The bar is hot, crowded, smoky; filled with anonymous customers, all more interested in how much liquor is in their glass than what kind. The bar is in a questionable neighborhood, but Clint doesn't scare easily and he doesn't feel any threat. It's late, too late. He figures he's off the clock. He just wants to drink and forget that he's got feelings for his handler that are inappropriate at best and positively embarrassing at the worst.
Why Coulson? It's something he's tried analyzing and it's beyond reasoning.
Phil dresses in exquisitely tailored suits, but he'll let Clint bleed on them without hesitation. He watches bad reality TV, but his bookshelves are filled with well-worn classics. He forgets to eat, but he always notices when Clint doesn't. He'll drink just about any kind of coffee as long as it's got caffeine in it, but he only drinks top-shelf liquor and wine. He keeps his stash of waxy, chocolate covered mini-doughnuts under lock and key in his office, but he'll share the last of his food and water with Clint when they're on an op. He has the demeanor of an accountant, but he's killed men with a Bic pen and a paper clip, and beneath those exquisite suits, he's all muscle. He's ridiculous. He's amazing. Clint loves him so much it hurts.
No matter how dire the situation, Coulson's voice is always there, quiet and reassuring. Talk to me, Barton. It's become his catch phrase, his safe word. His lifeline. He hasn't had that in his life. He's been beaten, abandoned, discarded. He's never been valued.
He contemplates the last swallow in his glass. He is nowhere near drunk enough. He raises a finger to signal the bartender. "Refill."
The bartender is talking to an attractive woman who is looking at Clint with a "come hither" smile. Great, just what he doesn't need. She comes over to him and he shakes his head. "Sorry, miss. I'm piss poor company tonight."
"At least let me buy this round." She licks her finger then runs the tip provocatively around the rim of his glass.
Clint isn't impressed. "Just so you know, I don't hang around here much."
"Perhaps I can convince you otherwise?" She pushes the glass towards him and raises her own. "To chance meetings?"
"Sure." Clint is too tired to make the effort to refuse. "Chance meetings." They touch glasses and he takes a few sips of his drink. He's lost his taste for alcohol. The woman kisses his cheek and walks out the door, her hips swaying in a blatant invitation for him to follow her.
The bartender gives Clint a sad look. "Half the men here have a raging hard-on just watching that piece of ass you just turned down."
"And the other half?"
"Married, scared to death, or gay. You're none of those."
"Right. Maybe I'm just tired." It's the truth, and he's had enough to drink. The room is starting to blur around the edges. Clint pulls a bill out of his pocket and lays it on the bar. "That should cover it," he says, and God damn, he doesn't think he's had that much to drink that his lips should be numb. He stands up, sways.
"Hey, buddy. I'm gonna call you a cab. Nobody leaves my place if I don't think they'll make it home in one piece."
"I'm good." But he isn't. Damn cheap liquor. "Maybe not," he slurs.
"Hey, Dooley, want a fare?" The bartender calls to a man sitting in the corner.
"Get this guy home, and better take a bucket. He looks like he's about to puke."
Clint shakes his head and regrets it when it feels like it's going to split open. There is something he needs to ask ... Something ... Focus, Barton. Focus. "D'you know ... that lady ... brought me that drink?" It's suddenly important that he knows.
"Never saw her before."
"Great." Dooley hauls his arm over Clint's shoulder and half carries him to his car. "Where you going?"
"To hell?" Clint's eyes are burning and the back of his throat feels thick. He manages to give Dooley an address then all goes dark.
Coulson closes his eyes and listens to the quiet notes of Duke Ellington's piano slip away into silence. He is still in his suit trousers, but his white shirt is unbuttoned and the sleeves are rolled up. His stocking feet are propped on his coffee table, his laptop is closed and he's drinking top shelf bourbon from a jelly glass. This is about as good as life gets, then why does it feel as if there's an empty space in his solitude? If he were at his office, even if he was at his desk working, Clint would be lounging on his couch, twirling a knife or an arrow to build the dexterity and the strength in his fingers; or sleeping, one arm dangling limply off the edge of the cushions, the other thrown over his eyes to block out any infiltrating light.
