The pain overpowered all of Clint's senses, dropping him to the ground. He only was aware of the ground below him because of the stabbing feeling where it touched his skin. His whole body felt like it was overheating. Like his skin was steaming and boiling. His back was screaming at him and his chest felt tight. He felt like his heart would stop at any second. Like it would just give out in the sudden strain. Clint could feel the darkness creeping in at the edge of his vision. His body was shaking. He could hear footsteps around him. Voices shouting at him. But he heard none of it as the darkness swallowed him.
Three Months Previous
"Something wrong, Clint?" Steve's voice snapped Clint back to reality. To the exuberance that was an Avengers family meal. Steve was looking across the table at him, concern etched onto his face.
"Just daydreaming about a quiet beach somewhere." Clint lied, his smile sliding into place effortlessly. Steve seemed to buy it, joining back in the discussion of favorite movies. It was Thursday, meaning movie night. Which meant that all of Thursday was spent arguing about which movie to watch. It sounded like they had narrowed it down to two movies but Clint didn't join in the discussion.
Right now he was preoccupied by the pain in his stomach. It was a weird pain. Not like a stomach bug, or the flu, or even appendicitis. (Though to be honest that one was probably the closest). But it wasn't isolated either. It spread out along his abdomen. Tracing a line just under his ribs. It caused his breath to hitch as his muscles involuntarily contracted against the pain.
He didn't quite remember when the pain had started. It had come on so gradually, over weeks. But certain things made it worse. Like eating. Or pressure. Or heat. And even if he avoided those extra triggers, the pain was always there. It came in waves. Sometimes growing until he had to curl up into a ball against it. Other times dipping so low that he was barely aware of it. But it was always there. A new constant in Clint's life that he wasn't quite sure how to handle.
The first thing Clint had done was start rating the pain on a scale of 1 to 10. It was something his mom had done. Being able to analyze and categorize the pain helped him manage it. Helped him keep himself under control. So that he didn't show it to the others. Clint hated showing weakness of any sort. And some mysterious stomach pain that he couldn't figure out was definitely a weakness. So he kept a tally of numbers in his head, 5 at 3 o'clock, up to a 7 at 5 o'clock, back down to a 6 by 9 o'clock, and he kept the pain from everyone. Even Tasha and Coulson.
One Month Previous
The pain was just getting worse. Every day the waves would spike higher for longer and hardly dip down. It was starting to interfere with his everyday life. He couldn't eat more than a few bites of food without his body screaming in pain. Even then he was limited because there were only a few foods his body was keeping down. His diet had been reduced to little more than dry cheerios and pieces of white bread. He'd had to start taking the vitamins medical had been pushing on him for years. Then he'd started downing sports drinks just to be safe.
Even with all that his body was failing. His muscles ached constantly. He could barely lift his bow let alone draw it. He was always tired. He slept for almost 12 hours every night and still took naps during the day. But it was never restful sleep. He tossed and turned constantly, never able to find a comfortable position that didn't aggravate the pain in his abdomen. Every breath hurt and he was constantly alternating between sweating and shivering. (He had been running a fever for weeks but he was popping Tylenol to keep it down. So no one had to know.) But the worst part had come when his right hand had started shaking. Just a small tremor that he could hide easily enough, except when they were on missions. Because holding the bow in his hand only served as a beacon, drawing attention to the fact that Clint physically could not keep his hand still.
Not the best trait in a marksman.
Thankfully the villains were taking it easy. Clint didn't know if they were just resting up for something big or enjoying the summer weather, but he appreciated it nonetheless. Or he was pretty sure that's what he would be feeling and thinking if both of those things didn't hurt. His brain felt as tired and raw as the rest of him. He muddled through each day like he was in a thick cloud. He could barely keep focused on anything for more than a few seconds before completely spacing out (also not the best quality in a marksman).
One Hour Previous
Clint knew it wouldn't last forever. Eventually even villains got bored and when they got bored was when the Avengers got to work. This time it was Dr. Doom. Not Clint's favorite baddie to deal with normally (the guy reminded him too much of Stark, building too many damn robots that his arrows had little effect on) but today just seemed like torture.
Somehow Clint found himself on a roof, 15 stories in the air, staring down at the chaos in the street below. He could hear the team fighting and shouting over the comms. So far they were managing on their own. He'd had little to do other than sit and watch. Yet he still felt as exhausted as he had after the Budapest mission. Not to mention it was the middle of the fucking afternoon in the dog days of summer. The temp was pushing 100 and he was sweating so badly his grip kept slipping on his bow.
