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A New Kind of Comfort

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Clint let his eyes wander over the various selections the Mess had to offer, not particularly impressed with any of them. Beside him, Coulson grabbed a sandwich from the scattered selections. Clint was reasonably sure the agent hadn't even checked to see what it was.

“What did I tell you, Barton?” said Coulson, looking pointedly at Clint's empty tray. “Eat something or I revoke your range time.”

Clint grumbled a bit at the reminder. Coulson had found him twenty minutes ago and an innocent question had revealed that Clint may have forgotten to eat. For the last thirty six hours. It wasn't like he had intended it to happen. It just...had. But now Coulson was on the war path.

A second look at his options didn't show him a hidden gem that he had missed, but it did show that Coulson was glaring. Sighing, he grabbed a bowl of fruit salad. As sad as it looked, he knew from prior experience that it should be at least mostly edible.

Coulson looked like he wanted to argue that it wasn't nearly enough to make up for thirty six hours of neglect but Clint gave a pointed look at the rest of the offerings. Coulson gave him the tiniest of sighs before paying for their lunch and leading the way to a table. He watched Clint steadily until he picked up his fork.

“So would you like to tell me why you've neglected yourself so badly?” asked Coulson as he unwrapped his sandwich and began picking off the soggy tomatoes.

Clint shrugged and poked through the fruit bowl, trying to find any that weren't overripe. “I just forget sometimes,” he admitted, frowning at the fruit. There was a sheen on all of the chunks, he noticed. Surely they weren't that overripe?

The way he was still watching Clint, he knew Coulson thought there was some other underlying cause, but it was the truth. Granted, thirty six hours was quite a stretch even for him, but it had happened a few times before. Eventually, he'd notice how low his blood sugar was and then he'd remember to eat.

“Seriously, Coulson. It's not big deal. I promise I'll be more diligent in the future.” He stabbed a piece of melon and popped it in his mouth to prove his point. Chew, swallow, then another. Coulson raised an eyebrow and Clint swallowed the second bite and grinned at him.

It took a minute for his brain to catch up to what he was putting in his mouth, but when he finally tasted the new ingredient, he kept his face very carefully neutral. That sheen on the fruit, he realised, was some sort of juice and not the fruit going bad.

Coulson noticed when he pushed the bowl away and frowned when Clint stood. He just hoped his face still had some colour to it. If he left now, he thought he could just make it to his quarters.

“I'm serious about revoking your range access.”

“Sorry, boss. Just started getting nauseous. Probably won't be on the range for the rest of the day, anyway. I think I'll just go lay down.”

It was not nearly as slick as Clint could be, but he figured he had about five minutes until his throat started to close and he needed to be in his bunk by then. Coulson would just have to take his explanation. His handler wasn't as content to leave it at that, though and stood to follow Clint.

“Barton, what's wrong?” he asked, his voice suddenly deadly serious.

They were in the corridor now and Clint shrugged one shoulder and gave Coulson his best flippant smile. He was pretty sure it would have worked better if he couldn't feel the blood draining from his face.

“Just bad fruit. I'm fine. Really.”

He headed for the stairs on instinct and immediately regretted it when the dizziness hit and they suddenly looked like Mount Everest. It was only when Coulson turned him back to face the agent that Clint realised he still had a shadow.

“Clint, what's wrong?” he asked again.

Clint leaned back against the wall, closing his eyes against the spinning stairway. Focusing on his breathing helped calm him for half a moment until he heard that he'd started wheezing.

Fear spiked his heartbeat. The reaction had never been this fast before. He'd always had time to hole up somewhere to ride it out in private. Coulson's cool hands cupped his face and centred his attention. He was going to have to reveal his secret, he thought.

His left hand fumbled in one of the many pockets of his cargo pants until it found the hard plastic tube. Coulson's gaze left his long enough to see what he was reaching for and he heard the agent swear as he recognized the yellow tube.

