Regaining consciousness via bucket of cold water being flung over him wasn’t Phil Coulson’s least favorite way to regain consciousness, but it was definitely in the bottom five (better than electrodes, worse than face-slapping). It was usually uncomfortable, frequently painful, sometimes led to hypothermia, and had the potential to short out any bits of technology that one might have managed to secure on one’s person prior to capture.
Phil had been told on several occasions that it was off-putting for him to have catalogued his order of preference for things like torture variety. He’d always found that sentiment rather unfair; it wasn’t that Phil had set out to keep track, he just had an organized turn of mind. The lists just sort of… happened. They gave him something to think about when things were going poorly, which was a distressingly frequent state of affairs in his line of work.
This particular return to consciousness found Phil in a type III (bound), subtype b (seated) dash two (rope, cloth, or other non-metallic bonds) captivity situation; pretty standard, all in all, and this particular evil dungeon was hot enough that the cold water might have even been refreshing if it hadn’t smelled so terrible.
He gasped and shook his head, making a show of being dazed, and tried to take an inventory. He could feel stubble brushing against his collar, which spoke of having been unconscious longer than he’d thought; this could complicate things, especially if he’d been taken too far from the op command center they’d set up in Pahrump. He wouldn’t be able to count on a quick rescue.
Continuing his inventory, he found that his bonds were plain cotton line—was that a clothesline, seriously? it was almost insulting—and loose enough to give him nearly two inches of wiggle room; he still had all his clothes on, even his shoes and belt.
Phil suspected from the shoddiness of their attempts to secure him that his cover—a criminal accountant being brought in to help the criminal syndicate du jour cover their financial tracks—was intact. His theory was quickly confirmed when his captors started making threats and demanding information: it seemed like they’d had the misfortune to become the target of a rival group, who were hoping to cherry-pick some cash (much-needed, by the look of Phil’s cell) by capturing the money man. Phil cowered and begged and made promises that a smarter and less greedy class of villain would have known he’d never be able to follow through on, while cataloging his assets, to wit:
-One (1) set of lockpicks, hidden in the heel of his left shoe;
-One (1) wooden chair, rickety and probably easy to break;
-One (1) blade, suitable for sawing through ropes, concealed in his belt buckle;
-One (1) belt, reinforced with kevlar webbing, load-bearing up to 500 pounds;
-Two (2) small ceramic knives, in hidden sheaths attached to his sock garters;
-One (1) fountain pen, with titanium-reinforced nib, suitable for stabbing as well as writing a lovely fluid line, in his inner coat pocket; and
-One (1) Agent Clint Barton, sharpshooter, smartass, and Phil’s very good friend, location currently unknown.
A little strategic bluster about how his “bodyguard” would soon come for him resulted, as Phil had hoped, in Incompetent Asshole #1 boasting that “Cliff” had been apprehended right along with Phil and was currently under the influence of “truth serum” and spilling all of Phil’s secrets.
Phil highly doubted it, but still. It was the principle of the thing. God knew what absurd concoction they’d been sold as truth serum, anyway; it couldn’t be wholesome.
Phil sighed. There was nothing of further use to be gotten out of the situation; time to get to work.
It was almost time to go. Phil had dealt with their captors and recovered Clint, who was blitzed out of his mind on “truth serum” and nursing assorted injuries. That part, as far as it went, had been fairly standard. Even the discovery that the base had no communication capability beyond a closed-circuit videoconference setup was annoying but not out of the realm of plausibility; information security was much easier to maintain when you just didn’t let your staff communicate with outsiders, after all. The real trouble had come when Phil had gone to find the garage, hoping for a nice jeep or at the least some ATVs, and had found it empty. It was honestly baffling; the base hadn’t exactly been fully-staffed, but there had been more than a dozen people there all told; they had to have arrived somehow. But there was no motor pool, no obvious mechanic’s work area, no motorized transport of any kind. What there was, he finally found, was a sign-up sheet for a vanpool—a vanpool—and some vague references to “the next delivery.” As best as he was able to determine, the staff of this particular base got dropped off and then just stayed until they were picked up again. Phil wasn’t in any particular hurry to find out when the next arrival would be. He gave himself ninety seconds to curse his captors and all their works, then another sixty to acknowledge the gnawing concern he felt for Clint, who was certainly in no condition for a desert hike; then he pushed it all aside, the worry and the anger and the sheer frustration at the absurdity of the whole thing, and started brainstorming solutions.
Forty minutes later, Phil had managed to find supplies, and had changed his suit and dress shoes for some more desert-appropriate BDUs and boots that he’d found in one of the lockers. He’d activated the emergency transponder hidden in the waistband of his underwear, hoping that the cold-water dousing he’d taken hadn’t destroyed it; he’d left a coded message in his former cell in case a would-be rescuer found where they’d been before where they actually were. He’d even managed a stopgap solution for Clint’s transportation problem. It was a good hour’s work, honestly.
There was just one more thing to take care of.
“Giddy-up!” Phil said.
The horse ignored him, nuzzling placidly along the scrubby grass by the side of the dirt road, taking delicate bites here and there.
