Check your watch. Two o'clock in the morning, almost to the second. He checked again. Two o'clock. Checked the slim, silver digital clock mounted over the door of the shooting range. Two o'clock. Probably time he put away the bow and got some sleep.
Checked the clock again. Two-oh-one. His watch agreed, and he paused for a moment, eyes flicking between the two, watching the seconds count off. Perfectly in sync.
The watch had been a gift from Phil. Well, from Tony, but Phil was the one who had asked Tony to put it together, citing something about needing Clint's timekeeping to match up with everyone else's even when he was stationed far from the rest of the team. It had been a good line, and Tony had nodded, and now Clint had a watch with a tiny maser in it, spontaneously oscillating to keep time, a miniature atomic clock for his wrist.
His time was never wrong. When they went into the field, everybody else synchronized their chronographs with his watch. Hell, JARVIS was synchronized with his watch.
Clint couldn't explain why it mattered. But it did.
Okay. Two-oh-four in the morning. He'd been locked in here practising for the better part of six hours now, and it was working, like it always did, steady rhythms of nock-draw-release letting his mind blank itself out, letting him forget for a little while. If he didn't think about anything, he didn't have to worry about anything. If he didn't think about anything, he could let go.
Slowly, he disassembled the bow, coiling the string around four fingers of his right hand and tucking it into its sleeve. The smooth curves of the bow arms felt good in his hands; he tested them gently, once, twice, then put them away as well, fitting the riser into its slot between them, settling it securely. Normally, he practised with the compound bow, because it was what he took into the field most often. But his first love had been recurve, and on rough days, it was what he went back to when he needed to tune out for a while.
Today had been a recurve day.
He closed the lid of the bow case, paused, opened it again, checked that everything was in place. One finger ran gently along the servings of the bowstring. A little bit of wax collected there, he noticed… and the serving at the nocking point was getting kind of worn anyway…
He knew better than to look so closely at something like that this late at night.
Okay. All right. He should be in bed, he knew that, but it wasn't going to work, just telling himself that. There was wear on the serving; he needed to fix that, wouldn't be able to sleep if he didn't. So instead of dwelling on the time (later and later, as his watch quietly hummed past two-thirty), he fumbled in a drawer in the armoury until his fingers closed around a reel of purple 62XS. There, okay, and the jig was already set up, and the serving tool…
… was at his shoulder, firmly gripped in Phil's hand.
He looked up. Silence, for a moment, and then he gestured to the bowstring he was holding, already looped around one end of the jig. "Little bit of wear on the nocking point, thought I'd take care of it before…"
"It's two-thirty-nine in the morning."
Automatically, Clint checked his watch, the clock, his watch, the clock. "Only take a minute."
Phil looked at him as though he wanted to say something, but in the end he just surrendered the serving tool and took a seat next to the bowstring jig, careful to sit so that he was in line with Clint's peripheral vision while he worked. Having people hovering behind him, where he couldn't see, made Clint uncomfortable. Phil knew that.
Clint checked his watch again. Phil knew a lot of things.
It was true, though, about the serving; the whole job really did take less than five minutes and then the string was back in its sleeve, the bow case closed, checked (Phil held it open, letting him look, but not handing over the case), closed again and put away.
"Done?" Phil asked him.
Clint stepped through the doors into the range again, flipped on the harsh lights and did a last visual scan before locking the door, closing it and testing the handle. "Done."
Phil trailed him all the way to his quarters, ten steps behind and off to the side where Clint could see him, waiting until Clint tipped his head enquiringly, inviting Phil inside. They were long past the point where either of them needed that kind of invitation, but sometimes, when Phil found Clint in the armoury in the middle of the night with his recurve bow, he waited for Clint's lead anyway.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, stripping down to boxer shorts and crew-neck, he listened to the sounds from the bathroom. Phil knew the routine well by now; wash hands, brush teeth, wash hands again. Clint did things twice. That was just how he worked. Of course there were advantages and disadvantages to it, and Phil had catalogued them all, but they were irrelevant, because Clint did things twice and that wasn't going to change.
