As stated in the summary, this is fic written with permission from the ridic brilliant and generous hoosierbitch to play around in her dyslexia-verse, which, if you haven't read, you really should, because it's easily one of the top five best Clint fics in Avengers fandom, currently, for reals. This fic MIGHT be readable without that one, but it will make way more sense with it.
Also, I am using this to kick-off my new 2012 -2013 hc_bingo card with torture. Because where better to start, really?
For Clint’s birthday, Coulson gets a lock installed on his door. Clint knows Coulson has the code, of course, but it’s the principle of the thing that makes Clint key in the lock—symbols, not letters or numbers, because evidently Coulson thought ahead like always—pretend to hear the tumblers fall, and stand with his forehead to the door for what is probably the better part of half an hour. He doesn’t feel safe, not precisely, but something very close, something approximating safe, and it’s the only form of safety he’s really known.
He doesn’t ask how Coulson knew when his birthday was. He doesn’t remember telling SHIELD, but he knows that doesn’t matter. Instead, the next time he needs arrows, he works and works at filling out the form until it’s right, until he’s done it on his own. It takes six tries over five hours, one broken pencil, and two stops to just breathe, but he concentrates on the ways Coulson has found to overcome the problems, the tricks the man has worked so hard to find without giving Clint up, and he manages.
Coulson must not get that Clint’s initiative is a thank you, rather than a request for more, because the next thing Clint knows, he’s the owner of a sweet little ficus, a plant Coulson explains is, “Kind of like you. Impossible to kill.”
Clint only gets caught because he’s doing his job. He’s been told to keep his sights on the principal, and he does. Which is why he misses the whistle of the projectile, doesn’t notice anything headed for him until the dart is buried in his neck. He has time to gasp, “Coul—“ before the sedative hits.
He doesn’t give them anything but his name. He would tell them his SHIELD ID number, because that’s allowed, but he can never get it right, eight numbers, two of them repeats and while it probably wouldn’t hurt for his captors to think he’s retarded, it would hit a little close to the bone to keep saying it wrong.
He screams his name when they remove his fingernails, one by one, not rushing, and when they burn his genitals. He grunts it when they beat his feet and his back with batons. He stutters it after thirty, forty hours of active sleep deprivation. He whispers it when the dehydration gets to a point where he can’t manage anything louder.
The open nail beds become infected. At first there’s just swelling and pain, but soon enough the fever hits, alternating with chills, and Clint almost thinks he would tell them something for one drink of water, just a sip. He makes himself think of Coulson’s hands, pruning the bonsai, of the hours Coulson has spent, going over tricks and methods to make letters stay where the fuck they should, and Clint stays quiet.
At some point, someone picks him up, weirdly gentle, and Clint knows about this technique, how they send in someone after all the pain, someone to gain your trust. He finds it doubly cruel that the person they’ve sent smells like Coulson, shoe polish and office leather and sandalwood shampoo. He croaks, “Clint Barton.”
The person they’ve sent has Coulson’s voice, too. Clint tunes him out before he gives anything up.
He wakes up to beeping and warmth and a numbness sweeter than anything Clint has ever known. For a second he considers the possibility that he has died, but then the dregs of sleep break up in his mind and he recognizes the SHIELD infirmary. He blinks, slowly, realizing that the people he’s working for came for him. The thought is almost painful in its enormity.
Clint does his best to look around, see if there is a glass of water. He is still desperately thirsty. He has barely turned his head when a voice says, “Stay still. Thirsty?”
Clint blinks up at Coulson, who’s now standing above him. He tries, “Yes,” but it doesn’t come out. Coulson must understand, because the next thing Clint knows, there’s something sharply cold on his tongue, sliding down his throat, and he has to fight the urge to cry.
“Another chip?” Coulson asks.
Clint’s, “yes,” is stronger this time.
Somewhere along the way, they take him off the really good stuff, and waking becomes an experience in throbbing, full-body misery. Clint’s not unused to the feeling, but it’s been a while since he’s had to deal with it, and he hasn’t missed it.
He hears the turning of a page and looks over to see Coulson in the chair by the bed, reading a book. Coulson hasn’t been there every time Clint has woken up, but more times than not. Clint tries, “Good morning.”
