It's a candy bar, the first time.
Clint has heard every pun about birds that has ever existed. Feathers come first; more than once he has been implored to shake and/or accused of shaking a tail feather. Beaks are another favorite, wings as well, but nests are pretty far up the list. Those are the ones that Clint hates the most.
It's not a nest. He's not a bird. He's a human. He just likes to be alone.
He has a room and doesn't sleep there, can't sleep there. It's too big; he'd sleep in the closet, but the closet's way too small, practically just an indentation in the wall. On top of that, everybody knows exactly where it is. People could come and find him too easily; there's no telling what could happen then. It's better just to make his own space, somewhere small and close where he can keep to himself.
This time he's got a pretty nice space, right at the top of one of the stairwells in R&D. The door to the roof is always locked, so nobody uses the top flight; if he stays on the landing, back where the light doesn't reach, he's golden.
So the candy bar- it's a Milky Way, they're his favorite- is sitting right next to the stairs. It's not with his stuff, a measured distance away, not quite "Oops I dropped this chocolate, who could it be for" far, but not "Here's a candy bar, sorry for touching all your shit" close, either.
He reaches out very carefully with one of his arrows, catching it with the back of the head and dragging it close. He doesn't trip anything when he does it, no wires or pressure switches- good thing, too, because that would be a pretty damn embarrassing death, death by chocolate.
He looks it over carefully; the packaging is correct, completely intact. There's a folded up piece of paper attached; Clint doesn't understand what all the numbers he's seeing mean, but someone's circled "TOXIN SCAN: NEGATIVE" at the bottom, and that he gets.
He thinks about what an incredible amount of effort this would be, if this were, in fact, a poisoning attempt. First the would-be poisoner would have to find out what kind of candy he liked, inject the poison or cover the wrapper or bar itself with it, all while making sure the packaging was still perfectly intact, enough to pass Clint's vision. Then they'd have to fabricate a tox scan, right underneath the lab's noses, put the whole thing together, and- the really hard part- find him. Then they'd have to plant it and apparently hope for the best, because there's no backup trap here.
If somebody has the dedication to do all of that, SHIELD is not paying them enough.
He tears into the Milky Way and takes a bite; it's good, not melty or anything, though it is a little warm, maybe because it's just been handled, maybe just because the stairwell itself is warm. He eats all of it, licking the chocolate from his fingers, and curls up against the wall for a nap before going off to spar with Natasha. When he's done, he moves his cache; it's a shame to lose such a nice spot, but that's how it is- if somebody knows, then the place is compromised for good.
He doesn't do as well at hiding the next time, apparently, because he's only in the ceiling of the third floor records room for two days before the next little thing comes. He gets a whole sandwich this time, bottle of Sprite next to it; he doesn't know who it is who knows, but he hasn't eaten yet today, back and forth between one thing and another. He does know who's been on him about not eating, but he can't quite line up the two, them and the kind of person who'd do something like this.
This keeps happening; he keeps moving and he keeps being followed, by someone who's starting to scare him a little, like this might maybe be a threat. He doesn't know what it means; he doesn't know if he's being reprimanded, flushed out, or maybe just reminded that he's being watched. He figures they want him to stop, if they're going to this much trouble to find him over and over, something only a few people here could even do. He's trying to figure out what to do about that; he's avoided psych ever since he came, not hard when Fury distrusts them on instinct, but he'll definitely get sent if he refuses or attempts to explain. He can't even imagine psych's reaction if he tells them he can hardly sleep anywhere but his cache, but he expects they'll give him a nice big one with conveniently padded walls.
Except that then he finds a pillow propped up next to his stuff, still carefully removed. He's not sure what to even think about that, but as far as he's concerned, that's a green light right there; whether they understand or not is their business, but if they're going to keep letting him be himself, then everything can be fine.
About the sixth move is when his anonymous benefactor stops pretending to be anonymous. There's a cup of coffee, unspilled despite the fact that getting up to this spot takes a little bit of acrobatics, and next to it is a mission report with two little post-it flags on it, spots where Clint didn't sign.
When he swings back down, he drops the report by Coulson's office and doesn't say anything about it.
