Hill calls him and Tasha into the Hub. She says it's urgent, so Clint borrows (okay, hotwires) one of Tony's Jags. Tasha had been out in Brooklyn doing something with Steve that Clint is Not Allowed To Ask About, so Clint gets there first. Hill meets him in the lobby, which is the first thing that sets off his internal alarms. She looks worried, but not hurried, so Clint pulls his bow, because What the fuck is happening? The last time Hill looked worried, Australia had been sinking.
"You don't need that," she says. He keeps the bow out anyway and glares at the suits who are now giving them a wide berth. "Just come with me," she says with a sigh. He follows, because he's got no reason to distrust her (yet). And also he's got an emergency beacon under his thumb that'll have both Iron Man and Thor breaking through walls within minutes if he sets it off.
Hill brings him to Coulson's office (which, why the fuck would she bring him there), and opens the door. She says, "Fury's cleared him. It's not temporary. And it's not a trick." She moves aside, and Clint--
Clint goes to the doorway, his arrow aimed at heart-level, and sees Phil leaning against his desk.
Clint's never been closer to letting off an accidental shot, so he tells Maria to take his bow, and, with careful hands, she does. No one but Tasha's ever done that before and lived. Then again, he's never seen a zombie before, so they're all treading new ground here.
"How?" he asks, hands shaking.
"I got hurt," Phil says with a shrug. "I got better. "
Clint had been expecting Hill to answer, not Phil, not Phil and his voice, the voice that's been fading into indistinctness in Clint's dream. The second that Coulson stops talking, Clint launches himself into Phil's arms, knocking them back against the desk.
It might be a lie. Might be another fucking test. Might be a trick. Maybe he's hugging Loki in disguise; probably he's dreaming. But with his face tucked in the curve of Coulson’s shoulder, pressed against the starch stiffness of the suit's lapel and the stubble of Phil’s neck, breathing in the scent of cologne that’s been slowly fading from the pillow on Phil's side of the bed, Clint’s pretty sure he doesn't give a fuck.
Out of the corner of his eye, Clint sees Hill set his weapons on the couch before leaving them alone together.
“I really hope I’m not hallucinating,” he whispers. He can feel Phil laugh (feels his whole body move; they’re pressed so close together; he might not ever let go again).
“I’m not a hallucination," Phil says, keeping his body language still and relaxed. Like he had in their first nights together. (I'm not going to hurt you..) "I’m not a ghost. I’m me, just with a few new scars.”
“Let me see?" Clint asks. He changes his mind right after, putting his hand on top of Coulson’s (and then curling his fingers around Coulson’s palm, because holding hands, he knows how to do, and nothing else seems concrete right now). “No. If it turns out I’m dreaming, I’m pretty sure the scar won’t be there, and if it’s a dream, I want it to last longer.”
Coulson draws him in closer, even though Clint wouldn't have thought it was physically possible, and Clint breathes.
Clint breathes in what feels like the first time in four months.
Clint’s not sure how long it is before Hill shows Natasha in, but by that time he feels drunk on oxygen and Coulson and relief. He quickly turns to protect Coulson with his body. “Hill says he’s not a doppelganger or an alien or evil. And he was really actually hurt, so don’t punch him.”
When Natasha lowers her knives, Clint shifts out of the direct line of fire.
Natasha looks at Coulson, her face a chalky white, and says, "Prove it. What happened in Budapest?"
Coulson looks at her, at the closed-off lines of her face, the white tension around her lips, and says, "I swore not to talk about it."
"What did we eat there?" Clint asks, because the real Coulson would refuse to divulge information that Natasha had asked him to keep private. “That's safe to share, right?” Natasha nods minutely.
"Mangos," Coulson says, looking at Natasha like he wants to touch her. His hand twitches at his side and Natasha takes a step back. "Clint found some weird fruit stand, and we had mangos every day. He'd never wait long enough, so we'd eat them before they were ripe."
Clint had been impatient in Budapest because they'd all almost died, all three of them, and he'd needed them close. He'd forced them to sit on a two-person loveseat with him, and they’d traded stories about the circus, about Russia, about Pennsylvania, until they were stuffed full of sour fruit and he was sure that they had all survived.
