He wasn't prone to self-doubt. He never had been, at least not when it came to the skills he had spent a lifetime honing. His abilities as a marksman, as an agent, more than made him one of the best not only in SHIELD, but in the whole damn world. Therefore when it came to concern over his abilities and his place in SHIELD, he had no worries.
When he joined the Avengers things became a bit more…interesting. Now he had a new level of agent to aspire too. It was no longer just Phil and Natasha holding the (admittedly damn high) bar he worked to meet, he now had to deal with matching up to a super-soldier, a god, a scarily powerful green monster who was a scarily smart scientist when he wasn't angry, and a genius playboy philanthropist billionaire who basically financed the Avengers Initiative and built his own supersuit. That flew. And had targeting sensors that rivalled Clint's aim any day.
Even then Clint never doubted his abilities because, come on, who could compete with that without having mutant abilities or war machines of their own? Oh, that's right, Clint could. Frankly the only person on the team he would openly admit to fearing was Natasha and her ruthless efficiency that so clearly ruled them all.
Clint had always enjoyed doing what he felt was right, though he could admit that there had been times in the past when he had been misled – both by people he believed to be honest and good, and by his need to rush headlong into fighting the good fight. His need to be involved and to help. Clint hadn't realised how much he would learn to love working for SHIELD (most of the time) when he first signed on, but working with the Avengers? It was a ballgame he had never dreamed of being a runner up for, let along the right fielder, and he was more than up for the challenge.
That being discovered he maybe, occasionally, became a little more injured now than he had before joining the Avengers, but not by much, so he honestly hadn't thought anything of it. At least not until this moment as he paused in his escape from SHIELD HQ's infirmary wing, only a few feet from the med staff's break room door. His mom, before she had left him and his older brother Barney to fend for themselves, had always told him his nosiness would get him in trouble one day. It still didn't stop him from stopping and listening in the moment he heard his codename cross his nurse's (he'd recognize that sultry voice anywhere) lips.
"I swear to god that man spends more time recovering in the infirmary than he does actually fighting on that initiative," she sighed and he frowned. Yeah, he spent a lot of time here, that was generally why he always tried to sneak out against medical advice, but usually it was for something stupid: a sprained wrist, a cracked pinkie, a measly two story fall. Nothing to really worry about.
"Makes you wonder when the bosses are going to smarten up and put him on less dangerous missions," a man responded and she snorted before indelicately moving on to tease him about his latest fling.
Clint pushed away from the wall he was holding up and walked passed the room without either of them noticing. A jaunty wave and wink at the nurse manning the intake station had her frowning at him but he was already disappearing as she asked the doctor beside her if he'd been released.
He didn't waste time worrying about what he had overheard; there was no point really as it was just office gossip at its finest. Still it was enough to get him to start being slightly more careful, at least when training, and the nod of approval he received from Phil when he logged hours on the range without reporting any muscle strain was kind of a win-win.
The second time he overheard someone commenting on his rate of injury he was, once again, in the infirmary. This time, however, it was being said to him directly. He had a concussion (only a mild one, thank you) and was basically using it as an excuse to watch Coulson, standing off to the side with his arms crossed, suit crinkled and face slightly pinched, instead of listening to the doctor. At least until he heard the words 'bed rest' and 'can't keep going like this,' and 'not a superhero.'
Of course he was going to notice to that, because what the fuck did this quack know about being a superhero? All Clint ever worked towards was being the best he could and just because he didn't have super ability he was being discounted by a guy who looked like he couldn't handle more than thirty push-ups under duress? Bull shit.
"Agent Barton is more than capable of handling his job, Dr. Deaver," Coulson stepped forward suddenly and frowned up at the tall doctor. "If there are no further medically relevant tasks you need to perform, then I will take him home to the Avenger Mansion. He will complete his recovery under Dr. Banner's care." Clint closed his mouth, halting what would no doubt have been an affronted, childish retort beginning with the words 'yo mama' and ending with another reprimand for not playing nice with SHIELD employees. Fortunately, Coulson's extremely bland stare was more intimidating than anything Clint would probably ever come up with, and Dr. Do-gooder promptly agreed that whatever Coulson wanted Coulson would get and left them alone.
"You're my superhero," Clint thought he might be batting his eyelashes up at his handler, though it could also be his body's attempt to block out the overhead lights. It was possible he had more than a mild concussion.
Coulson sighed and frowned down at Clint tiredly.
"Try to not let cars fall on your head in the future, Agent Barton, if only to save me from the paperwork."
"To be fair," Clint swung his legs over the side of the bed and pretended real hard that the movement wasn't too fast too soon. A strong, warm grip on his shoulder prevented him from toppling forward, "I was four stories high at the time. Cars shouldn't have been the problem."
Coulson got him back to his room at the mansion safe and sound and Clint would never really remember everything that was said that day, but he did remember the words 'not a super' and 'can handle his job.' He didn't quite understand why it evoked feelings of bitterness and fondness but he figured he was better off just forgetting about it all together.
Coulson, Natasha and Steve were on a classified op (they were chasing down the son of a very affluent American politician who was gearing up to being the next Unabomber) and Clint was holed up on base due to a torn muscle in his shoulder. Another week and he'd be good as new, but it was a week where he was restricted from doing anything heavier than paperwork and prescribed physical therapy. He'd finished his paperwork the first day, because putting it off for too long was just overwhelming. Especially when Coulson was not above locking Clint in a room and pretending to forget he was in there until every last t had been crossed. Clint had learned that lesson years ago, though the running joke between them never got old and Clint had no problems playing up his image as a tardy asshole.
Basically what this meant was that he wasn't allowed to crawl around in the ducts or drop ceilings, so he made do with walking silently behind every agent who looked like they were doing something marginally interesting. This was acceptable until they either realized he was following them or went somewhere he had no interest in being.
Agent Sitwell caught on after ten steps. The guy was actually one of the more competent agents around, which was why Clint gave him less trouble than most and never grumbled when he was assigned to work with him.
He decided to follow Fury's latest aide instead. The man was not very spatially aware; he didn't catch on to Clint trailing after him for the full twenty minutes as he hurriedly darted in and out of offices, delivered messages to labs and picked up what looked like a bean salad from the cafeteria. Fury must be watching his blood pressure again if he was passing up on the Italian sausage pasta.
The lurking meant Clint was privy to gossip; most of it was harmless and inane and boring. He perked up a bit when a junior agent sidled up to the man and asked about the 'latest' on the Avengers. The aide sighed. Clint expected him to rattle off some line about things that were need to know only (Fury's last aide had been beautifully tight lipped about anything Avenger related) but it quickly became clear that that wasn't how the new aide operated.
"They haven't been up to much," he shrugged, almost coming across as put upon despite the fact that he had yet to deal with any of Clint's team personally. "Stark's actually behaving for once and Thor's off in Asgard doing some family thing, which basically means that Barton's the only issue."
That got Clint's attention right along with the gossipy junior agent.
"Barton? He's out on injury. Isn't that pretty much the only time he behaves?"
"Yeah, when he's not trying to bust out of medical," the aide snorted and shook his head, "which is kind of the problem."
"Busting out of medical?"
"No, needing medical in the first place," the guy waved the bean salad around as he walked. "The guy's always been a bit of a trouble magnet, but now that he's working with Captain America, if he gets hurt, it gets noticed more. High profile position and all, it has some of the higher ups concerned."
"What? That he's not good enough for the Avengers?" The junior agent at least seemed to think that was ridiculous despite the aide's careless shrug that did nothing for Clint's peace of mind.