This is impossible, he tells himself. Why Barton, why now? He dresses in tattered jeans and vintage rock tees, but when he wears a suit, he could be an ad from GQ. He eats everything in sight, but he won't eat Phil's stash of doughnuts. He has a complete inability to stay still, but when he's on an op, he can be immobile for hours until even Phil can't distinguish him from his background. He talks nearly incessantly, but he can be silent for hours in Phil's company. The archer is a weapon with a vulnerable heart. He's ridiculous and beautiful. Phil aches when he's near, but aches even more when he's not.
As Clint would say, he was so fucked. Phil sips his bourbon and tries to deny that he has feelings that he should in no way be feeling. If he admits to them, then he's acknowledging he should not be Barton's handler, and that would kill him.
He closes his eyes and tries not to think of Barton. Big Fail. He finally opens his laptop and starts working on editing the situation reports from Sitwell's latest op, when there is a knock at his door.
His first thought is Barton! His second instinct is to draw his gun from the small of his back. He looks through the peephole and sees a stranger. He presses the intercom button. "Can I help you?"
"Umm, I got a guy in my car who says he knows you."
"I dunno. His ID says Barton. He was at the bar where I work. My boss said he wan't gonna let the dude drive as drunk as he is."
Phil believes him, but he doesn't know what to make of Barton because he's never seen Clint so hammered that he couldn't walk home. Phil sighs, "Okay, bring him up."
"He's here, on the floor."
Phil sighs and takes the chain off. He goes into the hall. Clint is sprawled on the floor. He is pale, sweating, shaking like he's got the DTs. Phil kneels down and sets a hand on Clint's cheek. "He's not drunk."
"You saying he's sick? Man, I hope it ain't contagious."
Phil digs in his pocket and pulls out two twenty dollar bills. "Help me bring him inside. This should cover the fare and the tip." Together, they carry Clint inside and to the couch. The driver flees as soon as he drapes Clint's legs over the arm of the couch.
Phil keeps a fairly sophisticated first aid kit on hand. Barton is barely conscious and when Phil takes his BP and pulse, it's low and thready. He isn't drunk, that much Phil is sure of; he has no fever, so that seems to rule out a contagion. Which leaves one other possibility -- a toxin. Slow-acting, or perhaps Clint didn't absorb enough to be lethal. Phil isn't taking any chances. He calls S.H.I.E.L.D. and tells them to get a medical team to his place fast.
By the time medical arrives, Clint has had two seizures and Phil, unflappable and cool as he usually appears, is clearly rattled by the severity of Clint's condition. The medics wheel the gurney to the treatment area where a team of medical personnel, headed by Clint's doctor is waiting.
"What's going on here?" Rina Wheldon asks Phil.
"I don't know. A cabbie left him on my doorstep like this."
"We're rushing tox screens, but if you have any idea what the poison is, it would help."
Phil shakes his head. "I wasn't there."
"Dr. Wheldon, he's seizing again," a nurse calls out, and Wheldon vanishes is a swirl of white lab coat, leaving Phil frozen in place, feeling helpless and angry. He isn't helpless, he tells himself. He is an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and he watches after his own.
He can't do anything here, but he can find out where Clint was, and who he met, talked to, who would do this to him. It wasn't an accident, that's all he knows. He takes out his phone and calls Natasha. "Romanoff, we have a problem. Meet me in medical."
She's there in less than five minutes, wearing jeans, a white t-shirt and a black leather jacket. Low-heeled boots and weapons are barely visible under the jacket cuffs. "What's going on? Where's Clint?"
Coulson's eyes flick to the treatment area, and Natasha pales. "What happened?"
"Apparently, he's been poisoned." Phil's Russian is good enough to know that Natasha's reply is raw profanity.
"What do we need to do?" she asks.
"Find the source."