“You were gone,” Natasha says, glaring, still wary. “And now you’re back. Explain.” She hasn't treated either of them like a suspect in a long time. Clint doesn't like how it feels.
“Tales of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” Phil says drily. Tasha's knives come back out. “Sorry. It's just--how often am I going to get to use that line?"
"Once," Clint says. "Just this once."
Coulson squeezes the hand he has wrapped around Clint's, then turns back to Natasha. "I really did die. They brought me back to life. I didn’t— I don’t have details. I’ve been happily drugged up and convalescing in Tahiti. It’s a magical place.”
“Why’d it take you so long to come back?” Natasha asks, which is a question Clint’s been very consciously not asking, because he—he would have thought—he would have hoped Coulson would have contacted him sooner.
“I barely remember anything,” Phil says, with a helpless shrug. “I got massages. I sat on a beach. I drank margaritas.” Natasha’s brow furrows. “I know, it was odd for me too. I’ve never taken a vacation before.” He shifts uneasily, and Clint holds on tighter to his hand. This isn't standard SHIELD debrief procedure, but Coulson weirdly doesn't seem bothered by it. Clint exchanges a glance with Natasha, who gives him a Talk later hand signal. “I came back as soon as they took me off enough of the drugs that my mind cleared up," Coulson says, either ignoring their silent communication out of courtesy, or somehow missing it. Maybe because now he's looking just at Clint. "I swear,” he says, “I came back for you as soon as I could.”
“And you—now that you’re here, now that you’re better, are you…” Clint wants to say Stay with me, but most of him is still pretty sure he's going to wake up soon with his face plastered to the counter of a bar, sandwiched between Darcy and Thor.
"I have more leave time coming up," Phil offers.
"How much time?" Natasha asks.
“I’m not exactly sure,” Coulson admits with a frown. “I’ve used up my medical leave. I think May—who’s doing admin work now, which someone needs to explain to me at some point—managed to give me bereavement leave. So that I'd have time to mourn. For...myself.”
“Let’s go somewhere,” Clint says. (He still hasn’t managed to let go of Phil’s hand.)
“Budapest,” Natasha says. Clint thinks she might be about to smile. “But no mangos.” Clint’s clutching Coulson’s hand and Coulson’s still leaning towards Natasha, because he’s the only person other than Clint that she ever wants to hug. When she lunges for them she nearly topples all three of them over.
Wrapped together, Clint breathes, in and out, in and out, and the world doesn’t seem as impossible anymore.
They don't go to Budapest.
Instead, because it's closest and safest, they go to Stark's tower. (It only has the 'A' left in its sign, which Tony doesn’t seem inclined to fix.)
Natasha bids them good night when they reach her floor in the private elevator. Clint takes Coulson to his quarters, mentally tallies up all of the food he’s squirreled away there, and says, "We have enough provisions to stay here for five days without needing to leave. JARVIS will keep Tony out if I ask him really nicely."
“I wonder if my old override codes will still work," Coulson says with a frown.
"They will indeed, sir. And may I say that it is excellent to have you back."
"Thanks, JARVIS. It's—it's good to be back.” Coulson starts to take his tie off as soon as the elevator door closes, the way he always does at the end of a long work day, and Clint stops him.
"Let me? Please?"
Coulson stands still for a long time before moving his hands out of the way and settling them on Clint's hips. When Clint starts to work on Coulson's tie (it's been lopsided the whole afternoon, which disturbs Clint on a very deep level), Coulson drops his head forward to rest on Clint's shoulder, and that—that's Phil. Phil’s forehead on Clint’s shoulder is Phil coming home from a long day of work, and there is nothing else like it: Clint standing strong and Phil leaning against him.
Phil's forehead on Clint's shoulder is Phil coming back from away missions, it's Phil when Clint finds him in his office surrounded by coffee mugs and paper and takes him home, it's Phil when they're both too tired to move and Clint's hands work their way through the complicated knots of Phil's ties on muscle memory alone.
Clint's been left by so many people. No one’s ever come back before. He...he has no idea how to handle this.
