It was almost inevitable, really; missions go south on a fairly regular basis, Agents get stuck, left behind or martyred. Barton isn't a stranger to that, himself.
The real problem is that it's China.
The thing about the Chinese is that they invented water torture; they've had four thousand years to perfect the act of breaking someone.
The real blow, worse than the tazer that had finally taken him down or the hit he'd taken to the knee, was when he lost the solid-state transmission speaker in his tooth; his last line of communication. He knows they are coming for him, he knows this compound is due for a visit from International Pest Control inc., but he can't guarantee remembering that once it really starts.
It's getting compulsive, pushing his tongue into the pulpy hole where they pulled the tooth, because that sort of pain is really satisfying, like picking a scab, while the heavy pain in his chest, having to heave his ribs up just to get air, is slowly grinding down his will to just keep breathing.
When they'd first held him down, they'd used leather. Big, fat, soft leather, cured hard on one side and napped soft on the other; it wouldn't leave any marks, no matter how hard he pushed and thrashed. These people were perverse, and once he was broken, they would show him off like a prize animal while he talked, and talked and did anything to just make it stop. There wouldn't be a mark on him that wasn't completely, crushingly, deliberate.
He hadn't understood the position they'd strapped him in at first, on his side, his head immobilised. But once they neatly held his jaw open with a gag and pulled the tooth, he thought he did; it let the blood drain out of his mouth neatly, and into the bowl a woman dressed in fine silks had put on the smooth limestone floor. Coulson's voice was gone, the soft hum of his orders broken by the sharp crack of pliers on enamel. The drug was reapplied after that, (transcutaneous paste, red, tingling sensation when applied, symptoms; distal muscle weakness, shortness of breath, hypersensitivity, fever, tellPhiltellPhiltellPhiltell Philmissioncritical), over nerve clusters on his bare chest, which Natasha's more violent moods made him familiar with(ohgod,Natasha,pleasecome), and in a long sweeping line down his spine. It made him pliant, vulnerable, and utterly disorientated; he'd started fixating on the strangest things when he should be trying to work out what they'd given him, what they're after.
This place is old, the stone worn smooth by the idle passage of thousands of years of hands and feet. The lamps on the tunnel roofs hang under oily black marks, like you get over candles, but the lights are electric now, neat wiring barely visible; money, lots of money, pouring into this place, no scrimping on anything. Paintings on bamboo dotted the walls he had been carted past and his drugged out perspective had picked out places where they had been repaired so subtly that he doubted he would have noticed if he wasn't drugged and high on oxygen deprivation. Money, time, effort.
The chamber he'd been brought to, slumped out, weak and gasping on a strange wooden cot, is small with a high, carved ceiling and a neat lattice of bamboo poles hangs over him, just visible in the corner of his eye. He pushes another gobbet of blood out past his front teeth weakly and touches the empty socket of his tooth, his mouth hanging open in an attempt to get enough air. He lets his eyes stay closed; anticipation would make it worse. But, then, his mind is already intimately familiar with torture, and more than capable of imagining the very worst of horrors; looking might actually be a relief. He still doesn't want to.
He still has trousers and underwear, at least; they aren't his own so someone has seen him naked while he was unconscious, but they're good, strong linen, held up by a tough fabric belt (roughonhypersensitiveskin,painlikethreedaysofrucksackstrapsunderAfghanisun). Maybe that isn't something he needs to be afraid of, (Philwhereareyou,don'tletthempleasephil); hope that something won't happen is a particular, biting sort of pain.
The two men who'd brought him here, who'd tied him down at the direction of the woman-in-silk, who had so calmly pulled out his tooth and crushed his connection to his sanity, are sitting next to a brazier and it's getting warm. There's no electric light in this chamber, just candles, and the heavy door to the tunnel is closed. He can't breathe and he knows about heat torture, he knows how much heat human skin can take before it dies and he knows they won't kill him, and fuck.
He forces himself to look; this anticipation shit? absolute bull, and watches as the woman-in-silk lays out fat red candles on a mat in front of the brazier, her back to him. The men are watching him intently, talking in a dialect that's a long way from the Mandarin he can just about get by in, and they're professionals. Their expressions are serious but relaxed, experienced; the probability of them fucking up is going way down in his estimation. On the plus side, they'll know enough to not kill him, no matter how much abuse he throws at them, but on the negative side, they won't let him die.
The woman-in-silk turns to the brazier with a white candle, smaller than the half-inch across red ones, and he notices that she has put leather gloves on, which shine with some sort of red oil. Her sharp command sends the two men to their feet and they smoothly reach for the bamboo scaffolding hanging from the ceiling. After that, Clint looses track of what they are doing because her candle is lit and she's bearing down on him impassively. Her free hand lands on the side of his face, between the strap holding his head down and the score marks left from the gag. His breath seizes and he jerks against the bindings; her touch burns.
