He thinks, in some universe, perhaps he knew his family. Perhaps he'd had a mother and a father, they loved him; maybe he even had a sibling or two, a brother, and they were as close as brothers could be.
They're comforting thoughts and he only thinks them on nights like this one.
(He's alone, wound into a tight ball on the floor of the cell, and he's freezing. The wind is howling through the barred window and in the distance, he can hear the faint pittering noise of rainfall. If the wind keeps up, he will be wet as well as cold and that is not a good combination.
Clint shifts himself on broken arms, push-drags himself across the concrete to the far corner, and closes his eyes with his face mashed into the wall.)
He'd never known his own family in this world. He knows, of course, that he'd had one or else he wouldn't be here—takes two to tango and all that—but they'd left him, nameless, on the steps of Old North Church when he was barely a week old. Nothing left with him to say who'd done the leaving, though the why had been so bitterly obvious.
There's a loud clang in the corridor and Clint's thoughts seize: if they've come to take him away, at least it'll be warm because hey, gotta keep the people doing the torture toasty, eh?
A heavy chain is drawn back from somewhere beyond, the loud bashing noise of it as it's pulled through the loops too hard to ignore. They're definitely coming.
He lets himself drift away again. (There's no point to keeping himself in the here and now—they're going to kill him, there's nothing he can do to stop that now that he's simply too weak to fight back, stall. Two weeks in and he's accepted reality.
SHIELD isn't coming. He's a lost asset.
And the rain's arrived, a droplet flung across the space to him, wetting the naked space between the wing joints. Fuck. There's nothing worse than wet feathers.)
"He's hallucinating," he hears through the haze of a memory—Sister Helen, the nun at the orphanage he finds himself in, calling him by his newly chosen name and the burst of something sharp he'd felt at it being voiced in open air—and he blinks.
His mouth is so dry, his tongue too thick in his mouth, but his wings twitch at the interloper. (Coulson. Phil.) He curls his fingers around something, and vaguely he realizes it's a blanket, the silver crinkling kind that he hates because he knows it means he's in for more than a few nights' stay under Medical's supervision. It takes his sluggish mind a moment to catch on to the implication of that thought, the reality of the person standing over him.
"Co..." he tries. "Phhhh..."
"Gold star for effort, Barton. But we're going with dehydration and severe blood infection for a thousand." Stark. "Shut your eyes and when you wake up, you'll be on the helicarrier in a bed next to your boyfriend."
He may or may not flip Tony off, he's not sure: the medics had lifted him and fuck it all, that hurts like a bitch. Clint dazes out for a second, vision even more blurry than it's been and when he blinks it back, there's a face an inch from his own.
In a whisper, he's told, "As soon as Captain America secures the base, it'll be five minutes to the evac point."
He blinks. He hopes the face understands.
"You'll be okay." That's a whisper, a flash of weakness, before the face starts moving away. "He get pain meds yet?"
"Morphine's onboard. Should take effect in a second."
(Clint thinks Oh, Morphine and smiles, feeling the edges of the drug as it overtakes the raging, nauseating ache and pain throughout his body, and closes his eyes. He's out long before the insurgency is quelled and the compound is SHIELD's.)
Medical is always too bright—white and yellow with just a hint at the edges of the black corridors that lay beyond—and Clint's eyes water under the fluorescents the first time he opens them. He tries to wipe the sudden, forced tears away but his arms are too heavy, coated in plaster, and he rubs his face, miserably, against the loose edge of his gown.
There's a snore, soft but there, to his left; turning his head will require more effort and he's burnt out most of what he had just keeping himself awake for these few precious moments. It doesn't matter, though. He knows who it is, even as wonderfully dosed as he is on painkillers and nutrient-laden fluids: Phil will be in the spare bed, still wearing his muddy, stinking suit, shoes on and arms crossed even as he lays on his side. (It's where and how he always is when Clint's laid up in Medical. Clint can't deny the warm feeling it gives him.)
He lets his eyes drift shut, mind wander on the rising tide of the Morphine, and he thinks of Sister Helen again. Sweet woman, that nun, looking out for him when the rest of the Diocese didn't have an iota of a clue. She's the only reason he has a name, so long living under the moniker Boy, and she's the only reason he'd found himself with anything resembling a family at all. He'd hated her for so long, true, for what he thought was banishment, for being sent away, but he knows better now that as much as the abandonment had hurt back then, he would never have followed this path otherwise.
