Tony has never especially liked running. Scratch that, he hates running. It’s exhausting and looks utterly ridiculous. He has heard of people who apparently look very graceful running. He isn’t one of them. Running is shit and running away is even shittier because it means that they lost a fight and the bad guys are about to win (not to mention that the bad guys sooner or later always catch up with you).
“I -- hate -- running,” he grunts under his breath and tries not to lose his footing in the uneven underwood. Clint is a few steps ahead of him, setting an inhuman speed, and is probably the only reason why Tony is still on his feet (for a few precious minutes he wasn’t, there was only blackness and then Clint shouting at him to wake up or his sorry ass would get left behind).
This was supposed to be easy. A two-man reconnaissance mission to verify some claims about a new HYDRA base in the middle of nowhere. Turns out the news wasn't greatly exaggerated for once, and Tony should have silently backed out the room when the word “easy” was spoken. Like anything is ever easy with SHIELD. Really, it was monumentally stupid of him not to run away at that moment. Instead, he’s running now, with half his suit blasted away and no means of communications. And he’s fairly sure they’re running in exactly the opposite direction of their pick-up point. Not that they had so many choices when ambushed by more HYDRA soldiers than his repulsors and Clint’s arrows could take out.
The weight of the leftover parts of his suit had been threatening to pull him to the ground forever, even though in reality it was only a few minutes. They’ve been running for what feels like ages before Clint finally slows down and grabs Tony’s wrist to drag him behind a dense cluster of bushes and trees.
“Don’t worry about me,” Tony says, out of breath. “Could’ve run another marathon in this suit … you know, it only weighs two tons now with half of it gone. Easy-peasy.”
“Shut up and sit down,” Clint says and rolls his eyes. “How’s your head?”
“Yes, your head with the cut over your left eyebrow? The one you’ve been bleeding from the last two hours?” Huh, he hadn’t noticed. Well, it does explain why his sight has been a bit blurry and, well, reddish. He raises his fingers to poke at the wound, but Clint slaps his hand away. “Don’t touch it,” he admonishes him.
“I hate HYDRA,” Tony says sullenly, and watches Clint shrug out of his black jacket. “Why couldn’t they call themselves Icarus?”
“Because where would be the fun if they self-destruct out of hubris?” Clint says with a smirk while he rips the sleeve of his jacket. “We would be unemployed, and you’d be bored to death. Press that to your head,” he says and hands Tony a strip of fabric. Tony needs a moment or two to realize what he’s supposed to do and a faint voice in his head tells him he’s in trouble. He forgets it as soon as Clint raises his own hand to press the fabric against Tony’s head.
“I wouldn’t be bored to death.”
“True. You’d be too busy screwing Cap on every surface in the mansion.”
“I’m not … ” Tony blinks at him and will later blame his next question on the concussion. “What makes you think we didn’t already do that?” Clint makes a face that normally would make Tony double over with laughter, but he’s secretly busy not throwing up all over the place, so he contents himself with a wide smile. “And why does everybody seem to know about me and Steve? Oh God, does Fury know?”
“Only because he has only one eye doesn’t mean the man is blind, Tony.”
“But … but how, and what about you and Coulson?” And this? This simply isn’t fair. Tony had plans for this conversation, you know. He has at least seven post-its filled with innuendos about Cupid’s Arrow (because no matter what Coulson says, that one is simply too good to pass on) and an order for wings in his draft folder for next Halloween. It was supposed to be glorious. It was supposed to rile Coulson up and make Clint smile; it wasn't supposed to be a conversation that happened in the middle of the woods with no surveillance cameras. How is Tony supposed to rewatch the greatest conversation of the year, if he has nothing to tape it on?
“What about me and Coulson?” Clint asks, and his body tenses up.
“Nothing, I mean -- ” Tony flinches away from where Clint presses the fabric just a tad bit harder against his head. “How did that happen?”
“None of your business, Stark,” Clint replies, but Tony isn’t derailed so easily.