It goes on for a while longer; Clint stops moving his caches quite so often. Nobody else is finding them, clearly, and somehow it seems okay if Coulson knows for a little while. It helps that Coulson keeps giving him stuff, mostly food, but other little stuff- a notebook, a paperback, a garish yo-yo that lights up and makes a truly frightening noise, since the lime-green one he's been playing with through the ceilings to terrify junior agents is losing its pizzazz. Sometimes there are notes, not like heartfelt messages or anything, just small things like Pool on who'll say something to Sitwell about the toupee first is up to $50 or First one was better, but it picks up after this or Don't use this on Parker- medical concerns. He feels like he should feel demeaned; he's not a little kid, doesn't need somebody to spoil him or entertain him.
It's just that when he was a kid, nobody wanted to do either of those things.
Turns out he likes it.
It changes one night, far enough along that they're already working with the tesseract. The cooling in residential and administrative goes out, such a mundane thing to have happen, but essential personnel are required to, "Suck it up and stop being a bunch of goddamn babies, for the love of God," per Director Fury's orders- unofficial, but verbatim. Even though it's after dark, it's actually a big fucking deal; yeah, the desert gets colder at night, but a thirty-degree dip in temperature ain't much when it's a hundred and ten outside.
He goes back to his cache; he's probably not going to sleep, not when the cache is a little on the warm side even with the A/C on- they all are, heat rising and everything- but he goes to check it out anyway. This time, there's a pair of rolled-up blankets, the scratchy, thin standard-issue kind. There's a note stuck in the binding around one of them:
Nice night out.
He goes outside, nodding at the sweaty, wilting guards as he passes. He doesn't want to go through the hassle of leaving campus, so the best place is on the far side from the main entrance, up the small hill there.
Up until this moment, it's all been plausible deniability, as if anyone else but Natasha could keep finding him like that, as if anyone else including Natasha would do those things for him, as small as they might be to anyone else. But now, Coulson is lying on a blanket on the hill, another pulled up over his legs, and all the cards are on the table.
Clint walks up the hill towards him; Coulson pulls one of the pillows from underneath his head and offers it to Clint, and Clint makes himself a pallet, right next to Coulson's.
He sits down; it's still hot, but much better than it was inside. He pulls the blanket up over his lap, looking at Coulson. "Do you want to talk?" he says, more gruffly than he intended.
"Do you?" Coulson asks, genuine, not challenging. Clint shakes his head. "Then I want to look at the stars."
Clint lays down next to him, wriggling a little until he finds a spot where there's not a tuft of grass in the middle of his back. "They're good out here. I've never gotten the chance to look before."
Coulson looks away, gazing up at the stars. "I tried to get Director Fury to apply for Dark Sky Preserve status for the base."
Clint snorts at the idea. "What did he say?"
"Didn't want to pay for new light fixtures," Coulson deadpans. Clint laughs, and Coulson smiles up at the sky.
Clint actually gets some sleep, despite the fact that he's in the biggest big there is. It helps that he wakes up before dawn, before Coulson; he rolls up his blankets and leaves Coulson his pillow, and he goes back to work.
He never gets to move his cache again, not there; the whole thing gets caught in the implosion, and when it does, Clint has no capacity to even think about it. He can't remember the time after that, thank god, the time when Loki- a lot of it is missing from his head, only represented by bits and snatches, and he's not sure if or how he slept at all. And then he gets so caught up in saving the world that who even knows what's going on; he's pretty sure he took some government speed at some point, though it seemed really inappropriate to do in front of Captain America.
And they save the day, and everybody almost dies, but almost everybody lives, and they can all fight another day, hopefully after a long, long sabbatical. It takes him so long to find out Phil died that Phil has already come back to life; technically, he was only dead for six minutes, but that information was helpfully omitted when certain people found out, apparently, people who are presently at various levels of taking SHIELD's phone calls.
Just afterwards, he and Natasha go off on a mission; they get back, and Clint finally goes to his Helicarrier quarters, wondering what it'll be like this go-round.
There is no closet at all.
He's got some narrow lockers that are welded to the bulkhead, but that's it. Clint rubs his forehead with his fingertips; he was kind of hoping to stay here for a while, rest a little bit, because it's getting a little easier to stay in one place.
Back to looking it is.
Seems pretty easy, finding a place to crash on a ship, plenty of darkened corners and shit; in point of fact, it is the hardest goddamn place Clint has ever tried to sleep in his entire life. The ceilings are all open; all the lower decks seem to be full of steam all the time for some unknown reason; everywhere else is manned twenty-four hours a day- not to mention all the light and sound.