"Maybe, or maybe they just don't like footing all the medical bills. The rest of the Avengers spend less than half the amount of time in the infirmary than he does, even if a lot of it's just minor injuries. It's been noticed."
Clint couldn't actually deny that this was true. Even Natasha spent far less time in medical for minor injuries than he did, though she did subscribe to the 'fight smarter not harder' category where as he was more of the 'fight dirty and get shit done by any means' when it came to hands on combat. Clint just didn't realize others were paying such close attention. It had never been an issue before. At least not that he knew of.
He split off from them and cut through a secret side door most people in the building didn't know existed, emerging outside the wing to Fury's offices only a minute later. With a wave at Fury's secretary (he absolutely did not hear her protesting his unannounced visit to the Director's office), he cracked the door open and poked his head in.
"Hey," Fury looked up from his computer at the call and frowned at Clint. "Just thought you would want to know that the junior agents are aware that Thor's visiting his folks," Fury's frown deepened, eye narrowing at Clint because that was supposed to be secured intel. "Might want to take a closer look at your new aide's inability to steer clear of the water cooler," he advised. The director watched him for a long moment, his displeasure clear, before nodding a dismissal. Clint gladly ducked out, ignoring the problematic aide as they crossed paths and giving Fury's scretary a polite nod before sauntering out of the office proper and into the main corridor.
He apparently had some things to think about.
When Tony made the comment, weeks later, that maybe they should just hire an in house medic for Clint as Coulson carefully wrapped a pressure bandage on the bullet graze to Clint's thigh and Phil didn't immediately shut him down, Clint realized he had a problem. Tony had actually sounded serious (which meant he was concerned), and a serious Tony meant that the most self-absorbed member of his team had noticed that Clint tended to get banged around a lot.
Clint couldn't risk being tossed off the team because he kept getting nicked and bruised.
He couldn't risk being dismissed back to basic asset status because they were concerned that he wasn't matching up to par in the field. For injuries accrued in the line of duty for crying out loud. He'd always imagined that if he was going to get the boot it would be because he was too slow, too weak, too old, or dead. He wasn't going to let a couple minor scratches and scrapes get him cut from the team. Not this team. Not a chance.
He laughed and told Tony he was all for a personal medic, so long as she had curves in all the right places.
Coulson pressed a little too hard on his injury and didn't apologize.
Clint could live with it. What was a little pain after all?
When Clint jumped out of a Hydra helicopter during a perfectly timed roll as it plunged towards the ocean, Iron Man effortlessly snagged him out of the air.
"Going my way?" Clint quipped to distract himself from the fact that being tackled in a free fall by a piece of metal with jet propulsion hurt like a motherfucker. He could already feel the bruises forming across his shoulders and his right thigh was cramping in protest from the hit.
"Not in a million years," Starks robot voice responded sharply, but he curled his arms around Clint a little more, pressing him tighter to his suit as he moved to the aircraft carrier the chopper had been aiming to attack. "You okay?"
"I'm fine," Clint tried very hard not to snarl because he knew Tony was just worried about him. It had been a close call; if Clint hadn't timed his jump perfectly he would have been chopper chopped. Heh. "Just drop me off and go help Thor, I'll see what I can do from the boat."
"Keep your thong on, I'll get you there," Tony said, true to his word as he was already slowing to land on the ship's deck.
"Don't land, just drop me and go," Clint bit out, watching as a few of the crew came running out to meet them from the ships island.
"You sure?" Tony sounded uncertain.
"I'm not made of glass, Stark!" Tony didn't argue after that, because it would be quicker if he could do a flyby and he needed to get back to Thor. He flew closer to the ship's deck than Clint expected and slowed to the point that it was almost a joke for Clint to tuck and roll as he hit the deck and popped back up to his feet. He'd been forced to leave his bow behind when he'd been taken aboard the chopper what felt like hours ago and his hand clenched absently around the missing weight.
"Sir! Sir, are you all right?" the crewman to reach him first on the vast deck demanded and Clint pulled himself straight and squared his aching shoulders.
"I'm fine. Take me to wherever Agent Coulson is stationed," he demanded and gestured impatiently as the crewman looked uncertain, eyeing him quickly for signs of injury. When he apparently couldn't see anything obvious, he handed over a radio and pointed up. Clint couldn't help grinning and looked up passed the ship's main bridge structure and flight control deck, all the way to the roof of the structure. He spotted Phil standing right at the railing, living up to his image with his pressed suit, black sunglasses and an entourage of agents and navy personnel flocked around him. Clint couldn't quite make out his face, but he very easily spotted the binoculars Phil was using to look down at him.
"Do you need medical?" Phil's calm, authoritative voice came over the radio and Clint didn't hesitate to shake his head, ignoring the tight pull of muscles across his back and the throbbing in his thigh. It was just bruising.
"No sir, I'm fine."
"That's debatable, Hawkeye. What happened with the chopper?"
"Unexpected mechanical failure and pilot loss, sir. It was all very traumatic." Off in the distance there was a large explosion; the resulting concussive force was enough to blow heated air past them and Clint turned to watch the massive, burning, alien airship that Hydra had somehow acquired crash into the water. His sharp eyes could just make out Thor and Stark dancing about in the sky as they circled above the currently drowning ship. The fighter jet Rogers was piloting was already arching sharply in the sky, curving around to head back to the ship. Clint grinned. It was a good day.
An hour later Phil joined Clint and the rest of the Avengers where they were sat with their legs dangling over the carrier's edge, watching the beginning of the sunset turn the clouds in the sky deep hues of pink and orange. They stood swiftly to meet him, Clint included, though it was some effort to make the movement smooth with his protesting leg. He managed. Phil looked them all over carefully.
"Injuries?" he asked mildly.
"None to report, sir," Rogers practically beamed and Clint was hard pressed not to roll his eyes. Phil looked to Clint then, gaze narrowing.
"Any minor injuries?" Phil decided to be more specific and Clint shook his head in a burst of irritation, because seriously, it wasn't like he got injured every mission.
"We're all fine sir," Clint held out his arms, daring Phil to do a more thorough inspection if he didn't believe him, and pushed the pang of guilt at lying to him (to them all) down deep. The look of satisfaction that crossed Phil's face made it easier.
"Glad to hear it. Report to the Quinjet, it's time to go home."
Thor's shoulder brushed Clint's as they turned to head to their plane and Clint pretended it didn't jar muscles that were slowly locking up with a deep ache now that the action was over and adrenalin was gone. Clint had had injuries like this plenty of times before. A few days and he would be better than fine and if he was needed on a mission before then it wasn't like this body wasn't going to work; it would just be sore. Even if he reported to medical they would say the same thing. He was sure.
Besides, it wasn't like he ever reported the majority of his injuries until after a mission was complete anyway. It wouldn't hurt anybody if they didn't know the bruises were there. He still had muscle relaxants and anti-inflammatories he hadn't taken from a few months ago that would help him and Tony had state of the art ice baths to start the healing with and steam rooms and hot tubs for the rest. It was fine.
Clint was just fine.
Clint wasn't stupid. He wasn't going to hide anything that was serious enough to cause him permanent harm or affect his ability to cover his teams back in the field. He was just going to hide the smaller things, things he was supposed to report regardless but that he knew how to take care of on his own terms. Much like he had before he'd ever heard of SHIELD and free, compulsory medical care that ensured agents remained in top form.
At least he wasn't planning on hiding anything but the most minor cuts and bruises when he started the façade of being a less injury prone agent.
