Director Fury has a black eye. It’s healing, probably a couple of days old, and it’s one of the first things that registers through the haze of pain and drugs when Phil wakes up.
It’s all a little confusing. Phil distinctly remembers dying. Cold numbness, taste of copper in his mouth, bright white light, the whole package. He did not expect to wake up in SHIELD medical in some twisted reality where Nick Fury apparently let his guard down enough to allow someone to get a punch in. It’s too much to deal with at the moment, so Phil goes back to sleep in the hopes that everything will have returned to normal when he wakes up again.
However, the next time he opens his eyes, he finds the Black Widow keeping a bedside vigil for him. Phil quietly resigns himself to the fact that he seems to live in Bizarro world now and just goes with it.
In between naps, he learns from Fury and Natasha that it was, in fact, his supposed death that brought the Avengers together. Phil doesn’t know exactly how to feel about that. Proud? A little humbled maybe? Mostly, he’s pissed that Fury had to ruin his treasured trading cards to drive the point home. The generous amounts of morphine they have him on might possibly have something to do with that.
It’s probably also the reason why he can’t get the great mystery of Who Punched Fury? out of his mind. There’s no way he’ll ask with the director present though, so he forces himself to stay awake until he’s alone with Natasha.
He has to swallow a few times before he can speak, and when he does, he sounds nothing like himself, but he’s too curious about that damn shiner to stay quiet. There are only a few people alive he can imagine getting the drop on Fury. Since Natasha is sitting right here and not in the brig, that only leaves one other alternative.
His voice gives out almost immediately and he has to cough to clear his throat. Natasha gently spoons some ice chips into his mouth. There’s something decidedly unsettling about her acting as a nurse.
“Stark.” She answers the unspoken question with an amused little smile playing around the corners of her mouth. “I have the security footage if you want to see it.”
Well. That’s interesting. A little surprising even. Plus, it raises the brand new question of Where the Hell is Barton? , but before Phil gets a chance to ask, he falls asleep again.
It turns out that getting stabbed by a psychotic demi-god and then being revived after having been clinically dead for three and a half minutes is exhausting. It takes several days before Phil can manage to stay awake long enough to carry on a coherent conversation without fading out in-between every other sentence.
During that time, a long line of Avengers passes through his private room at SHIELD medical.
Phil is amazed to find out that there is now a pint or two of super soldier blood flowing through his veins. It’s not likely to give him any super powers, the doctors say, but it’s probably the reason for his remarkable recovery.
“It seemed like a better get-well-soon gift than an autograph,” says Captain Rogers - Steve - Captain America said to call him Steve, and they really need to cut back on Phil’s drugs because he is certain Natasha will never let him forget that moment.
Stark’s right hand is in a brace and he’s running his mouth at 200 mph about nothing and everything but doesn’t mention the injury once. Pepper gives Phil a very careful, teary-eyed hug and tells him in no uncertain terms that he is not allowed to die again. He hugs her back but makes no promises.
Thor left for Asgard with the tesseract and Loki in tow while Phil was still unconscious, but he sends his greetings. Dr Banner doesn’t say much, he just sits by the bed and reads the last weeks' papers out loud when Phil is too tired to read but too achey to sleep.
There is, however, one Avenger missing from the line-up, and it just happens to be the one Avenger Phil most of all wants to see. The last time he set eyes on Barton, the archer was under Loki’s thrall, and even though he’s been assured that no sign of mind-control remains, Phil still needs to reassure himself.
“He took off,” Natasha explained, when Phil had first asked after Hawkeye. “Said he needed some time.”
“Should I be worried?” Phil asked, and Natasha’s mouth tightened in an expression that he interpreted as ‘maybe’.
He’s allowed to get up as soon as they’re convinced he won’t spring a new leak somewhere. His entire upper body is aching, a discomfort Phil suspects will remain long after the wounds themselves have healed. He can barely walk to the bathroom and back, hanging onto Natasha’s arm for every step, but the doctors seem optimistic.
Barton’s prolonged absence is a cause for concern. You can usually count on him to be there to lighten up any enforced hospital stay, driving the nurses crazy, turning medical equipment into projectile weapons just because he can. Phil knows that the main reason Natasha has barely left his side, despite her self-professed lack of nurturing instinct, is because Hawkeye isn’t here to look after him.