“Did you annoy him so much with your talking that the only way he could think of to shut you up was with a kiss?”
“You really need to stop reading all these trashy romance novels Steve recommends to you.”
“And you need to stop evading all my questions. And I don’t read romances.”
“Too bad, you could learn a thing or two,” Clint says smirking; he grows somber again. “I take it your comm system didn’t magically repair itself?” Tony needs a moment to check it, then he shakes his head. “Damn it, mine’s gone as well,” Clint mutters under his breath and Tony tries really hard not to panic.
Panic is bad. Panic leads to stupid decisions and that’s the last thing they need right now. Then he thinks about the fact that the only thing standing between them and a dozen angry HYDRA soldiers is an archer and a forest -- which would be great if they were hunting deer and had Thor with them, because he’s probably the only one who knows how to skin and roast game over open fire.
“By now they should know something’s up, right? It’s not like us to take a stroll in the woods to enjoy the scenery.”
“The scenery sucks,” Clint remarks, and he’s right. Tony’s always been a city boy and this trip only reinforces his reasoning.
“You can complain about it in your mission report later, or don’t you have to do these because you sleep with the boss?” The moment the words leave his mouth he knows he should have just pretended to have lost consciousness again the moment they stopped. Normally, he isn’t afraid of Clint or any of his other team members. He respects all of them, sure, and all of them could kill him in his sleep, but he likes to think that they’ve grown strangely fond of each other and therefore decided to forgo mass murder. However, he isn’t so sure about Clint’s resolve right now, and the archer still has some arrows left in his quiver.
“What’s up with you and your fascination with my love life? Are you jealous?”
“I’m just curious! You two don’t make any sense!”
And now Clint actually looks taken aback. “Excuse me?”
Tony knows he should shut up, knows he’s dangerously close to having Clint end his life and make it look like he succumbed to his head wound, but no one ever claimed that Tony Stark was particularly sane. “It’s just that Coulson is so uptight and … correct and you are -- ” Before he can specify what exactly Clint is, the other man has grabbed his bow, nocked an arrow and sent it flying. Tony feels very, very nauseous for a few seconds before he realizes that the arrow isn’t protruding from his own chest, but from a HYDRA soldier a few hundred yards away.
“We’ve got to go. He’s probably only the advance party and they will know where we are when he doesn’t get back,” Clint says tensely, and helps Tony up. The world tilts a bit, and running is out of question, but at least Clint doesn’t leave him behind. Tony tries to be grateful for the little things.
“They’ll find us,” he says while they stumble (okay, he’s stumbling, but who cares about the specifics, right?) through the woods. “Coulson won’t let you go vanish in some godforsaken forest in the middle of nowhere.”
“I really hope your fascination with this topic is only because of a really, really bad concussion,” Clint groans and drags Tony’s arm around his shoulders to help him walk. “And as if SHIELD would let you go without the biggest extraordinary rescue mission of all time. You’re their golden boy.”
“But you’re the second best they have. And you have the billions and the charisma to keep everything going. Not to mention that Cap would probably kick their collective butts for not coming to your rescue.”
Tony could say something about how everybody loves him only because of his money and his genius, but he thinks that this would only end with him face first into the moos. It’s not true, either, he knows that (Steve has told that him again and again as well). “You’re important, too, you know. For the Avengers, I mean.”
“Are you honestly trying to boost my self-esteem in the middle of nowhere?”
“Do you need it?”
“I’m the best marksman in the goddamn world, currently dragging the sorry ass of Iron Man through the woods. I think I’m fine for the moment, thank you.”
“Smartass. Is that why Coulson loves you?”
“You’re not going to let this rest, are you?”
“I have a concussion, maybe brain damage. I’m allowed to get stuck on one subject. And you absolutely had to put best in that sentence earlier, right?”
Clint grins at him and it suits him so much better than the tense look he sported earlier. “Course I had to. It’s the truth. And you’re not brain damaged; you’re still way too annoying.”
