Barton had been with S.H.I.E.L.D. four months, two weeks, and three days when he became, abruptly and inescapably, the center of Phil’s attention.
“I’m not going to ask why you set one of your fellow agents on fire,” Phil said. “Though that’s not something we generally encourage.”
To his credit, Barton wasn’t obviously smirking, but there was an ease to his shoulders, even standing at attention, that said he was very very pleased with himself. He kept his eyes straight ahead and said nothing.
It had just been a small fire, really, and the other agent had suffered only minor surface burns. That was not, however, what made it interesting. “Tell me how you did it.”
“Agent Park burst into flames in the middle of the training area, and the general consensus seems to be that you were responsible.” Park had, in fact, started screaming for Barton’s head the moment he was doused. “What no one can figure out is how this feat of pyrotechnics was accomplished, since you were on the other side of the compound at the time.”
Barton did smirk, then. “I’m afraid I can’t tell you that, sir.”
“And why is that?”
“Can’t reveal professional secrets,” he said. “Sir.”
“Ah. I see.” Phil stood, hands held behind his back, and circled Barton slowly. He didn’t fidget, didn’t flinch, possessed of the absolute stillness that only snipers ever seemed to manage. His blue eyes didn’t move, but Phil knew that every sense was tuned in, tracking, assessing the threat. Phil made his circle in silence, studying every line of Barton’s body, watching for the slightest sign of nerves. When he came back around to face him, Barton was still smirking.
That was all Phil needed.
“Report to the helipad at oh-four-hundred. Dismissed.” Phil dropped back into his chair and turned to a pile of paperwork he wasn’t especially excited about.
“Sir? You gonna fire me over a stupid prank?” Barton asked. Phil looked up and saw that the smirk was gone.
“Agent Barton, if you were being ‘fired’, I’d send you back to your barracks and have someone kill you in your sleep,” Phil said. “‘Dismissed’ just means I want you to leave my office.”
Barton’s relief was palpable, though his expression never changed. “Sir. Yes, sir.” He turned smoothly on his heel and left.
Phil allowed himself a small, pleased smile.
3:57 a.m. was the wrong side of sunrise, as far as Clint was concerned. The S.H.I.E.L.D. living quarters weren’t exactly plush, but he would have preferred to be curled up on his hard bunk instead of jogging across the concrete landing pad in the pre-dawn haze. Coulson was standing by the idling helicopter in a black suit so neat and sharp, it might have cut anyone who got too close.
As Clint came up, Coulson smiled pleasantly and held out a small paper bag, shouting to be heard, “Good morning, Agent Barton. Danish?”
“No, sir, English, but close enough.”
Coulson made a sound that might have been a chuckle, but it was hard to tell over the whirring of rotary blades. He waved Clint ahead of him into the chopper, gave the pilot a go-ahead signal, and they were airborne before Clint had a chance to bite into that danish.
“You’re early,” Coulson said, clearer now, over the headset.
“Didn’t want you to leave without me, sir,” Clint replied around a bite of pastry. Smart-mouthing didn’t generally endear him to superior officers, but Coulson didn’t seem to mind. If he did, it was likely he would just, as he’d said, have Clint killed in his sleep. It was a strangely comforting thought.
Coulson adopted the pose of the unconcerned traveler, a heavy file open across his lap, and Clint, figuring it would be a long, quiet kind of ride, closed his eyes and went instantly to sleep.
He dreamed of floodlights and blood and the sound of an arrow being loosed, the feel of the fletching scoring his cheek, the thrumming in his ears that was engines or his pulse or the string of his bow.
Clint was awake. The helicopter was steady in the air. Nothing out of balance, no immediate threats. His gear bag was still hooked around his arm, and Coulson was watching him the way a lawyer might look over an especially promising contract. “Are we there, yet?”
“We’re starting our approach,” Coulson said. “Be ready to move.”
“Anything I should know, sir?”