The thing was he'd never realized the extent of all the casual and not so casual comments he'd been on the receiving end of over the years. From doctors and medics to senior field agents and even a few overconfident junior agents, to his own teammates. Sometimes the comments would come saturated in admiration, sometimes with ruefulness and wishes that Clint would be more careful, sometimes, though it was rare enough that he never paid it any real attention, it was said with mocking and implied glory seeking. Clint hadn't cared; he liked to believe he still didn't care now that he'd started paying attention to it.
After the first active decision to hide his bruises and strained muscles from everyone, he hadn't paid it much notice beyond Phil and the team seem happy and left it at that.
The second time he hid an injury it was nothing more than a raw scrape on his lower back that had been easily hidden by his uniform. He had fast hands, it was nothing to lift a few field dressings from the medics distracted by Tony and the Hulk arguing in the middle of the field. He waved off Natasha's arched eyebrow when he went to duck behind a truck, making a comment about draining the lizard that had her smirking and turning back to help Phil coordinate whatever it was they were coordinating. A couple of quick seconds and he had the bandages in place to soak up any blood that might have become visible before meandering out to see if he was allowed to go and collect his arrows.
The third time he smashed his shin badly enough that hiding the limp was almost not worth avoiding another notation in his file pointing out that he had been injured yet again.
"Two missions in a row without injury Hawkeye? What are they bribing you with for the good behaviour?" Agent Killjoy (one of the senior agents that Clint actively did not get along with) grinned at him from beside Phil. Phil's cool blue eyes tracked away from his phone to look over Clint in assessment and Clint, who had been on the verge of pointing out that walking was going to suck for a day or three, abruptly changed tactics.
"A night with your mom," he grinned widely as Killjoy's face darkened, "and sister." Phil's lips twitched before settling, but he looked satisfied with the situation as a whole and that made the effort of walking away without showing a flicker of pain worth it.
Of course there were plenty of missions where he really didn't get hurt, but he made a point of teasing the medics with complaints of paper cuts and hangnails just to be annoying, things that were sure to get no more attention than an eye roll. If he managed to swipe a variety of medical supplies whenever he did so nobody seemed the wiser and he was more than happy to start carrying around the bare minimum necessary to hide small bleeds and such tucked away deep in his pockets.
Bruises were easier to hide, and not really something worth concerning medics with anyway. At least he was of that opinion, which is why he just laughed when Steve all but dragged him to SHIELD's med wing after he had grabbed Clint's arm a little too hard in training.
"Seriously, Steve, it's fine. Just a little discolouration," he pointed out easily as he parked it on an examination bed to await whichever doctor was on call at the moment.
"Clint, you have a purple impression of my hand wrapped around your bicep," Steve frowned at him and Clint actually felt bad, felt bad, that Steve was so worried about this. He knew guilt was a big factor; Steve never backed down from a fight but he had never been the type of man who actively wanted to cause damage to people either. Especially while training. He'd be feeling guilty about this until the bruise was completely gone and probably for a while longer, because he was standup like that.
"Yeah. Hey, you should sign it and we'll get some pictures, might be able to sell the images to a tabloid or something, make some quick cash and piss Fury off."
Steve's response was thwarted as a familiar face in a white lab coat with his ever-important stethoscope draped around his neck approached Clint's bed in the open medical wing.
"Dr. Deaver," Steve acknowledged politely and Clint just managed to not snort at the poster boy of good manners.
"Captain Rogers," Deaver acknowledged respectfully before he looked to Clint and his attention immediately drawn to the bruising as opposed to his face. "Agent Barton, I haven't seen you in these parts for a while. I see you've finally taken our advice and stopped throwing yourself in harm's way."
"Nah," Clint shrugged and didn't protest as he lightly (Deaver had the gentlest hands of all the doctors in SHIELD) palpated around the bruising and began slowly rotating Clint's shoulder. "Just good clean living."
"Hmmm," he agreed sceptically and Clint bit down on the irrational irritation that bubbled up inside. "We'll see how long that lasts," Deaver gently lowered his arm and looked to Steve, as though he were Clint's guardian despite Clint being an adult and right here thank you very much. "It's just deep bruising, I see no evidence of injury beyond that and no worries about blood clots. He should ice it for twenty minutes every hour and he shouldn't have any problems healing." He whipped out a soft, cloth covered, ice pack from his lab coat's pocket and promptly handed it to Clint. "See you soon," he smiled warmly, though Clint was sure there was a sense of jest beneath the tone that was uncalled for.
Steve seemed relieved though, even as he stared at Clint imploringly until he complacently pressed the ice to his arm. It felt good.
Sadly two days later Dr. Deaver did see Clint again as he carefully tied six stitches into his calf while Natasha watched, perched on the bed beside Clint's, still and poised for a fight. If the doc was bothered by her presence at all he didn't show it.
"You don't need to be here for this," Clint pointed out even as he focused his attention on the doctor's movements, watching how he flushed the wound, lined up the edges, and sewed the skin together bit by bit.
Natasha's answer, not surprisingly, was a redirect.
"When did you hurt your shin?" For a moment he had no idea what she was talking about, confusion making him frown at her before he remembered the old injury. Leave it to Natasha to notice something so ridiculously small. The Doc finished up and then prodded at said shin with his gloved fingers and Clint scowled.
"A few weeks ago?" he eyed the tiny red scar that was all that was left from what had been a damn impressive goose egg. It hadn't bothered him for over a week now and there was nothing but the faintest yellow hinting at old bruising on his embarrassingly pale legs. "Jesus, I need to tan," he muttered distractingly as the doctor looked like he was about to ask a few questions, and nodded impatiently at the stitched cut. "You finished up there? How about we slap some gauze on this and call it a day. Tony said he was cooking Italian tonight."
"And by that he meant flying an Italian chef to the mansion for the evening," Natasha's eyes gleamed; she loved authentic Italian, and Deaver did as subtly ordered, covering the wound and standing from his stool.
"You know the drill," he declared and handed a small paper bag filled with dressings and ointment to Clint before leaving. Clint rolled down his torn pant leg and tested his weight on his foot before deciding it wasn't too bad. With a raised eyebrow at his partner's watchful eye he gestured to the door.
"Ladies first," he leered and she had to have been more relieved that he was okay than he initially thought, because even as she narrowed her eyes warningly at him she stepped ahead and walked with an extra little sway to her hips.
He loved that woman.
Watching her walk away was the best part of an otherwise shitty day, but it didn't distract him from grabbing a couple of the tiny, pre-packaged suture kits from the surgical roll-table and slipping them into his brown bag.
It was a good move too, because a few weeks later, in the light of his private bathroom at the mansion, he got to test the new skill on his thigh. It was a minor wound, only needed three stitches, though it hurt like a son-of-a-bitch without any numbing agent.
He didn't do a bad job if he did say so himself.
Hiding a few bumps and bruises and cuts was no big deal. Head injuries he never concealed, unless it was just a little bump and the pain mostly cleared up after a few minutes. Prolonged headaches and dizziness, yeah, that was reported pretty much once the action was over and things were under control. Head wounds he tended to report directly to Phil, in person, because it was one of the few times that the man would touch him almost casually. Coulson had this way of running his fingers through Clint's short hair, searching the wound out, that made him want to shiver despite the pain, and his fingers tended to linger longer than the medic's ever did. Clint knew this was because Phil was just being thorough, but that had never stopped him from enjoying the touch all the same.
There were times he had to very deliberately not acknowledge how sad that was, and he generally responded to such self-pity with a night on the town and a willing person looking for a good time when the knowledge sat too heavily in his chest.
Standing with his neck bent now, Phil's fingers insistently brushing aside his hair, he acknowledged that this torch he'd been carrying for years for his handler was getting old. Still, he couldn't help leaning slightly into the touch.