Feeling Clint's weight settle on the other side of the bed, rolling over to wrap one arm around him so that his fingers came to rest curled against the archer's hip, he breathed in deeply, slowly. These were moments they didn't get very often, moments that were peaceful for them both.
Phil worked; there was always one more action to authorize, one more press junket to deal with, one more near-death encounter to sign off on. It was difficult to find peace in the midst of all of it, but harder still for Clint, who was haunted not by his job, but by his mind. For Phil, it was paperwork and permissions and post-strike reconnaissance teams; for Clint, it was everything. Weapons to be checked (twice), doors to be locked (twice), the way he had to check and re-check the clocks, the pauses while he stopped and redirected wayward thoughts, expression of pain clear on his face because he didn't want it, any of it. "Re-label," Phil would whisper to him then, sliding his arms around Clint's waist to give him something else to fixate on, "re-attribute, re-focus, re-value."
"Re-label," Clint would answer when he could, telling himself that everything was okay, the gun locker was sealed, nothing was going to go wrong, he didn't need to check it, he just thought he did. "Re-attribute." It's not your fault, Clint. It's okay. "Re-focus," and it was usually around that time that Clint sighed and slumped against him, letting go of whatever compulsion he was fighting.
"Re-value" was the hard one for him. Telling himself it didn't mean anything, didn't make him flawed, a failure, somehow less than everyone else… that was something Clint still had trouble managing.
For Clint's sake, Phil wished he could take it all away. For the ability to watch the man he loved come in after a mission and throw himself down on the couch with the rest of the Avengers, instead of rocking anxiously back and forth on his heels until he could get away, tend to his gear, and shower (twice). For the ability to hold him close at night without first having to go and find him on the shooting range, trying to quiet his mind enough for sleep. For Clint to be able to be himself without worrying about what the other Avengers might say, or how much of an inconvenience he was, or any one of the thousand things that went through his head to tear him down every time Phil tried to build him up. For Clint to believe, just once, that he could relax and the world wouldn't go to hell around him because of it.
But he couldn't; he couldn't take any of it away, and Clint –
Clint was perfect, and Phil wouldn't change a single thing.
He let a hand brush along Clint's arm and down, threading his fingers between Clint's, closing their hands together to occupy them with something besides drumming on the mattress.
"Sorry," whispered Clint. "Was I…"
"Only a little." He dropped a soft kiss into the tousled hair, feeling tension ebb from the muscles beneath him. "Go to sleep."
Phil remembered figuring it out – because this wasn't something that was in Clint's files, wasn't something anyone had ever noticed before. When he was around other people, Clint did a damn good job of hiding it.
He'd seen Clint's darting glances, his obvious lack of attention, when he'd done quick on-site debriefs after missions – and, just like everyone else, he'd attributed it to the man's low tolerance for paper-pushing and his dislike of authority. He'd seen Clint's brow wrinkle in concentration as he set his old standard-issue timepiece to synchronize with the team, catching Natasha's wrist and checking his watch against hers two, three, four times – and, just like everyone else, he'd assumed it was part of Clint's natural professionalism while on assignment. He'd seen his fingers, drumming on his leg or his coffee cup or the edge of his chair during every morning meeting – and, just like everyone else, he'd thought it was just Clint's annoyed impatience showing through.
He remembered, time and again, "Barton, do you mind?" and the way the corners of Clint's mouth would tauten, the way he'd roll his eyes but also clamp his fingers around his mug and lock them there, white-knuckled, while Phil continued his rundown of recent events. Now, of course, he wished he could take back every time he'd said it, but he hadn't known, and Clint hadn't wanted him to.
He remembered, too, the sudden realization after one too many missions, one too many target-practice all-nighters, one too many times he'd snapped at Clint for disrupting a briefing session, only this time Clint hadn't had a sarcastic comeback or an eye-roll or an exaggerated stretch back into a casual position with an expansive gesture to continue.
No, this time Clint had frozen, stared at him wide-eyed for a moment, and then gotten to his feet, stumbling out of the room with a muttered aside about not having time for this crap.