The chopper was descending in slow circles over the jagged landscape of a sun-baked city. Somewhere in South America, Clint guessed, maybe Central. Coulson had the door open and was focused on the buildings below.
“You should be armed.”
“Fair enough.” Clint started to slip out his bow, but Coulson stopped him.
“Just a gun, for now.”
That stung a little. Any grunt with a trigger finger could shoot a gun, so why was Clint here? Maybe Coulson really was planning to have him killed and just make it look like an accident. The rest of his unit would probably throw a party.
For the immediate future, though, being armed and staying alive sounded like a better plan.
He pulled out his S.H.I.E.L.D.-issue handgun, which he hated, and dropped lightly to the concrete as the chopper hovered low over a wide, featureless rooftop. Sightlines to the adjacent buildings were clear, no open windows or other aircraft, no motion but electrical antennae swaying against the relentless blue sky. Clint scanned every shadow, black and sharp in the mid-morning sun, and Coulson swung down beside him, graceful for a guy wearing polished dress shoes.
Nobody started shooting at them as they made their way across the roof and over the side to an access ladder or as they descended, one at a time, to a window below. That didn’t mean nobody would start shooting at them later, but delays on violence were always appreciated.
The window opened into a spartan, one-room apartment, with a bed shoved in the corner that looked like it would be even worse than the ones at the base. Coulson immediately locked the window behind them, drew across a heavy curtain, and made a quick circuit of the room. His movements were brisk and efficient, not a single turn of his head wasted, and Clint watched him with admiration.
“Home sweet home, sir?”
Coulson checked the locks on the door, all six of them. “Not exactly five-star, is it?”
“It’s clean, covered, and there’s a toilet,” Clint said, shrugging. “That’s three stars more than a lot of places I’ve bunked.”
“Amen to that,” Coulson agreed, though Clint tried and failed to picture him in any environment that wasn’t as ordered and pristine as he was.
Clint liked a clean line. Ragged edges and extra bulk were an archer’s worst enemies, and he took care to eliminate anything in his clothes, gear, and environment that might snag an arrow or slow him down. He could see that same spare sensibility in Coulson, in his sure step and his flawless, functional suit, but what Clint did for survival Coulson practised as an art.
Some of the junior agents made fun of Coulson when their superiors weren’t around, called him the kind of names you’d expect from bored government punks, but Clint never did. He recognized a badass when he saw one.
To be fair, they had less than flattering names for Clint, too, so that showed what they knew.
“Is there a problem, Agent Barton?”
Clint was staring, and he knew it. Apparently, so did Coulson, and that set the skin along Clint’s spine prickling.
“Just wondering what I’m doing here, sir.”
Coulson nodded. “Of course. I appreciate your patience, and I wish I could tell you more. Unfortunately, most of the details are classified.”
“I don’t have a problem with classified, sir,” Clint said. In other organizations, ‘classified’ meant national security. In S.H.I.E.L.D. it meant global security, and that was above his pay grade, for now. “But if I’m gonna be shooting people, I’d like to know why.”
“And if you don’t like the reason?” Coulson’s expression didn’t actually change. He wasn’t even looking at Clint, but he was clearly very interested in the answer to that question.
“Well, sir, then we’d have a problem.”
Coulson gave him a moment of that pleasant little smile, which now had a hint of the cat eyeing a very fat canary, and produced a large glossy photo from the file in his hand. “This is an aerial view of a four-block radius two miles south of our current location. I’ll be conducting a... sensitive negotiation here,” he said, indicating an open plaza that had been circled in black. “You’ll take up a position at your discretion and make sure I survive the meet.”
Clint looked at the photo, studying the high ground around the plaza, counting likely places for snipers to set up. There were more than he would have liked and not enough information to narrow them down. “Any chance you can tell me who you’re meeting with?”
Of course it was. “Well, sir, I wouldn’t say I need to know,” Clint said, “but you’re a lot more likely to stay alive if I do.”
