Barton had been with S.H.I.E.L.D. four months, two weeks, and three days when he became, abruptly and inescapably, the center of Phil’s attention.
“I’m not going to ask why you set one of your fellow agents on fire,” Phil said. “Though that’s not something we generally encourage.”
To his credit, Barton wasn’t obviously smirking, but there was an ease to his shoulders, even standing at attention, that said he was very very pleased with himself. He kept his eyes straight ahead and said nothing.
It had just been a small fire, really, and the other agent had suffered only minor surface burns. That was not, however, what made it interesting. “Tell me how you did it.”
“Agent Park burst into flames in the middle of the training area, and the general consensus seems to be that you were responsible.” Park had, in fact, started screaming for Barton’s head the moment he was doused. “What no one can figure out is how this feat of pyrotechnics was accomplished, since you were on the other side of the compound at the time.”
Barton did smirk, then. “I’m afraid I can’t tell you that, sir.”
“And why is that?”
“Can’t reveal professional secrets,” he said. “Sir.”
“Ah. I see.” Phil stood, hands held behind his back, and circled Barton slowly. He didn’t fidget, didn’t flinch, possessed of the absolute stillness that only snipers ever seemed to manage. His blue eyes didn’t move, but Phil knew that every sense was tuned in, tracking, assessing the threat. Phil made his circle in silence, studying every line of Barton’s body, watching for the slightest sign of nerves. When he came back around to face him, Barton was still smirking.
That was all Phil needed.
“Report to the helipad at oh-four-hundred. Dismissed.” Phil dropped back into his chair and turned to a pile of paperwork he wasn’t especially excited about.
“Sir? You gonna fire me over a stupid prank?” Barton asked. Phil looked up and saw that the smirk was gone.
“Agent Barton, if you were being ‘fired’, I’d send you back to your barracks and have someone kill you in your sleep,” Phil said. “‘Dismissed’ just means I want you to leave my office.”
Barton’s relief was palpable, though his expression never changed. “Sir. Yes, sir.” He turned smoothly on his heel and left.
Phil allowed himself a small, pleased smile.
3:57 a.m. was the wrong side of sunrise, as far as Clint was concerned. The S.H.I.E.L.D. living quarters weren’t exactly plush, but he would have preferred to be curled up on his hard bunk instead of jogging across the concrete landing pad in the pre-dawn haze. Coulson was standing by the idling helicopter in a black suit so neat and sharp, it might have cut anyone who got too close.
As Clint came up, Coulson smiled pleasantly and held out a small paper bag, shouting to be heard, “Good morning, Agent Barton. Danish?”
“No, sir, English, but close enough.”
Coulson made a sound that might have been a chuckle, but it was hard to tell over the whirring of rotary blades. He waved Clint ahead of him into the chopper, gave the pilot a go-ahead signal, and they were airborne before Clint had a chance to bite into that danish.
“You’re early,” Coulson said, clearer now, over the headset.
“Didn’t want you to leave without me, sir,” Clint replied around a bite of pastry. Smart-mouthing didn’t generally endear him to superior officers, but Coulson didn’t seem to mind. If he did, it was likely he would just, as he’d said, have Clint killed in his sleep. It was a strangely comforting thought.
Coulson adopted the pose of the unconcerned traveler, a heavy file open across his lap, and Clint, figuring it would be a long, quiet kind of ride, closed his eyes and went instantly to sleep.
He dreamed of floodlights and blood and the sound of an arrow being loosed, the feel of the fletching scoring his cheek, the thrumming in his ears that was engines or his pulse or the string of his bow.
Clint was awake. The helicopter was steady in the air. Nothing out of balance, no immediate threats. His gear bag was still hooked around his arm, and Coulson was watching him the way a lawyer might look over an especially promising contract. “Are we there, yet?”
“We’re starting our approach,” Coulson said. “Be ready to move.”
“Anything I should know, sir?”
The chopper was descending in slow circles over the jagged landscape of a sun-baked city. Somewhere in South America, Clint guessed, maybe Central. Coulson had the door open and was focused on the buildings below.
“You should be armed.”
“Fair enough.” Clint started to slip out his bow, but Coulson stopped him.
“Just a gun, for now.”
That stung a little. Any grunt with a trigger finger could shoot a gun, so why was Clint here? Maybe Coulson really was planning to have him killed and just make it look like an accident. The rest of his unit would probably throw a party.
For the immediate future, though, being armed and staying alive sounded like a better plan.
He pulled out his S.H.I.E.L.D.-issue handgun, which he hated, and dropped lightly to the concrete as the chopper hovered low over a wide, featureless rooftop. Sightlines to the adjacent buildings were clear, no open windows or other aircraft, no motion but electrical antennae swaying against the relentless blue sky. Clint scanned every shadow, black and sharp in the mid-morning sun, and Coulson swung down beside him, graceful for a guy wearing polished dress shoes.
Nobody started shooting at them as they made their way across the roof and over the side to an access ladder or as they descended, one at a time, to a window below. That didn’t mean nobody would start shooting at them later, but delays on violence were always appreciated.
The window opened into a spartan, one-room apartment, with a bed shoved in the corner that looked like it would be even worse than the ones at the base. Coulson immediately locked the window behind them, drew across a heavy curtain, and made a quick circuit of the room. His movements were brisk and efficient, not a single turn of his head wasted, and Clint watched him with admiration.
“Home sweet home, sir?”
Coulson checked the locks on the door, all six of them. “Not exactly five-star, is it?”
“It’s clean, covered, and there’s a toilet,” Clint said, shrugging. “That’s three stars more than a lot of places I’ve bunked.”
“Amen to that,” Coulson agreed, though Clint tried and failed to picture him in any environment that wasn’t as ordered and pristine as he was.
Clint liked a clean line. Ragged edges and extra bulk were an archer’s worst enemies, and he took care to eliminate anything in his clothes, gear, and environment that might snag an arrow or slow him down. He could see that same spare sensibility in Coulson, in his sure step and his flawless, functional suit, but what Clint did for survival Coulson practised as an art.
Some of the junior agents made fun of Coulson when their superiors weren’t around, called him the kind of names you’d expect from bored government punks, but Clint never did. He recognized a badass when he saw one.
To be fair, they had less than flattering names for Clint, too, so that showed what they knew.
“Is there a problem, Agent Barton?”
Clint was staring, and he knew it. Apparently, so did Coulson, and that set the skin along Clint’s spine prickling.
“Just wondering what I’m doing here, sir.”
Coulson nodded. “Of course. I appreciate your patience, and I wish I could tell you more. Unfortunately, most of the details are classified.”
“I don’t have a problem with classified, sir,” Clint said. In other organizations, ‘classified’ meant national security. In S.H.I.E.L.D. it meant global security, and that was above his pay grade, for now. “But if I’m gonna be shooting people, I’d like to know why.”
“And if you don’t like the reason?” Coulson’s expression didn’t actually change. He wasn’t even looking at Clint, but he was clearly very interested in the answer to that question.
“Well, sir, then we’d have a problem.”
Coulson gave him a moment of that pleasant little smile, which now had a hint of the cat eyeing a very fat canary, and produced a large glossy photo from the file in his hand. “This is an aerial view of a four-block radius two miles south of our current location. I’ll be conducting a... sensitive negotiation here,” he said, indicating an open plaza that had been circled in black. “You’ll take up a position at your discretion and make sure I survive the meet.”
Clint looked at the photo, studying the high ground around the plaza, counting likely places for snipers to set up. There were more than he would have liked and not enough information to narrow them down. “Any chance you can tell me who you’re meeting with?”
Of course it was. “Well, sir, I wouldn’t say I need to know,” Clint said, “but you’re a lot more likely to stay alive if I do.”
It was impressive, really, how much Coulson could communicate with that one expression. He crossed his arms and looked at Clint steadily. “Convince me.”
Coulson wasn’t going to have him killed in an accident, Clint decided. He was testing him. “Knowing who they are will tell me how they might try to kill you.”
He must have passed that part of the test, because Coulson, still smiling, pulled a slim folder out of the larger file and set it on the table in front of him. “Happy reading.”
Phil had a habit of composing mission reports in his head while the mission was still going on. It made actually writing the reports faster, and it helped him get perspective on tricky situations.
He was having some trouble with this one.
Agent Barton has demonstrated a positive, if reserved, attitude, and an admirable attention to detail, contrary to the claims of his previous superiors.
Barton was paging through the mission file for the third time and slurping down his second bowl of flavorless microwaved noodles. He’d made a few marks on the aerial photos and was paying special attention to a handful of documents, but he seemed to be mostly absorbing the information, pausing occasionally to stare at his food and, presumably, process.
I suspect that what prior reports described as “insubordination” may simply be....
What? A sense of humor and no patience for bullshit?
Phil pushed around the pale sludge of his own noodles, still on his first bowl. The results of tomorrow’s negotiation could determine the future of the entire South American continent and directly impact S.H.I.E.L.D.’s international operating parameters. It was highly likely the organization he was contacting or one of their competitors would attempt to disrupt the meet, i.e. shoot him. Just another day at the office.
Barton has expressed an inclination to resist orders which he feels may be morally suspect. I believe, without reservation, that this should be considered a strength.
Even at rest, Barton kept perfect form. Every curve spoke of easy power and self-possession, ready to uncoil into action at a moment’s notice or, as he’d shown on the flight, shut down and sleep. Phil had no doubt that a sleeping Clint Barton was exponentially more dangerous than most people awake and armed.
Do not disturb sleeping archers, for you are slow and make an easy target.
Barton glanced up, met his eye, and looked back down. A faint flush crept up over the edge of his collar. The small room was close and stuffy, and it seemed to have gotten a few degrees warmer. Phil gave a tug at his tie, already loosened around his neck. His jacket was folded neatly beside him on the narrow bed.
I am confident that, given the opportunity, Agent Barton will surpass all expectations.
Based on what? Intuition, for now.
Barton shifted in his seat and cleared his throat. Other than shuffling pages and the track of his clear eyes, that was the first movement he’d made in an hour.
Patient. Controlled. Not easily rattled.
If everything went to plan, this mission would be a milk run, but Phil had been around too long to bank on everything - or anything - going to plan. He’d taken a gamble, bringing a junior agent with little mission experience and a history of disciplinary problems as his only back-up, and Fury, Hill, and every other commanding agent in the division might soon be standing at his funeral, delivering eulogies that consisted solely of “I told you so”. He was counting on Barton to keep that from happening.
Based on the documentation of his skill and my personal observations regarding his character, I would not hesitate to trust Agent Barton with my life.
If things went sideways tomorrow, he’d find out very quickly whether his faith had been misplaced.
The meet was at 0800 exactly, which meant that, in order to be in place, Clint was once again jogging across concrete on the wrong side of sunrise.
He circled the blocks around the site, checking possible exit routes, then made three laps around the plaza itself. The city was only just starting to wake up, delivery trucks and shopkeepers winding their way through boulevards and alleys to quiet morning destinations. There were a handful of other joggers on the sidewalks, and no one paid much attention to Clint, except for one young woman who, he was pretty sure, turned to watch his ass as he went past.
He stopped to rest on a bench near the center of the area. It was likely the exchange would take place here, and he wanted to check the sight lines to the surrounding buildings. The bench was blocked on one side by a short tree, so that direction was out. On the opposite side was a low, square structure that looked like a warehouse. It had a wide view of the plaza but nothing to provide cover and was exposed to the buildings above. Straight ahead was an office high rise, the tallest building in the immediate area and mirrored from ground to sky with plate glass windows. A sniper with a rifle could pick an empty room, crack the window, and wait, and Clint would bet even money that one of the bad guys would be doing just that.
And Coulson would be sitting here, on this bench, his calm smile framed by the black circle of a high-power scope.
Clint took a long pull on his water bottle and looked back at the building behind him. It was another office tower, older, with fewer windows and more ledges. Most importantly, it had a big sign on the roof, the name of the company spelled out in lights across an iron frame.
Giving his legs a good stretch, Clint got back on his feet and jogged across the plaza in the other direction. He approached the building from the back, jimmied open an access door, and went up a maintenance stairwell. Clint did his best to look like a young executive, out for a morning run and an early start at the office and prayed his blond, white ass didn’t stand out too much, but the only person he encountered was a grizzled custodian who gave him a curious look and let him pass unchallenged.
It took a few minutes to find a spot that would provide cover and still give him enough room to draw and a minute more to get secured and settled in. The sun had just started to beat down on the sprawling city as he nocked his first arrow of the day.
Below, the plaza had filled with people crossing and milling, the sound of their voices drifting up to him with the din of traffic. Clint closed his eyes and listened, not to the clattering riot of a city at morning, but to himself. He tuned in to the push and pull of his breathing like a steady tide washing in and out of his lungs, focused on the slow, deep rhythm of his beating heart. All other sound in the world fell away, just a distant buzz of less consequence than the whispering of the wind in his hair. There were no smells, no scents to color the air flowing through him. There was no sensation, no heat from the bright sun, no iron bar at his back, no sweat gathering on his brow.
There was nothing but his breath and pulse, nothing but the tide.
He opened his eyes.
Lines and colors leapt out at him. He could see the reflections in every window on the high rise, every shadow cutting across the plaza. He studied the scene, committing its smallest details to memory. If something changed, if so much as a shaft of light was out of place, he would see it.
There was, after all, a reason they called him Hawkeye.
Clint held his bow and arrow loosely in his hands and waited.
The negotiation was picture perfect, right up until Phil’s contact got shot.
The contact was a surprisingly pleasant man, well-dressed, competent, and succinct. Phil sensed a kindred spirit. His three hulking body guards were kind enough not to loom, though Phil felt reassured by the pressure of his earpiece, knowing that a rain of perfectly placed arrows was only a word away. They discussed the terms offered by their respective organizations, haggled over a few details and selling points, and Phil was beginning to think they might be home in time for dinner.
His contact was disputing some issue of fine print when the hole appeared.
It was a small, dark spot in the center of his forehead, a final period to punctuate the sentence he would never finish. As Phil watched, a thin stream of red seeped from the hole and drew a jagged line down the man’s frozen features.
After that, everything happened very quickly.
Phil was on his feet and scanning the surrounding buildings as the body slumped and tumbled from the bench. The three bodyguards advanced on him, guns drawn and shouting, and he told them in quick, distracted Spanish that this wasn’t his people, S.H.I.E.L.D. had nothing to do with this.
They didn’t believe him.
One of the big men put his gun to Phil’s head, still yelling. He got five more words out before a slim arrow embedded itself in his temple.
“Guessing that wasn’t part of the plan, sir.”
A woman passing by was spattered with blood as the man fell, and she screamed, drawing the attention of the crowd.
“No, Agent Barton. That was not part of the plan.”
One of the remaining bodyguards rushed Phil. He fired off a wild shot as Phil disarmed and disabled him, but the sound of the gun sent the bystanders in the plaza into an unqualified panic. Phil whirled, looking for the other bodyguard, but the man was already on the ground, bleeding out around the arrow in his neck.
“Sir, you have incoming.” Barton’s steady voice was a strange counterpoint to the chaos unfolding around him. “Armed men entering the plaza from the north and southeast corners.”
“Roger that. Where are you?”
“Roof to the south. You ready to get out of there, sir?”
“Well, seeing as the negotiation seems to have ended.” Phil pushed past frantic citizens, making his way toward the south building and Barton. “Do you have an exit for me?”
“There’s an alley on the west side of the building,” Barton said. “I can cover you til you get there.”
Somewhere behind him, there was the sound of gunfire and more people screaming. Phil broke into a run.
“Coulson, nine o’clock!”
He looked left as a large man came running toward him, taking aim. Phil dropped to one knee and drew his gun in one smooth motion, firing even as the other man’s bullet sliced through the air above his head. The man jerked and fell, and Phil was back up and running toward the alley.
“You wanna move a little faster, sir?”
“Fuck you, Agent Barton,” Phil replied calmly.
As soon as he cleared the plaza, there was a crash and pop behind him, and the mouth of the alley filled with a thick, white fog. Barton had dropped a smoke grenade to cover his escape.
“Alright, I retract that.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Phil stayed close to the alley wall, still running, to avoid the shots his pursuers were firing blindly through the smoke.
Suddenly, Barton was shouting in his ear, “Cover! Cover!”, and Phil ducked into a recessed doorway as three more men with guns appeared at the end of the alley.
“How do these cartels always have a never-ending supply of goons?” he muttered to himself, sending a few suppressing shots in their direction. The recess was deep enough to keep him out of their line of fire, but only just. “Agent Barton, a little help?”
“I can’t get a clear shot.”
A chunk of brick shattered out of the corner by Phil’s head, much too close for comfort. He looked up to see Barton at the corner of the roof opposite, a distant black silhouette against the bright sky.
“Hold tight, sir,” he said. “I’m on my way.”
And Phil watched in horror as Barton leapt off the edge of the building and disappeared.
The heavy, sinking feeling in the pit of Phil’s stomach made everything seem slow and far away. He kept his attention on the three men shooting at him, but the empty patch of sky where Barton had been stayed in sharp focus at the back of his mind.
There was a loud cry, and the gunfire stopped abruptly. Phil peered around the corner to see one of the men step into the mouth of the alley, taking aim at something Phil couldn’t see around the opposing corner. Phil promptly shot him in the head. Another cry sounded, followed by the crunch of bone breaking.
Barton emerged, unharmed, shaking bits of gore off one of his arrows.
“Was that entirely necessary?”
“You mean the part where I rescued you from the big, scary thugs?” Barton gave him a wide grin that could only be described as ‘shit eating’.
“That part, I appreciate.” Phil dashed across the short distance toward him. The smoke had started to clear away, but the shooting had stopped. That was worrying. “I meant the part where you jumped off the building.”
Barton shrugged. “Fastest way down.”
“Could you maybe not do that again?” Phil asked. “I don’t want to explain to Director Fury why one of our best junior agents has become a stain on a South American sidewalk.”
