A/N: So here's the last section! Holiday festivities are going to get in the way if I don't go ahead and post this now, so I hope you enjoy it! It was fun to write, and I appreciate the many favorites and follows it's gotten. Reviews are like candy canes – sweet and refreshing – if you have any lying around I'd welcome them! Thanks again to the marvelous dysprositos. Look her up!
For two days, Bruce, Steve, and Tony took turns sitting with Natasha as she slept and watched bad TV in SHIELD medical. Bruce managed to get her to play a game of chess on the second day, but she blamed her painkillers for losing to him and demanded a rematch later.
In the late afternoon of the third day, Bruce was sipping a mug of tea and reading a journal, waiting for the doctors to bring the medication Natasha needed to take with her upon discharge when the door to her room opened and Clint walked in.
Bruce almost dropped his papers.
Clint had obviously just come from showering and changing clothes, his hair damp and navy blue t-shirt crisp. He was shuffling, though, hardly picking up his feet as he walked, and his eyes were sunken with bruised looking skin fading into pallor. He didn't even acknowledge Bruce.
He approached Natasha's bed, and Bruce saw her frown at him.
"Clint," she said gently, "You look like shit."
He laughed and ducked his head. "Yeah, two nights on stakeout and a bumpy plane ride back. I'm okay, though."
Bruce stood to leave and Clint finally turned to him with a tired smile. "Thanks, Bruce."
"Sure," Bruce said. "How's your shoulder?"
"Better," Clint said, but his voice was flat and Bruce wasn't sure he believed him.
"They're letting Natasha out pretty soon," Bruce said, "I was going to take her back to the Tower. I can take you, too if you'd like."
Clint shrugged. "I haven't done my debrief yet. I made Sitwell wait until I saw Nat. So I have to stay awhile, but thanks."
"We can wait, Clint," Natasha said quietly.
He disentangled himself from Natasha. "You know Sitwell takes forever when it's a multi-day op. It could be a couple hours. I'll see you guys tomorrow."
"You're leaving already?" She asked.
"I want to get something to eat before the debrief. Really, Nat, they wanted to start right away and I made 'em wait."
Bruce put his hand on Clint's shoulder. "Why don't I go get you something so you can stay here for a few minutes?" He looked at Natasha and she gave him a slight nod.
Clint argued, "No, I'm just going to grab a coffee and bagel and go. It's on the way. I just wanted to check on you, Nat, Jesus." He pulled his hand from hers and stepped back, turning to leave.
"We'll see you at the Tower later, right?" She called, but he just waved her off and left. She looked over at Bruce.
He rubbed a hand down his face. "How about I get you out of here and back to the Tower and then I'll come back and wait for him?" he asked.
She nodded. "Coulson made him take care of himself," she said quietly after a moment.
"What?" Bruce asked.
"Phil wouldn't let this happen. It's the handler's call whether an agent has to report to medical after a mission if there aren't any glaring injuries. A handler can require a visit against the agent's will. Coulson was constantly dragging Clint to medical because he would just ignore anything that wasn't a limb falling off."
"And Sitwell's not."
"He's under pressure and doesn't know Clint's habits as well as he should. SHIELD is short a lot of hands right now and Fury's being pulled a bunch of directions." She sighed, "Sitwell doesn't know Clint's limits like Coulson did."
"Clint doesn't know his limits, either, it seems," Bruce added.
"No, he doesn't think they're worth worrying about," Natasha corrected.
"How can Sitwell take him out so soon after an Avengers mission?" Bruce asked. "Aren't there down time rules?"
She nodded absently, then snapped back to him and replied, "Yes. But those are for SHIELD ops. Protocols aren't in place for Avengers and Clint's not standing up for himself."
"Maybe we should stand up for him," Bruce replied, and then left to go find the doctor and Natasha's paperwork.
Two hours later, he was sitting in a lounge area waiting for Clint. He had a calendar pulled up on a tablet and he'd been thinking over the last few weeks and making notes on how long Clint was out on ops and what injuries he'd incurred. Bruce wanted to show it to Steve later. Someone needed to go to bat for Clint, and Steve was the leader.
It was about six-thirty at night before people started to come filing out of the conference room, and Bruce just shook his head and stood when Clint passed him by without even noticing him.
"Agent Barton," he called, and Clint turned slowly and then looked up at the ceiling.
"Hey, Doc. Just hanging around SHIELD at night? Not your style."
Bruce grinned and held up the car keys. "Thought you could use a ride."
"You and Nat are ganging up on me, aren't you?" Clint said, waiting for Bruce to catch up.
