If he didn't have his pride, Clint would crawl out of the Quinjet, find a bolt hole, and curl up in his misery until his head stops throbbing. Three days in the searing, mind-numbing heat of central India, most of it spent in a sniper hide with the weight of a ghillie suit on his body and nothing but power bars to eat had taken their toll. He got his target, and that was the only positive outcome of this hellish op.
He tosses his gear to a waiting marine and pretends that the deck isn't pitching beneath his feet -- the deck isn't, but his exhaustion has him reeling, and he is starting to get what he calls the "flashy-thingies" of a migraine aura. His meds are in his backpack, which is being loaded onto ... "Hey!" Clint calls out to the marine tossing his bag into the bay of a Black Hawk helicopter.
"Easy, Barton." Maria Hill appears in front of him.
He squints at her, trying to bring her into focus. "Ma'am." He has a bad feeling about this ... like there is no rest for him and he'll have to buck up and endure for a while longer. It won't be the first time. "What's going on?" he asks Hill.
"That Black Hawk is waiting to take you to headquarters. Director Fury's orders."
"Seriously?" Clint wonders if his voice is trembling.
Hill gives him a narrow look. "Sorry. It's urgent. The State Department is breathing down his back for a sit rep."
Clint nods. "Sure."
"You look like crap, Barton."
"Yes, ma'am." He squinches his eyes up some more, dreading the aura that is shimmering around Hill. He doesn't offer an explanation. He'd rather get this over with even if he's on the verge of sobbing.
"We'll get you out of there ASAP, I promise." That's the most sympathetic he's ever heard Hill sound. He must look awful.
Clint nods. He wishes Hill was Natasha. She would tell Fury to fuck-off, fix him sweet Russian tea and tuck him into bed; but Natasha is with Coulson in Romania. He retrieves his gear from the deck and climbs on board the chopper and wonders when Stark will figure out the mysteries of teleporting.
The trip in the chopper does nothing for his headache and nausea. He leans his head against the rigid seat and feel the vibration of the big engines inside his skull. He makes his way to the conference room where Fury is waiting with Jasper Sitwell in front of a wall of monitors displaying the unhappy faces of the World Security Council and the Undersecretary of Defense. Clint wonders how badly this op was fucked up. He just did what he was told. Kill somebody and get out.
Fury looks at him. "Barton, there are a few questions about the op that only you can answer. Thank you for arriving so promptly. Please, sit."
That he does sit without an argument should be a tell betraying his exhaustion. Fury doesn't seem to notice. Jasper Sitwell looks concerned and Clint shakes his head. He can do this. His stomach is churning, but he can do this.
One of the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents puts a bottle of water at Clint's elbow and he gives her a quick, grateful glance. Then the questions start. It's an hour before Fury really takes a good look at him and calls the session to a halt. As the screens go dark, Clint drops his head into his hands.
"Barton, go to medical."
"I'm fine, sir."
"You're at the fine edge of exhaustion. Agent Coulson will be unhappy if I have to tell him you've given me an argument on this."
Clint is so tired, he doesn't even make the effort to hide it. His shoulders slump. "Yes, sir. When are Agent Coulson and Natasha due back from Romania?"
"If I knew, I would tell you. Meanwhile, if you don't get your sorry ass down to medical I'll have them come up here and cart you down on a gurney."
Clint sighs. Fury probably would do that, and since he's on the verge of dropping into a heap at the director's feet, he decides to use the last of his strength to drag himself to medical. He might need more than migraine pills, he admits reluctantly.
Dr. Wheldon, as usual, gives him the evil eye. "Barton, are you beating yourself up again?"
"No, ma'am. That was India."
"What's wrong this time?"
"Migraine?" It's a weak guess.
"Hmm." She takes his blood pressure, his temperature, shines a light in his eyes, which he thinks should qualify as torture. "I'm admitting you."
"What? It's a migraine. I've had them before."
"You're dehydrated and exhausted."
"I'll drink water and go to bed."
"That's not enough. Honestly, Barton, give yourself a break and let us take care of you."
Her exasperation reminds him of Phil. He's too tired to mount more than a specious argument. At least they don't put him in a hospital gown, just stick in the IV and inject a dose of lidocaine into the drip. As the hydration and anesthetic take effect, he feels himself slide away into sleep.
Coulson's and Natasha's flight from Bucharest is long, uneventful, and boring. The entire op had been a bit of a yawn. The badass warlord proved to me nothing more than a bombastic idiot with a Napoleon complex and no more of a connection to Hydra than Coulson has. They handed him over to INTERPOL and got on the first available flight to New York.