Her glove is saturated with it, the oil dangerously close to his eye and he forces them shut. He can't see the flame anymore and the burning glove erases his ability to feel the heat so when the first drop of hot wax hits his ear, his whole body jerks. His lungs heave and he clamps his mouth shut so hard that his whole jaw throbs.
Her hand shifts, stroking his forehead in a disgusting mockery of a gentle gesture, painting fire and pain. It he could talk around the airless choking feeling he would have started bullshiting, trying to piss them off, a solid strike, a broken bone, something other than the feeling of burning-
The second strike of wax isn't just a drip, it's a stream and he can feel it filling his ear. The burning lasts longer, goes deeper, and this time, his scream fills the space in short, breathless bursts.
When it's over, the wax hard and cooling, the left side of the world feels empty, or a long, long way away. The pain is deep and heavy, while the smears of oil burn fresh and sharp. His vision swims, (noaircantbreathePhilwhereare youitstimeyoucameithurtshurt sfuck) and they aren't going to be asking him questions because they're deafening him.
When they unhook his restraints from the rings on the cot (hard, smooth, warm, no relief when they push his burning temple to the wood, rough cotton under his shoulder,) he tries to struggle; his arms are strong, three, maybe fourfold stronger than someone with a different line of work, and even with the drug he should be able to do something. There's only three of them, he can take three people.
They barely react to his attempts and pin him back down like a child. His chest feels empty and heavy and the struggle to breathe is worsened by the exertion so when she fills his other ear with wax and the screaming starts again (Fuckingbreathe,Barton!), it doesn't take him long to pass out.
They've moved him again, he notes, shaking against the restraints at the shock of something horribly, bone-creakingly cold touching his back. There's something over his eyes, tight and hot and pressing against his eyelids so that he can't even blink, and the skin feels burnt from eyebrows to cheek bones. Fear lances through him, letting off a jolt of adrenalin so strong it fights back the effects of the drug and clears his head; if they've blinded him, if they've so much as blurred his vision, then their ends cannot come slow enough. He's tightly restrained again, face down, but hanging in space. His arms are pulled taught by heavy straps at wrist and shoulder, augmented by tightly wound thread around each of his fingers, just below the second knuckle, like puppet strings that will cut him if he struggles. There are places on his body, shoulders, back, fingers, that burn like his forehead; any place where they touched him marked in heat and pain and oil. The thing that woke him up is taken away, just as it was fading from painful to fuck-that's-cold, so he knows there is someone still there and it makes his skin crawl because he can't see them, doesn't know where they are or what they might do to him next.
His legs are tied to something, it's hard to tell what, but it holds him out horizontal, stretched between the straps on his shoulders and thighs, chest down and head dangling. His breathing is better, the stripes of tingling, drugged skin returning to normal, but it's done its job and he is so well restrained that it's going to take his captors half an hour to free him and his chances at getting a shot in have dwindled down to zero.
He opens his mouth to speak, the sounds are muffled by the wax in his ears and he doesn't know if he's intelligible but if they respond then he'll at least know something.
They do; the gag returns. The bars fit neatly behind his canines as someone presses hard against the angle of his jaw to keep his mouth open and then it's ratcheted wide, wide enough for more dental work. The strap fits around the back of his head, but there's fuck all he can do to get it out anyway.
Something, leather, hot, and fucking shit, the glove, pushes his tongue down punishingly and then shifts to probe the roof of his mouth and the messy hole left by his tooth, leaving burning lines of capsaicin behind. The muscles of his jaw bunch and his teeth creak as he bites down but the gag is resilient and as much as he wants to bite those fingers, and damn the consequences, he can't.
The burning (shitI'mnevergoingtoeatcurryagainPh ildontcarehowmuchyogurtyoupu tinit) makes his eyes water and lingers on after the fingers are gone; it will stay for hours.
There's no warning before the first drops hit. They're far, far hotter than what they'd used on his ears and he can intimately and horrifyingly identify the line the drop rolls down, burning for longer, before it hardens. He back shudders convulsively, like a fly-bitten horse, and there's no time to settle before the next splash of pain hits higher up, on his shoulder.
Worst of all is the complete unpredictability; drip. Drip-drip. Dri...p. Dripdripdrip. He has no way of knowing when the next one will come, it never strikes the same place twice, and it sometimes hits him in four, five, six places at once. The burning in unbearable and the low, open-throated scream it drags out of him is muffled completely by the wax.