“An Epipen?” he asked, turning to look again at Clint.

If he'd been able to give Coulson a snappy reply, he would have. As it was, Clint was having a hard time remembering how to pop the lid on the damn protective casing and breath at the same time. Coulson, bless the man, easily took it from his lax grip and pulled out the injector. Clint felt the blunt end hit his thigh and the smaller prick as the needle pumped the epinephrine into his system.

He was starting to fade as black dots began dancing in his vision but snapped back when he heard Coulson calling for a medical team.

“No,” grunted Clint. “Be fine. Jus' need sleep,” he insisted.

He thought he heard Coulson say something condescending, but then the world turned black and he didn't care anymore.

***

When he woke up, it was to the familiar wooziness that only a shot of adrenaline to the thigh could cause. He opened his eyes and frowned at the ceiling in Medical. He'd been headed back to his quarters, he knew.

He groaned when he remembered that he hadn't made it even close to his own quarters and that Coulson—Coulson!--had been there when he finally passed out. Something poked at his foot and he kicked at it without thinking. His eyes flew open to find Natasha holding his ankle steady. She glared at him from where she was curled at the end of the bed.

“He's awake,” she declared.

Coulson immediately opened the door and Clint groaned harder and dropped his head back to the pillow. At this rate, the whole freaking base would know his weakness by morning and he could kiss his career goodbye.

“So good of you to rejoin us in the land of the living, Agent Barton.”

Clint peeked one eye open but closed it immediately when he realised that Coulson had crossed his arms over his chest and looked downright livid. Natasha stabbed him in the foot again and he only barely stopped himself from kicking out.

When he glared at her, she looked pointedly at Coulson. Clint sighed and turned to his handler, ready for the lecture and subsequent boot out the door. If he was lucky, he might just be able to swipe another Epipen from the supply closet before he ended up on his ass outside.

“Sorry?” he finally said when Coulson just looked expectant.

“When you first signed on at SHIELD, was there or was there not a question asking about any allergies you might have?” he asked and Clint figured he must be really pissed if he was going with the theoretical question.

Clint's eyes slipped between his handler and his partner. “There may have been,” he said.

Coulson somehow managed to glare harder. “And did you or did you not include this allergy when you answered? Keep in mind that I can very vividly recall how you answered.”

“I may have forgotten to mention it,” he said and yelped when Natasha stabbed him again. “Ow! Dammit, Tash! That hurts!”

“Not as much as dying,” she said and threatened another stab.

“Thank you, Agent Romanov. I'm sure Agent Barton understands your point.”

“He better,” she growled, but the blade disappeared. Clint knew how fast it could come back out, so continued to watch her.

“So what was it?” asked Coulson.

Clint frowned. “Sir?”

“What caused the reaction?”

Clint tucked his feet a little ways away from Tasha, still not convinced she was done stabbing him. “Does it really matter?”

“Of course it matters,” said Coulson, finally uncrossing his arms and taking a few steps closer. “Why wouldn't it?”

Clint's frown deepened. “Does it really matter if you're just gonna kick me out anyway?”

Tasha had the blade out and was stabbing at his feet again. Coulson grabbed her hand before she could make contact and Clint was left tucked at the head of the bed watching Tasha glare at him while Coulson just looked confused.

“Why would we kick you out?”

Clint shrugged one shoulder, wondering why Coulson was dragging this out. “I'm a liability,” he said. “I get it. You can't trust me out in the field when a stupid fruit can lay me out.”

Natasha's glare turned into a frown and he rolled his eyes at the two of them. They really didn't have to make this any more awkward than it had to be.

“We're not kicking you out,” said Coulson. “I need to know what you're allergic to so I can help minimize any accidental exposure to it.”

It was Clint's turn to frown and Tasha's to roll her eyes at him. “But I thought,” started Clint.

“Well you were wrong,” declared Tasha before he could finish.

“But, I'm,” he started again.

“No, you're not,” interrupted Tasha.