The mission had finished with Clint doing nothing. He'd staggered over to the stairs and had somehow managed to get down them and to the elevator on the floor below before the wave of pain overtook him; jumping instantly from a 6 to a 9. The minor exertion causing his heart to feel like it was dying inside his chest. Clint wondered vaguely if this was just another new part of the mysterious disease or if maybe he was just having a good old-fashioned heart attack. It depressed him that he was hoping for the heart attack option.
Back To The Present
Coulson tried to not think about the tightness in his chest. Barton would be fine. The doctors had said that he was just dehydrated and a little malnourished. Some rest and an IV and he'd be up on his feet in no time. Still, looking down at his unconscious form laid out on the hospital bed, Coulson felt his breath hitch. Barton looked so pale. So thin. His eyes were sunken and there were dark circles below them. His skin was tight and dry, his lips pale and cracked. He was the very image of sickness.
But what had come as the biggest shock was seeing Barton's thin frame as they had dressed him in a hospital gown. Coulson had noticed that Barton had been seeming to eat less lately, but he hadn't realized it was this bad. The once muscular body was now wasted away. Judging from what little Coulson had seen, he guessed that the man must have lost at least 20 pounds of pure muscle.
The other Avengers staggered in one-by-one as they got through with their own post-op medical check-ups. He gave them all the same cursory report. Just enough to make them all feel like they were in the loop, without letting them see just how serious this was. Because despite what the doctors said, Coulson knew there was something very wrong for Clint to have ended up like this. For him to have let himself deteriorate like this without telling either him or Natasha.
Natasha seemed to agree. She was the last one to enter the room. (She had been hit by a piece of shrapnel in her arm and had had to get a dozen stitches.) Her eyes flicked between Barton and Coulson, worry etched onto her face. She sat down in the chair next to Coulson's, which Cap, being the perfect gentleman, had just vacated, quickly scanning the medical equipment screens. They had both been in medical enough times to understand most of the readings. "He'll be fine." She whispered out of the corner of her mouth. Too quiet for the others to hear. "We'll get him better then figure out what happened."
Coulson nodded. Not trusting his voice to get past the lump in his throat. Which only worsened as Barton's shoulders shifted and the man let out a low groan. Instantly everyone's eyes were focused on the bed and their hushed conversations fell off. Barton's eyes fluttered open and he looked around the room. His brow furrowed in confusion. "What are you all doing here?" Barton's voice was rough and weak.
"Checking up on you, duh." Stark rolled his eyes. "It's kind of what we do, ya know, when one of us gets hurt. Or did you hit your head too?" Stark was very lucky that Coulson didn't have his taser on him. And that Tasha had already moved her hand onto his to remind him that drawing his gun would be going too far.
"Do you remember what happened?" Cap asked.
Barton's face scrunched up in concentration and the corner of his mouth twitched. Coulson's heart started racing. He knew that twitch. It was one of Barton's tells. The one that showed when he was forcing himself to keep still. Barton was fighting something back. "I remember the mission. And being really hot. And… an elevator…" Barton was good, Coulson would give him that. The lies slipped out naturally enough. But Coulson had known Barton for far too long to be fooled. And judging by the way Natasha's grip on his arm tightened ever so slightly, she hadn't been fooled either.
"You passed out. Dehydration. You have to stay here for a while but the doctors say you'll be fine." Banner patted Barton gently on the shoulder. Barton smiled up at him. It looked too thin. Too worn. But Banner didn't seem to mind. Even when Barton suddenly yawned widely. "We'll let you get some rest." He then led the others out, having to tag team with Cap to get Tony to leave. Finally leaving Barton alone with just Natasha and Coulson.
The second the door was closed Natasha crossed the room and locked it. She then spun on a heel, slow and steady, glaring down at Barton. Coulson turned his eyes on the archer as well. With the others gone the man had let some of his shield down. His face was now set in tight lines. Coulson could make out the lines of muscles where his jaw was clenching.
"What's wrong?" Natasha asked, draping herself elegantly on the edge of the bed.
"You heard Banner. Dehydration. I'll be fine."
"Clint." Tasha's voice was sharp. "This is us. Don't you dare lie. Stop pretending you're not in pain."
Barton groaned again, though Coulson thought that it was supposed to have been a sigh. "I don't know what it is." Clint's voice was barely above a whisper. Coulson had to stand up and take a few steps closer in order to hear it properly. "I just know it hurts when I eat. Or breathe. Or move. Or, well, anything."
"Why didn't you tell us?" Coulson finally managed to find his voice. His anger at Barton's stupidity overriding the sea of other emotions that he still refused to acknowledge. "How long has this been happening?"