Phil’s tie is as soft as always in Clint’s hands.
He throws the tie onto his couch (his pink couch, which has throw pillows on it that Clint had picked up on one of his thrift store shopping trips; they're crocheted and orange and Phil is going to hate them). Clint had decorated this whole floor himself, Tony happily switching out the bland, hotel-like furniture at Clint's request. For the first time, Clint had just picked out things that he liked.
There are figurines and poorly painted art that someone had put a lot of thought into before chucking them into a donation bin; there are wicker baskets full of potpourri and random wooden shelves that he’s only just begun to fill up. His fingers slow down as he unbuttons Phil's shirt.
“Talk to me,” Phil says, leaning harder into him.
"You're..." Clint undoes another button and slides his hand across Phil's chest. He can feel the bandages under Coulson's t-shirt. "You're going to hate my pillows."
Phil chuckles and one of his hands comes up to cover Clint's. "Is that a euphemism? Did you get breast implants when I was—while I was gone?" Clint shakes his head and finishes unbuttoning Phil's shirt. He goes for the sleeves and realizes Phil doesn't have any cufflinks on. "This was the back-up suit from my office. It's all I've got."
"Just the shirt off your back," Clint murmurs, sliding it over Coulson's shoulders and then tugging his t-shirt out from the waistband of his slacks.
"It's insured, you know."
"Yeah. I know." Coulson's shirts and shoes and sunglasses are all covered by SHIELD's policy if they get damaged in the line of duty. Phil always hands those claim forms to Fury in person, and Fury always grumbles when he does and calls Phil names. "They’re not insured, but I do—I have some of your pajamas here.”
Phil blinks at him. Clint pulls Phil’s t-shirt off. The revealed bandage is stark against Phil's skin, but even his eyelids are dark with fatigue. "You brought my things with you when you moved?"
"Some," Clint says. "I—it's just—things got complicated."
“Are you okay?” Phil asks in a whisper.
The answer’s No, which Phil probably already knows, but it's also I was getting better, and I was becoming a different person when I was learning to be alive without you. He settles on, “Kind of,” then asks, “Can I take the bandages off?"
"Yes. I won't fall apart, I promise. They're more for show at this point than anything else. It's nice to have an excuse to hide them a bit longer, but the doctor says it's actually better to start exposing them to air."
Coulson's—Phil's—paler than Clint expected, given his time in Tahiti. And he’s lost a lot of muscle mass. "I know I don't look great," Phil says, following the path of Clint's eyes. The belt on Phil's slacks is fastened on the last hole. "They say that with physical therapy I'll regain full mobility, but it's going to take a while."
Clint doesn't say anything, because he'll worship Phil's body later, when he has Phil stretched out on Clint’s (new, purple) sheets, and remind him that injuries to the flesh don't change the person inside. Phil had taught Clint that early on, when a mission gone wrong had left Clint's hands too damaged to hold, his fingernails pulled out, two knuckles broken. Coulson had just held Clint’s elbows instead.
Carefully, Clint peels back Phil's bandages. The tape leaves a sticky residue that Clint's not used to seeing on someone else's body. He knows how bad it feels when the tape catches on hair. Four pieces of tape, framing one square of gauze. He turns Coulson around gently and sees a matching bandage on his back.
"Through and through," Coulson says.
"That's not really a selling point when you're dealing with big-ass alien scepters," Clint says. He tries to keep his mouth moving because his mind has stopped. He removes the tape on the second bandage slowly and stares at what he's uncovered.
The scar is huge, an angry red, and it draws a perfectly sharp line surrounded by a distorted frame of puckered skin.
"I died twice, apparently," Phil says. "The Council shouldn't have had me moved me as fast as they did. I was dead on the scene, revived, and then died again when they moved me to their facilities."
"I really want to kill them all," Clint says, examining every new detail marking Phil's chest. The scar has cut completely through his Rangers tattoo.
"You'll have to get in line. I think Fury has first dibs."
“We’re all crazy if we think Natasha’s not going to get there first,” Clint counters.