They'd all stared as the door closed behind him, and then Natasha had sighed and made to go after him. To this day, Phil didn't know what had made him stop her and go after Clint himself instead. They'd still been in a sort of awkward standby phase of being co-workers who weren't sure whether they wanted to despise each other or jump each other's bones, but somehow, Phil had ended up in a deserted upper-floor corridor of the heli-carrier, watching Clint twitch and tic and swear under his breath and give a half-open storage-room door the kind of kick he'd never seen outside a combat situation.
"Barton," he'd said. "Clint."
A sharp intake of breath, Clint's shoulders tensed and drawn close, and he'd turned.
"The hell you want, Coulson?"
The look on his face had very nearly stopped Phil in his tracks, but he'd pulled himself together and said, "Come back."
Not meeting his eyes, Clint had leaned against the wall and said, "Nice of you to offer, but – no, thanks."
"The briefings are mandatory."
"So make an exception. You make them for Stark all the time."
"Stark runs a company. And a sizeable portion of the modern world. Come back."
Clint had shaken his head, turned away again, muttered something Phil hadn't been able to hear.
"I beg your pardon?"
And Phil had stopped right there, because Clint was serious about that. They'd stood there, each unsure of where to go from here, until Clint dared a glance up and Phil had locked eyes with him.
"Eight o'clock tomorrow, Barton. Be there." And he'd left.
He hadn't answered any questions when he'd gotten back to the meeting, nor had he seen Clint for the rest of the day – well, unless one took into consideration the fact that, having finally realized, he'd logged onto the security feeds for the shooting range that evening and watched Clint draw, over and over again, until he nearly fell asleep at his desk watching.
The next morning, on the arm of Clint's customary chair in the briefing room, there'd been a stupid little toy, one of those keychain Rubik's cubes you could get in a Happy Meal or at the dollar store. But Clint had known right away what it was for, and he'd twisted and turned it in his hands for the whole briefing, and Phil hadn't met his gaze or said a word about it.
Clint hadn't said a word about it, either, but the next time Phil had been up in the middle of the night dealing with paperwork from the Avengers' latest mission, he'd appeared in the office doorway with two mugs of coffee and the Rubik's cube, and he'd sat silently in Phil's office and fidgeted with it until Phil went to bed.
At some point, Phil had stopped doing on-site debriefs at all, touching base with each of them through their comm units instead of requiring them to gather as a group. Full debriefs waited until after everyone had stowed their gear, showered and changed (twice, if they wanted).
He never mentioned it again when Clint tapped out patterns on the arms of his chair during morning meetings; in his turn, Clint began to tap on his leg instead, or to play with the cube.
Phil eventually realized, too, that every time he spent a late night in his office, the younger man appeared at his door with a cup of coffee for each of them. And though he spent the first few nights sitting quietly in a corner and twisting the Rubik's cube, solving it and breaking it back up and solving it again, he was too restless to last for long that way, and it wasn't long before he ended up stalking around Phil's office, squaring all his papers off in neat, right-angled stacks.
Phil just laughed and let him.
They'd talk, when Clint came with coffee to distract Phil from his paperwork, or when Phil went down to the shooting range to remind Clint about food and sleep and other necessary things. Phil heard about the orphanage, the circus, all the things in Clint's file, but real this time. Numbers and dispassionate reports were replaced by the fifth birthday when Clint wanted a bicycle but got a black eye, the rough feel of the burlap blankets he and Barney slept under in their caravan at the circus, the way he'd felt on his first S.H.I.E.L.D.-sanctioned assignment. Clint heard about Phil's fall from a tree when he was seven, about sixteen-hour days in the desert in army fatigues, about how many different ways there were to kill a man with half a ballpoint pen. They might even have come up with a few new ones.
One night, they didn't stop talking when they got to the end of the hallway where they usually separated; Clint flopped down onto the floor of Phil's quarters and finished his story, Phil sat on his bed, not caring if his suit wrinkled, and listened.
A few nights later, Phil interrupted a story of his own when they reached the end of the hallway, and Clint took the opportunity to lean in and kiss him. Twice.
"You could get treatment," Phil had offered one day.
"Yeah, screw that," had been Clint's simple response.
"It might be easier."
"I'm a sniper, Phil. All day long, I'm shooting things and trying to make sure the things I'm shooting aren't my teammates. I'm not taking anything."
