There are times when he can see past the harsh glare of the sun. Perhaps it's only when his eyes are closed. Perhaps he's dreaming. Perhaps he's already dead and this is going to be his reality, forever: heat and sand and light drifting about him like a dream that cannot decide between Heaven or Hell.
Perhaps it is the wind that touches his face. Perhaps it is only the sun. Perhaps he has already fallen and the dreams have simply not yet begun to fade.
Three days earlier
Clint leaned forward, elbows splayed on the table and his chin resting on the top of his fists. He raised his eyebrows at Fury but made no other move to indicate that he had a question.
He was pretty sure that Fury could tell his question was are you fucking kidding me with a side of this is because I pissed you off last week, isn't it? Fury just continued to glare at him, stern and unimpressed. Clint could tell by how tightly his jaw was clenched that the Director's response to his unspoken questions was do not fuck with me, Hawkeye and a echo of you're damn right it is.
In Clint's defense, he managed to piss Fury off nearly every mission he was sent on, for one reason or another, and sometimes it wasn't even on purpose. Sometimes it was just that the orders Clint was given in the field were stupid and sometimes it was because he didn't maintain discipline well after the job was done, or when the job was almost done but definitely well in hand, or when there was a lull before the job was done that nobody but him seemed to recognize as being a perfectly good time to relax.
Clint Barton never failed to accomplish the spirit of any mission he's been sent on, and always, afterwards, whoever he shot or didn't shoot turned out to be the right choice. Fury couldn't fault the results of his work, even if he faulted almost everything up until the result.
Clint grinned at Fury from his chin-perch, grinning wider when Fury just glared harder. "When do I leave?" he asked, bright and cheerful, because Fury expected him to bitch about everything from the early hour of the briefing, to the destination, to the name of this mission's handler. Supervisor. Whatever. Clint would have complained, except he liked to think that being agreeable once in a while made Fury more likely to be paranoid.
Or irritable. Either worked for Clint's purposes, which was to make the man regret he'd ever forced Barton into this job without actually making Fury decide to take the easy way out and shoot him from across the conference table.
"Yesterday," Fury growled.
"On it, boss!" Clint leapt to his feet, kicking the chair back with one foot and snapping off what wasn't even remotely a salute. Fury's eye narrowed, and Clint felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up.
Okay, so, pushing his luck, Clint thought, and he turned and hurried out, not at all relieved when he heard Fury chuckle. Damn the man, anyway, for being omnipotent. Or just smarter than Clint.
He headed down to Materiel and smiled at Alisa as she handed over two field bags. He blinked, unaware that his assignment had already been called down. "He in that much of a hurry to get rid of me?" Clint asked, grinning and leaning one elbow against the doorjamb.
Alisa frowned. "I'm not supposed to talk to you."
Clint blinked. "What did I do? I mean, that would have gotten you into trouble?"
Alisa shook her head once, pursing her lips in a show of not talking. Clint heard someone walk up behind him and glanced over. Agent Justin Falco stepped up, chin high, back ramrod straight and suit impeccably ironed. Even the flaps of his collar were starched. His hair was shaved down to a quarter-inch cut, his tie was knotted exactly perfect, and when Clint glanced down he could see the bright shine of his government issue black shoes.
In a crisp tone that nevertheless sounded snide and whiny, Falco said, "Agent Carakov knows it is important not to delay our mission with unimportant chatter."
Falco was known around HQ as the Agent's Agent; he was known to the Avengers as the Agent's Agent Wannabe. The Avengers had the real Agent's Agent and they weren't giving him back, ever.
Clint smiled, crossing his arms and making himself comfortable against the doorway and making it obvious how much of a hurry he wasn't in. "Fury didn't tell me you were heading up this mission." Which, okay, Fury might have mentioned it, but Clint hadn't had any coffee and sitting in Fury's office being assigned a mission wasn't enough to wake him up enough to gather details.
Falco narrowed his eyes in what Clint recognized as an attempt at a Fury-ian glare. "I was under the impression you were given a briefing packet, Agent Barton."
Clint patted his pockets, looking around, then peeked inside one of the duffel bags he'd been given.
With an audibly suppressed sigh, Falco said, "You can read your briefing on the way, Agent Barton. We have exactly fourteen minutes to get to the airfield."