“You're not the first field agent with an allergy,” assured Coulson. “You are the first to hide it so completely,” he added when Clint looked skeptical.

“So, I'm not,” he started, not daring to hope.

“No, you're not,” insisted Tasha again.

“Will you let me finish a damn sentence,” he growled.

“Not when you're being an idiot.”

“What caused it?” asked Coulson again, gentler this time.

Clint looked hard between the two of them, wanting to believe that this wasn't the end, but still not sure. When they both just looked expectant, he finally sighed. Turning away, he mumbled something.

“Clint,” said Tasha and he looked back to his partner. “It's okay,” she said, her hands slowly moving to hold his feet in reassurance.

“Peaches,” he said louder, his gaze still not meeting either set of eyes. “I'm allergic to peaches.”

Coulson frowned and turned away slightly, like he could make the fruit bowl appear out of thin air. “There weren't any,” he started before turning back to Clint.

“Juice. There was some sort of juice on the fruit. Must be a new ingredient.”

“How long have you known?” asked Tasha, squeezing his ankles in encouragement.

He sighed. He'd already admitted the worst of it, he supposed. “When I was ten. We found a can of peaches that someone had thrown out. Barney,” he started but nearly choked on the name. “He shoved me into a hospital and they told me what happened. I grabbed an Epipen when I snuck out and I've kept one on me ever since.”

“How many times have you had to use it?” asked Coulson and he suddenly looked tired.

Clint shrugged, trying for nonchalance. He didn't like to think about all the times he'd been exposed. Feeling his body flush and his throat close was the most terrifying thing he'd ever faced because there was nothing he could do except stab himself in the thigh and hope for the best. He'd passed out every time and hadn't known if he was going to wake up.

“Half a dozen times?” he said, not bothering to count. It was close to that, he knew.

“Christ,” muttered Coulson.

“It's not a big deal,” insisted Clint. “Really.”

“Which is why your pulse just sped up and you look like you're about to have a panic attack,” said Tasha and he remembered that she still had a grip on his ankle so could feel his pulse.

The doctor came in before he could respond and he'd never been more happy to see her. She knew the three of them and didn't bat an eyelash when she saw Tasha perched as she was.

“Agent Coulson tells me you hadn't eaten anything for over a day before you were exposed,” she said, not bothering with small talk.

He ignored Tasha's glare and shrugged. There was no use in denying it. The doctor glanced up long enough to see the shrug before turning back to his chart.

“With your system so weak, the allergen was only exacerbated. Had you waited any longer to administer the epinephrine, I'm not sure we'd be having this conversation.” She looked up from the chart and stared him down. “Agent Coulson tells me you've been self-medicating these reactions without seeking professional care afterwards?”

“If you say it's not a big deal again, I swear, I will throw you off a roof,” said Tasha and he snapped his mouth shut.

The doctor sighed and made another notation in his file. “Agent Coulson, I trust you'll take care of this?” she asked, turning to glance at Clint's handler.

“Yes.”

“Good. Agent Barton, we'll need to keep you here overnight for observation. Assuming you have no further reaction, we'll release you in the morning on light duty.”

“But,” started Clint but stopped when Coulson glared at him.

“Thank you, doctor. He'll be happy to cooperate or I'll have Agent Romanov here assist your staff in keeping him.”

Clint grumbled to himself and did not look at the gleeful smile Tasha was giving him. The worst of it was over, he knew. He didn't know why they were still making a big deal out of it all. He knew when he was beaten, however, so resigned himself to a night in Medical.

Coulson and the doctor shared a nod and then she left. Coulson raised a hand to stop him from saying anything.

“You will stay here until you're cleared,” he said. “Natasha will remain with you in case you have any ideas about leaving early. While you're here, you will eat every meal they put in front of you since you can't seem to remember to do so on your own.”

Clint sighed and slouched back into his pillow.

“Once you're released, you will finish every scrap of paperwork you owe me before you even think of returning to the range.”