Phil had wanted to say it might not be so bad, might even give him a break from everything, give him a chance to rest his over-active mind – because it wore him out, Phil could see that easily. Clint had a hell of a stubborn streak, though, and in this case Phil could kind of see his point, so he opted instead for, "It doesn't have to be medication. There are therapies."
"You're kidding, right? I'm not doing some New Age talk-about-my-feelings crap."
"That's… not exactly how it works."
"No, thanks, Phil."
And he knew when it was time to back off, so he just said, "Okay. It's okay. Just… wanted you to know that you could. If you wanted." That I would help you. That we could find a way that worked for you. That no one would think any less of you if you did.
He hadn't really expected Clint to agree. It hadn't felt right not to mention the possibility to him, but Phil had been able to guess the outcome pretty accurately before he'd even said anything.
Instead, he began to learn.
He learned to redirect Clint's focus on difficult days. He learned what Clint needed to do and what he could overcome. He learned the difference between times when Clint was fine, and times when Clint was doing everything in his power to look like he was fine and, when it was the latter, he learned what helped and what didn't.
Clint confessed to him one day that when his brain took him in directions he didn't want to go, he recited poetry in his head until the obsessions faded a little. Phil asked him, "Poetry?" and Clint just rolled his eyes and said, "What, I'm not allowed to have layers?"
Rather than answering, he asked another question. "What is it like?"
"This. The whole thing, dealing with it all."
"It's… I don't know." His brow furrowed as he thought through Phil's question. "Time-consuming, I guess. I mean, it's stupid. I don't need to do any of this crap, but if I don't… it just… it bothers me. Like turning off your radio in the middle of a mission. You can't think about anything else until you turn it back on and hear everyone's voices. It's like that. Hard to concentrate. Have to check everything first."
Phil put out a hand, rubbed gentle circles into Clint's back through the thin fabric of his shirt. "And if you can't?"
"On assignment or something? Then I don't. But it's… not great."
"What does it feel like?"
Clint sighed. "It sucks. Can we not talk about this?"
"Okay," and Phil drew him in close instead, arms closing around him, his head resting on Phil's shoulder. "I'm sorry."
"No," Clint mumbled from his shoulder. "'s okay." And then, softer, so that Phil wasn't even entirely sure he'd heard it, "Thanks."
"You're welcome," Phil said.
You're worth it, he meant.
It happened sometimes. Assignments went bad, they had to throw out their original plans and ad-lib. This wasn't the first time, and it wouldn't be the last. And it worked; it always did, and Thor and Tony kept a running tally of their knock-outs over the comms channel, and Natasha's total somehow exceeded both of theirs, and the Hulk took out a tank and was disqualified from competition, and when they all gathered after the worst of the street-level fighting to try to decide how to approach the underground base, it was Steve who realized that Clint wasn't answering his radio.
"Where's Hawkeye?" he asked, and no one was sure. "HQ?" he tried, and Phil, who had been frantically going through the last few minutes of satellite feeds, steadied his voice enough to say, "I can't confirm a visual."
Okay, he told himself. Standard procedure. Back up ten minutes, try again.
It was easy to miss. Too easy. Easy enough that Phil hadn't even seen it when it happened; easy enough that he would have missed it again if he hadn't been looking so hard for it, senses hyper-acute as they scanned every second of the footage, slowed down to a frame per second so nothing could be overlooked. "Hydra," he said over the comms. "Took him thirteen minutes ago from the secondary vantage point." Thirteen minutes, thirty seconds, he thought, thirty-one, thirty-two. He was accustomed to precision. He was accustomed to Clint.
"You think they have him in the base, Coulson?"
"It's likely. From now on, consider this a retrieval mission."
And with that, he signed off, pulled a heavily-protected S.H.I.E.L.D. laptop from the bottom drawer of his desk, and left the building without authorization.
If this was a retrieval mission, then he sure as hell intended to be on-site for it.
The Hulk was on point, providing a distraction because – well, because he was big and green and capable of punching a lot of things very quickly. Their plan, hastily assembled, was no more detailed than 'break into cell blocks, find Hawkeye, extract,' and with Bruce on the street and Steve leading a squad of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents into the operating centres of the base, that left Iron Man to take the cell block on the right and Thor to tackle the one on the left.