“Yah!” Phil tried. “Get up?” He tugged on the horse’s… straps. The handley things. The reins maybe? Phil hadn’t gone to that part of summer camp. There’d been other programming options that had interested him more; knots, of course, and swimming, and, ironically enough given his current situation, archery. (It was this childhood interest that had made him so fascinated with Clint Barton from the beginning, he maintained, and nothing to do with Clint’s cocky grin, or the animal grace of his body in motion, or his essential, inexplicably endearing… Clint-ness.)
The horse, unimpressed, continued to ignore him. On its back, Clint blinked sleepily and turned to look at Phil, too fast; he started to slide off the horse again. Phil caught him just in time.
Clint leaned heavily against him, his face mushed into the top of Phil’s head. Phil could feel his damp, hot breath against his scalp, which wasn’t nearly as pleasant in real life as it had been in certain idle daydreams Phil may or may not have occasionally permitted himself.
“Heeeeeeey,” Clint said, in a stoned drawl that made him sound far too much like Keanu Reeves for Phil’s peace of mind. “Phil. Hey, Phil.”
“Yes, Barton?” Phil reminded himself that Clint had been drugged—rather inexpertly, if the ugly marks on his arms were any indication—and was not responsible for said drugs giving him, not only what seemed to be one hell of a buzz, but also short-term memory loss and a tragic inability not to say whatever crossed his mind.
Seriously, what kind of fly-by-night, slipshod criminal operation managed semi-functional truth serum but had neither communications equipment nor transportation in their desert lair? Maybe Phil had missed something after all, some kind of cleverly-hidden comms hub or auxiliary garage, because it seemed absurd to believe that even the most incompetent criminals could actually be dependent on a horse to get them to and fro on their nefarious errands. A horse. A single horse. A single, awful horse, who had already bitten Phil once and taken a steaming crap on his shoe. If Clint’s interrogators hadn’t also managed to fuck up his knee—which was swollen and purpling in a way that Phil did not like—Phil would have given the whole thing up as a bad job, but even on Phil’s best day he couldn’t carry a man Clint’s size far. And this? Was far from his best day.
His best day would probably involve a perfectly-mixed drink, soft, comfortable clothes, and a lovely few hours sitting on the couch tucked up against… someone, catching up with his DVR backlog while expertly sniping some rare Cap memorabilia on eBay.
“I’m onna horse, motherfucker!” Clint said into Phil’s hair, and started laughing hysterically to himself.
“Yes, Barton,” Phil said patiently, pulling his attention back to the here and now and laying a steadying hand on Clint’s broad back, hot and faintly trembling with the effects of the drugs.
Clint hauled himself unsteadily back upright, then looked around in apparent surprise. “Why’m I onna horse, Phil?”
Phil sighed, reminding himself that at least the drugs seemed to be keeping Clint’s pain under control. “Because apparently I was a supervillain in a previous life and carry deep, unpaid karmic debts,” he said.
“Aw,” Clint said, face scrunching up. “Phil, no.” He leaned over—Phil had to catch him again; he was seriously considering tying him to the saddle at this point—and thumped Phil’s head a few times with what Phil thought were meant to be reassuring pats. “You c’ld never be anything but a hero. You save people aaaaallla time.”
Phil looked up into Clint’s unfocused, dopey gaze, and his chest clenched with a wave of entirely inappropriate affection. Clint was his friend, he reminded himself, his very good friend who had never shown any sign of wanting to be more than that. Furthermore, Phil was both his field commander (albeit dotted-line) and sober, and therefore doubly barred from giving in to any less-than platonic impulses like, say, smoothing the little crease between Clint’s eyebrows out with kisses.
“I appreciate that,” he told him.
The horse took a step, reaching for a clump of dry grass that it liked better than its previous, seemingly identical, clump of dry grass. Clint swayed in the saddle, letting out a shocked little “eep” sound that was honestly hilarious, and then looked down, jaw dropping.
“Phil!” he said. “I’m onna horse!” He frowned, looking searchingly into the middle distance. “…What were we talkin’ bout?”
In the background, the evil desert lair smoked gently.
“We were talking about how we’re escaping now,” Phil told him. “You’re going to ride the horse and I’m going to walk next to you and hold the… these.” He waved the straps.
“Oh,” Clint said. “‘kay.” He straightened up, somehow not toppling off this time, and clucked with his tongue. The horse pricked up its ears, lifted its head away from the grass, and, wonder of wonders, started walking, pulling its straps right out of Phil’s hands.
Phil watched this apparent miracle for a minute before scurrying after them. “Barton!” he yelled. “That’s the wrong way!”
Fortunately, Barton’s equestrian instincts seemed to have finally surfaced, because once Phil got him to turn the horse around, he stopped nearly falling off it. In fact, he rode it with a sort of slinky hip-roll that was terrible for Phil’s composure—or would have been, if he’d had any composure left. It was as though, once the appropriate muscle memory was summoned, Clint could continue using it indefinitely. Phil was not thinking about that languid motion being put to use in any other context, though, because he was not the kind of bad-touch boss that thought about his agents sexually when they were in distress, for fuck’s sake. He wasn’t.
“Phil,” Clint said, after they’d been traveling for about an hour. “Phil, I’m hot.”
“I know, all right? Stop rubbing it in,” Phil snapped, then cut himself off with a half-swallowed urk. “I mean, er.”
Clint, fortunately, was plucking at his shirt, frowning, and didn’t appear to have heard him. “Imma take this off,” he said, and started to wriggle the shirt over his head, somehow still keeping his seat on the horse, and sweet mother of everything holy, what had Phil done to deserve this?
