seen or worked on in the lab. There are no less than five faintly pink serums, and three pages of test notes that describe symptoms Clint had suffered--the sickness, the fevers, the pain. There are schematics that could be the machinery that they'd seen in the photos and that match the location of the surgical scars on Clint's arm and shoulder and neck, but none that explain the now-healed wound on his belly, where medical had found nothing to excise.
Steve watches them piece the papers together like a strange puzzle, connecting medical file to drawing to the names of files that Bruce isn't allowed to open, for fear of his reaction.
Tony spins the monitor, to face it away from Bruce and says, "I'll give you a G-rated play-by-play if anything relevant comes up. Most of this is just going to--" and then he looks at Bruce and back at the monitor, and says, "I think we're looking at the wrong lab rat."
Clint blows out the lights in his room, and then the ones on the range--even though he's not supposed to be shooting yet--and then disables a suit Tony's working on, and then Natasha's phone blasts sparks and refuses to be revived and Tony doesn't even try to make a joke out of it. He just throws a dead Iron Man gauntlet onto the table in front of Steve and says, "You know how random their experiments were?"
Steve looks at the gauntlet and then at Tony, but before he can answer Tony yells, "Not very! He was supposed to be a self-powering cyborg super soldier with god powers and who the fuck knows what.
"Except he's shorting everything out, so I guess that plan was a fail."
"Now I'm kind of worried about JARVIS," Clint says, after destroying the coffee machine. He glances upwards briefly as he says it. To all of them except Tony, JARVIS seems to live in the ceiling somewhere.
"Shut up. You're off my favorite people list," Tony tells him, heating water in a pan, "I don't want to be faced with your existence right now."
"I was on your favorite people list?" Clint asks, but without the enthusiasm he usually has for arguing with Tony. He looks tired, his voice flat. Steve can't help but think of his hopeless if Nat doesn't make it in time and realizes Clint's never really made it back from that brink. Has had just enough of a reprieve to get some of his wind back. He's stretched thin, still, and just hiding it better now than when he'd been so sick, towards the end of their stay in the cell.
Tony probably notices the same thing, because he stops quarreling and goes hunting for mugs instead.
Coulson calls in to see if Clint is up to checking in, but Bruce tells him, "I think the last thing you want right now is Clint on the Helicarrier."
Clint blacks out the whole common area in a volley of pops and sparks and, when Steve finds him in the dark, says, "I'm not telling you anything."
Bruce says, "Clint?" from somewhere across the room, and then, "Don't move. Stay where you are." And then there's a cool blue light as Tony comes in or steps around something or maybe takes something off. Steve waits for Clint to have a comment, but he doesn't say anything about it.
Instead he says, not even struggling in Steve's grip, "Whatever you want to know, you're barking up the wrong tree." He sounds so even and sure and casual that the way he's making no sense terrifies Steve even more than it would if he were frantic and delirious.
"Clint," he hisses, "Clint, it's Steve. And Bruce," he adds as Bruce finally finds his way over, a dark mass against the dim light of Tony's arc reactor.
"Hey Cap," Clint says, and Steve lets Bruce take him. He can just about make out Clint's cocksure grin, the glint of light reflecting off his eyes. "I think--"
And then Bruce says, "Shh. Quiet, Clint. Take it easy," and a warm, weak light flares over where Tony is.
"You're sending us straight back to the dark ages, Barton," Tony says, "But thank god for Pep and her scented candles."
It turns out that the building's arc reactor is uneffected, that Clint's mostly blowing out peripherals like light bulbs and computers and television screens. Which is good for Tony, considering his life depends on his arc reactor continuing to function.
So it takes some time and effort to get things up and running again, but not a lot of problem solving. Switching out a few light bulbs fixes things enough that Tony can blow out the cinnamon candles that are making the place smell like a bakery, but there's no fixing things like the toaster or microwave, at least not at the moment.
Clint sits and looks at his hands while Tony sorts electrical appliances into two piles--fix and scrap--and occasionally looks up with a tight, blank look on his face.
"Can you tell us what happened?" Natasha asks him, leaning her elbows on the table and playing with the cooling candle wax, rolling it into shapes with her fingers. Clint shrugs.
"I don't think it hurt," he offers uncertainly and Bruce nods.
"You seemed confused. Do you remember what you--?"
Clint shrugs before Bruce can finish and he drops the question just that like, mid-sentence, and settles for feeling Clint for fever, for injury, for abnormal eye movement.
"From Bruce comes the problem and from Bruce comes the answer," Tony declares, standing in front of his and Bruce's strange spider web of data.
"What?" Steve asks, just as Thor makes a face and says, "The doctor has found a cure?"
"Nope. No cure. Clint's still fucked. Sorry, Clint." Tony makes a little apologetic flourish in Clint's direction with a white-board marker, which is a strangely hands-on implement for Tony, and Steve would be horrified by his remarks, except that Clint returns the gesture with an equally light go ahead motion.
Bruce looks less amused, pale and tense, even though he's clearly been in on the problem solving. Even though he, more than Clint, knows what's coming.
"Something," Tony continues, dramatically, "that did we not have in the cell. Answer in the form of a question."
"What is milkshakes?" Clint pipes up, then "What is a cheeseburger?"
They hadn't been starved, but Clint had lost enough weight being sick that Bruce pats his back at the sign of returning appetite, and seems happy enough to let the strange exchange continue. Steve frowns less patiently.
"You only get one guess per turn, Dumptruck," Tony tells Clint, waving the marker at him. "Thor?"