"If they leave without us, can I go home and go back to bed?" Clint didn't even bother trying not to needle the guy. All of the Avengers had been forced to work with Falco at one time or another -- except Dr. Banner, and that was because Fury knew better. Everyone else was expected to control themselves; the Hulk had a built-in excuse which Clint thought was, frankly, unfair.
Falco narrowed his eyes and spun on his heel, walking back down the corridor towards the elevators. Clint rolled his eyes at Alisa, who cracked a quick smile, then he grabbed his field bags and ran after Falco.
Half an hour after he'd gotten on the plane and strapped himself in, Clint had finished reading the briefing packet twice. There was nothing in it which couldn't have been summarized as "Go to Darfur, find the Warlord of Doom, shoot him."
There was a lot of political mumbo-jumbo in the mission directives which Clint didn't have any interest in since that part wouldn't be his job even if Falco and his underlings completely failed in their parts of the mission. Clint's job was to shoot whoever needed to be dead and to come back in as few pieces as possible. He slouched down in his seat and slipped his sunglasses over his eyes. The flight was ridiculously long; S.H.I.E.L.D. hadn't wanted to draw attention to this mission by arranging for a faster jet and getting permission to violate airspaces.
That was fine with Clint; he could use the time to sleep and ignore Falco. Then he pulled his phone out of his pocket. Or he could bug everyone who hadn't been commandeered for a side mission.
Stark phones got reception all over the world, and Clint suspected they'd get service in outer space and a few ether realms as well. Wouldn't put it past him, Clint thought as he typed a quick text and sent it to the third contact on his list. The A list, which wouldn't fool anyone who'd stolen his phone, but since the thing needed Clint's fingerprints and DNA extracted from the cells in his skin in order to work, Clint never worried too much about someone hacking his phone.
If they'd cut off his hands to make a call, he had bigger problems than someone dialing up the Avengers to brag.
On plane. No in-flight movie. Falco still an ass. was his first text, then Clint settled back to wait.
Several minutes later he'd been scolded by Steve to be polite about his mission commander and not divulge mission details. Natasha had been completely unsympathetic, while Thor had asked if Clint wanted him to catch up with the plane and keep him company. Tony and Banner hadn't responded, which no doubt meant they were working on things more important than Clint's incipient boredom.
Phil had just said, Be nice.
Clint grinned and typed out replies to each, shifting in his chair to put his legs over the armrest and his feet propped up on the seat beside him. He saw Falco's glare and ignored it without even trying. He accepted Thor's challenge to a game of Angry Birds and that kept his attention for the entire next hour.
After that he slept, waking occasionally and responding to texts from Tony that started off in English and degenerated quickly into automatically-transcribed rambling as Tony talked into his phone and lost track of what he was saying. Clint just sent back the entirety of the texts in case Tony needed his notes. He was the same with voicemail, and normally Clint didn't bother texting him, knowing he wouldn't get back anything like a conversation. But he was trying to not be bored, and there was always a chance Tony would say something interesting -- that Clint actually understood. Tony insisted that everything he said was interesting.
Falco had stopped glaring at him somewhere along the line, and was now busy pestering his subordinates with details that they would have already memorized. Any agent worth sending into the field wouldn't need going over mission parameters at this point -- nothing would change in the original plans until they'd landed and discovered the unexpected mutants or aliens or Nazi robot spiders.
Clint knew better than to say anything, however, because clearly being assigned to work with Falco was part of Clint's punishment detail and whining about it wasn't going to make Fury any nicer. He did shoot off a text to Phil, Fury's being mean to me.
He wasn't at all surprised when the first response he got was Deal. - F The second response he got was more verbose, but equally unsympathetic. Clint laughed and leaned against the window, snapping a photo of the cloud cover. He wasn't stupid enough to photograph the continent below him, in case someone decided it was giving away vital information to someone not cleared for the op. As if Phil wasn't cleared for everything anyhow, Clint knew, and besides which -- Agent Barton didn't get sent anywhere without Agent Coulson agreeing to it beforehand.
Which meant Phil was on Fury's side about Clint maybe learning a little restraint during missions. Clint sent the photo to Phil, for no real reason whatsoever except that he could, and it helped reinforce the fact he had no restraint when it came to things that didn't actually affect a mission. It wasn't his fault he was working with ex-military who thought that the only way to succeed was to demonstrate discipline by being quiet and not poking things just to see if they'd explode or shoot back.