"You could put it that way," Bruce replied. "Or you could say we're looking out for you. Take your pick."
Clint just shrugged and they headed for the parking garage. When Bruce saw Clint fumble to even get the door open, he stepped closer and put his hand on Clint's back, gently. He reached around Clint and opened the door for him. "Here."
"Sorry, thanks," Clint slumped into the seat, letting Bruce close the door behind him.
He was asleep before Bruce even got the car turned on.
Before Bruce pulled out of the SHIELD facility he texted Steve to meet him in the Tower parking garage, and he and Tony were waiting when he pulled in. Clint was leaned back in the seat and snoring lightly when Bruce climbed out of the car without waking him.
Tony peeked into the car on Clint's side. "You gonna let him sleep in his car? That seems harsh."
Bruce glared at Tony. "I didn't invite you."
"I answer Steve's texts for him. He types too slowly."
"Steve," Bruce said, ignoring Tony, "Can you carry Clint to my apartment? He's out cold."
"Wait," Tony said. "He's probably armed, and have you ever woken him from a nap before? I almost lost a finger the one time I did it."
"I heal easily," Steve said, and he opened Clint's door and gently lifted him into his arms.
"Jesus, he's wiped, isn't he?" Tony said as the three of them climbed in the elevator. Clint was draped in Steve's arms and his head was pressed against Steve's chest. He was still snoring.
Bruce nodded. They took Clint to Bruce's apartment and Steve laid him out on the couch. Bruce turned on the fountain and the music Clint liked and Tony pulled the sniper's boots off, setting them on the floor.
"Thanks, guys," Bruce said. "Hey, Steve, could you check on Natasha and tell her he's back? I don't want him waking up alone right now."
He looked at Clint and then at Tony, who was regarding him oddly. "What?" he asked.
Tony shrugged. "Call if you need anything," he replied, and then he and Steve left.
When JARVIS woke him at two in the morning calling for the Avengers to assemble, Bruce cussed more than he had since Tony set fire to his favorite tennis shoes.
Clint was sitting up groggily when he got to his living room.
"Bruce? How the hell did I get here? What – what's going on?"
JARVIS chimed in. "Agent Barton, Dr. Banner, the assemble call is an emergency requiring immediate presence at the jet."
"Clint, you shouldn't come," Bruce said as he watched Clint stand and waver. He reached out a steadying hand.
"Why not? I have to come," Clint replied, voice still thick with sleep. "I've got to get my bow,"
"Sir," Jarvis interrupted, "Mr. Stark had your bow and supplies delivered to the jet two minutes ago."
"Clint, you're in no condition to go fight!" Bruce said.
"Natasha can't come and Thor's in Asgard. I'm coming, Bruce."
Bruce knew it was a bad idea.
SHIELD had discovered a compound in the jungle of Peru, hidden on a preserve near a science research station that had been around for over fifteen years. AIM had compromised some of the villagers and persuaded them to help arm and defend the area, and now they were getting ready to test some new weapons. They needed a definitive strike, but one that took the villagers into account, which meant precision work from Clint.
He was good for it, despite his condition. Bruce hung back, listening over the comms and hearing Steve and Clint do most of the early work. They had to get the civilians out of the compound before letting Tony and Bruce in to deal with the explosive stuff, and Steve and Clint worked seamlessly together. Steve called out targets as he made his way into the compound and Clint took them out, moving from perch to perch with his graceful agility.
They picked apart the perimeter, and since the villagers were being used for grunt work, they were easy to find and gather. Clint's Spanish skills and Steve's generally reassuring demeanor helped lead them away. Bruce helped gather them and he led them back to their village safely before returning to the perimeter to see where the rest of the team was on the mission to disarm the scientists and confiscate the research.
"Bruce, we've got the building cleared. You and Tony need to address the tech now," Steve said over the comm as Bruce approached the building. Clint was leaning against the doorway, a dazed look on his sweaty face.
"Clint?" Bruce said as he approached him. He got no response.
He tapped the comm in his ear. "Tony, give me a couple minutes. Steve, can you come around to the front entrance?"
He moved closer to Clint and saw him breathing shallowly. He put his hand on the archer's arm and said, "Hey, can you talk to me?"
Clint finally dragged his gaze to Bruce and swallowed hard. "I'm tired, Bruce," he said, his voice weak and soft.
Bruce nodded. "Here, sit. Steve's coming around and I'm gonna have him take you back to the jet."
Clint leaned back against the wall, but didn't sit down. "Phil's gonna be pissed," he mumbled, and this time he didn't catch his mistake.
