Clint was exhausted. His body ached, his head throbbed, and he needed water, food, and sleep. In any order. But he was trained to be patient and focused in extreme conditions for seemingly inhuman periods of time, so he ignored all of that and slumped against the ventilation ductwork, never taking his eyes off the softly rising and falling chest of the pale, still figure in the bed below. His lips moved soundlessly with all the words he’d never had the balls to say to Phil’s face. Prayer, plea, incantation – whatever it took to keep Phil breathing.
He had no idea how long he had been here. Might have been hours, might have been days. Doctors and nurses and orderlies entered and exited in a steady stream, checking bandages and machines and vital signs and administering medications. Fury had been by twice.
The director hadn't stayed long either time. He'd simply come in, watched Phil breathe for a while, snapped out, "Order still stands, Agent," and walked out.
Clint had wanted to follow him, to shake him, deck him, demand to know why he hadn't told them Phil was still alive. He hadn't because he was afraid he'd collapse from exhaustion before he made it out of the ducts, afraid they'd find him and move Phil and he'd never find him again. He didn’t care about whatever plan or play or strategy Fury had in mind. The only thing that mattered was that Phil was alive, so Clint had stayed to make sure he remained that way.
Maybe if Natasha was around, or even Rogers, Clint could find a way to tell them, to show them. They could watch in shifts, he could maybe get some sleep, and Phil wouldn't disappear or -- or die the minute Clint took his eyes off him.
That couldn't happen, though, because the rest of them had scattered. He'd dropped Natasha at the airport himself after they'd seen Thor and his mindfucking bastard of a brother off. She was off to unmask the leaders of the WSC, to find something to use as leverage on each of them. It was a completely unsanctioned op, but hey, she was on vacation, and Clint had no doubt she’d return with more mud than even SHIELD could figure out a way to use. Rogers had disappeared on his bike, and God only knew where Banner had hidden himself.
That left Stark, and while Clint would grudgingly admit Tony was good to have around in a fight, stealth was not exactly a big part of his skill set.
So Clint was on his own. Infiltrating the helicarrier again had been easy, because they were still cleaning up the mess he'd made the first time he'd done it.
He tried to tell himself he should be out there, helping clean up debris and repair damaged sections of the carrier, but it was half-hearted at best. His place was here, watching his vulnerable handler's six. If he told himself often enough that this was just a protection detail, maybe he'd start to believe it.
He hadn't started out searching for Phil -- he'd been searching for his remains, or any information on where they -- he -- had been taken. Clint hadn’t known if Phil’s body had been released to his family, and there had been no SHIELD memorial service yet for all the agents lost before and during the Battle for Manhattan. SHIELD was ruthlessly efficient, which meant that cleanup and security were of paramount importance, and grieving could come later.
Guilt wrapped around him and squeezed as the classified list of names he'd found began scrolling through his head once more, and Clint breathed harshly in its grip, gritting his teeth as he rested his head against the cool metal beneath him.
The memory of discovering that the list was one name shorter than he’d expected was enough to have the paralyzing guilt ease back, just a little. His biggest regret -- his worst betrayal -- was a lie, and the relief had immobilized him for long enough that he'd nearly gotten caught, barely making a sloppy and hurried escape back into the ventilation system. After that it had just been a matter of alternately following Fury and Hill until their conversations and movements led him to this restricted and classified medical bay.
The fact that Phil was still on the carrier was terrifying -- it meant he was not stable enough yet to be moved to base medical on the ground, and the part of Clint that was not vibrating with wounded rage knew that was at least some of the reason Fury hadn't told them. The director wasn't sure yet if telling them Phil hadn't died would only make him a liar again in the very near future.
His eyes snapped open as a sound came from the bed below. He wondered how long he'd been drifting, dozing. Some fucking bodyguard you are!
The sound came again, and he watched as Phil shifted restlessly. He was intubated, and speech was impossible, but this hadn't been an attempt at speech anyway.
He was moaning -- soft, helpless sounds that clawed at Clint with razor-sharp talons. Phil was hurting and defenseless because of Clint, and Phil’s pain ripped through Clint like it was his own. If he'd had anything in his body to give he would have lost it. Instead, he braced a hand against the ductwork and tried to stop himself from dry heaving.
There was more than pain in the sounds Phil was making now. There was fear, so alien and unnatural in Phil’s voice, and it made Clint's belly clutch again as his skin crawled. He flinched as the machines began to beep more frantically, and alarms began to shrill, and suddenly the room was full of people.
They snapped jargon he didn't understand at each other, moving around in the efficient panic of a medical emergency.