It was impressive, really, how much Coulson could communicate with that one expression. He crossed his arms and looked at Clint steadily. “Convince me.”
Coulson wasn’t going to have him killed in an accident, Clint decided. He was testing him. “Knowing who they are will tell me how they might try to kill you.”
He must have passed that part of the test, because Coulson, still smiling, pulled a slim folder out of the larger file and set it on the table in front of him. “Happy reading.”
Phil had a habit of composing mission reports in his head while the mission was still going on. It made actually writing the reports faster, and it helped him get perspective on tricky situations.
He was having some trouble with this one.
Agent Barton has demonstrated a positive, if reserved, attitude, and an admirable attention to detail, contrary to the claims of his previous superiors.
Barton was paging through the mission file for the third time and slurping down his second bowl of flavorless microwaved noodles. He’d made a few marks on the aerial photos and was paying special attention to a handful of documents, but he seemed to be mostly absorbing the information, pausing occasionally to stare at his food and, presumably, process.
I suspect that what prior reports described as “insubordination” may simply be....
What? A sense of humor and no patience for bullshit?
Phil pushed around the pale sludge of his own noodles, still on his first bowl. The results of tomorrow’s negotiation could determine the future of the entire South American continent and directly impact S.H.I.E.L.D.’s international operating parameters. It was highly likely the organization he was contacting or one of their competitors would attempt to disrupt the meet, i.e. shoot him. Just another day at the office.
Barton has expressed an inclination to resist orders which he feels may be morally suspect. I believe, without reservation, that this should be considered a strength.
Even at rest, Barton kept perfect form. Every curve spoke of easy power and self-possession, ready to uncoil into action at a moment’s notice or, as he’d shown on the flight, shut down and sleep. Phil had no doubt that a sleeping Clint Barton was exponentially more dangerous than most people awake and armed.
Do not disturb sleeping archers, for you are slow and make an easy target.
Barton glanced up, met his eye, and looked back down. A faint flush crept up over the edge of his collar. The small room was close and stuffy, and it seemed to have gotten a few degrees warmer. Phil gave a tug at his tie, already loosened around his neck. His jacket was folded neatly beside him on the narrow bed.
I am confident that, given the opportunity, Agent Barton will surpass all expectations.
Based on what? Intuition, for now.
Barton shifted in his seat and cleared his throat. Other than shuffling pages and the track of his clear eyes, that was the first movement he’d made in an hour.
Patient. Controlled. Not easily rattled.
If everything went to plan, this mission would be a milk run, but Phil had been around too long to bank on everything - or anything - going to plan. He’d taken a gamble, bringing a junior agent with little mission experience and a history of disciplinary problems as his only back-up, and Fury, Hill, and every other commanding agent in the division might soon be standing at his funeral, delivering eulogies that consisted solely of “I told you so”. He was counting on Barton to keep that from happening.
Based on the documentation of his skill and my personal observations regarding his character, I would not hesitate to trust Agent Barton with my life.
If things went sideways tomorrow, he’d find out very quickly whether his faith had been misplaced.
The meet was at 0800 exactly, which meant that, in order to be in place, Clint was once again jogging across concrete on the wrong side of sunrise.
He circled the blocks around the site, checking possible exit routes, then made three laps around the plaza itself. The city was only just starting to wake up, delivery trucks and shopkeepers winding their way through boulevards and alleys to quiet morning destinations. There were a handful of other joggers on the sidewalks, and no one paid much attention to Clint, except for one young woman who, he was pretty sure, turned to watch his ass as he went past.
He stopped to rest on a bench near the center of the area. It was likely the exchange would take place here, and he wanted to check the sight lines to the surrounding buildings. The bench was blocked on one side by a short tree, so that direction was out. On the opposite side was a low, square structure that looked like a warehouse. It had a wide view of the plaza but nothing to provide cover and was exposed to the buildings above. Straight ahead was an office high rise, the tallest building in the immediate area and mirrored from ground to sky with plate glass windows. A sniper with a rifle could pick an empty room, crack the window, and wait, and Clint would bet even money that one of the bad guys would be doing just that.