They go right to Fury's office to report. It doesn't take long. Fury seems distracted.
"What's going on?" Coulson asks. "Has Barton reported in?"
"He's here. In medical."
"Medical --" Phil's stomach drops. "What happened?"
"Easy, Coulson. Your hawk is safe. I didn't damage him. Dr. Wheldon assures me he'll be up and running in a day or so."
Phil is so relieved that he doesn't even object to Fury calling Barton his hawk. He takes a deep breath. "Sir, will there be anything else?"
"It was a rough op. He did well. Acquired and eliminated the target."
Of course, he did. Phil wonders if Fury is aware of how much that takes out of Clint. It's not just making the shot, it's everything that leads up to it, and everything afterwards. "I'm going down to medical," he tells Fury, "Do you need anything else, sir?"
"Apparently nothing as much as you need to check up on Agent Barton." Fury's one eye is focused on Phil like a laser.
"He's on my team." It's pretty lame, but Fury nods.
Natasha is waiting outside. "Well?"
"Barton is in medical -- nothing serious according to Wheldon."
"Oh," Natasha suddenly looks tired. "If it's more than that?"
"I'll text you."
Her fingers brush his sleeve in a touch so light that anybody else would have thought it accidental. "Goodnight, sir."
To his surprise, it is night. Jet lag has tripped up his internal clock. He takes the elevator down to the medical wing where there are no windows and things run 24/7. The duty nurse isn't familiar to Phil, but she looks at his badge and checks his clearance. Her eyes widen, "Agent Coulson?"
She looks scared. Phil tries to appear harmless, which he does quite well. "I'd like to see Agent Barton."
"He's in room 6."
"Thank you." Phil smiles and she can't help smiling back because he suddenly isn't as scary as she's been led to believe. Phil knows he does that well, too.
Clint is knocked out. Phil glance at the IV, which is nearly finished. Barton's beat-up boots are next to the bed. He's curled in on himself, hands tucked against his stomach, knees drawn up. He looks too young to be as dangerous as he is. He was dangerous when he was fifteen. Now, he's a weapon. Phil feels a twinge of guilt for his role in that evolution, but it is better for Clint to be S.H.I.E.L.D.'s weapon than an enemy's. He suspects that's the only reason Fury tolerates Barton's antics. That, and the knowledge that Phil's call will always bring his hawk home.
Phil rubs his tired eyes and sits, his hands clasped loosely in front of him. He has long since perfected the art of emptying his mind and drifting into a waking doze. He is startled upright by the sudden beeping of the IV as the bag is emptied of fluid.
Clint sit up, looking wild-eyed and ready for flight. Then he sees Phil. His eyes clear and he smiles, which makes Coulson's heart do a flip-flop in his chest. "Hey, boss." He falls back on the pillows. "How was Bucharest?"
"Easier than Jaipur, apparently."
Clint's mouth tightens. "I did the job."
"I know." Phil wants to sit beside him, rub his hand down Clint's stiff back and say something, anything, to ease the pain that is knotting him up. He hasn't read the report, but the clinical details won't tell the whole story. "How's the headache?"
"It would be better if they'd come and shut off that damn alarm." He sits up, ready to swing his legs over the side of the bed.
Phil has been so focused on Clint that he forgot about the alarm. "I'll get somebody."
"Just pull the plug," Clint says. "That'll shut it up."
"It has a battery back-up," Phil reminds him. "I'll get the nurse. Stay still." When Clint looks like he's about to argue, Phil adds, "That's an order." And has to hide a smile when Clint subsides and lies back down with a sigh like an aggrieved teenager.
He returns with the nurse who silences the alarm and pulls the IV from Clint's arm. She puts a gauze pad over the small puncture and tapes it down. "Dr. Li says you can be discharged as long as your headache is gone and you promise to keep hydrating."
"Yes, ma'am." He makes a wry face at Phil over her shoulder. After she leaves, he puts on his boots. "Let's go."
Phil sets his hands on Clint's shoulder and looks into his eyes. He doesn't like the shadows he sees there or the faint translucence of the skin beneath them. "Come home with me tonight."
"I want to keep an eye on you."
Clint bats his eyelashes at Phil. "Aw, boss. I didn't know you cared."
Phil smiles. "Liar." As they walk out of medical and into the vacant elevator to the parking garage, their arms slide around each other's waists, and if Clint allows himself to lean on Phil, there is nobody to see it, and if Phil's arm tightens in support, it matters to nobody but Clint.