“And you never disputed my claim that Coulson loves you.”
“Oh God, can’t you just pass out?”
“That would be dangerous and everyone would scold you for letting that happen. You don’t want that.”
“I want for you to shut up, can I get that at least?”
“Nope,” Tony says and nearly falls over a root hidden under the leaves. It’s only Clint’s instant reaction that saves him from making intimate acquaintance with the forest ground, but when the world has righted itself, and he sees more than black spots dancing across his vision, Clint has gone completely still and tense next to him. “C’mon, it’s not that horrible to talk about -- Clint?”
Clint doesn’t answer him. Instead, he has his eyes clenched shut and his lips pressed tightly together. And Tony isn’t particularly fond of the pallor of his skin. Shit.
“Okay, Clint? Clint, you tell me what’s going on right now. Clint? Fuck, talk to me.” Tony isn’t panicking. Panicking is bad, bad, bad. But surely nobody expects him to stay level-headed all the time when he’s the one with a bleeding head wound and fuzzy vision.
“I can’t … I need to sit down, Tony,” Clint says, his eyes still closed.
“Okay, okay. We can do that. Here … here is a nice tree to sit down under,” Tony is rambling and gently lowers the other man to the ground before he kneels down in front of him. “And now you tell me what you’ve been hiding all the time.”
“It’s not that bad.”
“Sure it isn’t. That’s why you tremble like a virgin on her wedding night.”
“It’s the blood loss, I think,” Clint says, his voice rough, and Tony’s stomach ties itself in knots. He’s the only one supposed to battle with blood loss.
“What blood loss?” Tony asks and tries not to let his voice waver. Clint points to the lower right side of his stomach and at first Tony can’t see a thing. Dusk is slowly settling around them, and Clint’s black armor doesn’t help much.
“But that’s Kevlar! That’s supposed to protect you from bullet wounds!”
“Seriously?” Clint raises an eyebrow and huffs. “HYDRA blasted away half of your suit and you think my body armor protects me from their projectiles?”
“Well … if you put it that way,” Tony says and doesn’t know what to do with his hands. Sometime ago, Clint already put a makeshift bandage around his stomach, so there’s nothing really left to do for him besides poking at it. And even he wouldn’t stoop so low right now.
“Oh God, no.”
“You’re not worried, are you?” Clint says and tries to get into a more upright position. From the way he grimaces, Tony doesn’t think it’s going very well.
“I’m not worried,” Tony says resolutely and tilts his head. “At least not about you, more about what Coulson’s going to do to me if I don’t get you home safe and sound.”
“I really don’t know why you’re so hung up on this.” Clint shakes his head. “And Phil knows what’s at stake with the jobs we have. Don’t worry about it.” Tony really wants to argue that, wants to tell him he remembers how exhausted Coulson was, how worried he looked that one time in medical not long ago. He doesn’t think Coulson would take it particularly well if Clint doesn’t return one day. “And besides,” Clint continues, “I would be more worried about Steve throwing me against the nearest wall should you decide that the forest in Bumfuck, Nowhere, is a nice last resting place.”
“Nah, Steve is way too polite for that. He still stands up when Natasha or Pepper enter the room.”
“Oh, yes.” Clint closes his eyes and a chuckle escapes him. “It drives Tasha crazy.”
“Pepper likes it.”
“Sure she does, finally someone’s treating her with the respect she deserves.”
“Hey,” Tony protests, but there’s no heat in it. He tries to find a more comfortable position, but it’s a physical impossibility with the hard ground and his suits torn to shreds. “How’s your stomach?”
“Still keeping all my intestines where they are supposed to be,” Clint says, which is really no answer at all. His eyes are still closed and in the fading daylight Tony can see pain lines in his face. “Your head?”
“Not bleeding anymore.”
“Nausea? Double vision?”
“Nope,” he lies about the nausea. “Although seeing two of you would explain the level of annoyance you manage to invoke.”