Every S.H.I.E.L.D. agent has a subdermal chip implanted in their forearm. Fury isn't interested in their private lives, so when they're not on a mission, the chips are inactive, recording GIS coordinates, but not sending out signals. Once a mission is scheduled, the signals are activated. Coulson accesses Barton's chip and backtracks from S.H.I.E.L.D., to his apartment, to the bar where he had been drinking. "The Blue Note," he tells Natasha.
"Not his usual place," Natasha says quietly. "He wanted to be someplace where he wasn't recognized."
"Somebody recognized him," Phil pauses and his eyes scroll down rows of data. He extracts the file and sends it to Fury. He phones Fury. "Director, was Barton on a mission for you?" he asks softly when Fury answers.
"Because somebody activated his transponder. You, AD Hill and I are the only people authorized to do that. Hill is on the hellicarrier, I didn't have any reason to activate it, so that leaves you, sir."
He can almost hear Fury's mind working. "I asked and he agreed to meet a potential asset."
Phil damns Fury mentally before he continues. "That asset might have gotten Barton killed. He's been poisoned." He's fairly certain that Fury knows that, and even more certain that Fury will never admit it. "Who was the asset?"
Natasha's breath draws in. "He doesn't work alone. He has a partner, a woman known as "The Sorceress."
"Sir, you should not have sent Agent Barton in solo." Phil's voice is tight.
"It was a matter of expediency,"
"Now it's a matter of life and death ... Barton's. Sir, I would like to see the Mujhari file."
His computer chimes, announcing the arrival of the file. "Sir, Agent Romanoff and I are going to find them. I can't promise that we will bring her back alive, asset or not." He hangs up and looks at Natasha. "One more visit to Medical, then we go after them."
"Yes, sir." Natasha looks fierce, her eyes dark and angry. Phil is very glad she's on their side. She puts her hand on his arm. "Sir, I will kill the Sorceress if we find her."
"When, not if, Agent. I won't stop you once we get the information that will save Clint -- Barton's life." It's a slip, and Natasha's eyes flicker at that with slightly startled comprehension.
Her ferocity softens. "I'll wait here."
Phil goes back to Medical. Rina Wheldon is emerging from Clint's cubicle. She looks weary, worried. "Agent Coulson, I was going to call you."
Phil's stomach roils. "Is he ..." He can't say the word.
"No - No, nothing like that. I've started peritoneal dialysis to support his liver and put him the into a medically induced coma to halt the seizures. Neurology ran an EEG, and so far, there is no brain damage, so we want to keep it that way."
"Is that enough?"
"The treatment is a stopgap, Agent Coulson. I won't lie. So far our blood tests have failed to isolate the toxin. We need to know what it is before we can treat it or develop an antidote."
"We'll have get information, Doctor. How much time do we have?"
"He's young and strong. That's in our favor. He's stable for now, but there are no guarantees."
"May I see him?" Phil is almost afraid to ask, wondering how much he is giving away by asking.
"Of course, though he won't know you're there."
He'll know, Coulson thinks. He goes into the cubicle. Clint is hooked up to so many machines and tubes that Phil is afraid to dislodge them by moving closer. He does, carefully. He leans forward, his lips against Clint's ear. "Stay with me. Don't even think of leaving me." He makes a quick scan to be sure he is not being watched. "I'd take this poison from you if I could." His lips brush across Clint's lightly. "Don't you leave me. That's an order." In a way, he's grateful that Clint can't hear him, or if he can, he'll only remember it as part of a hallucination.
They go to the Blue Note bar. It's late and the bartender is cleaning up while the last lingering customers get their feet under them, finish their pool games or their last beers. He looks up when Phil walks over to the bar. "We stop serving at 2am."
"I'm aware of that. I'm not here for a drink." He pulls out a photograph. "Do you know this woman?"
The bartender squints at the picture. "Yeah, well not really, but she was in here earlier this evening."
"Did she speak to anybody?"
"A guy caught her eye. Mid-thirties. Blond. Good-looking. She asked if she could buy him a drink."
"What did he say?"
"Don't know. I gave him the drink, they spoke, and she left. He started to leave right after, but he was drunk so I got one of my customers who runs a gypsy cab to take him home."