Phil was staying at street level, laptop and earpiece in place, monitoring Thor's and Tony's audio feeds as well as the visual JARVIS gave him from the suit. On the surface, he was cool, calm, collected; his one concession to events was that his tie was a fraction looser than usual. Clint would have noticed, but no one else did.
Inside, though, his heart pounded, his thoughts everywhere as some automatic channel of his mind ticked off the seconds since Clint had been gone – one hundred ninety-two minutes, nineteen seconds, twenty, twenty-one. Enough time to get S.H.I.E.L.D. out here in force, give everyone a job, synchronize watches (to JARVIS, because as long as they were all running on JARVIS time, they'd all be running on Clint's time, and for some reason that seemed important), and go.
Sometimes, Phil loathed proper procedure. Today, he wanted to ignore every instruction he'd ever been given, tunnel into the base with his bare hands, find Clint, and drop anything else that moved.
He might have done it, too, if Thor and Tony hadn't chosen that moment to breach the base's outer defences and move in.
Thor kept up a running commentary as he penetrated his cell block, announcing all the places where Clint was not as he effortlessly dispatched anyone who came up against him. Tony, for once, was quieter, letting the visual feed do his talking for him when he wasn't whiting out the screen with his repulsor blasts. It was Tony who found Clint in the end, two hundred thirty-three minutes, nine seconds, and all the air left Phil's lungs at once when he saw him.
Four hours. Four hours missing, that should be nothing. All operatives were trained to go much longer, trained in resistance to interrogation, and though Clint had a weakness in emotional pride-and-ego-down, he was as close-mouthed in the face of danger as any agent Phil had ever seen.
But this, this wasn't right, something was wrong, Clint didn't just look like he'd been through four hours of questioning, not even through four hours of torture. He was in a cell, chained half-slumped against the wall, his arms splayed wide. There was dirt, blood, Clint was sweat-streaked and his wrists were raw where they had rubbed against the cuffs. He was a mess, and he looked like he'd been down there for a week, but it wasn't any of that that set off all of Phil's alarms.
The unfocused gaze did, the way Clint's eyes darted everywhere, not landing long enough even to register Tony's form kneeling in front of him. His fingers, opening and closing helplessly against the cuffs, trying to tap patterns against each other because there was nothing else to use. His lips, parted slightly as he whispered something Tony's mic didn't pick up, on and on without pause. His missing watch.
"Get those cuffs off him!" And Phil hadn't meant for his reaction to be so knee-jerk, and technically it was Captain Rogers who gave orders in the field, but none of that mattered, and Phil was already tossing the laptop into the back seat of the Acura, grabbing a more portable earpiece, and heading for the ruined base.
By the time he arrived, Tony had the cuffs in several pieces on the floor, rubbing the circulation back into Clint's hands, and Clint was trying to push him away, pulling his hands back to his sides and scrambling awkwardly back so that Tony couldn't catch hold of him again. He was still talking, and Phil caught snatches of it – horror, menace, unafraid – but without stopping to listen, Phil just reached out and wrapped Clint up in his arms, giving him something safe to feel, giving him some way to ground himself so that he could try to fight whatever was happening in his head.
Clint's hands closed on his arms, and he felt fingers tapping soft rhythms against his skin.
"… captain of my soul," Clint whispered, and then, "Phil."
"It's okay. I'm here." Never mind that Tony was still watching them; never mind that this put paid to any leverage he had over Tony and Steve with regard to workplace fraternization; never mind any of it, he had more important things to worry about right now.
"I need… again."
"Go on." Even numbers. Reciting poetry might have helped until they could reach him, but Clint couldn't stop yet.
Four lines in, Tony started to say something about getting out of there, and Phil just held up one hand in his direction, shaking his head, and waited for Clint to finish. When he did, Phil said, "Clint." And then again, "Clint."
"'s okay," Clint said, pushing back, standing on his own. "Not gonna – lose my mind today." But his voice was weak and Phil, filing the comment away for later, could hear the strain in it, Clint holding on by a thread, no idea what was going on, no… oh.
