Thank you so much to firesnap and dysprositos – two beta geniuses who caught stuff for me and helped make it better. Clint and Steve have been my headcanon for a while now, but I love Clint and Coulson so much that I had to give this a go as well.
"Why is he sending you two alone?" Steve asked. He was sitting on the edge of Clint's bed, watching him casually throw a couple of shirts, a razor, and a few other light travel items into his SHIELD issue bag.
"Yeah, I know, but he'll be watching and it's his first mission back. You and Natasha are going in alone. Why?"
Clint's voice took on a slight edge. "Fury and Coulson seem to think it's better. I trust them."
"I do, too. It just sounds like trouble."
"It won't be, Steve. We'll be back in two days, tops."
So confident. So cocky. Steve loved that. "I don't wanna have to come after you."
"Okay, old man. I'll make sure you're not inconvenienced." Clint grinned at him, and gave him a lingering kiss. He finished packing his bag. They walked together down to the garage of the Tower and Steve watched as Clint climbed on his bike to head down to SHIELD headquarters for departure.
"Steve? You going for a ride?"
Steve stood in the Tower garage pulling on his riding gloves and helmet. "Yeah, can't sleep again," he said with a shrug.
"Can I come?"
Steve noticed Clint's pallor and heard the exhaustion in his voice. "When's the last time you slept?" he asked, quietly.
Clint ran his hand through his hair awkwardly. "Two days ago."
"Ride with me, okay?"
Clint nodded, pulled on his helmet, and climbed on Steve's silver bike behind him, wrapping his hands around his waist. They rode for a while, escaping the city limits and heading into New Jersey. Finally, after many winding roads, Steve pulled the bike into a parking spot near a field. He climbed off the bike and pulled his helmet off, smoothing his tousled hair.
The night was cool, and the air smelled fresh and crisp compared to the city streets. There was a wood fence between the parking lot and the field, and Steve led Clint through a swinging gate.
They walked quietly for a few minutes until they got further into the grass field, and then Steve stopped and stretched out on his back and grinned, pointing up to the sky. Clint stretched out, too, and Steve heard him draw a sharp breath as he stared at the star-filled night. The sky seemed draped with lights and men laid in silence.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" Steve said.
Clint didn't reply. After a few minutes, he stood up and wrapped his arms around his own chest. "Do you mind if I take a walk?" he asked.
Steve said no and watched Clint wander away, walking the field's perimeter. Steve was content by himself, staring into the dark and letting the sparkling sky fill his mind. When Clint got back later and sat down, Steve sat up next to him.
"You said Coulson taught you about the stars?" he said, remembering the night that Clint told him about his long-term relationship with the late agent.
Clint looked at Steve sharply then relaxed and nodded. "Yeah. He loved doing this. Coming out to a good spot outside the city. He had a telescope, so we'd bring it out in his car and set up for hours. He showed me a lot." Clint paused and took a shaky breath. "I miss him so goddamned much," he said, his voice a whisper, like he hoped Steve wouldn't hear him.
Steve did hear him, though, and he could hear the desperation in his voice. "It's only been a couple of months, Clint. It's no wonder you're still having a hard time." A mirthless laugh escaped his own throat. "I was a mess after Bucky died. The only thing that kept me going was the job and Peggy's smiles."
Clint looked over at him. "Now what keeps you going? For you it's only been three months since you last saw her."
"Yeah, well, I haven't figured that one out yet, other than the job."
"Maybe we're both starting to," Clint said.
"Starting to what?"
"Figure it out."
Steve nodded, and they took another look at the stars and then climbed back on the bike and headed back to the Tower.
"When was their last check-in?" Steve said.
"Yesterday. They were scheduled to check-in six hours ago and haven't done so," Fury said.
Steve stood and began pacing. "When can we leave to go find them? They don't miss check-ins."
"Protocol says they have to miss two check-ins, Captain."
"Damn protocol to hell."
"You're already in hell, Cap," Stark said. "Get used to it."
Steve whirled around. "We have to get to them. This was too dangerous for just the three of them to begin with, and now they're in trouble. Besides," he said after a pause, "by the time we get down there they'll have passed their second check-in, and we can move if we have to."
"Coulson's with them, Captain."
"Yes, he is. That makes me even more worried about the silence."
"He's got a point, sir. Agent Agent doesn't miss check-ins," Tony said.
Fury was silent for a moment and then he nodded. "Gather Dr. Banner and your supplies and take the jet. It'll be waiting with a backup and medical team."
Steve nodded and left without waiting for Stark to even stand up.
"I need. . . I want . . ." Steve floundered with words but wrapped his arms tightly around Clint's waist and put his chin on his shoulder as they sat, Clint in front of Steve leaning comfortably back against his chest, in the field they liked, looking at the stars. It was the middle of the night, as usual. It seemed like all of their time together was spent in the middle of the night. They both had trouble with the nights and they both knew why. "I don't want to replace him, but I thought, maybe. . . " He was botching this. Clint didn't need him. Clint wouldn't be able to feel that way about him so soon after Coulson's loss. Steve shouldn't expect it, but. . . "I just thought, maybe, we could try to help each other through the nights."
Clint turned his shoulders and grinned back at him. "We always end up in the same place, that's for sure."