Phil puts his hands over Clint's, stopping his nervous exploration of Phil's wound. “Do I get to see the rest of your new place? Or are we planning on setting up camp here?”
Clint freezes. They’re still right by the elevator door.
“Welcome to my apartment,” Clint says awkwardly, stepping out of Coulson’s way, like Vanna White in slow motion. “It's actually a whole floor, but I haven't decided what a lot of the rooms are supposed to be for yet. I’ve been—Natasha’s been helping me fill it with things. I moved all my shit in, but I don’t really have that much stuff."
He'd never lived anywhere where he'd noticed the emptiness before; it's another change Phil had wrought that Clint has had to learn to live with. "I didn’t have anything of yours to put up on the walls. SHIELD cleaned out your apartment."
"Protocol," Phil murmurs.
"I had some of your clothes in my SHIELD quarters—like your pajamas—and Fury gave me some dog tags that they probably faked, but—”
Coulson steps around him, taking in the cluttered living room and haphazard kitchen and says, “I love your throw pillows.”
Coulson’s half-naked and the throw pillows are fuck-ugly orange, and when Clint steps up behind Phil he runs his hands from the top of Phil’s shoulders, down to his hands, and holds them. “This apartment’s mine,” he says, suddenly shy, pressed against Phil's back.
“It sure is,” Coulson says; Clint can hear him smile. (Something inside of him is screaming, because he’s spent months trying to be okay with the fact that he was never going to make Phil smile again. His therapist is going to throw a fit.) He kisses the back of Coulson’s neck and holds onto Coulson’s hands as he shows off the rest of the apartment.
“This is the living room. Natasha and Steve come down a lot to watch movies—we're doing Academy Award winners. We're up to 1972. The kitchen's over there. It's kind of a mess, but the kitchen on the common floor's so high tech that no one knows how to use it. Bruce comes here sometimes to make curry. There's some in the fridge—do you want curry?" He hesitates, shifting his weight between Phil and the kitchen. The curry's good. Phil needs food. Clint should feed him. Water him? Kiss him, at least, which Clint does; the nape of Coulson's neck is still soft.
"I'm not hungry right now," Coulson says. His skin is pale and the circles under his eyes are dark, but the soft smile is real. Phil leans against him before swaying unexpectedly to the side.
Clint holds on tighter. “You want to see the bedroom?”
“Yes,” Coulson says. “I’m practically asleep on my feet already."
"I don't know what kind of a girl you take me for," Clint mutters, leading the way. "Haven't even been to a decent dinner yet, and you're already trying to get in my pants."
"Hey—we went on dates. Many dates. Many, many dates."
"That was Coulson version one," Clint says, his mouth going dry because maybe this isn't actually a joke. Phil really is different (the missed hand signals, the sloppy tie, the new tension around his eyes). Maybe he's slightly off because of Tahiti, because of Loki and the scars inscribed on his body, but maybe—maybe it's something else.
Clint's not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. Hill and Tasha trust that it's still Phil (Phil, who leans on Clint and waits for him and touches him). Clint keeps his voice light and says, "Coulson version two hasn't even bought me flowers."
"I'll make a mental note," Phil says with a yawn. "Gardenias in the morning. Got it."
The bedroom's still pretty empty. There's the yellow lamp that Tony had tuned to Clint's voice commands, a porcelain shepherdess on the bedside table that Clint had bought because he loves Toy Story, and a wide green tapestry he'd gotten from a street vendor and pinned up above the bed, because there was a lot of wall to cover and not enough pictures to hang up yet. The walls are a deep purple (he and Steve had spent a whole day painting it, with Tony whining at the door, telling them to just let the robots do it). The wood of the bed that Pepper had helped him pick out is a dark mahogany, and it's felt like Clint's ever since Steve and Thor carried it up to his room for him.
Tony had been thinking of Clint when he designed every inch of this floor, with its nooks and hiding spaces and escape routes. Tony and Steve and Pepper and Natasha and even Bruce, when he'd gotten back on Thanksgiving and stayed, have been in Clint's apartment and left little touches there that they'd thought Clint would like.
