Only in our blindness we gather thorns for flowers.
- Gerald Massey
Phil gets the call just before sun-up, while he's curled up inside a tent with two other members of his unit for warmth. It's a call that he's been anticipating the whole night, even though it doesn't show on his features. It's the order that comes from top brass to retrieve their men from the war zone.
He scrambles up, grabbing his gear as he rouses the others.
They're airborne before the first rays of light streak across the sand and a familiar voice crackles over the radio. Clint sounds half his usual self, voice hoarse and cracking and strained. He shouts to Phil over the sound of gunfire to look for the flare, a crack accompanying his words as one of the other men in the background hurls the stick and lights up the swirling mess of soldiers and sand and chaos.
The feeling of something not being right settles in Phil's gut.
The radio transmits a static whine as Clint dissolves into a fit of coughing, and if Phil really squints he can see one of Clint's guys take the radio, giving them directions to land. Then it hits him, that the sniper is injured, with blood marring his features and half his uniform. Clint is leaning heavily against Barnes in an effort to stay upright.
It's going to be hard for Phil to forget the sight of them bundling Clint into the chopper, crimson staining the floor as the younger man collapses bonelessly in a heap with his teammates on either side.
There are shouts for a medical kit and a muffled groan that sounds too familiar for Phil's liking. But he doesn't turn around, he can't watch, not without the feeling of something twisting in his chest. Instead Phil lifts the chopper off as his co-pilot shouts at him to go, get them out of here, staring at the landscape of endless sand and hoping futilely that it will scrub the terrible image of his beloved sniper, eyes squeezed shut and streaked with drying red, shuddering in the back and clutching his rifle like a lifeline.
Clint is whisked away by a medical unit the minute they land, but Phil hadn't heard half of what Barnes had been saying on the flight.
More orders call him away to provide air support shortly afterward and Phil goes. He wants to stay and find out what happened to Clint, but there are soldiers out there, so he goes.
He comes back to base late that night, eyes stinging from desert dust.
Clint is looking for him, he's told, and Phil has to quash that niggling seed of dread as he mutely follows the orderly through the infirmary, boots thumping a too-loud beat that doesn't seem to drown out the pounding in his chest. Clint is a hunched figure sitting on the edge of the bed, bandages peeking out from under the edge of the hospital gown. There's another set of bandages covering his eyes and Phil has to steel himself as he makes his way across the room.
The sniper doesn't turn at the sound of Phil's boots but he reaches out a hand and waits. Clint’s hands are cold when Phil curls his fingers around them, sitting down beside his lover.
"The doctors don't think I'm going to get my sight back." Phil gives the trembling fingers in his grasp a gentle, reassuring squeeze as Clint continues. "I'm blind, Phil."
He sounds calm, but Phil knows Clint better than anyone else. Where everyone else sees only the cocky, brash exterior, Phil sees so much more. He hears the fear that is buried under all those layers, feels the tremors that makes Clint's hand shake, and Phil knows.
Clint is terrified and there is nothing Phil can do. He knows what this means for Clint, for a man who relies on the use of his eyes.
Phil gently tugs Clint closer and the younger man goes willingly, molding himself against Phil and burrowing against his side. They stay like this until Clint finally succumbs to his exhaustion and the cocktail of painkillers, slumping against Phil and snoring softly. The nurses barge in shortly after that and evict Phil in the direction of the nearest shower, he's trekked dust and sand in here and they're not pleased about it.
Clint is flown out to receive medical care the next day.
Phil hears from him two weeks later, an encrypted video call from Virginia. Clint tells him that he's been offered a position at CIA Headquarters in Langley, tech department head for military intelligence and special ops under the DPD (and Phil will bet everything that Natasha has a hand in this) but there is still sadness and grief in his features over being consigned to a desk job instead of the fieldwork Clint loves so much.
He wants to tell Clint that he doesn't have to take it if he doesn't want it but Phil bites back the words. Clint might have lost his sight, but Phil knows the man and knows he won't let that hold him back for long.
Clint pauses before he speaks again, hesitation flickering back and forth before he leans forward, a shadow of his usual conspiratorial grin on pale features. Phil can't help but notice the light scarring that marks the sniper's skin, where the shrapnel had to be dug out. There's a thin line of stitches just below Clint's spiky brown hair where they'd had to operate.
"Come home soon, Phil."
Phil finds himself nodding, even though Clint won't be able to see him.