"Yeah." He was kicking himself for even bringing it up. Yes, they'd been close the last couple weeks. Yes, they both enjoyed holding each other, and they'd kissed twice, but both times Steve saw a shadow pass across Clint's face and he should probably stop doing that. It was hard, though. Clint reminded him of Bucky.
He moved to get up, but Clint didn't let him go. "Steve. I. . . can't give you much, not yet. But you help me through the nights, too, and maybe if we start the night together we won't - the nightmares won't - maybe we can help each other out."
Steve nodded. "That's all I meant." He leaned in and brushed Clint's lips with his own. Stopping that was harder than just knowing he should. "I won't ask anything of you. I promise."
Clint took a shuddering breath and leaned his forehead against Steve's. "It's too soon. Two months. I keep looking for him, still. I keep thinking we were wrong, that Fury was wrong and he'll come marching into a briefing session one day and the world will be right again."
Steve carded his fingers through Clint's hair. "I want it for you, Clint. But for now, let's just. . . let's just try to help each other sleep."
Clint nodded and they found their way back to the Tower and to Steve's room and lay down together, instinctively wrapping themselves around each other comfortably, and soon their breathing matched up and they were both sound asleep.
It worked, and they found each other again the next night and the next, and soon they had a pattern, a routine, and they did help each other sleep. They learned the nightmares that plagued them, and how to walk each other through. The nights were easier.
"Okay. Let's go over this again. We know this is their target," Steve said and he pointed to the map on the small table in the middle of the jet's cabin just after takeoff.
"Isolated," Bruce said.
"That could be good for us," Tony added.
"Right. Remember, the engineers at SHIELD think the offices are here, the labs are here, and. . . " He paused. "They don't know what this area is."
"We should check there first."
Steve nodded at Tony. "Probably."
After a review of their plans and backups, Steve settled into a seat. The jet was quiet, and Steve was drawing, Tony was listening to something on his iPod and Bruce was reading a journal. An hour later Fury's voice crackled in over the comms. "Second check-in past. You all are free to conduct a rescue mission." Steve put his sketchbook aside and moved closer to Tony and Bruce.
Steve was sitting on the couch in the penthouse and it was three in the morning. He had his sketchbook and a pencil and was lost in his drawing, one he'd been hoping to do for a while now, and when the nightmares wouldn't leave him alone the pencil settled into his hand and the drawing emerged. A weight settled next to him on the couch before he realized someone else was even in the room with him at that time of the morning.
"What're you drawing?" Clint asked.
"You," Steve replied. He turned to Clint and grinned. "And Natasha. Sparring."
Clint laughed that easy laugh that Steve loved. "Can I see it?"
"No, not until it's finished." He smiled at Clint.
Clint shrugged. "Fair enough." He didn't push Steve to show it to him.
They all spent a good ten minutes checking their backpacks and the med kits each were carrying, as well as arming themselves. Steve glanced at Bruce. "Are you okay?"
Bruce nodded. "Yeah. I'll do my best, you know."
"What? Of course."
"No, I'll do my best not to let the Other Guy out."
"Yeah," Steve said. "We know. We might need you, though. For the lab stuff."
"Yeah," Tony said, hefting the large carrying case with the Mark8 onto Steve's back, "You'll do your best and we'll find the files we need if Barton and Romanov don't have them yet. Then you'll help me rig the place to blow it to hell. Bioweapons. Stupidest use of science. Ever," he said.
Bruce just added another pack of antibiotics to his own load.
Steve had a very bad feeling about what kind of state they'd find their teammates in.
The nightmare came again and Steve staggered out of bed and into the kitchen. He fixed a cup of hot tea and wrapped his fingers around the cup to stop their trembling. He stared into the cup, still seeing snow, hearing screaming. He couldn't pull his gaze away from the cloudy liquid, even when he heard soft footfalls enter the kitchen behind him.
Calloused hands gently pulled the cup out of his hands and into theirs, then put it on the counter. Steve hardly noticed, still staring blankly at where the cup had been. The hands gripped his and turned him, leading him to the couch nearby. Steve allowed himself to be pushed onto the couch and finally blinked, seeing Clint. His hair was tousled, his T-shirt wrinkled, and his eyes were sleepy and filled with concern for Steve, sitting on the couch next to him.
"It wasn't your fault, Steve," he said, gently. "Relax. You're safe."
Steve wrapped his arms around himself and Clint put a steadying hand on his back; they stayed like that for several minutes before Steve finally took a deep breath. "Okay. I'm okay. Thanks."
Clint just nodded. "You want company?"
Steve shook his head. "No, it's okay. You go back to sleep. I'll be in after a bit."
Clint nodded and stood, leaving Steve to his own steady breathing and calming ritual of listing places he'd been. Somehow thinking of places replaced his awful thoughts of losing people, and soon he was able to go back to bed. Neither one of them talked about the nightmare in the morning.
The plane landed a few miles away from the location of the compound, and Steve, Bruce and Tony headed out. They walked in silence through the lush jungle, and, after an hour or so, they cautiously approached the area where the first check-in should have been made from. It was a stand of trees with a view of the compound, but with good cover.
"Shit," Tony whispered.