“No promises, sir.”
Something was happening in the city, something bigger than the assassination of one powerful man. Fire and smoke billowed up from an explosion a few blocks away, and the sounds of panic and the sporadic patter of automatic weapons could be heard from nearby streets. Phil looked at his watch and pressed a button to activate the emergency extraction signal.
“We need to get back to the safe house,” he told Barton. “Quickly.”
“Not gonna argue that one, sir.”
They skirted the larger thoroughfares, sticking to alleys and side streets as much as possible, which put them on a circuitous path to their destination. The going was slow and tense, but no one shot at them and nothing exploded dangerously close. After half an hour, they were almost within sight of the building, and the crowds and violence had thinned.
“Once we’re on the next street, it should be a straight shot,” Phil said. “We’ll take it at a run and keep close to the buildings.”
The mission report in his head read, Through no fault of myself or Agent Barton, the proverbial shit hit the fan. Recommend that S.H.I.E.L.D. agents avoid the region for the foreseeable future.
They rounded a corner onto the street and came face-to-helmet with an advancing line of soldiers in riot gear.
“Well, so much for that,” Barton muttered.
One of the soldiers caught sight of them and waved his baton menacingly, shouting, and they beat a hasty retreat.
“We’ll have to double back, try to get around their perimeter.”
Barton shook his head. “Looked like they had the whole street blocked off. If we can get close, though, and get up to one of the other roofs, the chopper can pick us up there.”
“There are classified documents in that apartment that need to be secured,” Phil said. “If the safe house is compromised....”
He was cut off by shots fired close at hand. Instinctively, he and Barton both flattened themselves against the wall, weapons at the ready. Barton was sweating from the heat and exertion, and the perspiration was beading along his hairline. In his stiff suit, Phil felt like he was suffocating.
Barton edged down the wall to peer down an adjacent street, and Phil almost put out a hand to stop him. They were too exposed already, but they certainly couldn’t stay put.
“Looks like more cartel goons,” Barton said. “A lot more.”
Phil frowned. “That’s not good news.”
Barton looked at him evenly for a second, then back toward the threat. The moment he made the decision came across his face as a look of fatal determination, clear and obvious, but Phil still wasn’t quick enough to stop him.
“Get to a roof,” he said. “I’ll draw them off and secure the safe house.”
“No. Barton, stop! Barton!” Phil called after him, but he was already gone.
Regretfully, Agent Barton was killed in action while acting like a dumbass.
There was more gunfire and a voice yelling that might have been Barton, and, for the space of three hammering heartbeats, Phil considered running into the fray after his wayward agent. He swallowed hard, knowing that would accomplish nothing, and went looking for a way up.
He found a fire escape and climbed to the nearest roof, where he could see the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicopter making wide circles over the area. He waved to get the pilot’s attention and stayed clear as it came in to land.
“We have to wait for Agent Barton!” Phil shouted into the pilot’s ear, but the agent shook her head.
“We’ve been recalled! Director’s orders! We have to clear out now, sir!”
Phil glanced back to where he’d climbed up, as if hoping to see Barton suddenly appear, fit and ready to go. He pressed his ear piece hopefully. “Barton, come in.”
There was no answer.
“Agent Barton, do you copy?”
“Five minutes!” Phil insisted.
“Can’t, sir! Now or never!”
Phil hesitated, but only for an instant. “Apprise Director Fury of the situation. Barton and I will exit the region and make contact.”
“That’s an order, agent.”
The pilot frowned, but she nodded. “Yes, sir! Good luck, sir!”
They were going to need it. “Thank you, agent. You, too.”
Phil watched the helicopter lift off the roof and make its way north across the sky, high above the city in chaos. It was entirely possible he’d just made a very stupid decision, but it was the right one. He had never in his life left an agent behind, and he wasn’t about to start now.
He made a circuit of the roof’s edge, scanning the streets below. The riot troops were beating off a gang of looters, and a woman was leading two children quickly in the opposite direction, one of them screaming. There was no sign of any cartel muscle, or of Barton.
He put aside the sense of dread that raised and focused.
Securing the safe house was priority one, and he had to assume, until otherwise informed, that the task remained undone. So he carefully judged the distance between this building and the next, got a running start, and jumped. It wasn’t far, but it was far enough to give him a jolt of misgiving until his feet landed hard on the other roof. He sprinted across, still watching the streets.
At the next roof edge, he paused. The distance was further, this time, and he wasn’t as certain of making it. The narrow pass between the buildings was empty, but the wide avenue between this block and the next was still spotted with soldiers. He could try the jump and possibly wind up as the aforementioned stain on the sidewalk, or he could climb down and take his chances of not getting shot, beaten, or arrested on the street. Considering these unappealing options, Phil looked toward the window of the little S.H.I.E.L.D. apartment, hardly more than twenty yards away.
There was movement in the window.
He dropped to a defensive position and took aim at the glass, squinting to try and make sense of what was happening. Suddenly, the window shattered outward, and Barton came hurtling through it.
Phil’s breath caught as Barton grabbed hold of the access ladder by what looked like the tips of his fingers, broken glass showering around him. He hung suspended for a moment, then braced his feet and slid down the ladder at a dizzying speed. He had cleared five stories before the apartment exploded.
The force of the blast knocked Barton loose, and he swung hard into the side of the building, still gripping the ladder with one hand. How he managed to hold on, Phil didn’t know, but he did, even as debris rained down around him. Phil let out a long, slow sigh of relief.
It wasn’t until the air had settled that Phil noticed something was wrong. Barton was still curled into the ladder, one arm threaded securely between the rungs, but his other arm was wrapped tight around his body, as if holding himself together.
The sinking feeling returned to Phil’s stomach as he realized Barton wasn’t moving.
It wasn’t the pain, really. It was the blood loss.
Clint forced himself to breathe deep and pretend it didn’t feel like the skin on his side was tearing further open every time his heart beat, even though it probably was.
Alright, so the pain wasn’t exactly helping.
He took another breath, bracing himself against the access ladder. As he exhaled slowly, he lifted one foot and lowered it, inch by inch, to the next rung down. Breathing in again, he let his weight settle.
His vision swam. He needed to get on the ground fast, before unconsciousness and gravity put him there. He let out another long breath, and moved his other foot.
Inhale. Settle. Exhale. Move.
The safe house was secure. Coulson was, he hoped, safely away. For now, Clint could put all his energy into staying alive. He breathed out.
Inhale. Settle. Exhale. Move.
He’d seen the S.H.I.E.L.D. chopper pass overhead, making a beeline for the horizon. Coulson had to be on it. He had to have made it.
Because now Clint was stranded here, hanging from a ladder, bleeding out, and he refused to believe it was for nothing.
Inhale. Settle. Exhale. Move.
Inhale. Settle. Exhale. Move.
Didn’t want you to leave me behind, sir.
Inhale. Settle. Exhale.... Rest.
His side throbbed. Every step down was like another stab, opening him up. He took a long, steadying breath.
He didn’t know how bad the wound was.
There was blood pooling in his right boot. It squished when he moved.
That was bad. It was also gross.
Inhale. Settle. Exhale. Move.
Maybe his unit would get to have that party, after all.
Inhale. Settle. Exhale. Move.
How long had he been on the ladder?
No one had started shooting at him, so it might not have been long.
Inhale. Exhale. Inhale.
How many more?
Someone was yelling at him. He must be in trouble again.
Inhale. Exhale. Move.
It sounded like Coulson, but Coulson was on a helicopter, going home.
Coulson was going home, and Clint was going to die on a ladder in South America.
Head spinning, Clint looked down to see Coulson standing on the sidewalk.
But Coulson was on a helicopter.
But Coulson was standing on the sidewalk.
But Coulson w-
“Barton, are you alright?”
Shit. Clint tightened his grip on the ladder, and dug a finger into the wound on his side. The pain was clear and sharp, bringing the world back into focus.
“Not really, sir!”
Shouting hurt. Breathing hurt.
“Can you make it down?”
He would have sworn Coulson sounded worried. Then again, blood loss could cause disorientation and hallucinations.
Clint looked back down. No, that was definitely the real Coulson. He was sweating. Hallucinations didn’t sweat.
“Working on it, sir.”
Inhale. Exhale. Move.
What number was that?
“You want to move a little faster?”
Clint laughed, and it didn’t hurt as much as it should have.
“Fuck you, sir.”
He started skipping down the rungs two at a time, though.
Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.
His breath was coming faster, and his head was getting lighter even as the ground got closer.
He’d lost count of where he was. All he could see was Coulson on the ground, staring up at him.
Guess he wasn’t planning to kill me, after all.
Clint took a step, slipped.
Coulson sounded panicked. Clint tried to say that he was fine, he’d be down in a minute, but his mouth tasted like static and wires and wouldn’t work. His vision blurred and closed, and the last thing he saw was his hand sliding off of the ladder.
In the dirty backroom of a looted convenience store, Phil prayed for steady hands and kept his mind on the mechanics of the situation, rather than the reality.
The wound in Barton’s side was ugly and jagged, but it wasn’t deep. No organ damage, no internal bleeding. Phil would have been grateful for that, but he wasn’t thinking about gratitude. He wasn’t thinking about the clench of muscles in Barton’s jaw every time the needle dragged through the torn flesh or the intake of breath every time he rinsed the wound with a splash of bottom-shelf tequila. He’d had to stitch up agents in the field before, had stitched himself up a few times. One more wasn’t going to ruin him.
He definitely wasn’t thinking about Barton swaying and falling from the access ladder, or how the oozing blood had spattered when Phil caught him.
“Are you doing fucking cross stitch, down there?” Barton said, grinning through gritted teeth.
“I thought you’d appreciate an aesthetic touch,” Phil replied dryly. He pushed in the needle and didn’t think about the sound Barton made in the back of his throat.
“It doesn’t have to be pretty, Coulson. It just has to keep my insides in.”
“Some of us take pride in our work, Agent Barton.” The stitches were anything but aesthetic, just crooked black barbs clinging to the red chasm of the wound. The only thing Phil took pride in was that Barton might live long enough to see it scar. “It wouldn’t take so long if you’d stop squirming.”
“Like an eel.”
Barton’s chest rose and fell with his unsteady breathing, and the muscles in his stomach twitched and tensed as Phil tied off another stitch. Otherwise, he was still.
“Well maybe if you’d hurry up and quit poking me.” He breathed in sharply when the needle went through again. “I swear to god you’re enjoying this.”
“Not in the least,” Phil said, and he didn’t think about how much he really wasn’t.
Outside, the sounds of fighting had drifted away, and the silence was punctuated only occasionally by the crack of gunfire. Getting out of the country would have been difficult, anyway. With Barton injured, it would be just short of impossible, but they needed to do it quickly, before the fallout from whatever this was hit ground.
“Saw the chopper.” It was impressive, really, that Barton could sound casual and in pain at the same time.
“There was a recall order,” Phil told him. “I sent them home.”
He glanced over to find Barton watching him with sharp eyes. “You sent them home.”
“You didn’t go with them.”
Phil looked up again and held Barton’s gaze. S.H.I.E.L.D. protocol stated that retrieval of captured, missing, or injured agents only be attempted if the retrieval posed an acceptable ratio of risk to loss, determined by weighing potential mission collateral against the agent’s relative value as an asset. An objective assessment of the current situation would yield an unacceptable risk/loss determination, and protocol dictated that Phil, a senior agent and principal asset, should have returned to base without attempting retrieval. Failure to do so would likely result in an official reprimand and suspension of field activity.
“The safe house hadn’t been secured, yet,” he said, “and the helicopter couldn’t wait around. I made a call.”
“Said I had that covered.” Barton was still watching him. “You didn’t trust me to get it done?”
“Honestly, Barton, I didn’t trust you not to get yourself killed on the way to doing it.”
Barton laughed, then hissed as it pulled at the wound. “Oh, ow. Ow. I guess that’s fair.”
“Besides,” Phil went on, “you still haven’t told me how you set Agent Park on fire.”
Barton smirked. “Story for another time, sir.”
Agent Barton demonstrated commendable resourcefulness and resilience, as well as a willingness to place the security of S.H.I.E.L.D. above personal safety. Maybe a little too far above.
Phil didn’t think about the other mission report, the one he would have been writing at that moment if he’d gotten on the helicopter.
He had never in his life left an agent behind, and he wasn’t about to start now.
How they made it out of the city without getting shot or arrested, Clint never knew. He chalked it up to divine intervention and left it at that.
He also never knew where Coulson had found an actual honest-to-god Jeep, but he wasn’t going to ask about that one, either.
Even with the sides of the vehicle open and a tarp shielding them, Clint could feel the sun beating down. The trickle of sweat made his skin crawl, hot and stifled under his clothes, under his hair, where his arm rested against the door. His side burned and ached, and he could swear he felt the pull of every single stitch looped through his flesh and the drag of every single fiber of the bandage across the jagged wound. The Jeep jostling, bouncing, and rattling over a mountain road that seemed like an endless promenade of potholes, ruts, and rocks didn’t help. Clint was absolutely certain he was going to be sick at some point on this merry little jaunt.
“It’s about 200 klicks over the mountains to Quibdo. From there we can call for an extraction or make it to the coast, if S.H.I.E.L.D. can’t get to us,” Coulson said. “We should be able to drive most of the way, but I can’t be sure.” He gave Clint an appraising look. “Will you be able to manage on foot, if you have to?”
“Can do a lot of things if I have to, sir,” Clint replied and tried not to imagine stumbling through the jungle with a fresh knife wound.
Coulson hummed in a way that communicated very clearly just how much shit he thought Clint was full of, but he didn’t press the point. Clint fought the urge to squirm in his seat, to scratch at his side, to shove Coulson over and drive the Jeep himself because goddamnit Coulson was hitting those bumps on purpose.
And he itched, a pricking sensation all over like the air was trying to pull his skin inside out. He rubbed at the back of his neck, but that put the hairs at his nape out of place and they wouldn’t lay back right no matter what he did and that was going to drive him fucking crazy.
It wasn’t just the heat, either. He felt caught and cagey, trapped inside his own skin, knowing that bad guys with big guns could be catching up to them right this second and there would be nothing he could do. He was hurt and weak and useless.
Coulson should have left him behind.
Coulson had also been, was now, and would probably continue to be all that stood between Clint and a slow, uncomfortable death.
Clint was feeling a little conflicted about that.
“Something on your mind, Barton?”
Coulson speaking startled Clint enough that his heart gave a jump, which made his side throb, which made him scowl. “Not a damn thing, sir.”
There was that hum, again. This was going to get old fast.
“So what happened, back there?” Coulson asked, keeping his eyes on the road and not on Clint.
“I covered your ass and secured the goddamn safe house,” Clint grumbled. “Did what I was supposed to do.”
“Yes, you did,” Coulson said, and there was something in his voice that made the itching in Clint’s skin subside just a little. “But the last time I saw you, you were running headlong toward armed, angry men. Next thing, you were flying out a window, wearing a few pints of blood.” Coulson did look at him, then. “So what happened?”
“What’s it matter?” Clint had never been one for post-op analysis, and he certainly didn’t feel like recounting the details for Agent Phil Coulson. “Got the job done. Only thing I fucked up was myself.”
“At the moment, I’d say that part matters quite a bit,” he said. “In any case, I’d like the whole story. For my report.”
“For your report.”
“That’s right.” Coulson’s face was deadly serious. “A thorough report could help save an agent’s life in a future scenario.”
Clint snorted. “How? I’d think ‘don’t get stranded in South America’ would be Secret Agent One-Oh-One.”
“Yes, well. I guess we both missed that day in class.”
A snappy return about dropping out of school was on the tip of Clint’s tongue, then he paused and looked at Coulson. “Was that a joke, sir?”
“I don’t make jokes, Agent Barton.” Coulson’s mouth didn’t so much as twitch until he glanced over and caught Clint’s eye. He smiled, and Clint threw back his head and laughed. Coulson joined him, and they laughed like idiots until the strain on Clint’s side was too much.
His laugh stuttered out into coughs of pain. “Ow. Ow. Fuck me.”
Coulson rifled with one hand in a bag between the seats and produced a small, white bottle. “We need to conserve these, just in case,” he said, “but there’s no reason to suffer needlessly.”
Clint shook his head. “I’ll be fine. Need to keep my h-”
The Jeep hit a shallow pit in the road, and Clint’s protest came out as a strangled whine. He caught Coulson giving him a look that equal parts smug and truly concerned.
“Take the pills, Barton,” Coulson said. “I can stay clear for both of us.”
“Fuck you, sir,” Clint muttered, but he took the bottle and knocked back two pills, swallowing dry. “Thanks.”
Clint thought he should thank Coulson for everything else, too. For catching him, for sewing him up, for not abandoning him to the tender mercies of an urban war zone. Instead, he told him, “I took care of the guys on the ground. Or, I thought I did. Two of them followed me back to the apartment.” Coulson wasn’t looking at him, but Clint knew he had his full attention. “They cornered me. One of them got me with a knife. I figured the place was fucked, anyway, so I dropped a grenade and went out the window.”
“Which is where I came in,” Coulson said, frowning. “Where did you get a grenade?”
Clint shrugged. “Always carry one.”
“You always carry a grenade?”
Coulson looked at him sideways. “What else do you have in that bag?”
Under other circumstances, Clint would never have voluntarily answered that question, but it occurred to him that, at some point in the very near future, his survival might depend on Coulson knowing exactly what resources they had to hand. “MRE, solar blanket, first aid, lock-picks, rope, gun, ammo, bow, arrows, two incendiary bolts,” he rattled off, “and clean pants.”
“And one grenade.”
“And one grenade.”
Coulson seemed to process that list for a moment, but all he said was, “Sounds heavy.”
“Heavy as it needs to be, sir.”
The painkillers were starting to kick in. His side still ached, but distantly, like a memory of pain. Instinct told him to fight the pleasant haze settling on his mind, to stay sharp.