Steve can think of a lot things they could have used in the cell and didn't have. Medication, food Clint could keep down, even a comfortable surface to lie on rather than the thin mats they'd been provided with would have been a help. Tony and Clint's exchanges, when they get into it, are usually either amusing or obnoxious, but this time it makes Steve's skin crawl. Especially when Clint is still showing damage from all the lack of things in that cell. Still bandaged, still sick, still on regular doses of pain medication.
"Tony--" Steve starts at the same time that Thor guesses, "Weaponry."
"Well. You're close, but you were supposed to--"
"The Hulk," Tony says, abandoning the game, his face losing it's grin and Steve knew the whole thing was just nerves and apprehension, but its still strange to see the humor just fall away. "Whatever they used to de-Hulk Bruce seemed safe. He doesn't seem to be suffering any after effects, and he didn't seem uncomfortable or drugged while he was on it."
"And you want to try it on Clint," Steve finishes. It's not a question.
"It might help control things," Tony says to Clint, making a small gesture that's half ta-dah and half helplessness.
"Sorry. No." Clint says, "We were looking for what is a Hulk."
"And if it's no good for the long term, at least it'll give you a break," Tony says, right over him.
"Long term?" Steve echoes, and sees Clint twitch a little.
"The problem didn't come from Bruce," he says, frowning, as if straightening that out was more of a concern than their inability to undo whatever had been done to him.
"What is, not really the point right now." Tony tells him.
"This might not work," Bruce warns, sitting in the kitchen with rubber gloves and an alcohol wipe and a tray containing a vial with a surprisingly small amount of blue liquid and a capped hypodermic. Steve had somehow expected everything to be more imposing. To take more time to administer than the second or so it would take to complete the injection, but of course the drug had been slipped in with sample taking when Bruce had been dosed, so it wouldn't be particularly involved.
Steve is surprised anyway.
"I have complete faith in the iffiness of this cure," Clint says, solemn, eyes on the needle.
"You'll hardly feel it, Clint," Bruce tells him, gently, "It'll be fine."
Bruce shrugs, uncertain. "Every few days? Maybe? We'll see how it goes, alright?"
Clint looks like he has objections, or more questions, but he lays his arm on the table for Bruce to swab, no trace of the humor he'd shared with Tony. Bruce swabs the inside of his elbow, and Clint's eyes narrow. "Bruce."
Steve moves to stand behind him, a hand on each shoulder. Clint's been off the drugs from medical, in preparation, and without them the attacks are more frequent, more easily triggered. Bruce drops the swab and uncaps the syringe.
"Hang on. Almost there."
Bruce slides the needle in and the lights flicker, but don't burst.
Days pass. Then a couple of weeks. Nothing blows up or out. Clint declares himself cured, even though the pain comes back when he approaches the end of a dose.
"A time management issue," he tells Coulson, but Coulson keeps him on stand down pending a return to his regular weight, healing from surgery, a thumbs-up from psych and further observation.
No one mentions the files that were held back, or the break-in.
"Don't be mad," Tony says, a while later, "But I built something."
Considering the things Tony had built and not apologized for, Steve feels a wash of apprehension and puts down his pencil.
"I couldn't help it," Tony continues, sounding almost ashamed of himself, "the notes were right there. I mean, it took a lot of fixing and debugging, but--"
"Clint's stomach incision. In the video."
It hadn't been in the video. Steve pushes his drawing pad away and says, very carefully and clearly, "Tony. What are you talking about?"
"Oh. There was a fragmented file. I cleaned it up. It's only a few seconds, but--"
Tony not in an explaining inventions mood gave Steve a headache. Tony explaining inventions and computer work and bringing Clint's injuries into it makes him almost motion sick, like everything is spinning in an unpleasant way.
Tony takes a breath. Another. "Okay," he says, unhappily, "This might make me sound a bit fucked up. Do you--Do you want to just see the video?"
And Steve does it, but mostly because he thinks Tony isn't likely to be any more clear, and he won't ever figure out what he's built and why if he doesn't.
The video is brief, and the audio garbled. The angle bad. Steve can make out Clint's voice murmuring in confused pain, hear voices talking over him. Then there's grainy, blurred movement and the screen is taken up by Clint's arm and side. He recognizes it from one of the still photos--machinery fastened to the inside of Clint's cut-open arm, his face mostly out of frame.
Clint's asking some kind of question, garbled and probably nonsensical, and then something happens to the left of the shot. A loud noise. Someone curses. The thing attached to Clint's arm comes to life for a brief second, lights flaring along it in cool electronic blues as it spasms. And then the whole thing comes apart with force and the screen turns to static. He hears Clint sounding hurt and someone yelling and then whole thing stops and goes dark.
The stomach wound wasn't a surgical site. It was a wound. An honest wound. Steve isn't sure whether to feel relieved or not. "What did--?" he starts, but Tony cuts him off.
"It worked. It worked for a second. And then Clint blew it up--like he does--but he can self power things."
"What did you build, Tony?"
Steve had been imagining horrific robot arms and god knew what, but what Tony shows him is arrows. Just arrows. As odd as quite a few of Clint's trickier arrows looked, but not any more odd. Nothing that looks particularly upsetting.
"Clint-power arrows," Tony says, sounding nervous. "Charge for extra distance. To explode. I have other ideas, if he ever learns to control it. If he can get off the Hulk-be-gone--that's what I'm calling it. Bruce wants to veto, but it was my cure."
Tony pauses, then adds, "I could have built him a suit, but it was too much like the stupid robot hand."
Steve takes a breath and lets it out and says, "He's not ready, Tony."
"Yeah. No. I know. He'd probably just blow us all up, then feel bad about it. So don't tell him. And don't tell Bruce I made anything, either. I just wanted you to know."
"That you made Clint-powered arrows?"
Tony shakes his head. Grins, briefly. "No. That Clint doesn't have a problem. He has a super power. He just doesn't know it yet."