None of them had thought, Coulson likes light blue, or We'll need more bookshelves, or We should put nicer hangers in the closets.
"You're worrying," Phil says, sitting down heavily on the bed. Clint buys some time by looking in his closet, pretending he can't remember exactly which drawer holds the threadbare pair of Coulson's sweats and Berkley t-shirt. "Anything you want to talk about?" Clint stays quiet while he helps Coulson get his shirt on. Helps him get his slacks off and then the sweats on. He's grateful for every moment that he gets to touch Coulson, still hoping that this isn't a dream. "You don't have to tell me if you don't want to."
Phil's always done that. Always given Clint time to find and sort his words; has always forgiven him without blame if Clint still comes up empty.
"This is my apartment," Clint says. Phil nods and waits again. "You don't live here."
Phil's forehead crinkles. "I know. It's your space. I don't have to move in, Clint. When I asked you to move in before New Mexico—that was me asking you into my space, or to a new space. It doesn't have to be the same the other way around. "
Usually it's Clint who misunderstands words so badly. But sometimes Coulson does it too; oblivious to offers of help, or praise, or companionship.
"I want you to live here," Clint says, "but I don't know how you can. There was this...this giant hole where you were supposed to be," he says. Phil has been his center of gravity for years, helping and loving and being with him. Then he was gone, but Clint's orbit hadn't changed. He's not sure how to explain what it feels like pull yourself back from the edge of a black hole, when the only words he has involve pillows and paint colors and new routines instead of I filled the space where you used to live.
"Things without you were impossible for a really long time. I had to relearn all my verbs, because you were—you were instead of are. I rebuilt everything. And I— I think I ended up with a space with no room for you." He takes a deep breath, because he feels like he had the first time he'd been called in Coulson's office with his messed-up paperwork in Coulson's hands; he feels like things might be ending.
Clint's on his knees in front of Phil, who's sitting on the edge of the bed; Clint's hands are resting on the clean socks he'd been pulling over Phil's ankles. Phil runs his hands over Clint's scalp and slowly smoothes them over his head until they're resting behind his neck. Phil's fingers are laced, and Clint's pulled close, leaning against Coulson's thigh.
"If your feelings have changed, then that's...that's something we'll deal with. Something I'll deal with. But when I said I love you," Phil says carefully, "I meant that I love all of you. I don't have to move in, but if you want me to, we can keep the pillows, and Bruce can share the kitchen, and there are still empty rooms that I probably won't know how to fill either. Everything that's in this apartment is here because you loved it, or liked it, or just—just wanted it." Phil tilts up Clint's face so he has to see Phil's smile. "That means that even if I hate those orange pillows, I'll love them, because you're the one who put them there."
Clint closes his eyes and lets Phil's words wash over him.
He'd thought, on the first night that Phil had written and then whispered I love you, that he'd understood what Phil meant.
He'd just known, like always, that there was an expiration date. A time when Clint would push Phil too far and the words would become letters again, meaningless building blocks that Clint doesn't know how to use. He'd known that Coulson would leave, and in a way, he'd been right.
But when Phil died and the paper burned with the book in New Mexico, their one I love you had stayed.
I love you feels different now. It feels stronger.
"I missed you," Clint says, still on his knees, bowing his head. Except for saying Goodbye to Barney, and I love you to Phil for the first time, he thinks that these are the simplest, most important words he's ever made.
Phil tugs him up, and Clint goes easily, because Phil's still moving carefully, stiffly. "Lie down with me?" Phil asks.
Clint arranges them carefully on the bed, one of his arms pillowing Phil's head, the other over Phil's heart. It's like he's been using a borrowed bow for months and finally got his own back. His arms know where they're supposed to be.
"Remember the elbow dilemma?" he murmurs into the back of Phil's neck.
Phil laughs. "I think you kicked me in the kidneys about eight times."
"This is comfortable now though, right? You're not hurting?"
"The last time I feel this comfortable was New Mexico." Clint doesn't bother to hide his shiver. "We've got a lot to talk about," Phil says quietly. "Loki's first on the list."
"Maybe second," Clint says. "I kind of want sex to be first."