“Get some rest,” Coulson said, because apparently he was also psychic. “We’ve got a long way to go.”
“I’m fine, sir.” Clint protested, sitting up straighter in the seat.
“That’s an order.”
Coulson gave him a look that Clint had seen used to send other junior agents running. Clint smirked back at him and heaved a dramatic sigh. “Well, sir, if you insist.”
“Sweet dreams, Agent Barton.”
“Fuck you, sir.”
As Clint settled back into the least uncomfortable position he could find, he was sure he saw Coulson smile out of the corner of his eye.
He dreamed of an earthquake, of the ground cracking and opening under him, of reaching for a rope that wasn’t there, of falling.
Clint was awake. His head was pounding, and it felt like every muscle in his body was cramping at once. It was dark. The Jeep was stopped. His gear was at his feet. Coulson was gone.
He reached automatically for his bow, but the sharp, blinding pain shooting up his side reminded him that, oh yeah, he couldn’t draw a fucking bow. He grabbed the gun, instead, and slowly, silently pushed open the door.
A shimmer of moonlight filtered down through the thin canopy, enough for Clint to make out shapes in the darkness. He listened hard to the quiet noise of the mountain jungle, to the bugs and the air moving and the nearby sound of water, listening for anything out of place.
Nothing. Not so much as a twig snap.
Where the hell was Coulson?
Clint had lost his comm in the confusion of getting stabbed and blowing up the safe house, and he didn’t want to call out. He circled the Jeep carefully, thinking. Maybe Coulson had ditched him. Maybe he’d realized his chances were a hell of a lot better if he wasn’t dragging along an injured smart-ass. Maybe he’d left the vehicle and supplies out of pity. Clint certainly couldn’t blame him. At least one of them might make it out, now.
Clint nearly jumped clear the fuck out of his skin. He would have sworn that no one but a highly trained stealth assassin could ever have snuck up on him, but there was Coulson, standing not two meters away, a still shadow among still shadows.
“Jesus fuck, Coulson.” Clint lowered his gun and leaned back against the Jeep. Adrenaline had flushed what was left of the painkillers out of his system and left him feeling sick and dizzy.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.” He didn’t sound sorry at all, but, when he stepped forward this time, his feet actually made noise. A glancing bit of moonlight caught on his face, and Clint saw him frowning. “Barton, are you alright?”
“Be better if you didn’t scare the shit out of me like a fucking ninja,” Clint snapped. He took deep, slow breaths to calm his spinning head, but it didn’t seem to help.
“I’m not a ninja. I’m a senior agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” Coulson said.
Clint had a comeback for that one, he really did. He had five, and they were all great. When he tried to speak, though, nausea rolled up in his stomach, and he bent over and vomited on the ground. He had enough clarity to think that his one saving grace, in that moment, was that he didn’t get any on Coulson’s shoes.
Coulson put a hand gently on his shoulder. “Come on. I think you should lie down.”
“You know, sir. I think you might be right,” Clint agreed, too unsteady to see any point in arguing.
Coulson guided him around to the other side of the Jeep and helped him ease down. The ground was hard and rocky, and sharp stones dug into Clint’s back where he lay. It was far from the worst place he’d ever slept. Coulson settled near his head, back braced against the tire.
“Not exactly five-star, is it, sir?”
Coulson made a sound that might have been a chuckle. “Go to sleep, Agent Barton.”
“Sir. Yes, sir.”
Phil made himself sleep. They weren’t safe, by any means, but they’d be a lot less safe if he fell asleep at the wheel tomorrow. With Barton effectively out of commission, Phil needed to be alert, and that meant resting. He didn’t sleep well, obviously, but he did sleep and woke up as dawn was creeping down through the jungle canopy.
Barton hadn’t moved so much as an inch during the night, his head lolling on the ground by Phil’s leg. He was so still and silent that Phil had to watch for a moment to make sure he was breathing. The moment after that, Phil kept watching because nothing was trying to kill them, at that moment, and Barton was much more interesting than the trees. Phil had covered him with the solar blanket from his kit to keep off the night chill, but his feet stuck out at the bottom, boots caked with dust and dried blood.
His own blood, Phil remembered, but he wasn’t thinking about that, wasn’t thinking about jagged black stitches and a raw, gaping wound.
Asleep and - mostly - relaxed, Barton looked young, younger than Phil had thought he was, though Phil was sure there wasn’t enough rest in the world to erase the marks of care and sadness that aged his handsome face. Phil had seen his file. It was one page after another of tragedy, bad decisions, and betrayal, padded at the end with disciplinary write-ups and complaints from his C.O.
It is my professional opinion, at this juncture, that Agent Barton would better serve S.H.I.E.L.D. as a specialist asset, rather than a traditional field agent. After careful consideration, I recommend that he be removed from his current unit and assigned a dedicated handler.
Barton didn’t need someone to give him orders, Phil had decided. He needed someone to look out for him.
There was a sound, a distant beating out of place in the quiet jungle. Phil tensed, listening. The sound grew louder, closer, and became the steady rhythm of rotary blades.
“Barton, wake up.”
Barton didn’t move, but his eyes snapped open. He blinked, clearing the haze out of them and focusing on Phil’s face. After a second of concentration, he said, “Helicopter.”
Phil nodded. “Under the Jeep. Fast.”
Barton tucked up his legs and rolled neatly under the vehicle, taking the blanket with him in one motion, but Phil saw the grimace of pain as he did it. They’d need to check those stitches, later. Phil scrambled after him and squeezed into the remaining space. He’d thrown some loose vines and foliage over the top of the Jeep the night before in anticipation of exactly this development, but, face-down in the dirt with the noise of the helicopter approaching, Phil didn’t feel much like congratulating himself on forethought.
There was enough room to cover them both, but only just, and Phil had to hook his leg over Barton’s to fit. He could feel Barton’s breath on the side of his neck, hot and close and a little too fast.
The thump thump thump of spinning blades was getting louder.
Barton’s breathing was definitely too fast and sounded strained. Phil realized, belatedly, that he was laying on his injured side.
“Shift,” Phil said, and they jostled until Barton was on his back with Phil curled around him, their legs still tangled. For lack of a better position, Phil draped his arm across Barton’s chest, careful not to press into the wound.
“Oughta buy me dinner first, sir,” Barton muttered, his breath steadying.
“Steak and lobster, Barton. As much as you can eat,” Phil promised.
“Bet you say that to all the boys.”
“Just the ones I have to drag through the jungle.”
Barton snorted, and then they were quiet, listening as the sound of the helicopter swelled and receded, circling.
Phil could smell the rich soil underneath them, the metal and oil of the Jeep above, and the sweat clinging to Barton’s skin. He was aware, suddenly, of how closely they were pressed together and of the sticky heat that was rising with the sun. As awkward situations went, this hardly ranked, but Phil couldn’t fight the creeping sense that boundaries were being crossed.
If the helicopter spotted them, if the cartel found them, then it wouldn’t matter.
It passed above them. Phil saw the grass stir in its wake.
Barton was stone beside him, unmoving but for his watchful eyes and the rise and fall of his chest under Phil’s hand. He looked at Phil, and Phil could see his mind churning through a list of very bad options.
The sound receded and swelled, circling. It passed over them again.
Phil realized he was gripping Barton’s shirt in his fist and forced his fingers to relax. If Barton noticed, he gave no sign.
The helicopter didn’t pass them a third time, and, slowly, the cycling noise faded back into a distant beating. When he was certain they were clear, Phil carefully disentangled himself from Barton and rolled away, suppressing a sigh of relief as he stretched out cramped muscles.
“If you wanted to cuddle, sir,” Barton said, “all you had to do was ask.”
“If I wanted to cuddle, I’d have found a better place,” Phil replied. “How’s your side?”
“Feels like I got stabbed in it.” Barton wriggled his way out from under the Jeep with markedly less grace than he’d shown getting there, and Phil frowned.
“Come here. Let me check it.”
“It’s fine, sir.”
Phil put on his best I-am-in-charge-here face and said flatly, “You will allow me to inspect your injury, or I will take the first opportunity to render you unconscious and immobile for the remainder of this mission."
Barton narrowed his eyes. “Meaning what?”
“Meaning I will knock you out and strap you to the back of the Jeep like a piece of cheap luggage. Now take off your shirt.”
For a long, tense moment, they stared each other down. Then Barton laughed and shook his head. “I knew it,” he said, easing up the hem of his t-shirt. “The quiet ones are always kinky.”
Phil resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “Just be thankful I left my ball gag at the base.”
He unwrapped the bandage slowly, careful not to let it drag the ground or to pull too tight. As the layers came away, a spot of bright red appeared on the white and grew until the bandage gave way to a square of gauze, soaked in blood. Sure enough, three of the stitches had popped.
“Oh, wow. That is... an unexpected amount of blood,” Barton said, staring down at his side.
Yes, yes it was, and more was coming out.
“Alright, lie down. I’ll take care of this.”
To Phil’s relief and mild surprise, Barton acquiesced with only a quip. “Just lie back and think of S.H.I.E.L.D., right, sir?”
“If you want to think of S.H.I.E.L.D., I won’t stop you,” Phil replied as he went through their meagre, meticulously packed supplies for the appropriate implements. “Though I can’t imagine Director Fury’s face is an especially comforting image.”
Barton coughed out a laugh. “Maybe I’ll just think of you, Coulson. You’re a hell of a lot prettier than Fury.”
“I won’t tell him you said that.”
This was going to be messy. They needed to conserve water, so Phil rinsed the wound as best he could, but Barton was still bleeding. For every streak of blood that vanished, another inch seeped out through the tear in his skin. Phil needed to work quickly. When he splashed alcohol on the wound to disinfect it, Barton jerked violently and cried out.
Phil put a hand on his chest, steadying him. “It’s okay,” he said gently. “You’re okay. I’ve got you.”
Barton’s face was pale with pain and loss of blood, but he still managed a weak smirk. “Faster would be better, sir.”
“Haste makes waste, Agent Barton,” Phil replied, pulling off his belt and handing it, doubled over, to Barton. “Bite down on this.”
“You get to gag me, after all,” Barton grumbled, but he shoved the belt between his teeth and clamped down.
The busted stitches were still there, broken bits of thread protruding uselessly from needle marks. One of them stuck when Phil pulled it out and dragged some skin with it, and he didn’t think about the sound of Barton’s teeth grinding into leather. It was hard to get a grip on the edges of the wound, slick as it was with blood and water, and Phil found that his hands were shaking.
Exhaustion. Dehydration. Low blood-sugar. He would have to eat something, when this was done. He would have to make Barton eat something.
First things first.
Replacing the stitches took longer than it should have, and Barton was breathing in short, hard bursts by the time it was finished. Phil covered and wrapped the wound with clean gauze and the length of bandage that was still usable. Carefully, slowly, he slid an arm around Barton’s shoulders and eased him into a sitting position. Barton spit the belt out with a grimace and accepted the bottle of water that Phil raised to his mouth. Rivulets leaked out at the corners of his lips and traced fine, shining lines through the dust and sweat on his jaw. Phil watched him drink until the muscles began to relax and he pushed the bottle away with a sigh.
Barton needed blood. He needed antibiotics and painkillers and clean wrappings and a hundred other things they didn’t have. He needed professional attention in a medical facility, and what he had was Phil Coulson, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., armed with a dull needle and a bottle of tequila.
It was going to be enough. It had to be.
Phil took a swallow of water for himself, then offered it back to Barton, who shook his head.
“You’ve lost a lot of blood,” Phil told him. “You have to stay hydrated.”
“Need to save water.” His voice was quiet and rough, and that, more than anything, made Phil worry.
“Having water later won’t help if you die now. Drink.”
Barton gave him a rebellious look and murmured, “Fuck you, sir,” but he pulled down another few swallows.
They needed to keep moving, but, if that chopper was still making passes over the road, it might not be safe. There had been traffic on the road, yesterday, mostly people trying to get away from the city. Out here, though, there would be little or none, and a lone Jeep speeding down the rocky highway might draw attention.
And then there was Barton, pale and weak and slumped against him, incapable of fighting off even Phil’s arm around him, much less armed men trying to kill him.
They could stay put for another few hours.
By the time they got back on the road, the day had gone from a warm morning to a sweltering afternoon, and Clint was just as drained and aching as he’d been the day before, despite the rest. There’d been no more sign of the helicopter, the cartel, or any other living soul. Hell, they hadn’t even seen any animals, outside of the occasional bird.
“It’s too fucking hot,” Clint announced. “Anything with half a brain is curled up in the shade somewhere.”
Coulson just gave that vague hum and kept his eyes on the road.
“You don’t really appreciate central air unless you’ve lived without it,” he went on. “I was seventeen the first time I slept someplace that had honest-to-fucking-god central air conditioning. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I wanted to die, right there, just so I could stay seventy-two degrees for the rest of my life.”
The blue summer sky had given way to the dull, flinty grey of gathering storm clouds, and the air was thick and still. Heat and humidity muffled everything so that Clint’s voice seemed loud and echoless against the silence of all creation holding its breath. Only Coulson was untroubled, unmoved by the threat of rain, the heat, or the babbling of his passenger. He just kept his eyes on the road and hummed.
“I guess that’s one thing you can say for S.H.I.E.L.D. The bunks are hard. The food’s terrible. But goddammit, it’s air-conditioned.”
On the far horizon, the clouds lit up with a quick flash and stutter of lightning.
“It’s a self-contained environment with temperature regulators maintaining a constant sixty-eight point oh two degrees Fahrenheit,” Coulson said. “Technically, it’s not air-conditioned.”
Clint blinked. “Seriously?”
“Huh.” He thought about the ventilation ducts on the base, wide and smooth, with their airtight access panels and little whirring fans. “So, if there’s a biological attack, or something, the whole place can go hermetic and keep out the bad air.”
It was Coulson’s turn to blink, and he looked directly at Clint for the first time since that morning. “Exactly.” He paused. “Alternatively, if anything inside the facility escapes containment, we can isolate affected areas and keep it from spreading to the rest of the base or the general populace.”
“You suits think of everything, don’t you?” Clint said, giving him a grin.
“In this case, it was the security specialists.” The corner of Coulson’s mouth twitched upward. “And I’d hardly call myself a ‘suit’, at the moment.”
It really was strange to see Coulson dressed down to his slacks, body armor, and a sweat-soaked undershirt, but he was still every inch the sharp, efficient government agent. Clint shrugged. “You can take the man outta the suit.”
“Then you’d have a naked man.”
Clint laughed and tried not to wince at the pain in his side. “I like where this is going.” He looked at Coulson and added, “Sorry about your suit, by the way.”
Coulson’s smile dimmed. “I’m not going to hold you responsible for bleeding on me, Barton” he said, “but if you’re really broken up about it, you can buy me a new one.”
You shouldn’t have been there for me to bleed on. “I’ll do that, sir.”
Lightning flashed again, closer, and the smell of heavy summer rain was getting stronger.
Clint shifted in his seat, but the movement pulled at his stitches and sent another pulse of pain across his skin. The wound throbbed with every breath, every heartbeat, and Clint felt sluggish and drawn. He’d been stupid to let those thugs get the drop on him, stupider to let one get a knife in him, and now Coulson was paying for his stupidity.
“I didn’t see the shooter,” he said.
Coulson kept his eyes on the road. “What?”
The back of Clint’s neck burned. He knew Coulson had brought him down here to test him, and he’d failed. “The other sniper, the one who took out your contact. I never got eyes on him. Don’t know where he was.”
He didn’t know what he expected Coulson to say to that. Something along the lines of throwing him out of the car or regret for coming back for him or an indefinite continuation of this tense, uncertain silence.
What he didn’t expect was for Coulson to arch an eyebrow and ask, “So?” He looked at Clint for the second time. “Based on the angle of impact, I’d say the shooter was probably positioned in the same building you were, out of your line of sight. There’s no way you could have seen them.”
Clint stared at him. “But, I d-”
“Besides which,” Coulson went on, “I doubt anyone knew you were up there until people started sprouting arrows. A sniper’s job is to be invisible, even to other snipers. You know that.”
“Barton.” Coulson’s voice brokered no argument. “It is not your fault the meet was compromised. Unless you’re planning to take credit for the sudden outbreak of political violence in a foreign country.”
There was something else, though, another thought that tugged at the back of Clint’s mind the same way the stitches tugged at his skin. “But if.... Sir, if the shooter had.... If you’d been the target....”
“Then we wouldn’t be having this conversation, and it still wouldn’t be your fault.”
You’d still be dead, and I’d still be screwed. Clint tried not to think about that, about a rifle muzzle angled just a hair to the right, about a different body on the ground beneath the bright sun. He shook his head to clear it, but the movement just made him dizzy. “Yes, sir,” he muttered.
He could feel Coulson looking at him, but he kept his eyes trained on the receding jungle and the rise of mountains around them, watching the storm come closer.
It didn’t rain, that day, and they drove on through the night. Clint dozed on and off, waking every time to a sharper pounding in his head and a greater sense of disorientation. Then he would look over to see Coulson staring out at the darkened highway and remember where he was and why he felt like crap. They stopped for an hour just before dawn so that Coulson could get some sleep.
“Can you keep watch?” he asked.
Clint nodded, gripping his gun in one weak hand. “I’ll scream like a baby if I see any bad guys.”
“I’m sure that will keep them away,” Coulson deadpanned. Then he eased down in the seat and closed his eyes.
After the rumble and rocking of the drive, it was strange to be sitting still in the silent dark. There was no wind, and the heavy, humid air pressed in on Clint like a tightening vise. Thunder rolled, a muffled boom from the other side of the mountains. Suddenly, the inside of the Jeep seemed unbearably small, like he was trapped inside a shrinking cage amidst the impossible vastness of the wilderness. Coulson, sleeping so close at hand, might have been worlds away for all the distance between them.