Clint wrangled himself out of most of the shirt before getting stuck. “Aww, shirt,” he said, his muffled voice plaintive from inside folds of sweaty cotton. “Phil, c’mere, help.”
Phil sighed. “I’m not sure I can reach,” he said. Loathe as he was to suggest that Clint get off the horse after all the effort Phil had expended keeping him on it, he wasn’t sure what else would work. “Why don’t you put your shirt back on,” he suggested, without much hope for success.
“Noooo, I c’n do it, just hold th’ reins,” Clint said, shoving the str—reins at Phil.
He took them, holding them at arm’s length and keeping well away from the horse’s head. He already had an apple-sized, throbbing contusion on the meat of his shoulder thanks to the wretched creature; he wasn’t giving it any further opportunity to get at him if he didn’t have to. He was already going to have to get another tetanus booster. Maybe also rabies prophylaxis. Did horses get rabid? He couldn’t remember.
Next to him, the slanting red-gold evening sun slid over Clint’s sweat-slick torso, picking out his contours like he was on display at a slightly lascivious art gallery. Phil’s mouth went dry—drier—and all thoughts of horse disease vanished as a shiver chased its way across his skin. He told himself firmly that it was due to the desert wind.
Clint finally got the shirt off with a triumphant cry, whipping it in circles over his head like a tipsy Chippendale. Not that Phil would know what that looked like. You just heard things, sometimes. Because of missions.
“Don’t throw it away!” he called. “You’re going to want that—”
Clint snapped the shirt like a slingshot, sending it sailing over the horse’s head to drape over the top of a nearby cactus.
“…later,” Phil finished. He managed not to sigh this time. “Here, take these back and hold still while I get your shirt.” He tossed the reins back to Clint, who of course caught them neatly, one-handed.
“But I don’ wannit,” Clint said, pouting. It was not attractive, because Clint was a grown man and a respected agent, and Phil was absolutely not thinking of bopping his bottom lip affectionately.
“You’ll want it when the temperature dips thirty degrees tonight,” Phil told him. “Just… don’t go anywhere.”
“‘Kay,” Clint said, sunny and agreeable in a way that he very seldom was, further evidence that he was not himself and anything he said or did until he’d metabolized the “truth serum” wasn’t to be trusted.
The shirt, it turned out, was really well attached to the cactus. After ten very scratchy minutes, Phil was left holding what was essentially a pile of streamers with one sleeve and a crewneck. He shoved it into one of the saddlebags anyway; maybe they’d need it for something later.
Clint, who’d been staring dreamily off into the distance, startled at the jostling near his hip. “Phil!” he said, sounding honestly delighted, face creasing in a wide smile. “Hi!”
Phil smiled back despite himself. “Hi,” he said.
“I have a horse,” Clint told him. “Have you mettim? He’s…” he trailed off, face creasing. “Phil, what’s ‘is name?”
Phil blinked. “What?”
“My horse, I forgot ‘is name,” Clint said. He leaned forward—Phil reached out unnecessarily to catch him—and patted the horse’s neck. “I’m sorry, horse.”
“It doesn’t have a name,” Phil said, keeping his tone soothing. The last thing he needed was for Clint’s trip to take a paranoid turn. He had a nightmarish mental image of Clint panicking and galloping away, never to be seen again. He wondered if he could tie them together somehow. Of course, that might end up in Phil meeting an undignified death by horse-dragging. He should just focus on keeping Clint calm. “Don’t worry, Barton, you didn’t forget.”
“Oh.” Clint was silent for a moment, idly scratching the horse’s pelt. The horse made a happy-sounding noise. Well, who wouldn’t, honestly?
“Come on,” Phil said. He had to keep focused on the goal, or they’d never get out of this. “We have to keep going.”
“Through th’desert?” Clint said.
“Yes,” Phil said, patient. “Through the desert.”
“The way your knee is looking? Yes, Barton, you need to stay on the horse.”
Clint grinned, wide and wicked. “Th’horse with no name.”
Phil just stared at Clint for a minute while he snickered, then turned sharply on his heel and started walking again. “Come on,” he said over his shoulder. With any luck, the drugs would mercifully erase the thought from Clint’s mind. All Phil had to do was give it a few minutes, and…
“Onna first part of th’journey,” Clint sang, slurred but tuneful, “I w’s lookin’ at all th’life…”
Phil slumped. Just once, he thought, why couldn’t he be the one happily high during an escape?
Clint knew all the lyrics to “A Horse With No Name,” and somehow managed to make the horse walk in approximate time.
Phil kept his eyes fixed grimly on the horizon and reminded himself that at least this wasn’t as bad as that time in Antananarivo.
Sunset in the desert was actually quite beautiful, especially once Clint got tired of singing. The blazing heat was starting to dissipate, and the weather, for the moment, was pleasantly warm and breezy instead of feeling like the inside of a convection oven. On the horizon, the sky swirled with streaks of color, orange and pink and purple and red, lavish as a painting.
“Let’s pause for a minute and eat something,” Phil suggested. They’d need to keep moving through the night as much as possible, so they might as well stop before the wind turned chilly. Clint pulled the horse to a halt. He shifted his weight, as though preparing to dismount, then settled back into the saddle with a pained grunt.
