2 Months Later


"Barton, I swear on every norse god and their mothers in existence, if you try to stand up one more time I'm going to spread butter on every single damn ramp I put in. Specifically for your sorry ass, might I add. And when you go flying, I'll be right there. Laughing. Because you're a jerk."

The threat might not have been quite as intimidating a month or so earlier.

Given the circumstances, however, Clint was somewhat inclined to believe Tony.

The archer settled back moodily into the wheelchair, his pointed glare soaring completely over Tony's head. The inventor was sprawled across the couch, his focus supposedly riveted on the flashing television mounted in the common area of the main living floor of Stark Tower. One arm was draped across the back of the oversized couch, the other stretched towards the sleek coffee table, hand fiddling mindlessly with a coaster. For all appearances, he had no clue Clint was even in the room with him.

Clint huffed slightly as he propped his casted arm back onto the rest on the chair, his other hand reaching for the large wheel gracing the side of his mobile prison. He froze when Tony spoke again, his voice almost bored as it drifted lazily across the room.

"Same goes for if you don't use the arm controls. C'mon, throw me a frikkin' bone here, man, how old are you?"

One day in closer proximity than he had ever had with this man and Clint was already convinced he had eyes on the back of his head.

They'd discharged him from the hospital only the day before on the grounds that he would watch himself and take it easy. Clearly, his new bundle of cohorts didn't believe he'd follow these orders even remotely, as Steve was the one to stand beside him as he filled out the last of the paperwork required for his discharge. Clint would never truly admit it, but it was sort of nice to have an anchor aside from Natasha or… the rest of Strike Team Delta around to walk him out of a hospital. Or, in this case, wheel him out. And boy, was that a situation he hadn't been in for a very, very long time. Clint had groggily fought the haze from the low dose of pain killers they had given him for the transport ("not entirely necessary, but we don't want to take any risks, you see," the smug nurse had told him as she'd injected the dose earlier that morning), and the entire process of disembarking from the building had contained an embarrassing amount of fanfare for his own liking. Steve had insisted on helping trundle him into the car Tony had waiting around the back of the hospital, the billionaire standing idly by with those annoyingly blank sunglasses of his doing little to hide the slight smirk on his face as Clint grumbled and glared his way through the whole process. It was only after he had been bustled into the car that he thought to question why it was Tony's of all people's, and when they took the turn away from his temporary apartment and towards Stark's tower, the dread hit him like a ton of bricks to the gut. No amount of sputtered reasoning could convince the two men in the front seats that all he really wanted to do was go home and crash for about 5 years.

Without supervision.

Because he wasn't a child.

Now, he certainly didn't think of himself as being particularly stupid, but he was getting the distinct feeling that neither had believed him when he'd promised he'd stay on the straight and narrow and let himself heal without interruption.

So, out the window went his plans for recuperating by hobbling straight out of his chair and crashing on the nearest horizontal surface until his head went fuzzy and he could pretend the last few months of his life hadn't really existed. Whether he liked it or not, he was stuck under the vigilant eye of one highly intrusive billionaire and whoever so happened to be passing by the tower for the next few weeks, as Steve had informed him lightly from the front seat. (If he had felt the slightly drug induced glares drilling into the back of his head from the backseat, he chose to gracefully ignore them.)

So, here he found himself, parked unceremoniously in the middle of the living room of Stark Tower, silently steaming at his lack of options in his current position and staring pointedly at the back of Tony's head. Half expecting the man to acknowledge the action, Clint narrowed his eyes in a glare, pouring all of the heated frustration he felt from being trapped in the chair into the single gesture.

Tony didn't acknowledge.

Somewhat disappointed by the lack of response, Clint took in a deep gulp of breath and released it in a noisy (arguably over-the-top) whoosh, stretching his non-casted arm high over his head as he popped his spine back into place gingerly. When he spoke, his words were mostly a groan, and through narrowed eyes he saw Tony roll his head back on the couch to watch him stretch with a raised eyebrow. Had his head not been upside down from the angle, Clint might have taken the look seriously.

"Y'can't really be expecting me to stay in this thing, can you? I mean, seriously, if this is what day two feels like I don't even wanna know-"

"You'll stay in the chair and like it, Spaulding. Butter threat still standing. You, on the other hand, won't be."