“You’re just jealous of my charms.”
“In your dreams, Barton, in your dreams.”
“I assure you, my dreams are way more fun than this,” Clint says with a snort before he opens his eyes again and the look he gives Tony makes him sober up instantly. “SHIELD should have found us by now. Any explanations, genius?” Yes, Tony wants to say, and none of them are good. Not when Clint is slowly bleeding out from a stomach wound, and Tony is useless without his suit. “Oh, wow, your face tells me we’re screwed.”
“No, absolutely not.”
“Really? So what’s the plan?”
And that’s the crux of the matter, isn’t it? They can’t go any further, not with Tony losing his footing every five seconds and Clint unable to even keep upright for more than a minute. “Either our trackers are broken or HYDRA blocks them somehow. And the dense forest shields our thermal signature from SHIELD’s sensors. So we need something else to get their attention.”
“And what do you have in mind?”
“I could … I’m not sure,” he eventually admits and it tastes like acid on his tongue. Technology isn’t supposed to fail him, it’s his strongest ally to keep himself alive. Now, though, he stares down at what’s left of his suit -- which really isn’t much, mostly now useless metal plates being held together by what seems sheer force of will, and that tiny part of electronics that didn’t short-circuited when HYDRA had made its appearance.
“Just,” Clint makes an aborted hand gesture, and Tony doesn’t like how it looks that he’s lacking the energy to do anything else. “Just do something like MacGy -- ”
“Stop right there. Do not bring MacGyver into this.”
“Why?” Clint raises his left eyebrow in mocking, and Tony growls at him. This would be so much easier without running commentary by one Clint Barton of all people. Why doesn’t he ever get stuck with Thor, who could just take him home with a raise of his hammer, or even Hulk, really. “C’mon, you thought about stupid Cupid jokes the moment you got wind of Phil and me.”
“He told you?” he asks, which is probably not the most intelligent thing to say, and it’s also distracting when he tries to come up with a way to get something working out of his suit. Clint bestows him with an incredulous look for his efforts.
“Well, I don’t know what you do with Cap in all your free time, but Phil and I talk as well.”
“Oh, really? Do tell me more,” Tony replies and is surprised to find he actually means it. Clint and Coulson together is still something he can’t get his mind around. And what’s worse, he didn’t find out about it earlier. Usually, nothing gets past him, or Jarvis, or Pepper -- wait. “Does Pepper know about you two?” he asks before Clint can argue with his earlier request.
“Yeah, red-head? My right hand? Killer stilettos?”
“I know who Pepper is, asshole. But why should Pepper know?”
“I don’t know -- does she?”
Clint lets his head fall against the trunk behind him. “Not that I’m aware of,” he finally says. “And I don’t know why I even tell you this.”
“Because you delight in conversations with me, and also because it’s your duty as my fellow team member to keep me conscious,” he explains and leaves out the part where he’s worried about the way Clint’s eyelids keep dropping. He has the distinct feeling he’s not the one person whose level of consciousness they should be concerned about.
“My duty is not to shoot you with anything, everything else is just a bonus,” Clint informs him, and Tony rolls his eyes. As if. “So, what is it you’re trying to build to save our collective butts?”
“A flare,” Tony tells him and stops pulling apart his own suit for a second. It tugs a bit at his heart, because this is basically the pinnacle of his genius, but then he remembers how clever he is and that the next suit will be even more awesome. It’s getting darker by the minute, but he’s sure he can pull something off to save them before nightfall. He doesn’t stare at the bandages around Clint’s torso and doesn’t think before it’s too late for Clint. He’s not worried. Estonia was much worse for all of them from what he’s heard (not that he remembers, not that any of them remember). “And you still haven’t answered my initial question about how you and Coulson got together,” he reminds Clint once he’s done looking at him and devotes his attention back to the various cables he’s holding between his fingers.
“This is getting ridiculous.”