It’s not difficult to imagine what being under Loki’s control has done to the inside of Barton’s head. Phil isn’t surprised that he decided to run off and lick his wounds in private - it’s happened a few times before, after some particularly hard missions. But he’s never kept out of contact for this long.
“Well, I guess he never did get that vacation,” Phil says in passing one afternoon. Natasha frowns and Phil quietly upgrades the ‘maybe’ to a ‘definitely’.
No one will tell him anything though, so he convinces Stark to hack into Barton’s psych records for him. Hawkeye has been cleared by the shrinks already, but Phil knows him much better than they do and can easily track down every single lie in the transcripts. The more he reads, the more he's convinced that if there is one thing Barton doesn’t need right now, it’s to be alone.
When he’s able to walk from one end of the corridor in medical to the other without support, Phil decides it’s time to take action.
“Do you know where he is?” he asks Natasha when she’s helping him back into bed after his latest PT session. His entire body is covered in cold sweat, he feels a little sick, and he can’t wait for his next round of painkillers, but none of that really matters now.
“He won’t take my calls.”
“Not what I asked.”
Natasha tilts her head. “I put a tracer in his car.”
“He hasn’t taken it out.”
Good. At least that means Barton won’t mind being found.
His doctors would surely protest if they knew what he was planning, but what they don’t know won’t hurt them, and if it hurts Phil, well, that’s no one’s business but his own. He settles down in the bed and tries to hold back the pained little sigh as his sore body sinks into the mattress.
“Agent Romanoff, how do you feel about a road trip?”
She raises an eyebrow. “Are you up for it?”
Phil shrugs. It hurts bad enough to bring tears to his eyes. “If the mountain won’t come to Mohammed.” Then he looks down at himself. He was upgraded from the bare-backed hospital gown to scrubs a few days ago, but it’s still not suitable attire for a jailbreak. “Would you mind getting a few things from my office?”
* * *
The first hour in the car is uncomfortable. The second borders on torture, and Phil has been tortured by professionals. When the third hour rolls along, Natasha forces him to take a pain pill and he spends the rest of the ride asleep. When Natasha gently shakes him awake, he finds that they are parked outside a rundown old motel. Phil blinks groggily while he takes in the surroundings. From what he can see, they’re in a tiny little town, no more than a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it speck on the map. There are a few more parked cars outside, one of them a familiar red sports car.
“It’s been here for a couple of days now,” Natasha says, nodding to the red car. “I’ll go ask if he’s checked in.”
Phil drinks some water and wishes for a toothbrush to get the sleepy fuzz out of his mouth. He extracts himself from the car and stretches carefully, trying to loosen up stiff muscles. It hurts, but almost everything hurts these days so he’s getting used to it. He leans against the side of the car and waits for Natasha to get back from the motel reception. The sun is shining and the black metal is hot against his back, and he’s alive, and getting a little warm in his spare suit. It might not have been the most comfortable choice of clothing, but it makes him feel a little more like himself, like fitting back into a familiar old skin.
Natasha comes back with the information that yes, Barton has been staying here and no, he hasn’t checked out yet. They go to knock on his door, but there’s no answer.
“Do you think something happened to him?” Natasha asks. There’s a worried little wrinkle between her eyebrows. Ordinarily, she wouldn't let it show, but there’s nothing ordinary about the current situation.
Something catches Phil’s eye. There’s a colorful poster tacked up on the wall of the building proclaiming that Baxter’s Fun-For-All Traveling Carnival is currently in town.
“No,” he answers, reaching out to tear it down and fold together to put in his pocket. “No, I know where he is.”
* * *
The fairground is within walking distance. They still take the car, mostly because Phil is pretty sure he wouldn’t be able to walk that far even if his life depended on it. The long car ride has done him no favors and to his own great annoyance, he finds it necessary to lean a little on Natasha.
“I feel ancient,” Phil grouses. They haven’t even crossed the parking lot yet and he’s already winded.
“You were stabbed in the heart three weeks ago,” Natasha reminds him and takes a little more of his weight.