Clint knew where the line was between getting people killed and having a little fun, but he had no intention of toeing Fury's version of the line. And if maybe he had gotten a tiny bit worse about it lately, well, Clint knew exactly what that was all about and it had nothing to do with If Tony can do it and get away with it, why can't I? If anyone asked, of course, it was all about that and nothing to do with one particular agent spending more of his time with the rest of the Avengers and less of his time with an agent who, quite frankly, found he didn't really like sharing Coulson's attention.
But that was petty, and Clint would deny it to his last breath, and he was pretty sure Phil liked him best still anyhow. At least Phil hadn't taken Tony up on his offer of group orgies as a team bonding exercise.
Clint suspected Tony got away with everything simply by being as smart or smarter than Fury and being rich as sin on top of it. Totally unfair, Clint thought, and had said it out loud more than once. Accusing Fury of playing favorites had gotten Clint a stint at the North Pole for three weeks, alone with a radio and monitor and stacks of MREs to keep him company. The fact Clint had actually seen the alien invasion the second it occurred because he had the best eyesight on the planet was beside the point. The invasion had been halted before any actual damage had been done because he'd seen them, incredibly small and incredibly destructive, and Fury hadn't given Clint any hint as to whether or not he'd known the invasion was coming.
Afterwards, Clint had gotten a notation in his file about saving the planet, and Steve had congratulated Clint and thanked him for volunteering for the job. Phil had smirked, but thanked Clint as well in his own way.
Which meant working with Falco for a few days was relatively tame, as punishment went.
He stands up, or maybe he's already been standing and he simply hasn't noticed. The wind is pressing against him, lifting the sand and dust into thick walls around him, blocking the horizon and the sky and everything from him. World's greatest eyesight is of no use to him, now.
He staggers, and cannot tell if the ground is uneven or if his feet have forgotten the trick of walking. He has been half-buried under sand for so long, curled in the shallow hole he'd been able to dig. Hiding for hours to escape detection, but now he has the protection of the sandstorm; no protection at all from dying, but perhaps from a bullet to the head.
The others were not so lucky.
Now he has to move lest he die of hunger in the desert, though he risks walking into the open arms of the enemy which has driven him here. There is no choice any longer, and so he staggers to his feet and picks a direction at random.
He's never shirked from danger, but as he walks, he thinks about being home, a cup of tea and the soothing noise of someone in the next room making dinner.
He thinks that perhaps he should stop thinking about food, and keeps walking.
Falco's first mistake was gathering the agents with him to go meet their guide. Clint had rolled his eyes and slipped away as soon as his feet hit the tarmac, wanting to case the joint and get a feel for their alleged allies. As soon as Falco stepped into the open hanger door, shots had rung out and within seconds all of the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents had crumpled into a heap.
Clint took cover, ripping his weapons bag open and grabbing his bow, slinging the bag over his shoulder as a makeshift quiver. He'd gained the rooftop and returned fire before anyone had spotted him; at that point it became a game of who had the most ammo.
Clint had the best aim, but that didn't matter much when the swarm of soldiers with guns was greater than the number of arrows in his possession. Clint did what he could, leaving a mess for someone to find -- hopefully soon, and he didn't dwell on how Falco had radioed HQ as soon as they'd landed and checked in. S.H.I.E.L.D. wouldn't expect another call for hours yet, which meant Clint had to keep himself alive until someone noticed they were late.
He fired and ducked, and when it was time to run, he sent his last two arrows into S.H.I.E.L.D.'s plane, igniting the jet fuel with incendiary charges. The warlord's soldiers scattered, shouting and running while Clint took advantage of the distraction to make his escape. He ran and wove and slipped behind every piece of cover he could, but soon enough he had to sacrifice stealth for speed. Initially he headed for the buildings he could see in the distance; then stopped as he spotted the Jeeps rolling down the hill from those very buildings, markings the same as those gathering in a neat half-circle behind him.
Clint turned towards the desert, and ran.
The first chance he got, he pulled out his phone and hit the first speed dial. The call went to voicemail and Clint merely said, "We've been made. Send someone after me." He hung up and tried the second number, this time Natasha picked up. "I'm being shot at," Clint said, breathing deep and coughing as the sand filled his mouth.