Bruce blanched. "He'll understand," he said, knowing that upsetting Clint right now would just make things worse. Bruce wished, not for the first time, that Phil Coulson hadn't challenged a god. "Come on, sit down." Clint nodded and finally sank to the ground. He leaned his head back against the wall. Bruce was going to leave him there for Steve, but he realized that Clint was trembling, so he reached out to take his pulse. "Fuck." It was erratic and way too fast, and Clint's eyes had lost focus again.
"Clint," he said again, putting his hand against Clint's cheek.
Steve came up behind them and knelt down. "What happened?" he asked.
"He's crashing, that's what happened. Over exertion. Sleep deprivation. Erratic heart rate and disorientation," Bruce said. "You need to get him back to the jet. Make him drink a bottle of water, slowly, and try and get him cooled down. I'll check on Tony and get back as quick as I can. Keep an eye on his pulse – if it hasn't gone back to 60-100 beats per minute by the time you get him to the jet, call for a med team. He's a high risk for a heart attack in this state. Otherwise, keep him cool and calm, and get him to drink."
Steve nodded and scooped Clint up, and Bruce hurried into the facility. He and Tony needed to work fast.
It took thirty minutes for them to download all the files they needed and for Iron Man to destroy the labs. Bruce headed back to the jet, unsure of what he'd find.
Steve was holding Clint, propped up against his chest, and Clint's eyes were glassy.
When Clint saw Bruce, he took a shaky breath.
"See, I told you he was okay. He's okay, Clint," Steve said, gently, and looked up at Bruce. "His pulse rate slowed down, but he keeps alternating between asking for you and Agent Coulson. Something's wrong."
Bruce nodded and Tony climbed over them to pilot the jet. "Tony," Bruce said, following him to the cockpit. "Can you get a doctor to meet us at the Tower? Maybe get an IV set-up in Clint's room?"
"You don't want him at SHIELD?" Tony asked.
"I don't trust them with him right now. I also want copies of his employment contracts waiting. I want Steve to go through it and figure out how to keep him with us more, and I want to start by not letting them get their hands on him at all."
Tony nodded. "Done."
Bruce went back to Steve and Clint, and Steve was getting him to drink some more water. Bruce sat down beside them. "Hey," he said to Clint.
"Bruce," Clint said weakly. "I wore myself out, huh?"
"Yeah. Yeah you did," Bruce replied. "You're going to get some rest, though."
"What? Why?" Steve asked. "You have to rest."
Clint shook his head. "SHIELD mission coming up. Gotta prep for it." He paused and then added, "Phil has all the paperwo-"
Clint went very still in Steve's arms, and then suddenly put his hands on his face and covered his eyes. "Dammit, Dammit." He whispered.
Bruce leaned over and ran his hand through Clint's hair. "It's okay, Clint. It's understandable."
Clint looked up at Bruce, pleading, "Why do I keep forgetting? I need to stop forgetting."
"You're suffering from physical and mental exhaustion," Bruce replied. "You need some rest."
"I can't settle. I feel wired," he protested.
"We're going to get you a sedative when we get back to the Tower. And you're going to see a doctor who isn't tied to SHIELD."
Steve held Clint a little tighter. "We're not going to let them have you any time soon, okay? You're done splitting time for a while."
Clint just shook his head and dropped his chin to his chest. "'m just tired."
After they got Clint back to the Tower, the doctor Tony found came and put Clint on an IV of fluids and took some blood work to determine what else he needed. He gave him a sedative and Clint was asleep before long. Natasha curled up in a chair near his bed, her arm in a sling and one of Tony's tablets on her lap.
Bruce met Steve and Tony at Clint's dining room table, which was strewn with papers. They were each combing through sections of it when there was a knock at the door. Bruce opened it and took a step back.
"Director Fury," he said as evenly as he could.
"Dr. Banner, you're holding one of my agents. I need him back at SHIELD immediately."
Bruce laughed. "No offense intended, sir, but no. He's staying here. He's currently sedated and we're not moving him."
"Sir," Steve called, and Bruce stepped aside so Fury could join Steve and Tony at the table.
"Captain Rogers," Fury acknowledged.
"We're going to redo Agent Barton's contract with SHIELD, sir. It needs to be adjusted."
"Adjusted?" Fury asked, raising his eyebrow.
Tony interrupted, "Director, I've sent copies of Agent Barton's employment contracts to my lawyer. He's going to make some changes and you'll need to sign them tomorrow."
"What changes? What's going on?" Fury said, looking back at Bruce.
"You don't know why we're keeping Clint here?" Bruce asked, seeing the confusion on Fury's face.