They pay the admission fee at the ticket booth. The air is thick with various smells; grease, burnt sugar, beer, paint and fresh wood, machine oil. It’s late afternoon and the place is packed with people. Families with kids, groups of teenagers, couples walking arm in arm. There’s laughing and screaming from the rides, shouting and a lot of fast talking from the booth attendants.
“Where do we start?” Natasha asks, scanning the crowd.
“Let’s ask for directions.”
Phil points to a man who’s leaning against the metal railing around one of the rides, smoking a cigarette. He has curly white hair and is dressed in work pants and a flannel shirt. Beside him on the ground is a toolbox. When he sees them approaching, he looks a little spooked, but stays where he is.
“Excuse me, sir, we’re looking for someone.” Natasha holds up her phone, a month-old picture of a widely grinning Barton displayed on the screen. “Have you seen this man?”
The man frowns, a mix of suspicion and curiosity. “Depends. What’s he done?”
“Nothing at all,” Phil hurries to say. “He’s a friend. We just want to talk to him.”
The man straightens up, rubs his neck. “Yeah, I’ve seen your boy. He’s been hanging around since we set up here three days ago. Talks the language and all, but I don’t know, there’s something off ‘bout him. He a soldier or something?”
Phil exchanges a quick glance with Natasha. “Or something. Do you know where we can find him?”
“Over there by the target shooting booth, I guess.” The man points down the main street of the carnival. Then he looks Phil up and down with a doubtful expression. “Pardon me for saying so, mister, but you look like you oughta be in a hospital.”
Phil gives the man his tightest smile. “Funny you should say that.” It’s possible this little outing might have been a bad idea. He’s beginning to feel a bit lightheaded and Natasha is standing very close, like she’s expecting him to fall over any moment.
They thank the roustabout and get a cub scout salute in return before he stubs out his cigarette, picks up his toolbox, and wanders off between the rides.
Once they’ve been pointed in the right direction, it’s very easy to find Barton. There’s a wooden picnic table opposite the target shooting booth and he’s sitting perched on the tabletop like a bird of prey.
There’s a split moment when he first catches sight of them where his eyes widen and his entire body tenses up and Phil is absolutely certain that he’s going to bolt. Then, Barton’s shoulders slump and it’s like someone let all the air out of a balloon. He laces his fingers together behind his neck and bows his head and doesn’t move until Phil and Natasha are standing right in front of him.
He looks up then, and Phil understands the roustabout’s comment about soldiers, because Barton certainly appears as though he’s been through the wars. The deep bags under his eyes tell the tale of too many sleepless nights and it’s been at least a week since he last shaved. There’s always been a kind of bright intensity about Hawkeye, but now he looks like he’s running on fumes, burning fuel that just isn’t there anymore.
His eyes are the worst. They have that hollow, thousand-yard stare that Phil has seen in far too many men. He takes a minute to be grateful that Thor has been tightlipped about Loki’s fate, because this way, Phil is free to think up all kinds of bloodthirsty scenarios for what Asgardian justice might look like.
Natasha is the first to break the silence. She reaches out and pokes Barton’s shoulder. “Tag,” she says. “You’re it.”
Barton smiles humorlessly, but he leans into her touch. He doesn’t say a word though, and there’s so much wrong here that Phil doesn’t even know where to start. However, the way Barton keeps sizing him up, blinking like he can’t quite believe his own eyes, gives him a clue.
“The rumors of my death seem to have been greatly exaggerated,” Phil says, finally.
At that, Barton blanches and looks like he’s going to be sick. “Not funny, sir.”
“Do I look like I’m laughing?”
“No, you look like you’re about to pass out.”
Phil rolls his stiff shoulders and then has to wipe the pained grimace off of his face. He really needs to stop doing that. “I should probably sit down,” he admits.
He does so, heavily, with Natasha hovering by his side until his ass is safely parked on the bench. Everything still hurts, but at least the tiny black dots are beginning to fade from his vision.
