The dog cage Clint woke up trapped in, while making the list, was currently low on said list of his biggest problems. The fact that the cage and much of his surroundings were painted blue? A much larger issue.
All jokes about PTSD triggers aside, Tony'd had to have an entire wing of the common floor repainted after Clint had a borderline panic attack at being surrounded by walls of pure blue. It wasn't even the same electric color, the same watery film that had filled his mind and sight for days. It didn't matter: he wasn't good with the color blue anymore. Even Nat's widow's bites kind of made his skin itch.
"Awake, Barton?" an all-too-familiar voice asked. And as much as Clint preferred not to be alone in this situation, he would have taken it ten times over hearing that voice and knowing he was trapped, too.
"Sir," Clint said. His breaths were coming in short pants.
"Barton, breathe on my count. In, one, two, three. Hold, one, two. Out, one, two, three, four, five." Coulson repeated the pattern and Clint did what he did best: listened to what that voice was telling him and followed directions to the extent he could.
Eventually, Coulson asked, "Better?"
"Sir. Sorry, sir." Whether for the incipient panic attack or the fact that this was Coulson's first mission back in the field and Clint had managed to fuck it up badly enough that they were both in brightly painted dog cages, Clint couldn't really say.
Clint made himself go over the last things he remembered, and then wished he hadn't. He'd been on point as a protective measure for Agent Corden, one of Natasha's protégés. It had been clear from her first venture out after New York that Natasha was completely compromised so far as intelligence work went, but she could still train others. Corden was good. 'Was' being the operative verb, because Clint had seen her shot at point blank range before he had even been aware something was wrong. Oh, he'd had a bad feeling, his finger more tight on the trigger than usual, but neither Corden nor Coulson, who was observing at ground level, so much as hinted that something was going to go down.
He swallowed back the sharp memory of Corden's tendency toward inappropriate hand gestures and her talent for finding the best food trucks in the worst neighborhoods. Later he would let himself feel the loss.
Clint knew he'd killed a few of the enemy, most notably the one who had taken the shot. Fuck. Fuckfuckfuck. He remembered Coulson telling him to get out of the nest and packing up the rifle—oh, and the sting of something hitting his neck. Great.
The cage he was in was made for a medium-size dog, but that still meant he had to curl in on himself. He felt a flash of gratitude that he wasn't claustrophobic. It was something, at least. He looked to his right and could see Coulson was in a similar cage. He forced himself to breathe again, pushing out thoughts of disemboweling whomever had done this with a spoon. When he'd regained some measure of calm he asked, "We know anything, sir?"
"Only one of them has come in or out of this room since I've been awake and that person was so heavily masked and armored I wasn't even certain of biological sex. Either the intel on this op was criminally incorrect, or we were sold out to someone."
So, no. "Have any idea how long we've been here?"
"My best calculations say four or five hours. The problem is, I'm not entirely sure 'here' isn't some kind of a vehicle. Too smooth to be a train, but there've been some movements that make me wonder if we aren't on a large cargo ship."
Even better. "I'm an A+ swimmer, sir."
"I know," Coulson said. "I wrote your file."
Clint didn't like alien fuckers who came to earth just to cause trouble, but he preferred them immensely to the kind of "human" mark he, Coulson and Corden had been hunting this time. Clint could almost understand how something completely alien could think it was all right to behave like people were objects, but other people doing it was something Clint had lived with his whole life and never been able to comprehend. He was an assassin, for fuck's sake, and he still valued human life.
He was examining as much of the room and the build of the cages as he could when he thought he heard a slight buzz and then an uncharacteristic gasp from Coulson. He whipped his head to the other man. "Sir?"
Oh-so-calmly, Coulson said, "Minimize the amount of skin you have touching the metal, Barton."
Clint's sight was by far his foremost sense, but his sense of smell was nothing to ignore, and a second later the smell of burnt hair hit him. "Electricity?"
"Low-voltage, but yes."