Coulson closes the book and sets it on the stand next to the bed. “Around ten in the evening, actually, but I appreciate the sentiment.”
For the first time in a while, Clint feels like smiling. Coulson smiles back, more a shadow of a smile than anything, but it’s something, and meant for Clint. Stupidly, Clint thinks maybe the torture was worth it for this moment, all the time Coulson has sat next to him. He wishes he’d been awake for the latter, but beggars and choosers, really.
“Your hands are going to be fine,” Coulson tells him.
Clint’s gaze flickers down to where all of his fingers are still covered in bandages. They feel much better than the last time he could feel them at all, but that’s not really saying much. The rush of relief at knowing the one thing that makes him useful, employable, able to take care of himself at all isn’t going to be taken from him is painful in its own right, and he has to ride it out a bit.
Coulson is patient, quiet. He squeezes Clint’s bicep, where he’s not hurt, and says, “You’ll be back on missions shortly.”
Clint bites the inside of his lip. Carefully, because this matters, and he needs to say it right, he sounds out, “Thank you for…not leaving me.”
Clint turns his head, then, so he won’t have to see Coulson’s face when he ever-so-gently explains that Clint is an asset to SHIELD, or whatever. Instead, though, Coulson says softly, “There was never any question of that.”
Clint sneaks out of the infirmary once he’s off the antibiotics. He knows better than to fuck with those, but he can manage without the fluids and painkillers, he just needs his own bed and a couple of days.
He startles awake to Coulson coming into his room. He blinks and asks, “What, didn’t your mom ever teach you to knock?” but it’s half-hearted, tired. It took a lot of effort to get from the infirmary back to his room.
Coulson doesn’t bother to respond, just sits in the one chair Clint now has, the product of an afternoon spent between the two of them, filling out forms purely to make Clint’s living space more, well, livable. Coulson had made most of the requests after it was clear the idea was somewhat outside of Clint’s experience, but there are a few things in the room Clint chose, such as the black and white photography of hawks, and the pillow made with materials that adjust to the shape of his head.
Coulson opens the book he’s brought with him and Clint blinks. “Is that pleasure reading?”
Coulson looks up. “I have hobbies.”
The way he says it tells Clint that Coulson knows exactly what all the junior and probationary officers think he does in his spare time: namely, paperwork. Clint gives him a huff of laughter. “What’re you reading?”
Something like a flush crawls up Coulson’s neck and until this moment, Clint hasn’t realized Coulson can be embarrassed, or even caught off-guard. Coulson’s tone is even, though, when he says, “Grapes of Wrath.”
“I’ve heard of that,” Clint says, feeling proud for a second, and then completely stupid, because it’s probably super famous.
If Coulson thinks it’s a stupid response, though, he doesn’t show it. Instead he says, “It’s my favorite. Sometimes-- Every once in a while knowing what’s going to happen is…nice.”
Clint had a picture book once. It told the story of two kids who went out into the rain to play until the rain stopped and sun came out, drying everything out. That was the whole story. Clint had loved that book. “Yeah, sometimes.”
Coulson smiles at him again, this smile quick and sharp and real. Clint feels overwhelmed by it. His brain comes up with too many responses at once and a mess of words comes off his tongue, making sense to nobody, not even himself. He turns away so he won’t have to see Coulson’s expression change to one of pity.
Instead, after a few beats of silence, Coulson asks, “Would you like me to read to you?”
Clint freezes, unsure how to take the offer. Yes he wants that, more than anything, of course he does. But it’s such a child-like thing to want.
Coulson continues, “I’ve never shared this book with anyone, but it’s-- It’s meant to be shared.”
Clint braves, “Why?”
It takes a moment for Coulson to find words, evidently, which is comforting. Finally, he settles on, “Because it’s about people doing their best when things are at their worst. It’s about surprising kindness and hard-won hope. And those things should be shared.”
“Then—“ Clint swallows. “Then why haven’t you?”
There’s the rustle of pages and Coulson’s, “Never found anyone who was right to share it with,” is quiet, almost a whisper.
Clint answers even more quietly. “I’d really like you to read to me.”
More rustling, and then Coulson clears his throat, and begins telling Clint his favorite story.