"Anyone ever tell you that you have magic fingers?" he grinned, trying for cheeky and not sure he managed around the purr.
"You know, I can have all of Coulson's stuff moved into your room any time you want," Tony spoke up from where he was sitting on the SUV's tailgate, holding a massive ice pack to his shoulder, his bright eyes watching Clint and Phil closely. "Seems a shame to live apart, what with your marriage and all."
"I dare you," Clint gleefully responded, not reacting to the twitch of Phil's fingers before the man gently pulled away. He paused though, hand hovering over Clint's shoulder.
"What's this?" he asked and Clint felt fingers at the neck of his collar before he had a chance to casually step away. The material lifted slightly and Clint turned his head to try and look where Phil's attention was fixed, though the angle was a bit awkward.
"What?" he turned straight again and gently rolled his neck, hiding the hot rush of unease. "Oh, just a bruise, it's almost gone."
There was a moment's silence as Phil stepped back and let the thick material settle back in place. Clint turned to face him and wasn't surprised by the frown he was met with.
"It's not in your medical file," Phil pointed out and Clint smirked wide and unconcerned.
"I knew you cared," he teased but Phil didn't seem to be in the mood for relenting, his frown still marring his face and Clint shrugged, ignoring the twinge of pain that sat deeper in his muscle. "Thor got overexcited and grabbed my shoulder last week. We were off duty and I didn't see the point in reporting it, sir." Actually, a pipe from collapsing scaffolding that he wasn't technically supposed to have been anywhere near had smacked him. Injured while on a mission for being in a place he wasn't supposed to be? Yeah, that wasn't going into any report if he could help it.
Phil stared for a moment longer before he turned to Tony, crossed his arms, and just watched him. Tony frowned, straightened slightly, and leaned back a little.
"What?" He asked. Phil narrowed his eyes. Tony narrowed his eyes more and shifted uneasily, before he rolled his eyes hard enough that Clint was surprised he remained upright. "Okay, I get it!" he huffed indignantly, "touching Agent Coulson's personal belongings: bad."
Phil smiled humorously and swiftly left to speak with someone about something that was probably important. Tony watched him leave and then turned to Clint. "What happens when we actually piss him off? For real?"
Clint smiled cooly.
"Try not to and you won't have to worry about finding out."
"What's this?" Dr. Deaver asked as he finished wrapping Clint's knee and Clint looked to see him nodding at Clint's foot. "You didn't report that you hurt your foot as well," he frowned and Clint did as well. It was kind of hard to explain that he hadn't mentioned the possibly dislocated toe out of habit.
"I forgot about it," he shrugged smoothly and Deaver looked up at him incredulously.
"You forgot about it," he repeated, dryly, and Clint glared, because yeah, he had.
"I guess we could say I was a little distracted by the pain in my knee," he tried one of Coulson's unimpressed smiles on for size. "It's not a big deal, just pop it back in and I'll be good to go."
Deaver ignored him, just like Clint ignored Bruce's concerned gaze from where he hovered on the other side of the medical cot Clint was perched on.
"Nurse, we're going to need another set of x-rays if you would," Deaver gestured at the damaged toe and nurse nodded.
Clint didn't argue, because it was honestly a relief to know he wouldn't have to deal with this injury alone, and simply let himself be wheeled off again. He was too tired to notice the frown Deaver followed him with until he was out of sight, or the way he reached for Clint's file and began to flip through it more carefully than he usually did.
When Clint dislocated his thumb slipping from a ladder that wasn't as secure as it should have been, he didn't gasp from the shock of pain, or swear like he might have only two months ago. He didn't want to risk his team hearing it over the open comms. It's not like the injury would have slowed him down before anyway, it just meant he wasn't going to be swarmed by unnecessary medics the moment his job was done.
He took a breath, held it, and popped the joint back into place, before very slowly exhaling.
"Hawkeye?" Coulson's voice cut through the sharp pain, grounding him enough that he took off running again. He had plenty of time to get to his perch, but it was never a good idea to take that time for granted. "Status." Shit, he must have made some kind of noise after all.
"Just enjoying a little street running sir," he picked up speed and leapt, easily clearing the gap between rooftops, not even needing to tuck into a roll. "ETA ninety seconds."
It didn't occur to Clint, in the early morning hours when the mission was wrapped up, that he should have maybe had the medics look at his thumb.
Instead, when they approached he declared no injuries and basked in the looks of approval they gave him before moving on to Steve, who had been thrown into a wall a few too many times. He looked back to see Phil giving him an appraising look, before nodding in approval himself.
Okay, so maybe Clint didn't mind not having his post-mission debriefings with medics leaning over him and Phil standing with crossed arms just beyond them, eyes pinched in a not-frown as he carefully watched their every move.
His thumb felt mostly better by the next week and not once did it slow down his training times. No harm no foul.
Almost three weeks later Clint realized he had a serious problem. Too bad he was too caught in the moment to do anything about it before it all came tumbling down around him.
Tony barging into Clint's room unexpectedly, waving what looked like a SHIELD memo in his fist, was not how Clint had planned to begin his morning. Nor was his friends abrupt stop in the middle of the room, his brows furrowed deeply as he stared unabashedly at Clint.
"What the fuck?" he demanded as Clint finished pulling his tee-shirt into place, covering the deep red and bruised welts on his stomach. He'd had to knock a couple stitches into two of them and was pretty sure the small white bandages he'd placed over his handy work just made the small injuries look worse than they were. At least Tony hadn't seen his ribs.
"For a genius your vocabulary is embarrassingly limited at times," Clint decided as he went to his massive walk in closet. Tony followed him in, automatically stepping to the side so the door wasn't blocked. Clint eyed the only corner in the small room that actually contained his clothes and chose a zip up hoodie at random.
"Seriously," Tony waved at his torso area dramatically, "when the hell did that happen? Shouldn't you be resting or something?" Clint raised a sardonic eyebrow at that, because when did a few cuts and bruises actually keep any of them down? Tony glared. "You know what I mean," he waved at Clint's entire torso again and trailed after him as he moved back to his main room. Clint eyed his worn, beat up sneakers versus his flip-flops. He wanted to choose the flip-flops, he really, really wanted to, but he opted for the sneakers to prove to Tony that it didn't hurt like a motherfucker when he bent over to slip them on.
"Is there a reason you barged into my room without knocking Stark? You do remember that I can shoot you between the eyes without looking, right?"
"Whatever," the ass waved the threat off, because it was pretty laughable; Clint didn't shoot anything without knowing what his target was. "I'm just curious, explain to me why your stomach looks like a violent Kandinsky abstract. Did this happen yesterday? How did I not know that this happened yesterday? You were barely out of contact in the field for five minutes," he was talking to himself more than Clint at this point, but he looked up sharply when Clint stood smoothly and very carefully did not groan at the fire that spread across what felt like his entire body, but was mainly sitting around and under his ribs. "Nothing was mentioned in the debriefing…you saw the medics, right?" and whoa, right there, Tony was truly getting worked up by this and Clint needed to put a stop to it now. He flicked a penny from his nightstand to smack Tony in the forehead. First step: distraction.
"Who the hell do you think patched me up, Stark? Relax, would you? It's just a couple of bruises from when the tank blew. I got some scattered gravel in the gut but my suit stopped most of the damage." He moved to the door, not worried about Tony being left alone in his room; it wasn't like he had any truly personal things in there to poke through. "No big." Tony followed him into the hall, eyes still narrowed. "What the hell got you worked up enough to just barge in anyway? Fury revoking your Quinjet privileges again?"