"Agent Coulson, open your eyes," one ordered. "Agent Coulson. Agent, open your eyes."
Phil was thrashing weakly now, and he cried out around the tube as several people grabbed at his limbs.
"Agent Coulson! You're safe, you're in medical, you have to calm down! Agent, stay still!"
Clint was shaking now in the duct above them. "Say his name," he whispered, flinching again as Phil cried out once more. "Call him Phil. God, just please stop hurting him."
"Agent Coulson!" The doctor had his hands on Phil's shoulders now, and there were harsh choking sobs. "Agent Coulson, you need to calm down. Agent -- hell. Restraints!" he snapped. "Sedate him."
And that was it. Clint could take no more. The vent in Phil's room was too small, so he bolted through the ductwork, not caring how much noise he was making, exhaustion gone, a volatile mix of adrenaline and anger and fear powering him now.
He finally found an access point large enough. He kicked the vent out into the lab below, startling the lone scientist working on the other side of the huge space.
She shrieked and dropped something. Glass shattered, and Clint had only a moment to hope that whatever she'd dropped wouldn't kill them all or turn them into giant radioactive rabbits or something before he was sprinting down the corridor.
"Hey!" an orderly shouted, hurrying toward him. Clint aimed a quick strike at the man's solar plexus and the guy went down like a felled tree, and Clint kept going.
He slammed into Phil's room. "Stop!" he snarled, his voice a wreck from fatigue and dehydration and emotion. Everyone froze.
Then the orderly with soft restraints in his hands moved closer to the bed and a nurse by Phil's IV stand continued filling a syringe.
"You need to leave, Barton," the doctor still holding Phil's weakly struggling shoulders grunted. "We're working here, and you’re in the way."
"Let him go, asshole." Clint shoved aside the guy with the restraints and snatched the syringe out of the nurse's hand, embedding it in the wall like a dart. The doctor wrestled briefly as Clint bodily removed his hands from Phil's shoulders, and ended up on his ass halfway across the room for his troubles.
"He's alone, and he's in pain, and he's scared, and you're holding him down and snapping at him," Clint growled. "Of course he's going to fight."
He laid a hand very gently on Phil's right shoulder -- not restraining, just touching. He stared into Phil's unseeing but wide open eyes, blind with pain and terror. "Phil. Please, Phil, you need to calm down, okay? You're safe, sir. You're safe, Phil. I know it hurts, but I swear to God, Phil, I won't let anything happen to you."
His voice broke and he cleared his dry throat, ignoring the pain.
"Shh, Phil. I've got you. You can relax, you don't have to fight. Just calm down, Phil, okay? Just take it easy."
The thrashing slowed and then stopped, and Clint watched as the blind terror slowly cleared, leaving behind a haze of pain and leftover medication. Phil's body jerked and his eyes widened in recognition. He made some sort of sound around the tube, a single syllable, something that might have been Clint's name.
"You're safe, sir. I'm here. I’m me, and I’m here."
Relief flooded into Phil's eyes, relief at seeing Clint by his side and uncompromised, and that would have been enough, but, ah, God, there were tears slipping from the corners of Phil's eyes, and Clint had to lock his knees to keep his trembling legs from dumping him on the floor.
Phil's hand twitched under the covers, and Clint reacted without truly realizing what he was doing. He grasped Phil's hand through the thin blankets and squeezed. Phil's eyes slipped closed and then open again, more tears sliding free, and he weakly squeezed back.
Words backed up in Clint's throat, choking him, and he could only stare. He hoped his eyes told Phil what he meant to say, I'm so sorry and I thought you were dead because of me and I should have fought harder and, because he couldn't help it, I love you and please don't leave me.
Phil's eyes told him, I'm so sorry and I didn't mean to die and it's not your fault and I was so scared and I'm so glad you're okay and something Clint couldn't bear to hope might be I love you and please don't leave me.
Clint finally found his voice. "I’ll give you a full sitrep later, sir, but we won, and everybody is safe. Including you."
His voice wavered and he paused. He tried to smile, but he was less than confident in his success. "Guess we've got some talking to do, huh, sir?"
Phil's brows drew together in a frown, his head jerked in a micro-head-shake, and Clint was confused. "We don't, sir?"
Same reaction, and it hit Clint. He swallowed, dry throat clicking, as his heart lifted into his throat. "Phil?" he said tentatively. "Not sir?"
Phil's eyes slipped closed and he squeezed Clint's hand. Clint squeezed back, but before he could say anything the doctor he'd thrown aside approached him.