Clint flopped back against the stiff seat as best as one could whilst already seated.

"Ramps or not, man, I will find a way out of this thing at some point. Y'can't be in the same room as me forev-"

"Jarvis, keep a 24/7 monitor on Barton here for me for the duration of his stay, if you would please."

"With pleasure, sir."

"Now that's just fighting dirty."

Tony rolled his eyes with a shake of his head before turning his attention back onto the mounted screen. Clint took the motion as the cue it was and grudgingly fiddled with the controls on his chair, wheeling himself forward and past the couch. He felt rather than saw Tony's eyes tracking him across the room as he passed slowly into the kitchen, his wheels only getting caught up on the corner of the counter once this time as opposed to the four times last night. (He didn't remember it entirely, but he had been informed that he had gotten more somber than usual over that little fact.)

Gliding to the industrial sized refrigerator (and honestly, why was that necessary? Tony didn't exactly have a full tower to cook for…), Clint squinted at the controls on his armrest, prodding at several buttons until he found one that appeared to act as a break to lock the wheels in place. The last thing he wanted to do was roll away from the potential of something like… nachos. "Potential" being a loose term, in this case.

After all, he'd have to be able to actually reach the cheese for there to be "potential" nachos.

A long, slow glance to his right showed Tony seemingly absorbed in the television once again, so, with a slightly puckered expression, he opened the door to the fridge as casually as possible, blocking the view of the man on the couch. Once he was certain he was under cover, he grasped the armrest firmly, raising his casted arm in preparation to stand and reach for the drawer (the ridiculously high drawer, he noted with a glare) that contained the cheese.

His leg was steady as he levered himself out of the chair, and he grinned smugly as he went to put his casted leg onto the floor.

Contact had barely been made before the boot slipped on the slick tile.

Heart leaping into his throat, Clint felt himself shifting dangerously fast, instinct taking over as he thrust his arm behind him to snatch the wheelchair and steady himself. He'd no sooner done so than Jarvis' slightly strained voice piped into the room from overhead with a sharp "Sir-" as his hand missed contact with the chair.

He didn't hear the rest as he lost his battle with gravity and braced himself for impact.

It didn't come.

Instead, a hand shot out from behind the open refrigerator door and planted itself firmly on his back, controlling his descent to a more manageable speed. He connected with the ground lightly with a soft whoosh of an exhale as a solid grunt sounded next to him, and he clenched his hand over his heart to stop the adrenaline fueled hammering it had taken up.

If there was anything that had stuck with him after his trip to Canada, it was the absolute, utter repulsion to the idea of falling.

A second passed, then 5, then 30, and finally he shot a sheepish glance to his right.

Tony was facedown on the tile, his legs skewed behind him and his hand still firmly between Clint's shoulder blades, cushioning his back from the kitchen floor. The fridge door was now shut from the apparent force of him colliding with it as he dove to catch Clint.

Another few seconds passed in silence before Clint spoke.

"I just, uh… wanted some nachos."

Tony drove his forehead further into the floor with a groan before responding, his voice muffled from his face being pressed against the ground.

"I'm investing in a squirt bottle."

Clint couldn't help a breathy laugh at that, his shoulders shaking with it as Tony tilted his head back up to glare moodily at him. As the billionaire regained his footing and hauled Clint off the floor by supporting him under his good arm, he flicked the archer's forehead lightly, bringing an abrupt end to the laughter. "Nuh-uh, you don't get to laugh after pulling something like that. This? This isn't funny. This is you being a moron."

As he was practically dumped back into his wheelchair, Clint grinned wryly up at Tony, who crossed his arms and furrowed his brow disapprovingly in return. "Y'gotta admit, it's… it's a little funny."

"How is this even remotely funny?"

Clint darted his eyes between the living area and the kitchen before speaking out of the side of his mouth. "I mean… how far was that dive, man? You put Greg Louganis to shame."

Tony stared for a long moment before tossing his hands in the air with a swear and miming a strangling motion in the air between him and Clint's shit-eating grin.

It was that precise moment that the elevator across the living room opened with a soft ping and Bruce stepped into the room.

The scientist had only taken a few steps before his eyes slowly glanced up from a stack of envelopes and sheafs of paper in his hands. Taking in the scene before him, he slowed to a stop, an eyebrow creeping up his forehead as he looked between Tony (who was still mid strangle) and Clint (who had switched into the closest expression he had to a deer in the headlights). As the three men stared at each other for a moment too long, he shook his head, his voice carrying lightly across the space as he closed the gap between them in a few long steps.