“Clint?” Phil moved toward him, anxious. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’ think I should get down,” Clint said.
Phil laid his hand as gently as he could against Clint’s swollen knee. Clint hissed.
“Sorry,” Phil said, patting absently at a safe part of Clint and then feeling his face go hot when he realized it was his thigh. He focused on the injury. He’d bound it up as best he could before putting Clint on the horse, but it was still hot to the touch and huge, filling Clint’s pant leg and straining the seams. They’d probably have to cut him out of those pants, but for now Phil hoped that the tight fabric was at least providing a little extra support.
“I think you’re right,” he told Clint. “As long as you’re okay up there, we should probably minimize the amount of getting on and off you have to do.” He rummaged in the saddlebags. “Here, I’ll get you something to eat and drink, you just… sit tight. Look at the sunset or something.”
“’s pretty,” Clint said, voice drifting again.
“Yeah,” Phil said. He’d stuffed everything useful he could find into the saddlebags and the backpack he was wearing, including several honest-to-God sack lunches he’d taken from the evil lair’s evil breakroom. “Do you want peanut butter and jelly, or…” he rummaged, “string cheese and hummus?”
“Jelly please,” Clint said, so Phil handed him up the crumpled brown bag.
“I’ve got water when you need some,” he told Clint, peeling back the foil lid of the hummus cup and opening the baggie of mini-carrots. They ate in silence—Clint’s lunch yielded a bunch of grapes and a fun-size Baby Ruth, while Phil’s had a packet of Dora the Explorer fruit snacks and a single melted Lindt truffle that he licked off the foil wrapper—and Phil crumpled all the trash into a spare corner of the saddlebag. He got them each a bottle of water. “Drink it all,” he told Clint. “Not too fast.”
“Yessir,” Clint said agreeably, cracking the bottle open and slurping the lukewarm contents with apparent enjoyment.
Phil drained his own bottle, making himself stop several times to let his stomach settle; it would do no good if he drank too quickly and threw up some of their limited water supply. He tucked the empty bottle away.
“M done,” Clint said.
“Hang onto the bottle in case you have to piss later,” Phil told him. It would be easier than trying to get him down from the horse.
“Kay,” Clint agreed. “Hey, Phil?”
Phil stretched, trying to work out the kinks in his back and the soreness in his feet from the unfamiliar boots. “Yes?”
“Did you get th’horse for me?”
“Yes,” Phil said, cautious.
Clint sniffled, then swiped his arm across his nose. “Thank you, I love’im,” he said. “Only, Phil, I can’t r’member. What’s ‘is name?”
“He hasn’t got a name, Barton,” Phil said, absently. He realized at soon as he’d said it that he was setting himself up for more of America’s greatest hits, but in his own defense, his brain was occupied trying not to attribute the shine in Clint’s eyes to anything more than his love of animals and his chemically altered state.
Clint’s face fell, and Phil fought back the urge to do something about it. It was an urge he was familiar with, and indulging it never, ever ended well.
“He needs one, though,” Clint said, interrupting Phil’s mental list of all the disasters that could be directly or indirectly attributed to his own desire to make Clint Barton smile at him. “Y’can’t just call ‘im ‘horse.’ That’s de—dehum—dehumanimizing.”
Phil blinked. “But he isn’t a human,” he pointed out, reasonably. “He’s a horse.”
“‘slike bein’ called ‘boy,’” Clint continued, ignoring him. “Trick useta call me that. All…alllllways hated it.” He patted the horse’s neck. “Not gunna do that to m’friend.”
“So name him,” Phil said. He reminded himself that Buck Chisholm had met the sticky end that he so richly deserved, and was therefore not able to be paid a little visit, and that even if he had been, Natasha would have undoubtedly already paid it.
“’s y’r present, though,” Clint said, “so you hafta, Phil, kay?”
“I’m really not good at naming pets, Barton,” Phil protested, weakly.
Phil sighed, folding like a pair of twos in the face of Clint’s pleading expression. He looked at the horse, which was sort of… brownish? With white feet.
“Socks?” He suggested. His mother had once had a cat by that name.
Clint beamed. “Thank you, sir! C’mon, Socks.” He patted the horse again, then clucked at it, starting it walking down the road into the sunset once more. Phil hastily re-donned his pack and hurried to catch up.
Clint was singing again.
“I beeeen through the desert onna horse that’s named Socks, felt good ta get… offa the rocks,” he warbled.
“Phil? Phil. Hey, Phil. Phiiiiiiil.”
“Yes, Barton.” Drugged, Phil reminded himself. Clint was drugged, and none of this was his fault. After the last six times, the reminder was losing a certain amount of effectiveness.
“What’s m’horse’s name? ‘Cause I forgot again, sorry.”
Phil tried to think of something that didn’t lend itself to song. “Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec,” he said. He glanced sideways up at Clint to see if he was buying it. Clint was looking a bit bewildered, but thankfully not musically inspired. A part of Phil felt bad for ruining his fun, but only a very tiny part.
“‘slong,” Clint said.
“It’s a very dignified and artistic horse,” Phil said, keeping his tone grave. “It deserves an important name.”
“Oh.” Clint patted Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec again. It seemed to enjoy it. Phil thought somewhat bitterly about the creature’s luck then cut himself off, because Phil didn’t stand on false dignity but he had enough pride not to be jealous of a horse.