"Great! So are we." She sounded happy about it, and Clint rolled his eyes.
"I've got about a hundred armed soldiers with guns and tanks, chasing me into the desert," Clint told her, feeling vaguely like he should be insulted at playing one-up over the phone.
"We've got fire-breathing dragons destroying San Diego," Natasha replied. She still sounded cheerful, but Clint could fill in the missing pieces. A city, full of civilians, versus one of him in the desert.
Clint sighed. "Fine, you win. But I expect a postcard from SeaWorld if you go."
There was a snort. "Right. Last time you made me buy you a stuffed whale. And now I'm supposed to think-- oh, crap. Gotta go!"
The line clicked dead. Well, at least he knew why Phil hadn't answered his call, Clint mused. He glanced back over his shoulder and saw the first dozen or so soldiers pointing in his direction, a Jeep already starting to drive towards him.
He turned back around and ran faster.
Clint was staring at a sand dune when he heard the motor. His arms tensed, hands raising the bow which he knew was useless. He had no arrows, not even a makeshift one hastily cut from branches. He remembered firing those more than once, caught in the woods with plenty of ammo around him, just waiting to be taken.
But he was surrounded by sand, here, and he had nothing left to fight with. He lowered his head against the kick-up as something huge and loud descended upon him. He couldn't stand up, couldn't run anymore, couldn't fight. He'd made them chase him long and hard, at least, and Clint told himself he could be content with that. He wanted to close his eyes, but he wouldn't give them the satisfaction of thinking he'd given up. Clint glared at the shape of the beast, a helicopter, he recognized, as the sound of the thrumming rotors beat against his ears.
He wished he had his knife; he could at least make one of the assholes bleed before they grabbed him. One figure leapt from the side of the helicopter, two more following behind, swiftly.
"Agent Barton?" the first figure called, head tilting to one side. Clint scowled, didn't answer, wondering how the hell they'd learned his name. Then he discovered it was him tilting, and the side of the sand dune slammed against his body.
He opened his eyes to find himself in a bed in a medical bay; a moment later he recognized the sound of a helicarrier's engines. Looking around, he saw only signs of S.H.I.E.L.D. -- which hopefully meant the Warlord of Doom hadn't commandeered an airship. He rubbed his face and discovered an IV stuck in his elbow; Clint tugged it free and sat up, waiting until the room stopped wobbling.
Rooms on helicarriers always wobbled a bit, and Clint was perfectly willing to blame his shaky balance on that. He stood for a long moment beside the bed until his head stopped spinning. He was dressed in hospital pajamas, bare feet and no indication of his bow anywhere nearby. Clint scowled and looked around, rummaging through the nightstand drawers and the closet set near the corner before finally finding his bow resting on a chair half-hidden on the other side of the bed.
He picked it up, checking it over, and finding it none the worse for wear. He carried it easily and padded out of the room in search of.... Well, he didn't know. In search of someone to tell him where they were going and if Clint needed shoes for when they arrived.
He found a cluster of agents in the control room, most of whom barely glanced his way as he entered. One man started towards him, a short, angry-looking agent who Clint thought he recognized as being one of the senior field agents -- Carl something, in charge of a helicarrier and who managed to avoid getting back to HQ for months at a time.
"You've been released?" Carl asked, glaring and grinding his teeth like he'd only recently given up smoking cigars. His gaze flickered down Clint's body, and Clint realised that he'd grabbed his bow but forgotten everything else.
"Couldn't find my clothes, sorry," he said, shrugging. He hadn't seen them in his search of his room, but honestly hadn't thought of them until now.
Carl nodded. "Well, we'll be over Montana in three hours. The rest of the Avengers are en-route, ETA twenty minutes. We'll drop you off on our way to South Korea. Can't provide air support this time, but tell Captain Rogers that if he needs help there's another carrier up in Anchorage."
Clint nodded, then grinned. "They have two and a half hours, I bet they'll have it wrapped up by the time we get there." He wondered what they were doing in Montana. Had he been briefed? Or had he slept through it? Clint felt exhausted and thirsty. He knew there would be a small conference room just off the control room; he gave Carl a nod. "Have someone come wake me when we're ten minutes out."