Up until this point, Clint had figured their captors had stripped them to their underwear and, in Coulson's case, undershirt, to make sure they didn't have any weapons. Usually, if humiliation was the goal, the captive wasn't allowed to keep garments of any type. Clint was a little dispirited to realize it also served the purpose of making it very hard to keep skin away from the metal.
He propped himself on his feet—painful, with the bars crisscrossing into the skin—and tucked himself into the tiniest ball possible. Some of his spine was still making contact with the top of the cage, and one arm or the other brushed it at all times. Clint muttered, "They could've at least used the cages for St. Bernards, or whatever."
Coulson, who was now in much the same position, turned his face in Clint's direction, the corner of his mouth twisting upward. "I do believe Mr. Stark is beginning to influence your thinking."
Another buzz, this one longer, and it was all Clint could do not to scream, throw himself against the bars, anything, as Coulson vibrated in position, biting into his lower lip, a soft moan still escaping. When Coulson was breathing steadily, albeit heavily, again, Clint asked, "Higher voltage?"
"Not by much, but longer duration."
"Softening us up?"
"Possibly. Or just having fun."
Yeah, Clint had considered that, too. Not wanting to dwell on it, he asked, "You think I'm becoming like Tony?"
"Well, the man does dream big and demand others do no less."
Clint huffed out a half-laugh. "I just think it would be polite, correctly sizing the cages."
"My mistake, it's JARVIS that's got you taking after him."
Clint was still coming up with a retort for that when they hit Coulson a third time. When they were done with the round, the smell of burnt skin joined that of burnt hair. He bit back his need to yell at their captors, see if he could antagonize them into switching focus. Beside the fact that Coulson would be pissed, it gave too much information away too easily. Sometimes, Clint hated being a professional.
Clint tried getting his hand through the bars after the sixth charge, when Coulson was looking dangerously close to blacking out for a bit. He could barely get four fingers through one of the wire squares. Coulson was close enough to reach with a full arm extension, but not close enough that Clint's fingers came anywhere near.
Clint said, "Sir."
He watched as Coulson struggled to focus. "Agent?"
Coulson tried swallowing. Clint wondered how long it had been since either of them had last had water. One more thing he couldn't do anything about. Instead, Clint said, "First one to pass out has to listen to the other's music choices on every transport for the next month."
Coulson blanched. "Barton, you listen to house music."
Really, Clint only listened to a very select amount of house music, but he was an expert at getting people to underestimate him. And right now, it was working to his advantage. "Just providing a little motivation, sir."
"You're an asshole," Coulson told him, unimpressed by his logic.
"Yes, sir," Clint agreed. And then spent the next forty-five seconds threatening Coulson with late-90s European techno over the sound of the electrical buzz and Coulson's swallowed groans.
Clint had never seen the woman who came in the room once Coulson's muscles ceased to be able to stop spasming. She was average height, muscular, with cropped blond hair and strangely flamboyant cats-eye glasses. She wasn't in any file he knew of, which set Clint's bullshit meter off pretty hard, because there shouldn't be a person on this base whose face Clint couldn't identify. The muscle issue was causing Coulson to dry heave, now that his body had nothing to bring up. He'd mostly managed to throw up through the bottom of the cage, missing himself, but even so, Clint had to reign in just how pissed he was about the whole thing.
Clint had to hand it to her: she didn't waste time or effort. She asked, "What does SHIELD have on the Sadetsky Project?"
Sadetsky was the trade chain of child sex workers they'd been sent in to break up. Clint was a little surprised she used the name, but then, he also supposed she knew they knew that much if they were here.
Coulson said, "Don't suppose there's much chance of me getting a paper towel, or anything?" sounding put together for a guy who'd just been tortured for the better part of six hours, if Clint's internal clock was anything to go by.
"Sadestky Project, and we don't play with live wires on your toy soldier."
Clint rolled his eyes. "Toy soldier, really? That's the best you guys came up with?"