“Just tell me and I’ll stop bugging you about it,” Tony promises him and crosses his fingers undetected.
“I don’t even really know,” Clint finally says quietly.
“What?” Tony raises an eyebrow, but doesn’t look up, still busy with being a genius under pressure. “But you are in a relationship, right? Coulson isn’t just a creepy stalker guy who revels in sitting by the bedside of injured, unconscious assets, is he?”
“Don’t worry, Tony, your … virtue,” Clint smirks, Tony just knows it without needing to see it, “remains intact.”
“Haha … and don’t think that will get you of actually telling the story.”
“There’s really not much to it.”
“Oh c’mon, Barton, it’s not like I want to make a Hallmark movie out of it, but there must be a story behind this.”
“It’s just … ” Clint shrugs, and then he winces, and Tony tries not to clench his teeth too much. He twists a few wires together and nods towards Clint to continue. “I guess we just grew closer over time. Did a lot of missions together. He was the only one who didn’t grow tired of me … ” he trails off, and suddenly he looks very self-conscious -- as if he told too much. Tony doesn’t say anything. He has heard stories about agents who refused to work with Clint any longer, who said he has issues with authority and is a liability (which is something they say about Tony as well, he knows that, but then, he’s Tony Stark), but none of them are Avengers because they conform to military standards of obedience (well, except for Steve, of course). “So, I don’t know,” Clint says quietly, looking anywhere but at Tony. “We both knew something was going on, but we didn’t exactly talk about it.” He runs a hand through his hair. “And I don’t really know why I’m telling you of all people.”
“Because we’re stuck in the middle of nowhere, and the alternative entertainment program would be getting shot at by HYDRA again,” Tony supplies helpfully. “Can you still use your bow?”
“Can I still -- of course.” Clint levels him with a stare that implies he’s been mortally offended. “Why, you need me to shoot you after all?”
“No, but we need to get the flare up in the sky.”
“The flare? It looks like a small mess of nothing from here.”
“Hey, don’t diss my genius,” Tony growls and looks down at the conglomerate in his hands. Okay, it doesn’t look much, wires and little metal splinters sticking out at weird angles, but it should do the trick when tied to one of Clint’s arrows.
“Are you sure about this?”
“It’s not high-tech, but I do know how to -- ”
“I don’t mean that,” Clint interrupts him, and there’s something in his voice that makes Tony look up.
“I take it the flare is going to be really bright?”
“SHIELD is supposed to see our location, of course it’s going to be bright.”
“But then HYDRA will see it as well.”
“Huh.” Which isn’t really the most intelligent reply he’s come up with recently, but he actually hadn’t considered that side effect -- too focused on getting them help (and the concussion, the unhelpful voice in the back of his mind reminds him).
“We could just wait,” Clint offers and Tony snorts.
“And I get to watch you bleed out to death? Thanks, but then I prefer HYDRA as my entertainment.”
“I’m not -- ”
Tony shots him up with one stern look. They both know that time is running out for them. Clint hasn’t moved much in the last twenty minutes, and Tony isn’t exactly feeling up to par either. Building the flare took entirely too long when compared to his normal standards, and he feels cold and achy. “We’re not waiting. You’re going to prove that you deserve being called best marksman in the world by getting this thing up into the sky, and then SHIELD will prove how kickass it is by rescuing us before HYDRA has so much as blinked twice.” He looks at Clint expectantly.
“I love your pep talks.”
“Shut up and get to work.” He takes an arrow out of Clint’s quiver and manages to tie the flare to it with another stripe of Clint’s ruined jacket. A jacket Clint ruined because Tony had had a bleeding head wound. “You’re an idiot,” he mumbles.
“Shedding clothes when you’re going into shock from blood loss isn’t the mark of a brilliant mind.”
“I had no choice, it’s not like you can press one of the metal parts of your suit against bleeding wounds, Iron Man,” Clint bites back and gets into position. “And the blood loss is still manageable.”