“I’m going to get some cotton candy,” Natasha says, once she seems satisfied that Phil is not going to faint. She slides a hand over Barton’s arm as she walks away, and he makes a strange abortive little motion, like he can’t decide whether he wants to grab her and keep her here or push her away. Then he shakes his head, as if trying to clear it. His usually neat nails are bitten down to the quick.
“Running off to join the circus?” Phil asks, as gently as he can.
Barton’s mouth twitches in a pale imitation of a smile. “Been thinking about it,” he confesses. “I guess I’m still the king of bad judgement.”
“You might have been demoted,” Phil says. “I hear Tony Stark sprained his hand on director Fury’s face.”
Barton looks up, quickly, almost skittishly. “Yeah, he... I wanted to... I should have... I couldn’t...” He bows his head forward again and runs both hands through his unwashed hair, rubs his scalp like it’s itching.
Since the very first time they met, Phil has never known Clint Barton to be lost for words. This is probably the point where he needs to stop being Barton’s handler and just be his friend. It’s a line that keeps shifting back and forth and Phil has given up trying to keep track of it. The truth is, the three of them, Phil, Clint and Natasha, have been tangled up in each other for years, so tightly that it’s impossible to tell where one thing ends and another begins.
“Clint,” he says softly. “It’s okay.”
There’s a noticeable shift in the atmosphere around them and Clint must sense it too, because the next time he looks up, the shutters are open, grief and guilt and soul-deep weariness plain to see on his face.
“I got you killed,” he chokes out, voice catching on the last word in something that’s pretending not to be a sob.
Phil shakes his head. “Not you.”
“Yeah, that’s what everyone keeps telling me.” A fingertip finds its way to Clint’s mouth and he starts gnawing on an already torn cuticle. “‘s not true. I was... I was there, the whole time, I remember every single thing I did. I knew what I was doing and I didn’t care.”
For the millionth time since Phil woke up in medical, he wishes for ten minutes alone with Loki. Hawkeye’s sharp eyes and impeccable aim give him an edge, that’s true, but what makes him a good operative, a good man, is his deep-seated sense of right and wrong. Knowing Barton's background, there is so much that could have gone wrong, so many chances for him to turn into a remorseless killer. That he has managed to remain himself through all the hardships, been able to keep his conscience and his heart, is nothing but a small miracle. Loki stole all that away, took Clint’s skill and focus and perverted it into something ugly and monstrous.
“You care now,” Phil says, The words sound painfully small and ineffectual as they leave his lips.
“That’s what’s important. We’ll figure out the rest.”
Clint doesn’t answer, just rubs a closed fist over his heart before he turns his head and looks away. The line of his shoulders is so tense that the discomfort is practically radiating off him.
Phil has no illusions that one single conversation will change anything. This will stay with Clint for the rest of his life - will stay with all of them - and Phil knows that they have barely even begun to deal with it yet. But what Clint just told him was the truth and nothing like the bullshit he fed the SHIELD shrinks. It’s a start.
The target shooting booth on the other side of the walking path has a steady stream of customers, drawn there by the encouraging shouts from the booth attendant. No one seems to be winning much though. Clint could without doubt clear out the place in less than three seconds.
“Have you given it a try yet?” Phil asks, nodding towards the booth.
Clint shakes his head. “Nah, it’s rigged. The rifles are sighted wrong.”
“Like that would stop you.”
Natasha returns from her hunt for cotton candy before Phil can keep pushing. She’s on the phone with someone, holding it between her ear and the shoulder so she’ll have both hands free to deal with the huge blob of pink fluff. When she reaches the picnic table, she licks her fingers clean and hands the phone to Phil.
Phil’s own phone is ruined - turns out a copious amount of blood is enough to mess up even a Starkphone - and he hasn’t had a chance to requisition a new one yet.
He takes Natasha’s phone and automatically opens his mouth to let her feed him a wad of cotton candy. It’s a little prickly as it melts on his tongue and fills his mouth with an almost cloyingly sweet taste.
“Yes?” he says into the phone.
“Agent Coulson. Want to explain me what the hell you’re doing in Buttfuck, Nowhere while your doctors are tearing me a new one?”
Phil had more or less expected to hear Director Fury’s gruff voice at the other end of the line. He glances to the side, where Natasha is trying to push some cotton candy on Clint and he keeps refusing, ducking his head away.