Carl gave him a distracted nod and went back to the commander center in the middle of the room, already barking out orders and demands for updates. Clint listened for half a moment, but heard nothing about Montana or the rest of his team, so he headed out and found the empty conference room. He pushed a couple of chairs together and sat down, bow across his chest, and fell asleep.
Someone had left a pair of boots by his chair. Clint woke up as someone tapped his arm, saying, "Hawkeye, we're almost ready to make the drop." He looked around, blinking blearily, and gave the other agent a nod. As he sat up, he felt his muscles aching, neck not at all happy with him about his chosen position. He stretched and saw there was a folded pile of clothing on the table as well -- his costume. There was still sand in the crevices, and it smelled of sweat and desert heat.
He shrugged it on, trying not to feel the sand grind into his skin. The boots had been cleaned at least, and he shoved them on, getting them fastened just as yet another agent stuck her head in the door. "We're here."
"Great. Just show me out." He waved, and she turned, leading him down a long hallway. Clint tried to adjust his vest, feeling every grain of sand grind against his body. He shivered as a touch of wind pressed against his bare shoulders, swallowed against the memory of heat and desperation that he apparently hadn't quite left behind.
As they neared the end of a hallway, a young man came running up, clutching a bag which he thrust at Clint. Clint grabbed it and could feel, through the soft sides of the bag, the long shafts of arrows. He grinned. "You've just become my favorite person on this entire airship."
The young agent looked confused, then the woman who'd led him there slid open the door. "We're as low as we can get. The fight is five miles to the northeast of our position. You should be able to come down clear of the battle, without too much of a hike to get you into position. Sorry we can't do any better," she added, shrugging her shoulder and looking genuinely apologetic.
Clint looked down at the small black pack she was holding out to him.
Apparently, when they'd said they were dropping him off, they'd meant it literally. Clint slowly took the pack from her, and slipped the straps over his shoulders. Normally he'd be delighted at the chance at free-fall, and, okay, he was feeling a lot more awake and a little excited about the prospect. But he'd had about three hours of sleep in the last -- he realised he didn't even know how many days it had been. And apparently there was a fight down on the ground which he'd not bothered to get a briefing on.
Clint locked the parachute into place and slipped a pair of googles over his eyes, then peered over the edge of the open doorway. He could see bright flares of weapons-fire and shiny, metal figures. Robots, clustered about in five groups, each fighting one or more of his teammates. As he watched, he saw Tony swooping into the air, coming to a halt above the battlefield before diving down again.
"Ninja robots?" Clint asked.
"No, just regular robots," the woman said. "Agent Barton, you need to drop now or we'll be out of range."
"Right, right." He nodded, then leapt.
There was wind beating at his skin and for a second he was back in the desert, curled up against the sand and trying to get the strength to move. He closed his eyes and the rushing in his ears was the howling of a sandstorm and the thumping of his heartbeat was a warning to the soldiers searching for him. They'd hear him, hone in on him and shoot him there against the hot gritty sand he'd entrenched himself in. He gripped his bow tightly, wishing for arrows; just one to let him go down with a fight.
Then he opened his eyes and saw the ground, so far below. The wind carried him downwards, drifting only a little ways away from his target, a clearing far enough away that he might land without being fired upon, but close enough he wouldn't have far to walk.
He spread out his arms and legs, weightless and free of every thread of gravity that might have tried to contain him. Clint laughed, and flipped himself over, then aimed himself downwards and dove. Not long, not far enough to lose safe distance to slow his fall once he popped his chute. Not enough to get more than a stern notation in his mission report; Clint grinned and tucked his arms in again, diving for another few dozen yards before pulling himself up and gauging his distance to the ground.
Iron Man flew up and hovered nearby. After a moment, Clint pointed at his ear; no one had given him a comm and unless Tony had installed an LED display on his chest, there was no way for him to know what the other man was saying. Iron Man pointed to Clint's back, then he simply moved in and grabbed Clint by the arm.
Clint laughed. "It'll certainly be faster," he agreed, and he grabbed on tightly.
Moments later Tony was dropping him on the top of a tree and zooming away. Clint had picked it out and pointed to it, and it didn't take long for him to get himself set up into position. He still had no idea who they were fighting or why, but it was pretty clear who was on whose side, and Clint sent his first arrow through the head of a robot about to send a spinning kick at Steve's back.