Clint’s heart stuttered, panicked, and he screwed his eyes shut, fighting for deep, even breaths. He was in a perch, he told himself, up high in a tower. The emptiness, the loneliness, the waiting was all part of the job. He would stay still, time would pass, and he would make the shot and go home.
He tried to push away the roll of thunder and the smell of dirt and rain and blood, tried to zero in on the tide of his breathing, but his breath was unsteady, too thin and short for an even rhythm. His side burned with every inhale and ached with every exhale, and his skin crawled and pulsed to the clumsy beat of his heart.
In the dark, he found another sound, low and close, and he tuned to it like a clear station in the static. Coulson’s breathing was deep and soft with sleep, and Clint used it like a metronome to track the rise and fall of his own chest. Slowly, he eased himself into a matching rhythm and felt his weak pulse begin to even out. The excess noises fell away until there was only the ebb and flow of Coulson’s breath, pulling at him like the moon.
He opened his eyes.
The night was still empty and suffocating, but the air had lost its closeness. Clint could see the dim silhouette of mountains against the endless black sky and the road behind them winding down, back into the jungle. It was beautiful and peaceful, and he wrapped himself in that small peace like armor and listened to Coulson breathe.
The hour passed slowly, but it passed.
The sun rose behind a veil of storm clouds and cast the world in hazy, grey light. Coulson stirred at the first hint of daybreak, rubbing the sleep from his eyes and cracking his neck with a groan. He blinked blearily at Clint and grumbled, “Morning.”
It took Clint a moment to remember he was supposed to answer, and, even to his own ears, his voice sounded vague and tired. “Morning.”
Coulson frowned. “Everything okay?”
“I don’t know about ‘okay’,” Clint said, forcing a light tone, “but nobody’s tried to kill us, so at least things aren’t worse.”
There was that hum, again, like Coulson could hear everything he wasn’t saying and was judging him for it. He made no comment, though, just said, “We’re almost to Quibdo. From there, we can contact S.H.I.E.L.D. and see about getting a ride home. If that’s not an option, we may have to find a boat to get us to the coast.”
“Of course,” Clint muttered. “Because this little field trip wasn’t enough fun, already.” His head was heavy and pounding, and the thought of even looking at a boat made him feel sick.
“You could pretend we’re on a cruise,” Coulson said, and Clint thought of ocean waves and swallowed hard to keep from vomiting on the floor boards. Coulson gave him an unreadable look and went on, “We should check your wound, again.”
Clint didn’t want to check his wound, he didn’t want anything going anywhere near his side, and he certainly didn’t want to see the way Coulson’s face went completely blank every time he had to stitch Clint up or feel the unexpected gentleness of his touch. “It’s fine. It’s not bleeding.”
“You can’t know that. Besides, if it’s infected....”
“Then there’s nothing you can do,” Clint snapped. “We don’t have any antibiotics. If it’s infected, then time is a factor, and we can’t afford to dick around.”
Coulson fixed him with a sharp stare, and Clint eyed him right back. He was tired of being poked and coddled and... touched, and he wanted nothing more than to get back on the road and get the fuck out of this godforsaken country. As if to emphasize the sense of urgency, there was a sudden crack of thunder, too close for comfort.
For a moment, Clint thought Coulson might pull rank, but he just hummed and said, “That’s true. Next stop, though, you’re going to let me look at it.”
Clint forced a smirk. “You just can’t wait to get me out of my shirt again.”
“Yes, Agent Barton, looking after your potentially fatal knife wound is such a turn-on,” Coulson replied, firing up the Jeep. It should have been funny, but there was an undercurrent in his voice that made it somehow not a joke. Clint hunched down in his seat and tried not to wince when they lurched into motion.
The storm clouds thickened and grew darker as they made their way down through the mountains, and Clint could see the haze of rain falling in the near distance. Storms would make driving difficult and boat travel all but impossible. The dangerous terrain would become even more treacherous, and Coulson would have to navigate it while hauling along Clint’s useless dead weight.
“You should leave me,” he said, and it came out much more quietly than he’d meant it to. Coulson didn’t answer, didn’t acknowledge that Clint had spoken. He cleared his throat and said more loudly, “You should le-”
“I heard you,” Coulson cut him off. “I didn’t think that warranted a response.”
“I’ll slow you down. You’ll have a better chance on your own. I can just hole up somewhere til you can send back the cavalry or I can get out by myself,” Clint insisted.
Coulson’s eyes were fixed on the road, his jaw tight and grim. “I have never....”
They hit the curtain of rain like a wall, enveloped so suddenly by the downpour that the Jeep slowed and skidded. Clint was drenched in less than a second and freezing in a second more, but the flow of cool water felt good on his burning, aching side.
“I have never in my life left an agent behind,” Coulson went on, “and I’m not going to start with you.”
Clint wasn’t really sure what to say to that. Coulson had stayed for him, come back for him, caught and carried him, stitched him up, and held him, and it needed to stop before Coulson wound up dying for him, too. He swallowed back an unfamiliar feeling. “Yeah, well, maybe you should.”
The look Coulson gave him was brief and chilling. “I’m not.”
Despite the persistent certainty that this couldn’t last, that, sooner or later, something had to give, Clint almost believed him.
“I’m not,” Coulson repeated. “So you can stop pouting, because you’re stuck with me for the foreseeable future.”
Squinting against the driving rain Coulson looked determined and, rather unexpectedly, like the hero of some film, making a vow in dramatic lighting. It was getting easier all the time to picture Coulson as an action hero. Clint smiled, despite himself.
“I’m not pouting. I’m complaining. There’s a d-”
The Jeep hit a rut and jolted, fishtailing across the rocky road. Coulson’s hands went white on the steering wheel as he fought to keep control. Clint braced himself against the dash and gave a sharp cry as his side slammed into the door. Pain exploded in his skin, stabbing through his muscles and blossoming white behind his eyes. The landscape spun and tilted through the windshield. Coulson was shouting, but the words were a buzz behind the crashing rain and the ringing in Clint’s ears.
There was a single, weightless moment in which the Jeep was airborne. All the shaking and jerking stopped as the wheels left the ground. Clint felt gravity shifting, felt his body start to tumble, but he was held in place a second longer by the firm, heavy pressure of Coulson’s hand on his chest.
Then there was only cold rain and nothing.
It might have been a minute or an hour or a hundred years before Clint opened his eyes and immediately found them stinging with water. Rain poured into his mouth, nose, ears, and pooled under him where he lay twisted in the tight space.
It felt like he’d been ripped in half. Tearing, searing pain spiralled out from his side and circled him like razor wire. Everything hurt. Everything was cold and wet. His entire existence had been reduced to agony and rain, and he was drowning in both.
Clint blinked, trying to clear his eyes, to clear his head. The Jeep was on its side, angled down a steep slope, and Clint was crumpled against the passenger door. Coulson was suspended above him, still strapped into his seat. There was blood on his face, and the rain caught it up in red streams and sent it running down onto Clint.
He could taste Coulson’s blood in his mouth.
Bile rose in his throat, but there was nothing in his stomach to throw up, so Clint just turned his head and coughed it out. He tried to speak, but the only sound he made was a faint, wet croak. He tried again, with more success.
Clint choked on rain and blood and the pain of breathing, and Coulson didn’t move.
It would have been easy to close his eyes again, so much easier than clawing his way out of the Jeep and getting Coulson to safety. Easy had never held much appeal for Clint.
Inch by inch, he shifted around to get his feet under him, gritting his teeth against the pain and nausea that rolled over him in waves. He felt heavy and clumsy, but he made his limbs move, made himself tear at the tarp covering the Jeep until a corner of it came away with a jerk.
The Jeep shifted suddenly. He lost his balance and fell against the dash with a yelp. The rocky slope was soft and muddy, and the Jeep had started to slide. Carefully, Clint levered himself back up, trying to rock the vehicle as little as possible. It shifted again and stopped.
There wasn’t enough room for him to stand up, but he straightened out as much as he could, feeling the strain on his weak, torn muscles. His legs were shaking with even the small effort of holding himself up, and he was about to be holding up Coulson, too.
“Fuck, Coulson. This would be a good time to wake up.”
Clint braced himself and clicked open the seat belt fastener. Coulson’s limp form slipped, turned, and tumbled headfirst into Clint’s arms, sending them both down in a tangled heap.The impact wrenched Clint’s side, and he made a sound that he was very glad no one else could hear. He paused, waiting for his breathing to steady and his muscles to stop screaming.
The edges of Clint’s vision were hazy and dark, and he could feel the black warmth of oblivion creeping in. He pushed it aside, blinking away the rain and fog and dizziness. He’d sleep when he was dead, which might be sooner, rather than later, because the Jeep was sliding again and picking up speed. Clint had no idea where or how this slope ended, and he didn’t want to find out.
There was no way to do this gracefully or easily or without a significant amount of pain, so he just tightened his grip on Coulson, took a deep breath, and jumped.
Phil came to suddenly, spitting mud.
He was face-down on the slope, a heavy weight pinning him to the wet ground. He rolled away, gasping as he felt pressure on the bits of glass that were embedded in his shoulder. His head spun. He wiped at his eyes to clear them, and his hand came away bloody. Head wound. He’d been unconscious, so possibly a concussion. Blinking against the dizziness, he looked over and realized that the weight on top of him was Barton, passed out and deathly pale, his arm wrapped protectively around Phil.
“What th-.... Barton?”
The slope was muddy and slick, and Phil fought to sit up and keep them both from sliding any further. With his feet braced and a firm hold on Barton, he looked at his shoulder and found the jagged edges of three shards of glass sticking out of him, shining red in the rain. Gingerly, he grabbed hold of one between his fingers and gave it a twitch, testing. Pain shot through him, and he paused, drawing in deep breaths. The glass was lodged firmly, but it wasn’t in too deep. Gritting his teeth, Phil took hold of it and pulled.
He closed his eyes and let the pulses of pain subside before he he reached for the second piece.
That one snagged when it came out and widened the tear in his skin. His free hand clenched, twisting Barton’s sodden shirt in his fist. One more. One more piece, and then he had to see to Barton.
The third shard of glass had buried itself just under the edge of his body armor, and he had to jam his fingers into the narrow space to get a grip. This one was bigger and had gone in deeper than the others. Phil tugged at it and cried out as agony arced across his shoulder.
Eyes closed. Breathe in. Breathe out.
Reluctantly, he released his hold on Barton and pushed up his body armor, making room around the glass. He got a better grip on it and started to drag it out. It came slowly, and he felt every particle of it scrape on his torn flesh as it passed.
At last, it was free, and the bloody bit of wreckage fell weakly from his hand into the mud. There were still small chunks of glass stuck in his skin, and he would need to wrap the wound. For now, though, he could give his attention to Barton, who was still sprawled motionless on the ground beside him.
Barton, who was very pale.
Clint Barton, who wasn’t breathing.
“Oh, god, no. Barton!” Phil turned him over on his back, reaching to check his pulse, and then saw the blood.
Barton’s shirt was soaked in red, and the pools of rainwater forming around him were dark with new blood. He was so pale.
Phil pressed his fingers to Barton’s freezing throat, praying for the faintest tremor. His hands were shaking, though, and Barton’s skin was slick with rain and mud. He felt nothing.
No. No. No. No. No.
Desperate, he put his ear over Barton’s mouth, close enough to feel the brush of cold lips. He held his breath, willing the air he wasn’t taking to fill Barton’s lungs instead. There was... something. A whisper, a touch, a breath. It might have been raindrops or wind, but it was enough. As far as Phil was concerned, Barton was alive until.... No. He was alive and would continue to be so indefinitely. There was no until.
He wrapped one arm tight around Barton’s bloodied chest and started hauling them both up the slope, slipping and scrabbling in the rocky mud.
It took a long time to reach the road.
By the time he made it to level ground, Phil was panting with exertion, his head and shoulder throbbing in counterpoint, and Barton was still dead weight in his arms.
Dead weight. Not a phrase he wanted to be thinking of, just then.
He collapsed onto the road, letting Barton’s still form rest on top of his heaving chest. Rain fell into his eyes and splashed into his mouth as he fought for breath. Damp cold gripped him all over. He could hardly feel his fingers, and the parts of him that he could feel all ached.
But he couldn’t stop, not now.
“This would be a good time to wake up, Agent Barton,” he said, more to get his lungs moving than anything. He expected no response, and Barton gave none.
Even unconscious, the corner of Barton’s mouth quirked up, like bleeding out on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere was just another joke told to break the tension. Phil thought he should tell Barton that. It would make him laugh, and, at that moment, Phil wanted to hear that laugh more than he had ever wanted anything in his life.
He didn’t dwell on the spike of heat that thought drove through his heart. He just levered himself up out of the mud and carefully, gently pulled Barton up onto his back, staggering. Barton’s cold lips rested motionless against Phil’s neck, and he imagined, hoped, and prayed that he could feel just the slightest brush of warm air issuing from them. Bent under the weight, Phil steadied himself and started walking.
On the outskirts of the city, there were clusters of buildings, shops with battered signs and apartment blocks streaked with decades of dirt and rain.
Phil pounded on seven doors before one of them opened, and he staggered up an impossible flight of stairs to pound on another five before a young man in a dirty t-shirt gave way before his pleading and let him in.
“I need a doctor. Médico. Now. Por favor. I need a doctor.” His teeth were chattering with cold and strain, and the words came out rough and muddled.
The young man stared at him with wide eyes. There were other people in the room, but they moved aside quickly as Phil made a beeline for a ragged cot, laying Barton down gently.
“There’s a hospital....”
“No,” Phil cut him off. “No hospital. Médico. Sangre. He needs blood.” Under normal circumstances, his Spanish was flawless. Now, though, shock and exhaustion were settling in, and Barton was still so cold and pale.
From a far corner, someone asked, “Is that guy dead?”
Phil just clenched his fists and said again, “Please, he needs a doctor. Now. Please.”
He was not above begging, not for Barton’s life.
The young man who had let them in said something, and there was a brief, tense exchange. Phil didn’t pay attention, too concerned with stripping away Barton’s sodden clothes and getting to the wound. Most of the stitches were blown, and there was blood everywhere, streaking across his white skin.
Phil didn’t think about the touch of blue at Barton’s mouth or the stillness of his chest. He took a deep breath and forced his frozen hands to stop shaking.
“I need water, clean cloths, a needle and thread, and a lighter,” he said in a voice suddenly so calm and clear, he was sure it belonged to someone else. “And alcohol. Cualquier tipo.”
Phil had gone into this mission with a number of given uncertainties. There was always a chance the op would go wrong. There was always a chance the cartel would stage the coup they’d been planning for so long. There was always a chance that Phil would be identified as S.H.I.E.L.D., that they’d come after him, that he wouldn’t make it back.
But there was no chance whatsoever that Clint Barton was going to die here. Phil would give every last drop of his own blood to make sure of that.
He looked around at the young man and what he now realized was a very frightened family, all of whom were staring at him, motionless.
“I’m sorry. Lo siento. I’m so sorry,” Phil said, “but if you don’t bring me what I need, I will tear this place apart to get it.”
The young man turned to a skinny girl clutching at his sleeve. “Do what he says. I’ll get the doctor.”
“Blood. He needs blood,” Phil called after him, attention already back on Barton.
He was so pale, so still. The wound was so red.
For aiding agents in need, generous compensation should be awarded to the family at....
Where were they? Second floor, third apartment on the left, crack at the bottom of the door, tear in the carpet outside, number 213. Lucky.
A needle and thread appeared at hand. There was a bowl of water and clean rags on the floor. They must have been bringing things to him, must have been answering his requests, but he didn’t notice. The only thing in his vision, the only thing that mattered, was Barton.
There was still blood, fresh and scarlet on white skin. That was good. It meant that his heart was still moving, and there was still life in his veins.
Re-stitching the wound went a lot faster, this time, and Phil didn’t think about how it was easier when Barton wasn’t moving or making those thin, choked sounds of pain. He didn’t think about Barton’s clear blue eyes, sharp and watchful even when he was laughing. He didn’t think about Barton saying “You should leave me” as if that could ever be an option.
There was a voice at his ear and a hand on his shoulder pushing him gently aside, and Phil was a little stunned to discover that the young man had actually brought back a doctor, a thin man with squinting eyes and a permanent frown. Phil shuffled out of the way, but he stayed close, sitting on the floor beside the bed.
He watched numbly as the doctor checked for a pulse and pushed a heavy needle into Barton’s arm, and he didn’t think about the crime of putting more marks in that battered flesh. The saline solution that raced down the I.V. was clear and shining, and Phil’s eyes followed it into the needle, willing it to move faster, to flow more surely, to quicken Barton’s blood and make him not so terribly, terrifyingly pale.
“How long has he been unconscious?” the doctor asked, pushing back Barton’s lids to shine a light into his eyes. Blue eyes, rolled back and sightless.
It took Phil a moment to realize the question was directed at him. “I don’t... No lo sé. At least an hour. Maybe two.” He didn’t think about how bad that was or what it might mean.
The doctor hummed and went briskly about his work, checking vitals while the young man stood above him holding the I.V. bag. Someone handed Phil a cup of something hot, but all his attention was focused on where the needle punctured Barton’s skin.
“When was he injured?”
“Two days ago.” He didn’t think about Barton clinging to an access ladder, spots of blood dropping from his boots to spatter like red rain on the concrete.
“You treated him yourself?”
“Yes. Si.” He didn’t think about the tensing of muscles under his fingers and the pull of skin around knots of black thread.
“What happened to reopen the wound?”
“Our car crashed.” He didn’t think about the sinking in his stomach as the Jeep left the ground and the instinctive, protective press of his hand against Barton’s chest.
There were more questions, and Phil answered them clearly and concisely. The cup in his hands was too warm and was burning his palms, but he couldn’t look away from the needle.
“What’s his name?”
Junior Agent Clinton Francis Barton, codename Hawkeye, specialisation long range weapons and close combat. “His name is Clint.”