“‘Kay,” Clint said, several seconds after the part of the conversation where that would have made sense to say.
Phil eyed him with concern. He didn’t like that Clint was still this impaired after this long. “How are you feeling, Barton?”
Clint sniffled. “‘m cold, sir.”
Shit, he was probably dangerously cold; the temperature had dropped significantly since it got dark, and Clint wasn’t walking to generate heat. Phil had to get his head in the game before he got them both killed. “Stop a minute,” he said, and Clint obediently pulled Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec to a stop.
Closer, Phil could see that Clint was shivering; his entire torso was covered with goosebumps, nipples sharply peaked. “Fuck,” Phil said. “I’m sorry, Barton, let me get you something to wear.” He dug around in his pack for his rolled-up suit jacket, wishing he’d thought to steal a hoodie or something while they’d been back at the criminals’ impractical hideout. The jacket was summer weight, but it was at least wool and silk, and should help some. Unfortunately, while he was fairly sure he could get Clint into it, there was no way it would close over his chest. He found Clint’s shredded t-shirt, and sighed. At least it had dried out in the saddlebag, though it smelled far from fresh. Ah well. Phil was well-practiced in making do with what he had.
He took off the backpack and started unbuttoning his shirt. If he gave Clint his undershirt, it would at least give him some protection on his chest from the cold night wind. Phil wasn’t enthused about wearing a random criminal’s clothes next to the skin, but he’d done worse for a mission.
“Phil?” Clint was blinking at him, his big eyes and tufty hair owlish in the dim light.
“We need to get you warm,” Phil said, shrugging out of his dress shirt and peeling his undershirt over his head.
“You ‘ave a beautiful chest, sir,” Clint told him, serious in a way that sober people seldom were. “’s it fuzzy? Looks fuzzy. C’n I pet it?” He leaned forward precariously, reaching toward Phil, and swayed alarmingly in the saddle. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec whinnied in alarm, taking a few steps to get itself back under Clint’s center of gravity.
“Barton!” Phil snapped, ignoring the part of himself that wanted to move in closer and let Clint touch whatever he wanted, to hell with the consequences. “Sit up straight, dammit, you’re going to fall off.”
Clint’s spine straightened, and he looked down, his mouth falling open in surprised delight. Phil resisted, with difficulty, burying his face in his hands.
“Phil!” Clint said. “Did you gemme a horse? He’s so pretty! Whatzis name?”
“Admiral Lord Nelson,” Phil said, reaching for inner strength. “Put this on.” He handed Clint his t-shirt.
At least the difficulty of remembering which hole was for his head and which ones were for arms appeared to distract Clint from trying to pet him. Phil—grateful for small mercies, because he really was not sure what he would have done should Clint have succeeded—wrangled his dress shirt and pack back on while Clint got situated. Re-covered, he handed the jacket up, then twisted Clint’s ripped shirt into a sort of turban-hat thing. You lost the most heat from your head, after all, and it would also help protect him from the sun later; Phil hadn’t located any evil sunscreen in his earlier pillaging, so they were both approximately the color of a boiled lobster already.
Phil had saved a few of the baby carrots out of his evil sack lunch. He fed them to Admiral Lord Nelson, in gratitude for not letting Clint fall off earlier.
“It’s going to take the both of us to get him out of this,” he muttered, pretending to himself that he wasn’t talking to a horse.
Admiral Lord Nelson snorted at him in seeming agreement, blowing disgusting horse snot onto Phil’s sleeve.
“Ugh,” Phil said.
Hours passed, and the desert was washed stark blue-grey by the light of the full moon and the unobstructed stars. According to the information Phil had recovered from what had passed for a control room, the closest town was 37 miles north of the outpost. Phil’s current plan was to push on through the night and get as far as possible, then try to find some shelter to wait out the hottest part of the day before pushing on. With any luck, they’d hit town before the second dawn. With lots of luck, one of their trackers was still working and SHIELD would come for them long before then.
They needed to keep going either way, but the rigors of the day were starting to drag Phil down, and Clint seemed to be swaying in his saddle more and more as the night wore on.
“Talk to me, Barton,” Phil said. “We can't afford to sleep yet.”
“Kay,” Clint said, voice even blurrier than before; Phil hoped it was fatigue and not some kind of secondary reaction to the drugs. Phil waited, but Clint didn’t seem inclined to say anything else.
Phil tried to think of a conversational topic that was neither emotionally fraught nor too complicated for Clint’s current state. “Tell me about riding, Clint,” he suggested eventually. “I didn’t know you liked horses so much.”
Clint perked up. “Horses ‘r great,” he said. “I always loved ‘em. ‘Swhy I wanted to go to th’circus when Barn said. An… nanimals.” He patted Admiral Lord Nelson fondly.
“Is that where you learned to ride?”
“Yeah.” Clint sighed. “Th’ ques… ques…”
“Those,” Clint agreed. “They lemme help with th’horses. Brush ‘em an’ stuff. Kep’ hangin’ round, they taught me.”
“Did you have a favorite horse?” Phil was fascinated by this little glimpse into Clint’s past; he didn’t talk about his childhood much, unless it was in the context of medical conversations. Campfire scar story hour was popular at SHIELD, but Delta no longer indulged, and when they worked with other teams Phil tried to steer the conversation in other directions. It was nice to hear about one of Clint’s rare happy memories.