"You think too much."
"Um hum," he breathes; he doesn't open his eyes, not because he doesn't need to, but because, well, it's too good to lay here with that buoying, sublime feeling coursing through his veins.
"Rest, Clint. You still have a long way to go."
He nods as if to agree. The other person, however, knows him too well; Natasha pulls the chair in close, laying her hands one atop the other and starts humming, some lullaby or another that's sharp and soothing and Clint really doesn't want to sleep again.
(Natasha should turn her attentions to Phil, who needs a fucking shower, food, and a pound of coffee before he can be considered remotely human.)
A finger, free of the casting, slides up her arm. "Phil," he whispers, so painfully hoarse that wincing is a given and she rubs an ice cube over his lips, then into his mouth, melting over his tongue. "Phil."
"He has another hour before Fury gets here."
"Those currently unable to form complete sentences, fully use their arms, or otherwise threaten, cajol, or demand shouldn't issue orders."
Eyes still closed, Clint makes a face at her anyway, but he's too sore to put much into it.
"Go back to sleep."
He does. He dreams:
He's twelve, bitter and angry, and he finds himself in a sea of other bitter and angry teenagers. They share a room, himself and three others, and he calls the top bunk by nature of his need to have a high perch. No one dares comment on it, but Clint knows they're thinking it.
Sister Helen visits to bring him the last of his things—the bow and arrows he'd left behind, wrapped and hidden in a threadbare gray blanket under a floorboard in the rectory. She tries to talk to him, but he's too furious with her for this betrayal; he doesn't know that this is the last time he'll see the kindly old nun, only that when she leaves, she still offers a prayer in his name and tells him that she'll always love the Little Angel of the Orphanage. He spends the rest of that day dropping down from random places to scare the younger kids, shooting arrows toward the older ones.
He wakes again.
There's x-rays on a lit board across from his bed and they're his wings, all long hollow and short jointed bones, and the faded mess of his feathers that blurs the film. How they ever get the entire span to fit onto the screen, he doesn't know nor care, but they do it—every time—and he's a little bit thankful for that because they fucking hurt and one set of x-rays is enough. Really.
"Hey," he says, his voice a half-growl as he speaks.
Phil turns on his heel. He looks exhausted, the bags under his eyes purpled, and he's gripping a cup of designer coffee so tightly in one hand Clint's sure it's about to crumble. He's wire-taut and Clint gestures him over with the same free finger from earlier.
It's a testament to how tired they both are that Clint offers part of his bed and Phil accepts, setting his coffee onto the side table before weaving himself into the scant open space on Clint's right side. "Wing okay?"
"'s fine." It's not—the radius in his left wing is broken and the metacarpus in the right, and no matter how he moves, it hurts, but he is absolutely not saying that to Phil—and coaxes Phil into the best embrace he can manage.
They're both asleep in minutes.
Immobilizing his wings requires Thor, Phil, and a shit ton of sedatives because fight or flight is a powerful instinct and no matter what Clint does, he just can't stop himself from twisting and pulling away. (Or, pre-drugging, throwing his wings out to full span so suddenly he broke Tony's nose.)
He sighs when it's over, formerly tensed muscles unbunching and he collapses fully into the sweaty linens, face-first. "Motherfucker." He flexes, scapula moving under his skin involuntarily and he swallows thickly, nauseated at the feeling of his pinned wings. "How long?"
"Three weeks and then we'll re-evaulate," the doctor replies.
"Make it two weeks and I'll stay in bed the whole time."
"I don't think bargaining on bedrest will somehow accelerate bone growth."
"You never know," he says, face still mashed firmly into the bedding.
Phil pulls lightly on the too-long hair at the nape of Clint's neck, then strokes a thumb over the edge of Clint's shirt collar. "This does mean I get to go home, right? Ribs, wings, PICC line..."
"Against my better judgment, I am releasing you into Agent Coulson's care. Try to avoid getting tased."