He took off his watch and wrapped it gently around Clint's wrist, fastening it loosely to avoid irritating the raw skin. "Still synced," he smiled, and tapped its face, and Clint checked it once, twice.
"Thanks." And then suddenly, he was shaking violently, and Phil grabbed him again before he could end up falling.
"Re-label," he muttered. This wasn't an obsession, nothing like it, it was just stress and release and the blind effort of having spent the last four hours without any means of relief and desperately needing it. The routine was familiar; necessary or not, it would help.
"Re-label," Clint said back to him, closing his eyes, "re-label."
They went through all of it, Clint saying and doing everything twice, because he had to, he'd gone four hours with no control at all, and he needed, now, to get it back. And it was only when they'd finished, the restless tapping of Clint's fingers easing into a strong grip on Phil's arms, the words fading to a halt, that Phil met Tony's eyes over the top of Clint's head and nodded.
Hauling Clint outside was easier with two. Tony could have carried him alone and faster, but he didn't even bother suggesting that Phil leave Clint with him, because it was obvious that that wasn't going to happen. As it was, everyone was back on the street, clustered around one of the ops vehicles, by the time they emerged from what remained of the Hydra cell block.
One clipped command sent Tony for debrief; one outstretched hand claimed a bottle of water from a support tech, and Phil dumped it over his handkerchief, the one Clint always made fun of, and started to wipe the dirt and the blood from Clint's hands and face. Clint knew better than to try to help, knew he would only hinder things, so he just let Phil work in silence and without protest.
It was a while before all of their clean-up concerns were addressed and S.H.I.E.L.D. began to clear the area. A med tech tried to offer to transport Clint home; Phil knew even before he finished his sentence how well that was going to work out, because he'd never yet seen Clint in the infirmary without his having had to be manhandled down there by at least one of his teammates. There would normally have been a smart remark, some kind of snappy comment that lent credence to his argument that he was fine, but this time Clint just met Phil's eyes and said, "No. Not now – no."
"I'll take responsibility for him from here," Phil told the medic, as if he hadn't been all along, and signed the forms they handed him.
"Happy will take you."
He jumped, spun, and Tony was standing beside him, still in the Iron Man armour, but with his helmet cradled in one arm. With the other, he was gesturing to the sleek Rolls Royce waiting by the kerb.
Phil looked at him and knew that this was something he'd have to deal with – but later.
For now, he just nodded his thanks and began helping Clint to the car.
"What do you need?"
It was a question Phil asked every hour of every day. To superior officers ("What does your objective require from the Avengers Initiative?"), to government officials ("What is your level of security clearance for this information?"), to Director Fury ("What cover story do you want me to give them this time, sir?"), but never to Clint, because Clint wouldn't admit he needed things.
Clint, fresh from a shower and what little medical attention he'd allowed Phil to provide, shook his head and dropped onto the bed. "Nothing. Just… I'm gonna grab a couple hours' sleep. I'm fine, Phil."
"That works on Fury," Phil pointed out. "Not on me."
He could see that Clint's eyes were still not right, still not entirely back to reality, but he could also see the layers of exhaustion that lay behind them, and maybe sleep would make the difference. There was something he had to take care of, too.
"Will you be all right if I go out for a little while?"
Clint nodded and gave a dismissive wave, valiantly trying to look unconcerned. For all his posturing, though, his gaze was worried, fixed on Phil.
"Are you sure?" Phil asked, because he obviously wasn't. "What's wrong?"
He had to lean close to hear the whispered answer, too quiet for him to catch the first time Clint said it. "How long?"
Phil looked at the bedside clock. "Not more than fifteen minutes." He held up the watch, tucked into his pocket when Clint had gone to shower. "Do you want me to leave this with you?"
Another nod, so he placed it on the nightstand where Clint could reach it, taking the opportunity to lean just a little farther over and press a kiss to Clint's forehead.
"Fifteen minutes," he said softly. "I promise."
As soon as the door had closed behind him, he glanced up at the ceiling – a pointless instinct, but one he hadn't bothered to break nonetheless. "JARVIS," he said, "I need you to tell me when twelve minutes have gone by." Margins of error were important.