“Sightseeing, sir?” He’s not usually so flippant with the director, but he did die recently, so he figures he can cut himself some slack just this once.
Fury sighs. “Do me a favor and try to come back in one piece, all of you.” There’s a brief pause and then the director continues, a little more quietly. “Everything under control out there?”
Phil doesn’t answer right away. Instead, he watches as Clint jumps off the table to escape the cotton candy Natasha is waving at him like a weapon. Clint hisses, “No, stop, it’s gross and sticky, I don’t want any,” and Natasha counters with, “You’re gross and sticky.”
They’re acting like a couple of twelve-year-olds in a schoolyard and Phil is willing to bet his paycheck that there is no one else in the known universe who would ever be allowed to see the Black Widow like this.
“We’re getting there,” he says.
After he’s ended the call, he lets his agents squabble for a bit longer. It looks like it’s doing them good. Natasha’s smiling, a real unguarded smile, and a little bit of the old spark seems to have found its way back into Clint’s eyes. By the time the cotton candy has met an untimely end on the ground and they come to join Phil at the picnic table, he’s almost started to believe what he just told the director.
“Everything all right?” Natasha asks, taking her phone back.
“It’s fine,” Phil assures her. Truth to be told, he’s tired to the bone and long overdue for his next dose of painkillers. “I think it’s about time we went back home though.”
He’s looking at Clint as he says it, trying to keep the suggestion light. Clint hesitates, rubs his hand over his chest again, but then he nods.
It’s a first step, and it’s good. But there is also the way Clint’s fingers keep twitching, how he can’t seem to stop turning his hands over and over in his lap. As far as Phil knows, the only way he’s ever been able to get rid of this kind of restlessness is a few hours of target practice, gaining back some semblance of focus, of control. It’s not like there’s an archery range within handy distance, but the booth on the other side of the walking path might just be sufficient.
Phil has to bite the inside of his lip to keep from crying out in pain, but he still manages to wriggle his wallet out of his pocket, slide out a few small bills, and hand them to Clint. “Here. Go win me something pretty before we leave.”
The guns might be sighted wrong, but Clint has spent the past three days watching other people try to hit things with them. He raises the rifle to his shoulder in a single, smooth motion and swiftly proceeds to hit every single target in the booth. After a brief argument with the booth attendant, he comes sauntering back and hands Phil a stuffed pink elephant. Phil takes the toy and studies the horrible color and the dull glass eyes.
* * *
Even though Phil would have preferred to just get in the car and go back to base immediately, he has to admit to himself that he just isn’t up for the long car ride. They make a mutual decision to stay the night in Clint’s motel room and leave first thing in the morning.
To be fair, Phil isn’t even sure about the morning. Natasha and Clint have to shore him up on both sides to ensure he’ll make it from the car to the door. He’s dizzy and short of breath and he might actually start to cry if he doesn’t get to lie down soon.
The room is bland and boring, the same as cheap motel rooms everywhere. The state of it is also more than a little worrying. People who don’t know him well are usually surprised by Clint’s almost obsessive neatness. Phil likes things well-organized, but whenever they have to share a space, Clint is the one who gets twitchy when something is out of place.
That’s why the level of neglect this room shows is a cause for alarm. Clothes and weapons are strewn around and a few empty take-out containers litter the floor. The bed is unmade, the sheets wrinkled and twisted in a way that indicates it hasn’t been slept in as much as tossed and turned in.
There’s a half-empty bottle of cheap vodka on the scuffed desk. Natasha raises an eyebrow at the sight of it and Clint shrugs. “Had to sleep somehow,” he mutters, but he doesn’t protest when she puts the bottle away.
Phil is getting to the point where he’s beginning to wish he actually was dead. His entire chest is pulsing with pain, raw and vicious and impossible to escape, like there’s some hungry thing living in his ribcage, trying to gnaw its way out. He fumbles with the cap of the pill bottle, unable to get it open. Eventually, Natasha takes it from him and shakes out a double dose.