"You're good at lists," Phil says, fighting another yawn.
"I love you," Clint says.
He's spent months being something other than human; something less. Months wishing that he'd fought Loki harder, better, differently; wishing he'd put a failsafe into his plan the way Selvig had managed to. He's spent months mourning the life, the self, the person that he thought he'd never get back again.
He understands love better now.
When Phil says it back to him, "I love you, too," Clint thinks that Phil means no matter what. Clint's never had a forever love before. He holds Phil closer, his heart beating safely against Clint's hand.
The next morning Clint wakes up on the floor with his hands wrapped around Coulson’s throat, the room washed in the blue of his nightmare, Coulson’s desperate, rasping voice trying to talk him down. “Clint, it’s okay, it’s me, you’re fine, it’s just me, I swear—” Clint doesn’t let go until Tasha tranqs him.
When he wakes up again, Coulson has new bruises on his neck. The colors match the sleep-deprived darkness around his eyes.
“I’m so sorry,” Clint says. Coulson listens to the rest of Clint’s apologies, crouched with his back against the wall, half-naked and exposed. Tasha’s standing in the corner, tranq gun still in hand. Clint sits up on the edge of his mattress. His knees feel weak enough that he thinks he might fall off the bed if he tries to stand.
He talks until Phil says, “You were apologizing in your sleep, too.” That shuts Clint up. Tasha shakes her head slightly when Clint looks at her. He hadn’t done that on the nights the two of them had slept together. “I’m going to go and get ice packs for my neck,” Coulson says. “Then we’re going to sign you up for therapy. Maybe ask Natasha if she’d be willing to spend a couple nights on our couch or in the bed to help break things up a little quicker if this happens again.”
Coulson finally looks at him, really looks at him, and Clint realizes Phil’s crying. “Don’t you dare apologize to me. Not for what Loki did, not for what you did under Loki’s control, not for anything that happened before or after. Don’t you dare. I’m alive,” Coulson says, spreading his arms wide, the puckered skin around his scar moving with him. “Miracles are happening. You moving on, or letting go, or having trouble accepting that somehow I’ve come back…. That’s important, but on the scale from ‘dead’ to ‘resurrected,’ accidental non-lethal strangulation ranks pretty damn low.”
Clint pushes himself to standing, feeling weak and and unsteady on his feet. He kisses Coulson’s tears and Coulson wipes Clint’s away with careful thumbs. Tasha leaves the tranq gun on the table and says she’ll be back that night, and every night after that, until they tell her not to. And then, she says, probably one more night after they tell her to leave, because, “You’re too emotionally stunted to fight your way out of a Pakistani prison.”
Coulson frowns. “The proper saying is ‘you couldn’t fight your way out of a wet paper bag.’”
“I made it better,” she says, giving them a nod before leaving.
They stay in Clint's rooms until they run out of food. Tasha comes in every night and asks Coulson new testing confirmation questions, which he answers with his eyes crinkled in small smiles. She sleeps on the floor, or in their bed, or on their couch, depending on their moods.
Clint still dreams in blue, but he wakes up slower and slower every morning. He holds his breath until he can remember where he is, then stays still until he feels Phil wrapped around him. Every night he tries not to fall asleep, because he's never been allowed a dream this good before. Who knows when it will end?
When they run out of protein packs, wrappers spread out around them in bed, Phil says, "I think it might be time to leave the nest."
"We declared a moratorium on bird jokes in 2009."
"The clock restarted when my heart did.” Coulson rolls over and faces him with a sigh. “Clint. I'm not going to disappear if you let me out of your sight."
Clint knows that's true, because he's let Phil go to the bathroom by himself (and okay, maybe he hasn't actually taken eyes off Phil other than that). "I have a naturally suspicious nature," he says, looking away. "There's a note about it in my psych profile."
"I know," Phil murmurs. "I also know you’re not supposed to be reading confidential notes. Regardless of the fact that I'm happy you're voluntarily reading things, those are private for a reason. But, Clint—I'm real. I'm not going to disappear. You're not dreaming."