And Coulson would be sitting here, on this bench, his calm smile framed by the black circle of a high-power scope.
Clint took a long pull on his water bottle and looked back at the building behind him. It was another office tower, older, with fewer windows and more ledges. Most importantly, it had a big sign on the roof, the name of the company spelled out in lights across an iron frame.
Giving his legs a good stretch, Clint got back on his feet and jogged across the plaza in the other direction. He approached the building from the back, jimmied open an access door, and went up a maintenance stairwell. Clint did his best to look like a young executive, out for a morning run and an early start at the office and prayed his blond, white ass didn’t stand out too much, but the only person he encountered was a grizzled custodian who gave him a curious look and let him pass unchallenged.
It took a few minutes to find a spot that would provide cover and still give him enough room to draw and a minute more to get secured and settled in. The sun had just started to beat down on the sprawling city as he nocked his first arrow of the day.
Below, the plaza had filled with people crossing and milling, the sound of their voices drifting up to him with the din of traffic. Clint closed his eyes and listened, not to the clattering riot of a city at morning, but to himself. He tuned in to the push and pull of his breathing like a steady tide washing in and out of his lungs, focused on the slow, deep rhythm of his beating heart. All other sound in the world fell away, just a distant buzz of less consequence than the whispering of the wind in his hair. There were no smells, no scents to color the air flowing through him. There was no sensation, no heat from the bright sun, no iron bar at his back, no sweat gathering on his brow.
There was nothing but his breath and pulse, nothing but the tide.
He opened his eyes.
Lines and colors leapt out at him. He could see the reflections in every window on the high rise, every shadow cutting across the plaza. He studied the scene, committing its smallest details to memory. If something changed, if so much as a shaft of light was out of place, he would see it.
There was, after all, a reason they called him Hawkeye.
Clint held his bow and arrow loosely in his hands and waited.
The negotiation was picture perfect, right up until Phil’s contact got shot.
The contact was a surprisingly pleasant man, well-dressed, competent, and succinct. Phil sensed a kindred spirit. His three hulking body guards were kind enough not to loom, though Phil felt reassured by the pressure of his earpiece, knowing that a rain of perfectly placed arrows was only a word away. They discussed the terms offered by their respective organizations, haggled over a few details and selling points, and Phil was beginning to think they might be home in time for dinner.
His contact was disputing some issue of fine print when the hole appeared.
It was a small, dark spot in the center of his forehead, a final period to punctuate the sentence he would never finish. As Phil watched, a thin stream of red seeped from the hole and drew a jagged line down the man’s frozen features.
After that, everything happened very quickly.
Phil was on his feet and scanning the surrounding buildings as the body slumped and tumbled from the bench. The three bodyguards advanced on him, guns drawn and shouting, and he told them in quick, distracted Spanish that this wasn’t his people, S.H.I.E.L.D. had nothing to do with this.
They didn’t believe him.
One of the big men put his gun to Phil’s head, still yelling. He got five more words out before a slim arrow embedded itself in his temple.
“Guessing that wasn’t part of the plan, sir.”
A woman passing by was spattered with blood as the man fell, and she screamed, drawing the attention of the crowd.
“No, Agent Barton. That was not part of the plan.”
One of the remaining bodyguards rushed Phil. He fired off a wild shot as Phil disarmed and disabled him, but the sound of the gun sent the bystanders in the plaza into an unqualified panic. Phil whirled, looking for the other bodyguard, but the man was already on the ground, bleeding out around the arrow in his neck.
“Sir, you have incoming.” Barton’s steady voice was a strange counterpoint to the chaos unfolding around him. “Armed men entering the plaza from the north and southeast corners.”
“Roger that. Where are you?”
“Roof to the south. You ready to get out of there, sir?”