The doctor frowned and repeated, “Clint”, handling the strange consonants awkwardly in his mouth. He put a hand to Barton’s face and clapped him more forcefully than Phil thought was necessary. “Clint. Me oyes? Clint. Despierta.”
Had some of the pallor gone out of his cheeks? Was his chest rising? Phil’s own chest ached with the pain of held breath and the need to see Barton’s eyes open.
“Talk to him,” the doctor commanded, stepping out of the way.
Phil blinked. “What?”
“He knows you, yes?”
“I... yes. Si.”
“If he doesn’t wake up now, then he’s not going to. A familiar voice might help.”
Phil hadn’t known how afraid he was until those words cut through him, and he didn’t think about blood and stitches and field reports and what he would do... what he would do if he had to go on alone. He got to his knees beside the cot, eyes fixed on Barton’s face.
“Barton, wake up.”
Instantly, he knew that was the most useless thing he had ever said in his life.
“Barton. Clint. Come on, we’ve got a long way to go. I need you with me.”
What was he supposed to say? Giving orders had barely worked when Barton was conscious, and logic wasn’t likely to get him anywhere.
“You never did tell me how you set Agent Park on fire. You said that was a story for another time. Well, I’d say this is another time.”
He thought about Barton standing at attention in his office, wearing that satisfied smirk.
“Do you have any idea what kind of paperwork I’m going to have to do if you die? It’s a nightmare. I’ve filed way too many of th-” He didn’t think about other missions, other agents, the last rattling gasp of friends and allies. “I’ve filed too many of those reports. I’m not filing one for you.”
He put a hand to Barton’s face before he could think better of it, not to shake him as the doctor had done, but to touch, to create some connection. If he could have used that touch to funnel all his life and energy into Barton, he would have.
“Clint, please. You can’t quit now.”
The doctor attached a fresh bag of saline to the I.V., and Phil thought about the trickle of water from Barton’s lips as he drank.
“I’m not leaving you here. Whatever you think, I won’t leave you. But you can’t leave me, either. Do you hear me? I stayed for you. Now you have to stay for me.”
He ran a thumb across Barton’s - across Clint’s - cheek. The skin was still cold, but there was color in it, and maybe a flicker of warmth underneath.
“Come back to me, Clint. Please.”
His fingers brushed Clint’s hairline, his ear, his neck, seeking out something, some sign of life. He was exhausted, couldn’t think straight, couldn’t think about the possibility that Clint might be just another junior agent dying in his arms.
There was a flicker of motion beneath his eyelids, a flutter of lashes, and his breathing changed. Phil’s heart came to a stuttering halt.
Clint swallowed. His cracked lips parted. Every inch of Phil’s being ached, and Clint’s blue eyes opened.
Phil didn’t think about mission reports and knife wounds and cold, pale skin. He thought about the smear of dried blood on Clint’s temple and tried to remember how to make his mouth form words.
Clint blinked. Focused. He looked hard at Phil, then let his eyes track slowly around the room. Finally, he swallowed again, and said in a thin, broken whisper, “Is that coffee?”
Clint slept on and off for the next day and a half. Every time he woke up, Coulson was there, checking his I.V. or spooning soup into his mouth or just sitting, like he was afraid to move in case Clint needed him.
Once, Clint woke suddenly to darkness with Coulson nowhere in sight. Disoriented, he cried out in a panic, and nearly jumped out of his skin when Coulson sat up from where he’d been sleeping on the floor.
“What? What is it? What’s wrong?” His voice was low and raw, nothing like Clint remembered, nothing like the cool agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. giving him orders over the comm.
Clint didn’t trust his own voice and shook his head, but Coulson was already up and moving.
“What’s wrong? Do you need anything?”
It was strange to hear to hear that attentiveness and worry and know that it was meant for him. He was too tired to try and make sense of it.
“I’m fine.” Talking still hurt. Everything else was kind of distant. “Just... go back to sleep.”
Coulson put a hand out as if to check Clint’s pulse or his temperature or even just to touch him, but he stopped. “What do you need?”
I need to be whole. I need to be useful. I need you to stop looking at me like that. “Maybe some water?”
Instantly, the cool rim of a glass was pressed to his mouth, and he drank gratefully. There was a chip in the glass that caught at his lip, and the water was warm and stale. The room smelled damp. Whatever he was lying on was hard and narrow, and it creaked as Coulson levered himself up to sit beside Clint.
Clint swallowed wrong and coughed, and Coulson pulled the glass away and put a soothing hand on Clint’s chest. “Easy. Breathe. It’s okay.”
Something unfamiliar crawled through Clint’s skin, a strange delirium that had nothing to do with pain and painkillers and everything to do with Coulson’s hand, palm and fingers laid warm over his heart. He would have pushed it away, would have resisted, but the coughing left him dizzy and aching. He let his eyes fall closed and dropped back to sleep, all his nerves rough and jagged but for the steady pressure on his chest.
After that, he slept without waking.
He dreamed of mud and water and blood and a taste in his mouth like sunshine, of hands and fists and arrows flying, of the ground swallowing him whole and spitting him out in disgust all chewed up.
Clint breathed in the smell of something cooking, and his stomach growled a reply to the hissing of grease in a pan. He opened his eyes. Strange room, cracked ceiling, rough blanket, a lingering, dull throb in his head, and Coulson sitting on the floor beside the cot, watching him with clear eyes.
“Morning,” Clint grumbled around an unexpected knot in his throat.
“Evening,” Coulson corrected. “How do you feel?”
His stomach made another insistent sound. “Starving. And really sore.”
Coulson smiled, broad and genuine. “I think we can do something about that.”
He climbed to his feet and crossed the room, out of Clint’s vision, saying something in Spanish, and Clint tensed. He hadn’t realized someone else was in the room, but the answering voice was light and friendly. Not a threat. Still, Clint didn’t relax until Coulson came back into his line of sight, carrying a bowl of food.
It was mostly rice and beans, but it could have been water for all Clint tasted it. The bowl was empty in seconds, and he looked up to find Coulson watching him with a faint smile. If Clint’s chest tightened, it was only because he’d eaten too fast.
“Glad to see your appetite’s back.”
“With a vengeance.” Clint scraped up the last few grains of rice and shoveled them into his mouth. “How long was I out?”
The smile vanished from Coulson’s face, leaving ashen weariness in its wake. “Most of two days,” Coulson said quietly. “I thought.... Well, it was close. It was very close.”
Clint remembered the Jeep skidding, rolling, the pressure of Coulson’s hand on his heart. The memory made his stomach turn, threatening to send his food back the way it had come. So much for his appetite.
“Guess I’m gonna make it, then,” he said.
Coulson hummed. “You’d better, after all the trouble I’ve gone to.”
Clint’s brain was still foggy with sleep and painkillers, but it was starting to catch up. They’d been a ways from civilization when the Jeep crashed, and Coulson would never have been stupid enough to flag down another vehicle, even if one had passed. Yet here they were, in someone’s home, and Clint had clearly gotten some kind of real medical treatment.
“Did you...?” He couldn’t have. No way. It was too far, and it certainly wasn’t worth it. “I mean, you didn’t.... How did we get here?”
Coulson ducked his head, and Clint could see the dark circles and the red flush, like he was too tired to pretend not to be embarrassed. “I, uh, carried you.”
He hadn’t meant to say it out loud, he really hadn’t, but Coulson snapped his eyes up to Clint’s the same way he drew his gun, fast and precise.
“Why,” he repeated, his voice flat and his expression cold.
“I didn’t mean.... It’s just that....” Under Coulson’s skewering gaze, Clint felt like a child caught in a lie. He hunched his shoulders and thought about Coulson, exhausted and bloodied, carrying him through the rain. The image made him sick again. “Never mind. That’s not what I meant.”
Coulson’s mouth twitched like he had something very particular to say to that, but he stayed silent, staring at Clint with an unreadable expression. Finally, he made that awful fucking hum and looked away. After a long moment, he stood again and came back with a glass of water and two pills in his hand, offering them wordlessly to Clint.
Clint took the water and waved off the pills. “I’m fine. It doesn’t hurt that much, anymore.”
“It’s antibiotics. So you don’t die of an infection, in case your stupidity fails to kill you,” Coulson snapped. Clint looked up at the unexpected sharpness in Coulson’s voice and was met with a hard glare. He tried to stare back, but the effort of focusing made his head ache.
He took the pills and chased them with a gulp of water. When he glanced back, some of the edge had gone out of Coulson’s eyes and left him looking worn thin and bitter.
“You should try to get some more sleep,” he said. “We’re safe for now, but we’ll have to get moving before long.”
Clint felt more or less like he’d been stripped to the bone and dragged through the dirt for a few days, but he’d slept long enough. “I’m good. Why don’t you fill me in on where we are and how the hell we got here.”
Coulson regarded him with a strange wariness, like he was suddenly unsure of how to approach Clint, but he shook his head and sat gingerly on the edge of the creaking cot. Through the thin blanket, Clint could feel the curve of Coulson’s hip pressed against his leg.
“We’re on the second floor of a housing block outside Quibdo.” Coulson gestured toward someone Clint couldn’t see. “The family who lives here have been very... gracious.”
Clint snorted. “They want us to leave, don’t they?”
“As quickly and quietly as possible.”
“That’s fair.” Clint lifted his head, trying to sit up, but the movement set his vision spinning and he thought better of it. “I remember the Jeep crashing,” he said. “After that, not so much.”
“After that, you were unconscious,” Coulson told him. “You were.... I don’t know how we got out, but I came to on the slope and you were... in bad shape.” His voice faded out, like it was hard for him to say, and Clint really didn’t know what to make of that.
“Guess I’m pretty lucky, then.” Clint tried to grin, but it felt like a grimace.
Coulson looked at him, serious and pale. “I thought you were dead,” he said. “I thought I was carrying a corpse on my back.”
He spoke with a genuine grief that caught Clint like a punch in the gut. It had been a very long time since Clint had entertained the illusion that anyone might mourn his death, that anyone would be there to bury him besides the unfortunate undertaker of whatever municipality his body happened to turn up in. But Coulson, who wore his suits like armor and hummed like he knew everything, would have grieved for him, might even have cried for him, would have collected his tags and seen that he was buried with dignity. There would have been no marker, but Coulson would have remembered, would have come back for him one day.
Clint shut his eyes, suddenly dizzy.
“Barton? Clint, are you okay?”
Coulson wasn’t going to leave him. Even if Clint died here at his side, Coulson would come back for him and find him in the cold ground.
Nausea rolled up through his throat.
“I’m fine. I just.... I don’t... f-”
He was able to turn his head enough to avoid vomiting on the cot or on himself, but most of the mush that had recently been rice and beans wound up on the floor and, to his undying horror, on Coulson’s bare feet.
“Oh fuck,” he gasped, throat stinging with bile. “Oh fuck, Coulson, I’m sorry.”
Coulson’s hand was on his shoulder, rubbing gently, soothing. “Don’t. It’s okay. You’re okay.” He said something in Spanish, and then he was wiping Clint’s mouth with a damp cloth. “You should rest,” he said, so soft and kind that it made Clint’s whole being ache.
“Don’t need t-”
“You just threw up on my feet, Barton,” Coulson chided, and Clint could hear the worry and the humor and something else. “Go back to sleep. We can talk later.”
Later. Later was always fine until later never came. He fell asleep again with the warmth of Coulson’s hip against his leg, and he dreamed of falling.
Phil slept on the floor. He would get up to address basic necessities and to check and clean the deep cuts in his shoulder, but otherwise he spent every moment, waking or sleeping, at Clint’s side. The Valentes family, whose home they’d invaded, looked at him askance, but no one did anything more than bring him a blanket to lie on and offer him food. They did not ask him questions or speak to him more than they had to. The children regarded him with fearful curiosity, and the adults watched him with suspicion.
None of them would look at Clint for very long.
Phil looked up, startled. The skinny girl who did the cooking was standing close by, giving him a guarded stare.
Who is he?, she’d asked.
“He’s....” No one. That was the answer S.H.I.E.L.D. agents were meant to give, but he couldn’t bring himself to say that Clint was no one, not now. “I can’t tell you that.”
“Si. Sé que,” the girl said, shifting nervously. “You’re criminals or secret agents or something. I can see that. I mean who is he to you?”
He didn’t think about the smell of Clint’s skin, of sweat beading at his hairline, or how desperately he needed to hear that bright laugh. “We work together.”
To his surprise, she nodded. “Oh. So it’s like that.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, he’s obviously somebody. He can’t be your son, and you don’t look like brothers,” she said, matter-of-factly. “So he’s something else, but you work together, so maybe it’s not how you want it to be.”
Phil blinked and looked from the girl to Clint. Which was a mistake, of course, because she was right, and he knew she was right. Clint was sleeping easier than he had since his nap in the helicopter three days and a lifetime ago, and the clear lines of his face punched through to Phil’s heart like arrows. He looked away and replied in the mildest voice he could muster, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The girl rolled her eyes, but she didn’t press the issue, just turned back to her work, muttering something about stupid boys. Phil, for his part, felt like stupid boy was a fairly accurate assessment.
Now that the tension had lessened and the threat of Clint’s impending death was rather less impending, he felt foolish and weary. He wouldn’t lie to himself and claim that his actions had been driven purely out of professional loyalty, that he would have done the same for any other agent. Dedication to the job would not make a man carry someone who outweighed him - and who was probably already dead - down a mountain road in the pouring rain and knock down the doors of strangers seeking help. It was not camaraderie that stopped his breath every time Clint gasped in pain, or responsibility that twisted in his gut at the sight of that raw, red wound.
It was something else entirely, and Phil, for all his will to put things from his mind, could not escape that fact.
Clint made a soft sound and shifted, grimacing even in his sleep. The urge to put a soothing hand on his head was so overwhelming, Phil knotted his fingers together to keep from reaching out.
No, this was definitely something else.
Clint woke again that night, after the family had gone to bed, and Phil was sitting wide awake, staring into the dark.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were a robot,” Clint said, voice gravelled with disuse.
The shrug was faint, but Phil could see it despite the dark, could fill it in from memory. “You hardly sleep. You never freak out or get mad or, y’know, show emotion. The only human thing I’ve seen you do is laugh.”
Phil had to smile at that. “Oh, I’m definitely human,” he said, and something in his tone must have given him away, because Clint was quiet for a long moment.
Finally, Clint asked, unexpectedly, “How’d you wind up with S.H.I.E.L.D.?”
In spite of myself, Phil thought, but that was the glib answer, the Agent Coulson answer. He was too tired and his heart was too sore to be glib, not with Clint. “My father was head of investigations for twenty years. S.H.I.E.L.D.’s had a file on me since I was seven.”
Clint blinked. “That’s a hell of a job to get tracked into.”
“It wasn’t exactly a straight track.” He remembered a lot of shouting, some door-slamming, and just a little bit of smugness. “I went military. Rangers. S.H.I.E.L.D. picked me up from there.”
“Because or in spite of your old man?” Clint asked, and he really was a lot sharper than anyone gave him credit for.
“Six of one, to tell you the truth,” Phil replied. “He wanted me to be a lawyer. My other dad wanted me to be a teacher. I wanted to be Captain America.” He gave Clint a rueful smile. “I had a complicated childhood.”
“Sounds like.” Clint took a moment to chew on that, then said, “Hard to picture you in fatigues.”
“I made it work.”
Even in the dark, he could see Clint’s leer. “I bet you did. Designer dog tags, right?”
“Dior. Custom made.”
“Fancy,” Clint said with a whistle. “So your dads weren’t too happy with the army?”
That was where most of the shouting and door-slamming had happened. “They thought there were better ways to change the world than with a gun,” he said. “They were right, of course, but I was young and stupid and hell-bent on being a hero.”
A muscle in Clint’s face twitched, just a flicker, and Phil knew enough to know that he understood. “Bet you were a good fucking Ranger, though.”
“I did alright.” He’d been the best, to be honest, but he took that as fact and not a matter of pride. “I got tapped for a joint op with a S.H.I.E.L.D. asset, presumably because I’d already signed the non-disclosure forms. The director paid me a visit a week later.”
“And your dads?”
“Dad wasn’t exactly pleased, but he thought it was better than the army. Pop said that getting shot at in a suit was still getting shot at.”
There was a shift in the shadows that he knew was Clint grinning, and it startled him how quickly and how completely he had become familiar with that face. “Got a point, there.”
“I suppose he did.” As much to push past the things he wasn’t thinking about as to carry the conversation, he said, “Since we’re telling stories, I believe you still owe me one.”
Clint huffed out a laugh, and for once it wasn’t followed by a hiss of pain. “How about this. I’ll tell you how I set Park on fire over that steak and lobster dinner you promised me.”
“It’s a date,” Phil agreed and cringed inwardly at his choice of words. If Clint noticed, he gave no sign. “In the meantime, do you mind if I ask why?”
“Why did you set Agent Park on fire?”
There was another shrug, sharper and more measured. “He was talking shit. I didn’t like it.”
“About a lot of people.” Clint’s tone was light, but Phil could hear the omission, the lie wedged in between the words.
“What was he saying?”
He couldn’t actually see Clint’s eyes narrow, but he felt it, felt the sharpening in that blue gaze. “Does it matter?”
“It does to me.”
“Why? There aren’t any regs against being an asshole.”
“If there were, there would be a lot of agents on notice.”
Clint snorted. “That’s a fact.”
Phil tried to stare through the shadows and thought about disciplinary reports. According to his C.O., Clint was insubordinate, unruly, and prone to picking fights. What the fights were about, no one seemed to know. “Clint, what did he say?”
“He was just talking shit, okay?” Clint snapped. “He and some of the guys were talking about some of the higher-ups, saying... well, the kind of crap you’d expect. I told them to cut it out, so Park called me a fag and started laying into me.”
Phil frowned. “You could have reported him.”
“And said what? That he called me names and hurt my fucking feelings?” Clint scoffed and shifted on the creaking cot.