"Please," Tony snorted, finally distracted, "you install one retracting dance pole and suddenly you never hear the end of it." His teammate's tone was already lighter, effectively placated and distracted and Clint grinned.
"I think the Director's issue had more to do with the dancing girls you picked up in Vegas than the pole itself."
"He was just angry he wasn't invited to the party. Speaking of parties," he waved the memo he was clutching in hand, "can you believe this crap-" and he was off, his earlier rage rekindled and Clint let Tony rant to his hearts content. Honestly he was a little distracted anyway, trying to breathe without letting on how much it hurt.
He didn't waste time feeling guilty about blatantly lying to Tony. He just didn't have the energy.
He would never really understand what made him agree to spar with Natasha later that afternoon. She'd eyed him and promptly announced that he looked like shit before making the offer. Tender loving care at its best. Clint had laughed and gone off to don his gym shorts and a loose shirt even though the idea of even a light jog made him feel nauseous. He never said no to sparring though, not unless he was ill or injured, of which he was neither; he just had a few bruises and cuts.
He hadn't been expecting her warm-up roundhouse to connect with his ribs. He could say with absolute certainty she hadn't expected it either, if the look on her face was anything to go by at the time.
Though by then he'd been on the floor and his vision had been kind of blacking out so what did he know?
What did he know?
He woke up to a fuzzy world and a cloudy head. There was sharp pain as light attacked his eyes and sound that he figured should be familiar but he didn't know what it was saying. He recognized the tone though, steady and soothing and safe. He may have smiled, he had no idea, but that was pretty much all he knew before he was swallowed back under the heavy veil of rest.
"Agent Barton? Agent Barton, how do you feel?" He blinked his eyes open, feeling about a hundred times more alert than the last three times he'd woken up, and he squinted up at the doctor standing over him. Too close. He twitched, swallowed a few times, and rolled his head to look around.
Phil stood by the door, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed and staring at Clint. Normally Clint was all for any kind of attention from Phil, but the intense look he was receiving right now was a little concerning.
"What-" he swallowed thickly past the dryness in his mouth and tried again. "What happened?"
"How do you feel, Agent Barton?" the doctor, Deaver it turned out as Clint's wandering gaze focused, ignored his question.
"Awake," he mumbled and gratefully took a few sips of water the nurse offered.
"Can you tell me the last thing you remember?" the doctor asked, checking his chart in a subtle way that meant he was paying close attention to Clint and trying to not show it. Clint was instantly suspicious but he thought back to the last thing he remembered obediently.
"I was sparring with Agent Romanov," he cleared his throat and wondered if he could get more water, but the nurse had left the room. It was just Clint and the doc and Phil.
Then he remembered the injuries he hadn't reported from the last mission and the fact that two days wouldn't be nearly enough time to conceal them. It went a long way in explaining the look Phil was sporting.
"Shit," he groaned, apparently having even less of a brain to mouth filter than normal. He blamed the drugs.
"What is it?" Deaver demanded, grey eyes looking up to watch him with more open concern than he had ever really shown him before.
"I think I left the stove on," Clint evaded obnoxiously. He closed his eyes and very carefully brought the hand not attached to various tubes up to rub at his forehead. His co-ordination was a little off and apparently he only really had the energy to poke at his right eye once before he dropped his fingers back down. Deaver caught his wrist before it landed and gently moved it to the bed instead of his lap. With a frown, Clint looked down at his chest and began tugging at the blanket that was covering him. He managed to drag it halfway down before Phil moved from the door and finally joined him at the side of his bed. He helped fold the thin sheet down to his waist and even in his dazed, tired state Clint couldn't help watching his strong fingers work and think very unprofessional thoughts.
The large square of white bandaging sitting just below his ribs stole his attention, because the stitches he had put in were on his left side. They were still there, fresh and surrounded by mottled flesh and welts that had thankfully gone down since the last time he'd checked them, but the bandage on his right was new.
"What happened?" He asked again and nodded thankfully when Phil lifted a straw to his lips, letting him drink slowly.
"You were sparring with Agent Romanov," Dr. Deaver unhelpfully answered and Clint tried to glare but his eyes weren't really cooperating as they drifted shut. "Due to injuries previously sustained the blunt force from her kick fractured your seventh and tenth rib." That would explain why every breath sent fire along his chest. "While we were assessing the damage we discovered a small laceration in your liver, most likely caused from the direct impact of high velocity debris on your last mission. You were slowly bleeding internally, we had to operate."
"Agent Barton?" Clint peeled his eyes open a crack, finding it more and more difficult to focus, but he found the energy to look up at the doctor and noted that Phil had moved back to leaning against the wall by the recovery rooms door, stiff and cold. "Can you tell me why you failed to report such serious injuries after your mission was complete?"
Clint closed his eyes, focus drifting as he felt an overwhelming tiredness swell up within him.
"Jus' a few bruises," he muttered, not really aware of what he was saying anymore. Definitely no longer aware of the piercing glare Phil was gifting him with. He was fast asleep moments later and Dr. Deaver sighed as Agent Coulson stepped up beside him.
"Hawkeye heals surprisingly fast; he'll be ready for field deployment in about two months," he reported dutifully and then hesitated, not sure how to point out the rest of his findings without pointing out that he hadn't noticed the problem earlier.
"But you don't think these are the first injuries Agent Barton has concealed," Coulson stated bluntly and Deaver dipped his head in agreement.
"No, I don't. I do, however, think these were the most severe. Hawkeye has reported numerous injuries over these past months that required medical attention, but there is faint evidence of other injuries we have no record of." He looked back at his slumbering patient. "I had noticed a decrease in minor injuries being reported but assumed it was due to his being more…adept in the field." He knew instantly that it was not the smartest way to word what he was trying to say as Coulson's fingers twitched where they rested on the bed, inches from Barton's own hand. Belatedly he realized it sounded more like a criticism than an objective statement. He looked to his patient again and wondered if he had ever made other similar statements that the agent had taken to heart. Agent Barton had never, not once, given him the impression that he cared about what anyone thought of him. He would need to be more careful in the future, and perhaps begin checking his words around other field agents as well.
Thank god he hadn't had to report that the injuries were self-inflicted. As a whole, however, it didn't make Deaver feel much better about the situation and he knew for a fact that Agent Coulson was not taking any of this lightly. Agent Coulson never took things affecting the Avengers lightly, but especially not where it concerned Clint Barton. Nobody who had ever worked the medical wing of SHIELD would ever doubt that.
"I would like a full report on other suspected injuries and a supposition on when you believe this behaviour may have begun at your earliest convenience," Coulson ordered softly. Deaver nodded.
"Right away sir." He'd already started.
Clint woke up a few more times before he was moved to a larger, more private recovery room with a window and not a single bouquet of flowers wishing him well. It would be depressing if it weren't pretty much a given; nobody ever really sent him flowers, but the lack of gifted ammunition and contraband junk food was disappointing in a way he had never thought he'd expect. His nurse had smiled softly at him as he'd tried to casually look around the large empty space and gently pet him on the leg after changing up his bandages and checking his fluid lines.
"I'm sure someone will be by to visit soon," she sympathised. He didn't look at her after that, answering questions about how he felt with minimal effort. He managed to swallow down half a bowl of surprisingly delicious soup, closed his eyes, and pretended to sleep when she came to clear away his meal. He was feeling better, able to stay awake for longer periods of time and he was much more lucid, but he still tired maddeningly easily. It had been a full day and a half since the surgery and the longer he was forced to lie in bed, alone, the more he wanted to get out.