“Well, seeing as the negotiation seems to have ended.” Phil pushed past frantic citizens, making his way toward the south building and Barton. “Do you have an exit for me?”
“There’s an alley on the west side of the building,” Barton said. “I can cover you til you get there.”
Somewhere behind him, there was the sound of gunfire and more people screaming. Phil broke into a run.
“Coulson, nine o’clock!”
He looked left as a large man came running toward him, taking aim. Phil dropped to one knee and drew his gun in one smooth motion, firing even as the other man’s bullet sliced through the air above his head. The man jerked and fell, and Phil was back up and running toward the alley.
“You wanna move a little faster, sir?”
“Fuck you, Agent Barton,” Phil replied calmly.
As soon as he cleared the plaza, there was a crash and pop behind him, and the mouth of the alley filled with a thick, white fog. Barton had dropped a smoke grenade to cover his escape.
“Alright, I retract that.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Phil stayed close to the alley wall, still running, to avoid the shots his pursuers were firing blindly through the smoke.
Suddenly, Barton was shouting in his ear, “Cover! Cover!”, and Phil ducked into a recessed doorway as three more men with guns appeared at the end of the alley.
“How do these cartels always have a never-ending supply of goons?” he muttered to himself, sending a few suppressing shots in their direction. The recess was deep enough to keep him out of their line of fire, but only just. “Agent Barton, a little help?”
“I can’t get a clear shot.”
A chunk of brick shattered out of the corner by Phil’s head, much too close for comfort. He looked up to see Barton at the corner of the roof opposite, a distant black silhouette against the bright sky.
“Hold tight, sir,” he said. “I’m on my way.”
And Phil watched in horror as Barton leapt off the edge of the building and disappeared.
The heavy, sinking feeling in the pit of Phil’s stomach made everything seem slow and far away. He kept his attention on the three men shooting at him, but the empty patch of sky where Barton had been stayed in sharp focus at the back of his mind.
There was a loud cry, and the gunfire stopped abruptly. Phil peered around the corner to see one of the men step into the mouth of the alley, taking aim at something Phil couldn’t see around the opposing corner. Phil promptly shot him in the head. Another cry sounded, followed by the crunch of bone breaking.
Barton emerged, unharmed, shaking bits of gore off one of his arrows.
“Was that entirely necessary?”
“You mean the part where I rescued you from the big, scary thugs?” Barton gave him a wide grin that could only be described as ‘shit eating’.
“That part, I appreciate.” Phil dashed across the short distance toward him. The smoke had started to clear away, but the shooting had stopped. That was worrying. “I meant the part where you jumped off the building.”
Barton shrugged. “Fastest way down.”
“Could you maybe not do that again?” Phil asked. “I don’t want to explain to Director Fury why one of our best junior agents has become a stain on a South American sidewalk.”
“No promises, sir.”
Something was happening in the city, something bigger than the assassination of one powerful man. Fire and smoke billowed up from an explosion a few blocks away, and the sounds of panic and the sporadic patter of automatic weapons could be heard from nearby streets. Phil looked at his watch and pressed a button to activate the emergency extraction signal.
“We need to get back to the safe house,” he told Barton. “Quickly.”
“Not gonna argue that one, sir.”
They skirted the larger thoroughfares, sticking to alleys and side streets as much as possible, which put them on a circuitous path to their destination. The going was slow and tense, but no one shot at them and nothing exploded dangerously close. After half an hour, they were almost within sight of the building, and the crowds and violence had thinned.
“Once we’re on the next street, it should be a straight shot,” Phil said. “We’ll take it at a run and keep close to the buildings.”
The mission report in his head read, Through no fault of myself or Agent Barton, the proverbial shit hit the fan. Recommend that S.H.I.E.L.D. agents avoid the region for the foreseeable future.
They rounded a corner onto the street and came face-to-helmet with an advancing line of soldiers in riot gear.
“Well, so much for that,” Barton muttered.