Steve just nodded and knelt down where they found the abandoned backpack. No weapons were inside, the radio was missing, and there was no indication of a struggle. That was bad. If Steve had learned one thing about Agent Coulson since his return to work, it was that he didn't get taken down easily.
Coulson. Oh god. Steve felt his own chest grow tight with the implications of Coulson and Fury standing in his apartment entranceway. Alone. Again. But he closed his eyes for a moment and envisioned Clint with the light back in his eyes that Steve saw from time to time and took great pleasure in. It would be back for good, just like Coulson.
He opened his eyes again and Coulson stood in his doorway in the Tower next to Director Fury, and Steve stepped close. "What did you do, Director Fury?" he asked, not taking his eyes off of the Avengers' former handler.
He thought of Clint thrashing in the bed, mumbling "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I should have stopped him, I'm sorry" and trembling in Steve's arms as he did the only thing that ever drew Clint out of the nightmare and back to sleep. He carded his fingers through Clint's hair and whispered "Safe. You're safe and he wouldn't blame you. He wouldn't blame you."
And now Clint was in the shower in Steve's bathroom and he was looking at Coulson. The man was wearing his impeccable suit as usual, but he was thinner, gaunt in his cheekbones, his arm was in a sling, and he looked exhausted.
Fury stepped forward, into the apartment. "Agent Coulson survived Loki's attack, but it was a long road and we weren't sure he'd make it. It seemed best for the morale of the Avengers to wait until we were sure of his survival. We thought we'd tell you first so that you can help handle any fallout from our actions."
Steve stepped back into his living room and his voice dropped low. "Fallout? You mean Clint Barton kicking you from one end of the room to the other? You bastard. Why didn't you at least tell him?"
Coulson spoke up quietly, but firm. "It's not important now."
Steve was quiet for a minute, trying to wrap his brain around what was right in front of him and reconcile it with the man standing in his shower at the moment. Finally, he stepped over and shook Coulson's hand. "It's good to see you up and around, Agent." His emotions were a jumbled mess and he didn't know what else to say. He watched as Coulson turned to Fury.
"Sir, I need to find Agent Barton. Now."
Steve could hear the desperation in Coulson's tired voice and knew he was about to change the way the man thought this would probably go. "Agent Coulson," he said quietly, "Clint is here. I'll go get him for you."
Coulson looked confused and Fury raised an eyebrow. "He's here?"
Steve nodded. "I need to tell him I'm leaving, and then you two can stay here as long as you like." His voice sounded shaky in his own ears. Alone. Again. Nights of desperation. Again. He ignored the questioning looks from Fury and Coulson and went down the hallway to the bathroom door and knocked.
The door opened and Barton appeared, dressed in jeans and a tight green t-shirt, toweling off his wet hair. He grinned at Steve. "Yeah?" he said.
Steve's voice caught in his throat and Clint's grin turned into a frown of concern.
Steve shook his head and looked down at the floor. "Nothing. There's someone here you'll want to see. I'm going to the gym after I talk to the others, and I'll probably be there if you want to talk later." He paused. "If you don't want to, that's okay, too."
"Steve, what's going on?"
Steve gave him a reassuring grin and replied, "Something amazing, Clint." He leaned in and gave Clint a quick, last kiss because he couldn't stop himself. "Enjoy this, Clint. You deserve it." He turned and left, not looking at Fury or Coulson, leaving his own apartment and heading down to the elevator to go find the other Avengers.
They left the abandoned backpack where it was and turned toward the compound. The tree line wound around in a crooked circle and a barbed wire fence stood just inside the circle. Tony quietly unpacked the suit from the case on Steve's back and put it on efficiently. Then he carried both Steve and Bruce over the fence. Just as he landed with Bruce, Steve waved them down toward the ground. They ducked, and found their way over to a set of crates as they watched a sentry guard walk by carrying a machine gun. Steve crept up behind the man and knocked him out with a swift swing of his shield. He divested him of a badge and his gun and crept back to the other two.
They were about to try for a door when they heard a commotion about a hundred yards away. Steve crept forward. "Natasha!" he said, quickly standing and charging the group of five guards who were surrounding the Widow, who was holding a knife and bleeding from her shoulder and standing awkwardly on her left leg. He used one man to bring down another, slamming them to the ground as Natasha knifed the closest guard to her. The other two drew guns, but one caught Steve's shield to the chin and the other found a knife in his back. Steve saw Bruce standing a few yards back, taking a deep breath and looking at his hands.
Natasha looked over at him and said, "Thanks," before crumpling to the ground.
Steve rushed to her and gathered her limp body in his arms. If she were on her own then Phil and Clint were definitely in trouble. She wouldn't leave Clint behind. "Hey, stay with us. Tell us what happened. Did you get the files?"
Bruce knelt down to inspect her wounds and said, "Wait, Cap." He pulled her jacket back and found a bullet wound to her shoulder, pulsing blood thickly. She had a cut and large bruise above her eye, and her leg was clearly broken. "We have to get her to the medical team. Now."
Steve nodded, but frowned. "We need information, too. Did you get the files? And where are Coulson and Hawkeye?"
She shuddered in his arms, shock obviously settling in, but she looked up at him. "Got the files. I have them. Coulson's being held in a cell." She took a deep breath. "He was alive and helped me escape an hour ago. They messed him up a little, and they'll know he helped." Her eyes fluttered closed.