Clint heaves a sigh, gathers up the wrappers from their many makeshift meals, and pulls on a pair of pants. "Want to see the rest of the tower? You might even get to hang out with Steve. It's Wednesday. He's probably sketching in the living room."
Phil scrambles into his clothes. Clint's ready with a tie but Phil leaves the top few buttons on his shirt undone, so Clint puts it back in the closet. They’ll need a tie rack. They’ll need new ties. Clint reaches out and feels the scar, which is still covered, through the thin cotton fabric. "All right. Let's do this."
The Avengers know about Clint’s problem now. Know about his relationship with words. And somehow they make a bigger deal about his relationship with Coulson than they had when they found out that Clint’s dumb as a—that he's dyslexic. (Coulson's back, so Clint's not allowed to insult himself; Coulson is protective of and careful with everything he owns).
Thor and Jane take them on a double date (that ends up including Darcy and Tony, for reasons no one quite understands). The night ends at a Salsa club, where Clint and Darcy dance everyone else off the floor. Thor and Jane do the same slow-dance shuffle to every song, and Coulson and Tony get drunk and argue about ethics.
Steve says he's happy for them, and Clint has no doubt that he is. Clint shows up at Steve's quarters later that night with a box full of dark rum, and gets Steve drunk enough to talk about how many people Steve has lost; how badly he wants a miracle resurrection of his own.
Natasha keeps track of Coulson with nervous eyes, but she also brings him back up to sparring speed and doesn't treat him like he's fragile, which is good, because Clint's still afraid with every touch that Coulson might disappear or begin to bleed again. She researches Tahiti, researches Coulson's resurrection, researches the scene with the scepter over and over, consulting with Jane and Thor every time they visit.
(Eventually Clint has to tell her not to keep him up to date on the investigation unless she absolutely has to ask for his help, because his therapy’s not going that well. Coulson's always felt a bit unreal to Clint; always been too good to be true. His therapist tells him he's allowed to have good things. Clint doesn't tell Tasha that, not in so many words, but she kisses his cheek when she says All right, and then calls him little bird in Russian.)
Bruce and Phil hadn't even met before. Clint invites him down for dinner, and they have Bruce's curry, made in Clint's apartment, eating off plates that don't match, drinking from cups that are almost all chipped. It turns out that Bruce brings out something gentle in Phil, something fond, and when Bruce stops tip-toeing around Phil, his sharp wit comes to the fore and he has Phil doubled over with laughter.
Clint's not quite included in the interplay between them, but he feels full with it anyway.
Pepper and Phil have lunch dates. Natasha goes sometimes, since she's still acting as Pepper's secretary. Clint asks her about it, and Tasha says that she thinks she could have been Pepper, maybe, in a different life. She says she's never had a close female friend before so she decided to try it out. (Later, Tasha says she's decided to keep Pepper, the same way she'd given Coulson, Hill, and Steve her stamp of approval. Clint hides his smile of pleasure at how long Tasha's list of people she trusts is growing.)
Coulson shows Clint the Bus that Fury's building. Apparently, it's the scary-rich version of a Sorry you died fruit basket. Phil shows off the wet bar, the bunks (Clint's photo already tucked by Coulson's bed), his new office. They pick out the memorabilia that Phil wants to take with him. Sturdy, durable pieces. They secure everything down themselves, and Clint does his best not to think about the potential collisions and damage that the plane might incur. They fuck in the office, the bedroom, Lola (secured in the docking bay), and the cockpit.
They don't talk about the fact that this means that Phil is leaving again, because Clint's gotten worse at using his words, and it seems like Phil's more okay with the non-verbal conversations that involve a lot of bruise-tight grips on Phil's hands and wrists and hips.
He shows Phil the book he'd bought to replace Trick Shot's gift, and the few new mementos he's tucked into its pages. A program from War Horse, a picture of Hawkeye in action he'd torn out of Time Magazine, a post-it note from Steve saying Great job today!.
A few days later Phil gives him a bloody trading card, in a sealed wrapper, to slip between its pages. It takes Phil a while to explain the story behind it. Apparently, Clint had missed some Helicarrier shenanigans while he was Loki's henchman. Phil says Hill had gathered the cards back from Fury and the Avengers. They get Hill a $50 gift card to Applebee's, for reasons Phil won't divulge, and Clint sneaks into Fury's office every night for a week to switch his screensaver to fish swimming around and letting out adorable air bubbles.