Coulson looked as though he was thinking for a moment. "He's right, I really can't share intel with an organization whose personnel is so lacking in creativity."
She stood still for a couple of seconds, then shrugged, turned and left the room. Coulson sighed. "Sorry, Barton."
"Nah," Clint said, "only fair."
There was no warm-up period for Clint. He would have complained, but the only one there was Coulson, and that seemed like a shitty thing to do, especially as Clint could breathe easier when they were concentrating on him, rather than his handler. Coulson had made a full recovery, but Clint had spend too much time helping him get there to let these dickheads fuck it up in any way. Plus, sometimes Clint lost focus only to come out of the shocks panicking again at the blue hue of their surroundings, and Coulson had to try and talk him down before the next session, so he was having his share of fun, in any case.
At one point, hurting and fed up, Clint asked, "Seriously, what kind of an asshole paints his dog's cage blue? Dogs are colorblind."
Also, the fact that Clint was triggered by it wasn't on file anywhere. Coulson and Tony had both made sure. The world of people who knew Clint had the issue was very, very small. He could tell Coulson was ticking through the list by the dark cast of his eyes. Clint said, "Could've been a coincidence, I suppose."
"Not to fulfill a cliché, or anything, but I have good reasons for not believing in those."
"Yeah," Clint agreed. The electricity kicked back in and Clint fell into one side of the cage, only exacerbating things. He had no idea how long it was before it stopped. Trying to focus on anything but the blue-blue-blue surrounding him, he said, "Water sounds delicious right now."
Then, contemplatively, "They kept the poodles in cages like these. At the circus. The little ones."
"In your case, the resemblance is uncanny, so perhaps this is just a case of mistaken identity."
Clint was always kind of amazed by how Coulson could say incredibly sarcastic things in a tone that had a calming wave underneath. "Thanks for that, sir."
On a perch, Clint could stay awake for a solid fifty-one hours. He'd had reason to test himself time and again. He estimated he'd been awake less than eight at the moment, but the desire to close his eyes and nod off was more than just tempting, it seemed imperative. To keep himself awake he talked about the first thing he could think of, which was, "I'm glad the blue thing didn't make me hate purple."
To his surprise, Coulson didn't make a crack about how that would have been tragic, or say anything cutting at all. Rather he asked, "Why do you like it so much? Purple?"
Clint shrugged, then winced when burnt skin brushed over metal. "Lots of reasons. Color is…" Clint thought about how to explain that seeing everything made hue and shade particularly important, "everywhere and the basis of everything we see. I mean, maybe not scientifically, or whatever, but, for our brains. When I was growing up, color was like a code.
"Dad wore a lot of greys and browns, so I got used to thinking of those colors as warning signs. Barney liked greens and—and blues, so that was comfort. My mom, though, I mean, I don't remember much. But she wore a purple ribbon to tie her hair back. And the few knick-knacks she bothered bringing into the house, purple. Guess I just imprinted."
There was more: nobody who'd threatened him had ever had purple associated with them, and it was the only color he could say that about. Plus, he liked the richness of it. When he'd been a kid, and hungry and cold and hurting, it had always had the ability to make him dream about things getting better. But Clint was pretty sure they were being listened to, and no matter how much he would tell Coulson just about anything he wanted to know, he didn't feel the same way about their captors.
"What we really need," Coulson said, "is a red laser pointer. Then we'd have something to work with."
Clint would have laughed, but he was too busy being fried.
At some point, Clint fell asleep and wasn't awoken by an electrical current. Rather, he awoke when their captor returned with three others, all wearing the same tan, non-descript jumpers. The woman asked, "Anything to say, Agent Coulson?"
"No, not particularly," Coulson said, and he did mild better than anyone, but Clint knew him well enough to hear the anger underneath.
She nodded at the jumpsuits, who were now surrounding Clint's cage. He had a second to notice that they were holding high-pressure hoses before they turned them on, hitting Clint from three directions with icy water at the speed of an oncoming race car. The water tore into the burns and pounded mercilessly against already aching muscles and bones.