Soon. He'd give it another day or so, because he kind of felt terrible and there was no point in keeping up the charade anymore, but then he'd get up and head home, head to the mansion, and see what was up.
He hadn't needed to bother worrying about the lack of visitation though, because it soon became clear that everyone was just waiting for their schedules to synch up so they could ambush him en masse.
Apparently Clint had inadvertently upset a few people.
Waking up to finding Thor's face only a foot away from his own was enough to have him clenching a fist reflexively. He blinked. Thor blinked and then pulled away altogether, which was a bit of a relief, truth be told. Clint liked the god just fine, but his was not the face he wanted to wake up to.
"He awakens," he announced and reached out as though to greet Clint's consciousness with a hand to the shoulder, before he hesitated and pulled away. Clint frowned, and then frowned even more as the giant blonde retreated clear across the room (a whole ten feet away) to stand beside Bruce. Bruce was watching Clint intently, one arm tucked across his stomach and he was chewing on the thumbnail of his other hand in a clear sign of agitation. Clint had never enjoyed how slow he was to alertness when doped up on pain medications, but right now it felt like more of a hindrance than usual.
"Thank you, Thor," Steve said, carefully polite, as he stood at the foot of Clint's bed and Tony abruptly stopped pacing behind him. Natasha was there as well, though she was just out of his visual range behind his left shoulder. Clint relaxed slightly as soon as he spotted Phil, his silent sentry, just off to his right and allowed his brain to come online just a little bit more.
"It's creepy that you were all watching me sleep," he asserts, which was maybe not the nicest thing to point out considering that just before he'd fallen asleep he'd maybe, sort of, been wondering where the hell they all were. Nobody had ever been left to wake up alone while they were recovering, unless they were on a mission. A tight feeling that had nothing to do with his fractured ribs squeezed his chest. Sadly it still took him a moment to realize nobody was responding to his declaration. Frowning he fumbled for the button on the side of his beds railing and pressed it, careful not to show how the movement jarred his ribs and aching body. He wasn't surprised when Natasha gently pushed his hand away and finished sitting the bed up for him, adjusting the pillow behind his head before slipping back out of view.
Clint eyed the room, noting the tension as he took steady shallow breaths and wondered if it would be out of place to ask for a drink. Preferably something spirited, but water would do fine. It seemed like they were waiting on him to start and, actually feeling uncomfortable, he said the first thing that came to mind.
"What, is this some kind of intervention?" Stupid. He cracked a small grin to show he was teasing, but that seemed to make the tension rocket even higher in the room and Tony looked like he was forcefully resisting a visceral need to speak.
"Should it be?" Steve asked and Clint became acutely uneasy. He looked at the Captain, and then around the room, and squinted a little in the light.
"Huh?" Fuck, he was tired and fuzzy, but this was definitely not the usual 'welcome back to the land of the non-dying' post-op visit. Steve's massive hands wrapped around the plastic hospital bed footboard and he leaned forward slightly, like being a few inches closer would make him more understandable. Clint was starting to feel a little closed in.
"Should we be staging an intervention," he repeated softly, blue eyes concerned and stern and Clint suddenly realized what this must be about.
"Nah, no need," he lifted a hand off the bed to wave dismissively. "I'm fine."
"You're fine." Steve stated, as bland as Clint had ever heard and what the fuck? Had everyone else lost their voices or something? He resisted the urge to look to Phil for support, the last memory he had of the guy was the dark look in his eyes and a thousand yard stare and he really didn't want to see it again. Avoidance had often proven to be life-saving in the past.
"Yeah," Clint enunciated a little too clearly. "I'm fine. Good. I'll heal up in no time."
"Is that what you told yourself after the mission? When you made the decision to keep your injuries to yourself and then nearly bled out internally?" There was a reason Steve, cool and collected, was their team leader, and Clint very carefully met his intelligent blue gaze.
"Honestly, I had no idea I had internal injuries," he tried to explain.
"Or potentially damaged ribs," Steve cocked his head knowingly and Clint began to get irritated.
"Or damaged ribs," he clenched a fist and was disheartened by how weak his grip was. "I didn't know it was that bad."
"That wasn't your call to make," Steve judged and beside him Tony started shifting, never one to stay still unless he was creating something. "We have medics on stand-by whenever possible for that reason." Clint couldn't help rolling his eyes at this, because yeah, he was aware of that, thank you. He'd been with SHIELD longer and spilt more than a little blood in the field. Hell, according to statistical records he regularly spilt it more frequently than the rest of them. That was the problem.
"Look, I thought it was just a couple of bruises. It didn't exactly seem life threatening at the time," he reasonably tried to explain. Apparently that was the end of Tony's patience.
"A couple of bruises?" Tony snapped, clearly freaked out as he glared at Clint, cutting a hand through the air and beginning to pace again. "You think that was a couple of bruises? What's next? Dermablend and razor blades?"
"What-" Clint started to ask before the meaning of his accusation became clear and he suddenly felt icy with anger, and maybe a little ill. "Hey, fuck you!" he snarled and furiously shoved himself up straighter in the bed, nearly blacking out from the stabbing pain of the sudden shift. He was used to pain though; he could work through it. The monitors beside him spiked and his heart rate pounded loudly into the room but that didn't stop him from reaching purposely for the IV in the back of his hand. He was more than ready to get out of this fucking room.
He froze when warm fingers wrapped around his wrist, before he managed to pull IV out, and held him in place. Warning him. He recognized the hand, recognized the tiny patterning of scars across the three knuckles and the large freckle between the index and middle finger. Recognized the cuff links and dark navy jacket sleeve. He couldn't quite bring himself to look up at Phil, or anyone at that moment so he ground his teeth together and breathed deeply through his nose until he calmed down a bit. Then he forced himself to take another breath, leaned back against the mattress, and swallowed thickly. If they all thought that…if they thought he was hurting himself that way…fuck. Intervention his ass.
"Am I off the team?" he asked bluntly, not seeing the point in beating around the issue when they were all there because of it in the first place. The fingers still wrapped gently around his wrist twitched, but that was all the reaction he received from the question. When the silence carried on he had no choice but to open his eyes and face them. He wasn't quite sure what to make of the varied looks he was receiving so he focused on Steve again, standing with his ridiculously broad shoulders slightly hunched and staring at Clint like he was trying to read his mind. It was fucking unnerving. Clint raised his eyebrows expectantly.
"Why don't you explain why you did this, and then we'll see," Steve replied, not unkindly, and damn it Clint was going to miss him.
"Yes," Tony broke in with a snarl that was more hurt than angry as he pushed up beside Steve and glared. "Why don't you explain why you looked me in the face and lied about this" he waved at Clint's entire body. Clint refused to feel guilt, honestly he was too busy trying not to let his abject misery through for them to see. He didn't need their last memories of him on the team to be this pathetic.
He couldn't help the sardonic chuckle that cracked out of his throat. It hurt, so he stopped almost immediately, but it was enough to have Phil removing his hand and stepping back. Clint missed the warmth immediately but still couldn't look at him so he focused on Steve's chest instead. There were plenty of worse things to focus on.
"Something funny about this?" Tony snapped and Steve laid a warning hand on his shoulder, which Clint was almost thankful for.
"More ironic than funny," Clint sighed, wondering if could possibly embarrass himself further. "I kept the injury to myself so I wouldn't end up out of commission, and now I'm laid up for what looks to be an awesome couple of months." He wondered off hand if SHIELD would finish his medicare before washing their hands of him or if he'd have to find some local-yokel for the follow up exams. He'd have to be in moderate fighting shape before he could even think of finding a new cause to fight for. Or the same cause really, just a new method.