Thirty-two arrows later all the evil robots were on the ground, motionless. Thirty-two robots had arrows in them and three more had arrow holes; the other eighty or so were in various states of demolished. Clint scanned the area to make sure no more seemed to be on the way, then began climbing down the tree.
It had been an excellent perch when Iron Man was doing the driving, but climbing down made Clint feel every inch of how long it had been since he'd been in a bed or had a long, hot shower. A steak dinner would be good, too, he thought as he leaped down from one branch to the next, catching himself and pausing just long enough for his legs to stop shaking. If he fell out of a tree Natasha would never stop laughing at him.
When he reached the ground he leaned up against the trunk, closing his eyes and taking long, slow breaths. The scent of sap and thick, rich dirt filled his lungs. So much better than sand, he thought. He wanted to kneel down and dig his hands into the dirt, but knew he might not stand back up if he did. And again, there was the problem of Natasha laughing at him forever.
He pushed away from the tree that was holding him up, and walked over to meet the others. Natasha gave him a smile. "I got you a stuffed sea otter," she said as soon as he drew near.
"I told her to get you a real one," Tony said, snapping up his mask as soon as his feet touched the ground. "Or a walrus. You could use a sidekick."
"A walrus for a sidekick?" Clint just raised an eyebrow. "Actually, that would be pretty awesome. I could teach it how to fight and it could teach you table manners."
Tony just laughed. Clint took a look around at the piles of dead robots. He opened his mouth to ask just what was going on, and how the dragon fight had gone, then decided it really didn't matter. He rubbed a hand over his face and thought again about a long shower. He'd even take a cold one at this point; the cold might feel good, chase the last of the baked-in heat from his bones.
"Well done, Avengers," Steve said as he walked up, tapping the comm at his ear. "Agent Coulson reports the base is empty."
"Then we have fought well!" Thor exclaimed. "The field of battle is littered with our enemy, and we have triumphed once again!"
Clint yawned, behind his fist.
"We keeping you awake, Barton?" Natasha asked, sweetly. "Do you want your otter so you can have a nap?"
Clint flipped her off and closed his eyes, letting himself lean up against Iron Man. Almost as good as a tree, really.
"Seriously, you were in the fight for almost fifteen minutes, Hawkeye," Iron Man said, though Clint noticed he didn't actually try to move away. "And you spent it sitting in a tree."
"And aiming, don't forget aiming," Clint said. "You have to line up the tip of the arrow with the evil robot heads and they keep moving around." He waved a hand, lazily. He would have happily gone to sleep right there, only some dim thought about something he ought to do kept poking at the back of his mind. He had no clue what it was. Sure, Coulson would say something about post-mission debriefing, but Clint thought that if he had to go from one mission directly to the next he got a free pass from debriefings for at least an hour.
"Clint?" he heard someone ask, and Clint just managed a "Hmm?" in response. There was a cool breeze suddenly, kicking up behind him and it felt glorious.
"I'm not really a mattress," Iron Man said. "That can't be comfortable."
"Like you don't fall asleep inside your armor all the time," Natasha scoffed.
"Well, yeah, because it holds me upright. Clint's about to slide right off me. Hey, Barton, seriously, get off me. You're gonna drool on my paint job."
"Concerned about the quality of your tech?" Clint asked, but he shoved himself more or less upright. The world spun just a little, and he squeezed his eyes shut again for just a moment. "So did we win?"
"Yes," Steve said, looking just a little worried. "All the robots came out to fight us; we've apparently destroyed them all."
"Hooray for our side." Clint nodded. "Somebody can tell me later what we did." Then he closed his eyes once more, and let the cold air and soft grass catch him and carry him away.
He opened his eyes, once again in a bed in what looked very much like a medical facility. No clue which one; there was no vibration which meant they weren't on an airship, nor even a regular ship. Stationary, ground-side, and Clint thought maybe he was a little light-headed. He rolled his head to one side and saw Phil sitting beside his bed, looking extremely displeased.
"Hi." Clint tried to wave, but his arm was tied down. He looked, and saw an IV going into his elbow again. He scowled at it. "I had one of these already."
"Obviously not for long enough," Phil retorted. "The doctors say you are still extremely dehydrated, as well as exhausted."