"Captain, we have to get her out of here," Bruce said.
"What about Hawkeye?" Steve said to Natasha, trying to keep desperation out of his voice.
She looked up at him again, a hard, cold look. "Took him earlier. Yesterday. Brought him back to us this morning, but he was sick. So sick." Her eyes clenched shut. "Took him again today." Her eyes opened again and she looked desperately at Steve. "Find him. Unmarked building is where Coulson is. Barton's probably in the . . . lab. Hurry. He was so sick."
Steve looked up at Tony in his suit. "Fly her back. Get her to medical and then come back. Bruce and I will find Coulson and Barton." Tony hesitated and Steve said, "Go. Hawkeye will kill us if we lose her."
Steve told the others about Coulson's reappearance as they sat around a dining table in the common area having a meal together. Natasha's grip on his arm as he explained things told him she knew what this meant for Steve and her eyes told him she was sorry. The others added anger and elation to the mix and he left them talking excitedly to each other.
He slipped away to the gym and found a punching bag. He didn't track how long he was there, but after he broke the second bag and realized his hands were swollen and red, he found Natasha staring at him from her place against the wall.
"Steve," she said.
"Did you see him?" Steve asked.
She nodded and moved toward him. "Yes. He looks awful."
Steve shrugged. "He's been dead for two months," he said with a smile. She chuckled. "Was Clint with him?" Steve asked.
"Yes," she said. "The others know about their relationship now." She paused and moved closer. "Clint asked me to check on you."
Steve swallowed and distracted himself by unwrapping his hands and throwing the tape in the trash. "I'm okay." He met her eyes and nodded. "I am. You know we didn't do much beyond talk and help each other sleep. That's all he needed."
She nodded. "Coulson will be grateful once he understands, you know," she said.
Steve nodded. "Yeah." He turned and went to the showers without another word.
When his own nightmare came back that night just as he'd expected, unwelcome and more unnerving after a few weeks of respite, he couldn't get himself to stop shaking. Angry again that alcohol did absolutely nothing to his system, he dressed quickly, grabbed his phone just in case, and headed for his bike.
He rode for hours, finally pulling back into the Tower just as dawn was breaking on the horizon. He traipsed back to his apartment, let himself in, and was startled to find Clint sitting on his couch, waiting.
"I let myself in," he said quietly.
Steve nodded. "That's okay."
Clint looked at him warily. "Where did you go?"
Steve sat down in the chair opposite the couch and shrugged. "I don't know."
Clint closed his eyes for a moment and then he looked back at Steve and asked, "Are you okay?"
"Yeah. I just couldn't sleep." He realized after the words were out that it sounded accusatory. "Not your fault." He leaned forward, studying the blue eyes of his good friend. "I'm happy for you, Clint. I can't believe he's alive and back and. . . it's amazing."
Clint's eyes lit up like Steve knew they would and he smiled. "Yeah. I could strangle him and Fury for thinking it was a good idea to keep it a secret, but then I'd lose him again."
Steve leaned back in his chair. "Why are you here? You should be with him."
Clint just leveled his gaze at him for a moment and then he moved closer to Steve's chair, and leaned into Steve's shoulder and was quiet for a minute. "I told him about us and he understands. Now I'm worried about you."
Steve ran his hand through his hair and leaned back in the chair, away from Clint. "I'll miss you. I will, and I'll have to find another way to get good sleep. But I'm a big kid, Clint. I'll be okay. I'm incredibly happy for both of you."
Clint shook his head. "Okay. But if you want to wake me in the middle of the night and go for a ride or hang out on a balcony and talk, Phil will understand, all right?"
Steve nodded. "Okay. Thanks. Now get back to him, you idiot. It's your first night back together."
Clint chuckled. "Yeah, but he's still wiped out. He was out cold when I left."
"Don't let him wake up alone," Steve said.
Clint stood, ran his hand gently through Steve's hair, and left. Steve lay down on his couch, turned on a movie at low volume, and fell asleep.
After taking out five guards on the ground, getting into the unmarked building wasn't too tough. They made their way through the dark halls and were puzzled by the emptiness.
"Maybe they're tripped up at the arrival of two Avengers," Bruce whispered.
Steve nodded, "Starting to clear out?"
"Hopefully not totally."
Steve understood. Why would they keep prisoners alive if they knew they were compromised? That meant they had even bigger trouble.
Finally, they made it to a hallway where a guard stood outside a door. Steve took him out easily and Bruce took his card and opened the lock.
They found Phil Coulson.
He was sitting against the far wall with his back against it, holding his arm. His head was thrown back and he was clenching his teeth and he was pale and trembling, his face was battered and his breath was shallow. His suit was disheveled, and still in one piece, but his left leg was splayed out at an odd angle.
Steve moved to him quickly. "Coulson."
Coulson's eyes snapped open and he drew a shuddering breath. "Captain."
Bruce knelt down next to him and said, "Agent Coulson, let me see your arm."
Coulson shook his head. "Broken. Two places at least. Leg's broken, too." He took another shaky breath. "They got upset when Black Widow left. Said they'd break something every ten minutes she was gone." He looked sharply at Steve. "They'll be back soon. Four minutes left. You have to find Hawkeye. They made him sick."