Natasha steps forward and the bartender's eyes widen in appreciation. She looks at him, then turns to Coulson. "He's telling the truth. He doesn't know what happened." The bartender opens his mouth to object, but Phil breaks in before he can say anything.
"Did she have time to put something in his drink?"
"Nah, I served it myself." He pauses. "Wait, she licked her finger and then ran it along the rim of the glass ... I thought that was kinda weird."
Phil has no hope that the glass is still untouched, but he asks. "You wouldn't happen to have that glass?"
"Funny you should ask, but I just got a gift from a supplier with a couple of glasses as a 'thank you' for the business. I remember I poured one for him because he was drinking that brand."
"I suppose you've washed it," Phil sighs.
"Mister, this is your lucky day. My second dishwasher is on the fritz, so I'm down to one." He pulls out a plastic dishpan from under the bar. "There it is ..." he starts to reach for it, but Coulson's hand comes down hard. "Don't. Tasha?"
"Got it." She has gloves and a plastic evidence bag. She retrieves the glass, careful of the rim. She puts the glass in the bag and seals it, then strips off her gloves and drops them in the bag. I have my ways, and my sources. I will find her," she says, grimly.
"No. We're going back to headquarters. We'll discuss strategy later," he warns, and Natasha's seething anger subsides to a simmer. She knows better than to argue with Coulson when he has that look about him that means he won't brook any interference with his orders. "For Clint," he says quietly, and that quells Natasha's remaining rebellion.
"Of course." She is white-lipped, a little wide-eyed and skittish with guilt for putting revenge ahead of Clint's life. "I should have ..." She swallows and looks away. "Barton --"
Coulson catches her arm. "He'll be all right." She just nods and takes the evidence bag from him. On the way, he calls Medical and asks how much of a sample they need to identify the toxin.
"With the Stark Industry enhancements to our spectrometer, only a trace," the lab tech answers.
"Good, because that's all we have. How ... how is Barton?"
"His condition is as stable as we can maintain it." Phil can hear the "but" in his voice.
"We'll be there in five," Phil ends the call and presses his foot to the accelerator.
Four Hours Later
They are sitting on a bench outside the treatment area. Natasha's legs are drawn up and she has bitten her forefinger nail to the quick as she tends to do under stress. Phil finally takes her hand to keep her from drawing blood. It curls in his; small and warm. Her face is screened by the fall of her red hair and her shoulder shakes against his as she struggles to keep her composure.
The toxin was successfully isolated, but the treatments is long and involved. Phil is resigned to a wait. A nurse comes out of the curtains. "Agent Coulson, you's better come in."
"How is he?"
She doesn't answer, just holds the curtain aside and Natasha is gripping his hand as hard as she can. Phil winces. "Natasha ... I need to do this. Alone." She nods, her eyes brilliant with tears and releases him reluctantly. "I'll call you in, I promise."
His heart is fluttering in his chest. He presses his palm to it, as if that will quiet its rhythm. He goes through the curtains. Most of the tubes have been removed but for the respirator and IVs piggybacked on a pole. Clint is pale, so pale that Coulson wonders if the respirator is all that is keeping him alive. There are harsh, bruised shadows under his eyes, but the heart monitor is steady. As Phil watches, his hands twitch slightly; a reassurance of life. He sits on the edge of the bed and strokes the back of Clint's hand. He leans forward, his fingers finding the pulse below Clint's jaw.
"I'm not Prince Phillip come to wake up Princess Aurora, so forget that, Barton. You'll have to wake up on your own." He belies his own words as his hand drifts tenderly across Clint's mussed hair. He picks up Clint's lax hand and kisses the inside of his wrist where the heartbeat pulses against his lips. Alive. It's all he's ever wanted, truly. He doesn't expect more than hope. Hope and a second chance to get it right. He stands up and pushes the curtain aside. "You can come in, Natasha."
She's up and inside in a quick, graceful movement. "He's all right?"
"He's all right. Sit with him. I need to talk to Dr. Wheldon." He stops in the cafeteria on the way to her office and buys two cups of coffee.