“Toffee,” Clint said. “Good horse. She liked me. I useta bring ‘er treats but she even liked me when I didn’ have anything. Like you.”
"I always useta wonder, y’know?” Clint’s voice was slurred, but he sounded more aware than he had in a while. “What y’thought you were gonna get. What you were waitin' for. Cause it's always somethin'. Sometimes the longer they waited, th’more they wanted. You get used to it. Tryin’ not to take too much before y'know what it'll cost."
Phil clenched his jaw, holding back his reaction; Clint wasn't exactly in the best frame of mind to distinguish between anger at the assholes in his past and anger at him, and the last thing Phil wanted to do was cut him off.
"I wasn't waiting for anything, Barton," he said, forcing his voice to stay level. "Except maybe your after-action reports, sometimes.” And for you to stop looking hunted in the common areas. And for you to stop watching for a hidden agenda when I gave you positive feedback. And for you to realize that I—
"Know that now, sir," Clint said, his voice warm, almost indulgent under the drugs. "Took a while, yeah, but I know. ’S what I told Nat, that you’re the best.”
Phil preened a little despite himself. “The best handler?”
“No! Well, yeah, that too, but wasn’ what I meant that time. You’re th’ best person, you’re the only one who ever treated me like I was worth your time, even when I knew damn well I wasn’t. I tol’ her she could date you,” Clint said.
Phil wasn’t sure his ears were working right. “Hate me?”
“Naw, we’d never. Date you, I told her she c’d date you. Cause, y’know, you’re smart an’ handsome an’ a badass, an’ you’re good an’ you never make people do things they don’ wanna do, and you wouldn’ ever hurt her. Nobody else deserves her ‘cept you.”
Phil wasn’t entirely sure that he wasn’t drugged himself; he was fairly sure he was hallucinating. He wasn’t sure whether to feel happy that Clint valued him so highly or depressed at this further evidence that Clint didn’t want to take advantage of Phil’s apparent dateability himself.
“And how did she respond to your… generous offer?” Mocking laughter, maybe? A knife? Several knives?
Clint sighed, deep and melancholy. “Sh’ said she wouldn’ make me watch that. An’ I told her, Phil, I did, that it’s better it be her, right? Cause she’s all classy like you like, and I know you’d never go for me, so better it be someone else I love, right? Cause then you c’n both be happy.”
Phil was silent for long moments, his head spinning. Since he’d realized that his feelings for Clint went beyond the professional—a realization that had come shamefully late, for someone who was at least ostensibly in the information business—he had invested far too much time in hiding those feelings. His chest ached with sudden hope, but he cut it off before it could take root; Clint wasn’t himself, and nothing he said should be considered binding.
A sharp, bitter laugh escaped him. At least now he understood a few mysterious conversations with Natasha.
“I’m sorry,” Clint said, sounding distressed. “I promise, I won’t let it mess up the team, don't be mad, Phil, I won’t do anything.”
“I’m not mad,” he managed, his voice strangling in his throat.
“I promise,” Phil said.
Clint sighed. “Okay,” he said, and rode on quietly while Phil tried to process the complete upending of his perception of reality while simultaneously not getting his hopes up.
Still, though. “Someone else I love.” Someone else.
“…Phil?” Clint said, some time later. “Th’ horse…”
“Its name is William Howard Taft,” Phil said.
They kept walking. The next time he started to droop, Phil somehow got Clint to chatter on for nearly an hour about police procedurals, including a profane and surprisingly funny comparison of Law and Orders original flavor, Criminal Intent, and SVU, with a short digression into the British version and the short-lived one about the judge. Partway through a segue into what Phil thought was going to be a similar dissection of CSIs Miami and New York, he noticed the sky evening out, turning flatter and lighter. The sun would be coming up soon. They’d need to stop again before too much longer, to eat and hydrate and hold a bucket of water for William Howard Taft. He was trying to figure out the optimal timing—he was worried that if he stopped, he wouldn’t be able to start up again until he’d slept—when he caught a flash of movement out of the corner of his eye.
He froze, holding up his hand sharply in the signal for halt, and Clint went silent, snapping his jaw shut with an audible click and pulling William Howard Taft to a stop.
There were lights, flickering in the distance; he hoped at first for sunrise dirt-bikers or early commuters on a heretofore unnoticed road, but the pattern was far too regular, too familiar; a search. Unless their luck was even more spectacularly bizarre than usual, someone was looking for them.
Phil looked around. They were in a stony bit of desert, large boulders and broken rock formations studded around, keeping visibility low; it was as good a place as any to try to hide a horse. He moved as close to Clint as he could get. “Stay here,” he told Clint, his voice low. “Keep yourself and the horse quiet and try to look like a cactus. If you hear me give the emergency signal, run away as fast as the horse can carry you.”
Clint set his jaw. “M’not gonna leave you,” he said.
“You’ll need backup,” Phil insisted. “You run, and you go get Natasha and come back for me. You're not to try alone.” Clint looked like he was going to protest again. “I’ll have your word, Agent,” Phil said, stern, and Clint wilted.
“Jus’ don’t get caught, then,” he said, sulky.