One of the soldiers caught sight of them and waved his baton menacingly, shouting, and they beat a hasty retreat.
“We’ll have to double back, try to get around their perimeter.”
Barton shook his head. “Looked like they had the whole street blocked off. If we can get close, though, and get up to one of the other roofs, the chopper can pick us up there.”
“There are classified documents in that apartment that need to be secured,” Phil said. “If the safe house is compromised....”
He was cut off by shots fired close at hand. Instinctively, he and Barton both flattened themselves against the wall, weapons at the ready. Barton was sweating from the heat and exertion, and the perspiration was beading along his hairline. In his stiff suit, Phil felt like he was suffocating.
Barton edged down the wall to peer down an adjacent street, and Phil almost put out a hand to stop him. They were too exposed already, but they certainly couldn’t stay put.
“Looks like more cartel goons,” Barton said. “A lot more.”
Phil frowned. “That’s not good news.”
Barton looked at him evenly for a second, then back toward the threat. The moment he made the decision came across his face as a look of fatal determination, clear and obvious, but Phil still wasn’t quick enough to stop him.
“Get to a roof,” he said. “I’ll draw them off and secure the safe house.”
“No. Barton, stop! Barton!” Phil called after him, but he was already gone.
Regretfully, Agent Barton was killed in action while acting like a dumbass.
There was more gunfire and a voice yelling that might have been Barton, and, for the space of three hammering heartbeats, Phil considered running into the fray after his wayward agent. He swallowed hard, knowing that would accomplish nothing, and went looking for a way up.
He found a fire escape and climbed to the nearest roof, where he could see the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicopter making wide circles over the area. He waved to get the pilot’s attention and stayed clear as it came in to land.
“We have to wait for Agent Barton!” Phil shouted into the pilot’s ear, but the agent shook her head.
“We’ve been recalled! Director’s orders! We have to clear out now, sir!”
Phil glanced back to where he’d climbed up, as if hoping to see Barton suddenly appear, fit and ready to go. He pressed his ear piece hopefully. “Barton, come in.”
There was no answer.
“Agent Barton, do you copy?”
“Five minutes!” Phil insisted.
“Can’t, sir! Now or never!”
Phil hesitated, but only for an instant. “Apprise Director Fury of the situation. Barton and I will exit the region and make contact.”
“That’s an order, agent.”
The pilot frowned, but she nodded. “Yes, sir! Good luck, sir!”
They were going to need it. “Thank you, agent. You, too.”
Phil watched the helicopter lift off the roof and make its way north across the sky, high above the city in chaos. It was entirely possible he’d just made a very stupid decision, but it was the right one. He had never in his life left an agent behind, and he wasn’t about to start now.
He made a circuit of the roof’s edge, scanning the streets below. The riot troops were beating off a gang of looters, and a woman was leading two children quickly in the opposite direction, one of them screaming. There was no sign of any cartel muscle, or of Barton.
He put aside the sense of dread that raised and focused.
Securing the safe house was priority one, and he had to assume, until otherwise informed, that the task remained undone. So he carefully judged the distance between this building and the next, got a running start, and jumped. It wasn’t far, but it was far enough to give him a jolt of misgiving until his feet landed hard on the other roof. He sprinted across, still watching the streets.
At the next roof edge, he paused. The distance was further, this time, and he wasn’t as certain of making it. The narrow pass between the buildings was empty, but the wide avenue between this block and the next was still spotted with soldiers. He could try the jump and possibly wind up as the aforementioned stain on the sidewalk, or he could climb down and take his chances of not getting shot, beaten, or arrested on the street. Considering these unappealing options, Phil looked toward the window of the little S.H.I.E.L.D. apartment, hardly more than twenty yards away.
There was movement in the window.
He dropped to a defensive position and took aim at the glass, squinting to try and make sense of what was happening. Suddenly, the window shattered outward, and Barton came hurtling through it.