Clint spends a day looking; he spends another day looking; he spends another day looking. His shooting is a little off- he'd be dead on if it was called for, but when it's just him sinking arrows into targets, that's different. His eyes are dry and his stomach has that unshakeable queasy feeling that comes from sleep dep. Natasha convinces him to get on the mat with her, and she takes him down inside of two minutes, which is at least half as long as he usually goes against her.
If this gets any worse, he's taking a jet, landing it on top of a hotel, and going to sleep in a very expensive, luxurious closet, tucked in with the suitcase rack and the dry cleaning bags.
He gives up and goes to one of the lower decks; there's a room full of water tanks, and he picks the one farthest from the door, makes sure it's not hot or freezing to the touch, and sets up camp, leaning back against it.
He doesn't sleep well, but he does sleep a little, dozing fitfully. He keeps jerking awake and looking around, convinced people are coming; he's right to think that, because one of the times he does, Phil is standing in front of him, saying his name.
Clint shuts his eyes, hoping it's just a hallucination, but when he opens them, Phil is still there. "How can I help you, sir?" Clint says, his voice scratchy and rough.
"I can't let you sleep here," Phil tells him, crouching down in front of him.
"Fuck off, Coulson," he mutters, even though he doesn't mean it at all.
"Do you know what the failure rate on these valves is?" Phil says, reaching up and tapping the one above Clint's head. "Because I do. SHIELD's not big on safety regs."
Clint knows he's just making an excuse; anybody who cut corners while building a flying aircraft carrier would probably get dropped into the ocean, and rightly so. "I'll be fine."
"No, you won't," Phil says. "Now get up and grab your stuff."
"Is that an order?" Clint asks, sitting up.
"Your voluntary participation is mandatory, Barton," he replies. "Let's go."
Clint grabs what little he has- not much of anything, the pillow and blanket from the bed in his quarters- and follows Phil through the corridors; he should probably be worried about what he looks like right now, but he's just too tired, too weary to care. Phil leads him up, past residential and into administration, almost to the bridge; he stops and presses a fingerprint lock, and a door slides open.
Phil shows him in; his office is smaller than the last one, but it's so much more appropriate for what he does. The last one looked like it was for some CPA, but this one has an enormous version of one of Stark's monitor-less monitors that swings out from the wall, more that drop from the ceilings- it looks way more like he plots the salvation of the world from in here than capital gains tax.
Phil hits a button, and the glass walls go opaque. "You don't have to go home," he says quietly, "but you can stay here."
"Are you going to stay?" Clint asks, not sure what he wants to hear.
Phil just looks at him, a soft expression on his face. "Do you want me to go?"
Phil's a master of the non-answer, and and lately it's really annoying. "No," Clint says carefully, unsure of Phil's response
Phil walks over and turns the lamp on, turns the overhead lights off. "Pick your spot," he says, like he doesn't know where Clint's going to go.
Clint walks over and pushes the desk chair away, looking underneath the desk; plenty of room, bolted to the floor, no screws sticking out anywhere. He sets down his things and climbs underneath it, testing it out.
Not bad at all.
He pops his head back over the top of the desk for a moment, looking at Phil. "Take your shoes off when you come."
Phil doesn't move for a moment; this is not surprising, because Clint is and isn't fucking with him- which one is up to Phil. Clint settles in, and he's just decided Phil isn't coming when Phil sits down in his chair, pulling off his shoes and setting them aside. Clint moves back a little, but there's plenty of room for the both of them.
After a moment, Phil relaxes, his feet sliding a little farther under the desk; Clint hears him pull out his keyboard and begin typing. The keyboards don't make a proper clacking noise, but they do make noises, a little like rain. For the first time in days, Clint feels like he could actually get some sleep; he actually feels like it might be safe here.
Before he drifts off, he scoots forward and wraps his arms around Phil's legs, hugging the hell out of him; the typing stops, and just for a moment, Phil runs his fingers through Clint's hair.
Clint falls asleep.
He doesn't move his stuff for a long time; when he moves, he moves into a credenza on the wall behind Phil's desk; when he moves again, he moves into the wardrobe in Phil's room- Phil got a wardrobe, that absolute bastard. He's got an open invitation to Phil's bed; he's been known to spend a lot of time there, but it's not where he stays, not yet.
There are a lot of ways to catch a bird. You can trap it in a net, you can lure it out and grab it, but it's the easiest if you can get the bird to stay still, just put your hand on it and pull it close.
He didn't get trapped. He's not a bird. He's a human. He just likes it when Phil's around.