Clint lifts his head just the tiniest bit and smirks; Phil rolls his eyes and taps the back of Clint's head with a hand, and Tony laughs outright—after all, Stark's the one who'd found Clint the last time, face down and drooling into the indescribably expensive silk-blend rug while Coulson had been sitting, feet up on the coffee table, in front of the television. (To be fair, Clint knows that Phil had checked his vitals at least twice and when the unconsciousness had ended, Clint had just slept there, but no one has ever let them live it down. Especially not since their relationship had been discovered.)
"You're to take it easy—eat, sleep, take your meds. Don't even try to sneak out."
"Arms in casts, doc. Where the hell would I go?"
The Doctor doesn't answer, but lifts an eyebrow because really, this is Clint Barton who'd once, with a broken knee and three broken fingers, ascended into the ceiling, climbed three floors, and dropped down into the training room so silently that young Peter Parker had jumped and webbed himself up into a corner. There is, in Medical's collective mind, no worse a patient than Clinton Barton.
A few discharge papers are signed and then they're off, Clint's back twitching the entire ride back to the Mansion and when he slides face-first (again) onto his bed, it's with a growl of relief. "Four days. I was trapped there for four days."
Phil doesn't say anything and Clint doesn't point it out: four days in Medical, fourteen in captivity. And he knows it rankles, that it bothers Phil to no end that it took that long to find Clint once he'd gone off the grid. He settles for muttering, "Gonna lay down with me?"
"I have a meeting with Fury in half an hour."
The look Clint gives him could melt a frost giant.
"I can lay here for a few minutes." Phil falls in beside him, curling an arm under Clint's chest, and pulling him in close; there aren't enough pillows to cushion Clint properly, take the strain off sore and abused flesh, but Phil's warm and safe and it works for him. Hell, he's part way to sleep when Phil tells him, "Don't ever think I won't come for you."
"I know it was the fever. But believe me, you stubborn pain in the ass, I'm not going to let you get left behind—if I can't get to you myself, then I'll send Natasha. If I can't send Natasha, I'll send Tony. Or Steve. Or I'll call Xavier myself."
"Can we not discuss this?"
"First you acknowledge that as long as I'm this team's liaison, I will do everything in my power to get every single one of you home again. Then I've got... ten minutes."
Clint perks up at the last few words, nods. "Acknowledged."
Phil rolls his eyes at the half-hearted attempt, but takes it anyway. "Lean this way a little," he guides, pulls Clint closer, and slides their mouths together.
There's a file in Phil's office, locked quietly in his desk, that's unlabeled and unsanctioned and he knows Fury's aware of it's existence, but neither man ever comments on it. Why should they? It's there as a reminder that sometimes, the best men come out of the worst conditions—Barton shouldn't be as stable as he is, though one might argue a marksman of any kind isn't the epitome of stability.
It's innocuous, just a few sheets of the cheap paper SHIELD buys in bulk off Staples.com (even covert agencies need office supplies) with names and dates and a photo of Clint when he was still young, unnamed and unwanted.
Phil happens to be looking at that photo this particular afternoon.
Downstairs, Clint is probably swearing at someone as they unbind his wings—the x-rays clear—and once the splints are off, it's pretty much guaranteed that Barton will spend the next twelve hours doing aerial laps around the helicarrier. Being grounded makes him antsy and the prior two days were a true test of Phil's patience.
He sighs, apologizes to the boy in the photo for the childhood he'd been deprived off, and folds the papers away. "Not today," he murmurs, giving a last glance to the half-crumpled and dirtied birth certificate. (Give him an hour in an abandoned storage space and he can find just about anything.)
The junior agents give him a wide berth, more out of kindness than fear. He's tired, having spent the last few weeks soothing Clint's nightmares, and he really does not want to be dealing with the petty inter-office bullshit that oft comes out during periods of high stress in the Division.
He rounds a corner and steals an unattended coffee off a cart near the elevator, sips it gingerly as he presses the button for Medical and for two blessed seconds, all is right in his world. Then the doors open and he can hear Clint's yelling and the flutter of wings; there's a solid smack, silence, and Clint grousing.
Phil prays for strength, forces himself out of the elevator and to the exam room and finds Natasha glaring while she holds Clint back and Doctor Beckett holding a hand over her eye.
The caffeine high fades instantly. "What happened?"