“I’ll do my best.”
“Take this back,” Clint said, tugging Phil’s jacket off. “Stand out a mile in that light shirt.”
It was a good point. Phil took a moment to give Clint the pack, arm himself, and put the jacket back on; in the gray pre-dawn light, his charcoal wool would blend pretty well, especially once you took the dust into account. He rolled his shoulders, settling everything, and slipped away between the rocks.
He circled wide, keeping as much cover as possible between himself and the bobbing lights, edging ever nearer to the bright spot that seemed to be the center of the search. Finally, he found a particularly large and jagged boulder and peeked around the corner, hidden in shadow.
Phil nearly collapsed in relief, stepping out from behind his rock; it was a quinjet, and the rear hatch was lowered to reveal Natasha Romanoff, tac-suited and armed for bear. Her tense, ready posture relaxed as she caught sight of him, and she cocked her head.
“Hey there,” she called. “Need a lift?”
At that moment, honestly, she was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen, practically glowing against the dark interior: Venus rising from the surface of the quinjet.
“Tasha,” he breathed. “Oh thank God.”
She came out to meet him, moving fast without seeming to hurry. When Phil had emerged fully from behind the rock and no Barton followed, her eyes narrowed. “Clint?” she asked, voice clipped and businesslike.
“Injured but okay,” Phil assured her. “I left him back a ways, he's not the most mobile just now.”
“Ah,” she said, her tone speaking volumes. “Lead on.”
Now that he didn’t have to circle and hide, it took less than ten minutes to get back to Clint, who had actually managed to look remarkably cactus-like in his absence. Natasha's sharp eyes flicked between them, taking in Phil’s stolen boots, the heavy pack, Clint’s shirt-turban and swollen knee, and William Howard Taft. Her lips quirked.
“Take your vacation, Tasha,” she said, voice taking on a prissy tone that sounded nothing like Phil, thank you very much. “Barton and I will be fine without you, these guys are total amateurs.”
“Well, they were,” Phil insisted. “They were just… inconveniently located.”
“Nat!” Clint said, happily. “You came to get us! Look, Phil, Nat’s here.”
“Yes, Barton,” Phil said.
“Nat, look, I have a horse. He’s my friend! His name’s…” Clint trailed off, looking at Phil appealingly.
“Fyodor Dostoyevsky,” Phil said. He couldn’t start repeating now, it was a matter of pride. Natasha raised a quizzical eyebrow. “Don’t ask,” he muttered.
“Fyodor Dostoyevsky,” Clint finished triumphantly.
“Drugs?” she asked Phil.
“Drugs,” Phil agreed. “Also moderate beating, dehydration, sunburn, and what looks like a hell of a kick to the knee; he’ll need help getting off the horse.”
They postponed that issue for the time being, deciding to let Clint ride back to the jet. Fortunately, Natasha had brought one of SHIELD’s burlier medevac crews, and the group of them managed to get Clint down without doing him much additional damage. Unfortunately, once Clint realized that they were proposing to separate him from Fyodor Dostoyevsky, he pitched a fit of truly Bartonesque proportions, outright refusing to go. After a few minutes of getting nowhere with reasonable appeals, polite requests, and outright orders, one of the agents came over to where Phil was getting his own, less dramatic first aid.
“Sir,” Agent North said, looking pained, “Can you do something about this? It could be dangerous to give him further sedation on top of whatever it is they’ve already got him on, but if he keeps this up we might have to risk it.”
Phil tore himself reluctantly away from the bottle of chilled electrolyte solution he’d been nursing. Clint was standing unevenly on his good leg, leaning against Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s neck.
“Phil!” he said when Phil approached. He turned wide, sad eyes to meet him. “Tell ‘em, Phil. He’s my friend, we can’t just leave ‘im out here all alone, what if coyotes eat him?”
Fyodor Dostoyevsky nosed Clint’s shoulder, lipping at the trailing edge of his shirt-turban in apparent affection. Clint sighed and leaned more heavily into the horse’s flank.
“I won’t leave you, promise,” he said, patting it clumsily. “Phil’ll help us, you’ll see.”
Phil could feel his resolution and good sense melting away like sugar into coffee. Fuck.
“All right, Barton, I’ll see what I can do,” he said, and that was how he ended up putting a horse on a quinjet.
Natasha found the whole thing amusing; Phil was, despite himself (and his grudge over his shoes), a little touched when the horrid beast clopped docilely up the gangplank after Clint’s stretcher.
Fortunately, Fyodor Dostoyevsky seemed fairly placid about being in enclosed spaces. Phil had managed to improvise a sort of harness by tying the reins and other leather bits attached to the horse into the jet’s cargo rails, close to the back ramp for greater ease of later cleaning.
On the way home, he learned that it was possible for horses to get airsick.
When they finally got back to base and everyone had deplaned while trying to breathe through their mouths, Phil buttonholed a junior agent who was standing nearby, making the mistake of not looking busy.
“There’s a horse secured in the cargo area of the jet,” Phil told him. “I need you to make sure it’s given any necessary medical care and comfortable accommodations.”
The agent gaped at him. “S-sir? Is this a prank?”
Phil gave him his best unimpressed glare. “That horse is an important witness, Agent.”
“Y-yes, sir,” the agent squeaked.