"I'm not asking."

"Good! Because if you did," Clint piped up from his chair, voice full of fake enthusiasm, "I'd have to tell you about how you interrupted Tony's plot to murder me when I was unawares so he wouldn't have to watch me-"

"Ah-ha, yeah I'm sorry, but did you say 'unawares'? Because that's a lie."

"Oh, is it?"

"You'd be 100% aware of me trying to kill you."

"Noah, wait dude, really? Why-"

"Because it'll be due to something you pulled, you prick."

Bruce shook his head again, a lopsided grin gracing his face as he tossed the stack of papers onto the counter. "Am I gonna have to break up another playground fight here? Because I really don't want to have to break up another playground fight here."

Tony took an exaggerated step back from the wheelchair at that, hands held up in a placating gesture. Pivoting lightly, he paused to open a cabinet and rummage for the chips Clint would need to make nachos as a slight afterthought. The second his back was turned, Clint stuck his tongue out at him before wheeling closer to the counter Bruce was leaning against with a drily amused expression.

To any outside observer, the whole exchange would have seemed odd.

But the whole team knew that Tony got snippy when he was worried.

Clint spun to a slow stop beside Bruce at the counter, giving a belated nod of greeting to the man as Tony tossed the chips onto the counter beside the papers the scientist had brought in. "'S been a while, Bruce. Y'come to tell me to stop trying to escape too?"

Bruce quirked an eyebrow at that, mouth pursed slightly before he answered, the words drawn out slowly. "Sssssshould I?"

"Well, I mean, I wouldn't dream of trying to get out of this ch-"

Tony interrupted him from inside the fridge as a bag of shredded cheese soared through the air and smacked down on the counter beside the chips. "Don't push it, Barton."

Clint smiled innocently as he turned his focus onto the papers strewn across the counter. He nodded to them as he addressed Bruce. "What're these?"

Glancing up from examining the packet of cheese, Bruce gave a distracted "hmm?" before responding. "Oh, just the mail. It was waiting at the front desk when I came in and Jarvis asked for me to bring it up."

A small hum of acknowledgement is all Clint gave him as he reached for the envelopes and began shuffling through them absentmindedly. There were plenty of official looking seals stamped on expensive paper stuffed with God knew what, but after a comfortable minute of silence between the three men as Tony threw together the nachos and Bruce scanned a letter addressed to the team as a whole, Clint's spine went rigid.

There was a letter.

For him.

At the tower's address.

He stared at the envelope until his eyes crossed. Who would know he would be in the tower? And why would they send him a letter of all things? A quick glance to the upper left showed a P.O box for a return address, and he narrowed his eyes as he ran a finger lightly over the edges, searching for minute clues. Bruce's voice snapped him out of his observation.

"Something wrong?"

Clint's head snapped up, and he locked eyes briefly with Tony, who was watching him curiously from beside the oven. Turning to Bruce, he saw the same curiosity in Bruce's eyes as the man looked between the envelope and his face, and Clint briefly wondered how long the other two men had been watching him fiddle with the envelope. Clearing his throat slightly, he held the envelope up.

"It's, ah… it's for me."

Tony's eyebrows shot upwards at that, and he eased himself away from the wall he'd been leaning against to join them at the counter as Bruce frowned slightly. The billionaire peered closely at the envelope in question before stuffing his hands in his pockets. "Huh. Got an admirer we should know about?"

When Clint didn't answer, Tony exchanged a glance with Bruce before continuing. "Should I, uh, scan it? You're not expecting death threats or anything are y-"

"No! God, no, it's fine, Tony. I'm just, uh…" Clint trailed off as he flipped the envelope over again in his hand. Almost mindlessly, he tore the seal in one swift motion that caused both Bruce and Tony to jump slightly. Before either could say anything, he shuffled the neatly folded letter out of the envelope and unfolded the edge. Skimming the first line rapidly, Clint's eyes unfocused for a short moment before he shook his head and looked up at his companions, who were watching him with expressions ranging from wary curiosity to outright suspicion. Clearing his throat again, he jerked his thumb over his shoulder and pointed to the elevator.