Barton shifted, uncomfortable with the scrutiny. Coulson's eye noted how he seemed to adjust so that he was sitting more upright, curling his legs up into his chest just a fraction of an inch. Abdominal pain. That explained the not eating. "I didn't want to worry you guys. It's not that bad and I figured it was just a bug or something that'd go away after a few days."
"It didn't. It just got worse."
"How long?" Tasha slipped her hand into Barton's and Coulson bit back the jealousy that rose in his throat.
"Not long. Just a few weeks."
They could both see he was lying. But they didn't push it. They were lucky to have gotten as much out of Clint as they had. The man hated admitting weakness. They still had yet to convince him that injury and disease weren't weakness. They were things out of his control. Well, all except the times when he threw himself in harm's way on purpose. But those were a result of a mental weakness born out of Barton's past and neither Coulson nor Natasha were stupid enough to broach that topic.
"You still should have told us. As it is, I'll be having a discussion with the doctors to get some tests run." Barton's whole face fell at Coulson's words. Looking like a child being told he needed to get a shot. "If you try and get out of this or make a break for it, I will hunt your ass down and strap you to this bed until they figure out what's wrong with you. Understood?"
Barton hesitated, seeming to consider it. Natasha rolled her eyes and smacked him upside the head. "Ow, fine!" He pulled his hand out of hers to rub at the spot where she'd hit him. Not that she'd used enough force to actually cause any pain. "You're supposed to be nice to sick people." Barton was trying at humor but the tone was off. A dark cloud passed behind the man's eyes and Coulson saw his body tense slightly. His eyes were focused on a point on the far wall, not seeing anything. His mouth twitched.
He was still holding back. They wouldn't be able to get a clear read on what this was if Barton wasn't being completely honest with them. Which Coulson knew would never happen. So he would have to be a little dishonest himself.
"Come on, Natasha. We have doctors to meet with." Coulson let his lips twitch up ever so slightly at the way Barton pouted. Natasha kissed Barton on the forehead before following Coulson from the room. They waited until they were a few yards down the hallway before speaking. Hawkeye may be known for his eyesight, but he had excellent hearing as well.
"He's still hiding something." Natasha wasn't even trying to hide the concern in her voice.
"I know. I have a plan. I need you to go check with the doctors. Meet me in Room 233 when you're done." Her eyes widened slightly as she realized what he was suggesting. She nodded once and disappeared down the hallway. Coulson turned and walked in the other direction. Headed for a room on the other side of the building.
When Coulson pushed open the door he wasn't surprised to find the security guard munching on a donut while playing angry birds on his phone. The security feeds in the medical bay were notorious for being either the most boring or the most disgusting. SHIELD agents faced a lot of weird tech and sometimes there were some rather… unpleasant… side-effects. Most people tended to avoid medical as much as possible and getting assigned security here was a huge punishment.
Coulson closed the door with a little extra force so that it would slam slightly. The guard's head snapped up, wide-eyed. When he recognized Coulson he jumped to his feet and gave a salute. "Agent Coulson, sir."
"At ease, Agent –" He glanced at the man's nametag "Croyston. I'm not here on official business."
The man relaxed slightly. Still waiting for Coulson to tell him off. "What can I help you with, sir?"
"I need to see one of the feeds."
"I'm sorry, sir. But only security personnel are allowed to view them. Unless you have a signed 13-A8 Form."
Coulson had to fight not to smile. "And do you know who it is who signs the 13-A8 Forms?" The man started to shake his head before catching on. "I would like to view a feed." Coulson repeated. His voice as calm and measured as he could make it. "Privately." Croyston nodded and shuffled out of the room. Coulson locked the door behind him. He figured he had three minutes before Croyston realized that Fury and Hill were the only ones with the authority to sign those forms. Coulson threw himself into the vacated chair, ignoring the donut crumbs. He typed at the controls, searching desperately. Why did there have to be so many rooms? So many cameras? Finally he found it. He switched it to the main screen, bringing it up to full size.
His heart stopped. The air left his chest as if it'd been punched out of him. Barton had been lying all right. The pain was obviously more than just a little something. In the grainy footage, Coulson could see Clint, curled up on his hospital bed. Wrapped so tightly into a ball that he seemed to vanish behind where the sheets and blankets had been shoved into a mound. Coulson could see the archer's body shaking. Whether from pain or tears, he didn't know. It didn't matter. Clint was hurting. Hurting worse than Coulson had ever seen. Or could have imagined.
He wanted to run back in there. To hold Clint in his arms and sooth away the pain. But he couldn't. Not just because Barton would never let him see the weakness. But because if Phil saw Clint like this, in person… He wouldn't be able to hide exactly how he felt. He dropped his head into his hands. Pushing his palms into his eyes until he saw stars before using them to brush away the tears.