In the first blast, Clint hadn't yet closed his eyes and mouth yet and he took water to the lungs. Coughing it out only made things worse.
Behind his eyelids, the blue of the room floated in his "vision." Clint forced himself to mix in some red.
After Clint had thrown up half his body-weight in water, he said, "I think we should consider getting out of here, sir."
"You always were a thinker," Coulson said, but Clint could see him staring at the locking mechanism on the cage. They'd both already tried anything and everything that came to mind to try and open it, but a little staring at something like you wanted to incinerate it had never hurt anyone.
"I'm just of the opinion that waiting here for Hill to get on top of kicking everyone's ass and rescuing us has the air of damsels in distress."
Clint chose Hill because she was in Bratislava, dealing with fuck only knew what. She was definitely not on search-and-rescue for them. And Hill was a pretty common name. He tried to right himself from where he was slumped against the bars of the cage. They were pressing painfully into his skin and irritating burns rubbed even more raw by the water. He managed to stay crouched for all of two seconds before listing over to the other side. He swallowed down the high whine of pain that really wanted to make itself heard.
Coulson, who had somehow managed to watch the entire thing while still concentrating on their predicament said, "But you make damsel in distress look so good."
Their captors made a mistake. Clint had been watching for it, but not really expecting it, which was probably why Coulson caught on first. That and, somehow, Coulson had managed to rest for a few hours. Clint knew the man wasn't a machine, but sometimes all reasonable proof seemed to defy that truth.
They'd sent someone in to collect waste and other bodily fluids once or twice, but the person had never gotten near enough for one of them to reach him, especially since they could really only get four fingers through the bars. This one, though, maybe he was new, or just slow, or distracted, but he came within an arm's span of Coulson's cage.
Coulson, whose hands were smaller than Clint's, didn't even so much as blink before he dislocated his thumb, forced his hand through the square opening and used his remaining four fingers and palm to lock onto the guy's ear and bring his face to meet with the metal mesh of the cage—hard.
While pulling, he'd managed to get his second hand through the bars the same way and crossed his arms, hooking the man into a cross-armed chokehold. He didn't waste time, saying, "Open the cage, or I kill you."
The man resisted, which was predictable. Coulson shrugged, and kept his hold. There were others before the man was dead. Clint had seen that coming, though, which meant Coulson had too. Clint threw himself against the side of his cage Coulson was on with all his weight, toppling himself into the two who had come to wrest the first guy from them.
Coulson grabbed at one of the others, letting the first go and used the momentum of Clint's cage, throwing himself back, allowing his captive to be crushed between the two cages. Then he grabbed the man's arm. He was wearing one of the bracelets Clint had seen controlling the doors. Clint agreed with Coulson's logic that it was as good a guess as any as to what might open the cages.
Clint rocked himself back again so Coulson could wrench the man where he needed him. It took a couple of tries for Coulson to figure out how to work it, and then he was free and working his way to Clint's cage to repeat the process.
Clint grabbed the closest weapons off the guards and the two of them moved. Having no idea how many of their captors there were, or the layout of the building, if it was a building, or where the hell they were was all problematic, but they could worry about it as they moved.
The first six came fairly quickly, but even weakened, Clint and Coulson had adrenaline on their side. Clint was torn between suggesting they do this his way, and make to the vents, and worrying that if their captors were monitoring those, it would just trap them more. Then a bullet from a captor rounding a corner cut deep into the meat of Coulson's bicep and Clint said, "Coulson."
He didn't hesitate, just said, "Find us an entryway."
Either their captors weren't monitoring the vents, or figured they were epically lost and going to die in there, but one way or another, Clint eventually found the access panel to what seemed to be an underground septic system. Coulson said, "Of course," but neither of them hesitated. It was better than finding out they were in the middle of the Atlantic, or wherever.