Tony is close to smacking Clint, because when did words like blood loss and manageable ever sounded okay in the same sentence? Probably only ever in Clint’s world. “Let me guess, that’s why we haven’t walked further -- because the blood loss is manageable. And maybe you could have mentioned that you got shot in the first place?”
“And what good would have done?” Clint asks and nocks the arrow on the string. His face looks strained and Tony notices the fine layer of sweat on the archer’s skin, but his hands don’t shake. “And it’s not like you can talk, really. Who blew a building up with himself on top, huh? Wasn’t me.”
“That was diff -- ”
“Lie,” Clint cuts him of and draws back the bowstring. “One last chance to call this off.”
“Not going to happen,” Tony replies.
He has a moment to wish with every fiber of his being that SHIELD is clever enough to recognize this as the distress signal it is, and that HYDRA has exhausted its ability to surprise its opponents for the day -- then everything explodes into a white light, and Tony realizes too late that so much brightness probably isn’t the best idea when he has a concussion. He’s distinctly aware of someone yelling in pain and thinks that maybe it’s him, but then the world tilts and everything goes dark.
He comes to in the Helicarrier (the deep hum gives it away), and for some time he is just very pleased that he’s not dead. Finally, he turns his head and sees Clint in the bed next to his, asleep (unconscious, his mind corrects him, but he chooses to ignore it for the time being) and hooked up to more machines than Tony is comfortable with. Agent Coulson sits on the other side of Clint’s bed, face taut and tired, and suddenly Tony is really glad that Clint found someone.
“Captain America will be back in a few minutes,” Coulson says without taking his eyes off Clint, and he really thinks he should start to investigate the claim that Coulson’s psychic.
“Clint?” he asks, the words scratching his throat.
“Stable for now, but he will need surgery.” Coulson finally looks at him. “Rest, Mister Stark.”
Any other day, Tony would have argued with the Agent just for the hell of it, but today he’s only too happy to follow orders. He falls asleep and remembers Steve’s hand brushing over his, remembers “You’re going to be fine”, remembers landing and complaining to a lot of people that he never heard the end of that story about Coulson and Clint (not the end, he thinks, the start).
He doesn’t remember how he ended up in SHIELD HQ medical’s waiting room, handing a cup of coffee to Coulson.
“You shouldn’t be up yet, Mister Stark,” Coulson tells him with what would be a disapproving look on normal days. It doesn’t hold nearly as much power with Clint in surgery, and Tony is harshly reminded that for all his appearance of being psychic and omnipresent, Phil Coulson is just one man.
“Steve is busy filling out mission reports, and he knows how much I hate hospital beds. They’re uncomfortable.” He shrugs. “Guess he thinks I’m in good hands here.”
“Does he now?”
“You know him, trusts the good in people and yadda, yadda … ” He waves with his hands, and Coulson chuckles. The silence stretches between them while Coulson takes a sip of his coffee. “I told everyone about you two, didn’t I? I’m sorry,” Tony finally says. And it should be weird, to apologize to Coulson (to people who aren’t Pepper or Rhodey or Steve), but it isn’t. Tony had as good as promised to keep their secret, and he hadn’t.
“It’s fine,” Coulson replies. “I wasn’t exactly … subtle when you two went MIA, or when we finally found you.”
“Oh,” is all that leaves Tony’s mouth, because he can’t really imagine Coulson as anything but as being composed and the calm in the center of the storm. A nurse, telling them that Coulson can go and see Clint now, saves Tony from trying to find more words. Coulson stands up to follow her down the corridor, but after a few steps he stops and turns around. There’s a small, tired smile on his lips.
“Estonia, that’s when it all started,” he tells Tony and for a moment, Tony feels as if he’s judged and found worthy. “He thought he had nothing to come back to. I never wanted him to think that again,” Coulson adds quietly before he turns again and leaves Tony alone in the waiting room.
He stays for a few more minutes, then he gets up to find Steve.