His chest is hot, and it takes him a moment, continually distracted, to realise that the brazier is underneath him; he can smell the smoke and feel the heat. His jerking and writhing barely even makes his restraints shift, but he tries to pull away from the heat anyway and a scalding hand presses on the back of his neck suppressively.
Punishment. The glove and the oil are punishment for being 'bad'; talking, flinching... but no, the hot patches from while he was unconscious mean they manhandled him with them, so what...?
Anything that touches him, hurts. He cannot see, cannot hear, can't tell when it's coming. His flinches roll into a continual shuddering tension and-
Why couldn't it be waterboarding? I can handle water. Four minutes and change. Phil (philphilphil) was impressed.
His thoughts stutter and slip out of his grasp as a constellation of sharp burns scatters across his chest. Sparks, from the coals; fucking sick bastards.
His hands jerk; he's been trying so hard to keep them still, his fingers are so important (dontmovedontflinchdontdontdo nt), but it's too much and the thread below his knuckles bites and cuts the skin, (Index finger, left hand; guide the arrow, push it lightly into the catch, adjust grip, pull. Middle finger, thumb, right hand; pull back, hold, touch thumb to cheek bone, adjust for wind, release).
There is one question he'll never ask himself, not when he's this far gone, not when Coulson's (philphilareyoucoming? ,Iwouldtakeovertheworldforyou ifyouhadice) voice is so far away. He will never ask himself what they want.
Sure, he asked earlier, and he's worked out their motives for this... this twisted shit; they're professional torturers, the Chinese underworld pays them to turn him into a doll that will answer questions. It's not their job to do the asking; he knows the stories, they make sure everyone in the business does.
No, he won't ask himself what they want now, because it might just sound like; how do I make this end?
Time loses its meaning.
Eventually, things change; a long, cold stripe is painted down his spine and in minutes, his muscles slacken back to hazy immobility. The brazier is taken away and he is dropped face first onto the cot; its fabric is familiar to his skin, so sensitized that he can feel every thread, and its warm wood offering no relief from the heat of his burns. They move him, their gloves burning sharply, the shift of his shoulders making him groan, and lay him on his back.
It is agony; the wax shifting and peeling, scratchy brocade on burnt skin, but the gag has turned his screams into wisps of pained air and he can't even manage that when the drug is painted over his voice box and solar plexus. His world narrows again; from desperately trying to keep his head to just telling himself to breathe.
The gag is adjusted and removed; he works his jaw and the joint is so stiff, even that hurts. Closing his mouth is fantastic for a half-second, before it shifts and spreads the oil on his tongue, sending fire into the pulpy hole left by his pulled tooth. He pants, swallows convulsively, but the paste on his throat makes it clumsy and painful.
They never leave.
He lies there, panting for breath and restrained by the insidious power of their fucked up drugs. They just touch him occasionally; nothing threatening, but the oil on their gloves makes each one agonizing. He can't see it coming, he flinches with instinctive battle-ready energy each and every time, and it's exhausting. Whimpers and cries that a child would be ashamed of trickle out of him like the blood from his fingers.
Time passes and they don't let him sleep and the constant struggle for air makes unconsciousness extremely unwise.
Four times he is strung up by hands that burn, over sparks that bite like snakes and dripped on by liquid pain that never burns deep enough to kill the nerves letting him feel it.
The heat, the lack of water, lack of sleep, are getting to him (whatthefuckjuststophalfanhou rthatsallI'maskingphilI'llgotomedicalwillinglyifyou'lljustgetthefuckoverhere) and he knows it; the headache, the increasing speed with which the drug takes hold. If it gets much past the 72 hour mark, it will kill him, but he knows they're not that nice, not by a long shot.
He doesn't know how long it has been already. Four shifts? Two days, maybe... (fortyeighthoursphilgetthefuc konwithit).
His skin keeps trying to heal. During the downtime when the minutes are broken by pain from human touch, his skin pulses with his heartbeat and grows so sensitive that the slightest movement is excruciating, (canIhavethegooddrugsphil?promisenottogoventingificanh avethegooddrugspleasephil). Each time they string him back up, someone scrapes the wax away with something, (hot metal, curved, blunt) and the red skin underneath screams at him, but he's getting too weak to cry out himself.
He's starting to lose it, he knows. He can't remember what the word 'Avenger' means, but he can remember the colour of two brilliantly glowing eyes, with a circle of light beneath them (philscomingIcanask,itsfinehe'llknowhewillhewill). There's a voice, orders, (notphilbutI'lldoitsir,becausephillikesyou) but he doesn't remember what the words were anymore, because all he can cling to is the sound, in this soundless, pain filled void, that's all there is.
Meaningless time, endless time, time is relative, time bandits, girl time, time lord, time wounds all heal, time time time.