Clint was putting all his focus into moving forward, ignoring the stench, the aches and burns, the pain in his bare feet and how very, very cold it was without any covering. They needed a communication device, needed to get hold of SHIELD. Nonetheless, he bypassed the first and second exits as too obvious, and only took the third one because they were both slowing, and Clint was more than a little worried about blood loss in Coulson's case.
They came up in an alley, which had two very drunken teenagers making out in it. The teens blinked at the two of them. Coulson put on his blandest smile and asked, "Have a phone we could borrow?"
One of the kids answered in a dialect that Clint was fairly certain was Ukrainian. Phil must have figured the same, because he switched to Russian, and luckily, the girl spoke it. She took pity on them and offered them her phone. It took all of a minute to have SHIELD alerted with the proper codes and on their way. In the meantime, Coulson was asking if they were in Odessa. Evidently something looked familiar.
It turned out they were in Donetsk. They moved further back into the alley which let out onto a dark street. Clint said, "Not that it really matters one way or another, but are we actually going somewhere?"
"Safe-ish house," Coulson said. "Contact."
After that, Clint just worked on keeping his pace to Coulson's.
Against all odds, they reached their destination without running into trouble. Granted, it took them hours to cover less than a mile of distance, given how many alcoves they had to slink into and fire escapes they used to go undetected. But they made it. Coulson's contact was a man in his late sixties with strikingly white hair and too-perfect English.
He said, "It is not even a full moon."
Coulson said, "Full enough to wax poetic," and the man, whom Coulson quickly introduced as Konstyantyn, let them in.
Konstyantyn closed the door behind them and said, "There is a fully stocked first aid kit under the bathroom sink." He took a further look and added, "And a bottle of potato vodka on the kitchen counter."
Coulson said, "It is good to see you."
Konstyantyn considered the bare state of their bodies, the bruises and burns, the blue tinge of their skin and Coulson's gunshot wound and said, "It is good you are alive."
Clint found it in himself to laugh a bit, then, without even realizing what he was doing, pulled Coulson toward the bathroom, which he'd spotted down a short hall. He grabbed the vodka on the way there and shut the door behind them. Coulson began, "Clint," but Clint shook his head. "Let me—"
He took a breath. Here, in this small space, just the two of them, no blue, no cage, no torture, nothing, he was having a hard time doing as he had tutored himself from the moment they had gotten Coulson back and ignoring the evidence of the other man's mortality, the scars on his chest, and now, the blood pouring down his arm.
Coulson put a steadying hand to Clint's jaw and said, "We're okay. We're fine."
Later, Clint would think that if he'd been any less exhausted or shaky or in pain that he wouldn't have leaned in, wouldn't have lost control enough to press his lips to Coulson's, to thread his fingers into the hand Coulson had by his side, to whimper Coulson's name into the kiss. Coulson kissed back, though, sweet and fierce, and murmured reassurances.
At some point they both sank to the floor. The impact of it jarred Clint enough to help him come to his senses, and say, "We—I need to patch you up."
He closed his eyes, aware he'd broken the spell, certain Coulson would take the out provided, pull back, allow Clint to care for his wounds, return the favor, and continue on as though this had never happened. Stress and pain made people do weird things, Clint knew. He could probably even pretend it was the same on his end—purely a momentary reaction, nothing to do with years and years and years of knowing there were things in life he wasn't meant to have. Instead, Coulson nodded shakily, and said, "We need to clean up, first."
"Right," Clint said.
"There's enough room, if we stay close, for both of us," Coulson said, looking at the shower, and pointedly not at Clint.
Clint swallowed. "Staying close sounds good, sir."
"Phil," Clint said agreeably, taking everything he could get in the moment. He opened the vodka bottle and held it out. "Drink. We need to reset your thumbs."