Right. Okay. Next order of business: Tony Stark.
He was in his workshop, of course; he was always in his workshop after an assignment, tweaking and adjusting the armour to address anything they'd encountered in the field. Today it was repulsors again, something about narrow-beam efficiency and multifunctionality. Phil rarely paid attention to the particulars when Tony was talking, preferring to wait for his written reports so that he could peruse at his leisure.
With no reason not to be blunt, he made his request straight up. "I'd like to keep what happened in the base between us."
"Let's say I'd prefer if it didn't find its way into anyone's field reports."
Tony looked doubtfully at him. After all, it wasn't as though they were exactly the closest of friends, and yet here Phil was, standing before him and asking a favour. Then again, it was a favour that meant going behind S.H.I.E.L.D.'s back, and that, at least, might appeal to Tony a little.
No such luck; Tony frowned. "This… could be a liability in the field, it could be dangerous. Does Fury know about this? Does Steve know about this, Steve's the goddamn team leader, shouldn't the leader of the Avengers know about this?"
"No." And it came out a bit more forcefully than intended, so Phil paused, collected his thoughts, and continued. "This is Agent Barton's prerogative and his alone. Has he ever let it be an issue on an assignment?"
"No, but – "
"And he never will." Phil knew it was true; Clint was many things, but most of all determined, and when he was on assignment, there was nothing he wouldn't do to ensure it went off without a hitch.
Tony looked at him again, expression serious, and Phil could see him calculating. On the one hand, it was Clint's right to decide who knew about this and when, but on the other hand, it was also a legitimate concern if something happened in the field. One the one hand, Tony liked to needle Clint, but on the other hand, even Tony could see that going over Clint's head on this went beyond 'needling.' On the one hand, it was Phil asking the favour and there was nothing Tony enjoyed more than finding ways not to do what Phil asked of him, but on the other hand, he and Clint were teammates, and there was a level of trust involved in that that Tony couldn't just ignore.
Without tearing his gaze from Phil's, Tony slowly nodded his understanding.
"Sir," JARVIS spoke up when he was in the hallway leading to his quarters, "it has been twelve minutes exactly."
"Thank you, JARVIS," and that was good, he'd worried he might have to leave the workshop before he had finished with Tony. Instead, he opened his door, quietly in case Clint was asleep already, and slipped inside.
Not asleep. He could tell from the rhythms of Clint's breathing, from the minute shifts in his position on the bed, and then from veiled eyes watching him through the darkness.
Less than a minute later, he'd shucked off his suit and hung it up, shirt landing crumpled in the laundry hamper, and he was curling up around Clint on the bed. "You okay?"
"Yeah." And then something quieter, something spoken less clearly.
"Didn't catch that."
"'m sorry," Clint mumbled. "Didn't mean…"
"No," said Phil. "Don't apologize. You didn't do anything wrong."
"Couldn't move my hands," he tried to explain. "And I lost the watch."
"Tony can build another one. I'll put in an asset status report."
The archer nodded wearily. "Gonna stay here tonight?"
"Of course. Hey," because there was one thing Phil wanted to talk to him about. "You said something, earlier. About losing your mind."
Silence stretched across the room as Clint drew and held a shaky breath, waiting for the rest.
"Is that… something you worry about?"
A shrug, just a half-second too late to be casual. "How much crazier can I get?"
That was what he'd been afraid of. "Clint. You're not crazy."
"I recited a poem nonstop today for four hours. I can't lock a door without checking it a dozen times. My watch is a fucking atomic clock. I think I qualify."
"And Tony wears a suit of armour powered by his heart. Bruce turns into a green-skinned monster when he's angry. Thor still calls coffee 'mead of the Midgardian minor gods.' I think I can say with some authority that you're not crazy, Clint. In fact, you're one of the most normal people I know."
"Yeah," Clint said with another shrug, "whatever." But his tone of voice was almost normal now, and he shifted more securely into Phil's arms as he said it, and that was something, anyway.
"I love you," he whispered, the warm weight comforting in his arms.
"I know," Clint whispered back. "I love you too. I love you too."