Responsibility discharged for the moment, Phil turned and stalked inside. He wanted a gallon of coffee, a double bourbon, a steak, and a lukewarm bath. Maybe all at the same time.
Behind him, he heard the distant sound of affronted whinnying.
Clint was in medical for two days, mostly having hydration IVs and getting his knee seen to, and then discharged with strict orders to rest his leg and get plenty of electrolytes. Of course, being Clint, he ignored his instruction sheet and stumped his way to Phil’s office, the knee brace making his steps uneven and clumpy.
“Come in,” Phil said, just before he knocked. It was one of his favorite tricks.
The door swung open, looking like it would be creaking if it could, and revealed Clint, who looked sober but shifty-eyed. It looked like it would be scenario A, then: Ha Ha Those Wacky Drugs, We All Know How They Make You Say Wild Things.
Phil sighed. He wasn’t looking forward to being let down gently.
“Agent Barton,” he said. “Nice to see you back on your feet.”
“Thanks,” Clint said. “Um… you got a minute?”
So much for hoping for an unspoken mutual agreement never to speak of it again.
“Of course,” Phil said, hitting the hotkeys to blank his screen and turning his full attention Clintward—never a hardship, even under less than ideal circumstances.
Clint limped inside, forgoing both Phil’s guest chairs and the battered leather couch that was his usual domain, and perched one hip on the corner of Phil’s desk. Phil pushed his chair back, tilting his head up to meet Clint’s eyes. He tried not to react to Clint’s looming; after everything that happened, he couldn’t blame Clint for trying to re-assert some power.
"Nat says you don't want to date her," Clint blurted.
Phil blinked; that wasn’t the lead he’d been expecting. “I admire and respect Agent Romanoff as a colleague and I value and care for her as a friend,” he said. “But no, I don’t particularly want to date her.” He kept his voice level. “If she were going to date anyone, I’d have thought it would be you.”
Clint chuckled, a little rusty. “Tried it once, never again,” he said. “Too much like family for that to work, I think.” His voice got softer. “I never had a sister, but I think that’s what she is to me.”
“I’m glad,” Phil told him quietly. “You deserve that; you both do.”
“I do have a brother,” Clint said. “You’re nothing like him, fortunately.” He ducked his head, rubbing the back of his neck.
“Okay,” Phil said. He wasn’t entirely sure what was going on. The sensation was increasingly familiar the longer he worked this job.
“Did you really tell one of the juniors that my horse was a material witness?”
Phil allowed himself a tiny smile. “That’s classified, Agent.”
Clint laughed, the open, braying laughter Phil had only heard a few times, and Phil took heart. Things couldn't be all that bad, not if Clint could still laugh like this in front of him.
“I meant it, you know,” Clint said, not looking up. “I never meant to say it, and I’m sorry it happened the way it did, but it was all true.”
Phil stopped breathing. Someone else I love. “Well,” he managed, “Toulouse-Lautrec is maybe not the best name for a horse.”
“Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec,” Clint said. “And that’s not what I meant.”
Phil looked up, waiting until Clint met his eyes. He looked open, soft and vulnerable but not blurred; there were no drugs to blame this time. Phil thought about the things Clint had said in the desert. He let himself hear them, and this time he didn’t fight to repress the giddy feeling rising in his chest.
“You meant it?” he whispered.
“Then don’t be sorry,” Phil said. “I’m not. I’m—” his voice wavered. “I’m glad.”
Clint was still, focused and intent, his lips softly parted as though he were about to speak.
“I don’t even like horses,” Phil said. He stood up; the length of his body brushed Clint’s leg as he rose, and he thought they both shivered. He took a step further into Clint’s space, fitting himself in; he felt light-headed with adrenaline and the rising, rare conviction that things were going to go right this time. “And that particular horse bit me. But, as you told me multiple times, you loved him.”
“So you put him on a quinjet,” Clint said.
“So I put him on a quinjet, and I told Agent Nash that he was a witness, and I called in a favor with the governor of New York to get him a place at a sanctuary farm for retired police horses,” Phil admitted. “You can visit him, if you want.”
“Can I kiss you first?” Clint said. “Cause I’m pretty sure that’s where this is heading, but I still technically haven’t been discharged from Medical, so if it turns out I’ve been wildly misinterpreting things I’d appreciate it if you put it down to a lingering head injury or something.”
“Do you have a lingering head injury?” Phil asked.
“Not unless you’re about to tell me you think of me as a brother,” Clint said, his voice trying for detachment and missing by a wider margin than Clint ever missed anything else.
“I really, really don’t,” Phil said, and he cupped Clint’s face—bruised, and peeling, and so very dear—and leaned in close, and kissed him.
Clint lost his balance and they nearly fell off the desk right after, but that was okay. They could work on it; they had plenty of time.
Once Clint’s brace was off and they both had a free weekend, they went upstate to visit Clint’s horse.
“What did you tell the farm his name was?” Clint asked. “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt?”
“Toffee,” Phil said.
“Oh,” Clint said. He cleared his throat, and then he cleared it again. “That’s a good name.”
“I thought so,” Phil said. “He’s a good horse.”
He changed his mind later, when he was kissing Clint and Toffee started chewing on his hair, but that was okay. At least as far as unruly pets went, this one couldn’t fit in a city apartment.
“You know,” Clint said, “Maybe we should get a dog.”