Despite Clint's best intentions, they fell asleep once cleaned and bandaged. Butterfly bandages did the trick on Phil's arm, thankfully, so Clint hadn't had to sew. The ointment had stung fiercely against the burns, but Clint knew that was a sign it was working correctly, so he didn't complain. They had barely finished everything that needed patching when they stumbled to the small mattress in the hall, fit themselves onto it, and passed out.
They startled awake at the same time to the sound of a knock at the door. Konstyantyn appeared from the kitchen and gestured for them to get into the bathroom. Neither of them hesitated. A moment later, he called, "How do you say it? Your ride is here."
Once medical'd had their way with Clint, and he'd pushed his way through a debriefing, he stood in the hallway outside medical and considered his options. One quick call to JARVIS and he could be home. Phil had lived two floors below him for nearly eight months now, since his miraculous recovery and nothing had happened. Home was safe.
Or he could try Phil's office, try—well, try being brave. Alternately, he could call Nat and have her tell him what the hell to do. She wouldn't, but she'd make fun of him, which was equally soothing, really.
Clint reminded himself that part of what he liked about Phil was the fact that the man was upstanding. He wouldn't reassign Clint because Clint had made things weird or anything. The Avengers weren't going to be taken away from Clint; Phil would be professional, everything was fine. Everything except for how Clint kind of wished he'd managed to at least have sex, if this was what he got to hold onto from the whole experience. But Clint was used to disappointment. No big.
He called JARVIS and said, "Home, please." Worse came to worst, he had plenty of hiding spaces on his floor.
Clint had maybe overlooked the fact that the one person who could always find him was likely to sell him out right now where Phil was involved. Nat was still in the phase of needing to touch Phil sometimes to get herself to believe he was real.
Phil found Clint within an hour of returning to the Tower. Being Phil, he didn't make Clint come out of his custom-designed hidey-hole, just said, "Make room."
Clint hesitated, mostly because he wasn't one hundred percent sure he wasn't seeing things. Phil was in black sweats and a gray t-shirt with bare feet. Clint had seen Phil naked, in old-fashioned navy blue pajamas, and even in jeans, but this was something new.
"Clint," Phil said.
Clint shook himself out of it and pressed himself into the corner of the closet-like space behind the false panel in one of his hallways. Inside was painted a soothing eggshell-purple, stuffed with pillows and sported just enough space to make Clint feel safe without feeling hemmed in.
Phil climbed in and shut the panel behind himself. There wasn't really enough room for two people; a problem Phil solved by pulling Clint to him and arranging both of them so Clint was practically in Phil's lap. Clint was too uncertain of what was happening—and still a little afraid of accidentally hurting Phil—to resist. He stiffened a bit when the movement brushed against the worst of the burns.
Phil said, "Sorry," and kissed the back of Clint's neck.
"I don't know what this is."
"Yeah. For a guy who's developed a reputation as something of a dudebro, you tend to think a bit too much."
"I overheard that precise term being used," Phil said, not giving an inch.
"You kissed me. I touched you the way I've always kept myself from touching you and you kissed me and unless it was panic and you didn't mean it and you've changed your mind, I'm not waiting any longer to touch you in all the other ways I want."
"Oh." Clint wasn't sure how to process most of that. Phil had carried on three serious relationships with women in the course of Clint's working relationship with the man, and none with men. "So you, uh, like a little cock on the side?"
Because, honestly, Clint wasn't going to say no, or anything, he just needed to know what his role was, so he didn't fuck it up.
"No," Phil said softly. "No, I do not. I like you. All the time. On the side, in front, in back, wherever the hell you are and however I can get you."
Clint couldn't help pressing himself further into Phil, but even as he did it, he said, "Psych thinks I've got problems attaching to other people stemming from severe self-esteem issues engendered from early childhood trauma carrying on through adolescent development."
Phil laughed. "Tony give you a copy of his hack?"
"They're probably right," Phil said.
Clint nodded. The probably were. Phil tightened the grip of his arms, not enough to hurt, but enough to be noticeable. He said, "I really don't care."