"That…that doesn't make sense to me," Tony frowned and looked around the room, "does that make sense to anyone else?" Clint exhaled slowly out his nose to keep his temper. It was hard to concentrate with the two points of burning on his body and the meds affecting his reactions. Usually he was cooler than this. Usually the entire Avengers Initiative, all out for what looked like his blood, didn't surround his bedside at once. Well, except Thor and Bruce; they just looked like they wanted to hug him or something, which was kind of worrying in and of itself. He glanced around the room from under his half closed eyes and came to the unfortunate conclusion that nobody was planning on leaving until they understood his motives. That was fair, he supposed. If he were in their shoes, he'd probably be doing the exact same thing.
"Look," in for a penny and all that shit, "there were concerns about the number of injuries I was receiving in comparison to the rest of the Initiative and I got the impression that it wasn't in a good way. I didn't-" holy shit was this ever not funny, but he couldn't help another rough chuckle at his own expense. "I wasn't ready to be demoted to base asset status again while you guys were out-" he cut that train of thought off sharply and continued with something a little less real, "-when I'd had a taste of the limelight just because I get broken more than everyone else. I figured hiding a couple scrapes and bruises meant less medical attention which would keep me in a more favourable light with the head honchos."
"You do not suffer mere flesh ailments that heal in days," Thor pointed out when it became clear that no one else really knew what to say to that. Clint couldn't help the grimace of embarrassment.
"Yeah, no. This was…this was a mistake. I didn't think I was actually seriously injured, turns out I was wrong." He was not expecting the roar of voices clamouring over one another to be heard before he'd even finished speaking, and he couldn't help the tiny, oh so small, flinch in response.
"-your chest was the shade of a plum-"
"-your ribs had hairline fractures-"
"-internal bleeding is not a mistake-"
"-what exactly do you consider serious if-"
"-this is certainly a jest-"
"You sewed stitches into your own flesh," Natasha's soft words seemed to have more weight than all the angry protests combined and the room fell silent. "Five stitches that, so we're told, were even enough to suggest experience. " She moved silently next to the monitors and Clint lifted his head and met her hard, very cool (pissed, she was so pissed) eyes. "How long has this been going on Clint?"
He was medicated, he was exhausted, he hurt, and now he had a headache. It felt eerily similar to the time he'd awoken in hospital after the Swordman had nearly killed him. He'd thought half the circus was in the room demanding to know what had happened before the hospital staff realized they were even there (how they had missed that particular group of people tromping past the nurse station he had never figured out). He continued to take even, steadying breaths to control the ever-increasing pain that was beginning to gnaw deep in his side, throbbing along with each heartbeat.
"Not long," he sighed and pressed his lips together, biting his cheek lightly to try and distract himself. It didn't work. He couldn't help squirming slightly under the covers to see if it would help with the discomfort. It didn't make it worse, but it didn't make it better.
"How. Long." She repeated just as softly, and he abruptly ran out of patience.
"Jesus, Tasha, I don't know! It's not something I considered serious enough to keep track of! It was just some goddamned bruises, not a fucking drug addiction! Would you back the fuck off already!" he roared and maybe, just maybe, he was panicking a little.
The room felt too small, he had a hot poker pressing between his ribs with each breath, and he wasn't thinking clearly enough for this. Not right now.
He eyed the door, ignoring the fact that Tony and Steve were mostly blocking his sight of it. Not noticing how they shared a look before quietly stepping aside to give him a clear visual. It didn't help. He switched his gaze to the window, already knowing they were at least eight stories off the ground floor. It would be a tough climb. He hunched over and began snaking his arm across his lap, once again reaching for the IV's taped to the back of his hand. He noticed as his team swiftly moved to leave the room but it was peripheral so he missed their concerned, guarded looks.
He definitely noticed when Phil's hand wrapped around his wrist once more. And, like the first time, Clint stilled instantly. He focused on the warmth, the press of strong fingers, and tried desperately not to whine about how it hurt. Fuck, did it hurt. And it was all his own damn fault.
He was tired of it always hurting.
"Relax," Phil dragged a chair to him with his foot, sat down, and leaned forward over Clint. His words were soft, calm. Clint eyed the nurse as he entered the room and stuck a syringe into a port off his IV's lines. The effect was almost instant and he was finally able to comply with Phil's order. He still couldn't bring himself to look at Phil.
"'m gonna miss you," he mumbled, the pain nothing more than a dull throb in the distance now, easily ignored as his world narrowed to the heat around his wrist and the overwhelming heaviness of his eyelids.
"We're going to continue this when you wake up," he heard, but it didn't register. Didn't…he really was going to miss Phil. Nobody else ever held his hand in the hospital.
"Sleep. I'll be here."
Clint didn't need any more than that to let go.
He didn't need to open his eyes to know that Phil was sitting in a chair level with Clint's thigh. He felt the press of his familiar gaze the moment he woke up, and he was well aware that Phil knew he was awake. Just like he knew that Phil wasn't going to call him on it. He was going to sit there and stare until Clint stopped pretending. Clint waited about ten minutes on principle, but when he started to feel tired again he decided it wouldn't be right to fall asleep on the man again.
He opened his eyes, blinked in the relatively dim light, and met Phil head on.
Phil did not look happy.
Phil looked…he looked…yeah, not happy.
"We going to have to talk about this?" he croaked out and damn near winced when the man's gaze just pinched tighter as he very pointedly did not respond. Clint noted the adjustable table wheeled partially over his bed on the right side, the plastic cup of water and straw within very easy reach. The thoughtful placement had Phil's signature all over it, even if the man looked angry enough to spit bullets. In their world that was a scary possibility. Clint slowly took a drink, noting that the pain accompanying every breath was more manageable even if it wasn't absent, and looked back at Phil.
"You here to give me my discharge papers?" he asked in lieu of a simple thank you. Phil did react overtly to that, quirking his head very slightly as he watched Clint, damn near unblinking. He knew what Clint was asking and it had nothing to do with getting out of the hospital.
"Is that what you want?"
"No." Fuck no. Was he not being obvious enough with how much he didn't want to leave?
"You'll forgive me if I have reason to doubt your words," Phil said evenly, gaze unwavering.
"If I wanted to leave, I'd choose an extraction method that didn't involve a perforated liver and a sterile hospital room."
"Lacerated liver," Phil corrected like Clint knew he would, not that it really made a difference. "You have a lacerated liver, two fractured ribs, seven large contusions two of which you stitched up yourself, one of which has raised concerns of blood clotting, and one of which caused said liver laceration." He said this with the smooth manner that sent alarm bells ringing and junior agents diving for cover. The problem here was that this was different from mission Phil and end-of-the-world Phil; it was more personal Phil and it struck deeper than usual. It almost hurt. "You admitted to concealing injuries which, judging by this, could have had the potential to cause you serious harm. There is reason to question your motives so I am going to ask you this once, and you are going to answer me truthfully: Are you concealing these injuries with the intention of, or have you ever contemplated, hurting yourself?"
Clint stared. Phil stared right back, hard as a glacier.
It hit him then exactly how fucked up this all was. How far he'd gone. How it must look to Phil and his teammates and that maybe, just maybe, they were right to be concerned. Clint swallowed thickly, because this wasn't at all what it was supposed to be like. Phil was never supposed to look at him with that smoldering fury buried behind the ice in his eyes, not like that.
"No," his voice cracked a little and he cleared it and tried again, making sure he put the force of his conviction into it this time as he met Phil glare for glare. "No. Jesus, I'm not trying to hurt myself." He rubbed an exhausted hand over his eyes and up through his hair. He needed a shower.