There's simultaneous talking, everyone trying to get a word in edgewise excluding Clint who just shrugs and looks away.
He dismisses Natasha who doesn't seem pleased to be ordered out, but goes anyway, and tells the nurse to please get some ice—he's gotten one of Clint's wings to the face before and it hurts like a sonofabitch if it's given time to welt up—then pushes Clint into a chair. He murmurs, "It's all right," as he pulls on the snaps that join Clint's shirt together, revealing the PICC line port.
(There is a rule, a hard rule, that Phil had taken only a few short days to learn and that is this: when Clint was a young man, he'd been taken by a man who'd sought to "cure" him and though he's never given Phil the full story, the damage it'd left behind is never far from Clint's mind and having anyone in a labcoat disrobe him will result in Clint fighting. This, coincidentally, is how Phil came into the knowledge of wing-related welting eyelids.)
"It's clean," he tells Beckett, who passes a flush syringe over with both hands visible and watches as Coulson attaches it, pulls back and injects.
"Okay. His last round of bloodwork was better, but we're still looking at another week with IV medication," Beckett informs. "After that, assuming you're in the clear, Agent Barton, we'll pull the catheter and we'll set up orders for PT."
There's a moment of glee on Clint's end and he tries to stay still as Phil fixes his shirt; one of the casts had come off last week, and he holds up the other. "And this?"
She pulls the ice pack down, letting the full weight of her gaze settle on Clint and tells him, "If you would stop sneaking down to the range, it would already be healed. Give the bow a rest for a week and I can probably remove it at the same time as we do your PICC line."
Clint has the good sense to look contrite, then, "I'm good?"
"You're good. Get out of here before I find a reason to sedate you."
He doesn't need to be told twice; Clint tucks his wings back, the bottom feathers crossing and he hightails it from the room with Phil in tow. A few of the darker feathers fall and Phil dips to pick one up as he walks, twirling it in his fingers and he pokes Clint with it. "You're molting."
"Yeah. It happens."
It does: when Clint's stressed and trying not to show it. (Phil's tempted to turn around and find out just who and how many people had come at Clint in an effort to reveal the PICC line as opposed to letting Clint himself do it, or Natasha—Natasha was safe—but he keeps walking, hitting the button for the garage with an elbow.)
He's always had the bow and he never knows why. It's just always been there, an old friend, and he learns to use it in stages, always an amateur until he falls into the lap of Mr. Carson, quite literally.
"Jesus, kid," the old man declares before wrapping Clint into his heavy trenchcoat. It is only just as the old man turns them into an alley that the guards from the facility run by; they never see the trail of bloody, sticky feathers that fall at random intervals, and for that, Clint will always be grateful for morons.
The circus becomes his sanctuary, a place where everyone's a freak so what's one more? What's one with wings? No one so much as looks at him twice and it's wonderful, it's perfect; one of the costumers makes him a harness that holds his wings tightly against his back, hides them beneath a cape, and he eats with the others at long tables after the day's shows are done. The Swordsman takes him on, teaches him, and seriously, this has to be heaven.
Has to be.
Except he's on the highwire, struggling to stay upright. He reaches for the buckles on the harness, Jacques fuming at him from the other side of the rigging.
"Clint, wake up."
The straps won't budge and the wire is bouncing now, under Jacques foot; Clint slips, catches it with one hand and holds on for dear life.
Clint snaps awake, pulling in lungfuls of air as he looks feverishly around the room; his eyes adjust and no, he's not clinging to the high wire, about to fall to what was nearly his death, his own wings strapped uselessly to his back. (He forces himself up and flexes them now, feels the ripple of them as they stretch and span, and relief rolls through him.)
Phil, for his part, doesn't move. He stays there, in their bed, waiting for the last creeping unease left by the nightmare to fall away and only then, when Clint's eyes have lost their manic edge, he speaks again. "Long Island Medium marathon?" he asks, the remote already in his hand.
"Yeah," Clint nods, "Yeah, that'll work," and slides back under the covers.
Turning on the first episode in the queue, Phil is careful not to ask what the nightmare was about—he doesn't actually need to—and instead, he grabs his cellphone as Clint settles and sends off an email to Fury, cc'd to Darcy, that's just two words long: In late. The phone goes back onto the nightstand and he pushes himself up against the headboard, pushing and pulling at Clint until he's on his side with his head on Phil's shoulder.