"We need to examine him, Agent Barton," he said, his voice brisk but soft, as he'd clearly ascertained there was more here than an asset/handler relationship. "He might have exacerbated his injuries by struggling."
"And whose damn fault is that?" Clint hissed, but he relented when the doctor evenly held his gaze, refusing to apologize for trying to do his job. Clint turned back to Phil. "Medical needs to check you over, sir -- Phil," he amended, and he couldn't help the way his lips twitched into a smile.
The small smile vanished as Phil tightened his grip and stared at Clint. The please don't leave me! was unmistakably clear in his foggy blue eyes now.
"I won't," he vowed. "I swear, Phil. I won't leave you. You concentrate on healing up, and I'll stay with you as long as you want me to. However long that is. I promise."
Phil stared right at him and let his eyes drift closed, and the trust that small gesture showed nearly broke the very last of Clint's control. The doctors and nurses moved in around him, and an orderly shoved a chair behind him. He dropped into it gratefully, hand still wrapped around Phil's, the thin blankets twisted between them.
He tried to watch as the doctor started his examination, but the last of the adrenaline was burning away, leaving him sick and shaky, and his own eyes slipped closed against his will.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Clint woke with a start, shooting upright in the hospital bed and swearing when the movement pulled on the IV in his arm. His head snapped to the side and he closed his eyes and swallowed harshly when he saw Phil sleeping peacefully in an adjacent bed. The hateful breathing tube had been removed, and Clint sank back down to the bed, suddenly boneless with relief.
He lay quietly for a moment to take stock. He'd been dehydrated, so he was sure they were pushing fluids in him, and he felt the slightly detached grogginess that came with a mild sedative and painkiller. He supposed he should be grateful they hadn't knocked him out with anything stronger -- if he'd been out of it enough not to notice when they'd pulled him away from Phil, undressed him, shoved him into a bed, and stuck a needle in him, he'd been worse off than he'd thought.
Very carefully, he swung his legs over the side of the bed and stood, holding onto the bed and hissing as his body protested. Every muscle he had was tight and sore. He sighed in relief at the sight of the SHIELD sweatpants folded neatly over the end of the bed. He fumbled them on, leaving the open-backed gown over them, and stumbled the few steps to Phil's bedside, leaning more on his rolling IV stand than was probably advisable.
He sat again in the chair he'd passed out in, reaching out and resting his hand over Phil's once more. Phil shifted in his sleep but didn't wake, and a tired smile twitched at Clint's lips when Phil's fingers loosely curled into his through the blankets.
There was a jug of water on the table beside him next to a small bowl of fruit, and a plate of plastic-wrapped sandwiches that had his stomach instantly snarling and ravenous.
He was too tired to eat, and how pathetic was that? He'd promised himself and he'd promised Phil that he'd watch over Phil, and he'd gone and passed out practically before he'd even finished the thought. Some fucking bodyguard you are, he thought again, and he vowed to be more vigilant. He'd gotten in here. Anybody could.
As if something had been summoned by his careless thought, the door swung silently open, and Clint swore hoarsely when he realized they'd disarmed him when they'd undressed him. He snatched an apple out of the fruit bowl. It wasn't much of a weapon, but it'd be a hell of a surprise until he could figure something else out.
Clint relaxed -- but only marginally -- as he realized it was Fury that stood silhouetted in the doorway, coat swirling around his legs. He nearly rolled his eyes. Always with the drama, he thought scornfully, thinking of Phil's ruined cards and knowing he was going to have to be the one to tell Phil.
Fury's eye traveled slowly over Phil's sleeping form before resting on Clint. His face was impassive, and Clint stared back, just as aloof, confident without the need for defiance or arrogance, even though he was half undressed and holding only an apple as a weapon.
After a moment, the director's stance softened fractionally, and Clint knew that was all he was going to get -- Fury would never stoop to anything as conciliatory as a nod -- and the man turned and walked away, shutting the door softly behind him.
Clint slowly let his breath out and went back to watching the incredible sight of Phil's chest evenly rising and falling.
There was a long and treacherous road ahead for all of them -- for Phil, for Clint, for the Avengers, even for SHIELD itself -- but Clint knew he would be beside this man every single step of the way.
Side by side would be enough -- God, more than enough, he'd been alone, and now he wasn't -- but what he wanted more than anything was for them to face every challenge together.
And the most mind-blowing part of all -- he was starting to believe that Phil wanted it too.
"I'm done wasting time, Phil," Clint murmured as he relaxed back into the uncomfortable chair. "I hope you are too."