"It's business. I'm gonna, uh, go read this in my room if that's cool with you guys."

And with that, he slapped a hand down on his chair controls and spun, making a beeline for the elevator as Bruce and Tony stared at each other in open bewilderment. He answered Jarvis' "floor, sir?" with a sharp command to take him to his room, and as the doors closed behind him, he heard Tony shout a slightly miffed "I'm not saving all of these nachos if you're not here to eat them!"

The ride to his floor and the short trip to his room were a blur, and when he found himself at his bed, he grit his teeth and hefted himself out of his chair and onto the lowered mattress. He took a moment to stare out his floor to ceiling window with a slowly growing grin, and after a deep breath, he looked down to read.

Barton,

The Fantôme has lived up to it's name.

It is no more.

Time, sneaky bastard it is, has truly passed quickly. It has been two long months since we have last spoken, and for that I sincerely believe you will understand when I say I have been "busy." But as these weeks of time and effort come to a close, I find it only necessary that I include you in the final product of our administrations. It is with the best of news and in the highest of spirit that I address you at this time.

Upon thorough observation and genetic sampling, I believe I have found a base for a potential combatant to our little toxin. While it may not be a bonafide cure as of yet, I have high hopes for it, as it has progressed wonderfully throughout the timeline I have set for it. I plan to incubate it and further my research into its development through whatever resources I can find. It's been… difficult, to say the least, without S.H.I.E.L.D backing, but I have my ways. I'll see this through to the end. The Fantôme sample met its end in the incinerator only a short time ago. By the time you receive this letter, it will simply be a memory. A rather unpleasant memory, mind you, but I'd chalk this one up to learning experience, wouldn't you?

I hope this news finds you in good mind. I'm sure you've spoken with who you need to speak to and done all you can to regain momentum on your side. I would apologize for not appearing for your rather unorthodox service for our fallen comrades, but I would be lying. Not for the apology, per say. But for being there. Leaving the hospital on your own to set up your own grave to pay respects would be commendable if you had brought along someone to watch your perimeter. There was a blind spot by the fountain. The gardenias you chose were lovely.

Odd as it is to say, I also do hope your street scamps are taken care of. Last I heard of the whole business, your local billionaire had made short work of finding them and delivering them to rather distant relatives. Here's hoping they don't grow up wishing to be rife pains in the ass like you.

My price is still information. This time, it was on your whereabouts and current condition. It does no good in saying it, surely, but I'll say it all the same: stay off that leg, you prat.

Best of luck to you, Barton. I wish you good health and harmony.

Highest Regards,

Doctor Curtis Holden

PhD, M.D

P.S. Considering all I've said regarding the meaning of life, I find it only necessary to say: I may have been wrong.

Clint sat back on the bed with a long exhale as he processed what he had just read. The sample was gone. Really, actually gone. And if it ever came back, they'd be prepared.

Things would be ok.

After a long moment of gazing unseeingly out the window with a slightly goofy grin on his face, Clint's brow furrowed as he mentally reread the words before him. His eyes drifted back to the paper as he ran his finger over the oddly vague post-script, and he shook his head with a mutter.

"Couldn't resist making it mysterious, huh doc?"

The last thing Clint had been expecting was a reply to that question.

And yet, a reply he got.

He froze as an amused voice piped up behind him from the direction of his door.

"Now who would possibly want that?"

Years could have passed before Clint grinned wryly, the twist of his lip curling slowly at the familiar voice. He inclined his head ever so slightly, refusing to give the man behind him the satisfaction of a reaction to his overly dramatic reappearance. His thoughts turned briefly back onto Doctor Holden's short, clipped response to his indirect questioning of life already so many months ago, and suddenly, he found the flaw in question with a realization that made him giddy.

It hadn't quite been accurate, it appeared.

He addressed the newcomer languidly as he mulled the thought over, the words already forming in his mind.

"Business as usual, sir?"

Life was for the living.

And dead men…

There was a short moment of silence and a thick snort before the owner of the voice stepped into the room, and Nick Fury clasped a hand to Clint's shoulder, a twist of the corners of his lips all he offered in return as he spoke.

"You bet your ass, business as usual."

Clint's small grin grew exponentially at the gruff voice.

Dead men?

Well.

The dead men in his life never truly gave up when it came to needing answers.

FIN