Bruce leaned in again, "Tell me his symptoms. If I can be prepared, or call ahead. . ."
Coulson grimaced and said, "He couldn't see very well. He couldn't stand. Vomiting. Fever. Shakes." Steve felt sick himself listening. "Find him, Steve," Coulson said, grabbing at Steve's arm with his uninjured one and fixing him with a desperate glare. Steve nodded.
"Bruce," Steve said, "Get Coulson back outside. Stark should be back soon. He can take him back to medical. I'm going to find Hawkeye. Now." He grasped Coulson's hand reassuringly and looked over at Bruce. "Clint will kill all three of us twice if anything happens to Coulson, too. And you need to get out of here." He could feel Banner tensing as he heard Clint's symptoms and he wanted him lucid so he could help once Steve found Clint. "Head back to the jet yourself once Tony takes Coulson."
"Captain," Bruce said, protesting.
"I need you clear. I need you to come back in calm and look through this lab and figure out what they did to Hawkeye, okay? So get him out of here and back to safety, and don't come back until you're calm."
Bruce nodded and looked down at Coulson and pulled him up, supporting all of his weight and practically dragging him out of the room. Steve tried to push down the panic that had risen in his chest at the sight of Coulson.
He didn't want to do it. He really didn't. He was determined not to bother them and he had convinced himself that he didn't need Clint anymore. A month since Coulson's return and Steve had gotten himself into a routine of sleeping for a few hours, riding for a few hours, and sleeping more if he could. He didn't need as much as others and he convinced himself that he was okay. That he didn't miss Clint's warm body wrapped around his own, carding his fingers through his hair when he woke up freezing. Or that he didn't miss falling asleep on the couch, enveloping Clint's smaller frame with his own when Clint couldn't stop shaking and the tears for Coulson ran unchecked. He convinced himself that he didn't miss feeling needed and supported, even though the relationship hadn't gone any farther than that. He thought he was okay.
But he wasn't. And tonight was the worst yet. He had a waking nightmare and he couldn't stop shaking. Every time he closed his eyes, even just to blink, Bucky was staring back at him as he fell from the train, screaming.
He wasn't even aware that he'd found his way to Clint's apartment door and was knocking on it until Clint opened it, running pants hanging off his waist and his hair disheveled. "Steve?" he asked, his disoriented look changing quickly to one of concern.
"I'm sorry," Steve said, but he was still standing in the doorway with his arms wrapped around himself and his shoulders trembling uncontrollably. "I can't close my eyes, Clint."
"Hey, come in. Come on, sit down. It's okay." Clint led him to his couch and then went to get a glass of water.
Coulson appeared in the hallway and Steve ducked his head to his chest. "I'm sorry, Phil." His teeth were chattering and he couldn't stop them.
"It's okay," Coulson said, his voice filled with sympathy, and with just a nod at Clint he turned and left Steve and Clint alone.
Clint brought the water to Steve and he drank it, his hands shaking as he held the glass to his lips. When he was finished, Clint took the glass and set it on the coffee table and then wrapped his arms around Steve, pulling him down into a firm embrace. He ran his hands through Steve's hair and Steve felt himself relax, the shaking finally subsiding as Clint's hands pressed the tension away.
Finally, Steve sat back up and ran his hand across his face. "Thanks," he said.
Clint nodded. "That was a bad one, huh?"
"Yeah." He started to stand up, but Clint pulled him back down to the couch.
"Hey," he said. "Do you need to go for a ride?"
Steve shook his head and looked toward the hallway where Coulson had disappeared. "No, thanks, really. I barged in on you guys already. I don't need to steal your whole night."
"No, Steve, it's okay. Hey, how about a trip out with Phil and his telescope, like I told you about? Chances are you're not gonna sleep anymore tonight anyway, right? It's a good night for it. Phil will like it. We haven't done that since he's been back."
Steve tried to protest, but Clint and Coulson piled him into their car and out to the field. They set up the telescope and spent a couple of hours laughing and stargazing. Phil really was a textbook when it came to the constellations and Steve learned several things that night, including what friendship meant to Clint and Phil.
Steve ran down one hallway and back toward an exit, cutting down guards and hearing alarm klaxons blaring. He didn't care. He headed for the lab building, using his shield as guards shot at him and using machine guns that he picked off of guards he took down. He lost count of how many men he took down, and he was in the lab building unscathed in under three minutes. As he wove through a hallway looking for any sign of Clint, he heard Tony through his earpiece.
"Fury's sending backup. A full SHIELD team is being deployed to contain the compound. Repeat. A full team is coming to contain. ETA ten minutes by pilots' estimations."
Steve breathed a small sigh of relief, but ten minutes wasn't going to help Clint. Finally, on his fourth try, he broke into a lab and saw an ashen colored body laid out on a silver table. He rushed over and felt Clint's neck for a pulse, finding one, albeit weak and thready. Clint was stripped to his shorts, there were lacerations and bruises all over his torso, he was sweating and his breathing sounded like a hand running across sandpaper. He was hooked up to an unlabeled IV.
"Clint," Steve said, desperately running his hands through the archer's hair. "Wake up. Come on, please wake up." There was no response, so Steve looked around, his eyes stopping on the IV. He pulled it down from its hook and then leaned in and picked Clint up as gently as he could. There was no protest, and Clint hung limp in his arms. He carried him back the way he came and burst out of the building just as the SHIELD helicopters were landing.