Dr. Wheldon looks as tired as Clint. Her usually smooth dark hair has escaped its knot and her bangs are falling into her eyes. She brushes them aside impatiently. "Is this a bribe?" she asks.
"It's a reward. Thank you for saving Agent Barton."
"We couldn't have done it without the trace evidence on the glass. The poison was a neurotoxin, lethal, but slow-acting so it would be hard to track to the source. Fortunately, Agent Barton ingested a minimal amount, he's unusually strong, and he had the good sense to tell the cabbie to drive to your apartment instead of to his own, where he might have died before anybody found him."
"We got lucky," Phil says, that odd thump in his chest echoing the fear of what might have been. "That would have been ... a great loss." He takes a breath. "What is the prognosis?"
Wheldon shrugs. "Two days of testing to make sure there are no lingering effects, another week of home rest, a week of light duty."
"He'll love that," Coulson gives her a wry smile. "Thank you again. When will you wean him off the drugs?"
"We started an hour ago when his blood work and vitals began improving. He should be off the ventilator in another hour. After that, it's just a matter of time. I'm expecting sooner rather than later."
Phil wonders if she can see his relief; the almost visible weight she has lifted off his shoulders. "I'd like to stay."
"Of course." She touches his arm lightly. "You saved his life."
"Not as many times as he's saved mine."
He feels like he's swimming up from deep water. There is pressure on his chest and in his throat like he's been pushing his way up to the surface. He's struggling to breathe, struggling to open his throat and he feels the panic bubbling up in his chest and lungs.
"Easy! Easy, Barton. You can do this. Calm down. Calm. Hush." The voice, the voice that is always there in his ear. Talk to me, Barton. Tell me what you see. Be my eyes. That voice centers him. Other hands are at his back, raising him upright.
A woman's voice is telling him to cough hard, and he does, the rasp of a tube being pulled out of his throat making him gag and cough; he feels the press of a plastic straw against his lips. "Small sips," the woman's voice says, and he obeys. He is guided gently back to the pillow which is raised up now. He opens his eyes, squints against the invading light. "Ouch," he whispers.
The lights dim. "Better?"
He turns his head and Coulson is standing at his bedside, the cup of water in hand. No tie. "The world must be ending. Agent Coulson is without a tie."
"I don't sleep in it," Coulson says mildly.
Clint blames the image of Coulson wearing only a tie on the remaining drugs in his system. He frowns. "What happened?"
"A woman called The Sorceress according to Agent Romanoff. She slipped poison into your drink."
Clint swears softly. "The woman in the bar," he recalls. "God, how could I be so stupid?"
"You were drinking," Coulson says. "Alone." He decides this is not the time to bring up Fury's role in the op.
"Not much of an excuse." He can't look at Coulson, not when he remembers why he was drinking alone.
"You came to me, " Coulson says, his eyes skating away from Clint's briefly before he looks at him.
"I knew you would save my life."
Coulson smiles and shakes his head. "You were unconscious."
"My subconscious knew." Clint tries to glare, but he's getting tired and his head is aching.
"Stop arguing and listen to me." Phil sits next to him on the bed, which alone makes Clint's eyes widen. "Nobody is saying you did anything wrong, that you did anything stupid. The bartender said you had one drink. One, and that you took a few sips of the second drink. You weren't drunk. You were poisoned."
Clint is too tired to argue. He closes his eyes. He isn't sure if he's dreaming that Phil's warm hand is over his, gentle and strong. It's a good dream if it is one. It's one he'd like to keep, so he sleeps.
When he wakes up, Coulson is gone, but Natasha is sitting on the chair, her legs drawn up, her arms wrapped around her knees, watching him from behind a curtain of her hair. When she realizes he's awake, she straightens and shoves the waves back from her face. "You're awake, маленький ястреб . He doesn't think the endearment 'Little Hawk' quite fits, but she has always called him that.
"I think so," he says. His head has stopped pounding and his voice sounds more normal and less like he's been swallowing gravel. "Where's Coulson?"
"I sent him to get some rest. How long do you think you were asleep?"