“Can I start now?”

“No.”

“But--”

“No. Once you're done, you will submit it all to me. Only once I am satisfied that every i is dotted and t crossed will I reinstate your access and then only limited access.”

“But--”

“No.” Coulson crossed the room to stand next to Clint, his gaze boring into Clint and forcing him to hold the gaze. “You almost died today Clint. Not only have you been neglecting your own daily health, but you failed to mention a serious medical condition. Had you been left to your own devices, you probably would have died in your quarters from anaphylaxis.”

The fight left Clint and he sagged, defeated. “It's never,” he started, trying to get Coulson to understand that he hadn't meant it to get this bad.

“And that's part of the problem,” continued Coulson, interrupting his explanation. “You don't have to rely solely on yourself anymore, Clint. Natasha and I are here for you now. But we can't help you if you don't tell us important things like this.”

“We're mad because we care,” said Tasha and Clint stared at her. He didn't think he'd ever heard her admitting to caring about anyone. He knew they were friends and they certainly trusted each other, but he hadn't been sure she actually cared until...he turned to Coulson and saw the same look on the handler's face.

“Okay,” he said, pushing his fears to the back of his mind and letting the two of them look out for him for now.

***

Coulson had stayed with them all night and the three of them had watched bad television for most of the afternoon while Coulson pulled out the ever present stack of paperwork. When he'd asked to get ahead on at least some of what he owed Coulson (and, boy, did he owe Coulson a lot), he'd been given the patented Coulson glare and told it was all part of his penance for making the two of them worry.

When it looked like Coulson fully intended to sleep in the chair at Clint's bedside, Tasha had banished him from the room on pain of death and told him he could at least sleep on the much more comfortable couch in his office if he wasn't planning to return home. They'd shared a charged look for several moments before Coulson had finally left. Clint knew people thought his bond with Natasha was bordering on psychic but clearly they'd never seen her and Coulson because the two of them had the exact same thing.

He'd just finished breakfast and was impatiently waiting for the doctor to return and hopefully release him. He nearly jumped Coulson when the man appeared a few minutes later.

“Please tell me I can go now,” he practically begged. He was a bad patient at the best of times, much less when he felt perfectly fine.

“Almost. Dr. Brighton should be here in about twenty minutes. But before she does, I have something for you,” he said.

Tasha perked up and Coulson nodded to her. Clint watched the interaction and frowned. It was never good when the two of them were in agreement over something.

“Okay.”

Coulson opened a small pouch and pulled out what looked like a pen, like the half dozen or so that were on Coulson's desk.

“Okay,” repeated Clint, not understanding what it was.

Coulson tossed the pouch to Tasha and unscrewed the cap on the pen to reveal a needle instead of a ball point. “It's a new Epipen. Less bulky and easier to conceal when you're in the field.”

“Huh,” said Clint, taking the pen and inspecting it. “Cool.” He glanced back at the pouch and Tasha pulled out two more.

“Natasha and I will also both carry one, just in case.”

Clint shook his head. “You guys don't have to do that. It's my problem,” he started but stopped when they both glared at him again.

“Natasha and I will both carry one. Just in case.” Coulson took the one that Tasha was handing him and tucked it into his jacket pocket next to the actual pen Clint knew he carried there. Tasha's had already disappeared. “I'll also inform any temporary handlers who are assigned to you and make sure they have one.” Clint looked up, his eyes wide. It was bad enough that there was a note in his file and he knew the other handlers hated him as it was. “Clint, this is for your health. I'll make sure it doesn't become common knowledge, I promise.”

“There's no way out of this, is there?” he asked.

“Not really, no.”

If people had to know, he supposed, it could be worse than Tasha and Coulson. And at least they would both have an Epipen on them. He'd never had the assurance that someone else would know what to do in case he had a reaction and couldn't inject himself. It was a new kind of comfort. He thought he could get used to that kind of comfort.

FIN