Bruce came running up."Get him to one of the choppers. If it's what I think it is from the symptoms Coulson told us about, he has to be quarantined. We need to get him to the Helicarrier." Steve nodded and carried Clint to the copter nearby, climbing in and cradling him in his arms as Bruce yelled orders at the pilot and then strapped himself in next to Steve.
Thanks to a Stark Technology helicopter, twenty minutes later, as Steve kept his cheek close to Clint's mouth to assure himself that Clint was breathing, they were landing on the Helicarrier. Steve jumped down to the deck and hurried Clint over to the medical team that was waiting with a stretcher. Bruce had been talking to them the whole flight over the comms, so they had a quarantine unit ready and several doctors suited up.
They wheeled Clint away and shuffled Steve and Bruce to a decontamination unit and Steve found himself the subject of test after test for over two hours. He was seething, and he actually yelled at two doctors before they finally cleared him and sent him down the hall to the quarantine area where Clint was being held. The doctor came out to meet him just as he stormed up to the doorway.
"Wait, Captain. You can't go in yet. They're running tests."
Steve took a deep breath. This wasn't this man's fault. "Tell me what's going on with him."
The doctor ran a hand over his face and looked at Steve. "It's a strain of botulism. Paralysis had set in by the time he got here, and so we've got him on a respirator and are working to keep him stabilized."
"Paralysis?" Steve felt his heart racing. A still Clint was a lost Clint, and if it were permanent they'd lose him forever, he thought.
The doctor nodded. "Yes, but Dr. Banner and another chemist are working with the samples they gathered at the lab to try and make an accurate antitoxin. We used the standard one for botulism already, hoping it would take care of some of the symptoms, but this was a modified form and we can't be confident in its effectiveness."
Just then another doctor exited Clint's room and nodded at the man talking to Steve. "Can I see him now?" Steve said.
The doctor nodded. "He's not contagious; you can go in for a few minutes."
Steve crept quietly into Clint's room, stopping at the foot of his bed. Steve's blood ran cold at the sight of the tube running from his mouth to the respirator, IV lines running from both arms, and monitors surrounding his bed. Steve stood afraid to touch him for fear he might shatter. A few minutes later, he leaned over and pressed a kiss to Clint's forehead, saying "I'm gonna go check on Phil and Natasha for you. I'll be back. You rest, okay?"
Steve checked on Natasha, but she was still out cold from the surgery they'd had to do on her arm. Tony said he'd stay with her for now, and Steve headed down to Coulson's room. They'd set his leg and arm and given him a pretty good pain killer, but he was awake. As soon as Steve entered his room he tried to sit up. Steve pressed him back down to his bed gently.
"He's still alive," he said, quietly.
Coulson nodded and closed his eyes. "What did they do to him?" His voice was shaky.
"An off-form of botulism." Coulson's eyes snapped open. Steve shook his head. "I know. They said paralysis had set in, so they've got him on a respirator and Bruce and some others are working on an anti-toxin."
"They have an antitoxin for botulism," Coulson said.
"Yeah, and they gave that to him, but whatever the bio weapon was is a variation. They're hoping the standard antitoxin is enough to keep the worst of the effects away until Bruce can figure out a direct solution."
"I want to see him."
Steve looked at SHEILD's best handler, knowing that he'd seen Clint through some terrible situations in the past. "Phil, you don't want to see him right now. Besides, you need to rest."
Coulson shook his head and sat up, wincing. "No. I need to see him. Please, get me a wheelchair and take me to him."
Steve sighed and then went and found a wheelchair. He knew there was no use fighting, and he knew Coulson was thinking of the time when Clint couldn't be there for him when Fury was keeping everything a secret, so he helped settle Phil into the chair and took him down to see Clint.
Steve was sitting on a lounge chair on the patio off of the Avengers' common room and it was a gorgeous sunny day. He had his sketchbook out and was working on a portrait, pleased with the way it was coming together. He didn't notice Coulson's appearance on the patio, but looked up as the older man sat down in a nearby chair. "Agent," he said in greeting.
"Captain," Coulson said.
It was a week or so after his return and he still tired out easily. Steve noticed that briefings were always held in the morning now, and while Coulson's plans and assignments were no less thorough and exacting as they'd ever been, he took more breaks, and Steve never saw him past nine o'clock in the evening. He would retire to their apartment and Clint would usually follow quickly after. Steve missed their late nights together.
"What are you working on?" Coulson asked.
"Just a portrait. Helps me relax," Steve said.
Coulson nodded. Suddenly Steve realized that the air was tense, Coulson sitting awkwardly forward, his adjusting his sling nervously. Coulson was never nervous. Steve set his sketchbook down next to him and sat forward. "Is everything all right, sir?" he asked.
Coulson sighed and nodded. "Yes. Listen, I . . . well, I just wanted to thank you for being there for Clint while I was gone. I imagine it wasn't easy." He paused. "I might have made a judgment error in letting Fury keep him in the dark," he said with a small smile.
Steve chuckled. "Yeah, he would have appreciated a different call."
"But I didn't make it, and he said you guys became close and helped each other out." Coulson's voice was mild, not accusatory at all.