She helps him out of his suit and shirt and into the sweats and t-shirt she packed for him. When Clint catches a glimpse of the slowly healing scars on his back and chest, still angry red against pale skin, all color drains from his face and he stumbles into the bathroom where he proceeds to be noisily sick.
Phil would like to go after him, but he just got situated on the bed and he’s not getting up again anytime soon. Natasha goes instead, which is probably just as well. Natasha knows a thing or two about monsters, knows what it’s like to have to dig yourself back out of the rubble of who you once were.
They’re gone for a long time, the seconds ticking by, thick and slow as molasses. Phil lies on his back on the bed, breathes shallowly, and waits for the pain pill to start working. Dying is exhausting, surviving even more so. The pink elephant is staring at him from across the room.
When Clint comes out of the bathroom, he’s smelling faintly of soap and toothpaste and looks like he's just about ready to crash. He stumbles across the floor and sinks down on the edge of the bed. His hand curls around Phil’s knee and he doesn’t say a word, but his eyes speak for themselves.
“It’s all right,” Phil tells him, wondering how many times he’ll have to say it before Clint actually believes it. “Get some sleep.”
Clint pulls his feet up and puts his head down on the mattress and the lights go out so quickly that Phil suspects that Natasha might have slipped him something. It wouldn’t be the first time she'd gotten creative with pharmaceuticals for the greater good. Even in sleep, Clint doesn’t let go of Phil’s leg, as if he’s subconsciously afraid to wake up and find him gone.
Most of the time, you don’t a think about the fact that Hawkeye isn’t very big in stature. What he lacks in height, he makes up for in personality. Now, he looks his size for once, curiously small and vulnerable.
Natasha quietly moves around, cleaning up a little, throwing away the trash and folding up the discarded clothes. There’s an impassive air about her, like she’s trying to distance herself, and Phil is not about to accept that.
“There’s room,” he tells her, motioning to the free space on the bed. His pain meds have kicked in, finally, and he feels a little slow, but he can breathe again so that’s a plus.
“I’m not tired,” she lies.
Clint can usually fall asleep at the drop of a hat as long as there’s someone around to watch his back and Phil was trained to be able to sleep anywhere at anytime because you never know when you’ll get another chance. Natasha, on the other hand, doesn’t like to sleep in unfamiliar places. If she has a choice, she prefers to wait until she can hole up somewhere she deems safe.
But she can’t quite hide her fatigue. She’s had to be strong for all three of them these past weeks and Phil makes a mental note to remember to make sure she’s getting through all this intact as well.
“Come lie down at least,”
She hesitates at first, but then she pads over the floor to slide into the bed next to him. It’s a tight fit with both Clint and Natasha curled up against his side. The bed isn’t really built for three people, but none of them is particularly large so it works.
“Does this hurt?” Natasha asks, scooting a little closer to avoid falling over the edge.
It does, a little, but it’s worth it. Phil shakes his head and Natasha doesn’t call him on the fib. She carefully puts her head down on his shoulder and he wraps his arm around her, holding her close. She probably won’t sleep, but this is restful enough. Besides, Phil is fuzzy enough on the painkillers that he’s prepared to admit to being a little needy himself.
Clint shifts in his sleep, still clutching Phil’s leg. His face ends up pressed into Phil’s hip, so intimately close that this could easily get awkward, but with the meds Phil is on right now, it’s not really an issue.
It’s not that he’s never considered the possibility. It’s no secret that Clint and Natasha have a friendship with benefits, and Phil is reasonably sure that they would happily include him if he were to ask.
But this three-way partnership has never been about who sleeps with whom. It’s about anchors, about trust and debts and secrets, about staying human and still getting the job done. The equilateral triangle has always been Phil’s favorite geometrical shape, the natural strength and sturdiness, how each one of the three sides support the other two, brilliant in its simplicity.
Clint sleeps, Natasha does not, and Phil dozes somewhere in between, content in the knowledge that while all is not well with the world, it’s at least still spinning and that means they’re not beyond saving.
* * *
There is a pink elephant on a shelf in Agent Coulson’s office. The rumors of how it ended up there are plentiful. Some say it has to be a prank. Others think it’s the result of an ill-advised bet.
Only three people know the truth, and they’re not telling.
- fin -