“There may not be regs against being an asshole,” Phil said, “but there are against disrespecting senior agents.”
“Yeah? Then you should’ve heard what they said about you.”
Phil laughed, and even in the dark he could see the surprise on Clint’s face. “I can’t imagine it was anything I haven’t heard before.”
“You mean th-”
“‘Faggot’ was always pretty high on the list. ‘Creepy’ and ‘boring’ are good stand-bys. A personal favorite was ‘the goddamn suit to end all suits’, though I always took that as a compliment.” He looked at Clint. “Does that about cover it, or have they gotten more creative?”
Clint scowled, and Phil didn’t know if that rage was directed at the people who’d said those things or at him for laughing it off. “You just let them talk? You don’t care that they don’t respect you?”
“When I need them to respect me, they will,” he said, but Clint’s frown didn’t ease. “Clint, I was a skinny, gawky kid with two dads who grew up to be a short, unremarkable man. I was happy when I learned karate in seventh grade and stopped getting beaten up.”
The shadows on Clint’s face shifted, but Phil couldn’t quite read his expression. After a long moment, he asked. “What’s your first name?”
“Your first name,” Clint repeated. “I asked, but nobody knew. Nobody seemed to know anything about you, at least anything that wasn’t classified.”
“That would be most things,” Phil admitted. “Why were you asking about me?”
“I don’t know, you just seemed... different. From the other agents. I was curious.”
Phil thought about the first time he’d seen Clint, brash and handsome, wearing a swagger like armor and a smirk like a dare, and remembered sighing to himself and thinking Well, there goes another one. It seemed impossible, now, that he had been so stupid and short-sighted, while Clint, apparently, had picked him so easily out of the crowd.
“You know,” he said mildly, “I put a lot of effort into not being noticed.”
“In that case, you should wear cheaper suits.”
Clint laughed and gave him a bright grin through the dark. “So, come one. You’ve quit with the Agent Barton crap. You can at least tell me what it is.”
The simple truth was that most of the other agents didn’t know his first name because they never bothered - or were afraid - to ask. Even so, this felt like a line, some kind of arbitrary boundary that Clint leapt over just as blithely as he jumped off buildings.
“It’s Phillip. Phil.”
“You’re kidding. Phil?”
“Is that a problem?” It was a terrible name. He knew it was a terrible name, but he had never been more aware of that fact than he was at this moment, hearing that one awful syllable come spilling from the mouth of Clint Barton.
“No, no. I like it. It’s.... I don’t know. It’s strong. Simple.” Clint paused, and Phil was suddenly glad of the dark. “I mean, not that.... Not that you care if I like it, I just.... I do. Like it, I mean. It’s a good name. It suits you.”
To hear Clint stammering, his crisp banter interrupted over nothing but Phil’s name, was beyond strange. Phil was definitely glad of the dark and now desperate for a change of subject. He cleared his throat. “How are you feeling?”
The lines of Clint’s silhouette relaxed. “Better. Just about human.”
“Well, that’s a stretch,” Phil deadpanned, and Clint snorted. “I don’t want to stay longer than we have to. We’re safe for now, but we’ll have to move as soon as you’re ready.”
“Well then let’s go,” Clint said, and Phil was torn between smiling fondly and smacking him in the head.
“Not just yet. It’s been a rough few days, and we could both use the rest.”
Clint shook his head. “I’m good to go, boss. You said it, we can’t stick around.” He moved like he was ready to leave then and there, and Phil put a hand on his arm.
“No, we can’t, but I can’t walk another two miles with you bleeding to death on my back, either.” Phil wasn’t thinking about cold skin and open wounds and the wretched, wrenching emptiness in his bones at the sight of Clint’s chest not moving. “Please don’t make me restrain you.”
Clint huffed, but he laid back. “Again with the restraints. If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were coming on to me, sir.”
Then it’s a good thing you don’t know better. “As a senior agent, any sexual advancement on my part would constitute harassment, and could potentially be considered coercion or assault, depending on the circumstances. For me to make any such advancement, even as a joke, would be unprofessional and inappropriate.” He wasn’t thinking about warm skin under his fingers and sharp eyes watching him in the dark. “Suffice to say, Agent Barton, your honor is safe with me.”
“Seriously?” Clint snorted and tilted his head so that he was looking squarely at Phil, his gaze bright and level through the deep shadows. “You’ve stitched me up, what? Three times now? You touch me every chance you get, you call me by my name, you carried me down the side of a fucking mountain. And now you’re gonna cite regulations at me? Bullshit.”
Of course, this would be the one time in Phil’s life that anyone called his bluff, and there was nothing he could do but hold to it. “I did what was necessary, nothing more.”
For subsequent operations, I request not to be assigned as Agent Barton’s handler or commanding officer. Though I have the utmost faith in his abilities and nothing but admiration for Agent Barton himself, I believe that collaborative field missions would exacerbate a conflict of interest and would therefore be unwise.
Whatever Clint’s personal opinion might have been, regulations did not exist for the sole purpose of being a nuisance. Phil didn’t entertain the delusion that whatever attraction he felt might be reciprocated in kind, and he refused to place Clint in a compromising situation, personal or professional.
“I’m not entirely sure what you’re suggesting,” he said evenly, “but I don’t think I appreciate it.”
“I’m suggesting bullshit.”
“No.” Clint’s strong fingers wrapped around his wrist, and Phil didn’t think about hands and skin and bright blue eyes. “You broke the rules coming back for me. You’ve been breaking them every minute we’ve been here, so you don’t get to throw regulations in my face just because I’m making you uncomfortable.”
“You’re not....” Phil made his voice even, his face empty of all the things in his head. “You’re not making me uncomfortable. I’m only saying that it would be inappropriate and unethical for me t-”
“But you want to.”
Phil’s mouth went completely dry. His blood turned to ash in his veins. His whole being became a blasted wasteland that threatened to crumble into dust if Clint so much as tightened his grip. “That’s not-”
“I get that you can’t,” Clint said, holding him fast with his sharp gaze. “I get the rules and whatever, just... don’t quote me the fucking employee manual instead of just saying you’re not interested. Contrary to popular belief, I’m not actually stupid.”
“No,” Phil agreed. “No, I’d say you’re definitely too smart for anybody’s good.” That earned him a grin, fierce and glinting. “And you’re correct in observing that some of my actions have been... a bit above and beyond.”
“Oh, just a bit.”
“But. Whatever personal feelings may or may not have motivated those actions are irrelevant. I acted as an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., and the consequences will be based on what I did, not why.”
“What you did was save my life. A few times over,” Clint said. “And the S.H.I.E.L.D. brass might not be interested in the ‘why’, but I am.”
Clint scowled, and the shadows made him look frightening. “It’s relevant to me.”
Maybe it wasn’t such a terrible name, to hear it said like that, with all Clint’s defiance making it burn. There were a dozen things he could have said, rules he could have cited, precedents and experience that put this entire conversation in the Bad Idea category, but every one of them died on his tongue. Clint deserved better than empty excuses, so Phil simply said, “I can’t.”
Clint’s eyes shone in the dark, scalpels slicing through every defense Phil had ever had. “But you want to.”
It begged an answer, just one syllable to account for actions that he could barely explain to himself. It had to be one word or the other, and either would be a betrayal. Phil was adept at uncovering, unraveling, and using the truth, but it took everything he had, at that moment, to open his mouth and lie.
Three full seconds ticked by. He could feel them, measure them by the increments in which the ice crawled and cracked across his heart. If it spread any further, he was sure his whole chest would shatter.
Then Clint grinned, broad and wicked, like a cold beacon, and let go of Phil’s wrist. “Well then. Worth a shot, anyway.” His tone was so easy, it made Phil’s head ache. “Don’t worry, sir. Your honor’s safe with me.”
Whatever that frozen exchange had been or meant, there was no honor in it, and they both knew it. “I’m sorry if I m-”
“Don’t,” Clint cut him off. “Don’t worry about it. Forget it.” He shifted gingerly on the creaking cot and rolled so that Phil could see only a fraction of his face. “You should get some rest, sir. Can’t sit up watching me all night.”
“Right. Of course.” Phil laid back on the hard floor and stared at the cracked ceiling in the dark, trying to convince the cold creeping in his skin that he had said the right thing, given the right answer, and everything would go back to normal tomorrow.
Neither of them slept much that night.
The moment the edge of dawn appeared through the dirty window, Phil got up and prepared to leave as silently as he could. He caught Clint watching him, utterly still in the thin light.
“I’m going back out to the Jeep,” he said. “See if I can salvage some of our gear.”
Clint frowned. “You sure that’s a good idea?”
“Probably not,” Phil admitted, “but we might need something to trade,at least, and I don’t want to be out in the open unarmed.”
“Yeah, but still...” Clint started, but he cut off when Phil looked at him. “Sure. You’re right.”
The ice in Phil’s chest had become a thin vein, and it splintered at the sight of Clint’s closed-off expression. “I’ll be back in a few hours.”
“I’ll be here.” As Phil turned to go, Clint added, “Those cartel guys could still be on our tail. So be careful.”
He gave what he hoped was a reassuring smile and didn’t think about Clint’s blue eyes, wide and bright in the dark. “Don’t worry about me.”
The hike up the mountain highway was infinitely easier than the walk down had been. The absence of pouring rain, a fresh concussion, and two hundred pounds of unconscious archer on his back probably had something to do with that. All the same, between his recovering injuries and the lingering effects of exhaustion, Phil was winded and dizzy by the time he approached the crash site. His shoulder and head throbbed in unison, and his dry throat ached.
The Jeep was still sitting on its side, lodged against an outcropping of rock. After a bit of controlled skidding, he was able to fish out Clint’s gear from inside the cab, but little else. The supplies that had been stored in the cargo rack were scattered across the slope, and Phil gave them up as a lost cause. They’d have weapons, at least, as well as the rations and first aid that Clint apparently carried with him at all times.
Phil didn’t think about the kind of life that would lead someone to carry their entire existence on their back.
He slung the bag across his shoulders, careful of the lacerations from the glass, and started the climb back to the road. He only had to stop and rest twice.
Just within sight of the apartment block, he stopped behind a mound of rocks and opened the bag, feeling around the inside lining. Clint had listed the contents, but Phil had a hunch he’d left a few things out. His fingers brushed a thin corner, out of place on the smooth surface, and he smiled sadly. Pulling out the knife tucked safely in a pocket, he tore open the lining to reveal a bundle of official papers and bills in various languages and currencies.
Clint didn’t just carry his life with him, he carried the makings of a new one, if necessary. The part of Phil that was pragmatic to the bone, the Agent Coulson part, was impressed and pleased. The part of him that wasn’t thinking about the lines of pain around Clint’s mouth and the taste of the word no like bile on his tongue, that part hated every minute of this.
He took out a few appropriate bills before wedging the bag out of sight among the stones. As an afterthought, he picked up a small rock and scratched a crude arrow onto the surface of one. Just in case.
Content that what little they had was secure, he struck out for the edge of the city, eyes out for any business that looked like it might have a phone. His found one in a small, dirty bar that was mostly - but not quite - deserted at this time of morning. The bartender didn’t look up at his request, just pointed silently to an ancient rotary phone hanging on the far wall.
The number Phil dialed was one every S.H.I.E.L.D. agent was told to memorize in their first week of training. After three rings, a voicemail message clicked on.
”You’ve reached Steve’s All American Delicatessen and Catering Service. Sorry we can’t take your call. Please leave a message, and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible. Thanks, and have a star-spangled day!”
There was a single tone, then Phil said into the receiver, “Yeah, hi, this is Simon House. I’ve got a little problem with an order I placed. Receipt number twenty-two zero nine six one nine. If you could give me a call back, I’d really appreciate it. Thanks.”
He hung up and went to the bar to order a drink. In two minutes, the phone would ring, and, hopefully, there would be a familiar voice on the other end.
After one minute and thirteen seconds, four large, scowling men strode into the bar carrying large, imposing guns. All of those guns were immediately trained on Phil.
Phil’s heart thudded in his chest, but he kept his face blank. “Is there a problem, gentlemen?”
“Hands on your head. You’re coming with us,” one of them commanded.
“Well, since you asked so nicely.” Phil sipped at his drink and stood, hands raised, and walked slowly toward them.
Under normal circumstances, he could have taken down all four of them without breaking a sweat. Injured and wrung out as he was, the odds weren’t so good. Logic, training, and survival dictated that he surrender peacefully and see how things played out, gather intel and wait for his window.
But surrendering meant leaving Clint behind, and that one, small detail sent logic, training, and survival sailing neatly out the window.
When the four men were all within arm’s reach, Phil grabbed the long barrel of the nearest gun and wrenched it from its wielder’s hands, immediately sending the butt of it back into the man’s face, breaking his nose.
Still gripping the barrel, Phil swung the gun into the next man’s arm just as he was firing, sending the spray of bullets into one of his companions.
Phil stepped inside the man’s reach and delivered a hard kick to his knee, followed by a blow to the side of his head with the butt of the gun.
He flipped the gun around in his hands and brought it up to fire at the last man, but he wasn’t fast enough. The man’s fist connected with his face, and stars flashed across Phil’s vision. He retreated, shaking his head.
Losing this fight was not an option. Clint was counting on him to come back.
The man swung again and Phil ducked. He got one good punch to the man’s gut before an elbow smashed into his head.
He reeled, blinking, spitting blood.
He thought about red blood on Clint’s pale skin. Blue eyes and a bright smile. He had to get back. He’d promised.
Something heavy, something he didn’t see, collided with his skull, and the last thing he heard was the shrill, distant ringing of the phone on the wall.
This chapter contains brief but graphic descriptions of torture and mutilation, including forced self-cannibalization. You can skim over these bits but be warned that they're there.
Clint wasn’t worried. He wasn’t.
Coulson could take care of himself. He didn’t need Clint to fuss after him, and he obviously didn’t particularly want Clint around, either.
Coulson didn’t want him. Didn’t mean he didn’t care, he just didn’t want. Which was really just fucking fine with Clint. It kept things simple. They could work together, look out for each other, and not fuck it up with... anything else.
It was after ten in the morning, just over five hours since Coulson had left, but Clint wasn’t worried.
Gingerly, he levered himself up on the cot, feeling the pinch and pull in his skin and muscles. It still hurt, but the blinding agony had gone. He felt tired, but not so weak and caged. Slowly, his body was beginning to feel like his own, again.
The family that lived in the apartment went about their morning routines, studiously ignoring him. A skinny girl with sharp eyes brought him food and water and occasionally cast thoughtful glances in his direction. He tried making conversation, but his abysmal Spanish and the limited English of his company didn’t quite meet in the middle.
The noon hour came and went, and where the hell was Coulson?
Clint paced around the apartment, heedless of the fact that he was in someone else’s home. He’d been stuck in that bed for days, and he was going crazy. The family watched him warily from the corners of their eyes and murmured things he couldn’t translate but understood perfectly well.
Fuck them. Not that he wasn’t grateful for their hospitality, however much duress they might have been under, but it was time to go.
Exhausted and tense, he napped.
Now, he was worried.
The second five o’clock hit and Coulson had been gone for more-or-less twelve hours, Clint strapped on his boots, gave a nod and what he hoped was a coherent explanation to the family, and left.
He was almost out of sight of the building, headed back up the mountain, before it occurred to him that this might be a pointless exercise. He’d told Coulson to leave him behind, after all. Maybe Clint’s clumsy advances had finally given him the push he needed to wise up. He’d send back help, Clint was sure of that, but if he was gone and safe, that was all that mattered.
If Clint ached and had to fight a little harder to breathe, it was just because of a twinge in his side.
He was starting to turn back toward the apartment block when he saw the arrow.
It was just a faint mark on the stone, simple and rudimentary, with straight, sure lines. Most people wouldn’t have noticed it, but Clint had built his life on seeing things that everyone else missed. It didn’t take him long to find the bag hidden among the rocks and to spot the thin tear in the lining.
“Goddammit, Coulson,” he muttered. “What did you do?”
At least that meant Coulson had made it back from the crash site and wasn’t, in fact, dead in a ditch. Clint wasn’t a tracker by any means, but he didn’t have much trouble spotting the footprints in the muddy ground. Taking his gear, he followed the prints back up to the rutted highway.
So Coulson had either taken the money and bolted, which didn’t seem likely, or he’d gone into the city with a purpose and had been delayed. Clint figured anything that could delay Phil Coulson, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., even on an off day, was probably bad news.
As soon as he spotted the bar, he knew that would be where Coulson had gone. It was one of the few cliches that the action movies got right. People in bars knew things, and people in bars talked. The shittier the bar, the more they knew and the more they talked.
It was early yet, but a number of patrons were clustered inside, talking excitedly. Clint weighed his options. His first impulse was to pull out his gun and start yelling until somebody told him something, but he was pretty sure that would just get him shot. The gun was jammed with mud, anyway. Instead, he sidled up to the bar, ignoring the curious looks cast both at him and the bag slung over his shoulder.
He ordered a beer, mostly because the only alcohol-related words he knew in Spanish were cerveza and tequila, and he would not, under any circumstances, willingly drink tequila. The beer, at least, was thin enough that it really just tasted like rancid water. He took a pull on the bottle and surveyed the bar.
He didn’t know when Coulson had come in, so there was no way to tell if any of the patrons had been around long enough to see anything. No one looked jumpy or suspicious, and nobody seemed to be telling any especially interesting or violent stories. As far as he could tell, it was just an ordinary night at the local watering hole.
The thing about dirty bars, though - and Clint, in his life, had spent a bit of time in dirty bars - was that the rare clean spots stuck out like sports cars at the trailer park, and the only things that ever got cleaned up were food, piss, and blood.
This particular dirty bar had one big clean spot in the middle of the floor.
He waved the bartender over and asked, “Ingles?” The man shrugged vaguely, and Clint decided to press his luck in English. “I’m looking for someone. A man. He was here earlier.”