"Yes. It turns out we both had trouble sleeping." Steve sat back in the chair again. "I'm sorry if I crossed a line with him. We really didn't do much more than keep each other company at night, though." He paused and ran a hand awkwardly through his hair. "If that makes a difference."
Coulson nodded. "It would have been okay if it were more. Clint deserves to be happy."
"We found some moments," Steve said with a smile, "But he wasn't ready for much more than company. He missed you."
"Yeah. I know. Still, I realize this might be hard for you, and I hope you're okay. And I'm grateful. I always will be. I hope this won't affect our professional relationship."
Always professional, Agent Coulson, Steve thought. He sighed and pulled his sketchbook up and leaned over to show Coulson what he was drawing. "It won't be a problem. I'm happy he has you back, really."
Coulson looked at the drawing and then looked up at Steve with a grin. "Wow."
Steve smiled. It was a drawing of Clint and Coulson, Clint in his field gear and Coulson in his suit, leaning against a railing talking to each other. The comfort they took in each other was evident in their relaxed body language, and each had a quiet grin on their face, like they were sharing a private joke. "You can have it once I'm done," Steve said, and he leaned back and picked up his pencil again.
"Thank you," Coulson said. He stood and watched Steve draw for a moment, and then retreated back into the Tower while Steve kept drawing. Steve left the portrait in an envelope with Coulson's name on it on the counter in the kitchen, and it was gone within fifteen minutes of Steve setting it out.
Bruce came running in from the hallway with a syringe about two hours later. Steve stood to meet him and Coulson looked up expectantly.
"It's this or nothing," Bruce said. He looked up at Steve and Phil. "I'm pretty damned sure it's this, though."
Steve watched as they injected the antitoxin into Clint's IV line. "How long is this going to take to work?"
"We'll know soon. The shut-down of his lungs should halt pretty quickly if it works."
They waited, watching the monitors, but Steve didn't know what the monitors meant so he watched Bruce. The minutes dragged on and on.
"There!" Bruce said, pointing at a line. "That's it. Improvement. It's working."
Steve slumped against the wall and lowered his head. He felt a hand on his arm.
"He'll get better, Steve," Bruce said, quietly. "It'll be hard on him, but he'll get through as long as we're careful. The next couple days are important, okay? We have to monitor his internal organs and run a lot of tests to make sure they weren't affected permanently. But we'll try to get him back to the Tower soon."
Steve went over to Phil and set his hand on Phil's shoulder, pulling him close as Phil leaned against Steve and wrapped Clint's hand in his again.
"Steve," Clint said, "Come up to our place tonight, okay?"
Steve, sitting with his back against the wall of the patio while Clint and Coulson played cards on a table nearby, looked up from his drawing. "Why?"
Coulson laughed. "For dinner."
"Phil cooks mean lasagna," Clint said. "He even wears this really funny little apron when he cooks, one with puppies and sausages."
Coulson hit Clint's arm and Steve laughed. "Okay, sure, if you're sure it's all right." He looked at Coulson as he said it. It had been about a month since Coulson's return and the three of them had been spending a lot of time together. When Clint was busy on the range, Steve and Phil would sit in Phil's on-site office and work through case scenarios together; they had both been impressed with the other's strategies and forethought.
It turned out that Steve kept up quite well with Coulson's 'worst case scenario' imaginings and even supplied some of his own. Sometimes Clint would have to come in and drag Phil away when it got too late. He'd offer a shy grin to Steve and Phil would complain that he'd rested enough but Clint would pull him away anyhow.
Steve would go back to his apartment and draw portraits of the two of them for hours afterward.
Coulson smiled and nodded. "Definitely come. Besides, then you won't have to deal with Tony and Bruce's dinner banter."
Steve nodded and excused himself. A few hours later he knocked on the door to their apartment, carrying two bottles of good wine. Clint ushered him into the living room, taking the two bottles of wine and thanking him. Coulson was cooking, minus an apron, throwing a salad together and laying out the table. Clint poured wine for all of them.
Dinner was pleasant, Coulson nursing his glass of wine through the whole thing, Clint going through three glasses himself. Conversation ranged from old missions to places they'd seen in the world to places they still wanted to go. As they finished dinner, Steve leaned forward in his chair.
"Thanks for dinner. I haven't had Italian food that good since the thirties," he said. He was smiling into his drink.
"Man, you really are old, aren't you?" Clint said.
"Twenty-six," Coulson said.
"Ninety-six" Steve said at the same time.
"It's all a matter of perspective," Coulson said with a smile. "I'm the oldest one here, in my view."
"You don't act it," Clint said, sipping his wine.
"I hear acting young is a good thing," Steve said, winking at Clint. "But old age reminds me of something." He reached into his pants pocket and pulled a plastic case out. "Here, Phil. These are for you."
Coulson and Clint both raised their eyebrows and Phil opened the case gingerly. A grin spread across his face as he looked over at Clint. "New Captain America trading cards, "Phil said breathlessly.
Clint laughed, a sound Steve adored, and Coulson's glowing smile took Steve completely by surprise.
"They're actually vintage. Tony showed me how to use E-bay," Steve said with a shrug.
"And signed," Coulson said, standing up to show Clint.
"Felt funny doing that. Tony said it was good, though."