Clint laughed. "I could have told them that part." He stopped laughing as Phil stood up, towering over him and Clint could see, now, just how much anger Phil was trying to hold back.
"I have already spoken to the other agents involved," Phil said, and Clint tried to get his brain back in gear, because he was pretty sure he was missing something. What had the Avengers done to piss Coulson off this much? But Phil just dropped a thin book on Clint's stomach, an official S.H.I.E.L.D manual of some sort.
Clint reached up for it with the hand that wasn't tied down. He didn't know if that meant they didn't think he'd been taken over by an evil robot and was being mind-controlled, otherwise they would have tied both of his wrists. He got a finger on the manual and spun it towards him. It was the basic introductory manual he'd been given when he'd first signed on.
He still hadn't read it.
"I have outlined the sections for your review, Agent Barton, notably those about informing your superiors about any change in your condition," Coulson snapped and, yeah, he was furious.
Clint didn't understand. "I was tired and hungry? I'm supposed to tell someone that when we have to go fight evil robots?"
"You'd just spent three days in the desert with no food and minimal water," Phil countered. "I've already spoken to Agent Blancanales about allowing you to join the Avengers' mission in your condition. He should have taken you to the nearest medical facility and not thrown you out of a helicarrier with a parachute."
Clint grinned. "That was awesome. Can we do it again? Only from higher up?"
There was a pause, then Phil's expression seemed to melt. The anger in his entire body seemed to wash out of him, leaving a sunken look in his cheeks and dark patches under his eyes. Clint wanted to tug him closer, give him a hug, but he knew he couldn't get a good grip with one hand tied to the bed-frame.
But Phil was slipping his hand into Clint's, squeezing his fingers gently. "You need more sleep, Clint. We'll go over this when you've had some rest."
"You, too," Clint said, though his eyes were already closing. He tried to open them again and couldn't seem to remember how. "You look like crap."
There was a laugh, cut off quickly. Then the scrap of metal on floor tile, and Phil's hand didn't let go of Clint's own. "I like to think I look better than you do right now," Phil said quietly.
"No, I'm the pretty one," Clint argued. "If I try to be the smart one we end up running from mutant frogs in the rainforest." That mission hadn't ended well, although the aftermath had involved a lot of shared showers and long mornings spent not getting out of bed.
"Go back to sleep," Phil said softly. Fingers brushed through Clint's hair and down the side of his face. He turned towards it, already feeling the tug of sleep dragging him down. He didn't fight it, and as he drifted away he thought that, yeah, this was more comfortable than a man-shaped metal mattress. He'd have to ask if Tony had the inside padded, for his occasional naps.
The last thing he felt was the light press of lips on the back of his hand, and Clint grinned.
The desert heat is baking through the back of his skull and he can't tell if the pinpoint of pain is from the sun or from the shaft of an arrow. He doesn't remember if he's been shot or not; there is too much pain throughout his body to tell the source. He tries to twist around and can't move, arms and legs held tight by the prison of sand he remembers building for himself.
He can't recall if it's safe to come out yet, but the sand is burying him and the heat is stealing the air from his lungs and he knows he can't stay, knows he has to fight free and take his chances with the soldiers with rifles who will kill him as soon as they find him. He tries to dig his way out and he can't tell which way is up. As he scrabbles at the sand, he finds only darkness and no escape from the sun.
He presses on, gasping for air and he thinks there is something wrong, he can't be buried in the sand and staked out in the sun at the same time, but he is, and there is no way out and the desert is swallowing him whole and he cannot find his way free.
The soldiers won't have to shoot him after all, and he is almost willing to stop and let the desert take him, except he cannot get his hands to stop moving. They will dig his way free whether he wants to or not, and he gasps again, swallowing sand and choking and all he can do is dig harder.
Something cold grabs his wrist and pulls, and Clint opens his eyes.
Phil looks at him, eyes unreadable in the dark room. His hand is cold, almost frozen, and Clint hears the A/C purring in the window and as he looks around frantically, he sees his bedroom, sees a large bottle of water on the nightstand where Phil places it, every night. Clint turns back to Phil and opens his mouth, not knowing what his question is, and Phil just pulls him closer, tucking Clint in against his body.
Clint shivers, and he closes his eyes, drinking in the cold and the darkness and the soft sound of Phil's heartbeat and the lingering scent of forest-scented soap on his lover's skin.