The bartender shrugged again and nodded at the room. “Many men. Hard to know.”
“This one you’d remember,” Clint replied with a grin that told the man exactly what he meant.
He muttered something in Spanish that Clint couldn’t catch, then said, “This man. Your friend?”
“Maybe I remember” he said, shrugged again. “Many men. Hard to know.”
Clint sighed. He didn’t want to start anything, but, if Coulson was in trouble, he didn’t have time to play nice with this guy.
He swung the gear bag off of his shoulder and into his lap, talking as he pulled open the zipper. “I don’t have any money,” he told the bartender. “Understand? No deniro. No bribe.” Slowly, deliberately, he pulled the gun from his bag and laid it on the bar, angled toward the wall, and rested his hand lightly on top of it. “Now you’re going to tell me exactly what happened.”
The man looked from the gun to Clint, and Clint just smiled back at him.
“Mierda. White man, yes? Very serious? He come in. Call telephone. Then others. Pandilleros. They take him.” He gave Clint a searching look, and added, “Your friend. He fight. Kill one. I do not see such fighting. Very fast. Very dangerous.”
Clint’s smile widened, and his heart beat harder. “Did they.... Was he hurt?”
The bartender shook his head. “They hit him. Knock him down. Not hurt much.”
“Good.” For their sake. “Any idea where they took him?”
After that, the man was little help. He was just a guy who worked in a bar. What did he know about criminal cartels and government agents? Clint thanked him for the intel and the beer and went on his way without incident.
This city showed the same signs of urban warfare as the one they’d left, and the damage got worse as Clint moved closer to the city center. Clusters of riot troops cropped up on corners near blasted store fronts and gaping holes that had once been buildings. There were enough people on the streets that Clint could become invisible, but not nearly as many as there should have been, not in a city this size. The soldiers wore the expression of wary smugness always borne by men who have been on the right side of a regime change. There’d been a coup, alright, and it didn’t look like the good guys had won.
Deeper into the city, the troops got thicker and the civilians thinned out, and Clint had to work harder not to be noticed. The sun was going down and an oppressive twilight heat settled on the streets. The few citizens still about walked more quickly as the sky darkened. Curfew, probably.
Clint’s side burned, and his head ached, desperate for water and rest. He couldn’t stop, though, not now, not yet. Night was when criminal elements and corrupt governments did the things that needed to be done. Night was when they dealt with dissidents and spies.
He stole a bottle of water from a street vendor and pressed on, keeping to the shadows and ducking out of sight at the sound of every footstep and engine. He wanted to climb to the rooftops, to vault over the city instead of snaking through it, but he couldn’t afford to reopen his wound jumping between buildings, not without Coulson there to put him back together.
Clint stepped a little faster.
The night drew on, punctuated at long intervals by the sounds of gunfire, dense volleys on distant streets and single, echoing shots that sounded far too close for Clint’s comfort. It was past midnight, the witching hour wrapped close around him, when he heard the familiar cacophony of someone being taken someplace they didn’t want to go.
Hugging the wall, he crept toward the noise with his heart pounding in his throat. Every inch of him wanted to rush in, bow drawn, and rain hell on these sons of bitches, but that would be a quick way to get himself killed and wouldn’t do Coulson any good. Carefully, he edged close to the corner and peered around, praying.
There were five soldiers that he could see. Easy enough. He could take down two with one shot and have the other three on the ground before they knew what was happening. Two of them were wrestling down a struggling figure.
It wasn’t Coulson.
It was a woman, tall and wiry, and she was kicking and flailing for all she was worth, her shouts muffled by the black bag shrouding her head. Her clothing was torn and bloodied, and it looked like she’d landed a few good hits on her attackers before they got a hold of her. One of them was standing to the side, cupping a bloody nose.
Clint’s fingers curled, itching for the feel of an arrow between them, but he held, waiting. The kind of prisoners who got black bags over their heads generally went someplace particular, and he was willing to bet that was where Coulson would be.
After a lot more kicking and what looked like some biting, the soldiers managed to secure the woman’s hands and feet and tossed her into the back of a covered truck. One of the men called out to another, who laughed, and, even with his limited Spanish, Clint could tell it was something filthy. The man with the bloody nose mumbled something, and the other two laughed again before a fourth man cut them off with a sharp command. Clint strained to listen, fighting to catch any words that sounded the least bit familiar.
They were transporting prisoners, that much he could tell, and it sounded like they were moving quite a few. He heard morning and guards, which was good news and bad news. There was another word, too, that kept being repeated and tugged at his memory, but he couldn’t get a handle on it.
The truck started moving, and Clint followed, sprinting through the shadows as it rolled along the deserted streets. His muscles burned, but he kept moving, kept pushing. If he lost that truck, then he lost Coulson, and he couldn’t. His head ached, and bile rose in the back of his mouth.
The truck pulled further away, and Clint ran faster. His side throbbed, but he kept running. He couldn’t lose Coulson. He couldn’t. Not now.
He could feel himself slowing, his whole body numb with exhaustion, but he had to follow, had to find out where they were going. He had to find Coulson.
The truck turned a corner. Clint poured his rage into racing those last few blocks, but, by the time he made it, the truck was out of sight.
If his heart hadn’t been beating hard enough to burst through his chest, he would have thought it was gone, torn out of him and left somewhere behind on the darkened streets. He leaned against the wall inside a doorway, panting, trying to slow his pulse, to stop his shaking, to think.
Even if he found where they were keeping Coulson, he couldn’t fight his way in, not like this, not with his body threatening to fall apart at any moment. He was wounded, alone, stranded in a hostile city, and Coulson was going to disappear into a deep dungeon or a shallow grave if he couldn’t get his shit together and do something.
First things first. He was exposed, here on the street, so he slowly and carefully scaled the fire escape of a nearby apartment building and tucked himself into a dark, sheltered corner of the roof. He rested his head on his knees to settle the spinning behind his eyes and put a hand to his side to make sure he hadn’t started bleeding out again, because that would just fucking figure.
The need to sleep, to rest, was a tangible thing, close enough to touch, and part of him wanted nothing more than to fold himself into it and be done with this whole nightmare. But he could still feel Coulson’s hand on his chest, palm and fingers over his heart, steady and reassuring, and he could not let that go.
Clint remembered three things from his first day at S.H.I.E.L.D., two that he had been given and one he had taken for himself. First, they gave him an I.D. code, letters and numbers to stand in the place of his own name. Second, they gave him a phone number and instructions for when and how it was to be used. The ‘how’ was, in short, ‘carefully’, and the ‘when’ was ‘as a last resort’.
The third thing he remembered was a brief glance from a man in a suit, small and unassuming, who had looked at Clint and looked away as if he’d seen everything he needed to see. What Clint had taken for himself and hidden away was the inexplicable desire to make the man look back, to show him something that would make his eyes linger.
Bracing himself against the pain and exhaustion, Clint climbed to his feet and went to look for a phone. He wound up stealing an unattended cell from one of the upper-level apartments.
”You’ve reached Steve’s All American Delicatessen and Catering Service. Sorry we can’t take your call. Please leave a message, and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible. Thanks, and have a star-spangled day!”
“Yeah, this is Stuart Horn. My order got pretty seriously fucked up. Receipt eighteen fifteen nine one nine. Call me back.”
Clint wolfed down the MRE in his bag while he waited. Two minutes later, the phone buzzed in his hand, and a voice on the other end demanded, “Authenticate.”
Clint rolled his eyes. “Barton. Romeo omega nine one nine. Clearance level three.”
“Doppelganger response code.” Clearly, the voice wasn’t convinced.
“Duquesne,” Clint snapped. “It’s me, okay? Cut the crap.”
The voice, which Clint was now sure belonged to Director Fury, generously ignored him. “Where the hell is Agent Coulson?”
Clint swallowed hard. “Coulson’s been abducted. I’m tracking him down, but I’m gonna need help getting him out.”
There was a pause, and Clint knew enough to know that hesitation from Nick Fury was never a good thing. “Negative. We’ve got an extraction point set on the east side of the city. Get there, and we’ll get you home.”
“No buts, Agent Barton. That sector is in political chaos. S.H.I.E.L.D. is gonna have to deal with the new leaders, but, for now, it’s too dangerous to send in any more agents. We can get you out, but that’s about it.”
Clint’s heart dropped with dizzying speed. Through clenched teeth, he said, “With respect, sir, that is bullshit. I’m not leaving Agent Coulson.”
“Nice sentiment, Barton, but this isn’t the time,” Fury told him. “Now get your ass to the high-rise at the end of calle twenty-four. We’re scrambling a chopper to ferry you out.”
“No. Hell, no.” Fury couldn’t do this, couldn’t just abandon one of his best agents. This wasn’t happening. “This is bullshit, Fury. I’m not going fucking anywhere without C-”
Suddenly, something clicked in Clint’s brain. The word the soldiers had kept saying, a word he’d heard years ago and never thought to use, finally clicked into place in his memory.
They were transporting the prisoners by train.
“Son of a bitch.”
“The hell did you just say?”
“I said ‘son of a bitch’, sir,” he told Fury. “And also, fuck you.”
He switched off the phone and dropped it, crushing it with the heel of his boot. Telling the director to fuck off probably would have earned him a court martial, but Clint was pretty certain he was going to be dead in the next few hours, anyway. Dead, dying, or disciplined, though, it didn’t matter. All that mattered was finding Coulson and getting him out alive.
A weak dawn was just starting to filter into the edges of the sky, and Clint had a train to catch.
“Philip James Delaware Coulson. Senior field agent. Serial number two five one zero two zero one one four zero.”
They hadn’t even tried asking nicely.
There was no run-up, no negotiation, no threats. They didn’t give him the option to cooperate.
Not that it would have made a difference, but Phil was of the opinion that there ought to be some sense of decorum, even in torture.
He’d woken up stripped to the waist and tied to a chair, not an unfamiliar situation. A bright light shone in his eyes, casting the rest of the space into shadow. There were three men, two military and the cartel thug who had taken him down in the bar, and all three were armed. The moment they saw he was conscious, the two soldiers started hitting him, punching and kicking everywhere they could reach, landing blows on top of blows until it felt like he would dissolve beneath the bruises.
The third man stood in front of him and asked the same questions over and over.
Who are you?
Who do you work for?
“Por qué estás aqui?”
Why are you here?
And the one that made Phil’s blood run cold and his heart beat faster. “Que está con usted?”
Who is with you?
He didn’t think about blue eyes in the dark and skin under his hands and said again, “Philip James Delaware Coulson. Senior field agent. Serial number two five one zero two zero one one f-”
One of the soldiers socked him hard in the jaw and something clicked as a rush of blood washed over his tongue. He spat, and part of a tooth landed in a bubbling splash of red on the floor.
He had failed. The mission was a bust as soon as his contact hit the ground with a bullet in his head, but that couldn’t be helped. He had failed Clint, and that tore him apart.
“Philip James Delaware Coulson.”
If he was lucky, they’d get frustrated and kill him quickly, before they did any real damage or before he gave anything away.
“Senior field agent.”
Phil had never counted much on luck, though, and they would have to strip him of every last inch of flesh and feeling before he gave them anything useful. Before he gave them Clint.
“Serial number two five one zero two zero one one four zero.”
The floor beneath him jerked, and the entire room lurched into motion. They had him in some kind of vehicle, then - a truck, maybe, or a train car - and they were taking him somewhere. He didn’t imagine it would be anywhere pleasant.
“Por qué estás aqui?”
The other soldier grabbed Phil’s shoulder and dug his fingers into the cuts left by the broken glass. Phil swallowed the groan that rose up behind his teeth, along with a mouthful of blood.
“Que está con usted?”
He took a deep breath and had to clench his jaw against another wave of pain. He’d had enough cracked ribs to recognize that ache. He forced himself to breathe out slowly, feeling the blood and saliva run across his lips. Inhale. Exhale.
“Philip James Delaware Coulson.”
The first soldier hit him again.
Jumping onto a moving train was not on Clint’s list of preferred activities at the best of times.
Jumping onto a moving train from above on little food and less sleep with a gash in his side while trying to avoid detection by a large number of heavily armed men was definitely something he hoped never to do again in his life.
He perched at the edge of the station roof, watching the boxcars pass slowly below. He really hoped he had the right train, because this was going to hurt. A lot.
Vaulting out from the roof, he hit the top of one car with a bone-shaking jolt and proceeded to hold on for dear life, clinging to the rusted edge as he struggled to breathe through the pain and vertigo.
Assuming this was the right train, and assuming Coulson was here and alive and not.... Clint shook his head. There was no room, in that moment, for assumptions and speculation. Coulson would be in one of these cars, and all Clint had to do was rescue him.
Bow slung over his shoulder, he leapt carefully across the short distance to the next car and thanked whatever deity might be paying attention that this god-forsaken country didn’t have high-speed maglev trains. He’d seen supplies being loaded onto one of the later cars, and it served to reason that prisoners would be toward the front of the train, where it was easier to watch and harder to escape.
So Clint moved slowly, one car at a time, creeping toward the engine and, he hoped, Phil Coulson. And probably a whole lot of guns.
His own gun was useless, clogged with mud and jammed until he could dismantle and clean it, and his knife was gone from the bag, probably taken by Coulson. All he had was his bow, a rope, a dozen arrows, two incendiary bolts, and a box of wet ammunition. S.H.I.E.L.D. had abandoned them, and his own body was on trial for treason, turned into a battered cage that kept his skills captive.
He thought about Coulson’s hands on his skin, the sting of the needle and the soft touch of fingers, about the grey grief as he admitted to carrying Clint to safety, to fearing Clint was lost.
Coulson. Phil didn’t want him, and that cut up Clint’s insides in unexpected ways. But it didn’t matter, because Clint would die before he’d leave him. Everything else was incidental.
Six cars on, approaching the middle of the train, he spotted the guard.
It was one man, sitting braced against a railing on top of the fourth car with a rifle leaned against his shoulder. Immediately, Clint dropped to his stomach, praying the man hadn’t seen him. When he looked back, the position of the rifle had changed, and the man’s face was turned in Clint’s direction.
He stayed pressed against the roof of the car, watching, waiting for the guard to decide that whatever had caught his eye was a bird or a trick of the light.
The seconds ticked by, and the man stayed turned toward him, rifle ready. The seconds ticked by, and Clint breathed in and breathed out, waiting. The seconds ticked by, and every one of them was a moment wasted, a moment he could have used getting to Coulson.
The guard stood, and Clint swore.
He was too far away to have hit Clint with a shot, but he didn’t need good aim to raise an alarm. Staying low, Clint surged forward and scrambled over the side, dropping into the space between the two cars just as the loud crack of a rifle shot sounded overhead.
“This day just keeps getting better,” Clint muttered to himself, balanced on the connecting arm as it swayed and jostled beneath him. He peered around the corner of the next car and saw the guard kneeling, rifle raised and readied. Another shot rang out, and Clint heard the deafening screech of bullet meeting metal as it hit a nearby car. Too close.
Oh, this guy was good.
Clint was better. On a good day, whole and sound and ready for action, Clint was the best in the world. Today, injured and exhausted and desperate, he had to be even better. Phil was counting on him.
He closed his eyes and listened. There was no rush of air around him, no stinging wind, no vibrations rattling up through his limbs, no pain. The breath moved into him and out again, slow and even, and somewhere close by, the same tide was flowing through Phil’s lungs, pushing him through and pulling him on.
Clint opened his eyes.
Swinging around his bow, he pulled himself smoothly up to the next car and nocked an arrow. He could see the guard on the forward car, see the man’s face eclipsed by the sight of the rifle. The man fired, and the shot went wide two feet to Clint’s left. Sniper, Clint decided. Professional. And his shots were getting closer.
Clint started to draw and doubled over in pain as the flesh in his side burned. His arms shook, too weak to pull the string.
He tried again and got farther, but a flash of agony made him release too soon. The arrow went clattering across the roof of the car and skittered over the side.
The guard fired again. this time, the bullet punched through the train just a yard in front of him.
Clint breathed in and thought of a brief glance from a strange man in a good suit. He breathed out and thought of that infuriating hum that Phil probably didn’t even realize he was making. He breathed in and thought about the twenty-eight inches he needed between the curve of his bow and the point where his fingers curled around the string. He breathed out and thought of the fifty pounds of pull he needed to get it there. He breathed in and thought of Phil’s hand, palm and fingers over his heart, and found the strength to draw that fifty pounds. He breathed out and loosed.
The arrow struck home, a clean shot through the man’s chest, and Clint was up and moving before the body had slumped over, racing as fast as he dared from one car to the next. If the other guards didn’t already know he was there, they were about to, and he didn’t have any time to waste.
The door of the fifth car slid open, and Clint hit the deck just before the shooting started. He felt Phil’s hand again on his chest and fired off two arrows. Two bodies tumbled from the open car.
Chances were he’d run out of arrows before he ran out of guys to shoot at.
Time for plan B.
Things got rough when they started in with the knife.
Using the knife they’d taken from him, Clint’s knife, just added insult to injury.
The second soldier did most of it. The other hung back, and the third man, the cartel man, just kept asking the same questions.
The blade slipped into the soft skin of Phil’s forearm. It was a shallow cut, only just welling blood, but the knife was slow and the slice uneven.
The soldier cut a second, parallel line, followed by two short incisions at either end, forming a long, narrow rectangle on Phil’s arm.
“Por qué estás aqui?”
The knife levered into the cut and lifted, slowly pulling away a slight, translucent slip of skin.
“Que está con usted?’
Phil went away. He went to a beach on Lake Michigan with rocky sand and quiet, rolling water. He went to the tree fort Pop had built him that had only lasted one summer before the winds took it down. He went to blue eyes and bright laughter, and the rip and burn of flesh tearing away kept bringing him back.
“Philip James Delaware Coulson. Senior field agent. Serial number two five one zero two zero one one four zero.”