"Yeah," Coulson said, looking at Steve with an odd look on his face, something like adoration but with something else mixed in. He walked behind Clint, brushing his fingers through his hair as he passed, and stood in front of Steve.
He leaned in and Steve froze. He brushed Steve's lips with his own, pressing down tenderly and then pulling away, and said, "Thanks."
Steve looked over at Clint, who was grinning like a kid in a candy store, and then he looked up at Phil.
"We wanted to thank you properly tonight, anyway," Phil said.
Steve was confused. "Thank me?" His brain couldn't manage any other words.
"You kept Clint safe for me, Steve. You kept him sane while I was gone. I owe you a huge debt." He paused. "And I've gotten to know you since I came back and I enjoy your company."
Steve stood, backing away toward the door slowly. His heart was thudding in his chest and he couldn't tell if he was excited or scared or angry, feeling the blood rushing through his veins. He had been pretty damned progressive for nineteen forty when he and Bucky had hidden their affair successfully for two years before Steve let Bucky fall, but this . . . this was unexpected, and odd, and he didn't know what to do or who to look at, so he looked at the floor.
"Steve," Clint said, walking over and taking his hand. "It's okay. Phil and I have talked a lot about this."
Steve looked up at him and saw Clint's eyes boring into him with the intensity of lining up a target, but Steve felt safe. He always felt safe with Clint. He looked over at Coulson, who still had a smile on his face but whose eyes were focused with a similar intensity.
"We don't want to make you uncomfortable," Coulson said, stepping closer again. "But if you want to stay here tonight, you can. We can see how our proper thank-you goes."
"Coulson might freak out at having Captain America in his bed and new signed trading cards, but I'm game to try," Clint said, and Phil gave him a mock-glare.
Steve didn't know what he should do, but his throat was tight and he knew what he wanted to do, so he leaned into Clint and wrapped his hand around the back of his head, drawing him into a lingering kiss, feeling Clint explore his mouth with his tongue and relishing the intimacy he had thought he'd lost.
When they broke apart, Steve looked over at Coulson and found him smiling, the light in his eyes just dazzling to Steve, the acceptance, the desire almost overwhelming. He looked back at Clint and said, his voice a whisper, "I'll stay."
It was a hard road for Clint as his body fought the weapon in his system. It was four days before he woke properly, another seven before the doctors declared confidence in his recovery, and another three before they consented to send him back home to the Tower. Coulson never left his side, doing his mountains of paperwork from the hospital room chair, and Steve was there every minute except the mission he and Tony and Thor had to conduct.
Natasha, almost finished with her physical therapy, was waiting for them at the Tower when they brought Clint home, and she sat close to him all afternoon; Steve even saw her reach out to hold his arm from time to time, as if to reassure herself that he was there again.
After the day wore on and Clint wore down, Steve finally looked at Phil, who nodded. Steve stood and pulled Clint gently to his feet, seeing the dark circles, the hollow cheeks, the blue eyes faded with exhaustion. They said good night to the others and he led him back to Clint's apartment, keeping an arm around his waist with Phil going ahead of them to let them in.
When they guided him back to the bedroom, Phil quietly stripped Clint's shirt off, helped him out of his shoes, socks, and pants, and took the pajama pants that Steve handed him and helped Clint into them. Clint grinned as he stifled a yawn and said, "Thanks."
Steve nodded and leaned in, giving him a gentle kiss, running his hands through Clint's hair as he did it, and then taking a deep breath, glad for the thirtieth time all afternoon that Clint was back with them and safe. He looked at Coulson and then leaned in and gave him a quick kiss, too. "You two get some sleep. You both need it."
For some reason, he felt like this was a goodbye, and that whatever he and Clint and Phil had found before might be gone, knowing that Phil and Clint would be clinging together even more fiercely after the near-loss of Clint. It was okay with him, really. He could understand. He would miss it, having found a deep contentment in the two men sitting next to each other on the bed in front of him, but he would understand.
As he backed away from the bed, though, Clint's face darkened and Phil stood.
"Where are you going?" Clint asked.
"Back to my place, probably. I'm kind of worn out, too. I'll see you both in the morning if you don't need anything before then, okay?" Steve said.
Phil stepped to Steve and grasped his hand. "Stay."
Steve was startled. "What? No. You guys need some time."
"I need you," Clint said softly. "There are going to be new nightmares and I sleep better with both of you and you know that."
Steve remembered Clint's trembling voice trying to get its confidence back one night after waking from a nightmare, as Phil ran his hand through his hair and Steve held Clint's clammy hand, "They can't hurt me with you two around. They can't hurt me – none of them – not with Captain America and Phil Fucking Coulson watching out for me," and he'd tried to laugh but it was a shaky laugh and Phil and Steve both knew they were watching out for Clint then.
But even now?
He looked over at Phil, who nodded and smiled and began pulling off his own clothes, stripping down to his shorts and pulling on pajamas.
So Steve sighed and did the same, smiling to himself at his own fortune.
And Steve climbed in behind Clint, wrapping his long arms around his shoulders as Phil pressed his back against his chest, and they fell asleep, Steve holding Clint, Clint holding Phil, and Phil holding firmly onto Clint's hands.
They kept the nightmares at bay for each other, and helped each other sleep.