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Release and Follow Through

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Clint is really good at saying really stupid things.

It's not a skill set he likes to think about much (it gets into his head, distracts him, and he ends up in a kind of downward spiral where he remembers things further and further back and can't seem to stop), but it's there, it's a fact. He screws up a lot. He says things without thinking about them, or he thinks about them too much and has nothing adequate to say, so something wrong comes out instead. And when it happens, he can never shake it; it makes a space for itself in the middle of anything else he tries to think about, sits waiting while he distracts himself and comes right back to haunt him as soon as he thinks he may have managed to forget.

He's trying to be better about it (about the stuff he says in the first place and about what happens after), but it's slow going, and sometimes it isn't even something he can put into words. Sometimes he just walks away at the end of a conversation and there's an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach like something just wasn't right about it, something he can't really get in his sights, and that's when he really should shut his brain off, go to sleep or something, start reciting, you, darkness, that I come from, but he can't. Something just doesn't catch, and then the inexplicable uneasiness turns into something more unpleasant, and there's a deep, quiet burn of shame he can't understand and he goes over and over the words he said and tries to figure out what was wrong with them.

Sometimes he manages to dredge up the words of a poem or, if he can't, then a song, and then he can set that against what goes on in his head and it's a battle, it's exhausting. He's been trying it Phil's way (re-label, re-attribute, re-focus, re-value), but that doesn't work for this; he gets stuck on re-attribute, because he can't pass this off, can't blame it on his stupid brain or the thoughts he never means to have. Re-attribute is 'not your fault,' and that's not true when it was something he said that brought everything down around him, or everything he said, or even when he has no idea what it was that felt so off to him. Clint is too hyper-aware of things like that, fumbling the Rubik's cube into a muddled mess of colours that takes him hours to undo even though he's done it a thousand times before, because he can't concentrate when he's like this.

Phil finds him sitting in the empty rec room, Rubik's cube in his hands and forgotten, its edges digging into his skin so that Phil can see the strain in his grip. Clint didn't want to be found, not by Phil, not when he hasn't had the time and distance yet to put whatever the hell he's done out of his memory (and tonight is one of those times when he isn't sure what it was; he's just unhappy about the whole thing, there's definitely something he should have said and didn't, some wavelength he should have been on and wasn't). It's hard to hide, though, in a mansion full of people with an AI that can track you anywhere you go and a handler who knows the house inside-out and you even better.

So Phil finds him, and he sits down next to him and says nothing, and Clint says nothing either (safer that way, better, he can't screw anything up if he just doesn't talk, or at least, it will be a lot harder). They sit that way for a long time before Clint's fingers twitch on the Rubik's cube and he begins to turn it, lining up the white pieces along one edge and trying to look like it's claiming all of his attention, because Phil is going to try to talk to him and he's already feeling drained and inadequate and this will not end well.

Phil doesn't try to talk to him, though. He just sits and lets Clint ignore him and fidget with the cube, and it's only when Clint begins to mutter the beginnings of poems he never finishes that he says, "Clint," calm and even and with no aim at starting a conversation.

Clint stops. Phil is right; if he starts this kind of thing, it's going to come back to bite him later on, when everything is unfinished and there are too many loose threads to hunt them down and complete them all, and Phil always knows when Clint is letting himself go too far, always pulls him back, and Clint hates that as well, because one of these days it's going to be too much for Phil.

One of these days, Phil is going to decide that he can't be fixed.

It's something Clint's been waiting for ever since he and Phil started to matter like this to one another, ever since he realized (and never acknowledged aloud) that this was a kind of important he'd never had before. He might have been bracing for a blow ever since Phil gave him the Rubik's cube and started letting him sit in his office late at night, long before anything else, when it was hard enough to come to terms with the idea of 'friend,' much less anything more.

He's been waiting for a while now, and the other shoe has yet to drop, but it's not going to take much longer if he keeps making mistakes and saying stupid things and getting it wrong and thinking too much or not enough. He's thinking about that, twisting the Rubik's cube in both hands until Phil reaches out and brushes his fingers over the back of Clint's hand, not to stop him, but to remind him that he's still there, that he's not going anywhere, that whatever Clint is dealing with, they can do it together.

Clint has to close his eyes, because no, he's the one who doesn't know how to police his words; he's the one who doesn't know how to tell which ones are right and which ones make him curl in on the sharp sting of shame, and so he uses someone else's instead, because Shakespeare never made mistakes like Clint's.

When he hears the words Clint is using as a defence against himself, there's just one half-swallowed word, "Clint – " cut off at the end because interrupting isn't a good thing for either of them. So instead Phil sits there, silent, while Clint goes through the sonnet twice and finishes, voice cracking, "… for I am shamed by that which I bring forth – and so should you, to love things nothing worth…"

And that, right there, is the place where it lives, guilt and shame and questioning and everything that makes Clint go over the words of conversations afterward and wince at the things he's said, grimace at all the wrong ways they could have been read, try to distract himself and swallow down the ache of a mistake he's never really sure he's made, but regrets anyway.

Phil shakes his head and for a fraction of a second, fear spikes in Clint at the thought that no, this is another mistake, but Phil just folds his hands around Clint's, Rubik's cube and all.

"I don't know what's wrong," he admits. "I don't know what's going on here, Clint, but whatever it is, come back."

"I'm right here."

Phil gives him a look, don't deflect. "What happened?"

"I don't know." He doesn't, he really doesn't; all he knows is that he was talking to Phil, and it felt strange and strained and wrong, and then Phil left and he did what he always does, thought too much and too hard and ended up here.

And then Phil ended up here, too, with the rough skin of his hands against Clint's (writer's mark, trigger callouses, ink stains, paper cuts) and a look on his face like he'll be here all night if that's what it takes for Clint to figure out what's going on in his head, what he needs, and if Phil is here, then he can't have gotten everything completely wrong. Not as long as Phil is still willing to come after him.

He shifts, tugs his hands out from under Phil's, clicks the sides of the Rubik's cube back and forth and into place, holds it up with not quite a smile when he's done.

Some things are more easily solved than others.

Phil gets it. He gets it and he takes the Rubik's cube from Clint's outstretched hand and holds it in the palm of his own, not breaking up the neat solution, not doing anything to it, just looking.

"You know," says Phil, then stops; Clint watches him regroup his thoughts and thinks, that's how it's done, but he will never be like Phil, and that's… not great, but it's okay. Phil seems okay with it.

"About that poem," he tries again, but before he can even start to make his case, Clint waves him off, immediate and dismissive and completely lacking in eye contact.

"It's just a poem," he says. "Just a poem."

Phil doesn't look like he believes it (not that it's much of a bluff, really), but he makes his 'government inscrutable' face and closes his fingers around the Rubik's cube in his hand. Clint can see that there are things he wants to say, and he can guess at what those things might be (not worthless, or maybe not ashamed or something even harder to hear). It's better if Phil doesn't say them, because then Clint doesn't have to fight the battle between wanting to believe them for Phil's sake and needing not to for his own.

In the end, Phil doesn't say any of them. What he does say is, "It's late, Clint," which in his particular brand of sparse language translates to you need sleep and come to bed and this is the only way I know how to help, and, eventually, I love you, whispered into the crook of his shoulder when Phil thinks he's asleep, I love you, not worthless, not to me, never.

Clint knows he's supposed to be asleep, not listening to Phil murmur him reassurances too private even to be shared between the two of them. All the same, he listens, and he curls closer into Phil's arms, and he tells himself that maybe this time he can work on trusting Phil, and letting go.