When Clint is in his mid-twenties, he climbs 25 floors of stairs and picks the lock to the roof of a New York high rise. He slips over the protective guardrail that circles the edge and stands there for two hours, fingers gripping the steel behind him, watching the world below and considering what it would mean to let go.
He thinks about how easy it would be, to loosen his fingers and let himself fall. He thinks about his brother and Trick Shot and everything he has lost, all the people he no longer has, and then he thinks about the time it would take for him to reach the pavement down below.
When the third hour passes, he pulls himself back over the rail and leaves the roof. There is no grand epiphany, no sudden desire to keep living, that drives him away from the roof. But there is fear; the fear of regret and the thought of going through with it, of falling, and then wanting to take it back before he hits the ground.
He does not want to be held back by that whenever it is that he finally goes.
He never tells anyone, and never plans to. It is a private thing, a moment of weakness that he will never speak of.
(Years later, an Agent Philip Coulson will present a grainy photograph of him standing on that roof when Clint asks him, “Why me?” and tell him, plainly, like it’s obvious, “Because you didn’t let go.”
Two weeks later, Clint will call the number on the business card Coulson gives him and tell him, “Okay.”
Two years later, they will fall into bed together and Clint will wake up to warm breath on the back of his neck and warmer hands settled on the dip of his hips, and he will think he understands.)
Clint still dreams of falling, sometimes.
Sometimes, he is in the circus, walking the tightrope even though there’s nothing to stand on and then he’s really just sliding through empty air. In those dreams, Barney will be standing at the bottom, sawing away at the safety net with a bloody knife and saying things that Clint doesn’t want to hear.
The worst ones are the ones about the roof, though. In those, he does not climb back over the railing. Instead he slips and then he falls and falls and watches his life pass by him. The drop takes too long, and it is exactly what he feared it would be, full of horror and terror and the knowledge that he doesn’t want this but is helpless to stop it. He thinks of the people he is leaving behind now, his team and friends and lover, and he thinks of the unfairness of it all, that he is losing it now, when he has only just found it.
In those dreams, Phil is always there, and he reaches for Clint but always misses.
Clint wakes up before he hits the ground, every time, and there are fingers in his hair and a soft voice in his ear talking him down. Phil never asks, never pushes; just holds him close until his heart stops pounding and the wind in his ears fades away.
Clint wonders what will happen on the day he doesn’t wake up before the impact.
“I’m not afraid of heights.” Clint hates that his tone is sharp, but he refuses to be diagnosed with something he doesn’t have.
“I know.” Coulson – he is always Coulson at work, never Phil – says. He isn’t looking at Clint, but at the paperwork in front of him. The words Psychiatric Evaluation are printed at the top. Clint has never hated a piece of paper so much in his life. He regrets ever talking about the nightmares.
“I can do my job.” He insists harshly, fingers curling into a white-knuckled fist.
“Clint,” Coulson says, and now he does look at Clint, drops his pen and sets his hand atop of the archer’s. “I know.”
Clint watches him, carefully impassive. Then, slowly, he loosens his fingers and turns them so that their palms fit together and their fingers twist. Coulson goes back to his paperwork, checking a box at the bottom where it says I DO NOT recommend further evaluation, and Clint feels a surge of warmth and fondness for him.
Their hands remain together, interlocked and inseparable.
Clint jumps off a building in the middle of a battle.
It’s the only way to make the shot, to save lives, to do his job. He doesn’t hesitate, and he doesn’t think; he simply acts and shoots and watches in satisfaction as his target crumbles in the aftermath. Then gravity takes hold and he tumbles down to earth from 30 stories high. There is time before his descent crashes down, and even though this is his nightmare, his fucking bad dream, he finds himself strangely content.
He isn’t scared. He doesn't think he has been in a long time.
Tony catches him. He also makes a crack about birds and wings, but Clint only hears half of it.
When they touch the ground, the fight is over; Clint’s arrow had been the finishing blow. They’ve won, and the others are waiting. Steve asks him, half-pleading, not to do that again without warning them, please. Natasha punches him in the shoulder but does not put half the force into it she normally would. Thor slaps his back and congratulates him on a well-fought battle. Hulk booms a declaration of adoration for them all.
Clint feels, not for the first time, a tingling sense of affection for them all. They treat him like he’s one of them, not some outsider with nothing to lose. It’s unfamiliar but not unwanted.
He waits until the others have dispersed before thanking Tony. The Iron Man is uncharacteristically quiet for a moment, before he lifts his faceplate and nods in the direction of the black SUV that doubles as a mobile command center. “You’re lucky he was watching.”
Clint follows his line of sight and catches Coulson watching them now. The agent’s eyes are hard, professional steel, but under that Clint can see more than he probably should.
He smiles. “I knew he would be.”
“You’ll be the death of me,” Phil whispers into his skin later that night. Then he pins Clint’s wrists to the mattress and fucks him slowly, working him open until he quakes and sobs and falls and it feels beautiful.
Afterwards, Phil tucks him against his side possessively. “Were you scared?” He asks softly.
Clint strokes an old bullet scar that sits along Phil’s rib cage as he considers his answer. “I knew someone would catch me.” He finally says. “I’ve never had that before.” He’d thought he’d had it once, but that was before his world had fallen apart and he’d found himself on a roof in New York.
Phil runs his fingers through Clint’s hair and then kisses him. He tastes like sex and sweat and Phil, and Clint thinks, not for the first time, that he’ll never get used to being this happy.
Clint dreams of the roof that night. Only this time, he doesn’t slip; he jumps, arms stretched out and embracing the wind the whole way down, dropping feathers as he goes.
There is no fear now; no thoughts of loss or regret. There is simply a sense of contentment and security that he can’t remember ever having before. He passes figures on the way down, Barney and the Swordsman and people who he doesn’t remember as anything more than dark memories he would rather forget. They watch him go with envy, because they will never have this and Clint is not stupid enough to ever let it go long enough for it to be stolen away.
And then there is Natasha and Tony, and Steve and Thor and Bruce, waving with smiles, and at the bottom, there is no broken net. There is just Phil, who catches him soundly and holds him close and murmurs quiet things to him.
He wakes up and Phil is watching him, sliding gentle fingers down his cheek like he knows. Clint presses his forehead to Phil’s and sighs.
“I love you,” he says sincerely. He’s never said it before, but Phil makes him feel safe and reckless, like it’s okay to feel vulnerable. It’s strange and frightening, but also kind of wonderful.
Phil’s eyes are soft, and he kisses Clint, slow and patient. “I love you too,” he says when they break. It’s not the first time he’s said it, but Clint still feels himself smile like a moron when he hears it. He thinks he can feel himself falling all over again
He loves every moment of it.