"I know you're keeping him. Sitwell requested that Mr. Stark bring Agent Barton to SHIELD medical tonight when it was found that he suffered an injury on your latest mission. Sitwell then informed me that you all were refusing to let him go. No one keeps one of my best agents out of medical when he needs it. That's what I know. Now would someone explain what else is going on?"
Bruce sighed. "We're keeping him here because every time he gets a moment free, SHIELD takes him on a mission, and his body can't handle a mission right now."
Fury was quiet for a minute. "Agent Sitwell is not permitted to take him on a mission if he's not cleared by medical."
"No one's been asking medical," Natasha said from the hallway, and everyone watched as she approached Fury. "Clint and Sitwell are making the calls on whether he's able, and you, sir, are probably aware of Agent Barton's ability to self-evaluate."
Fury sighed. "What's his status now?"
"Exhaustion at the least. Irregular heart rate and disorientation are the primary symptoms," Bruce said. "Tony's doctor pulled blood work to see if there are vitamin deficiencies or any nutrition problems. We've got him sedated for now because he's also having trouble sleeping on his own."
Fury looked around the room. "All right. He can stay here. I'll clear a spot on my schedule tomorrow, Mr. Stark, and your lawyer and ours can meet with me to work out a reasonable division of time and workload if necessary. I expect him to be able to help SHIELD out from time to time. I have no intention of losing one of my best agents."
Fury left then, and Bruce felt a shift in the mood.
"My guy will make sure Clint's with us more than them," Tony said. "Then we can teach the idiot how to say 'no' from time to time."
Bruce grinned and everyone filed out, Natasha back to Clint's room and Steve and Tony out to get some rest of their own.
Clint slept for twenty hours. When he woke Bruce was sitting in the chair near his bed, reading a book.
"Bruce," Clint said, his voice hoarse from disuse.
Bruce looked up and grinned, and then leaned over to give Clint a drink. "How are you feeling?"
Clint sighed. "Tired. So goddamned tired." He paused and looked at his hand with the IV in it. "Why am I in my own room with an IV, Bruce?"
"Because none of us wanted you back at SHIELD just yet. You need to recover."
"You ran yourself to the ground, Clint. Exhaustion. We're also working with SHIELD to redefine your workload."
Clint's face darkened. "I can still work for them," he protested.
"No one's saying you can't. We just need to be able to look out for you a little better."
"I can look out for myself," Clint said, clearly angry.
"Can you?" Bruce asked, softly. "Natasha said that was sort of Agent Coulson's forte."
At that Clint started to try and get up, so Bruce stood and pressed him back to the bed. "I'm sorry, Clint. I'm sorry he's gone and not here to help take care of you. And yes, you can take care of yourself, but you didn't. Whether that was guilt or work ethic or self-esteem issues doesn't matter right now. You ran yourself down and he wasn't here to stop it and we didn't catch on until it was too late."
Clint leaned back, breathing hard, and he closed his eyes and was quiet for a minute.
Bruce sat on the edge of the bed. "Tony's just having his lawyers draw clear lines about how many missions you can go on, downtime from Avengers missions, medical check-in requirements, that sort of thing. That way you can say no if you need to, okay? You should be allowed to say no if you need to."
This time when Clint opened his eyes they were glazed with unshed tears. "Okay," he said. He ducked his head and said, "Phil could see when I wasn't paying attention. I – I have a hard time saying no because before SHIELD I was never allowed to say no. I never learned how. So he said it for me, first as my handler and then as my partner. I guess—I guess I need to learn now that he's gone."
They sat together quietly for a few minutes and Bruce leaned over and picked up Clint's hand. He wasn't sure why, but it felt like the right thing to do, and it felt good. "Clint," he said. "You have friends now. Let us help you. You shut us out at the beginning, and now I know you were grieving. Then you let us in a little, but not enough. We'll help you."
Clint nodded. "I'm still really tired," he whispered.
"So sleep," Bruce responded with a smile. "When you wake up I'll get you some tea and you'll feel better."
Clint nodded, and this time a few of the tears in his eyes fell. "I miss him. I miss him so goddamned much," he said, his voice ragged.
Bruce nodded. "Let us help with that, too, okay? We'll play chess and talk about him and we'll cook and get through it. No one knew. But now we do, and we can help."
"Why?" Clint asked.
"Because that's what friends do. And it's been a long time since I've had friends, and I want to do this," Bruce replied with a smile.
"Okay," Clint said with a smile. "I'll sleep and then all us misfits'll work on being friends."
And he closed his eyes and slept again. Bruce left Natasha with him so he could go make some tea.