"I believe you," Phil said after a heavy moment and then he sagged slightly in his seat, not enough to lose his ever-present posture but enough to show that a weight had disappeared and true guilt began to settle in Clint's gut, low and nagging. "And fortunately so do the psychologists, despite their not having spoken with you yet. According to them the actions you've been taking these past five months are not actually unsurprising." His frown was back as he studied him and Clint didn't know how to respond to that, so he focused on the lesser of two evils (he did not want to think about how far into his head SHIELD's psych doctors were). He should probably just learn to keep his mouth shut, but he doubted that would ever be high on his list of priorities.
"Five months," he repeated. He hadn't realized it had been so long. Phil clearly wasn't happy with this either as he stood slowly from his seat and glowered down at Clint. He was not hiding his anger from Clint now.
"Yes, five months. Since the Hydra-alien-ship-hijacking. Imagine my surprise," the sarcasm didn't sit right this time, like it was purely there as a misdirect and Clint swallowed, feeling a little blindsided. "This may come as a shock to you, Barton, but it is not okay to conceal personal damage incurred, on the job or off it, and it is most assuredly never okay to lie to me about it." He braced his hands on the mattress and leaned right into Clint's face. Clint froze, not sure whether he should lean back or lean in and definitely trying not to show his indecision. "As of this moment you will never lie about an injury again, to anyone on your team or to a SHIELD agent of approved rank who inquires about your status. Is that understood?"
"Yes sir," he forced out between clenched teeth, breathing in Phil's scent as subtly as possible. Coffee and the sharp smoke smell of gunpowder and hours spent at the range. Familiar and strangely comforting. Phil didn't move away; he kept right on meeting Clint's eyes, more than making his point.
"You are not replaceable, Clint, either as a senior asset of SHIELD or as a member of the Avengers. You pull this shit again and it's not going to be me that you need to worry about; try not to forget who you work with and don't disrespect them enough to think that they don't care."
"I never thought they didn't care," he argued, though he wasn't really sure what he thought at the moment. How had everything slid so sideways on him without his even noticing?
"No, you just thought their opinions of your injury rate meant more than your continued health and dependability," the snap was back and apparently the anger as well. "Don't do it again," he ordered darkly, his fists curling in the sheets at Clint's hip, and Clint obediently nodded.
"I wasn't a big fan of it," he admitted, because he felt like Phil maybe deserved something for the stress Clint had apparently caused him.
"I know," Phil hovered a moment longer before pulling to a stand and dragging the adjustable table forward until it rested over Clint's lap. Behind him, Dr. Deaver entered the room. "Agent Barton, you are going to write down every single scrape, bruise and paper cut that you sustained in the line of duty or training exercises that you have failed to report for the last five months. In detail. Dr. Deaver is here to ensure that the visible marks on your body match up with your descriptions. A complete body scan has taken place so do not think that you have the option of excluding older or non-visible damage.
"When you are able to return to the field you will submit to a full medical assessment after every assignment, regardless of the risk level for a three month period. After that period of time has passed you will be reassessed to determine if such extreme methods are still necessary."
"Oh come on, Coulson, you can't be serious-"
"Any attempt not to comply with these directions will result in your removal from your current position until it has been assessed that you are no longer a danger to yourself or a potential danger to the men and women who depend on you," Phil continued, cutting Clint off with a sharp look of warning. "This is not open for negotiation."
Clint thought about it.
He wasn't being kicked off the Avengers.
He leaned forward carefully and dragged the clipboard and paper on the little table closer to him and uncapped the pen.
"I'm going to need the mission reports to cross-reference correctly," he sighed.
Phil smiled and, for the first time since Clint woke up from surgery, he thought that maybe things would be okay.
After his first mission back in the field Clint didn't even get the chance to climb down from the water tower he had so gleefully scaled. Apparently that was still too much strain on his body or something, because Tony was plucking him off the ledge and ordering him not to move before Clint realized the man was doing more than just flying by. Clint wasn't quite sure how he hadn't seen it coming, but he had very manfully not whined about it all the way to the ground.
Tony silently deposited Clint before Phil, Steve and Natasha and, with a warm metal hand between his shoulder blades, gently pushed him in the direction of the medic and ambulance they had apparently gathered strategically nearby. Clint managed not to sigh in a dark frustration when Phil quirked an expectant eyebrow at him and moved to the medic.
She seemed to be expecting him and wasted no time acting confused over the fact that he had no injuries. He didn't grumble as he climbed out of the back of the ambulance to find his entire team gathered close by in the middle of a field debriefing. He joined them silently, crossed his arms and silently dared them to question his health status.
He was fine, just a bruised elbow that would barely turn a shade, but he'd learned over the last few months that his teammates no longer took his casual self-assessments seriously anymore. He ignored the looks they cast his way as they discussed the mission fallout and added his own two cents before Steve declared a job well done and Phil nodded in agreement, dismissing them.
They scattered in an obviously pre-planned fashion until it was just Clint and Phil left, the hot sun beating down on them and drawing beads of sweat along Phil's brow. Clint stared for a moment before holding his arms wide in mock supplication and plastered a fake grin in place, because nothing about this made him happy.
"No damage to report sir."
"Acknowledged Agent Barton. I'm glad to hear it," Phil nodded slowly, leaving Clint with the impression that he was performing his own assessment behind his dark sunglasses. Clint did what he could to hide the low thrum of humiliation and looked out over the gravel pit. They were silent for a long moment, standing shoulder to shoulder, and Clint distracted himself by running calloused fingers over his bow.
"You know I wasn't trying to hurt myself," he finally said softly, because Phil had been around a lot these last few months, but aside from the first few days in the hospital, they had adopted a policy of not discussing Clint's motives directly. That's what the psychiatrist he'd been ordered to talk to had been for. Beside him Phil stiffened, only for a fraction of a moment, but noticeable to Clint, who had become even more attuned to this man's movements over the last months.
"I know," he pulled his sunglasses off and rubbed at the lenses absently, slanting his head to look at Clint. His grey-blue eyes were heavy with a mixture of warmth and sternness that was becoming more and more familiar. "Don't do it again."
"I won't, sir," Clint swallowed, before dragging his most charming grin into place and turning to face Phil head on, "though I might be persuaded to behave more if you agreed to have dinner with me. Rumour has it I function more practically when I have appropriate incentive."
"You'll function like the highly trained agent that you are, incentive or not, Agent Barton," Phil replied smoothly and slid his glasses back into place, once again looking out at the dusty scenery before them. He didn't agree to Clint's invitation then. Of course he didn't, but Clint didn't mind, because watching the way Phil's eyes narrowed in amused contemplation every time he asked after that told him it was only a matter of time. He just had to be patient.
Phil waited three months. He waited until Clint walked away from the medics with a bandage over a tiny cut on his forearm and a smug grin on his face as he gloated about saving Stark's metal clad ass. He caught Clint's eye, gaze lingering on the bruise that was slowly swelling his cheek, and nodded decisively.
"I'll pick you up at nineteen hundred hours, Barton," he announced softly as Clint stopped at his side to report and Clint nodded, barely resisting pumping a fist into the air in victory. "Try not to be late."
"No sir," Clint shifted and gently brushed his shoulder against Phil's just slightly, "wouldn't dream of it."
He didn't know where he would end up in a year, three years, or a lifetime from now, but for the first time in months Clint had nothing but anticipation to weigh him down and judging by the lightness in Phil's eyes he knew he wasn't alone.
And if Phil wanted to personally inspect his injuries later than Clint was more than willing to submit to his expertise. As many times as possible.