Fury hates fish.
It's a thing.
When it’s time for Phil to redeploy, Clint isn't ready to let him go. He knows Phil will be back between missions. He knows that Coulson's team is a good one (Phil had spread personnel files out over their bed and talked for hours about personality conflicts and potential combinations and what the fuck May was playing at).
But there is still something inside of Clint holding onto Phil the way Clint thinks children probably hold onto safety blankets.
Three days before deployment they're both getting ready to head into the Hub. Clint's just tied his own boots and perfected Coulson's tie when Phil asks him, "Do you think you'll ever trust me again?" Clint, who hadn't realized until just then that the trust between them hadn't been as durable as the love, freezes. "After everything that happened, you have good reasons not to trust me. But if there's anything I can do..."
"I don't know," Clint says.
"I promise," Phil says, "I promise I won't—"
"Don't you dare promise that you're not going to leave me," Clint says, with an unexpected snarl, glad that his hands aren't on Phil's tie anymore, because otherwise he's pretty sure he'd have strangled the man. "You promised me that once already."
"And I kept that promise, didn't it?" Phil's smile is paper-thin and hopeful.
"This isn't fucking Princess Bride," Clint says, feeling some twisting undercurrent inside of himself turning into a whirlpool. "True love doesn't always prevail."
"Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary?"
"Are you ever going to be able to trust me again, given the fact I can't promise you I won't die someday?" Phil whispers.
Medical science, not love, not promises, had brought Phil back the last time.
Clint wishes he could say Yes. Y-e-s yes, I trust you.
Clint has left bruises, hickeys, and fingerprints on almost every unscarred inch of Phil's body in the days between his return from the dead and his redeployment date.
They filled one of the extra rooms of Clint's floor with a desk and bookshelves and plants that JARVIS will water when they're away.
Phil's met every member of Clint's team, and Phil's given Clint the background info on every member of his new team who aren't cleared to know about Phil and Clint's classified relationship yet.
Clint walks away from Phil and tears a piece of paper out of his new keepsake book. The paper's yellowing and fragile, so he's careful with it when he writes I love you. on it, complete with proper capitalization and punctuation. He folds it into the shape of an arrowhead, because origami makes sense to him the same way trajectory patterns do.
"Bring this back to me. If you lose it, make a new one, and bring that."
Phil takes it from him and holds it carefully in his hand, like he's holding a lightning bug that he doesn't want to escape.
"I trust you to bring this back to me if you can." Clint says, wrapping his fingers gently over Phil’s. He thinks about all the things he's lost. Thinks back to Loki, to the base in New Mexico, to Phil. He thinks about the things he wants to get back. "Is that good enough?"
Phil pulls him in with one hand, since the other one is full of Clint's overly-sentimental craft project, and says, "I promise to bring this home every time I come back to you."
Every time Phil comes back, he has an arrow. Sometimes missions go pear-shaped and the pieces Clint made him get lost, so the I love you. will be on new paper (once it was on the back of the table of elements, once a red CLASSIFIED stamp). Phil's as bad at origami as he is at drawing, so he cuts the shape out of paper using scissors.
Every time Phil has to go back into the field, Clint gives Phil new arrowheads from the pages of his old book. They're made with fancier folds each time, because when Clint gets bored he plays with new patterns in his head.
Every time Phil comes home, Clint loves him, and Phil loves him back. Clint doesn't need words for it anymore, but he has them anyway. All three, with the I capitalized and a period at the end. The first time the words had made sense, they'd been a gift from Phil, a gift Clint's finally able to give back. It feels stronger every time paper passes between their hands.
He flattens each one of Phil's renewed makeshift promises and keeps them in his book.
The book stays on Clint's floor of the tower, in the office they put together for Phil. He keeps it tucked under the purple couch in the corner that Phil had insisted on buying, explaining that it wouldn't be his room if Clint didn't have a place in it.