It's not a position Clint often allows, but Phil knows the proximity is needed. (Any time Clint dreams of the Swordsman, of the days after when Mr. Carson and half the circus had sat at Clint's bedside and prayed he'd live because going to a hospital wasn't an option, he needs the security of Phil under his arms. Clint's never said why, but Phil knows anyway.) He pulls the blanket up under Clint's wings, then over a shoulder, and sets the remote into Clint's grasp.
He rolls his fingers over the plastic, the buttons catching on his skin before smoothing over, and for a while, Clint just watches the episodes. But there's a recurring them with this show and he mutters, "Family," through half-grit teeth.
Phil runs his fingers through Clint's hair in response. It's supposed to be a soothing gesture, though Clint doesn't always take it that way; tonight, Clint twists into the motion, closing his eyes and pulling a wing over Phil as if to protect them both from the world on the other side of his feathers.
The folder, the one from Phil's desk, goes missing the day after Clint's liberated from both cast and PICC line and Phil doesn't hesitate as he dials, the blank spot in the drawer blinding.
Phil breathes—the SHIELD issued cellphones are noise-reducing, but Phil's always been adept enough to hear wind, to know when someone's driving or flying or standing still. Clint is standing still. "Where are you?"
Clint, smartly, doesn't lie. "184 Salem Street, Boston, Massachusetts." He sighs, then goes on, "I have a brother. Always figured it'd be a brother... He just left—Sunday dinner—and he's married. Can you believe that, Phil? Two little kids."
A breeze rolls by and Phil hears the ruffle of feathers; Clint must be perched somewhere high, just watching rather than lying in wait for the opportune moment to do something stupid. They're both silent, then Clint adds, "They're a normal family."
"Clint." He pulls the phone tighter to his ear. "Come home."
There's a few seconds of silence again, then Clint asks, "I'll pretend this file doesn't exist."
"In exchange for?"
"The reason it does."
Phil doesn't play dumb nor does he lie, just wonders what Clint will think of his blood family now in those idle minutes during briefing. "Because I get a great deal of satisfaction in knowing I could ruin their lives as easily as they almost did yours."
"They're my family, Phil."
"They tried to cut your wings off and when that didn't work, your mother had to talk your father out of feeding you bleach." The fact is recited, cold and honest. "They lost the right to be your family when they started talking about how to kill a four day old infant."
(He thinks of the kindly old nun now, of Sister Helen who'd told Clint that he'd been left at the church when the reality is this: Clint was born with the tiniest of wings and his parents had been terrified of the implications. His father had cut them off with a pair of wire snips, only to find they'd grown back three days later. Distraught Clint's mother had gone to the church in the dead of night and meant to leave him there, but the doors were locked and instead she found herself at the orphanage where Sister Helen had promised that Clint would be safe and sound. This, Phil had discovered, through pages of a journal the woman had left behind at the convent after her death.)
Phil's hands clench and he waits a moment. "Come home."
There's the thudding noise of boots on concrete and faint fluff of wings and then Clint tells him, "Quinjet's warming."
Still, it's late when Clint gets back and by all rights, Phil should be back at the Mansion in bed. But life with the Avengers doesn't fit any predetermined script: Phil, instead, is at his desk with a mound of paperwork on either side. He's clicking away at computer keys, stopping only when Clint steps fully into the room and closes the door behind him.
Neither speaks—Phil's not willing to break what seems like a tentative calm and Clint doesn't want to start a fight—and the folder is flopped down onto the desk, atop some form or another reimbursing Tony Stark-related damage. It sits there for a second before Phil slides it into the drawer, and looks up. He can see the lingering ache in Clint's eyes, the ebb of those daydreams, and he gets to his feet without thinking.
Physical affection isn't a rarity between them, but Clint is surprised when Phil pulls him close and kisses him, runs a hand along the edge of his hairline. (SHIELD isn't exactly known for its private areas and Clint figures this will make the rounds of the internal server by morning.) Another kiss and then Phil says, "Steve made dinner tonight. He's holding it hostage until we get back to the Mansion."
Clint laughs, a slow smile spreading across his lips.