"Couple of hours?"
"Try twelve. I've been here for five hours," she says, answering him before he can ask.
"The doctor says you need the sleep for your body to recover from the toxin. We thought you were going to die."
Clint gives her a look. "Not even close," he says. "Budapest. That was close."
It's an old argument and Natasha glares at him before she smiles. "You'll never give that up?"
"Nope." He looks happy, younger, and there is color returning to his lips. "Can I have something to eat?"
"I'll ask." She uncurls and stretches like a cat ... with claws.
Clint looks at the IV in his arm with distaste. He's about to get out of bed when Phil comes through the curtain. "Going somewhere?" he asks.
"I thought I might." Phil raises a brow. "I have to piss," Clint says, annoyed.
Phil comes to the bedside. "Let me help."
It's not the first time, and Clint leans into him, needing the support but feeling vaguely disturbed by how good it feels to have Phil's arm around him. He deals with his body's needs, aware of Phil despite Coulson's tact.
When he's back in bed, Tasha returns with a tray of food. The ubiquitous broth, the hard roll, the generally awful coffee. He gives Tasha a look. "Are you trying to poison me again?"
"Poison is a coward's weapon," she says loftily and even Phil has to stifle a smile. "When I find her, she will see what my weapons are." From anybody else, it would be a boast, from Natasha it is a promise. She kisses his forehead. "Goodnight, маленький ястреб."
"That's a scary woman," Clint says fondly. "Good thing she's on our side."
"I don't like to think otherwise about either of you."
Despite his slight smile, he still seems tired, even in a fresh shirt and perfect suit. Clint could look at him all night. Hell, he could look at him for the rest of his life. In that one moment, he is completely unguarded and it is only by chance that Coulson happens to lock on it. Stunned, Clint can't look away or shield himself. It's the moment before he commits to a shot; that narrowing of his world, his focus. It's the moment he decides to leap; the solid surface falling away to air and the landing uncertain. There's nothing to do but release the arrow, to trust the currents of the air and his own balance.
Phil can't breathe. He has loved Clint for a long time. He has hid it for a long time, because he can't afford to be vulnerable, can't afford to lose focus on missions when he knows ... knows ... that he could be sending Clint to his death. Phil was in the military and has a clear-eyed understanding of the burdens of command. Every decision could be life and death for somebody. He's lost men and women; he carries the scars of battles won and lost; but he has never lost his heart. Looking into Clint's eyes, he knows this is it. This is what love is, what truth is, who he will die for if he has to, and live for as long as his heart beats.
The beauty is that they both came to this point at the same time. There is a peace in knowing that. He holds out his hand and Clint's wraps around it; strong, rough, warm. The lights dim in the treatment area, wrapping them in an intimate space. Phil leans down and places his lips on Clint's. They are dry, slightly rough, but immeasurably sweet under Phil's.
Clint sinks into the safety of Phil's kiss. He holds onto Phil's shirt, which smells like soap and starch and Phil. He sighs and smiles and when he opens his eyes, Phil is smiling, too. "So, we're good?" Clint asks.
"Oh, I think we're better than good." He stands up, his hand lingers in Clint's briefly. "I'll see you in the morning."
"Isn't it morning?"
"Somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean it is."
"Oh." Clint's eyelids are drooping and as they close, he feels the brush of Phil's lips across the lids. It is incredible, cherishing, and this is something Clint has never had in his life. There is one thing he has to say while his brain and mouth are still in sync. "Thank you for saving my life."
"I would have taken the poison from your mouth with my kiss," Phil says softly, and Clint can't believe he deserves that kind of love, but he won't diminish the value of Phil's words, of his faith in Clint's worth. "But I don't have to do that, and you're not going to die. I count that as a win."
"Yeah." Clint yawns and his hand releases Phil's shirt and lies open on the sheets. Phil touches the calloused tips lightly. He could leave, but he doesn't. He pulls a tablet out of his briefcase and starts work on mission reports for Director Fury. Just because he's had the most revelatory moment of his life doesn't mean that the rest of the world stops spinning.