The last of the strip came away, and the soldier dangled it in front of his face, laughing. It looked like a snake, like bait, and not at all like a piece of a human being, a piece of himself.
Still chuckling, the soldier turned to the third man and asked something Phil couldn’t follow. Something about food, hunger.
The man didn’t say anything, and, if he gave a sign, Phil didn’t see it. There must have been permission in his silence, though, because the soldier gripped Phil’s jaw tight in one hand and forced his mouth open, slowly lowering the strip of bloody flesh onto Phil’s tongue. It slipped down Phil’s throat, and he gagged. Blood and bile bubbled up into the back of his mouth, mixing with saliva and running from the corners of his lips in a hot stream that trickled down his neck. The soldier pushed Phil’s mouth closed and held his nose until he swallowed. The piece of skin was slick and stringy going down.
Phil gasped for air when the soldier let go, his throat raw and burning.
“Quién eres?” the man repeated, and Phil couldn’t have answered if he’d wanted to. “Quién trabaja?”
The knife flashed as it came back toward his arm, and this time it cut diagonally, slicing at an angle from the crease of his wrist. The blade crossed the red line of missing skin, and Phil ground his teeth together to keep from wailing.
“Por qué estás aqui?”
He closed his eyes and went away. He went to running down farm roads on cool, damp autumn mornings. He went to Clint standing in his office, defiant and smirking and stunning.
The knife dug in, and the skin pulled up.
He went to a strong hand around his wrist, fingers calloused from a thousand arrows fired.
“Que está con usted?”
Clint had touched him there, where those pieces of him were being torn away. The skin could be taken, but no amount of violence could erase that touch.
“Philip James Delaware Coulson. Senior field a-”
There was a loud crack, the familiar sound of a rifle shot, and everything went still.
A second shot sounded, and everything happened at once.
A radio on the first soldier’s belt crackled frantically to life, spitting phrases that must have meant something because the cartel man surged forward and gripped Phil by the throat.
“Quién es? Who is it?” he demanded. “Who is coming for you?”
But Phil wasn’t there. He was leaning back against a car in the afternoon heat, his arm slung around Clint’s shoulders. Clint was sleeping, and he wasn’t injured, and there was no one trying to kill them.
“Senior field agent. Serial number two five one z-”
The man backhanded him hard across the face. “Who is coming for you?”
He was in the dark with Clint, blue eyes and bright laughter and strong hands. If he was going to die, he was going to die with good thoughts.
Through no fault of my own, I was captured and killed by hostile forces, though I am pleased to say that, even under extreme coercion, I did not surrender any information pertaining to S.H.I.E.L.D., my mission, or Agent B-
A third rifle shot cracked through through the air, and Phil snapped back to himself.
As the soldiers listened to the chattering radio, the man brought his fist down on Phil’s flayed arm, and he screamed.
“Who are they?” the man snarled. “How many?”
Another shot, and Phil’s heart pounded. These men would kill him before they let him be rescued. They would kill him, and then they would kill Clint.
There was a sudden burst of shouting over the radio, and the soldiers started shouting back in confusion. Phil heard one word, two syllables repeated in disbelief.
The man ground his knuckles into the open wound, and Phil howled in pain.
“How many?” he asked again, and Phil spat in his face.
Clint kicked off from the roof of the car and used his momentum to slam the heavy door closed, crushing the arm of a soldier who just wasn’t fast enough. He jammed one arrow into the bolt catch and wedged another into the sliding track. It wouldn’t hold for long, but he only needed a few minutes.
He’d already taken the set of lockpicks out of his bag, and he pulled them from his pocket as he climbed across to the fourth car, the one the sniper had been guarding. The door was held with a solid padlock, secure but simple. He looped his legs around the steel rails that ran down the side of the car and held tight as the rocky ground rushed past below.
This was where the prisoners were being kept. This was where Coulson was being kept. He was sure of it.
His hands shook, and he forced himself to breathe. The pain and exhaustion were temporary. They meant nothing. If he failed, if Coulson was lost, it would leave a mark more permanent than any scar.
The padlock clicked and popped open in his hand, and Clint kicked the door away before he could give too much thought to what he might find.
He looked in, and this was the prisoner car, alright. A dozen frightened faces stared back at him, and none of them was the one he was looking for. He swung out and dropped to his feet inside the car. As one, the prisoners recoiled, some raising their fists, ready to beat him back.
Clint put up his own hands, palms out. “No, no, no. Hold on. I’m a friend. Amigo. Friend.”
“Who are you?” a woman near him demanded in English, the same woman he’d seen carried away the night before. “What do you want?”
“I’m looking for someone,” he said. “My... my friend. These thugs took him.” And he wasn’t there. Clint kept looking, staring into the faces around him and the corners of the boxcar, and Coulson wasn’t there.
The woman said something to the others, but no one answered. Most of them continued eyeing Clint warily. She turned back to him, shaking her head. “I don’t know. I haven’t seen anyone else.”
Clint’s heart felt like it was crumbling in his chest. “I.... Y-yeah. Of course. Okay.” He realised his hands were still up and dropped them. “You’re sure there wasn’t....There was no one else?”
The woman shook her head again, then she frowned and asked, “Who are you?”
“I’m....” No one. “I can’t tell you that.”
He sure as hell wasn’t no one. He was Clint fucking Barton, bona fide badass, and he was Phil Coulson’s only hope of rescue. There were twenty-seven cars on this train, and he would tear through every one of them if he had to.
Clint reached up to the roof of the car, just over the door, and carefully pulled down the end of his rope. Handing it to the woman, he said, “Give me five minutes, then pull this hard and shut the door.”
She took the rope and gave it a suspicious look. “What is this?”
“That,” Clint told her, “is the escape plan.”
He climbed back up to the roof of the car, thinking. Of course they wouldn’t have put Coulson in with the rest of the prisoners, not if they had any idea of who he was and what he could do. No, they’d want him more secure than that, and they’d want him guarded.
The car with the prisoners had been locked. So had all the others, presumably to protect whatever supplies and arms they were filled with. The only one without a lock was the car filled with soldiers. That one and, he now saw, the third car.
He jumped over to the roof and reached over the side, straining to slide the door back. Immediately, gunfire erupted from inside the car, shooting out at nothing, but Clint was already moving to the other side and pushing open the opposing door. Another round of shooting burst into the empty air. It couldn’t have been more than two shooters, but that didn’t seem right, didn’t seem like enough. He dropped down the front end of the car just as one of them got the bright idea to start shooting through the roof. Predictable.
This was it. This had to be it. Coulson was here, or he was gone and Clint was lost.
He drew an arrow from his quiver and held it in his teeth while he pulled out a shorter, benign looking incendiary bolt. He pressed the activating button on the head and tossed it into the car. There was the clatter of frantic gunfire from inside and then a bright flash and loud cry. In the confusion, Clint swung feet first into the car from the opposite side and took down a soldier with one punch and an arrow through the ribs before the others knew he was there. A second soldier swung his gun around, but not fast enough. Clint drew and fired, and the soldier dropped, choking on blood.
Before the body hit the floor, Clint had nocked, drawn, and aimed at the third figure in the middle of the car. His eyes focused, then, and his heart stopped.
Coulson was a mess, battered and bloody and pale beneath the vicious marks that covered him. Fresh red blossomed at his throat where a third man held a knife, pressing with unnecessary force.
“Put it down,” the man ordered. “I will kill him. Put it down.”
Clint swallowed, and he tasted blood and ashes. “You alright there, sir?”
It took Coulson way too long and way too much effort to answer, and his voice was small and rough. “F-faster would have been... been better, Agent Barton.”
Clint was going to kill this man, this asshole who thought he could do this to Coulson. Clint was going to tear him apart with his fingernails. He forced a grin and said, “Fuck you, sir.”
“I will kill him,” the man repeated, and Clint had officially run out of patience with this bullshit.
“No. You won’t.”
The man scowled. “Stupid boy. Drop your weapon or h-”
“You’re not going to kill him,” Clint said. “Do you know why?”
He rolled his eyes and scoffed, “Because then you’ll kill me? It doesn’t m-”
“No.” Clint’s voice was low and sharp, his eyes fixed on the man’s face. Every other sense, though, was engrossed with Coulson. “You’re not going to kill him because then everything you’ve done to him, I’ll do to you, but I’ll do it twice as deep and twice as slow. You’re not going to kill him because you’re wondering who he is to be worth all this trouble and who the hell I am to come after him. Well, he’s the best, and I’m better, and you’re not going to kill him because, right now, he’s the only thing standing between you.” Clint drew back his bowstring one more inch. “And me.”
The man hesitated, and, for one breathless moment, Clint thought that crap might actually work. Then, suddenly, Coulson tensed and croaked, “Look out!”
A shot rang out, deafening in the close space. Searing, blinding pain tore through the back of Clint’s leg, and he dropped to one knee with a cry. Instinctively, he swiveled and put an arrow through the eye of the first soldier, who apparently hadn’t been quite as dead as he’d thought. Clint tried to reach for another arrow, but his head spun and he slumped to the side. Blood pooled underneath him, gushing from a furrow gouged through his thigh. The bullet had missed the artery - at least, he hoped it had - but it felt like the heavy muscle had been shredded and ripped away. He fell forward onto his hands and tried to remember how to breathe.
He looked up, and Coulson was leaning forward, straining against the ropes that held him to the chair, his eyes wide and desperate. The man had eased back on the knife and was gesturing toward Clint, laughing.
“Better. Yes. We’ll see if you scream better, too.”
But Clint didn’t hear him. He didn’t hear anything. His whole existence had tunneled down to the force of Coulson’s eyes on his and the weak movement of bloodied lips.
“Sorry,” Coulson whispered. “I’m so sorry.”
He had come back for Clint and carried him and cared for him, and Clint would drag his own broken body over shattered glass before he let some asshole with a pigsticker bring all of that to nothing. He met Coulson’s gaze and grinned, honestly this time. “Not done yet, sir.”
Something sparked in Coulson’s face, and the corner of his mouth twitched. “I still owe you dinner.”
Clint coughed out a laugh. “And I owe you a story.”
Coulson leaned in, struggling like he was searching for something to say. Suddenly, he turned his head sharply and bit down hard on the hand holding the knife. The man yelled and punched Coulson in the side of the head as Clint gathered his good leg under him and launched himself at the man’s knees.
They went down in a tangle, slipping on the bloody floor and grappling for the knife. The man was bigger, heavier, and had the advantage of not being seriously injured. Clint had only his determination and the fierce need to protect Coulson, to protect Phil.
The man got hold of Clint’s wrist and twisted, but Clint used the momentum of the pull to swing his elbow around into the man’s face. Taking advantage of the brief daze, Clint pulled an arrow from his quiver and jammed it into the underside of the man’s jaw, and there was a pop as it punched through the soft palate and into the sinus cavity. As the man choked and clawed at his punctured mouth, Clint wrested away the knife and slit his throat in one smooth motion.
Clint’s pulse pounded in his ears as he watched the blood rush out, watched the flow trickle quickly away into nothing. It was over. It was done.
Slowly, with every inch of his body aching, he crawled back and cut the bindings on Coulson’s arms and legs. Then he lay down on the floor of the car, slick with blood, and decided it would be a good long while before he moved again. There was a rustle and a thump as Coulson slid to the ground beside him.
Clint looked at his pale and battered face and said, “Sorry it took me so long.”
A strange expression flickered through Coulson’s eyes, but he held Clint’s gaze. “I’d say you shouldn’t have come, but I guess...”
“Wasn’t an option,” Clint told him. “Can you walk? Fight?” Coulson hesitated, then nodded slowly. “Good, because somebody’s gonna have to deal with the driver.”
Coulson blinked, and Clint really didn’t like how long it was taking him to find words. “What... what about the rest of them? The other guards.”
Clint held up a hand, smiling. “Wait for it.”
Right on cue, an explosion from outside rocked the car, and Coulson toppled over with a grunt of pain. Clint put out an arm to steady him, and they held onto each other as the train righted itself on the track.
“What was that?”
“That was the sound of several bullets’ worth of gunpowder being ignited by an incendiary bolt on a pull trigger, thus sending the entire contents of car number five straight the fuck to hell,” Clint said. Coulson raised a bloodied eyebrow. “You didn’t think I’d come in here without an escape plan?”
“You....” Coulson sighed and shook his head slowly, leaning down to rest it against Clint’s shoulder. “You are unbelievable.”
They weren’t out of the woods, yet. There were still bad guys to fight, they’d need to get back to the extraction point before Fury changed his mind about picking them up, and they were both in need of serious medical attention. This singular moment, though, with Coulson close and quiet, was a small and fleeting thing that Clint wanted to hold fast in both hands. The ache in his side, the pain in his leg, were nothing next to the deep agony of knowing how quickly this would end.
Sure enough, Coulson lifted his head, but instead of sitting up and pulling away, he shifted to look at Clint and said clearly, forcefully, “Thank you.”
Clint’s heart wasn’t breaking. It wasn’t. He was just tired and sore, and the tightness in his skin was just adrenaline. He swallowed past the cold cracking in his throat. “Time-release chemical ignition source,” he said. Coulson blinked at him, and he pressed on. “I put accelerant on his clothes and planted capsules with reactive chemicals in a slow-dissolving adhesive. The capsules dissolve, the chemicals mix, and boom. Just enough fire to make Park piss himself without actually hurting him.”
Coulson was silent, watching him with an unreadable expression. Clint met his gaze and said, “And do you wanna know why? Why I set him on fire instead of just taking his shit? Because that’s what he was gonna do to you. He said he heard you were a fag and wouldn’t it be fucking hilarious to hang a flaming suit on your office door or some bullshit. So I beat him to the punch.”
Something strange and searching passed over Coulson’s features. His face was so close, Clint could see the fine lines at the corners of his eyes that crinkled when he laughed. Quietly, he said, “You didn’t have to do that.”
“Sure I did.” Clint replied. “Would’ve been a waste of a good suit.”
He could never be entirely certain what happened in that moment, what changed or why. All he knew was that, suddenly, Coulson’s mouth was on his, hot and strong and tasting of wet blood. Clint was so startled that he forgot how to kiss completely until Coulson’s teeth dragged his bottom lip, and his body caught up with his heart.
The kiss was short and frantic and filled with a lifetime of possibility.
When they pulled away, breathless, Clint’s head was spinning. “You said no.”
Coulson - Phil - frowned. “Yes, I did,” he admitted. “That was stupid.”
“Yes, sir, it was.” Clint gave him a smirk. “You wanna go get this train turned around, now?”
Phil gave that little hum like he already had a plan for everything and would Clint please just shut up and trust him already, and, for the first time since that single shot in the plaza, Clint was absolutely sure they were going to make it out alive.
Chapter 5: coda: Mission Report 15899, Addendum
Mission Report: 15899, Addendum E-Rec
Filed By: Coulson, Philip J. VI-619 Lvl 7
Date of File: 07182007
Date of Mission: 06122007-06192007
Coulson, Philip J. VI-619 [Primary]
Barton, Clinton F. RO-919 [Secondary]
Primary: Contact [Redacted], representative of [Redacted]. Negotiate regional operating parameters with regard to S.H.I.E.L.D. presence in [Redacted]. Focus of salvage rights in case of [Redacted]. [See file IR-16741]
Secondary: Evaluate field behavior of junior agent “Clint” Barton, codename: Hawkeye. [See file PD-447 G-IA] Assess suitability as field agent and advise on future assignment. [See file I-05042012, Addendum A-Rec: RO-919]
For full account of mission see file MR-15899, primary report.
With regard to the primary mission objective, it is my informed opinion that the current government of [Redacted] will not be amenable to overtures of cooperation and may react with hostility to any contact from S.H.I.E.L.D. or affiliated organizations.
Recommendation: Withdraw. Do not pursue further action. Re-evaluate as situation develops.
With regard to the secondary mission objective, it is my informed opinion that prior evaluations of Agent Barton’s character, attitude, and interpersonal tendencies have been the result of ignorance and false conclusions and should be disregarded in their entirety. [See file PD-447, Addendums DC-5352, DC-272, DC-3924, DC-1083, DC-1754, DC-988, and DC-1973] Based on personal observation, I believe that Agent Barton is possessed of a generally positive, if reserved, attitude, an admirable attention to detail, and intense loyalty. I suspect that what prior reports described as “insubordination” is, in fact, an undeveloped strategic aptitude and a lack of focus. Barton has openly expressed an inclination to resist orders which he feels may be morally suspect, but I believe, without reservation, that this should be considered a strength. Agent Barton demonstrated commendable resourcefulness and resilience, as well as a willingness to place the security of S.H.I.E.L.D. above personal safety. Taking into account extensive documentation of his conflicts with fellow junior agents [See file PD-447, Addendums DC-5352, DC-1083, DC-1754, DC-2082, DC-2841, DC-20270, and DC-17112] it is my professional opinion, at this juncture, that Agent Barton would better serve S.H.I.E.L.D. as a specialist asset, rather than a traditional field agent. I will add that, based on existing documentation and my personal observations, I would not hesitate to trust Agent Barton with my life in any situation.
In the interest of full disclosure, I will submit a caveat with regard to my personal relationship with Agent Barton. Specifically, I acknowledge that my actions in the course of this mission [See file MR-15899] exceeded necessary professional loyalty and were likely driven by an intense personal attachment to Agent Barton himself. I am confident that this attachment will not in any way interfere with my judgment in the field or my ability to carry out my duties as a senior agent. If anything, I believe that the rapport between Agent Barton and myself may contribute to the establishment of a more effective working relationship. I wish to maintain professional transparency as I am given to understand that Agent Barton and myself are of a like mind on this matter and that a more intimate involvement may develop in the future.
Recommendation: Assign dedicated handler. Redirect to specialized missions. Include in future developments re: Avengers Initiative.
Undersigned: Coulson, Philip J. VI-619 Lvl 7