Phil’s breath caught as Barton grabbed hold of the access ladder by what looked like the tips of his fingers, broken glass showering around him. He hung suspended for a moment, then braced his feet and slid down the ladder at a dizzying speed. He had cleared five stories before the apartment exploded.
The force of the blast knocked Barton loose, and he swung hard into the side of the building, still gripping the ladder with one hand. How he managed to hold on, Phil didn’t know, but he did, even as debris rained down around him. Phil let out a long, slow sigh of relief.
It wasn’t until the air had settled that Phil noticed something was wrong. Barton was still curled into the ladder, one arm threaded securely between the rungs, but his other arm was wrapped tight around his body, as if holding himself together.
The sinking feeling returned to Phil’s stomach as he realized Barton wasn’t moving.
It wasn’t the pain, really. It was the blood loss.
Clint forced himself to breathe deep and pretend it didn’t feel like the skin on his side was tearing further open every time his heart beat, even though it probably was.
Alright, so the pain wasn’t exactly helping.
He took another breath, bracing himself against the access ladder. As he exhaled slowly, he lifted one foot and lowered it, inch by inch, to the next rung down. Breathing in again, he let his weight settle.
His vision swam. He needed to get on the ground fast, before unconsciousness and gravity put him there. He let out another long breath, and moved his other foot.
Inhale. Settle. Exhale. Move.
The safe house was secure. Coulson was, he hoped, safely away. For now, Clint could put all his energy into staying alive. He breathed out.
Inhale. Settle. Exhale. Move.
He’d seen the S.H.I.E.L.D. chopper pass overhead, making a beeline for the horizon. Coulson had to be on it. He had to have made it.
Because now Clint was stranded here, hanging from a ladder, bleeding out, and he refused to believe it was for nothing.
Inhale. Settle. Exhale. Move.
Inhale. Settle. Exhale. Move.
Didn’t want you to leave me behind, sir.
Inhale. Settle. Exhale.... Rest.
His side throbbed. Every step down was like another stab, opening him up. He took a long, steadying breath.
He didn’t know how bad the wound was.
There was blood pooling in his right boot. It squished when he moved.
That was bad. It was also gross.
Inhale. Settle. Exhale. Move.
Maybe his unit would get to have that party, after all.
Inhale. Settle. Exhale. Move.
How long had he been on the ladder?
No one had started shooting at him, so it might not have been long.
Inhale. Exhale. Inhale.
How many more?
Someone was yelling at him. He must be in trouble again.
Inhale. Exhale. Move.
It sounded like Coulson, but Coulson was on a helicopter, going home.
Coulson was going home, and Clint was going to die on a ladder in South America.
Head spinning, Clint looked down to see Coulson standing on the sidewalk.
But Coulson was on a helicopter.
But Coulson was standing on the sidewalk.
But Coulson w-
“Barton, are you alright?”
Shit. Clint tightened his grip on the ladder, and dug a finger into the wound on his side. The pain was clear and sharp, bringing the world back into focus.
“Not really, sir!”
Shouting hurt. Breathing hurt.
“Can you make it down?”
He would have sworn Coulson sounded worried. Then again, blood loss could cause disorientation and hallucinations.
Clint looked back down. No, that was definitely the real Coulson. He was sweating. Hallucinations didn’t sweat.
“Working on it, sir.”
Inhale. Exhale. Move.
What number was that?
“You want to move a little faster?”
Clint laughed, and it didn’t hurt as much as it should have.
“Fuck you, sir.”
He started skipping down the rungs two at a time, though.
Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.
His breath was coming faster, and his head was getting lighter even as the ground got closer.
He’d lost count of where he was. All he could see was Coulson on the ground, staring up at him.
Guess he wasn’t planning to kill me, after all.
Clint took a step, slipped.
Coulson sounded panicked. Clint tried to say that he was fine, he’d be down in a minute, but his mouth tasted like static and wires and wouldn’t work. His vision blurred and closed, and the last thing he saw was his hand sliding off of the ladder.